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James Mooney,

"Historical Sketch of the Cherokee"

in Myths of the Cherokee 


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Excerpts from a Digitized Text  at the Internet Archive.

Anthropologist James Mooney spent four years living among the Cherokee, studying their language, art, and culture (from 1887 to 1890).  He published the results of his extensive field research in Myths of the Cherokee, which was part of the Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of  American Ethnology.  This excerpt is based on his informants' memories of the Trail of Tears.

(NB: Paragraph numbers apply to this excerpt, not the original source. )

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"The Removal -- 1838-39"

The history of this Cherokee removal of 1838, as gleaned by the author from the lips of actors in the tragedy, may well exceed in weight of grief and pathos any other passage in American history. . . .  Under [General Winfield] Scott's orders the troops were disposed at various points throughout the Cherokee country, where stockade forts were erected for gathering in and holding the Indians preparatory to removal. From these, squads of troops were sent to search out with rifle and bayonet every small cabin hidden away in the coves or by the sides of mountain streams, to seize and bring in as prisoners all the occupants, however or wherever they might be found. Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths along the weary miles of trail that led to the stockade. Men were seized in their fields or going along the road, women were taken from their wheels and children from their play. In many cases, on turning for one last look as they crossed the ridge, they saw their homes in flames. fired by the lawless rabble that followed on the heels of the soldiers to loot and pillage. So keen were these outlaws on the scent that in some instances they were driving off the cattle and other stock of the Indians almost before the soldiers had fairly started their owners in the other direction. Systematic hunts were made by the same men for Indian graves, to rob them of the silver pendants and other valuables deposited with the dead. A Georgia volunteer, afterward a colonel in the Confederate service, said: "I fought through the civil war and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew."

To prevent escape the soldiers had been ordered to approach and surround each house, so far as possible, so as to come upon the occupants without warning. One old patriarch, when thus surprised, calmly called his children and grandchildren around him, and. kneeling down, bid them pray with him in their own language, while the astonished soldiers looked on in silence. Then rising he led the way into exile. A woman, on finding the house surrounded, went to the door and called up the chickens to be fed for the last time, after which, taking her infant on her back and her two other children by the hand, she followed her husband with the soldiers.

All were not thus submissive. One old man named Tsali, "Charley," was seized with his wife, his brother, his three sons and their families. Exasperated at the brutality accorded his wife, who, being unable to travel fast, was prodded with bayonets to hasten her steps, he urged the other men to join with him in a dash for liberty. As he spoke in Cherokee the soldiers, although they heard, understood nothing until each warrior suddenly sprang upon the one nearest and endeavored to wrench his gun from him. The attack was so sudden and unexpected that one soldier was killed and the rest fled, while the Indians escaped to the mountains. . . .  Finding it impracticable to secure these fugitives, General Scott finally tendered them a proposition, through (Colonel) W. H. Thomas, their most trusted friend, that if they would surrender Charley and his party for punishment, the rest would be allowed to remain until their case could be adjusted by the government. On hearing of the proposition, Charley voluntarily came in with his sons, offering himself as a sacrifice for his people. By command of General Scott, Charley, his brother, and the two elder sons were shot near the mouth of Tuckasegee, a detachment of Cherokee prisoners being compelled to do the shooting in order to impress upon the Indians the fact of their utter helplessness. . . . 

[Mooney explains in a footnote that the details he provides about "the Cherokee round-up and Removal are almost entirely from author's information as furnished by actors in the events, both Cherokee and white, among whom may be named the late W. H. Thomas; the late Colonel Z. A. Zile, of Atlanta, of the Georgia volunteers; the late James Bryson, of Dillsboro, North Carolina, also a volunteer; James D. Wafford, of the western Cherokee Nation, who commanded one of the emigrant detachments; and old Indians, both east and west, who remembered the Removal and had heard the story from their parents. Charley's story is a matter of common note among the East Cherokee, and was heard in full detail from Colonel Thomas and from Wasituna ("Washington"), Charley's youngest son, who alone was spared by General Scott on account of his youth."]

When nearly seventeen thousand Cherokee had thus been gathered into the various stockades the work of removal began.  . . . [The main body,] enrolled at about 13,000 (including negro slaves), started on the long march overland late in the fall. . . .  The sick, the old people, and the smaller children, with the blankets, cooking pots, and other belongings [were] in wagons, the rest on foot or on horses. The number of wagons was 645.

It was like the march of an army, regiment after regiment, the wagons in the center, the officers along the line and the horsemen on the flanks and at the rear. . . . The noted chief White-path, in charge of a detachment, sickened and died. His people buried him by the roadside, with a box over the grave and poles with streamers around it, that the others coming on behind might note the spot and remember him. Somewhere also along that march of death -- for the exiles died by tens and twenties every day of the journey -- the devoted wife of John Ross sank down, leaving him to go on with the bitter pain of bereavement added to heartbreak at the ruin of his nation.  [They reached the Mississippi River in]  . . . the middle of winter, with the river running full of ice, so that several detachments were obliged to wait some time on the eastern bank for the channel to become clear. In talking with old men and women at Tahlequah the author found that the lapse of over half a century had not sufficed to wipe out the memory of the miseries of that halt beside the frozen river, with hundreds of sick and dying penned up in wagons or stretched upon the ground, with only a blanket overhead to keep out the January blast. The crossing was made at last in two divisions. [They eventually reached Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).]  . . . They had started in October, 1838, and it was now March, 1839, the journey having occupied nearly six mouths of the hardest part of the year.

It is difficult to arrive at any accurate statement of the number of Cherokee who died as the result of the Removal. According to the official figures those who removed under the direction of Ross lost over 1,600 on the journey. The proportionate mortality among those previously removed under military supervision was probably greater, as it was their suffering that led to the proposition of the Cherokee national officers to take charge of the emigration. Hundreds died in the stockades and the waiting camps, chiefly by reason of the rations furnished, which were of flour and other provisions to which they were unaccustomed and which they did not know how to prepare properly. Hundreds of others died soon after their arrival in Indian territory, from sickness and exposure on the journey. Altogether it is asserted, probably with reason, that over 4,000 Cherokee died as the direct result of the removal.

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