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John Ross and the Cherokee Indians
Chapter XIV - The Trail of Tears


Left to themselves, the Cherokees set about systematizing their forces and bringing order out of chaos in a logical and businesslike manner. By resolution of their Council they made Chief Ross superintendent agent of emigration and entrusted the entire management of removal to a committee of their own people. This committee organized the people along the line of family ties, into thirteen detachments comprising as nearly equal numbers as practicable. Over each detachment were placed as officers two such men as were best qualified to manage that particular group of people. After a thorough investigation had been made of the different routes each division was to proceed over the one selected by its leaders.

Late in August the Council and people assembling for a final meeting at Aquohe Camp, about two miles south of the Hiwassee River, passed a resolution declaring that, never having consented to the sale of their country, either themselves or through their representatives, the original ownership still rested in the Cherokee Nation whose title to the lands, described by the boundaries of 1819, was still unimpaired and absolute; that the United States was responsible for all losses and damages in enforcing the pretended treaty; as they had never relinquished their national sovereignty therefore the moral and political relations existing among the citizens towards each other and towards the body politic could not be changed by their forcible expulsion; finally they pronounced their laws and constitution in full force to remain so until the general welfare rendered a modification expedient. This action bound anew the people, distracted and confused by the harrowing experiences of the last few months, into a united body politic which went, not as individuals but as a nation, into exile.

As September approached every exertion was made, by both leaders and people, to meet their obligations to the United States and keep their promise to General Wool that the first detachment should be under way by September 1. This detachment, led by Going Snake, was in motion on the appointed day, crossing the Tennessee about twenty-five miles from the Agency and thence taking their slow way to the west.

In consequence of sickness however which still prevailed in the camps and the drought which rendered travel distressing beyond description General Scott called a halt and ordered emigration suspended for several weeks. It was not until some time later that the last detachment was ready to set out for the west. This party under the personal direction of the principal chief, left Rattlesnake Springs, near Charleston, Tennessee, October 31. Crossing to the north side of the Haissee at the ferry above Gunstocker Creek, they continued down along the river. The sick, the old people and children rode in the wagons6 which carried the provisions, bedding, cooking utensils and such other household good as they happened to have. The rest proceeded on foot or horseback. The march was conducted with the order of an army; a detachment of officers, heading the procession, was followed by the wagons while the horsemen and those on foot brought up the rear, or when the road permitted, flanked the procession. Crossing the Tennessee river near the south of the Hiwassee, the procession passed through Tennessee by way of McMinnville and Nashville and thence through Kentucky to Hopkinsville, where a halt was made to bury Whitepath, who had fallen a victim to illness and exposure.

A severe winter had set in before the last detachment reached the Mississippi. The river was choked with floating ice, crossing was dangerous, and they were compelled to await the clearing of the current. The weather was bitterly cold and hundreds of sick and dying filled the wagons or were stretched upon the frozen ground with only a sheet or blanket stretched above to protect them from the cutting blast. The hardships through which they had passed during the last few months had reduced their vitality, while homesickness and mental depression so preyed upon their minds as to render them easy subjects to disease from which they could not rally. Hundreds never lived to cross the Father of Waters, and their bodies were left to moulder in an alien soil and among a people with scant regard for the sanctity of an Indian grave.

When finally the last division was able to cross the river and continue the journey, they found it necessary to take the northern route through central Missouri by way of Springfield and Southwest City, because those who had preceded them, going through the southern part of the state to Fort Smith, had killed off the game upon which they depended largely for subsistence. It was March when they reached their destination. More than four thousand had perished on the way, among them the wife of Chief Ross. For many years the road the exiles travelled on this fateful journey was known to the Indians by a name in their language meaning the "Trail of Tears."

Thus heartbroken, cowed and scorned, the last remnant of this once mighty and fearless tribe had passed from the land they loved, "broad, set between the hills," moving with bowed heads on toward the setting sun. The history of Cherokee wrongs had been so long before the public that it failed, for lack of novelty, to arouse fresh sympathy. With a few exceptions the world read the story unmoved. The Indian was, after all, only

"A savage! Let him bleed and eat his heart and swiftly go;
Our strength's our right. The tale is old! E'en so."
"The pantherfooted, lithesome Indian brave
We thought not worth our while to try to save.
But welcomed hither hores of king-crushed souls,
The worn out serfs who cringed to lords for doles;
We gave an eagle race the grave as bed;
Our fields yet bear his sign, the arrow head."

And yet who knows? Some great poet of humanity in the future may find in the tragic story of the expatriation of these children of the forest the theme for an epic or a drama of surpassing grandeur and pathos which may stir all mankind to pity for their sorrow and admiration for their virtues. If, peradventure, it come not too late, like tears and flowers foil the dead, who in life would have been made happier and better for the sympathetic word we had not sense to say, and the helping hand we had no time to extend, then a recreant nation may awake to the enormity of its injustice and inhumanity towards a valiant aboriginal people, and hasten to make what amends it may to their crushed and decadent descendants crowded back into remote corners of a country where once they were kings and emperors.


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