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Birthday Story of Private John G. Burnett,
Captain Abraham McClellan’s Company, 2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade,
Mounted Infantry, Cherokee Indian Removal, 1838-39.
This is my birthday, December 11, 1890, I am eighty years old today. I
was born at Kings Iron Works in Sulllivan County, Tennessee, December
the 11th, 1810. I grew into manhood fishing in Beaver Creek and roaming
through the forest hunting the deer and the wild boar and the timber
wolf. Often spending weeks at a time in the solitary wilderness with no
companions but my rifle, hunting knife, and a small hatchet that I
carried in my belt in all of my wilderness wanderings.
On these long hunting trips I met and
became acquainted with many of the Cherokee Indians, hunting with them
by day and sleeping around their camp fires by night. I learned to speak
their language, and they taught me the arts of trailing and building
traps and snares. On one of my long hunts in the fall of 1829, I found a
young Cherokee who had been shot by a roving band of hunters and who had
eluded his pursuers and concealed himself under a shelving rock. Weak
from loss of blood, the poor creature was unable to walk and almost
famished for water. I carried him to a spring, bathed and bandaged the
bullet wound, and built a shelter out of bark peeled from a dead
chestnut tree. I nursed and protected him feeding him on chestnuts and
toasted deer meat. When he was able to travel I accompanied him to the
home of his people and remained so long that I was given up for lost. By
this time I had become an expert rifleman and fairly good archer and a
good trapper and spent most of my time in the forest in quest of game.
The removal of Cherokee Indians from
their life long homes in the year of 1838 found me a young man in the
prime of life and a Private soldier in the American Army. Being
acquainted with many of the Indians and able to fluently speak their
language, I was sent as interpreter into the Smoky Mountain Country in
May, 1838, and witnessed the execution of the most brutal order in the
History of American Warfare. I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and
dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the
stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I
saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five
wagons and started toward the west.
One can never forget the sadness and
solemnity of that morning. Chief John Ross led in prayer and when the
bugle sounded and the wagons started rolling many of the children rose
to their feet and waved their little hands good-by to their mountain
homes, knowing they were leaving them forever. Many of these helpless
people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home
On the morning of November the 17th we
encountered a terrific sleet and snow storm with freezing temperatures
and from that day until we reached the end of the fateful journey on
March the 26th, 1839, the sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The
trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the
wagons and on the ground without fire. And I have known as many as
twenty-two of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill
treatment, cold, and exposure. Among this number was the beautiful
Christian wife of Chief John Ross. This noble hearted woman died a
martyr to childhood, giving her only blanket for the protection of a
sick child. She rode thinly clad through a blinding sleet and snow
storm, developed pneumonia and died in the still hours of a bleak winter
night, with her head resting on Lieutenant Greggs saddle blanket.
I made the long journey to the west with
the Cherokees and did all that a Private soldier could do to alleviate
their sufferings. When on guard duty at night I have many times walked
my beat in my blouse in order that some sick child might have the warmth
of my overcoat. I was on guard duty the night Mrs. Ross died. When
relieved at midnight I did not retire, but remained around the wagon out
of sympathy for Chief Ross, and at daylight was detailed by Captain
McClellan to assist in the burial like the other unfortunates who died
on the way. Her unconfined body was buried in a shallow grave by the
roadside far from her native home, and the sorrowing Cavalcade moved on.
Being a young man, I mingled freely with
the young women and girls. I have spent many pleasant hours with them
when I was supposed to be under my blanket, and they have many times
sung their mountain songs for me, this being all that they could do to
repay my kindness. And with all my association with Indian girls from
October 1829 to March 26th 1839, I did not meet one who was a moral
prostitute. They are kind and tender hearted and many of them are
The only trouble that I had with anybody
on the entire journey to the west was a brutal teamster by the name of
Ben McDonal, who was using his whip on an old feeble Cherokee to hasten
him into the wagon. The sight of that old and nearly blind creature
quivering under the lashes of a bull whip was too much for me. I
attempted to stop McDonal and it ended in a personal encounter. He
lashed me across the face, the wire tip on his whip cutting a bad gash
in my cheek. The little hatchet that I had carried in my hunting days
was in my belt and McDonal was carried unconscious from the scene.
I was placed under guard but Ensign Henry
Bullock and Private Elkanah Millard had both witnessed the encounter.
They gave Captain McClellan the facts and I was never brought to trial.
Years later I met 2nd Lieutenant Riley and Ensign Bullock at Bristol at
John Roberson’s show, and Bullock jokingly reminded me that there was
a case still pending against me before a court martial and wanted to
know how much longer I was going to have the trial put off?
McDonal finally recovered, and in the
year 1851, was running a boat out of Memphis, Tennessee.
The long painful journey to the west
ended March 26th, 1839, with four-thousand silent graves reaching from
the foothills of the Smoky Mountains to what is known as Indian
territory in the West. And covetousness on the part of the white race
was the cause of all that the Cherokees had to suffer. Ever since
Ferdinand DeSoto made his journey through the Indian country in the year
1540, there had been a tradition of a rich gold mine somewhere in the
Smoky Mountain Country, and I think the tradition was true. At a
festival at Echota on Christmas night 1829, I danced and played with
Indian girls who were wearing ornaments around their neck that looked
In the year 1828, a little Indian boy
living on Ward creek had sold a gold nugget to a white trader, and that
nugget sealed the doom of the Cherokees. In a short time the country was
overrun with armed brigands claiming to be government agents, who paid
no attention to the rights of the Indians who were the legal possessors
of the country. Crimes were committed that were a disgrace to
civilization. Men were shot in cold blood, lands were confiscated. Homes
were burned and the inhabitants driven out by the gold-hungry brigands.
Chief Junaluska was personally acquainted
with President Andrew Jackson. Junaluska had taken 500 of the flower of
his Cherokee scouts and helped Jackson to win the battle of the Horse
Shoe, leaving 33 of them dead on the field. And in that battle Junaluska
had drove his tomahawk through the skull of a Creek warrior, when the
Creek had Jackson at his mercy.
Chief John Ross sent Junaluska as an
envoy to plead with President Jackson for protection for his people, but
Jackson’s manner was cold and indifferent toward the rugged son of the
forest who had saved his life. He met Junaluska, heard his plea but
curtly said, "Sir, your audience is ended. There is nothing I can
do for you." The doom of the Cherokee was sealed. Washington, D.C.,
had decreed that they must be driven West and their lands given to the
white man, and in May 1838, an army of 4000 regulars, and 3000 volunteer
soldiers under command of General Winfield Scott, marched into the
Indian country and wrote the blackest chapter on the pages of American
Men working in the fields were arrested
and driven to the stockades. Women were dragged from their homes by
soldiers whose language they could not understand. Children were often
separated from their parents and driven into the stockades with the sky
for a blanket and the earth for a pillow. And often the old and infirm
were prodded with bayonets to hasten them to the stockades.
In one home death had come during the
night. A little sad-faced child had died and was lying on a bear skin
couch and some women were preparing the little body for burial. All were
arrested and driven out leaving the child in the cabin. I don’t know
who buried the body.
In another home was a frail mother,
apparently a widow and three small children, one just a baby. When told
that she must go, the mother gathered the children at her feet, prayed a
humble prayer in her native tongue, patted the old family dog on the
head, told the faithful creature good-by, with a baby strapped on her
back and leading a child with each hand started on her exile. But the
task was too great for that frail mother. A stroke of heart failure
relieved her sufferings. She sunk and died with her baby on her back,
and her other two children clinging to her hands.
Chief Junaluska who had saved President
Jackson’s life at the battle of Horse Shoe witnessed this scene, the
tears gushing down his cheeks and lifting his cap he turned his face
toward the heavens and said, "Oh my God, if I had known at the
battle of the Horse Shoe what I know now, American history would have
been differently written."
At this time, 1890, we are too near the
removal of the Cherokees for our young people to fully understand the
enormity of the crime that was committed against a helpless race. Truth
is, the facts are being concealed from the young people of today. School
children of today do not know that we are living on lands that were
taken from a helpless race at the bayonet point to satisfy the white
Future generations will read and condemn
the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like
myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to
shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our
superiors. We had no choice in the matter.
Twenty-five years after the removal it
was my privilege to meet a large company of the Cherokees in uniform of
the Confederate Army under command of Colonel Thomas. They were encamped
at Zollicoffer and I went to see them. Most of them were just boys at
the time of the removal but they instantly recognized me as "the
soldier that was good to us". Being able to talk to them in their
native language I had an enjoyable day with them. From them I learned
that Chief John Ross was still ruler in the nation in 1863. And I wonder
if he is still living? He was a noble-hearted fellow and suffered a lot
for his race.
At one time, he was arrested and thrown
into a dirty jail in an effort to break his spirit, but he remained true
to his people and led them in prayer when they started on their exile.
And his Christian wife sacrificed her life for a little girl who had
pneumonia. The Anglo-Saxon race would build a towering monument to
perpetuate her noble act in giving her only blanket for comfort of a
sick child. Incidentally the child recovered, but Mrs. Ross is sleeping
in a unmarked grave far from her native Smoky Mountain home.
When Scott invaded the Indian country
some of the Cherokees fled to caves and dens in the mountains and were
never captured and they are there today. I have long intended going
there and trying to find them but I have put off going from year to year
and now I am too feeble to ride that far. The fleeing years have come
and gone and old age has overtaken me. I can truthfully say that neither
my rifle nor my knife were stained with Cherokee blood.
I can truthfully say that I did my best
for them when they certainly did need a friend. Twenty-five years after
the removal I still lived in their memory as "the soldier that was
good to us".
However, murder is murder whether
committed by the villain skulking in the dark or by uniformed men
stepping to the strains of martial music.
Murder is murder, and somebody must
answer. Somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the
Murder is murder, and somebody must
answer. Somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the
Indian country in the summer of 1838. Somebody must explain the 4000
silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile. I
wish I could forget it all, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over
the frozen ground with their cargo of suffering humanity still lingers
in my memory.
Let the historian of a future day tell
the sad story with its sighs, its tears and dying groans. Let the great
Judge of all the earth weigh our actions and reward us according to our
Children - Thus ends my promised birthday
story. This December the 11th 1890.
Scots link to Native American tribe celebrated
Digging Up Your Roots
Adrian Grant has been researching Ludovick's
An extraordinary link between Scotland and a
Native American Indian tribe is set to take centre stage at an
International Clan gathering.
It is believed that up to a half of the Cherokee
Nation could be descendants of Ludovick Grant, who was a laird's
son from Creichie in Aberdeenshire.
A delegation from the tribe are planning a visit
to the Clan Grant International Meeting this summer to discover
the roots of their celebrated ancestor.
Ludovick Grant was captured while fighting for
the Jacobite army in the battle of Preston in 1715 and was due to
However, he escaped death and instead was
transported to South Carolina, where he was an indentured servant.
Following his release from his seven years of
servitude, he began working as a trader for the Cherokee people.
According to Marjorie Lowe, a descendent of
Ludovick, the fact that he was the son of a Scottish laird would
have been meaningless to the Cherokees.
"Each person was judged on his own merits and
they did not recognise any kind of social hierarchy except their
matriarchal clan system," she told BBC Radio Scotland's Digging Up
Your Roots programme.
"So Grant, no doubt, was accepted as a peaceful
person who brought trade goods which they desired.
"Since Ludovick lived among the Cherokees for
more than thirty years and intermarried we can surmise that he was
accepted fully as an adopted Cherokee citizen."
Ludovick met a Cherokee girl known as Eughioote,
and according to the Clan Grant, they had a daughter named Mary.
Seannachie Adrian Grant said: "Although Ludovick
only had the one daughter with his Cherokee wife, nevertheless she
went on to be the ancestress of so many Cherokees that a huge
proportion - something like a third or a half - of all Cherokees
now count Ludovick Grant as one of their ancestors."
Ms Lowe added: "Many of our Cherokee leaders
were descended from this one intermarriage, others too numerous to
mention, would include justices of the Cherokee supreme court and
many council members."
Marjorie Lowe believes the Cherokees would
have welcomed Ludovick
However, while creating a legacy with the
Cherokees it also appears that Ludovick had left a wife behind in
The laird's son had married a woman called
Margaret Redwood in Edinburgh in 1710 - five years before he was
captured and sent abroad.
In 1736 she sought a court order requiring
Ludovick to act as a proper husband. This document, known as a
Process of Adherence, was viewed as a first stage in seeking a
But Adrian Grant still has some sympathy for
"I think it's quite poignant that Margaret's
daughter [from a previous marriage] was called Mary, and Ludovick
called his own daughter Mary," he said.
"So one can't help feeling that he did have some
regrets about the situation he found himself in.
"But then he was lucky to be alive, he really
should have been hanged for his pains."