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John Ross and the Cherokee Indians
Chapter XIII - Compulsory Removal

Through the winter and spring of 1838, Mr. Ross continued protesting against the validity of the treaty, remonstrating against its execution and seeking to secure a more favorable one made with the legally constituted authorities of the Cherokees. "We will not recognize the forgery palmed off upon the world as a treaty by a knot of unauthorized individuals," he declared, "nor stir one step with reference to that false paper." And yet, although it was the wish of the Cherokees to remain on "the soil of their ancestors inherited from the common Father of us all," they were at length, under the necessity of circumstances, ready to go west if the Federal Government would pay them for their land far less than it asked for the wildest of its own. Removal by compulsion, he pointed out, would prove more expensive than a new treaty, and, aside from the question of the faith of treaties, the Federal Government could well afford to do itself and the Indians the justice for which they were pleading. He was supported in his appeals by memorials and petitions from various parts of the country, particularly from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, praying for a repeal of the Schermerhorn treaty on the ground that it did not represent the will of the majority of the Cherokee people.

The friends of removal in general, and Mr. Lumpkin in particular, always keenly alert and on the defensive where the Indian question was concerned, met these protests and petitions with arguments astonishingly naive, to say the least, when compared with the logical and convincing reasoning advanced by Chief Ross and the memorialists. The idea of submitting a treaty to an Indian people, to be decided upon "the broadest basis of democracy," was scoffed at by the Senator, who maintained that "it ought to be sufficient to satisfy the wise and good everywhere that the treaty was negotiated on behalf of the Cherokees by the most enlightened and patriotic Indian men who ever negotiated a treaty, and that it secured to the whole people more signal advantages than were ever before secured to an Indian people by treaty entered into with this Government." As evidences of the superior advantages to be gained by removal, he read to the Senate a letter from John Ridge, who had already located in the west, picturing in the most alluring terms the beauties of the western nation, the richness of the soil, the healthfulness of the climate and all the other natural advantages which, in his judgment, far surpassed those of the eastern country. Why the Cherokees refused to emigrate to a land where such superior opportunities and advantages awaited them was beyond the comprehension of the Senator from Georgia, and he was of the opinion that people of such poor discrimination should be treated "as minors and orphans and other persons who are incompetent to take charge of their own rights."

Unfortunately for the Cherokees, Mr. Lumpkin was more proficient in political manipulation than strong in logical reasoning and consistency, and so alert where he and his supporters and so strong their determination to carry out their Indian policy that all the efforts of Ross and his friends in Washington to secure the abrogation of the treaty were circumvented and blocked at every point, while May was fast approaching and the time drawing near for removing Indian encumbrance from the soil of the sovereign states of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

As for the mass of the Cherokee people, two years of threats and promises had failed to bring them to admit the validity of the treaty, or to show any inclination to emigrate of their own accord. The failure of their delegation to secure the repeal of the treaty did not weaken their determination to stand for their rights. Even the threats of fresh troops, sent into the country to put down opposition, failed to terrify them into submission or frighten them into abandoning such haunts as had been spared them by the nature of the country.

When it had become perfectly evident that removal could be accomplished only by sheer brute force, protests from the country at large became so vehement that the administration began to look for a way to satisfy public sentiment without antagonizing the states concerned. As a result the President, early in May, proposed as a compromise, to extend the time of removal two years. This suggestion promptly met with such strong opposition from Governor Gillmer that Mr. Van Buren, the diplomatic, had to back out of this position as gracefully as he might and allow the treaty to take its course.

As a result of pressure brought to bear by executive machinery between the adoption of the New Echota treaty and January, 1838, about two thousand Cherokees had emigrated. Something more than thirteen thousand remained in the Cherokee Nation East, in the spring of 1838. The President, convinced that they would not remove without compulsion, dispatched General Winfield Scott to the Cherokee country to take command of the troops already there, and to collect an additional force comprising a regiment each of artillery and infantry and six companies of volunteers, a sufficient force, unquestionably, to overawe the disarmed and starving natives and compel submission. In case he found it necessary, however, the military commander was authorized to call upon the governors of the neighboring states for voluntary militia.

General Scott took up his headquarters at New Echota, the former capital of the nation, whence he issued a proclamation announcing that the President had sent him with a powerful army to cause the Cherokees, in obedience to the treaty of 1835, to join their brethren beyond the Mississippi, and before another moon had passed every man, woman and child, must be on the way to the west.

In order to carry out his instructions to remove the Indians at all hazards he began enrolling and collecting them at such a rate and in such a manner as to work the greatest hardship upon them. Stockade forts were built at convenient places and squads of soldiers were sent into the surrounding country with guns, bayonets, swords and pistols to search every cave and hillside for the natives, who were driven at the point of the bayonet and the muzzle of the musket into one of the camps. Accounts are given of such revolting deeds of cruelty and inhumanity perpetrated upon the helpless victim as seem impossible to have occurred in a civilized nation.

Mr. Mooney, after having talked with some of the Cherokees who had gone through the "Reign of Terror," gives this vivid account of it: "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 the 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 started the owners in the opposite direction," and ghouls were searching Indian graves for the silver pendants and other valuables deposited with the dead.

In order to take the Indians completely by surprise and prevent all possibility of escape, the soldiers were ordered to approach and surround the houses as noiselessly as possible. One aged full-blood, finding himself so surrounded, calmly called his household of children and grandchildren about him and kneeling prayed with them in their own language, the soldiers standing by in shamefaced astonishment. Rising from their devotions, they were warned by the soldiers to make no needless preparations but to be off at once, and were hurried away, each one carrying such necessary belongings or cherished possessions as he couldi quickly lay hands on, even the little children grasping in their hands or hugging to their hearts some childish treasure—a bow and arrows, a blow gun, a string of beads or perhaps a battered rag baby. Those who attempted to escape were shot down like criminals. The story is told of a deaf boy who, upon seeing the soldiers coming, was panic stricken and started to run away. When he failed to respond to the order to halt, a musket was leveled at him and he fell lifeless to the ground.

Those who were utterly unable to travel, the helpless aged and the mortally ill, were left in remote cabins to die of starvation and neglect. Children were separated from parents who, in some cases, never saw them again nor knew what fate befell them. A few women and children, warned of the coming of soldiers, fled to inaccessible mountain fastnesses and hid in caves to perish of starvation, while the men were hunted and trapped like wild beasts.

Old men, delicate women and little children were driven like cattle until strength failed them and they fell fainting by the roadside. When brutal kicks and saber thrusts could not rouse them to further effort they were loaded into wagons and hauled over rough mountain roads to the stockades; or, where wagons were wanting, left to recover or die as they might, while friends and family, pricked on by the bayonet, were not permitted to minister to their necesity.

At night sick and well were forced to lie upon the bare ground in the open with no protection from the weather and herd together for warmth like hogs. Not infrequently death relieved theni from their suffering before the journey was completed. In that case the soldiers were considered quite humane who stopped long enough to dig for a grave a shallow trench by the roadside and fling a few shovelfuls of earth over the lifeless body.

Submission was the rule among the Indians, but there were occasional exceptions, as in the case of Tsali, or Chancy, an old man, who, with his wife, a brother and three sons, two of whom had families, while the third was a mere lad, were surrounded, taken captive by the soldiers, and men, women and children were started on foot to one of the stockades. Tsali's wife, a frail and delicate woman, unable to keep up with the others, was prodded on like a brute by the bayonets of the soldiers. The old man, goaded to desperation by the sight of this brutality and his wife's suffering, suggested to the others that they make a dash for liberty. As the conversation was carried on in Cherokee the soldiers did not understand it, and when each warrior suddenly leaped upon the nearest white man the surprise was so complete that one soldier was killed, while the rest fled in confusion. The Indians escaped to the mountains where they were joined by numbers of their tribesmen who had either escaped from the stockades or had succeeded in eluding the soldiers.

Among them was an Indian named Euchela who, with a band of a hundred followers, belonged to the class of outlaws. Having failed in every attempt to take the fugitives by force, General Scott determined to try reconciliation with a part of them. Colonel W. H. Thomas, a trader well known to the Indians, was chosen to make overtures to Euchela and his warriors, promising that if they would surrender Tsali and his family they would be permitted to remain in Carolina and "be at peace" until their case could be adjusted by the Federal Government. "I cannot be at peace," Euchela declared, "because it is now a whole year that your soldiers have hunted me like a wild deer. I have suffered more than I can bear. I had a wife and a little child, a bright eyed boy, and because I would nut become your slave they were left to starve upon the mountains and I buried them with my own hands at midnight." Finally, however, he was induced to accept the overtures of General Scott, and summoning his warriors with a whoop he laid the proposition before them. After much hesitation they too were prevailed upon to agree to the offer.

Tsali, hearing of this compromise and knowing that his fate was sealed, came in voluntarily with his brother and his two eldest sons and surrendered. They were tried by court martial and sentenced to be shot. Bound to the tree where he was to be executed, the old man asked to be permitted to speak and the request was granted. "I am not afraid to die," he is reported to have said; "O no, I want to die, for my heart is very heavy, heavier than lead." Turning to Euchela he continued, "But, Euchela, there is one favor I wish to ask at your hands. You know I have a little boy who was lost among the mountains. I want you to find that boy if he is not dead and tell him that the last words of his father were that he must never go beyond the Father of Waters, but die in the land of his birth. It is sweet to die in one's native land and be buried by the margin of one's native streams." When he had finished speaking the bandages were placed over his eyes and the execution proceeded. Some delay having occurred in the arrangement, he uncovered his eyes to see a dozen of his tribesmen in the very act of firing. Calmly and deliberately he replaced the cloth and the next moment was writhing in his lifeblood. General Scott had commanded that a dozen Cherokee prisoners be compelled to do the shooting in order to impress upon the Indians the helplessness of their situation. Tsali's youngest son, Wasituna, was finally pardoned because of his youth, and allowed to remain in North Carolina, thus fulfilling his father's wish that he might die in the land of his birth.

Colonel Z. A. Ziles, of the Georgia Militia, who was afterwards an officer in the Confederate army, in describing to Mr. Mooney this chapter of Cherokee history in which he himself took part, said, "I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew."

Conditions in the stockades were in keeping with the whole policy of forcible eviction. Musty corn meal and fat salt pork or rank bacon were the only food furnished by removal officers who had let the contracts for furnishing subsistence at war prices. This was the time of year, too, when the natives were accustomed to fresh fruits and vegetables in abundance. Women pleaded in vain for permission to go out and hunt for wild berries, onions and greens for their families. There was no milk even for the little children. Old and young, sick and well, were compelled to eat the corn hoe cake and the fried bacon or perish of starvation.

The medical aid was hopelessly, even criminally, inadequate and incompetent. One of the doctors proved to be a dentist who drew his salary regularly, but an Indian molar, never. Dentists were superfluous among the Cherokees at this time. It was good sound medical attention the prisoners needed but failed to get. After several sudden deaths had occurred the suspicion was aroused that the doctors were poisoning them and they refused to take the medicine. The herbs, whose medicinal properties they had known from time immemorial and which they would have gathered and brewed so eagerly, were denied them. No provision was made for sanitation and the camps were soon filthy and swarming with vermin. Fever and dysentery were rampant and infant mortality during the summer months was appalling. Add to these conditions the facts that whiskey was allowed to be brought into the camps and sold freely to the military, and that drunken soldiers had small regard for the sanctity of Cherokee womanhood when it was at their mercy, and the picture of the last extremity to which the captives could be reduced is complete.

The stockades were so strongly guarded that escape from them was most difficult indeed, while leave of absence was denied to everyone, on general principles. A few captives, however, succeeded in eluding the pickets and escaping, some to go in search of lost members of their families, and others to look after the old and sick who had been left behind. The Georgia Guard promptly captured part of them, gave them a hundred lashes on the bare back in punishment of their crime and then returned them to the stockade with dire threats of what would happen should the offense be repeated.

When a sufficient number had been gathered into the stockades the work of removal began. Early in June several parties aggregating about five hundred were brought down to the old agency on the Hiwassee River, to Ross's Landing and to Gunter's Landing. Here they were forced into filthy and unsafe boats and sent down the river. In one instance so many were crowded into a unseaworthy steamer as to cause it to threaten to sink. The surplus was thereupon hastily and indiscriminately unloaded, separating children from parents, husbands from wives and they were not to be reunited until months afterwards when they met in the west. These boats were sent down the Tennessee to Mussel Shoals where a transfer was made and the journey continued to Little Rock and a second landing made. There in the heat of summer the emigrants were compelled to await the convenience of removal officers, sometimes for weeks, before they could proceed to Indian Territory. Much sickness and many deaths resulted from the long and wearisome voyage in the sickly season of the year.

From first to last the forcible removal of the Cherokees was strangely bungled. Contracts had been let to incompetent officials who neglected to provide adequate means of transportation, particularly wagons for the land route, and a sufficient supply of provisions; they also failed to establish depots of supplies along the way, a very important oversight when it is remembered that much of the country through which they were to pass was thinly populated and in the frontier stage at this tie.

To complicate matters still further, a drought had set in during May and lasted until October, which rendered transportation by land well nigh impossible, as it was estimated that for many marches in succession it would have been impossible for a company of a hundred to find even a scanty supply of water. Up to June a scarcity of boats also had made it impossible to send off a considerable proportion of the captives by water. By this time the Hiwassee and the Tennessee had almost ceased to be navigable and were rapidly falling. It was also known that the Arkansas was very low.

In this state of affairs, on July 23, the Cherokee Council proposed to General Scott that the whole business of emigrating be taken over by the nation. The condition of the people, they reasoned, was such that all dispute as to the time of emigration was set at rest and, since they were under the absolute control of the commanding general, all inducements to prolong their stay in the Cherokee Nation East were taken away, and, however strong their attachment to the home of their fathers might be, their interests and wishes now were to depart as early as might be consistent with safety. General Scott granted the request on condition that the Council be held responsible for the good behavior of the Indians in the camp and on the march and that the first detachment should have started by the first of September, the last not later than October 20. The Council was to take entire control of all departments, provide all necessary means of travel and subsistence and employ all assistance in transportation. The sum of sixty dollars a head was allowed for the expense of moving every man, woman and child.

The situation of the captives improved immediately. The military was removed, the Georgia Guards forced to retire, and the quack doctors dismissed. The people, permitted to scatter out freely and find as good locations for camps as a rather limited area permitted, found their condition much more endurable than it had been under martial law. They naturally regarded as a godsend the change in arrangement for removal, for they felt that their interests would now be safeguarded by their, chiefs and councillors who had stood by them through the severest temptations and refused to betray them for fear or favor.

That the principal chief did not regard this confidence of his people as an asset to be traded on for his own profit, but as a reward well earned by conscientious devotion to what he considered their interests, and as something to be appreciated and cherished by him, is evident from a letter written to a friend in the spring of 1838: "If my people did not know that where their interest has been involved I should have thought it dishonorable to regard my own; if they did not also know that I have never deceived them and that I never will desert their cause under any circumstances of temptation or calumny to myself, or difficulty or danger to them; if they did not know all this I should not so long have possessed the confidence with which they have honored me, and which I prize more than all wealth or praise." The Federal Government, after two years in which it had refused to recognize Mr. Ross's official position, after it had added insult to insult and injury to injury, had, at last and after all been glad to turn to him for escape from the embarrassing and well nigh hopeless situation of the summer of 1838.

The Creeks and Seminoles, Choctaws and Chickasaws forced by the treachery of their leaders and the iron will of President Jackson, had already gone west and were now adjusting themselves as best they could to their new environment in the wilderness inhabited by wild animals and wilder men. The Cherokees with their more advanced civilization and more patriotic leaders had been able to resist longer, but had paid a heavier price; the disorganization of tribal government and customs, the wreck of homes and fortunes, the estrangement of friends and kinsmen, moral degradation, physical suffering and loss of life unparalleled at that time in the history of any tribe, constitute part of the penalty for Indian patriotism and loyalty to principle. All this at the hands of a government established less than three-quarters of a century before upon the principle of justice and the rights of man. This same government had shot down Cherokees like dogs, quartered them like malefactors and even put a price upon their heads. And the end was not yet.

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