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First Chapters

History: The Cherokee Resettlements

Astrid Bullen

When I first met Savannah Rose, we were both little girls, sharing a tree-stump listening to Grandfather’s yarns. We lived in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, in Georgia, our Enchanted Land, and we were the Ani-Yun' wiya - the Principal People.

“We were pushed here because of wars between the Iroquois and the Delaware,” Grandfather said, “and this is where the white man met us. We were never the same after that.” He went on to describe how our people became objects of the slave trade to the extent that a tribal delegation was sent to the Royal Governor of South Carolina to protect us from Congaree, Catawba and Savannah slave-catchers. Our history abounded with tales of military prowess and political intrigue, and our culture was irreversibly altered by white settlers. We adopted many of their customs, and even as Grandfather spoke, my mother was repairing a ball gown for Savannah Rose’s older sister.

The next time Savannah Rose came by, she wanted to hear Grandfather again.
“Your village doesn’t have a Grandfather?” I asked, puzzled by her earnestness.
“Of course we do,” she snapped back, but she could not look at me. “And this is my village now, anyway.” Grandfather was happy to tell the “little newcomer,” as he called Savannah Rose, all about Sequoyah and his work on a written representation of our language.
Two years later, in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, because, he said, “no state could achieve proper culture, civilization, and progress, as long as Indians remain within its boundaries.” That was the beginning of our troubles.

Grandfather said that over the last forty winters, white settlers pushed back our frontiers. They also increased the population of Georgia six-fold. Originally, whites were forbidden on the land that was inhabited by the Cherokees, but that law was often ignored. Our people had ceded land to the settlers, but this did nothing to quench the insatiable thirst for land that the Georgians had. The whites resented us because they saw other uses for our homelands. Many of our people moved to Arkansas and settled near the St. Francis River to avoid white settlers. They were happy to leave their homes forever and go far into the West, where the white man could never follow them.
Then the white man found gold in the land, and killing of Native Americans and theft of our land became federal policy. The white man’s lust for gold and land was all-consuming.

“I heard that the government is confiscating our land,” I heard my father telling my mother.
“What’s confiscating?” I whispered to my older brother. He shooed me away, because he was old enough to take part in grown-up conversations. I went two doors down to Savannah Rose’s house, and found her with her mother and sister.
“President Jackson is giving the land to the whites,” Sav’s sister Chemaya was saying.
“Junaluska should never have saved his life. That’s how he’s repaying the Cherokee nation?”
“But can’t we do anything?” Sav’s mother asked. “Can’t we appeal to them in some way?”
“We can’t even testify in their courts,” said Chemaya. “No, Mother, there is very little we can do.”

Savannah Rose looked worried as we walked to the stream, and I was so frightened I could not speak. If they took our land, where would we live? What would become of our little log house with its broken top step that my father was always meaning to mend so we wouldn’t break our necks? What would become of us? Our chiefs tried hard to keep Georgia and the United States from taking our homeland. Chemaya told us that they challenged the Removal Act in the U.S. Supreme Court, and John Marshall, the Chief Justice, ruled that we were a sovereign nation, and removal laws were invalid. Only the federal government could deal with a sovereign nation, and they could only do it with a treaty. That made me and Savannah Rose feel better, although we didn’t know what all the big words meant.

A few more winters passed, and Sav and I had more chores to do and less time to play. But we could now butt in when our parents spoke, and we stayed around when Chemaya arrived breathless from the council house.
“Stand Watie and John Ridge just sold our land to the whites,” she gasped, holding her sides.
“What?” her mother shrieked. “You’re sure, Chemaya? They don’t have the authority to do that.”
“Well, they did, and they signed a treaty, and now the federal government can remove us, Mother,” Chemaya said, with tears welling up in her eyes. We heard the government paid each of the 20 people who signed the treaty $2000. Not a bad sum.

Our chief, John Ross, found his legal appeals against the illegal Treaty to be fruitless. My nation was forced to move to the west of the Mississippi in 1838. Grandfather was long dead, and I was now a young woman ready for marriage. “We are now about to take our leave and kind farewell to our native lands, the country that the Great Spirit gave our Fathers,” Vice Chief Charles Hicks said as we prepared to go.
“We are on the eve of leaving that country that gave us birth … it is with sorrow that we are forced by the white man to quit the scenes of our childhood … we bid farewell to it and all we hold dear.”

My family left the concentration camp in Rattlesnake Springs in June, and we were the first group driven west under federal guard during the ethnic cleansing of the southeast United States. Thousands of people had died at the camp during the spring from illnesses brought on by the lack of clean water and proper waste treatment. It was a rude awakening for us.
“Cherokees!” General Winfield Scott had shouted when he addressed our people in May. “The President of the United States has sent me with a powerful army, to cause you, in obedience to the treaty of 1835, to join that part of your people who have already established in prosperity on the other side of the Mississippi. Unhappily, the two years that were allowed for the purpose, you have suffered to pass away without following, and without making any preparation to follow, and now, or by the time that this solemn address shall reach your distant settlements, the emigration must be commenced in haste, but I hope without disorder.”

They began to round us up soon afterward. The Georgia Militia barged into our little log house with their bayonets and forced us to leave immediately, and made us live in a stockade for several weeks. White looters followed, ransacking our homesteads as we were led away. I saw them making off with our cows, pigs and chickens, and it frustrated me because I could not stop them. Grandfather’s wife was forced out of her cabin at gunpoint - they gave her only moments to collect cherished possessions. Somehow we became separated from my older brother and his new wife - we never saw them again.

Now we were embarking on a long journey in worn-out moccasins, to endure countless river crossings with only blankets for warmth. As we marched, we received rations of corn, oats and fodder, and the hunters supplied meat out of the woods. Each morning when we broke camp we were told how far we had to go and in what direction. The hunters would spread out like a fan and go through the woods to the next camping place, usually about ten miles ahead.

This journey - our Trail of Tears, made our mothers cry and grieve so much, they were unable to help us children survive. The chiefs prayed for a sign to lift the mothers’ spirits and give them strength to care for us. From that day forward, a beautiful new flower, a rose, grew wherever a mother’s tear fell to the ground. The rose is white, the color of the teardrops. It has a gold center, for the gold taken form the Cherokee lands, and seven leaves on each stem that represent the seven Cherokee clans that made the journey.

We camped for several weeks near a creek in Southern Illinois. One day Savannah Rose and I walked through town with some other girls. As we passed a hotel one of the girls, a slave named Priscilla, went up to a man standing in the doorway and asked him, “Are you Marse Silkwood?” The man was indeed Marse Silkwood, and he recognized her from a plantation in Georgia. He bought her from the chief who owned her for $1,000. Some girls have all the luck.

That night, my father, Savannah Rose and I huddled around the fire, comforting my mother as she got weaker and weaker … she was with the Great Spirit by morning. Cholera broke out and death was among us hourly. We buried our dead close to the trail. The drought was severe and our children suffered greatly. Of the 800 persons that left with our group, 489 arrived.

The groups that followed ours were luckier, because Chief John Ross made an urgent appeal to General Winfield Scott, requesting that Cherokees lead their tribe west. In September he won additional funds for food and clothing.

We relocated to Oklahoma, and set up a government, churches and schools, newspapers and books, and businesses. We named our capital Tahlequah. But part of me was missing. My best friend, Savannah Rose, and her family found refuge in the Snowbird Mountains and stayed there. There likely will never be a Cherokee child called Andrew - no such honor to the man who caused so much suffering with his anti-Indian policies.

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© Astrid Bullen November 2003


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