June 3, 2003
"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 a trail that led to the stockade."
That statement from James Mooney's "Myths of the Cherokees" describes how families of Cherokees were treated in preparation for the Cherokee "Trial of Tears," a forced march that began 165 years ago on June 8, 1838.
The bayonets were in the hands of the U.S. Army under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott, following the orders of President Andrew Jackson, who had ordered the removal in spite of Chief Justice John Marshall's ruling against it.
Although the forced removal of the tribes from their southeastern homelands began with the Choctaws in October 1831, the Cherokees resisted, taking the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court and winning in the case of Worcester vs. Georgia in 1832. Marshall ruled the Cherokees were "a distinct community, occupying its territory," and the people of Georgia had no right to enter that territory without Cherokee consent.
After the ruling, Jackson reportedly said, "Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it," and then ordered the troops to begin the removal.
Jackson was the classic "fair-weather friend" of the Cherokees, Choctaws and Lower Creeks. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, March 27, 1814, they joined Jackson and U.S. forces in almost totally wiping out the Upper Creeks, known as the Red Sticks, who had joined the British in the war against the United States.
A few months later, Jackson forced the Lower Creeks to cede nearly 8 million acres of their land to the United States.
In 1830, after the Indian Removal Act was approved by a one-vote margin, Jackson signed it into law. From that moment forward, including violating the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, Jackson orchestrated the forced removal of the first Americans from their homelands on what the Cherokees and others call "the trail where they cried." Of the 14,000 Cherokees who were forced to flee on the 800-mile journey, about 4,000 died along the way from measles, exhaustion and exposure.
It's been said that history is made by those who write it, not by those who live it. Perhaps that is why the forced march in the 1830s of the Cherokees and other tribes from their homelands to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) is seldom part of the standard high-school or college curriculum. But students searching for the truth of the Native-American diaspora can find it on the World Wide Web.
Today, in spite of the removal, the sovereign Cherokee Nation government in Oklahoma -- with an annual operating budget of more than $300 million and more than 240,000 citizens -- survives and prospers, as do the Choctaws and more than 30 other tribes that were removed to what is now Oklahoma.
The Trail of Tears is a part of our history we must never forget.
Dan Agent is editor of the Cherokee Phoenix & Indian Advocate, based in Tahlequah, Okla.