May 26, 1830
President Andrew Jackson signs into law the Indian Removal Act. The controversial act was strongly supported by Americans eager for land and fortunes to be found in the young country's expansion. They were convinced of their cultural and racial superiority, and were unwilling to allow the original inhabitants to remain in the Southeast. Gold had been discovered in the northern part of Georgia, as well as in western North Carolina. Georgia entered into a litigious land dispute with the Cherokee Nation. Americans, including the President believed removal of the five civilized tribes–Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole–would resolve the dispute.
Yet, there was noted opposition. Those who spoke out against the legislation included Senators Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Congressman Davy Crockett. The Reverend Samuel Worcester, missionary to the Cherokees, challenged Georgia’s attempt to seize Indian land in the state, and won his case before the Supreme Court in 1832. President Jackson arrogantly defied the decision of the court and ordered the removal, an act that established the U.S. government’s precedent for the future removal of many Native Americans from their ancestral homelands.
Jackson was re-elected to a second term by a vast majority in 1832. This affected many Native American leaders who had resisted removal, and immense pressure was placed on them to reconsider their positions. The Removal Act was to be voluntary.
In practice, it was not.
The first treaty signed after the Removal Act was the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek by the Choctaws on September 27, 1830. They surrendered their lands east of the Mississippi for money and land in the West. A Choctaw Chief was quoted in the Arkansas Gazette at the time as saying the removal was a "trail of tears and death."
When the Treaty of New Echota (present day Calhoun, Georgia) was signed in 1835 the Cherokee Nation began their Trail of Tears. The U.S. government used the Treaty to begin the removal. The treaty was signed by Cherokees known as the Treaty Party. They relinquished all lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in Indian Territory and the promise of money, property, livestock, and other benefits.
When these pro-removal Cherokee leaders signed the Treaty of New Echota, they also signed their own death warrants, because the Council of the Cherokee Nation had passed a law calling for the death of anyone agreeing to give up tribal land. The signing and the removal led to bitter factionalism and ultimately to the deaths of most of the Treaty Party leaders once the Cherokee arrived in Indian Territory.
Opposition to the removal was led by Chief John Ross. The Ross party and most Cherokees opposed the New Echota Treaty, but the U.S. government prevailed and forced almost all of the 16,000+ Cherokees from their southeastern homeland. The Henderson Roll of 1835 is a listing of Cherokees living in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, & North Carolina who were to be removed to Oklahoma. The names of 900 head of household are listed. President Martin Van Buren ordered General Winfield Scott in 1836 to round-up all Cherokees who had not voluntarily moved to Oklahoma and begin a forced removal. The later forced relocations have sometimes been referred to as "death marches" due to the journey across the Midwest which occurred on a land route. Most of the deaths along the way were caused by disease, malnutrition, exploitation by locals as the indigenous people passed through, and exposure to the elements during an unusually harsh winter.
By late June 1838, a large group of Cherokee began what is known as The Trail of Tears. The first groups to leave were forced to Oklahoma via waterways. About 2,800 people traveled by river to Indian Territory. The first of these groups left on June 6 by steamboat and barge from Ross's Landing, present day Chattanooga, Tennessee on the Tennessee River. Witnesses noted that Army guards acted abusively, using brute force and treating the people as prisoners. Hot, dry weather added to the misery. When reports of the suffering filtered back to the Cherokee leadership, a delegation that included John Ross and other elder statesmen of the tribe asked the government to stop; they asked to take control of the "emigration of our people."
The American government agreed and allowed the leaders to organize the removal of the remaining Cherokees. Groups organized and were called "detachments" under the leadership of :
Hair Conrad – Aug 23, 1838 Jan 17, 1839
Elijah Hicks – Sep 1, 1838 Jan 4, 1839
Rev. Jesse Bushyhead – Sep 3, 1838 Feb 27, 1839
John Benge – Sep 28, 1838 Jan 17, 1839
Situwakee – Sep 7, 1838 Feb 2, 1839
Old Field – Sep 24, 1838 Feb 23, 1839
Moses Daniel – Sep 30, 1838 Mar 2, 1839
Choowalooka – Sep 14, 1838 Mar 1839
James Brown – Sep 10, 1838 Mar 5, 1839
George Hicks – Sep 7, 1838 Mar 14, 1839
Richard Taylor – Sep 20, 1838 Mar 24, 1839
Peter Hildebrand – Oct 23, 1838 Mar 24, 1839
John Drew – Dec 5, 1838 Mar 18, 1839
Called conductors, these men hired wagon masters to haul supplies, obtained physicians to treat the sick and injured, hired translators, and paid contractors to provide food and other supplies. The detachments traveled from to Blythe's Ferry where they crossed the Tennessee River and left their homeland. Blythe's Ferry is near present day Dayton, Tennessee. The conductors decided to wait for cooler weather and remained camped for approximately six weeks. When cooler weather arrived in early October, the two groups began to cross the river. Seven more detachments soon followed and continued to cross the river. Moving thousand's of people, some 5,000 horses and 500+ wagons across the Tennessee River proved slow. Some crossings took as long as three days.
Unlike the chaos that erupted at Ross's Landing when American military force had been used to begin the passages westward, the Cherokee proved orderly as they made their way across the Tennessee River. John Ross wrote of of Peter Hildebrand's detachment.
"I reached Blythe's ferry on Sunday evening last, and found the great body of Mr. [Peter] Hildebrand's detachment of Emigrating Cherokees quietly encamped on the South bank of the Tennessee river, and a portion with about twelve wagons, who had crossed, on the north bank. On yesterday morning at dawn of day the Emigrants were in readiness and Commenced crossing the river – four boats were put in requisition and continued running until dusk, two of them were manned by Cherokees themselves. At the close of the day about sixty-one wagons of the detachment with the people were safely lodged across the river. The business of crossing was again resumed early this morning, and before 12 o'clock eighteen wagons, carriages…with all the people were over."
John Ross to Winfield Scott, November 12, 1838
The Hildebrand Detachment suffered one of the most brutal crossings due to severe winter weather caused icy conditions. The group left Southeastern Tennessee with 1766 persons. By the time they arrived in Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma, on March 24, 1839 only 1311 had survived the ordeal. According to the Cherokee Nation, the crossing of Peter Hildebrand and his people marked the last of the overland detachments on the Trail of Tears.
The group consisted of members of the Hildebrand family, the Vann family, and my own great, great, great, great-grandfather, Joseph Cookson.
August 16th: Here's Joseph's name on the Cherokee Removal Memorial.
Chief John Ross was of Scottish heritage and one-eighth Cherokee. At that time, indigenous people were segregated like the Creoles of New Orleans. Chief Ross was classified as an octoroon.
The Blythe Ferry site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Park rangers at Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Park and the Chief Vann House in Georgia have relayed the fact that the Chief Vann was the wealthiest Cherokee in the Nation, and that Peter Hildebrand's father, Michael, was the wealthiest white man.
The three main proponents of the Treaty of New Echota were Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and their cousin Elias Boudinet. All were assassinated once the tribe had been relocated.
The atrocities against our indigenous people's and their descendants are among the greatest crimes in world history. Let us remember that love is stronger than hate and avarice.
Red Clay State Park (Tennessee) & the James F. Corn Interpretive Facility
Trail of Tears marker series; located near Birchwood, Tennessee