In 1838, an estimated 8,000 Cherokee Indians lived in the territory now mostly covered by modern-day Cherokee Presbytery. The Indians were rounded up by soldiers of the US Army and confined to 14 camps to await their forced removal to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
The Cherokees were one among the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles) so called because they had largely adopted the white man’s ways. The Cherokees lived in cabins and houses which ranged from rude to manorial, depending on their relative wealth. They farmed personal properties that ranged from small plots to plantation-sized. A few of the wealthier Cherokees even owned slaves. Eager would-be white settlers greatly coveted the Cherokee properties. Some of them even moved into the cabins the Cherokees left behind when the Indians were rounded up and removed from the territory. In 1832, all Cherokee lands had been surveyed by Georgia authorities and distributed by lottery to whites—but Cherokee titles to the lands could not be extinguished until the Indians were removed. This took place in spite of the US Supreme Court ruling in the Indians’ favor.
In the early spring of 1838, federal troops began filtering into Cherokee country. On May 10, 1838, Major General Winfield Scott issued the proclamation that would change Indian lives forever. “Cherokees! The President of the United States has sent me with a powerful army, to cause you…to join…your people…on the other side of the Mississippi….Will you then, by resistance, compel us to resort to arms? God forbid! I am an old warrior, and I have been present at many a scene of slaughter; but spare me, I beseech you, the horror of witnessing the destruction of the Cherokees.”
Beginning in 1836, the militia had constructed 14 forts and camps in Northwest Georgia for the roundup. Perhaps the only difference between forts and camps was the building of blockhouses in the forts for the housing of troops and storage of food and ammunition. In 1838, thousands of innocent Indian people were herded into these concentration camps, in preparation for the march westward. Those who attempted to run away were hunted down and brought back. There were other forts and camps in other states, but those in Georgia, by modern-day counties, were as follows.
In Walker County, Fort Cumming; in Murray County, Forts Hoskins and Wool; in Gilmer County, Forts Hetzel, Gilmer and Newnan; in Union County, Camp Chastain; in Lumpkin County, Forts Floyd and Campbell; in Cherokee County, Fort Buffington and Camp Sixes; in Floyd County, Fort Means and Camp Malone; in Paulding County, Camp Cedar Town. No traces remain of any of these forts and camps, but their locations are indicated on historical marker signs. All told, it took 20 days to round up all the Cherokees and march them to the encampments—where they lived and slept on bare ground adjacent to the buildings that had been built for the soldiers and their supplies.
Aided by the Georgia Militia (many of whom were no more than scoundrels seeking to profit from the Indian removals), the army troops knew where the Cherokee families lived and how many were in each household. William Cotter, an army aide, observed, “After all the warning and with the soldiers in their midst, the inevitable day found the Indians at work in their houses and their fields. …two or three dropped their hoes and ran as fast as they could when they saw the soldiers coming into the field. The men handled them gently, but picked them up in the road, in the field, anywhere they found them, part of a family at a time, and carried them off to the post (fort).
Cherokee memories were not so gentle. Oola-Cha, a widow, recalled, “The soldiers came and took us from our home. They first surrounded our house and they took the mare while we were at work in the fields and they drove us out of doors and did not permit us to take anything with us, not even a second change of clothes. They drove us off to a fort (Fort Wool) that was built at New Echota.”
The Rev. Daniel Buttrick was a missionary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and served from 1818 until 1838 at various mission stations in Cherokee country. (Note: missionaries from the (southern) Presbyterian Church U.S. were sent to the Choctaws and Chickasaws of Alabama and Mississippi, whose removal westward preceded that of the Cherokees. There were, however, a few Presbyterian churches in some of the larger settlements.)
Buttrick and his wife chose to stay with the Cherokees and go with them on the Trail of Tears. He was an eyewitness to the roundup and wrote: “Thus…about 8,000 people, many of whom were in good circumstances, and some rich, were rendered homeless, houseless and penniless, and exposed to all the ills of captivity. In driving them, a platoon of soldiers walked before and behind, and a file of soldiers on each side, armed with all the common instruments of death; while the soldiers, it is said would often use the same language as if driving hogs and goad them forward with their bayonets.
“One man, on being pricked thus, and seeing his children thus goaded on, picked up a stone and struck a soldier; but for this he was handcuffed, and on arriving at the fort, was punished and on starting again was whipped a hundred lashes.”
General Scott appealed to the soldiers: “Considering the number and temper of the mass to be removed…it will readily occur, that simple indiscretions—acts of harshness and cruelty, on the part of the troops may lead…in the end, to a general war and carnage. Every possible kindness…must, therefore, be shown by the troops.” Too often, this was simply not the case.
In our next issue we will take a look at life on the Trail of Tears,“ the trail where we cried.”