When the People CriedPosted on: December 1, 2012
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By Hazel Wesson-Peterson
The journey was gruesome. To think of it is sometimes more than I can bear. Most every night when I close my eyes, the pictures in my mind are those of the tragic sojourn the People made during the autumn and winter months of 1838 and 1839. Oh that all Americans would come to know and understand what really happened and be forever changed by the truth.
The day began like any other. Up at the break of dawn and out the door to milk the cows. Even though Father and I pretended to be bored by this morning ritual, we enjoyed our time together, taking in the smells of the farm, the clucking of chickens, working the freshly plowed winter garden. I teased Father about how he danced around Mother’s authoritarian rule in our home. Father teased me about Charles, the brave living down the road who followed me around like a lost puppy.
We had just finished milking our two dairy cows and were washing up for breakfast when we heard voices and the clomping of boots on our front porch. Mother, Father, my brother John and I all stood in the kitchen knowing what we had feared most was now upon us.
Three uninvited soldiers with bayonets stormed the house and grabbed me by the arm forcing me out the door. Wincing from the pain, I watched my parents as they were pushed and shoved to the outside. Mother, stoic to the very end, stood in the yard, barefoot, chin out, eyes piercing the unwelcome men with imaginery bayonets of her own. The men jabbed us with their bayonets yelling in a language my parents did not understand. With fear and trepidation we walked to the dusty old road where we saw the fearful eyes of our neighbors also at the mercy of the soldiers. We were allowed only the clothes on our backs, the fear in our hearts, and the pride of our great nation…the Cherokee Nation. No doubt, these soldiers would try with their greatest Army tactics to break us…body and spirit.
On foot we were led by soldiers on their horses for what seemed hours. A few of the soldiers laughed at us while others taunted the women and practically dared our men to do anything about it, calling us names, treating us like vermin requiring elimination. Their orders were to put us far away…out of sight. Savages, they called us. Only we were as European as any of the White Man. Andrew Jackson’s plan would be accomplished at the end of this journey. Or that was the hope. So many lies and broken vows, treaties signed then seemingly forgotten. What is it the White Man says? Out of sight…out of mind?
We arrived at the first destination of detainment where we saw many people we knew and loved huddled together in stockades. Many were barefoot, not yet dressed for the day as it was early that morning when the roundup began. In the crowd was our Principal Chief, John Ross and his family. He and his beautiful, Christian wife were holding hands amid the people who were looking to him for guidance. A quivering chin and free falling tears defined the burden he felt. A suffocating quiet cloaked around us as if to mark the beginning of something sinister. Evil. Tragic. Criminal. The Indian Removal Act was now underway being enforced by the country’s new Chief, Martin Van Buren. What was to happen to us at the hands of this Administration?
After all the People were gathered together we were taken to Indian forts all over the Southeast. Principal Chief Ross met with the new president hoping to sway him in our favor but it was not to be. The only concessions made would allow the People to be in control of their own removal, so the Chief and his brother set about with the burdensome task of dividing the tribe into detachments. When all was said and done sixteen groups of about a thousand each were formed.
We later learned that three detachments went by barges, leaving New Echota at Chief Ross’s landing on the river, following water routes the entire way, never counting on dried up rivers from the droughts to prolong the journey. The remaining groups traveled in crowded wagons. I overheard one soldier mention there were 645 wagons altogether. The removal is seared into my memory as if branded there with iron and fire. Autumn 1838 marked the somber beginning of changes for us and future generations. Before the wagon trail began Chief Ross offered up a prayer to God. Then the procession began. As we moved onward many of the children waved farewell to the Great Smokey Mountains, never to see our homeland again. One soldier said it was the worst event in American history up to that point, a travesty that should make the White Man bow his head in shame.
As the sojourn continued, grumblings increased amongst us about food. We had been given supplies, but of poor quality and not lasting long. We were hungry and soon began to show signs of starvation. Illness ravaged people one by one. My mother developed pneumonia dying before we reached the waters dividing the East from the West. She was buried in a shallow grave next to the trail along with several others who died during the night. Father’s grief was great and the loss of everything would prove too much for him in the days and weeks to come.
I have heard it said by many that the Winter of 1938 and ’39 was the hardest one on record up to that time. When we reached the Great Rivers, the ones they call the Mighty Mississippi and the Ohio, crossing was impossible because they were frozen. The soldiers taunted us with their food and coffee, while we froze trying to make warm drinks from roots we found along the way.
After mother’s death Father gave up. Never mind twelve-year-old John needed him desperately, or that I loved him more than life. While we were encamped on the East Bank of the Mississippi, he went to sleep one night and never woke up. The ground was frozen which made burial almost impossible. The soldiers didn’t care how devastated we were. Not one soldier consoled us when our parents died. Instead John was made to dig a shallow grave in the frozen ground.
When warmer weather came we crossed the river into Arkansas Territory. It was in Little Rock that our Chief’s wife died of pneumonia after giving her blanket to a young girl who had none. With her passing, the chief was even more grief stricken. He begged God for help. He was a kind, compassionate man who lost everything just as we did. Being only one-eighth Cherokee the removal law did not apply to John Ross but he made the journey choosing to live or die with the one s who counted him as their beloved leader.
Something inside of John Ross died in Little Rock with his wife. Like all of us he felt beaten, worn and devastated. But as time trudged onward he began to pick up the pace, going first to one family then the next, consoling and encouraging them. I think he knew everyone was looking to him for guidance. He realized that there was not one family exempt from loss on this trail. He knew he must bury his grief deep inside him until we arrived in Oklahoma. Then and only then could he grieve his love and loss….all of them..his wife, his land, his People’s lives and homes, the lies, the betrayals..all of it. For now, there was nowhere for him to hide. His life was an open book. So he moved onward, a mighty force for his People.
As the days turned into weeks, then months, we learned to be quiet warriors like our ancestors. Never let the enemy know what you are thinking. Never let them see you cry. I tried never to make eye contact with the soldiers. In the beginning, some of them looked at our women hungrily, like wolves on the prowl. After traveling months with these same men, we didn’t seem to look so inviting to them. We were starving, exhausted, filthy, frightened, dejected. Name a negative human emotion and we felt it. But remember: we were not human to the men who led us across the country. We were savages! Squaws! Injuns! Malcontents!
I would be remiss if I led you to believe all the soldiers were mean. That would be a lie. There was one, a man named John Burnett, who loved us. He even spoke our language. He was kind and treated us well. Why, he even took a hatchet to the head of another soldier who whipped an elder for being too slow. Rumor has it charges were never brought up against him. Many years later, during the War Between the States, some of our young braves who joined forces with the Confederacy happened upon Mr. Burnett remembering him fondly as “the soldier who was good to us.” I recall him sitting among the young girls who sang our songs to him as a way to thank him for his kindness. He fought our battles for us; he risked his reputation for people who were considered the lowest of the low; he shared his food with the aged and the children. And he carried a heavy heart for the brutality we suffered at the hands of his people.
I often thought of the morning that seemed from another lifetime, when Father and I had milked our cows for the last time, joking and teasing about Mother. I would have given anything to have our parents back. Many evenings were spent around campfires singing hymns and thanking God for helping us through another day. The hardest thing was the rawness of the pain and stabbing grief we felt for our loved ones who went home to heaven before us.
Just when I began to think the journey would never end we were finally greeted by another group of soldiers who took us the rest of the way to our new land. When we saw it there were murmurings that the same crow who carved out our mountains back in Georgia must have carved these out as well. They looked so much like the mountains in our memories. None of us would dare tell the soldiers what we were whispering for fear word might get back to Washington that we were actually pleased with our new land. And Washington would never have that!
And now? Well, I am an old woman now. Life continued despite my doubt it would or could. I raised John as best I could and even though I begged him not to, he joined the Confederacy during the War Between the States paying the ultimate price with his life.
I married Charles, the brave from childhood. We both went to the Indian School built for us by missionaries. Our education completed, we married and had four children, three boys and a girl, all of who made us very proud and have given us many grandchildren. Charles went home to the Great Spirit some time ago leaving me with my memories. Memories of the long walk from East to West, of starvation, tears, worries, fright and desperation. Memories of a new life the People built together from scratch while the government no doubt continued to think of ways to take this land as well. Memories of babies, laughter, love.
The Cherokee remain a proud people. We survived in spite of it all. Hopefully people in the future will read about our crossing and see it for the travesty it was. Most people choose not to speak of it for fear of having to admit they live on land taken forcefully from the people it belonged to. One day a people will arise who will be able bring our injustice to light. Until that day remember this. Everything we overcame we did in memory of those we lost on the journey when the People cried.