Cherokee Removal and Routes Toward more Ethical Treatment of the Past

By Erin N. Whitson, M.S.

Most of us have heard about Cherokee Removal (or the Trail of Tears) at some point in the past. We’ve all heard the general layout of the story…Cherokee folks did everything in their power to stay in their homelands but were ultimately unsuccessful at convincing the Federal Government that they could (and should) be left to their own devices in the lands that birthed them. Most histories continue with a [brief] focus on how harsh the trip was and how many people died (a lot) but there isn’t a lot most of us know about the process of removal itself.

This article will give glimpses at how I’ve been approaching my archaeological work on Cherokee Removal, but to get there, I’ll first provide a bit of a background on Cherokee Removal and what we know (and don’t know) about it. By the end, I hope that you’ll move forward with a better understanding of just how atrocious this event was (on par with ethnic cleansing episodes in other portions of the world at the very least), and how heroic the Cherokee were for having held together as a people throughout it all.

Before we get started, it’s also crucial to remember, then that the Cherokee people survived. They’re ultimately the heroes of this story.

In May of 1838, while Cherokee chief, John Ross, was away in Washington D.C., trying to stop the dislocation of his people, U.S. troops and state militia personnel started rounding up the main (and yet unmoved) body of Cherokee citizens from their homes. Some were woken in the night—because a sleeping family wasn’t prepared to fight—while others were seized as they were sitting down to eat, or in their fields doing work. Families that had members visiting others somewhere elsewhere were snatched up, while their loved one was left wondering where they might be. Most of those taken into custody weren’t allowed to collect their belongings, because—it was argued—how would the government get a clear accounting of what they had, otherwise? Much of those possessions were seized by their American neighbors who also rounded up their livestock, made claims on their homes, and helped themselves to their household wares.

After being seized, those captured by the troops were marched (those too young to march were put on carts if their mothers couldn’t carry them) to hastily put together depots where they would be held until they could be sorted into groups and sent west. A change in the weather would force a change in plans, however. As spring swung into summer, the temperatures jumped, and the situation got dangerous. One missionary, Reverend Daniel Butrick, witnessed the entire affair and described hearing of horses tethered in the sun too long, dropping, then dying of heat stroke. The Cherokee shoved into camps with few amenities, and likely fewer structures to help keep people in the shade, likely suffered a great deal. Reverend Butrick also described many people dying from the spread of disease. He described sexual assaults, murder, and several other humanitarian issues that were at crisis level by the time the heat eased in the fall. Chief Ross traveled back to Cherokee lands and quickly met with the U.S. General in charge of the operation—General Winfield Scott. They came to an agreement that Cherokee leaders would organize and oversee the relocation if the US Government would allow it (Ross must have figured—and General Scott must have agreed—that this would lead to fewer unnecessary deaths).

The extreme heat of the summer meant that rivers were much lower than they logistically needed them to be if they were to start ferrying people west. This meant waiting for the heat to ease, and rivers to rise, which wouldn’t happen until late September. The groups were organized and the first group to leave on its way west overland, left on October 1st. Each group held about 1,000 people (except for the last group, which had roughly 2,000 people). They would carry some amount of animal fodder, food, and medicine with them, but would routinely need to restock their supplies along the way to ensure there were enough resources to continue (these supplies were controlled by quartermasters, chosen by the leader of the group (each group of Cherokee was called “detachments”).

From here things get murky. While some amount of general knowledge exists for which roads these detachments took, we don’t have an exact idea of much beyond that front in Missouri. Only a few accounts (three) discuss a few details, such as deaths, how much food may have been distributed that day, and (if you’re lucky) what the weather may have been doing. We know leaders walked a fine line between pushing too fast (and killing people through exhaustion/exposure) and moving too slow and extending the suffering and possibility of people dying through a lack of great nutrition, accidents, disease, and/or interpersonal conflict with white settlers who’d already moved into the area (which was particularly bad in southern Illinois). We also know that the towns these folks went through on their way west benefited financially from their hardship. Food supplies, medicines, and clothing/hardware/coffins, etc. were, in most cases, collected along the way, as opportunities presented themselves. While we have this amount of information—as spotty as it is—there are a good many things we don’t know about what this episode of ethnic/race-based violence would have been like daily for those who were having to withstand it. Archaeology might be one of our best tools for understanding the realities of this event for the people who suffered the most.

But even using archaeology, it’s not an easy problem to try and tackle. We’ve chosen two sites to study, that we’re reasonably sure are the locations of Cherokee campsites. We’re hoping, based on the accounts we have and rational conclusions about the logistics of moving a large group of very sick, cold, and tired people, that we’re on the right track. Beyond this, we must figure out what sort of physical objects might have been left behind by people who would have been using the same materials as their white counterparts at the same time. We also must think carefully about how we might find the remnants of these camps using technologies that won’t impact the soil in any way. Because we recognize how difficult a moment this was for the Cherokee, and how many loved ones were lost along the way, we’ve made sure to talk with them before moving forward on any front. Representatives of the Cherokee have asked that we not disturb any of their loved ones or do anything that might impact the sites without talking with them first—which is more than fair, honestly.

Because of all the challenges involved, we’re hoping to throw as many high-tech tools at the problem as possible so we can learn about what might be most effective at trying to find these sorts of sites (I won’t give too many details here, since it may encourage collectors to do this on their own…collecting at sites like this would be devastating to the people whose family members might have died at these places. Please refrain from this). We’re hopeful that this will give us methods we can pass on to the Cherokee (and other archaeologists doing work in areas that may have had encampments in the past) so they can protect these places more effectively than anyone’s been able to do before now. Ultimately, two aspects of all this are especially important parts of all the work we’ve been trying to get done on this project. The first is that we’ll have ways to find and protect these sorts of sites in the future.  It’s important to try and find and protect the locations where Cherokee (and/or other tribes’ or ethnicities) were impacted so severely.

We’re also hoping this work may help Missourians (and other Americans) remember the human tolls involved in this horrible event. So many lives were impacted in terrible and highly traumatic ways because of this episode in our past. There’s never anything inevitable in history, and I think imagining that history had to unfold in this way makes it seem like a necessary sacrifice that had to happen for the greater good. This isn’t true and somehow makes it seem like ethnic cleansing and/or genocide might be acceptable approaches to conflict between groups of people.

These people were as human as the rest of us—with hopes, dreams, and goals for themselves and their loved ones. They deserve (today), in my mind, at least an acknowledgment that we understand and remember some of the wrongs done to them over time. We may not be able to change things, but we can think about how they came to be and try to prevent anything like this from ever happening in our country again. A free book, Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention (Straus 2016) published by the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. suggests that those peoples who’ve faced atrocities in the past are statistically more likely to face atrocity in the future. It’s everyone’s responsibility to guard against this—for the Cherokee and for all the other tribes and ethnic groups who’ve faced horrific human rights violations under our predecessor’s watch in the past.

We’ve begun at least a few of the surveys we have planned for the sites we’ve chosen to do work at, but the work won’t stop once the archaeology ends. We hope to put together educational content that will help the public know more about what this event was like for the Cherokee, 184 years ago. Ideally, this content will go out to schools, will be added to interpretative signs, and will help connect us (non-Cherokee residents of the State) and, if they so choose the vivaciously resilient Cherokee with the people, places, and ideas that forged us all into the peoples we all are today…to help us and them know this event and connect more with our pasts and each other.