'Cherokee Patriots': Planning The Trail Of Tears The forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans in the 1830s is taught in most classrooms, but few know the story behind the story. In An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears, Daniel Blake Smith documents the series of decisions leading up to the relocation.
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'Cherokee Patriots': Planning The Trail Of Tears

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'Cherokee Patriots': Planning The Trail Of Tears

'Cherokee Patriots': Planning The Trail Of Tears

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Brian Naylor in Washington. Neal Conan is away. The Trail of Tears is often taught as one of the darkest moments in American history. It refers to the forced migration of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral homeland in the Southeast to Oklahoma and is usually understood as a single event that happened to the Cherokee people. But this isn't the full story. A new book shows that the Trail of Tears was a series of events and decisions made, not just by the U.S. government, but within the Cherokee nation as well, shedding light on an event many Americans just don't know much about.

We'd like to hear from you. How did you learn about the Trail of Tears? Or if you're a teacher, how did you teach this part of American history? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org and you can join our conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on Talk Of The Nation. Later in the program, the NBA lockout and the very real possibility of a lost season.

But first, historian and filmmaker Daniel Blake Smith joins me to discuss his new book "An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears." He joins us from the studios of Nashville Public Radio in Tennessee. And Daniel, welcome to the program.

DANIEL BLAKE SMITH: Hey, it's a pleasure to be with you, Brian.

NAYLOR: And I guess it's appropriate that you're in Tennessee since that was sort of the ground zero of the Trail of Tears, where it all started.

SMITH: Well, certainly, the trail did go through Nashville and I'm doing as many book tours along the trail in Nashville, as well as last night in Chattanooga. So I'm trying to recapture those moments, sad as though they may be.

NAYLOR: What are we talking about exactly when we say Trail of Tears?

SMITH: Well, what we're talking about is a forcible removal of an entire nation of people. And, of course, the Cherokees were just the last of southeastern Indians removed by Andrew Jackson and federal government with his co-conspirators, the Georgia settlers, who had been predators on Indian land for quite some time. And it meant leave or you'll do so at the end of a bayonet. And of course, that's how it happened for many of them.

NAYLOR: The Cherokee nation comprised of, what, nowadays Georgia, the Carolinas, I guess...

SMITH: Tennessee, that's where I am. Yeah, there were about 16,000 in this era.

NAYLOR: And this all came about in the - in around 1830, did it sort of come to a head?

SMITH: Well, Jackson's Indian Removal Bill was in 1830. He was elected president, of course, in 1828 and needless to say, a lot of Native Americans, Cherokees in particular, began to get pretty gloomy about their prospects once they saw his election victory, knowing that much of his support came from southerners who were coveting Indian lands and had been for some time. So he got the Indian Removal Bill passed in 1830 and there was all kinds of bickering and treaty-making going on to try to find a solution to it.

But by the early 1830s, and this is kind of the focus of my book, there was an internal battle going on in Cherokee country over what to do about this looming prospect that actually didn't take place. The actual removal itself under the military's control was in 1838. But by 1832, there was a small but vocal faction among the Cherokees who were mostly acculturated, but had realized that if they were going to survive as a people, they had to focus on saving the soul of the people of the Cherokee nation rather than clinging simply to the homeland, as powerful and important as that was.

But the Cherokees were led by a man named Chief John Ross, who did not - who felt that holding tenaciously to their ancestral homeland was the only way to maintain a sense of distinctive tribal identity. And so a real internal battle, little known by most people who understand the Trail of Tears, I think, is what my book focuses mainly on.

NAYLOR: You focus on Chief Ross and also a man by the name of Elias Boudinot. Is that roughly right?

SMITH: It's probably pronounced Boudinot, even it looks like it would be Boudinot. But Elias Boudinot and Major John Ridge were the principal spokesmen for the treaty party, named such, because they helped craft and got passed, even though it was only for the very small minority of the Cherokee people, the famous or infamous Treaty of New Echota in 1835 that made the deal to go west.

NAYLOR: And they were Cherokees?

SMITH: Oh, yes.

NAYLOR: And so...

SMITH: And they, in fact, had become - so they had bought into the - it's called the civilization program inaugurated back during the Washington and Jefferson administrations aimed at converting Indians to Christianity and teaching them white men's ways and being - living in patriarchal nuclear households and that sort of thing. And these two young men, Elias Boudinot and John Ridge, who were cousins, went to Cornwall, Connecticut, and became so converted to the cause, they found beautiful white women in Cornwall, daughters of leading men there and had the - I guess you'd say the gall to fall in love and get married.

And they - unfortunately, in that interracial marriage, it lead to both of the two - of Boudinot being - and his wife being hung in effigy on the town square.

NAYLOR: And did - so how big of a role did sort of the missionary movement and the efforts to convert Cherokees to Christianity play in this saga?

SMITH: Well, on the part of the treaty party and especially its leaders, like John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, it played a very strong role. They did become converted. They believed that Christian uplift and education could improve the Cherokee people and represent an important part of their future. On the other hand, Cherokees, like a lot of native peoples, were very good at picking and choosing among white suggestions and intrusions into their world. And I think the figure is roughly 10 percent of all Cherokees who were - attempted to be converted, in fact, became converted to the Christian message. But they certainly lacked the educational element that the missionaries proposed for them, Moravians the Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists, in Indian country, starting in the late 1790s. And they were huge advocates of the Cherokee cause.

NAYLOR: And many of the missionaries lived on Cherokee land?

SMITH: Indeed. Yeah. And one of the missionaries, Sammy Wooster, was probably the closest white friend that Elias Boudinot had. They worked on translations of the Bible together and, of course, they, most famously, started the Cherokee Phoenix, the first both - Indian language newspaper ever, which got the word out to the people about their laws, their religious and literary arts and all the rest.

NAYLOR: So the Cherokees, I guess, many Americans thought that Indians could be civilized and, I guess, to some extent, the charities were the embodiment of that notion.

SMITH: The Cherokees, you say, as a - yeah, they were the most adaptable of the native people. They bought in to at least part of - a good part of the civilization program and of course, that's why it was so heart-wrenching to see that it amounted to nothing when it came to the decision of what to do about their land. And that didn't count for anything and the treaty party realized, OK, it's time to be practical and find a place where we can resettle and live as a people, rather than thinking strictly about maintaining our hold on our land.

NAYLOR: We're talking with Daniel Blake Smith about his new book "An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears." I'd like to take a call, and Jamal is on the line with us now from Wichita, Kansas. Thanks for joining the program.

JAMAL: Thank you for taking my call. My family is of Chickasaw ancestry and so, of course, Chickasaws are one of the quote/unquote "Five Civilized Tribes," Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole. And one of my ancestors was the leader of the Chickasaw tribe at the time of the Trail of Tears. His name was Winchester Colbert. And pictures that we have of him, when my parents were doing genealogy searches, the pictures that we have of him, it looks just like Abraham Lincoln. He's wearing the tall top hat and the suit and everything.

He looks a lot like Abraham Lincoln. But at that time, he was removed along with everyone else in the Trail of Tears. In Wichita - as growing up in Oklahoma, you know, we always heard about the five civilized tribes, but it was a very brief mention in history books in Oklahoma. They didn't dwell on it too much at the time in the '60s..

NAYLOR: So did your family - I'm sorry. I just wanted - did your family - you talked about doing some genealogical research. Is that how your family learned about its ancestry?

JAMAL: That's how we learned about our connection to Winchester Colbert and his role at the time of the Trail of Tears and the Chickasaw removal. But of course, it's in all the Oklahoma history books. They mention Trail of Tears, but they don't go into too much detail.

NAYLOR: All right. Thanks very much for...

JAMAL: And then my father went ahead and wrote the translation of the Chickasaw dictionary into English and that was the first time that that had been done. So we've done a lot of family history that way.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Jamal. And that raises a point, Daniel, that it wasn't just the Cherokees who were marched west during, on the Trail of Tears. There were other tribes in the area as well, Chickasaw...

SMITH: All of them were, yeah, the Chickasaw, the Choctaws, Seminoles, the Creeks, they all were removed. The Cherokees were the last to remove. And I think that we kind of attach ourselves to the Trail of Tears through the prism of the Cherokees' experience because they were the most civilized, quote/unquote, and had made the greatest strides towards adapting to this civilization program that had been, you know, offered to them as a way to, you know, keep their integrity and stay on their land.

And, of course, it all turned out to be a charade and, you know, that's why this is arguably one of the most tragic interracial events in American history.

NAYLOR: I want to read an email from Sandra, who writes that she's one of the founding fathers - or I'm sorry, she's a descendent of one of the founding fathers of Golconda, Illinois, if I'm pronouncing that right, which to my understanding was the crossing point on the Ohio of the northern-most leg of the Trail of Tears, the Ohio River. And she'd like to know what you make of the encampment in Kentucky across from Golconda that the Native Americans were forced to make while waiting for their turn to cross the river.

SMITH: I'm not familiar with that exact story, but a lot of the problems during the trek itself had to do with waiting for either, in the case of the summer months, for enough water, drought periods where the water levels weren't high enough for the boats to - those who took the water route, which weren't very many, to get across the river. And in the winter, ice flows were very serious barriers to transportation. And there were waits of as long as a month for them to be - to melt.

And so long encampments made the trail even excessively longer than it would have been just because of the elements.

NAYLOR: We're talking with Daniel Blake Smith, whose new book is titled "An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears." How did you learn about the Trail of Tears? Or if you're a teacher, how do you teach this part of American history? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. I'm Brian Naylor. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


NAYLOR: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Brian Naylor. Daniel Blake Smith calls the Trail of Tears arguably the most tragic interracial event in American history, sometimes called an American holocaust or genocide. We're talking about the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from its land in the 1830s. You can learn more about what lead to the Trail of Tears in an excerpt from "An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears" that's at our website, npr.org.

How did you learn about the Trail of Tears? Or if you're a teacher, how did you teach this part of American history? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Daniel Blake Smith is with us from the studios of Nashville Public Radio. He's a filmmaker and former professor of history at the University of Kentucky.

And Daniel, I'm just wondering if you had your book with you, you might share an excerpt, a reading with us.

SMITH: Yeah, I'd be glad to. What author wouldn't carry the book with them all the time, right?

NAYLOR: You never know when you're going to be asked, right?

SMITH: Yeah, I'll - this is from the introduction that I think it kind of sets up the book's questions so you'll see what it's about and hopefully persuasively answers these questions. The Trail of Tears takes us into the minds and hearts of those Cherokees who fought each other just as fiercely as they took on Andrew Jackson over what they saw as the very soul of the Cherokee people. The removal crisis plunged the Cherokees into a profound and sometimes violent quarrel over the issue of patriotism.

From the 1820s on, a series of painfully difficult questions haunted the Cherokee people. Was it possible for a Cherokee to be a full citizen of the American nation and yet remain connected to tribal traditions and ancestral land? Given the obvious hunger amongst other whites for Indian land, should Cherokees have placed their hopes on assimilation in their homeland or the independence of the Cherokee nation regardless of geography? What could a patriotic Cherokee do to save his people if the only choices were clinging to a homeland that white settlers were bent on overrunning or recreating the nation in a distant land?

In short, if you cannot save both your homeland and your people, which one mattered most? Which one could you possible surrender and what made you the more faithful Cherokee, the more loyal patriot? Fighting to save your home or to save your people?

NAYLOR: Thanks very much for sharing that. That's nice. I want to bring in a caller now. Jim is on the line with us from Fort Mill, South Carolina. Jim, tell us a little bit about your ancestry.

JIM: Hello. I grew up in California. My great, great grandfather on my father's side is Elias Boudinot. And my great, great, great grandfather on my father's side was John Ross.


SMITH: Oh, my god. You've got a war going on in your family then.

JIM: Yeah. Yeah, he - my dad taught us about all this stuff when I was growing up. And actually, you know, I thought it was really, really important and I was always surprised that other people didn't seem to know about this.

NAYLOR: So just to make sure that this is clear to our listeners, Jim, your ancestors were - are sort of the main characters in Daniel's book about the Trail of Tears.

JIM: That's right. They are. Elias Boudinot was - as you said, he was the first editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, Cherokee language newspaper, and he originally wanted to have the Cherokees stay in their homeland and he editorialized to that effect. And then later changed his position and editorialized for moving on the grounds that the whites in Georgia would just overrun them otherwise. And in fact, that's what was happening. You know, some of our ancestors, at one point, you know, they went off on a short trip.

When they came back, there were these white people living in their house.

NAYLOR: So you're - you live in South Carolina?

JIM: Yeah, I've been here six years. I grew up in California.

NAYLOR: Oh, okay. I'm just wondering, you know, how much of a part of your upbringing was this story.

JIM: It was a big part. You know, my dad being from both sides of this argument, you know, he's descended from John Ross. His mother was descended from John Ross and so his mom and dad would actually get in some pretty wild discussions about who was right on this whole thing. And...

SMITH: If you don't mind me asking you, how did you end up thinking about it?

JIM: I'm 60 years old and I've mellowed on the whole thing. You know, nobody's all right. Nobody's all wrong. The people in Georgia had real points on their side, but at the same time there were a whole bunch of them that, you know, probably thought the only good Indian was a dead Indian, you know.

NAYLOR: There was - speaking of legal points, I mean, the Supreme Court actually got involved in this, didn't it, Daniel?

SMITH: Yes, and that was the beginning of the end, in terms of Boudinot and Ridge's decision to change their position. In Wooster vs. Georgia (unintelligible) was named after Samuel Wooster (unintelligible) Boudinot's great friend, the missionary, who'd been in prison for standing up for the Cherokees and refusing to take an oath of allegiance to Georgia and so forth, put the case before the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court agreed with the Cherokees that they were a sovereign nation and only the federal government could treat with them, and Georgia, nor any other state, had any business making claims on them.

And there was jubilation for a very brief while, but then that produced or prompted the legendary comment, we can't prove it, but I think his position was clear, the legendary comment that Jackson said, well, Chief Justice John Marshall has given us his opinion, now let's see him execute it, enforce it. And of course, it was never enforced and that's when Boudinot and Ridge saw the handwriting on the wall, that there is no hope for us.

If the Supreme Court decision on our side will not guarantee our safety here, then we have got to look elsewhere for a future for the nation.

NAYLOR: Jim, before I let you go, I'm just wondering, have you been back to - well, I guess your ancestors lived in Georgia, any of the sacred sites that are still there?

JIM: I've been to New Echota. That's the only site in Georgia I have visited. I was actually at the - they had a special weekend there where they, you know, presented the history and stuff a couple of years ago and I was a volunteer there. My dad grew up in Oklahoma and I've visited a lot of the Cherokee stuff there.

NAYLOR: Well, thanks for calling in and taking part in this discussion. It's good to hear from you.

JIM: Thank you.

NAYLOR: I want to read from a couple of emails that we got. Another descendent, Michelle, writes that: My family was on the trail. They were mixed with whites so they could pass for white. They jumped off the trail around West Plains, Missouri. Until my daddy's dying day, he hated Jackson and placating whites that forced him to lose a huge part of his identity. As a red-headed Cherokee, as I have been raised, I have a tough time with whites who tell me I am not Cherokee.

This trail still resonates in our culture and lives. And Daniel, it sounds like it still sure does.

SMITH: Well, yeah, it does. And of course, most recently, the Cherokees have got into kind of unwelcome national attention with the disenrollment, as it's called, of the Freedmen, you know. Roughly, 10 percent of the people who were on the trail were Cherokee slaves or free men.

NAYLOR: Now, can we just stop there for a moment 'cause this is one of the, you know, really historically curious and fascinating things, that some of the Cherokees owned slaves.

SMITH: Oh, yeah. Harkening back to one of the early caller's comments about looking like Abe Lincoln and so forth and dressing like white folks, the Cherokees, like a number of tribes, but particularly the Cherokees, the most advanced among them, planters, looked for all the world like their white plantation-owning brethren and adopted slavery. Though they treated their slaves somewhat differently, they nonetheless had slaves and, you know, raised crops in the same way and, you know, had the same life ways in many respects.

And Louis Ross, John Ross's brother, who I believe got - he was a merchant who got the, if I can use this phrase, the removal concession to provision all the people, saw fit to go back and find 500 slaves to take out to Oklahoma thinking this would be a very productive way to make money in the future. So slavery was a part of the Cherokee story, just as it was with a lot of white Southerners.

NAYLOR: And were the slaves also brought along on the Trail of Tears?

SMITH: Yes, they sure were. And that's gotten bollixed up in this current controversy of Cherokee elections that recently concluded after a lot of controversy, recent Cherokee Chief Chad Smith, no relation, took the position that - like a number of Cherokee people, that descendents of the Freedmen were - are not true members of the tribe and therefore were being disenrolled. And this caused a great furor and is still kind of unresolved in the Cherokee nation 'cause Chad Smith did not get reelected.

It remains to be seen what will happen with that issue, but that issue of race lingers on in the Native American world.

NAYLOR: Let's take another call from - Jessica joins us now from San Antonio. Thanks for calling TALK OF THE NATION.



JESSICA: So when I lived in Texas - I moved in the middle of my fifth grade year, and I moved to Virginia. And in Virginia, they went very well in depth in all the different Native American tribes that where within Virginia, like, in the, like, pre-Colonial times and all the way up to how it affected during the United States being developed. And then - so I saw a very big difference in how the education system was being done on our culture and what happened and how the United States was even developed.

NAYLOR: Mm-hmm. So did you learn about it in Virginia, but not in Texas?

JESSICA: Yeah, I did. They went into a lot of depth on a lot of the different Native American cultures. And I went from a straight A student in Texas to being a B student all around because they were just way more in depth on a lot of different facets and especially history.

NAYLOR: All right. Thanks, Jessica. And...

SMITH: I suspect that's because Virginia is - has, you know, from beginning, was involved with Native American peoples in ways that Texas maybe - Texas history might start with the Republic of Texas or Mexico, and that's it. There was a long-standing confrontation between Indians and whites in Virginia.

NAYLOR: We have an email from Lowell(ph) in - well, I'm not sure where - oh, from Ellensburg, Washington: I'm a pastor in the United Methodist Church. For years, our confirmation manuals have said that Methodist preachers were advocates for and accompanied the tribes on the Trail of Tears. Is this true? What was the role of Methodists?

SMITH: They were advocates, and they did accompany them - some of them did, not certainly all of them. And they, you know, tried to find this middle ground, like all the missionaries tried to find of being supporters of the Cherokees at every point they could without taking sides. And that, as you can imagine, got to be harder and harder to accomplish because after all, the missionaries were really ambassadors, so to speak, of the federal government. They didn't come out there just on their own. They were organized and set with the help of the federal Indian nations to come out and help Christianize the Indians.

So it became a very difficult position to maintain your advocacy for Christianity and supporting the Cherokees and then knowing that the entire nation is being riven by this split. So that's why - another element of my book that I'm pleased to put out there is that it's a story of why missionaries like Daniel Butrick and more particularly Sammy Worcester and others who tried to walk that increasingly delicate line between advocating the Cherokees and not appearing to subvert the federal government's game plan.

NAYLOR: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I want to read another email from Anne(ph) in Jacksonville, Florida. She says: I'm a Salem College alumni from '92. The daughter of Chief John Ross, the head of the Cherokee Indian tribe, was attending Salem College prior to her withdrawal to accompany her family on the Trail of Tears.

And how many of the Cherokees and the other Indian nations actually made that walk, it was, I guess, walk and sometimes on horseback, in wagons?

SMITH: And a small portion by water, but mostly by land. This is an interesting question, Brian, because the nation was about 16,000. Roughly 4,000 died. Now, they didn't all die on the trail. Some died in the – we haven't gotten into this - the camps and the stockades where they were hold up prior to the march. And incidentally, that included daily practice marches of 10 to 12 miles a day that General Winfield Scott put people - put them through the paces to get ready for the march, if you can imagine that. But a fourth of the nation was lost roughly either because of deaths of stockades and camps. The trek itself, through, you know, winter without shoes and being exposed to the elements, and then those who technically died in Oklahoma without months after arrival due to exposure and diseases that they picked up along the trail.

NAYLOR: Let me bring Pamela(ph( into the conversation. Pamela joins us from Berkeley, California. Thanks for calling. Hi, Pamela? Hello. OK. Maybe I pushed the wrong button, that could be my fault. Hang on a second here. Let's try that again. Hi, Pamela. Hi, Pamela, are you there? OK. All right. Let's try - this is Steve from Demopolis, Alabama. Steve?

STEVE: Yes, I'm here.

NAYLOR: Hi. Good. OK. Thanks. Got one right here. Thanks for calling.

STEVE: I was listening to your interview, and I attended last year a reenactment of The Battle of Burnt Corn and then the subsequent attack on Fort Simms(ph) – or Fort Mims, in Baldwin County, Alabama. And I believe Andrew Jackson was the regional militia commander who came in after the massacre. And the lecturer said that that was kind of the seminal or the turning point from the civilization simulation movement to the isolation and the deportation, I guess you would call it.

NAYLOR: That's a good question. Daniel, I'm wondering, was there a single turning point that made the Cherokees decide to - eventually to leave their ancestral lands and move West as the government wanted them.

SMITH: Well, other than what I've said about the treaty party folks, for whom that was really back at '32 with the Supreme Court decision. The rest of the night was – they had been told in '36, in 1836, they had two years to leave and they could either get going on their own or it would be done so at gunpoint. And for many of them, it was at gunpoint. So I don't know about – I'm not sure about this battle having anything to do with Cherokees themselves making a decision. I think a lot of them - some decided to go along sadly and reluctantly, and others refused to and were forcibly - literally forcibly removed from their homes.

NAYLOR: Daniel Blake Smith is a historian and filmmaker. His book is entitled "An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears." He was kind enough to join us today from Nashville Public Radio in Nashville, Tennessee. Daniel, thanks very much.

SMITH: Hey, it's been a treat, Brian.

NAYLOR: Coming up: the ripple effects from the NBA lockout. The players turned down what the league called its final offer. How is the lack of games affecting you or your business? 800-989-8255, or bounce us an email, talk@npr.org. I'm Brian Naylor. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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