Walking the Trail of Tears: Honoring those who lived and those who died

By Albert Bender
Nashville, Tennessee (NFIC) June 2011

  Ron Cooper at Red Clay,
near Cleveland, Tennessee.
He started his walk in
January 17th of this year.
A cold, blustery wind blows down a lonely highway, trees lining the road crackle under the forceful gusts, a lone intrepid figure walks relentlessly west despite the harshness of the winter weather.  It was early February. The solitary walker was Ron Cooper, Comanche from Oklahoma, traversing the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Point of destination: The Western Cherokee  capital of Tahlequah, Oklahoma  in late April . Cooper’s motives include a push for intertribal unity and pride in the survival of Native American people in the face of tremendous, genocidal oppression.

“It bothered me all my life knowing  Native American history, knowing we fought each other, instead of fighting  for unity and as for walking the Cherokee Trail of Tears, no one should care what tribe you are” said Cooper.

But flashback in time; it is 1838. This same road, no asphalt, just dirt and gravel. Hundreds of Cherokees, some riding in wagons, but most walking, it is November, a terrific sleet and snow storm is beating down. An elderly woman plods along, feet wrapped in rags; sickly children in the wagons, alarming coughs starting to be heard. Newborn infants crying. Soldiers watchfully making sure everyone keeps up the pace. Angry mutterings in Cherokee all along the line of march.  Some have the look of resignation. Others the look  of rebellion, wanting to lash out at the mounted soldiers guarding them. Some fall from exhaustion on the cold, hard ground  and are helped to their feet by relatives and  friends.

This was the Cherokee Removal, better known as the Trail of Tears.  The people were captured and treated as  though  they were criminals from justice, in fact treated much worse than the worse criminals. Men farming in their fields  were summarily arrested  and driven to the stockades. Their crime? Just being Cherokee and not reporting voluntarily to the military stockades. Women were dragged from their homes, with blows and profane oaths. Terrified children, often separated from parents  and driven to the stockades found only the sky for a blanket and the earth for a pillow.  The elderly, the disabled, the infirm were prodded  with bayonets to hurry them to the concentration camp stockades.    

Cooper’s  trek began on January 17, at the town of Charleston, in east Tennessee. Charleston was the site of Fort Cass and the Cherokee Agency during the Removal Era. This fort served as one of the headquarters of General Winfield Scott  and as an embarkation point for Cherokees being sent West. General Scott was in charge of Federal soldiers tasked with capturing Cherokees for the Trail of Tears.  Thousands were held in nearby wooden stockades and Charleston became one of the  main embarkation sites  for the Removal.

Fort Cass, established in 1835, garrisoned federal troops  who  guarded the largest collection of internment camps where Cherokees were imprisoned during the summer of 1838, before being driven west to Oklahoma.  The concentration camps stretched for miles and miles through the valley  below  the fort to present-day Cleveland, Tennessee.

Prior to the Removal, in 1819, Fort Cass was the location of the U.S. agency to the Cherokee Nation and was known simply as the “Cherokee Agency”, a government office  where  negotiations took place between federal officials and the Cherokee government. In 1835 the U.S. Army built Fort Cass at the Cherokee Agency. This installation was named for the Secretary of War, Lewis Cass.

Seventeen detachments made the trek during the forced Removal. The first three left in June, 1838, under very detestable conditions.  These first groups consisted mostly of Georgia Cherokees who were strongly opposed to the Removal and actively uncooperative with the soldiers.  The fourth detachment had a military accompaniment, probably as a favor, as these were Cherokees of the Bell  Detachment.  This detachment was composed of those Cherokees of the so-called “Treaty Party”, who favored Removal and were regarded as traitors by the rest of the Nation.

The remaining thirteen groups  were composed of those most opposed to  Removal. These Cherokees had been imprisoned  in hideous  concentration camps, that were so swept with death- dealing diseases that  the march west seemed the only alternative to genocide by pestilence. 

The harried Cherokees  covered about 10 miles per day, with the majority walking, some on horses  and  some of the  ill,  the  elderly  and children riding in wagons. Replicating the march of the exiles Cooper  covers about 15-17 miles per day.    

The thirteen weary detachments strove to maintain their own separate divisions and members , but there was some  intermingling of the exiles in the different  groups; some was out of necessity; some was simply voluntary.  Some Cherokees would drop out of one detachment and join another because they were  tired and  sick  and needing a rest; they simply waited to join an oncoming detachment;  others might be looking for friends or relatives; or they might lag behind because they were changing their minds and deciding to slip back to tribal lands still occupied by other Cherokees who had avoided capture.  

For those still heading West there were 645 wagons, one for every eighteen – twenty people.  Each wagon was pulled  by a double span of oxen , mules or horses. The wagon carried a family’s supplies  and whatever clothing  they had been able to  retain. 

Once sickness struck , there was little room in the wagons  for the weary , the walking sick, the elderly or children. Walking day after day was torture, especially, for the very old  and the very young. The foremost adversary was disease, which swept  away thousands weakened  by fatigue, hunger and  often bad water.  

Diarrhea, dysentery, head colds and respiratory ailments were rampant. It has been said that no one under 6 or over 60 survived the Trail of Tears. 

Death surrounded the unfortunates and marched with them on all sides.  Graves marked the trail of the exiles from the internment camps to their final destination, Indian Territory, present-day eastern Oklahoma. Death relentlessly thinned the ranks of the ever marching woeful émigrés.

trail_of_tears_map2.jpgOther hazards presented themselves in the form of marauding white gangs who preyed on small groups that became separated   from the main detachments.  These outlaws kidnapped Cherokee women and children and sold them into slavery. In some cases they were rescued and recovered, in some cases they were not.

In some  instances, oral tradition holds, that when wagons were crossing frozen rivers, hateful white  townspeople dynamited the ice so that the wagons would sink and the occupants would drown.

In return for their land and personal  property, Congress voted five million dollars to the people of the Nation. Although this may have seemed a huge sum, it did not go very far when divided among more than five thousand families who had to leave everything and start anew in Indian Territory. To add insult to injury, the Nation  had to pay for the Removal it had so vehemently opposed.

Interestingly, many whites thought, considering  the tribal history  of military resistance to American settler aggression, that the Cherokees would fight rather  than peacefully submit to the Removal. In February of 1838, Governor William Schley of Georgia  claimed to have received a letter from “ a Cherokee ”  who predicted  that the Cherokees would rise up, kill the whites in the Nation, and join the Creeks and Seminoles for war with the United States. 

On May 10, General Scott, with thousands of soldiers, invaded the Cherokee Nation and set up headquarters at New Echota, the Cherokee capital. In addition to the federal forces, militia units continued to arrive from Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina, augmenting Scott’s  forces to 9, 494 soldiers.

All over Cherokee country  stockades were erected; steam boats were chartered; and barges were constructed. Cherokees watched all these activities, still disbelieving that the removal would ever take place based on a flagrantly, fraudulent treaty   signed by members of the “Treaty Party” who held no public office in the Nation.  

The Cherokee people went about their everyday chores, refusing to believe the Army would be dispatched to drive them West.  But on May 23, 1838 military units armed with rifles and bayonets,  in place all over the Cherokee Nation, were deployed  with orders to  place in custody every Cherokee who could be found. Without warning the doors of homes were knocked down, the residents captured and marched to the stockades.

White civilian plunderers  followed on the heels of the soldiers, stealing everything they could  and often fighting each other over the spoils. There were gun fights, knife battles, eye gouging, gang brawls, pistol duels, all the in the best American frontier tradition in which groups and individuals, carved, shot, clubbed, kicked  and bit each other in the manner of hungry, starved dogs, snapping  at each other over long awaited  food, often to find that someone else had made off with the loot. After ransacking Cherokee homes, crazed whites with picks and shovels  opened graves in burial grounds  looking for silver and gold ornaments, jewelry rumored to be buried with the deceased.

In one instance, a marauding gang  of whites, brothers  and cousins, crazed with the exaggerated stories of “rich Cherokees”  broke into a  deserted house and plundered it looking for “hidden  treasure and started a fire in which the entire residence  went up in flames.

In the meantime the captive Cherokees in great processions were driven to the stockaded concentration camps, detachments of bedraggled prisoners in their  own land, thousands of trudging feet  raising  clouds of dust in dry weather, footprints in the mud when it rained, passing round a bend in the road, realizing they were seeing the last of their native home soil.

Now, fastforward, one-hundred and seventy – three years, Ron Cooper, a member of the Comanche Nation  from   southwestern Oklahoma, trod  the Trail in memory and honor of those hapless thousands of exiles.  Cooper has been assisted along the route by the different Chapters of the Trail of  Tears Associations – including the  Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky and  Missouri Chapters; and while traversing through Nashville  he was helped by the  Native American Indian Association of the city.

“The Trail has been symbolic  of what we as Native Americans  have lost in the past” said Cooper. “That’s  one of the  many things I contemplated during the three months it took me to complete my journey” he reflected.  “Also, the state Trail of Tears Chapters have been wonderful in providing great information and people all along the  route have been great” added Cooper.

Cooper is accompanied by his wife,  Kristal, who drives their pickup. She drops him off in the morning  and  picks him up at the end of the day. She also issued press releases for the journey. 

Early on, he realized that parts of the Trail had been obliterated or lost to modern-day development so Cooper had to content himself with walking the current roadways that most closely follow the original route.  Camping  on or near the part of the Trail, that he is walking, was a poignant part of the pilgrimage and it further binds him to the history of the tragedy.