The Trail of Tears, An American Form of Ethnic Cleansing?
Posted July 25, 1999
CHEROKEE — The images of Kosovar refugees forced from their homes broke the hearts of many Americans. The thought of ethnic cleansing was offensive. However, a quick review of American history shows how this country created its own version of ethnic cleansing as late as the 19th century.
It is a story often glossed over in textbooks and classrooms -- it's the story of the Trail of Tears.
The clear waters of Cherokee, North Carolina, stream through beautiful and serene landscape. They also rush through a stream of commercialism with big game replaced by big gaming and traditional clothing that is anything but traditional. All because it is a way to survive, and people in Cherokee know a lot about that.
For hundreds of years the majestic mountains were home to the Cherokee Indians. Home -- where they lived, worked, raised families and where they died, but in the 1830s their homes were taken away.
The Cherokee people were forced off their property by president Andrew Jackson, who made the Indians walk across the great Smoky Mountains to what was supposed to be a promised land. We now know those were promises never kept.
"It's a chapter in America's history that's a very sad chapter," says Lynn Harlan, director of the Cherokee Council.
Sad because the United States Army herded 20,000 men, women, and children into stockades for months, then made them walk 1,000 miles -- a journey called the Trail of Tears.
Ever since Ferdinand DeSoto made his journey into Indian country in 1540, the white man searched for prosperity and the Indians were in the way.
Harlan says it is accurate to refer to the Trail of Tears as a form of ethnic cleansing; however, she says it is not taught that way in school.
History reminds us that before the 1828 election, General Andrew Jackson was almost killed in battle. He was saved by Cherokee Chief Junaluska.
Years later in the White House, President Jackson turned his back on the Cherokee and Junaluska replied, "Had I known during the battle what I know now, American history would have been differently written."
The forced exodus of the Cherokee Nation began in Georgia, then spread into North Carolina, Tennessee, and continued westward to Oklahoma.
"We like to commonly refer to that the Trail of Tears started at the door-fronts of the Cherokees when they were forced from their homes," says Harlan, whose great-grandfather was only 18 when he was dragged from his North Carolina home. He was one of the few who survived the Trail.
The Cherokee talked of drinking from "the bitter cup of humiliation," and that "they were treated like dogs."
"America stood by and watched as native people were decimated," Harlan said. "They stood by and watched as a whole nation of people, a whole continent was decimated."
John Bennett patrolled the Trail for the U.S. Army. His diary describes his nightmares. "I watched as they slept in wagons or on the cold ground without blankets or fire. I've known as many as 22 to die in one night. I could forget it all, but the images of 645 wagons lumbering over frozen ground with its human cargo is too much to bear."
The long, painful journey ended in March of 1839 with 4,000 unmarked graves stretching from the Smoky Mountains to what we now know as Oklahoma. Today, Cherokees such as Harlan are more sad than bitter. She is convinced what happened to her ancestors affects U.S. foreign policy today.
"I think what Kosovo has shown me, more than anything else, is that America isn't going to stand for that any longer," she said. "It's OK to be different, and it's OK to live in a world with different people and to not harbor resentment, and to know not to back down the next time it happens."
The Cherokee and the Trail are receiving more notice. Last month, a section of the Trail of Tears in Cherokee County and East Tennessee was given a special designation. It is officially being called a National Millennium Trail.