1838 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

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Unusual sightings reported in September included “a monstrous longtailed snake” in Indiana, “grasshoppers so ravenous in Maryland that they devour hoe-handles, ploughshares, and harrows,” and several ghosts.

In October began the twelve-hundred-mile journey of the Cherokee nation from its Georgia homeland to Oklahoma. The migration was not a voluntary one. White settlers hungry for land in the Southeast had already pushed the Creeks and Choctaws across the Mississippi. But the Cherokees, a proud people with a rich land lovingly tended, did not go easily.

In 1835 the government coerced a small minority of Cherokees to sign on behalf of the entire nation a treaty agreeing to cede all lands owned by them east of the Mississippi River. They had two years to clear out.

When the deadline approached, the Cherokees were forced from their homes into hastily built detention camps. Gen. John Ellis Wool, assigned to enforce the treaty, wrote, “The whole scene since I have been in this country has been nothing but a heart-rending one ... I would remove every Indian tomorrow beyond the reach of the white men, who, like vultures, are watching, ready to pounce on their prey and strip them of everything they have.…”

Over the sweltering summer, dysentery, measles, and whooping cough raged through the ill-provisioned camps, where some two thousand Indians died. Finally, that autumn, the great exodus commenced. “In the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning,” wrote a young soldier who witnessed the event, “I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west.…”

An entire nation, fifteen thousand men, women, and children, set forth on a six-month trek to an unfamiliar land. On the way about two thousand more Cherokees succumbed to disease, exposure, and exhaustion and were buried in shallow graves along what became known as the Trail of Tears.