Back in the 19th century, there were what they called “The Five Civilized Tribes.” These were the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek, and the Seminole.
They were called that – even by themselves – because they’d recognized the times had changed, and adopted White ways. They’d abandoned most of their traditional ways of living, moved into American-styled towns and houses. Most took up then-modern farming and other jobs. Most of them had learned to speak English at least as a second language. Most of them had converted to Christianity. A great many had adopted White names. As all these tribes were Southern, they’d even adopted slavery. Despite this, Indians weren’t citizens in those days, and most of them lived in Tribal lands defined by treaty (This was before Reservations), in Indian-only communities. (Not counting missionaries, slaves, and the occasional White spouse). It’s important to remember that Indians weren’t citizens in those days.
The Cherokee were far and away the most successful of these tribes, mostly because they’d always been the most liberal. I mean “Liberal” in the sense of being quick to dispense with tradition if something better comes along. Pragmatic, as well. The other four “Civilized Tribes” were a bit slower. Indians as a whole were very reticent to change traditional ways. Who can blame them?
The Cherokee, meanwhile, had their own newspapers in their own language written in their own alphabet, they had a good school system, and they were pretty wealthy, as these things go. Though there were several groups in several different places, the bulk of them lived in a large hunk of land in Georgia, and their capital was a town called “New Echota.”
Eventually Gold was discovered on Cherokee land, and everyone was screwed. White settlers wanted that land, and started taking it, often violently. This led to what eventually became “The Indian Removal Act,” in which Congress decided to gather up all the Indians east of the Mississippi, and dump ’em in “The Indian Territory” (The eastern part of modern Oklahoma). While mostly this was just an attempt to get rid of inconvenient people to facilitate a land grab, there was a degree of mercy to it as well. They were going to grantee the Indians’ safety, move them to new lands where they wouldn’t have conflict with white folk. This was a shitty, racist thing to do, obviously, but in the wonky mindset of the times, Whitey Devil thought he was being nice.
Famously, the Cherokee mounted a serious legal challenge to this. It went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States and…surprise!…The Indians Won! It didn’t matter. Andrew Jackson challenged the Supreme Court to enforce their decision, and nobody knew what to do about it. They attempted (Eventually) to impeach him, but that failed. Now, it’s important to realize that Andrew Jackson didn’t hate Indians. Two of his sons were adopted Indian Orphans, and by all accounts he loved them dearly and didn’t care about their race. He really, really, really wanted the Five Civilized Tribes’ land, however. And he kinda hated the Supreme court.
Ok, so here’s where it gets interesting:
The Cherokee realized they were screwed. They had about two years before they were evicted. The Cherokee were ruled by a council, with two factions in it: The “Pin” Cherokee and the regular old Cherokee. The “Pins” were pureblood, insofar as anyone could be sure, and wore pins – essentially club pins – to make sure everyone knew. These guys had way more voice on the council than anyone else.
The council hatched a plan: Concluding that a little of something is better than all of nothing, why not approach the Federal Government with a counter-offer? Rather than wait for the deadline for removal, they’d offer to leave a year early *IF* the Federal Government would pay them for the land, and arrange transport and provisions. This would get them some money, whereas if they waited the lands would just be taken, *AND* it would allow them to get to Oklahoma a year before the other tribes and gobble up all the best land, giving them an advantage. They figured the federal government would jump at it. It really was a very clever plan.
The Pin Cherokee adamantly opposed it. After a lot of argument, and that deadline ticking closer, the regular Cherokee on the council decided to just go ahead and do it anyway. As predicted, the Feds jumped at it because it allowed them to open up tens of thousands of acres – some with gold – up for settlers much earlier.
This was only questionably legal. The Council went behind it’s own back and ignored the more powerful members, so it was probably an illegal treaty. The Pin Cherokee opposed it ’til their dying days, but the Feds said “No takebacks,” and thus we have the Trail of Tears.
All the bad stuff you know about it is true, but it’s more expansive. The first batch of Cherokee were supposed to be met at various locations along the route by various organizations – mostly church groups – who’d give them supplies, food, shelter, etc. Given this, the Army underestimated the amount of supplies and transport they’d need. For whatever reason, the civilian resupplies didn’t materialize. Mostly it was bad scheduling, people not keeping promises, or the Cherokee making slower progress than expected, meaning they didn’t make connections. It was FUBARED. As a result, the Army (Who weren’t particularly sympathetic, but didn’t hate them) didn’t have nearly enough supplies to make up the difference. Added to which, the weather was just beyond awful for months. The end result was that a whole bunch of people died, but it’s important to note that nobody was *trying* to kill them. I am not justifying this. IThis was a hugely awful racist thing to do, but its disastrousness owed more to typical bureaucratic fuckupery than flat out Nazi-styled evil. In fact, many of the Army complained about how awful the thing was.
So then they got to Oklahoma, and promptly gobbled up all the good land, as planned.
Now, not all of them went willingly. Many refused to accept the treaty, and there were several waves of forced migration. President Van Buren never opposed removal, but he did tell the army to stop the draconian shit (“show every possible kindness to the Cherokee and to arrest any soldier who inflicted a wanton injury or insult on any Cherokee man, woman, or child.” which is 19th-century-ese for “Knock it the fuck off!” He put nicer officers in charge) After that, things got better. Not pleasant, mind you, certainly not *right,* but more on the order of a normal long wagon train and less like the Batan Death March. The subsequent forced removal of the other Indian tribes was far less eventful than the clusterfuck the Cherokee were forced through. I’m not being glib, but volunteering to go first means you’re gonna be going through the system before the bugs get worked out.
So when the other Civilized Tribes got there, they had no choice but to live on crappier land. There were a lot of hard feelings. There were also a lot of hard feelings among the Cherokee themselves, and a bloody civil war broke out within the tribe almost immediately. It lasted for seven years, with the Pin Cherokee and their supporters on one side, and the regular Cherokee and their supporters on the other. The war didn’t really end until everyone of the Regular Cherokee Councilmen who’d signed the treaty were dead.
Except one: Standhope Oowattie, who also went by Standhope Wattie, Stand Wattie, or just Stand. This was a translation of a Cherokee word, but he seldom used it in Cherokee. Being just a hell of a cavalryman, he managed to survive the whole war, and negotiated his safety at the end.
There were understandably some super-de-duper-de pissed-off feelings towards the US after all this, so when the Civil War started, the Cherokee naturally sided with the South. Some Cherokee recognized this as a bad idea, of course, and went Union. This led to yet another civil war within the tribe, though not as bad as the first since the dispute came down to “I hate the United States” vs “I hate the United States too, but there’s no way we can win.” The angrier side made up the majority, again, understandably.
For its part, the Confederacy was surprisingly pro-Indian. They had a very weak Western boarder, and they knew it, and figured Indians were ready-made Horse Cavalry. The Five Civilized Tribes agreed, and were promised some kind of special representation in the CSA congress once they won. It’s unknown what the details of this would have been, and undoubtedly the CSA wouldn’t have kept their word anyway, but the Cherokee and the others fought really well.
Stand Wattie once again proved to be a really good military man, and eventually was promoted to Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. He was the first American Indian flag officer in North America, though of course he was on the wrong side. After Lee’s surrender, the Cherokee held out for more than two months. Wattie (Who was Principal chief of the entire tribe by then) finally negotiated a surrender that included freedom for all his men. Then he beat it off to Texas for a while to reunite with his family and see which way the wind was going to blow. Predictably the Confederate Cherokee were entirely removed from power, and the Union Cherokee were in power, so Stand lived as an exile with the Choctaw for a while.
The man must have been as good with words as Robespierre, though, as he managed to not only talk the Cherokee into taking him back (As a private citizen, no role in government), but also to get sent to Washington as part of a committee to renegotiate the US treaties with the various tribes in the Indian Territory.
So there you go: a broader picture of a disgraceful event in our nations history, in context, and a look at not only how clever the Cherokee of those days were, but also the very many ways in which they got screwed.
Comments? Thoughts? Don’t take my word on any of this. Check it out for yourself. It’s a fascinating period in history. And if I got something wrong, please let me know. I’m working from memory here.