Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle. Highly recommended.
In Trail of Tears, John Ehle (who is, as far as I can tell, non-Native) sketches the people and events that led to the infamous Trail of Tears, the removal of the Cherokee Nation to “Indian Territory” (primarily Arkansas and Oklahoma) where they would “never” be bothered by whites again. The focus is on the “Treaty Party,” consisting of Ridge, his son John Ridge, and his nephews Elias Boudinot and Stand Watie, along with Moravian, Methodist, and other missionaries sent to convert the Cherokees to Christianity and who are caught up in Cherokee/state/federal politics.
Ehle’s bias is evident in the title; the “rise” of the Cherokees is the effort, not wholly embraced by the Nation, of adapting to European-American culture, language, religion, and even livelihood (e.g., Cherokee hunting is uncivilized, whereas the adoption of American farming is preferable). The story begins with some background and the birth of a Cherokee man named Ridge not too long before the American Revolutionary War. The white impact has already begun to be felt, as one of Ridge’s forebears is white, and he and his family are driven into the wilds by the war.
After the war ends, the new Americans have one craving — land and more land. A gold strike in Georgia adds to the fever. The Cherokee, along with the Choctaw, Creek, and other southern tribes, are perceived as “wasting” land that their white counterparts should be entitled to. From this point on, it is clear that the Juggernaut of American expansionism and greed will displace the Native peoples. The question is only how and when.
Meanwhile, Ridge, who will not convert to Christianity but who wholeheartedly adopts many white ways for himself and his children, becomes not only a wealthy plantation owner but a leader of the Cherokee Nation. His son becomes an attorney, while Boudinot becomes the first editor of the Cherokee newspaper, The Phoenix. Both young men marry white New Englanders they meet while at school. Ridge and his family and allies are the first to see the writing on the wall — that the Cherokees will be removed; it is a matter of whether it is “voluntarily” on their own terms in their own time or involuntarily.
The principal chief of the Cherokee, a Cherokee-Scot named John Ross, is portrayed as a man in a state of denial. It is never clear how he thought the Cherokee could overcome the overwhelming tide of white intrusion without bloodshed and without losing. He and his followers blame the Ridge faction for selling the Cherokee out when they sign the Treaty of 1835 that puts the seal on the removal. They feel that they can continue to “negotiate,” not realising that Andrew Jackson has set the tone and the terms — and that the federal government under his leadership has loaded the die. Ehle is no John Ross fan; when the inevitable finally happens and the Cherokee are removed, Ross sends them via the lengthy, dangerous, time-consuming land route, resulting in hundreds if not thousands of deaths (the number remains unknown), while Ross and his family use the quicker, less treacherous water routes.
There are several dichotomies in this history — the Upper Towns vs. the Lower Towns; the full-bloods vs. those with white ancestors/family; the uneducated (mostly full-bloods, according to Ehle) vs. the educated (John Ridge, Boudinot); the federal government vs. state government (a dichotomy that would be resolved violently through the Civil War). A forest/mountain vs. town dichotomy is also evident. In any case, anything that speaks of the way the Cherokee used to be is seen as “primitive,” while Cherokee adoption of white ways is lauded by their neighbors. In fact, this is seen as the heart of the problem; the Cherokee people are pliable, are willing to adapt, are willing to live like the whites — and in the end are treated no better than their Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole counterparts. Ehle includes much contemporary commentary on this particular irony.
This book has been said to be controversial because it shows the wealthier Cherokees, like Ridge, John Ridge, and John Ross, as owning African slaves. The Cherokees tried to marry their own ways with that of the European-Americans; they had always had slaves, usually captives from other tribes. But it is clear that the majority of Cherokees were poor, did not own plantations, and did not exploit slaves.
Trail of Tears is an excellent snapshot of a particular situation and will be eye opening to those who are not familiar with the story of the southern tribes and their interactions with the burgeoning American population. Ehle includes a wealth of primary sources, such as letters, journal excerpts, military orders, and the like, that serve to enrich the story. This history lesson is told in a story/fiction format enhanced by contemporary writings that keep it interesting, lively, and personal. Ehle’s biases are clear but do not detract from this book as a history of a moment in time when the fate of a nation was decided. This is an excellent supplement to any broader history of the Trail of Tears.
29 April 2001
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf