Before there was Chattanooga, there was Ross’s Landing, established by John Ross, who was elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1828.
Ten years later, after a long struggle with the U. S. government and Georgia, Ross oversaw the removal of his people to new lands in Arkansas.
He had protested the controversial treaty ceding their territory, on the grounds that an unauthorized faction signed it. Nonetheless, the treaty was ratified in Washington by a one-vote margin and proclaimed official by President Andrew Jackson on May 23, 1836.
Between 1836 and 1838, an estimated 2,000 Cherokees moved voluntarily to the West. Another 15,000 remained within the Nation when Gen. Winfield Scott arrived with 7,000 soldiers to remove them forcibly in May 1838. One of his officers, Lt. Braxton Bragg, would return to Chattanooga in 1862 as commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Stockades were set up at the Old Agency (Calhoun, Tenn.) on the Hiwassee River, at Ross’s Landing (on the Tennessee River) and at Gunter’s Landing in Alabama. Soldiers rounded up and transported Cherokees by boat, by wagon or on foot to the compounds. Almost all were taken unawares, leaving cabin doors open, crops in the fields, and personal possessions and livestock for the taking by scavengers following in the army’s wake.
The first party departed from Ross’s Landing on June 6, 1838. The Rev. Daniel S. Butrick of the Brainerd Mission wrote in his journal that about 1,200 Cherokee were “literally crammed … into a flat bottom boat, 100 feet long, 20 feet wide and two stories high, fastened to an old steam boat.”
When the overcrowded flat boat was on the verge of sinking, some were taken off and put on smaller boats, giving none of the passengers “any more room or accommodation than would be allowed to swine taken to market.”
A second group of 1,500 were driven to the riverbank, where they were “guarded all night to lie like so many animals on the naked ground.”
A third contingent of about 1,100 started off by land in wagons and on foot. On June 28, Rev. Butrick noted that 20 had escaped and returned to the camp, having had nothing to eat for two days. Because of the intense heat and high mortality figures, Gen. Scott agreed to suspend the evacuation until Sept. 1. A prolonged drought caused a further delay.
While some 2,500 Indians languished under the watchful eye of federal soldiers and state militia in Camp Cherokee, near today’s Memorial Hospital, workmen were busy clearing trees, surveyors laying out a pattern of streets, and settlers pouring in.
“The Chattanooga Country” by Gilbert Govan and James Livingood, describes the meeting that summer in a log schoolhouse to select a name for the new town. Tossing out “Lookout City” (too pretentious) and “Montevideo” (too far-fetched), they settled on “Chattanooga,” the original name of Lookout Mountain. The rationale was that “if our city was a success … there would not be another name like it in the world.”
Finally, all the Cherokees, their Negro slaves, and a few Creeks left for the West between Oct. 1 and Nov. 1. John Ross and his chiefs divided them into 13 parties of about 1,000 each with two leaders.
Ross appointed his brother, Lewis, quartermaster in charge of buying provisions and depositing them at stops along the way. Rev. Butrick and his wife and other missionaries, as well as federal soldiers, accompanied them on the 800-mile northern route through Tennessee, Kentucky, southern Illinois, and Missouri to Arkansas. Elijah Hicks’ group of 748 that set off on Oct. 4 was the first to arrive in the West on Jan. 4, 1839.
In “Indian Removal,” Grant Foreman estimated that “about 4,000 died during the course of capture and detention in temporary stockades and the removal itself.” The principal victims were children and the elderly. The Cherokees called it Nunna-da-ul-tsun-yi, “Trail where they cried,” also known as “The Trail of Tears.”
Today the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, including all the various routes, has been mapped and is being marked by the National Park Service. Designated sites in the Chattanooga area include Audubon Acres and its Spring Frog Cabin, the Brainerd Mission Cemetery, Brown’s Ferry Tavern, the John Ross House, Ross’s Landing and the Federal Road on Moccasin Bend.
Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.