In late June 1838, the large group of Cherokee, who had at Ross’s Landing begun their overland trek to the Indian Territory, continued to trudge slowly westward. According to those who witnessed the march, Army guards acted harshly and drove their prisoners hard. Hot, dry weather compounded the misery. When reports of the suffering filtered back to Cherokee, a delegation that included John Ross, Elijah Hicks, James Brown, Edward Gunter, Sitewakee and White Path, worked to stop the march during the summer months. They asked permission to take control of the “emigration of our people.”
In July, the American government agreed and granted Ross and other national leaders time to organize and plan for the removal of the remaining Cherokees. Nine groups called “detachments” were organized under the leadership of Hair Conrad, Elijah Hicks, the Rev. Jesse Bushyhead, Siuwakee, Captain Old Fields, Moses Daniel, Chooalooka, George Hicks and Peter Hildebrand. Called conductors, these men hired wagon masters to haul supplies, obtained the services of doctors to treat the sick and injured and engaged contractors to provide food and other supplies.
By late August, all appeared ready. Two detachments made the march from Charleston to Blythe’s Ferry, where they were to cross the Tennessee River. The conductors decided, however, to stop and wait for cooler weather and rain. They remained in camp for nearly six weeks. When summer’s heat broke in early October, the two groups began to cross the river. Seven more detachments soon followed and continued to cross the river at Blythe’s Ferry until early November.
Unlike the chaotic scenes that had unfolded at Ross’s Landing when American military force had been used, the Cherokee-led movements proved orderly. John Ross described the crossing of Peter Hildebrand’s detachment on Nov. 10, 1838. “On yesterday morning at dawn of day,” Ross wrote, “the emigrants were in readiness and commenced crossing the river — four boats were put in requisition and continued running until dusk, two of them were manned by Cherokees themselves. At the close of the day about 61 wagons of the detachment with the people were safely lodged across the river.”
Despite the organization and efficiency of the crossings at Blythe’s Ferry, the Cherokee felt a profound loss. Elijah Hicks, who led his detachment across the river on Nov. 4, wrote, “We are now about to take our final leave and kind farewell to our native land the country that the Great Spirit gave our Fathers, we are on the eve of leaving the Country that gave us birth.”
Once on the road, the movement reflected this feeling. As Elijah Hicks put it on Oct. 24, 1838, “The detachment or the people are very loathe to go on and unusually slow in preparing for starting each morning. I am not surprised at this,” he continued, “because they are moving not from choice to an unknown region not desired by them.”
As winter weather soon set in, the physical suffering became almost unbearable. Lucy Ames Butler recorded a glimpse of this in her Jan. 2, 1839 diary entry: “I have heard a number who [were with] the Cherokees on these marches remark that it exceeded all the human misery, resulting from oppression, they ever before witnessed. Old people, just on the verge of the grave, tottering on the march, who were constantly on the watch to avail themselves of a place to rest … . The middle aged and youth, both men and women, with bundles on their backs and often with the addition of a child placed on the top of them. Interspersed in this group was a great number of more than half-naked, crying children.”
By March 1839, the long journey was over. But the work of binding the Cherokee people together in the new territory remained to be done. It was work that proved difficult and bloody.
Dr. Daryl Black is executive director of Chattanooga History Center. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.