On May 26, 1838, two years after the Treaty of New Echota had been ratified by the United States Senate, American soldiers began to enforce the terms of the treaty. Early in the morning they began rounding up Cherokee. They captured men and women in their homes, working in their fields and children at play.
As Nathan Smith, superintendent of Cherokee emigration, wrote: “The military so hurried and urged them away, that no time was allowed to gather up their effects, their houses stripped and robbed of everything. I find many dismembered families. Mothers hurried away from their children and husbands and wives separated from each other.”
Those who were taken were marched to one of the 19 collection camps that had been built in north Georgia, southeast Tennessee and western North Carolina. Most had with them little more than the clothes on their back.
For days, they waited in camps’ cramped quarters with little shelter and scant food. The army moved quickly in the early days, and as soon as enough people had been assembled, they were marched to the points designated as the official departure points for the long journey west. One was near the Cherokee Agency offices at Charleston, Tenn. The other was at the busy crossroads at Ross’s Landing.
By early June, not even a week after the roundups had begun, several thousand Cherokee had been marched to a large camp that stretched from the base of Missionary Ridge to the Tennessee River.
Families that had been divided during the roundup began to reconnect in the encampment. The search for family members was helped along by Superintendent Smith, who had resolved that the movement west would not be made until “the scattered members of the families shall be satisfactorily reunited.”
Despite the efforts of men such as Smith, the living conditions in the camp were atrocious. The army supplied food and clothing but could not provide shelter against the wind and rain. Diseases swept the camp, and scores of people, mostly young children and the elderly, died. Army contractors began making coffins for the dozens of people who were dying in the camp, and burials became a daily chore.
All the while, army officers made ready to begin shipping the Cherokees west.
On June 6, 1838, soldiers with bayonet-tipped muskets marched into the camp at Missionary Ridge and drove 800 men, women, and children to Ross’s Landing.
Missionary Daniel S. Butrick described what happened next: “It appears [they were] literally crammed into the boat. There was, we understand, a flat bottom boat, 100 feet long, 20 feet wide, and two stories high, fastened to an old steam boat. This was so filled that the timbers began to crack and give way, and the boat itself was on the point of sinking.”
As the sun set, the boat pushed off from Ross’s Landing. Disaster struck almost immediately. As the boat entered the Tennessee River gorge, it was buffeted by the whirlpools and crashed against the river bank. It took several days to repair the steamer and barge. The vessel pushed off a second time, and two weeks later the group arrived in the Indian Territory.
A week later, 876 Cherokee were forced to Ross’s Landing, escorted onto boats and sent away. Unlike the first group, disease and exposure took a deadly toll. By the time the second group reached the Indian Territory, 73 people had died.
The last large group to leave under military control departed Ross’s Landing on June 17. This group of 1,072 was ferried across the river and camped along the Federal Road as the party assembled. After several days the group began a two and a half month long overland journey. Some traveled by wagon; most walked. As they crossed northern Alabama, 293 escaped. Those who remained suffered from heat and drought. By the time they reached the Indian Territory in September, 146 died.
As these groups trudged westward, Cherokee leaders were able to put a halt to the summertime moves — water was scarce on the route and the heat proved deadly. They were also able to convince the United States government to allow the Cherokee to organize and direct their own removal.
Through the summer the Cherokee remained in their camps or in a few instances returned, temporarily, to their homes. All knew, however, that by fall the journey west would resume, and that this time there would be no more delays.
Dr. Daryl Black is executive director of the Chattanooga History Center. For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.