What Happened Along the "Trail of Tears"?

General Winfield Scott's general order to the troops regarding Cherokee removal and his letter to the Cherokee both stress the importance of treating tribe members well. So long as the Cherokee did not attempt to resist, Scott promised, they could count on his soldiers to protect them and their possessions. Scott wrote:

Chiefs, head-men and warriors! Will you then, by resistance, compel us to resort to arms? God forbid! Or will you, by flight, seek to hide yourselves in mountains and forests, and thus oblige us to hunt you down? Remember that, in pursuit, it may be impossible to avoid conflicts. The blood of the white man or the blood of the red man may be spilt, and, if spilt, however accidentally, it may be impossible for the discreet and humane among you, or among us, to prevent a general war and carnage. Think of this, my Cherokee brethren! I am an old warrior, and have been present at many a scene of slaughter, but spare me, I beseech you, the horror of witnessing the destruction of the Cherokees. Do not, I invite you, even wait for the close approach of the troops; but make such preparations for emigration as you can and hasten to this place, to Ross’s Landing or to Gunter’s Landing, where you all will be received in kindness by officers selected for the purpose. You will find food for all and clothing for the destitute at either of those places, and thence at your ease and in comfort be transported to your new homes, according to the terms of the treaty.

The treaty in question was the Treaty of New Echota, signed by some Cherokee, led by Martin Ridge, in 1835 and vigorously repudiated by a large majority of the tribe who regarded those who did sign as traitors. Under its terms,

The Cherokee nation hereby cede, relinquish, and convey to the United States all the lands owned, claimed, or possessed by them east of the Mississippi river, and hereby release all their claims upon the United States for spoliations of every kind for and in consideration of the sum of five millions of dollars to be expended, paid, and invested in the manner stipulated and agreed upon in the following articles.

Only three to five hundred Cherokee followed Ridge. He argued that removal was inevitable, that the state of Georgia, with the active assistance of the Jackson administration, would succeed in claiming all of their land. Jackson's dismissal of the Cherokee victories in the Supreme Court was, for Ridge, proof positive that there was no alternative to removal. All that remained was to negotiate the terms. Most Cherokee, led by John Ross, refused to accept this view. The land was rightfully theirs. They had made rapid progress in "civilizing" themselves. They had drafted a constitution, adopted a written language in which virtually all Cherokee were literate, and many had become Christian. They were, in their own eyes, so clearly in the right that they could not accept the necessity of removal.

Ridge, however, was correct. The Cherokee had to leave their lands. In his letter of May 10, 1838 Scott grimly told Ross' followers: "My troops already occupy many positions in the country that you are to abandon, and thousands and thousands are approaching from every quarter, to render resistance and escape alike hopeless."

Anyone reading General Scott's order would have anticipated that the Cherokee Removal would have involved little hardship. The Cherokee, his General Order of May 17,1838 proclaimed, "by the advances which they have made in Christianity and civilization, are by far the most interesting tribe of Indians in the territorial limits of the United States." Further, although the United States insisted that the Ridge band had officially committed the entire tribe to the terms of the New Echota treaty, Scott estimated that, "of the 15,000 of these people who are now to be removed (and the time within which a voluntary emigration was stipulated will expire on the 23rd instant) it is understood that about four-fifths are opposed, or have become averse to a distant emigration. . . ." This meant that "altho' none are in actual hostilities with the United States, or threaten a resistance by arms, yet the troops will probably be obliged to cover the whole country they inhabit, in order to make prisoners and to march or to transport the prisoners, by families. . . ." Given the difficulty of the assignment, Scott reminded his troops of the necessity of dealing humanely with the Cherokee:

Every possible kindness, compatible with the necessity of removal, must therefore, be shown by the troops, and, if, in the ranks, a despicable individual should be found, capable of inflicting a wanton injury or insult on any Cherokee man, woman or child, it is hereby made the special duty of the nearest good officer or man, instantly to interpose, and to seize and consign the guilty wrench to the severest penalty of the laws.

What went wrong? Perhaps the fullest and fairest account of what actually happened was written by a private in Scott's command, John Burnett. He wrote his Birthday Story of Private John G. Burnett, Captain Abraham McClellan’s Company, 2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Infantry, Cherokee Indian Removal, 1838-39 in 1890, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, for his children. Burnett had spent part of his boyhood hunting with Cherokee friends and learned their language. His anguish, more than fifty years later, was palpable.

Murder is murder, and somebody must answer. Somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer of 1838. Somebody must explain the 4000 silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile. I wish I could forget it all, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory.

You can ask students to compare Scott's letter and general order, statements about what should have happened, with Burnett's narrative of what he saw. Since soldiers do not, and did not, routinely ignore general orders, the vast discrepancy they will uncover calls Scott's sincerity into serious question. The fact that the army did not investigate what happened on the "trail of tears" also suggests that the general order was never supposed to be taken literally.