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John Bradshaw - The Trail of Tears


John Bradshaw - The Trail of Tears
John Bradshaw - The Trail of Tears

This is It Is Written. I'm John Bradshaw. Thanks for joining me. You can't hear the sounds now, but you can imagine. This is, or was, New Echota. For a time, for one people group, it was the center of the world. In 1825, New Echota became the capital of the Cherokee Nation. There was a courthouse here. The first Indian-language newspaper was printed here. There was a council house. The home of missionary Samuel Worcester was here. There were stores. It was a small sort of settlement, but extraordinarily important. And when councils were held here, hundreds of Cherokee would gather. But eventually, soldiers would fill this place, and the people for whom these lands had been home for hundreds or, or thousands of years, would be removed and marched 800 miles on what the Cherokee would call "Nunna daul Tsuny," "The Place Where They Cried".

We know it today as the Trail of Tears. Entire people groups would be dispossessed of their land. Thousands would die in a series of acts of gross inhumanity. The United States had been populated by Native Americans, American Indians. Hundreds of tribes lived across what would become the 49 states, with Hawaii being the exception. From the Wabanaki in Maine in the Northeast to the Navajo and the Chumash in the Southwest, from the Muckleshoot and the Quinault in Washington and the Aleuts and Athabascans in Alaska to the Seminoles in Florida in the Southeast, North America was Indian country. Europeans first came to what we'd now call the United States early in the 1500s. Settling here didn't come easy, and to begin with, it didn't go well at all.

The Calusa people resisted attempts made by Ponce de León to settle in Florida, and he left. Other conquistadors and explorers followed in his wake: Verrazzano, Gómez. De Soto explored the Southeast from Florida to Arkansas, becoming likely the first European to cross the Mississippi. Spanish settlers founded St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, and in 1585, British settlers attempted to establish a colony on Roanoke Island, on what today we call the Outer Banks of North Carolina, incidentally, just 10 miles or so from where the Wright Brothers would become the first in flight. The first permanent European settlement in the Americas was Jamestown, near present-day Williamsburg, Virginia, established in 1607. The Mayflower arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, and there could be no going back. For the settlers, there was a massive expanse to explore and tame and...colonize. But there was a delicate question: What to do about the people already living here?

American history is colored with stories romanticizing the early settlement of this country: stories about European-Native relations, Pocahontas, and Squanto, and cowboys and Indians in the Wild West. But what can be easy to overlook is that the earliest inhabitants of this land were real people, with real families, and a very real way of life. This was going to get difficult, this question of the native peoples. This was their land. What do you do about that? President George Washington favored assimilation, meaning that, over time, the native peoples and the Europeans would become so intertwined that they would basically become one people. In other words, Indians would assimilate into the European culture. Their own culture would basically die out, and the Europeans would end up with the land.

President Thomas Jefferson urged Indian tribes in the East to relocate to the West. He hoped that the Louisiana Purchase would provide land for eastern tribes to voluntarily relocate. Some did. The government wanted Indians out of the East. It's hard to say how many Indians were living in what became the United States when Europeans first arrived. No question it was in the millions, maybe tens of millions. But once Europeans arrived, and along with them disease epidemics and then conquest, those numbers plunged. But there were more than enough Indians in North America to... well, to get in the way, and they were in the way. They were in the way of progress, as some saw it. They were in the way of expansion and domination, and they were in the way of power and wealth.

By the 19th century, there were five Native American tribes, or nations actually, in the Southeast of the United States. They were known as the Five Civilized Tribes. They were the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, the Creek, the Seminole, and the Cherokee. They had adopted Christianity to some extent. There was literacy, intermarriage with whites, and generally good relationships with Europeans and the United States government. The Cherokee in particular had adopted many European ways. But in the 19th century, the federal government initiated Indian removal, the forced relocation of the tribes, or nations, living east of the Mississippi. The government would compel people who had occupied certain territory for hundreds, thousands of years to leave their homes, their possessions, their land and everything on it, and everything below it, and move almost a thousand miles away, on foot.

Obtaining Indian land had been a stated goal of the U.S. government since the 1790s, perhaps even before. But in the 1800s, the whole process was kicked into high gear. Almost 40 different treaties enacted between 1721 and 1819 saw Cherokee lands reduced drastically from what they were before European settlement. Much of the Cherokee land in Tennessee had been lost. The land in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia was lost. The Cherokee lost 90 percent of their territory. After he was elected the seventh president of the United States in 1829, Andrew Jackson said during his inaugural address that he wanted to "observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people".

Some hoped this might mean the United States would honor the numerous agreements and treaties it had already signed with native peoples. But that was not to be. Things became truly dire for the Cherokee in 1829 when gold was discovered in northern Georgia. The Georgia state legislature enacted a series of draconian laws. Cherokees could not dig for gold, for example. A Cherokee couldn't testify against a white man in court. Contracts between a Cherokee and a white man had to be witnessed by two whites. Cherokee land was sold to European settlers through a lottery system. Cherokee were driven from their homes; often their homes were looted and burned.

A year later, May 28, 1830, President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which stated the Five Civilized Nations would have to leave their ancestral lands and move to present-day Oklahoma. In 1835, a group of Cherokees signed the Treaty of New Echota in a home right here, making the Trail of Tears an inevitability. And God watched on, hoping to see humanity rise to the occasion, strengthening those in the position of weakness, and hoping that those in authority would be humble enough to act with dignity and fairness and honor. God is familiar with tears. I'll be back in just a moment.

Thanks for joining me on It Is Written. The New World was a vast expanse promising wealth and opportunity to those who settled here. But the reality for those who came to this new land was that they'd invited themselves into someone else's backyard. So the government of the United States, along with state governments, were determined to move the original habitants of this continent off their ancestral land. President Jackson's Indian removal bill, signed in 1830, passed in the House of Representatives by just five votes. The Cherokee took the state of Georgia to court. Supreme Court decisions meant that Georgia had no right to enforce its laws in Cherokee territory. A reprieve for the Cherokee. But President Andrew Jackson, President Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling of the Supreme Court. The Cherokee would be rounded up and moved out.

Now, people everywhere knew that this was wrong. This wasn't something which at the time appeared less deplorable owing to the times and was only seen for what it was many years later. No, at the time, this was recognized by many as a reprehensible, morally repugnant, criminal act. But the people entrusted with the responsibility to stop such actions wouldn't. The Seminole would be removed from their home in Florida. The Creek occupied parts of Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama. The Choctaw were located mainly in Mississippi and Alabama. The Chickasaw were in Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky, while the Cherokee originally were in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, parts of West Virginia, and Virginia as well. All would have to leave. Other smaller tribes to the north would also be removed, but they were small enough that they couldn't really provide any real resistance to the government.

The five larger tribes strongly resisted removal. But by 1832, four of the five had signed treaties with the government agreeing to move west. What else could they really do? Their removal was inevitable. The Cherokee held out for several more years. Their opposition was led by a man named John Ross, who for nearly 40 years was the principal chief of the Cherokee. Ross himself had felt the sting in the tail of the government. After traveling to Washington to represent his people in 1833 in an attempt to stop their removal, Ross returned home to Georgia to discover that his plantation had been given away by lottery. He found his family walking to Tennessee in the rain. He moved to Tennessee and settled in present-day Chattanooga. This is the site of Ross's Landing. Cherokee gathered here as they prepared to move west, never again to see their homeland.

Now, not all Cherokee felt as Ross did. Some felt that the prudent thing to do would be to sign a treaty and move west, believing that resisting the federal government was futile. A small group of Cherokee signed a treaty with the government at a council at New Echota. The government would give the Cherokee $5 million, a place to live, and the Cherokee would move. The problem was the group who signed the treaty were not authorized to do so. John Ross traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest the treaty, but he wasn't permitted to meet with the President. The Senate approved the treaty by one vote, and that was enough for Andrew Jackson, who passed it into law. Approximately 16,000 Cherokee would eventually sign a petition protesting the treaty, but new president Martin Van Buren ignored the petition. Under General Winfield Scott, the Cherokee were rounded up at military posts and taken to one of 11 camps in Tennessee and Alabama. They were typically kept in stockades. The possessions they left behind were looted by settlers.

A soldier who had grown up among the Cherokee later said that he "witnessed the execution of the most brutal order in the History of American Warfare. I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west". By the end of June of 1838, the last Cherokee had been expelled from Georgia. Fifteen hundred departed from right here. Their removal to the west was to be carried out by boat, but a severe drought caused river levels to become so low this wasn't possible. It was also very hot that summer. The forced removal would be delayed until later in the year. Conditions in the Cherokee camps were...abysmal. So Chief John Ross negotiated for Cherokee to lead their own removal.

When the Cherokee finally left to head west in October of 1838, rain and cold weather came. The multiple groups took varying routes. One group left from Fort Cass, Tennessee, in what is present-day Charleston, Tennessee. Those that would go to Oklahoma via the northern land route assembled here. Some sources say the majority of Cherokee were gathered at the internment camp that was situated here. General Winfield Scott's headquarters were here. Here at Blythe Ferry on the Hiwassee River, many of the groups that left their ancestral homeland crossed right here into an uncertain future. The man who operated the ferry was William Blythe, who, according to historians, left the area himself and headed west with his Cherokee wife.

The memorial here today features the names of 2,500 heads of household. Although there are no accurate records for the numbers of deaths that resulted from the relocation, it's generally believed that around 4,000 of the 16,542 Cherokees forcibly removed from their homeland perished as a result of the Cherokee removal in 1838 and 1839. Of course, that number could be significantly higher. The wife of John Ross was one who died along the way. The Trail of Tears wasn't simply one road or trail from the east to Oklahoma. The Cherokee and those who traveled with them, including slaves they owned, traveled in 17 or so groups along three main land routes and a river route. Those who traveled by land either walked or traveled by wagon or on horseback. Many of them traveled for more than three months during what was an especially harsh winter. Over the years, the Cherokee did whatever they could to appease the people wanting their land. They often ceded great chunks of land to the settlers in an attempt to keep the peace. But peace couldn't be kept. It was land the settlers wanted, and they would get it. And they did. It reminds me of another land grab. Someone who came from a faraway place to a land that was not his own and claimed dominion he had no right to. That story, however, has a happy ending, because Somebody else came to the world and walked His own trail of tears. I'll have more in just a moment.

The Trail of Tears was the forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the American Southeast. They were far from the only tribes removed and dispossessed of their ancient lands. But the Cherokee were the last to be removed. They were taken from various locations. The vast majority walked the 800 miles to what would become their new home in Oklahoma. Thousands died along the way. Before the journey began, they were kept in hideous conditions in internment camps. Forty minutes from Ross's Landing is Red Clay State Park. It's where the Cherokee national government met for the last time before the enforcement of the Indian Removal Act. Between 1832 and 1837, a dozen or so general councils were held right here. Thousands of Cherokee would attend, again and again rejecting the proposed agreements to surrender their land and move west. The Trail of Tears really began here. An eternal flame burns here at Red Clay, a perpetual memorial to those who suffered and died during the atrocity.

Now, sometimes in stories like this you find a silver lining. "Well, at least this happened". Except there's no silver lining in this story, no fairytale ending. The Cherokee and other tribes were driven from their land, sent to live in another time zone, and that was that. That's often what happens in life. We're reminded that the Bible speaks about a time when people would lose their liberties through no fault of their own. According to the book of Revelation, there'll be a time when people who are faithful to God will not be able to buy and sell, and ultimately, many will lose their lives. Daniel wrote about "a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation," in Daniel 12 and verse 1. If there's someone who understands injustice, it's God. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," according to the very first line of the Bible. He created a beautiful dwelling place for our first grandparents. But it wasn't long before an enemy had robbed them of their homeland. They were banished from the Garden of Eden, and everywhere they went, sin followed them.

When were the first tears shed on this earth? Was it then, when Adam and Eve were banished from Eden? Was it when they began to realize the awful consequences of sin? The Bible doesn't say, but it's hard to imagine that there were no tears around the time sin entered the world. Animals died to provide clothing for Adam and Eve, the first animals to die. We could safely suppose that there were tears then. It's interesting that the first time you find tears explicitly mentioned in the Bible, it's in the case of people who'd been banished from their home. In Genesis 21, Hagar is rejected by Abraham and Sarah. She believes her child Ishmael is going to die. "So she sat opposite him, and lifted her voice and wept". Tears of desperation. In Genesis 23:2 we read: "And Sarah died...and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her".

Tears of lamentation. Joseph wept when he was reunited with his brothers. They were tears of reconciliation. Baby Moses wept in the basket boat. Tears of innocence. The children of Israel wept in the wilderness as they remembered the food they had back in Egypt. Tears of greed, of faithlessness. Hannah wept because she was without child. Tears of supplication. Israel wept in the Psalms when they remembered Zion, Psalm 137. Tears of, of regret, tears of longing. Jeremiah has been called "the weeping prophet". He said, "Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people"! Jeremiah 9, verse 1. Mary Magdalene washed Jesus' feet with tears of repentance. Peter wept. Matthew 26:75 says that after he had denied Jesus the third time, "he went out, and wept bitterly".

The shortest verse in the Bible tells us that as He stood at the tomb of Lazarus, "Jesus wept". John 11:35. Jesus' ministry was its own trail of tears. He came to this world to live the life that we could not live and to offer us everlasting life, as a gift. You know, I don't want to stretch this too far, but if God doesn't weep over seeing people reject the gift of salvation, at least it has to break His heart. But what happens in the end of all this? One of the most hopeful verses in the Bible is Revelation 21, verse 4. It says, "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away".

In this world, there's injustice; there's pain. Some of that can be addressed. Sometimes wrongs are righted. Sometimes. It didn't happen in the case of the Trail of Tears. But there's coming a time when every wrong will be righted, when every illness will have been cured, where death no longer happens, where tears will never more be shed. For some people, the pain of this earth is just too much. Seems that way. But one day, one day when Jesus returns, He's going to make all the wrongs right, and He wants you to be ready for that day. Jesus has been through enough pain already. He shed enough tears. Your salvation will mean more to heaven than you could possibly know. Can you make a decision today to allow Jesus to have your heart? To look beyond this world to the world to come, to accept Jesus into your life by faith? One day, no more tears, just perfection forever. You want to be there. God wants you to be there. Let's pray together now.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You that one day there will be no more tears. The Trail of Tears reminds us that this is a world of injustice and harshness and cruelty and sadness and pain. But we are reminded today that this is still a world of blessing. Your Word reminds us that Your mercies are new every morning, and our hope today is in the blessed hope. One day Jesus will come back and take care of all of those things that trouble us.


Friend, where is your hope today? Can you look beyond this world? To a Savior who has shed tears for you and is looking forward to coming back to this world so that you can be with Him forever. Is the return of Jesus your hope, friend? If it isn't, tell God right now you wish Jesus to be your Savior. Invite the God of heaven to take your heart and make it His own. And He will.

Father, we look forward to that day, and we thank You that through Jesus we have now the hope of everlasting life in a land with no more tears. And we pray in Jesus' name, amen.

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