The forced exodus of various Indian tribes from the southeastern part of the United States is without question a dark spot on this country's history. During the early decades of the 19th century, thousands of Indian families were routed from their homes at gunpoint, pushed off their native lands, and forcibly relocated west of the Mississippi River to the Indian Territory of what later became Oklahoma.
In her latest book, "Voices from the Trail of Tears," editor Vicki Rozema presents moving contemporary accounts, drawn from Cherokee and other sources, of the involuntary ejection of some 16,000 Cherokees from their ancestral homeland in what is now Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina.
Rozema does not delve too deeply into the maneuverings of the federal and state governments that forced the Cherokees out of their homes. She does touch on the internal divisions among the Cherokees, between the Treaty Party who favored a negotiated removal and the National Party, who opposed removal from the east.
The bulk of the book focuses on the "voluntary" emigrations that occurred first, then on the rounding up of dissidents and the forced marches westward. Included are several excerpts from the "Cherokee Phoenix" and "Indians' Advocate", the influential tribal newspapers. Readers will also peruse accounts from the diaries of Army officers, doctors and ministers who accompanied the various groups. Also included are letters from Cherokee leader John Ross and Treaty Party leaders John Adair Bell and Stand Watie.
One poignant account comes from the journal of Rev. Daniel Sabine Butrick, a missionary who had lived and preached in Cherokee territory for over 20 years before the emigration. In an entry dated Dec. 31, 1838, written while a group he was traveling with was forced to camp in miserable weather in Illinois as ice made crossing the Mississippi impossible, Butrick called 1838 "a year of spiritual darkness."
"But what have they [the Cherokees] done to the U. States?" Butrick asks rhetorically. "Have they violated any treaty? or any intercourse law; or abused any of the agents or officers of the U. States? Or have they refused to accommodate U. States citizens when passing through their country? No such thing is pretended. For what crime then was this whole nation doomed to this perpetual death? This almost unheard of suffering?"
It is important to note that there was no single Trail of Tears; rather there were at least three land routes between eastern Tennessee and Oklahoma. There was also a water route, following the Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas rivers - had this route been used for all the groups of emigrants, the toll of Cherokee deaths, sickness and suffering would certainly have been much less.
On Aug. 13, 1840, Cherokee leader William Shorey Coodey wrote a letter describing the moment of departure of the first detachment of involuntary emigrants from Cherokee Agency, Tenn. two years before, on Aug. 28, 1828.
"At this very moment a low sound of distant thunder fell on my ear," Coodey wrote. "In almost an exact western direction a dark spiral cloud was rising above the horizon and sent forth a murmur I almost fancied a voice of divine indignation for the wrongs of my poor and unhappy countrymen, driven by brutal power from all they loved and cherished in the land of their fathers, to gratify the cravings of avarice."