Brow Beat

“Work of Barbarity”: Here’s What the Trail of Tears Was Like, According to Someone Who Was There

An early 19th century blockhouse.
The blockhouse from Fort Marr in Benton, Tennessee, the last standing structure from the network of internment camps where Native Americans were imprisoned before being marched west.
Wikimedia Commons

On Saturday, President Donald Trump welcomed Sen. Elizabeth Warren to the 2020 presidential race by taking his racist taunts to an entirely new level:

Yeah, that seems to be a joke about the Trail of Tears from the man who heads the government that perpetrated it. In an effort to explain why this is not a horrible thing for a president to have said, Trump defenders have been reduced to the position, put forward by Brit Hume, that Donald Trump is too stupid to have been that heartless or racist:

The problem with this defense is that, as HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg noticed, Donald Trump Jr.—who has never been described as “Donald Trump, but smarter”— seems to have gotten the joke just fine. When writer Michael Malice upped the genocide humor ante, he got an Instagram shout-out from Don Jr.:

We are no doubt in for a grueling news cycle about who gets to tell which jokes and when, so it might be useful to clarify exactly what this joke was about. For many people, the phrase “trail of tears” evokes the famous Robert Lindneux painting of a wagon train of Native Americans headed west, and not much else. Lindneux doesn’t make the march look like a lot of fun, but the mood of “The Trail of Tears”—painted in 1942, more than a century later—is elegiac and mournful, and touches on myths of the American West in ways that undersell the cruelty, greed, stupidity, and brutality that characterized Native American relocation. So as a partial corrective, here is the account of Rev. Evan Jones, as reprinted in the Georgia Historical Quarterly in 1989.

Jones was a Baptist missionary to the Cherokee Nation who was present in the summer of 1838 during Gen. Winfield Scott’s roundup of the remaining Cherokee, and his account strikes several notes Lindneux missed. First of all, Jones makes it very clear that this was about simple theft, not some vague notion of Manifest Destiny: racism as an economic system. Second, Jones’ story about the Cherokee attempt to avoid traveling during the “sickly season” will be familiar to anyone who has been following ICE’s “Oops! They’re already gone!” deportation strategy. But most of all, what Jones gets right is the sense of an authoritarian government as an unstoppable bureaucratic juggernaut, paying careful attention to legal niceties—offering money for horses stolen at gunpoint!—while grinding people into dust.

Everything Jones is writing about here took place before the march to Oklahoma. —Matthew Dessem

June 16, 1838: Camp Hetzel. The Cherokees are nearly all prisoners. They have been dragged from their houses and camped at the forts and military posts all over the Nation. In Georgia, especially, the most unfeeling and insulting treatment has been experienced by them, in a general way. Multitudes were not allowed time to take anything with them but the clothes they had on. Well-furnished houses were left a prey to plunderers, who, like hungry wolves, follow the progress of the captors and in many cases accompany them. These wretches rifle the houses and strip the helpless, unoffending owners of all they have on earth. Females who have been habituated to comforts and comparative affluence are driven on foot before the bayonets of brutal men. Their feelings are mortified by the blasphemous vociferations of these heartless creatures.

It is a painful sight. The property of many has been taken and sold before their eyes for almost nothing; the sellers and buyers being in many cases combined to cheat the poor Indian. Private purchases, or at least the sham of purchases, have in many instances been made at the instant of arrest and consternation: the soldiers standing with guns and bayonets, impatient to go on with their work, could give but little time to transact business. The poor captive in a state of distressing agitation, his weeping wife almost frantic with terror, surrounded by one group of crying, terrified children, without a friend to speak one consoling word, is in a very unfavorable condition to make advantageous disposition of his property even were suitable and honest purchasers on the spot, but more especially so when the only purchasers present are harpies, not second in deeds of villainy to the wretches who plunder the shipwrecks of voyagers on the seacoast. The truth is the Cherokees are deprived of their liberty and stripped of their entire property in one blow. Many who a few days ago were in comfortable circumstances are now the victims of abject poverty. Many who have been allowed to return to their homes under passport to inquire after their property, have found their houses, cattle, hogs, ploughs, hoes, harness, tables, chairs, earthen ware, all gone. And this is not a description of extreme cases. It is altogether a faint and feeble representation of the work of barbarity which has been perpetrated on the unoffending, unarmed, and unresisting Cherokees. I say nothing yet of several cold-blooded murders and other personal cruelties, for I would most conscientiously avoid making the slightest erroneous impression on any persons, being not in possession of precise and authentic information concerning all the facts in these cases of barbarity.

It is due justice to say that at this station (and I learn the same is true of some others) the officer in command treats his prisoners with great respect and indulgence. But fault rests somewhere. They are prisoners and their families are prisoners without a crime to justify the fact.

The principal Cherokees have sent a petition to General Scott begging most earnestly that they may not be sent off to the West until the sickly season is over. They have not received any answer yet. The Agent is shipping them off by multitudes from Ross’s Landing. It will be a miracle of mercy if one-fourth escape the exposure to that sickly climate at this most unfavorable season. A most piteous petition was presented by the prisoners at Ross’s Landing to the Commanding officer at that place, but to no purpose. Nine hundred in one detachment and seven hundred in another were driven into the boats like culprits to the place of execution. They were exceedingly depressed, almost in the agonies of despair. Most of their faces, I fear, we shall not see again till the great day when the oppressor and the oppressed shall appear before the tribunal of the righteous judge. I have no language to express the emotions which rend our hearts to witness their season of cruel and unnecessary oppression. For if it be determined to take their land and reduce them to absolute poverty, it would seem to be mere wanton cruelty to take their lives also.

July 10, 1838: The overthrow of the Cherokee nation is complete. The whole population are made prisoners. The work of war in time of peace was commenced in the Georgia part of the Nation and was executed in most cases in unfeeling and brutal manner, no regard being paid to the orders of the commanding General in regard to humane treatment of the Indians and abstaining from insulting conduct. In that state, in many cases, the Indians were not allowed to gather up their clothes, not even to take away a little money they might have. All was left to the spoiler. I have only heard of one officer in Georgia (I hope there were more) who manifested anything like humanity in the treatment of the persecuted people. They were driven before the soldiers, through mud and water, with whooping and hallowing like drives of cattle. No regard was paid to the condition of helpless females. Several infants were born on the open road under the most revolting circumstances. This of course was in direct violation of the General’s orders, but was no less afflictive to the poor sufferers on this account.

At Ross’s Landing, the place to which most of the Georgia Indians were brought, the scenes of distress defy all description. In many instances they were dragged from their homes without change of clothing and marched one hundred and twenty or thirty miles through heat and dust and rain and mud, in many cases bare-footed, lodged on the hard ground, destitute of shelter from dews and rains. They had of course become very dirty and on that account they have been reproached as degraded wretches. Upon arriving at the Depot, they were required to give up their horses and ponies, which they had brought along. Refusing to do so, men, women, and children and horse were driven promiscuously into one large pen made for the purpose. The horses were there taken by force and cried off to the highest bidder and sold for almost nothing. They were then urged to take money from the commissioners of the Treaty, but they, with one consent, refused.

At the time of sailing, an effort was made to get their consent to go into the boats, but not an individual would agree. The agent then struck a line through the camp, the soldiers rushed in and drove the devoted victims into those loathsome receptacles of disease and death. It is said by eye witnesses that the scene of this distress was agonizing in the extreme.

The dread which pervaded the community at being sent off at this season was intense. Several memorials to Gen’l Scott were prepared and signed, praying for some relaxation in the course of capturing the Nation and of delay in transporting them to the West on the ground of moral certainty that the great body of those sent off at this season would die. (The two principal ones were sent to him at Valley Towns by express.) Before an answer to these memorials was received, the whole Nation was in captivity, the property of the Indians, either stolen by plunderers or sold by commissioners appointed for that purpose. The Commissioners often took the property before the eyes of the owners and against their consent and protestations. In some cases the Indians drove their cattle into the possessions of some friend to save them from being sacrificed by these men who are said to act under a system of responsibility.
The responsibility, however, is of little advantage to the poor Indian who is beggared by their protection.

The work of capture being completed, and about three thousand of the captives sent off, the general agreed to suspend the further transportation of the captives till the 1st of September. This arrangement, though but a small favor, diffused universal joy through the camps of the prisoners.

Just at this moment, the Agent started off one thousand and forty in a company to go part of the way by land and part by water. The Cherokees supposed that this company was included in the arrangement and that they were to be stopped to participate in the indulgence (if such it can be called) granted to the rest of the nation. But on inquiry, was found that he had no intention to delay their transportation a moment. A petition on their behalf couched in the most earnest and respectful and submissive terms was presented to him, but to no purpose. This refusal was viewed and felt by the Cherokees to be a cruel and wanton disregard not only of the feelings and comfort, but also of the lives, of their people.