Saturday, February 24, 2007
In 1838 and 1839, as part of Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy, the Cherokee nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma. The Cherokee people called this journey the "Trail of Tears," because of its devastating effects. The migrants faced hunger, disease, and exhaustion on the forced march. Over 4,000 out of 15,000 of the Cherokees died.
This picture, The Trail of Tears, was painted by Robert Lindneux in 1942. It commemorates the suffering of the Cherokee people under forced removal. If any depictions of the "Trail of Tears" were created at the time of the march, they have not survived.
According to some timelines the beginnings of this tragedy were in February, 1838..but in truth of course it began much earlier.
Years ago I was given a tape by a distant relative in Georgia. It told the tale of a run away son and an Indian Princess and the Trail of Tears.
Ezekiel Wilson lived in the Ohio River Valley near what is today Stubenville, Ohio with the rest of his clan back in the early days of the 19th century. They owned a mill and ran the local postal service. Anyone who has read Conrad Richter's The Awakening Land will have an idea of what this part of the country was like back then. People say it was home to the largest hard wood forest in the world with trees 15 across at the base towering in the sky so high that they cut out all sight of the sky. People travelled by boat if they wanted to see the stars or the moon.
Ezekiel was sent south with his brothers on a long walk to see relatives in the Carolinas. It was thought they could acquire some education in the more civilized country around Charleston. Ezekiel made the trek and when two years later at the age of 18 he began his return journey he and his fellow travellers passed through the Cherokee nation. Ezekiel fell in love with a 16 year old girl known in my family history as the Princess.
They were married right then and news of the marriage made it back to Ohio before Ezekiel did. When he returned home Ezekiel was informed he was dead to the family. They had even had a funeral. So that night he sneaked into the camp and he took what he considered to be his birth right, the stone. The large stone used in the grist mill. He took horses and a wagon and he stole the big stone. The constable was called, but he told the family that he would not chase a dead man into Indian country.
But that was not the end of their story. The couple would have 13 children and when the orders came for the march to Oklahoma known as the Trail of Tears, Ezekiel would make that march with his wife and children all the way to Oklahoma. Later they would return to the Carolinas because after all they were not Plains people. For the rest of her life the Princess would wear long sleeves and a bonnet. Whenever she bathed she made sure there were guards at the doors for fear someone might catch her out and see how dark she was. She hid the fact that she was Indian from all but close family and friends.
The Wilsons would marry and have children with the Walravens, another family of mixed race and heritage. It was not until the Civil War had laid the south to waste that the Indian branch of the family would again speak to the northern branch of the family. Ezekiel's grandson would make a plea to his Ohio relatives for food and seed and livestock and he did not go away empty handed. Like the prodigal son, they welcomed him and sent him home with everything he asked for and more.
I tell this story because it is an American tale. I bet many of you have stories much like this. And who would have believed looking at this history that this country would ever have been one people. We might think we face divisions today, but they pale in comparison to the divisions of race and war and wrongdoing that this country has overcome.