It’s great to be here. I was last in your midst about ten years ago, nine years ago at Metropolis, and that was fun. It’s always great to speak to people who are really interested in history and immersed in it. I say that as someone who taught history at the University of Kentucky, where—big surprise—sometimes the students were not doing so well. But it’s great to talk about the subject with people who are not only knowledgeable but also have a vested interest in learning more about the past.

The Genesis of My Work

My work on the Cherokees and the Trail of Tears actually began as a movie. That’s not the usual genesis of a book, I must say. Back in 2006, I began researching and writing narration for a documentary film about the Cherokees and the Trail of Tears. You may know it; I hope you know it. It’s called “Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy,” starring James Earl Jones and Cherokee film star Wes Studi.

In doing the research and conducting many of the interviews for the film, it occurred to me that the story I was uncovering did not square with what I had read about the Cherokees during removal. What I discovered was a powerful drama over removal going on inside Cherokee country, just as corrosive and revealing as the one that was dividing the country at large. It was a story of competing notions of patriotism and the future of the Cherokee Nation. Working on that film soon prompted thoughts on writing a narrative story about the Cherokee odyssey during the removal of the 1830s, which is what this began.

Film and History

I thought, what better way to contribute to a conversation about cultural conflict—of which today we have so much—and bring together my own internal conversation over two means of communication: film and written history. Both film and history, in my opinion, invariably make judgments, especially on a topic steeped in moral and ethical issues like Indian removal. The Trail of Tears is, at heart, an exercise in perspective, morality, the evaluation of sources, bias, and presentism—a fancy word historians use to talk about the power of the present moment in the life of the author and the nation when interpreting past events. To me, the Trail of Tears is a powerful and instructive episode in American history. But as I was soon to learn, powerful and instructive to whom and why it matters greatly what lesson or insight you think you’re finding and conveying, either in print or in film.

Research Process

I began researching for both the film and the book as deeply as I could, delving into the period to try to find out everything from the 1800s to the removal in the late 30s. I looked at all sources: letters, diaries, newspaper articles, speeches, memoirs, and other things. History, I’ve come to believe, can sometimes serve as a kind of therapy and healing—a force for holding up a mirror to our culture and ourselves, a way to fight memory suppression, denial, and erasure.

The Civilization Program

Let me start with my version of that mirror. My take on truth-telling and understanding the Cherokees’ tragic irony and saga ironically begins on a hopeful note. Under Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Indian policy aimed at peace and establishing the civilization program. A program that involved remaking Indians as red citizens of a white republic. Hunting and fur trading, the principal livelihood of most tribes, especially those in the southeast, would be replaced by the more civilizing occupation of raising crops and livestock.

Abandonment of huge Indian hunting grounds for small farming plots would free up enormous tracts of Indian land—land that whites clearly coveted. Washington and Jefferson contended that Indian life was uncivilized not because of inherent inferiority but because they had not been able to imagine a better future for themselves and their children. Ignorance, not race, had made them uncivilized humans. With the right education and proper training, they could become respectable citizens fully assimilated into American society (excluding black slaves).

Missionaries and Education

To carry out the new national Indian policy, federal agents were sent out as middlemen to protect Indian boundaries and set up trading posts where Indians would exchange their furs and skins for seeds, hoes, horses, and plows. Just as significantly, missionaries in the late 1790s began arriving in Indian country armed with the religious values and domestic tools necessary for remaking Native Americans. Evangelical Protestants—Moravians, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians—all fanned out in Indian country, setting up schools and missions where Indian boys were taught to become farmers and artisans, and Indian girls learned to sew, weave, and cook. Most importantly, missionaries hoped to introduce Christianity—the telltale mark, whites believed, of civilized people.

Cherokee Leaders

Against this ideological backdrop of civilization, two of the most promising young men in the Cherokee Nation grew to maturity as culturally acculturated Cherokees: John Ridge and Elias Boudinot. They symbolized what the civilization program was all about. Boudinot’s father and his white wife had left the town of Hiwassee after the American Revolution destroyed much of the region and moved to Vann’s Town, near Rome, Georgia. There, along with Major Ridge, they cleared defensive fields, built a log cabin, and planted orchards as federal Indian agents urged Cherokees to do.

Education in Cornwall

Boudinot’s father enrolled six-year-old Elias in the Moravian School and Spring Place Mission in 1811, the same mission school his cousins John and Nancy Ridge attended. Elias was a remarkably gifted student. Meanwhile, John Ridge, under the ambitious guidance of his father Major Ridge, moved to the Brainerd Mission near Chattanooga, where he developed a reputation as the best student at the school.

Cultural Conflict and Disillusionment

In 1817, Elias and John were invited to continue their studies at a new school in Cornwall, Connecticut, set up by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. There, they fell in love with two prominent local white girls and, to the shock and anger of the entire Cornwall community, married them. This resulted in a disillusionment with the idea of assimilation. The marriages, which culminated in the couples being burned in effigy on the town square, made a mockery of the idea that the two cultures could peacefully co-mingle.

Cherokee Phoenix and Political Division

Returning to Indian country in 1825, John Ridge became a successful lawyer, while Elias took off on a lecture tour to make the case for Indian advancement. Boudinot soon became closely associated with Samuel Worcester, a minister and expert linguist from Vermont. Together, they conceived the Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper to be printed in both English and Cherokee.

Internal Conflict

By the summer of 1832, a full-blown split emerged in Indian country over the Cherokee question: how to respond to the lack of support from the federal government and Georgia’s continuing encroachments, and how to deal with the growing divisions within the Cherokee Nation. On one side stood Chief John Ross, who insisted that the Cherokees must remain in their homeland at all costs. On the other side were the Treaty Party leaders like Boudinot, Major Ridge, and John Ridge, who believed removal was the only alternative to degradation.

The Debate Over Patriotism

The debate turned on what should a good patriot do for his people. Ross argued that the Treaty Party was a small minority attempting to sell out their homeland without authority. Boudinot contended that Ross was deluding the people about the dangers ahead. This war of words represented colliding visions of the future of the Cherokee people.

Removal and Its Consequences

The Treaty Party, despite its vision for a moral and prosperous future out west, could not have known the devastating consequences of the Trail of Tears. The removal resulted in the loss of 4,000 lives and immense suffering. Boudinot, Major Ridge, and John Ridge were assassinated in 1839 for their stance on removal. Ross, although he lost the battle over removal, kept his people together as a unified and sovereign nation, leaving a powerful legacy.

The Legacy of the Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears offers a devastating commentary on white greed and power and the racialized world of Jacksonian America. It remains a compelling object lesson in the abuse of power and the overwhelming tyranny of greed. The legacy of the Trail is one of survival and hope. The Cherokee Nation, now the second-largest Indian tribe in the United States, continues to draw strength and confidence from their history, resilience, and adaptability.


Today, the Trail of Tears means different things to different Cherokees. For the Eastern Band, it represents a rending of the essential fabric of the Cherokee people. For the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, it serves as a lesson in survival and the importance of unity. As Freeman Owl, an Eastern Band Cherokee storyteller, noted, the adaptability and resilience of the Cherokees are sources of great pride. The Cherokee people have endured and thrived despite their tragic past, maintaining their identity and strength through generations.

Questions and Answers

Question: You mentioned that the Ridge party had no way of knowing that the Trail of Tears would result. What did they think would happen?

Answer: They likely did not imagine the kind of loss and degradation that occurred. They knew it would be emotionally devastating at minimum but didn’t foresee the extent of the death and misery on the trail.

Comment: Once gold was discovered in Georgia, removal was inevitable.

Response: Absolutely. Greed was a powerful motivator. The discovery of gold was a massive turning point in the whole story.

Question: Did the Ross faction profit from the removal?

Answer: There is some circumstantial evidence and correspondence indicating an interest in financial

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Daniel Black Smith

It’s great to be here. I was last in your midst about ten years ago, nine years ago at Metropolis, and that was fun. It’s always great to speak to people who are really interested in history and immersed in it. I say that as someone who taught history at

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