My name is Dan Smith. I was a professor of history at the University of Kentucky for about 30 years, focusing on American history. I also had a unique experience in my career: I was the screenwriter for the film on the Trail of Tears narrated by James Earl Jones and Wes Studi. Now, I’m writing the book, which is usually done the other way around, but I’ve already finished it. Henry Holt will be publishing it next spring or early summer. The book is about Cherokee Patriots of the Trail of Tears, and I’d like to share some thoughts and direct quotes today.

The issue of patriotism is central to the Trail of Tears, but it’s often understudied or not commented on much. The Trail of Tears, sometimes called an American Holocaust or genocide, was neither. No one planned for the Cherokees to die in the forced removal out west, but it dramatized the loss of sacred lands and the failure of democracy and justice for an entire nation. Ironically, the most “civilized” tribe faced the consequences of unchecked greed and racial oppression.

The Cherokees were not the only tribe to experience the pain of forced removal; dozens of other tribes suffered similarly. Because of the Cherokees’ unique accomplishments as a well-educated people, their anguish resonates for all native peoples who faced removal in the 1830s. Few tribes accepted the promise of democracy as fully as the Cherokees, whose 1827 Constitution was modeled after the U.S. Constitution. The principal tragedy of the Trail of Tears lies in the heart-wrenching treachery they felt at the hands of the United States.

Most accounts of the Trail of Tears focus on the easily identified villains and victims. Andrew Jackson and his land-hungry southern white co-conspirators are the villains, and the Cherokees are often depicted as naive for believing their embrace of a civilized life would spare them from white encroachment. Chief John Ross is usually the main protagonist for his long struggle to save the homeland and keep the nation together. This narrative is accurate but incomplete.

A fuller perspective of the Trail of Tears takes us into the minds and hearts of those Cherokees who fought each other just as fiercely as they took on Andrew Jackson. What they were fighting over was nothing less than what it meant to be a good Cherokee patriot. The removal crisis plunged the Cherokees into a profound and sometimes violent quarrel over patriotism.

From the 1820s on, the Cherokee people grappled with difficult questions: Could a Cherokee be a full citizen of the American nation while remaining connected to tribal traditions and ancestral land? Given the southern whites’ hunger for Indian land, should Cherokees have placed their hopes on assimilation or on the independence of the Cherokee Nation regardless of geography? What should a patriotic Cherokee do to save his people?

Beginning in the 1790s, some Cherokees tried to answer these questions by adopting Anglo ways, believing that by assimilating, they could maintain their presence in their ancestral homeland. However, John Ridge and others discovered that even educated and sophisticated Cherokees who did everything right could not escape racism and white settlers’ relentless intrusion. Andrew Jackson’s presidency revealed that the Cherokee people would have to surrender something fundamental—either their land or their identity as Cherokees living under their own sovereign government.

By the summer of 1832, a split emerged in Cherokee country over the “Cherokee question.” On one side stood Chief John Ross, insisting that removal must be resisted and anyone negotiating a removal treaty was a traitor. The majority of Cherokees supported Ross’s stance. On the other side, a smaller but vocal portion, including Major Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and other acculturated leaders, believed that removal was the only way to survive as a people. They formed the treaty party, willing to negotiate a treaty and emigrate to new land southwest.

The conflict was intense, with Ross and Boudinot representing opposing views on what it meant to be a patriotic Cherokee. Ross saw the treaty party as a small minority attempting to sell out the homeland. Boudinot, however, believed Ross was deluding the Cherokee people about the dangers of resisting removal. Boudinot argued that truthful information would lead to a wise decision, and he used his position as editor of the Cherokee Phoenix to debate the issue. Ross viewed the newspaper as the official organ of the Cherokee Nation and would not tolerate dissenting opinions, leading Boudinot to resign.

Boudinot and the treaty party believed that removal was necessary to save the Cherokee people, while Ross and his supporters focused on preserving the homeland. Boudinot argued that the Cherokee people were facing a moral and spiritual decline, exacerbated by their proximity to whites and the spread of alcohol. He believed that removal to a new land was the best way to reconstitute the Cherokee Nation as a virtuous and prosperous society.

Despite their opposing views, both sides saw themselves as patriots fighting for the survival of their people. The treaty party’s choice to remove was driven by a belief in the moral and physical well-being of the Cherokee people, while Ross’s commitment to keeping the nation together and resisting removal left a powerful legacy.

The Trail of Tears is a devastating commentary on the power of greed and racial oppression in America. It also highlights the complex and deeply personal struggles of the Cherokee people as they faced one of the most challenging periods in their history. Understanding these internal conflicts and the broader context of removal provides a fuller and more nuanced perspective on this tragic event.

Leave a Reply