Both in 1837 and in 1838, detachments of Cherokee went through Southern Illinois crossing from the Ohio River on the
east and over to the Mississippi River on the west.
The 1837 journey was taken by the "treaty" Cherokee, who gave into white people's demands that they desert their beloved
homes, farms, graves of deceased family and make their homes on the other side of the Mississippi River. The Cherokee
leaders who signed this treaty were acting illegally but out of fear that to wait longer would be even worse for their people.
It was. What we will never know is what would have happened if they had persuaded the majority to leave in 1837.
Would things have been any better if the entire Cherokee Nation had voluntarily traveled in 1837 instead of 1838?
The ones who signed the illegal treaty knew they were breaking their own law and signing their own death warrant, for they
had been instrumental in obtaining that law and its consequences. How much graft was present for the signers of the
illegal treaty? Answers are not available.
However, consequences and hardships for both those who left in 1837 and for those who left in 1838 were all
terrible. Sometimes evil does not have a silver lining.
Out of the 14,000 or 15,000 Cherokee who spent the summer of 1838 in the filthy federal concentration camps, 13,000
probably survived to travel west. One detachment took a southern land route to Indian Territory. Principal Chief
John Ross's on the last detachment traveled by boat on the water route, but he got off his detachment's steamboat at Cairo
and caught a ride up the Mississippi River to meet with his brother Lewis and other Cherokee leaders who were stranded
here with their people. At that time, around 8,000 of the 11,000 who traveled through Southern Illinois in 1838-39
could not get across the Mississippi River. These were the mainstream Cherokee, who did not go along with the illegal
treaty made by just a few of their leaders in secret.
The majority of the Cherokee mistakenly believed that the United States government would honor its treaty obligations
and respect the Supreme Court. The Cherokee thought more highly of the government than was wise, for though many
many white people protested and detested what the United States government illegally did, the power rested with President
Andrew Jackson and other greedy and dishonest whites. They ignored the law, the public, and human decency.
Although Jackson owed his life to a Cherokee who saved him in a battle with the Creek Indians, he created the law and
the climate that allowed his successor to order the soldiers to round up the Cherokee like cattle dragging them from their
homes and farms and allowing the gold-hungry and often cruel ignoramuses to take over Cherokee property as they walked
away with little more than the clothes on their backs. Sometimes stumbling as the soldiers prodded their backs with
bayonets, the Cherokee looked back to see their homes and belongings going up in smoke in the spring of 1838.
Thus, the aged, the pregnant, the infirm, and the strong were all humiliated and brutally driven to the summer "death
camps' for interment. It was not intended for the people to be in the camps all summer, but the President and those
under him did not care enough to plan well. It was intended to have the Cherokee go by boat or over land towards Arkansas
and Oklahoma very soon, but the first boat loads had terrible misfortunes and droughts had made the "sickly season" set in.
Waiting until fall was not deliberate cruelty. The Cherokee wanted to wait until the end of August or early
September to avoid the many deaths that had occured in the first groups, and the government did listen to their request
to allow their own people to lead the detachments rather than the government soldiers who took the 1837 "treaty"
Cherokee to the West.
Unfortunately, the federal government required the Cherokee to remain in the "death camps" in Tennesee
without proper roofs to shelter from rain or heat and without santitation facilities. The people, already wretched
and broken from losing everything dear to them, lived in the open without proper food or clothing, and as anyone with common
sense should have known, they died in great numbers. President Jackson and his cronies did not care. By
summer's end, the proud and civilized farm families were weak and malnourished to begin their l000 mile journey
to a strange land.
Also, unbelievably, the same journey that took the "treaty" Cherokee a reasonable length of time in 1837 turned into
an endurance test with only the survival of the fittest for the 11 detachments that crossed Southern Illinois in the fall
and winter of 1838-39. The weather turned bitter cold unusally early and froze the ground and the rivers by the time
the Cherokee arrived in Southern Illinois with worn out moccasins and bloody feet. Jackson, Van Buren, and their
cronies did not care. The Hermitage and the White House were warm.
The horrors were unexpected and unalleviated. Many whites helped as much as they could, but they had been given
misinformation about the forced exodus, so they were not organized to help the Indians. Most of the few Southern Illinois
settlers here in 1838 were poor and uneducated and had little to share. Many whites were terrified of the hoards of dirty
folk begging to camp on their land and reducing the wild life as they hunted to supplement the inadequate rations. Sick
and dying people were not a pretty sight, and many Illinois whites were offended. The opportunity to make
a buck by illegally selling alcohol to the Cherokee or over-pricing their merchandise proved an iresistable temptation to
the lowest and most inferior of the white race. Jackson, Van Buren and their cronies did not care.
As the many Christian Cherokee appealed to God at each day's beginning and ending, the weather worsened and the babies
and weak ones and the elderly kept dying. One wonders how they kept their faith, but so great was their love for
God and so appreciative of what they had learned from Jesus's teachings, that they continued to worship and honor God when
others of us might have refused to do so. They were quick to build a house of worship when they arrived in Oklahoma,
and they built schools and did great good for their people out there.
That is not to say that life in Oklahoma was peaceful nor easy. The horrors continued. And the sin of slavery
caused great disruption within the Cherokee communities just as it did in the white communities. The Civil War divided
the Cherokee further, and the horrors continued.
All the horrors before, during, and after the Trail are the impetus for my delight in the Silkwoods and Priscilla
and the good people of Mulkeytown who welcomed her off the Trail and into their hearts. In the middle of the nation's
degradation, there was good. There was kindness. There was caring. There was work and effort for others.
It is inspiring to know that some folk made good choices in 1838. I want to remember them and be inspired by them and
try to imitate them even as they tried to imitate Jesus. Copyright
2005 Sue Glasco