Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cherokee Removal - remembering Nashville's role in the Trail of Tears

When the U.S. government deports people from their homes and sends them back to their country of origin, that process is legally called "removal" - the same word that was used in the 1800's when Indian populations were forced to the West by this same government.

Nashville has had prominent roles in both removals.  In the 21st century removal, Davidson County is the fifth most active locality in the country in deportations triggered by minor legal infractions. In the 19th century, Nashville also played a large role:
  • Nashville's own President Andrew Jackson was a chief architect of Indian removal, the long-term plan to evict the Cherokee and other tribes from the eastern U.S.;
  • U.S. Rep. John Bell (Nashville) chaired the House Indian Affairs Committee and was the legislator who introduced the 1830 Indian Removal Act; and
  • The Northern Route of the Trail of Tears ran straight through Nashville via Route 41.

Even though Nashville is intricately connected to the removal now known as the Trail of Tears, you wouldn't know that history if you weren't actively looking for it. I can't remember ever seeing a story about Nashville's role in this seismic event in American history in the City Paper, the Scene, the Tennessean, WPLN, or any of the local TV stations. The city's most famous institutional caretakers of Trail of Tears history are The Hermitage (which calls Indian removal "the most conspicuous blight on [Jackson's] presidential legacy") and the Tennessee State Museum, but their teachings are tucked away, not on the tips of our tongues on a regular basis, in contrast to the admittedly more recent memory of the civil rights movement.

Former Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp, whose maternal great-grandmother was full Cherokee, has made popular awareness of the Trail of Tears a personal cause. A few years ago, Wamp sponsored legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to expand the Trail of Tears to include various sites including 29 immigration depots, telling the AP:
You have to recognize and acknowledge your mistakes for the white man to make this right...There has to be an acknowledgment that ... slavery was a mistake, the Trail of Tears was a mistake.
In 2009, Wamp was the Grand Marshal of the Annual Trail of Tears Remembrance Motorcycle Ride (video here), which runs through various Tennessee cities, but not Nashville (see a list of Tennessee cities with historical ties to the Trail of Tears here and here).

As for the city of Nashville, what could we do to remember Cherokee Removal more faithfully?

For a quick refresher course right now, I highly recommend that every Nashvillian set aside an hour to listen to this 1998 episode of This American Life, narrated by Sarah Vowell. She covers many of the basics and also some of the particularly illustrative parts of the removal story. She even visits The Hermitage and talks to a historian there.

Long-term, though, what if we were to set aside a week or a month every year in memory of the Cherokee Removal? The month of May would work nicely - more than any other on the calendar, May contains significant anniversaries of events leading up to the forced exodus - not just the support, but the opposition, as well. Take a look below - don't miss Davy Crockett's statement in opposition of removal - and let me know in the comments if you think this should be something we take more time to remember in Nashville, whether in May or at any other time.

May 1830

May 26, 1830: Indian Removal Act signed by President Andrew Jackson. The act was opposed by U.S. Rep. Davy Crockett of Tennessee, who made a politically risky but morally unavoidable objection to Indian Removal:
It was expected of me that I was to bow to the name of Andrew Jackson, and follow him in all his motions, and windings, and turnings, even at the expense of my consciences and judgment. Such a thing was new to me, and a total stranger to my principles. ... His famous, or rather I should say infamous Indian bill was brought forward and, and I opposed it from the purest motives in the world. Several of my colleagues got around me, and told me how well they loved me, and that I was ruining myself. They said it was a favorite measure of the President, and I ought to go for it. I told them I believed it was a wicked unjust measure, and that I should go against it, let the cost to myself be what it might; that I was willing to go with General Jackson in everything that I believed was honest and right; but further than this, I wouldn't go for him, or any other man in the whole creation.
In large part because of his opposition to removal, Crockett soon became persona non grata in Tennessee politics, so he left for Texas - and died at the Alamo.

May 1831

May 10, 1831: Jeremiah Evarts dies of tuberculosis. Evarts used moral arguments to organize Congress and public opinion against the Indian Removal Bill and the Jacksonians who supported it. (Wikipedia quotes historian Francis Paul Prucha for the premise that "the Christian crusade against the removal of the Indians died with Evarts.")

May 1836

May 23, 1836: "Although the lawful Red Clay [Tennessee] representatives protested the treaty through every legal channel, the U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of New Echota on May 23, 1836, by a single vote." -Tennessee Encyclopedia

May 1838

May 10, 1838: General Scott issues a proclamation to the Cherokee Nation that troops are coming to round them up and enforce obedience to the Treaty of New Echota. -Wikipedia

May 14, 1838: First publication of an anti-removal letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to President Martin Van Buren:
It now appears that the government of the United States choose to hold the Cherokees to this sham treaty, and are proceeding to execute the same. Almost the entire Cherokee Nation stand up and say, “This is not our act. Behold us. Here are we. Do not mistake that handful of deserters for us;” and the American President and the Cabinet, the Senate and the House of Representatives, neither hear these men nor see them, and are contracting to put this active nation into carts and boats, and to drag them over mountains and rivers to a wilderness at a vast distance beyond the Mississippi....And now the steps of this crime follow each other so fast, at such fatally quick time, that the millions of virtuous citizens, whose agents the government are, have no place to interpose, and must shut their eyes until the last howl and wailing of these tormented villages and tribes shall afflict the ear of the world.
May, 1838: Private John G. Burnett ordered to Smoky Mountain country to assist with Cherokee Removal:
The removal of Cherokee Indians from their life long homes in the year of 1838 found me a young man in the prime of life and a Private soldier in the American Army. Being acquainted with many of the Indians and able to fluently speak their language, I was sent as interpreter into the Smoky Mountain Country in May, 1838, and witnessed the execution of the most brutal order in the History of American Warfare. I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades.
Forced Move (Trail of Tears) (detail) by Max D. Standley, courtesy of R. Michelson Galleries. Used with permission.

1 comment:

  1. This article as some profound statements in it. Its amazing that Davey Crockett stood for the rights of the indians and was criticized. Of course you know history, he ended up in the Alamo. There are many Davey Crockett's today who are standing for the justices of the immigrants and the injustice. Don't be afraid to stand for what is right in fear of what others will think of you. Stand and don't be moved. Great story!


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