The Trail of Tears (1838 to 1839)

Written on December 11, 1890 by
Private John G. Burnett,
Captain Abraham McCellan's Company,
2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Infantry, 1838-39.


From the Nineteenth Annual Report of the
Bureau of American Ethnology
Courtesy of The Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Cherokee Publications, Cherokee, NC 28719
Copyright 1956 by Thomas Bryan Underwood
(Minor editing by Robert Wayne Atkins)
The following is for fair use and educational purposes only.



"In the year of 1828, a little Indian boy living on Ward creek sold a Gold nugget to a white trader, and that nugget sealed the doom of the Cherokees. In a short time the country was over run with Armed brigands claiming to be Government Agents, who paid no attention to the rights of the Indians who were the legal possessors of the country. Men were shot in cold blood, lands were confiscated. Homes were burned and the inhabitants driven out by these Gold hungry brigands.

"Chief Junaluska was personally acquainted with President Andrew Jackson. Junaluska had taken five-hundred of the flower of his Cherokee scouts and helped Jackson to win the battle of the Horse Shoe leaving thirty-three of them dead on the field. And in that battle Junaluska had drove his Tomahawk through the skull of a Creek warrior, when the Creek had Jackson at mercy.

"Chief John Ross sent Junaluska as an envoy to plead with President Jackson for protection for his people, but Jackson's manner was cold and indifferent toward the rugged son of the forest who had saved his life. He met Junaluska, heard his plea, but curtly said, "Sir your audience is ended, there is nothing I can do for you." The doom of the Cherokee was sealed. Washington D.C. had decreed that they must be driven West, and their lands given to the white man, and in May of 1838 an Army of four thousand regulars, and three thousand volunteer soldiers under the command of General Winfield Scott, marched into the Indian country and wrote the blackest chapter on the pages of American History.

"When Scott invaded the Indian country some of the Cherokees fled to caves and dens in the mountains and were never captured.

"The removal of the 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 stockades.

"Men working in the fields were arrested and driven to the stockades. Women were dragged from their homes by soldiers whose language they could not understand. Children were often separated from their parents and driven into stockades with the sky for a blanket and the earth for a pillow. And often the old and infirm were prodded with bayonets to hasten them to the stockades.

"In one home death had come during the night, a little sad faced child had died and was lying on a bear skin couch and some women were preparing the little body for burial. All were arrested and driven out leaving the child in the cabin. I don't know who buried the baby.

"In another home was a frail Mother, apparently a widow and three small children, one just a baby. When told that she must go the Mother gathered the children at her feet, prayed an humble prayer in her native tongue, patted the old family dog on the head, told the faithful creature good-by. With the baby strapped to her back and leading a child with each hand, started into exile. But the task was too great for that frail Mother. A stroke of heart failure relieved her sufferings. She sunk and died with her baby on her back, and her other two children clinging to her hands.

"Chief Junaluska who had saved President Jackson's life at the battle of Horse Shoe witnessed the scene, the tears gushing down his cheeks. And lifting his cap he turned his face toward the Heavens and said, "Oh my God if I had known at the battle of the Horse Shoe what I know now, American History would have been differently written."

"In the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west.

"One can never forget the sadness and solemnity of that morning. Chief John Ross led in prayer and when the bugle sounded and the wagons started rolling many of the children rose to their feet and waved their little hands good-by to their mountain homes, knowing they were leaving them forever. Many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefooted.

The Trail of Tears Map

"On the morning of November the 17th we encountered a terrific sleet and snow storm with freezing temperatures and from that day until we reached the end of the fateful journey on March the 26th 1839, the sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire. And I have known as many as twenty-two of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold, and exposure. Among this number was the beautiful Christian wife of Chief John Ross. This noble hearted woman died a martyr to childhood, giving her only blanket for the protection of a sick child. She rode thinly clad through a blinding sleet and snow storm, developed pneumonia and died in the still hours of a bleak winter night, with her head resting on Lieutenant Greggs saddle blanket.

"I made the long journey to the west with the Cherokees and did all that a Private soldier could do to alleviate their sufferings. When on guard duty at night I have many times walked my beat in my blouse in order that some sick child might have the warmth of my overcoat.

"I was on guard duty the night Mrs. Ross died. When relieved at midnight I did not retire, but remained around the wagon out of sympathy for Chief Ross, and at daylight was detailed by Captain McClellan to assist in the burial like the other unfortunates who died on the way. Her uncoffined body was buried in a shallow grave by the roadside far from her native mountain home, and the sorrowing Cavalcade moved on.

"The Anglo Saxon race should build a towering monument to perpetuate her noble act in giving her only blanket for comfort of a sick child. Incidentally, the child recovered, but Mrs. Ross is sleeping in an unmarked grave far from her native Smoky Mountain home.

"Being a young man I mingled freely with the young women and girls. I have spent many pleasant hours with them when I was supposed to be under my blanket, and they have many times sung their mountain songs for me, this being all that they could do to repay my kindness. And with all the association with Indian girls from October 1929 to March 26th 1839, I did not meet one who was a moral prostitute. They are kind and tender hearted and many of them are beautiful.

"The long painful journey to the west ended on March 26th, 1839, with four-thousand silent graves reaching from the foot of the Smoky Mountains to what is known as Indian territory in the West. And covetousness on the part of the white race was the cause of all that the Cherokees had to suffer.

"At this time in 1890 we are too near the removal of the Cherokees for our young people to fully understand the enormity of the crime that was committed against a helpless race. Truth is the facts are being concealed from the young people of today. School children of today do not know that we are living on lands that were taken from a helpless race at the bayonet point to satisfy the white man's greed for gold.

"Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself ... had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the matter.

"I can truthfully say that I did my best for them when they certainly needed a fried. Twenty-five years after the removal I still lived in their Memory as "the soldier who was good to us."

"Murder is murder whether committed by the villain skulking in the dark or by uniformed men stepping to the strains of martial music.

"Murder is murder and somebody must answer, somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian territory in the summer of 1838. Somebody must explain the four-thousand silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile. I wish I could forget it all, but the picture of six-hundred and forty-five wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their Cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory.

"Let the Historian of a future day tell the sad story with its sighs, its tears, and dying groans. Let the great Judge of all the earth weigh our actions and reward us according to our work.

"Thus ends my ... story. This December the 11th 1890."

John G. Burnett



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