by Ray Lenarcic
Any success I’ve had in life is due to the education I received at Fredonia State-academic and otherwise. Regarding the latter, I evolved from a nerd-like loner into “one of the boys,” a social butterfly regular at Jack and Rose Nolan’s convivial palace, the Colonia Inn, where 25-cent Michelobs replaced milk as my drink of choice and real-life experiences replaced things I had heard about regarding the opposite sex. Academically, I had the great opportunity to be schooled by a cadre of the finest history teachers anywhere-Doctors Roselle, Chazanof, and Hagan.
Hagan’s course on the American Indian had the most profound, lasting impact on my professional life. Not only did he expose me to the truth regarding what happened to our indigenous peoples, he later motivated me to develop a Native American History course at Herkimer County Community College-the first of its kind in the state on a two-year college level. In his memory, I’ve chosen one of the aforementioned truths as the basis for my 2022 Fourth of July article.
On July 4th, 1838, while millions of Americans were celebrating our 62nd birthday, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, John Ross, and thousands of his people languished in what historian Francis Prucha called “concentration camps.” That the Cherokee were there at all was the consequence of one of the most despicable acts ever perpetrated by any government against any people. Unlike many other Indian nations during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Cherokee opted for peaceful reconciliation and assimilation over violent resistance in the face of the white man’s inexorable efforts to displace them from their ancestral lands.
By the 1830s, their transformation was so complete that some whites derogatorily referred to them as “apples”-red on the outside and white on the inside. When Ross was ELECTED Principal Chief by his UNICAMERAL (one house) legislature, the National Council, he found himself presiding over a literate, BILINGUAL, ECONOMICALLY DIVERSIFIED population governed by WRITTEN LAWS enforced by a POLICE FORCE and administered by a COURT SYSTEM. Many of Ross’s constituents were CHRISTIANS attending churches overseen by native pastors. The Cherokee had become the quintessential model of assimilation.
Unfortunately, their transformation meant nothing to a Federal government led by a President (Andy “get me off the $20 bill” Jackson) who appeased his restless pro-slavery Southern supporters by pressuring Congress to pass the Removal Bill of 1830 which provided him with the money to renegotiate treaties with Indian nations east of the Mississippi. Despite the fact that a Supreme Court decision written by the iconic Chief Justice John Marshall in 1832 (Worcester v. Georgia) upheld the Federal government’s treaty obligations, Jackson’s agents managed to bribe a Cherokee politician named John Ridge and cronies representing but 5% of the population to sign a new treaty ( Echota) in 1835. None other than Henry Clay lambasted the Senate’s ratification of the fraudulent Echota as a disgrace.
Ross and a majority of the Cherokee chose to passively resist removal in the hope of getting the treaty repealed. But without the support of an American public still adhering to the “Indian as Savage” stereotype and unable to convince enough Senators to change their votes, Ross’s delaying tactics failed. Martin Van Buren, a Jackson puppet and his successor, ordered Gen. Winfield Scott and several thousand troops in to move the Cherokees out. The result was a diaspora that would stain the face of this nation forever.
Lieutenant James Mooney provided an eyewitness account of what transpired. He described several families rounded up in the middle of their evening meal, allowed to take with them only what they could carry. As soon as they left, the dregs of humanity following in the army’s wake occupied their homes and stole their possessions. The Lieutenant marveled that, despite their travail, there were no incidents of resistance. Ross wouldn’t allow for it. And he marveled that the Cherokee still lifted their voices in praise of God during Sunday services in the concentration camp. They had lost everything but their faith in a religion that meant so much more to them than it did to the President and Congress.
In what Grant Foreman labeled “The Trail of Tears,” more than 14,000 Cherokee went west on their own Bataan death march. An estimated 4,000 died, many of them children and women, including Ross’s beloved wife. Most perished from starvation and disease while others were bayonetted to death. They ended up in northeastern Oklahoma where despite having to overcome numerous hardships, under Ross’s leadership they reconstructed a new life for themselves as farmers and ranchers. Today, the Cherokee are this country’s largest Native American nation with some 380,000 tribal citizens living worldwide (140,000 reside in Oklahoma). For more information on the Cherokee, check out Angie Debo’s And Still the Water Runs.
On the 4th, the most memorable words in Jefferson’s semi-plagiarized (John Locke) Declaration will be repeated in countless towns and cities. “We hold these words to be self-evident, that ALL men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain INALIENABLE Rights, that among these are LIFE, LIBERTY, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” As we celebrate our 246th, let’s pledge, in memory of the victims of the Trail of Tears, to work together to make these noble sentiments a reality for ALL. And let’s never forget that while July 4, 1776, signified the beginning of our independence, it marked the beginning of the end for the Cherokees.