On the Trail of Tears

Buried in an unexpected corner of the National Archives – in the “Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury” – are some of the most detailed eyewitness accounts of the Cherokee “Trail of Tears,” on which about 12,000 Cherokees were forced by a fraudulent treaty to leave their ancestral home in the southern Appalachians and march a thousand miles west to Oklahoma.

These long-overlooked documents describe in granular detail the difficult conditions of that cruel trek across the country in the winter of 1838-1839 – harsh cold and snow, sudden melts and flooding rivers, delays, and food shortages. They’re tucked away in the records of the Treasury because, unsurprisingly, the costs of moving, feeding, and ensuring the safety of thousands of people on a forced march in winter escalated far beyond what the federal government had budgeted. Chief John Ross and his brother Lewis, who were permitted by the US to in charge of the Removal in hopes it would make the Cherokees more willing to remove, were initially denied payment for the cost overruns. They appealed the decision and made their case through depositions by eyewitnesses.

One of the most dramatic depositions came from Thomas B. Emmerson, a white man from east Tennessee hired by Lewis Ross to be the “commissary agent” for one of the dozen wagon trains, called “detachments,” that led the Cherokees to the west. This detachment (led by an Anglo-Cherokee named James Brown) was made up of about 800 people and half that many animals – horses and oxen that hauled the wagons. Emmerson, with no storage capacity, had the difficult job of keeping all the humans and animals fed each day.

Even though he bought only three basic foodstuffs – corn meal, wheat flour, and bacon – his deposition tells of shortages and the extravagant prices he had to pay on the road due to harsh weather, local crop failures, and price gougers. His statement also offers a devastating account of the conditions the Cherokees had to endure on the long march, even when those in charge were doing their utmost to try to make the journey safe.

Emmerson started his narrative when they left their camp near Chattanooga, Tennessee on October 25, 1838. Dozens of wagons carried food, blankets, camp supplies, and those Cherokees who were too aged, weak, or young to march. They took a northern route through Nashville Tennessee, Hopkinsville Kentucky, and up to Illinois. Along the way they had to cross three major rivers (on ferries) – the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi – and to ford innumerable streams and smaller waterways. In perfect conditions it took them two and a half days simply for the whole detachment to cross the Tennessee; the Ohio took more than a week due to high winds and a burst boiler on one of the ferry boats. But that was nothing compared to what they would face in southern Illinois as they neared the Mississippi River. On Christmas day, winter crashed down on them with a blizzard that stopped them in their tracks. Emmerson wrote:

“The snow being very deep, the conductor deemed it dangerous to travel as the roads were in the most desperate order & the dangerous places thus covered with snow, which rendered it impossible to see them. The Detachment consequently remained in camp until the morning of the 3rd of January up to which time the most excessive cold weather was experienced.”

When the weather warmed a bit, Brown ordered the march to continue, but this was done, Emmerson said,

“at the imminent hazard of the lives of those who were in the wagons. The road being entirely covered with frozen snow & ice, several of the wagons were upset [i.e. turned over] by sliding from the road in steep places. The next day the conductor thought it best to remain in camp as the roads were no better, the snow & ice still remaining.”

Meanwhile, Emmerson wrote,

“I had great difficulty in procuring the regular supplies. Nothing but the most extravagant prices would induce persons to haul [food] to us, so cold was the weather & so bad the roads. By constant exertion & extravagant offers I was enabled to furnish regular supplies…”

Eventually when those supplies ran out, he had to buy “corn on the stalk as it stood in the field,” which turned out to be strangely plentiful in Illinois in early January. Then the weather suddenly turned warm – good news you would think, except that it released an avalanche of ice in the Mississippi River.

“The ice in the river above us gave way & on the morning of the 7th was coming down in such quantity as to render it impassable. The ice continued running for several days which prevented our crossing until the evening of the 9th when crossing was again commenced. The last of the Detachment finally got over on the evening of the 11th.”

That was not the end of their ordeal, however. Next came the rain.

“For two days, after we crossed the river, it continued to rain so incessantly that the conductor did not think it prudent to leave the camp. [On the] 14th, the ground having become so thoroughly wet, rendered traveling almost impossible, several wagons having sunk so deep in the ground as to make it impossible for the teams to draw them. Others mired down on the road & remained all night in that condition. So muddy was the road that up to the 19th the Detachment had only been able to travel 16 miles [from the Mississippi].”

Eventually the road got easier. But Emmerson had to pay ever steeper prices as they moved through Missouri to the Arkansas territory. Finally in early March they arrived at their destination in present-day Oklahoma.

The horrific conditions in December and January must have taken their toll in human life. On their own ancestral land, the Cherokees had generational knowledge of how to survive harsh weather and even famine conditions, but they did so with a deep knowledge of their local environment and forest resources that could carry them through the disasters of war and nature. The Trail of Tears, however, was unlike anything they had experienced. They were herded into wagon trains, unable to freely hunt or forage, dependent on official suppliers for their diet and their medicine. And, even if they had been allowed to forage and hunt, the terrain and plants were unknown to them.

 It is impossible now to know how many Cherokees succumbed to exposure, fatigue, and illness along the way. The stated numbers are unreliable. For example, Emmerson reported over one hundred more Cherokees on the detachment than the figure usually cited – which tells us that the official numbers were significantly off. As demographers have demonstrated, the overall death toll of this forced march into exile was far larger than the official statistics show. The toll on the survivors, likewise, is immeasurable. But documents like Emmerson’s help us understand, at least a little better, what they experienced.

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