Detour Down the Trail of Tears

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 2 No. 2/3, "Our Promised Land." Find more from that issue here.

The siege against the red man is not a pleasant story to retell. What began as erratic extensions of the white man's arrogance became systematized into a policy of virtual destruction. What the white man didn't get by accident or natural causes, he took by force — and what he wanted above all else was the red man's land.

The widespread use of the gun in the early eighteenth century hastened the loss of Indian lands in the South. Disease from explorers and early colonists had already decimated several Indian tribes. In 1738, a smallpox epidemic wiped out half of the region's Cherokee Indians. Depopulated groups frequently abandoned their lands to regroup in new amalgamations (which is how the now numerous Lumbee Indians in Robeson county, North Carolina, got their start). But as Euro- Americans crowded the coastal areas and began pushing inland, even the reduced Indian populations were squeezed onto fewer and fewer acres of land. With the introduction of guns, the resulting warfare between whites and Indians, and among Indian groups, became all the more deadly.

Disease and guns were not enough to alienate all southern Indians from their land. In the nineteenth century a new tactic emerged: forced removal. In spite of a successful court battle which outlawed the Cherokee Removal, the Federal government rounded up 16,000 acculturated Cherokees and marched them west to the "Indian Territory” (Oklahoma). Four thousand Cherokees died during the winter of 1838-39 over what has become known as the "Trail of Tears."

It wasn't the Cherokee's "savagry” that threatened the whites. As church-going farmers, their economic, social, political and religious life resembled that of their white neighbors. They were removed for one reason — land, land rich in farming potential and land rich in gold. Ironically, the Cherokees most fully assimilated into Euroamerican lifestyles were removed, while the traditionalists in the poorer lands of North Carolina successfully evaded the federal round-up.

Throughout the South, Indians who survived the Removal period have preserved their land-holdings precisely because of its marginal value. Today, the Cherokees and Melungeons living in the mountains and the Seminoles and Lumbees of the wetlands typify the situation of the more than twenty non-reservation and half-dozen reservation Indian groups. Even the relative amount of land in Indian control frequently corresponds to its economic worth. Thus the Seminoles retain over 180,000 acres in the Everglades while the equally populous Catawbas have only about 4,000 acres of more valuable land. Indian land seldom possesses mineral resources, farming or industrial potential, or access to main transportation routes. Because it seemed worthless, white frontiersmen left the land behind for more valuable holdings.

In some cases, political problems added to economic or environmental liabilities to make areas less attractive to whites. Thus, the Cherokees survived at the junction of the North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee borders, the Catawbas and Lumbees near the North and South Carolina line, and the Seminoles along the international border of Spanish Florida and Georgia. With different laws in each region, a border location provided an Indian group with more options — if adverse laws developed in one area, they could always cross into less hostile territory. Many Cherokees on Georgia lands escaped the Trail of Tears by fleeing to nearby North Carolina.



Land was always central to the organization of the Cherokee community. With twenty-thousand people, the Cherokees were one of the largest Indian groups in North America when the white man arrived. They were divided into five major linguistic and cultural divisions and occupied a territory in south Appalachia extending from Alabama and Georgia, through the Carolinas, to Tennessee and Kentucky.

Permanent towns — fortified if near the fringe of Cherokee land — surrounded religious mounds which still stand today. The outer limits of this area expanded and contracted as neighboring tribes seized or relinquished land, but even when it was not settled, the Cherokees used it as hunting territory, blunting, fishing and the gathering of wild foods were secondary to the production of staples like corn, beans, squash, and sunflower seeds.

After the white man arrived, the Cherokees gradually lost their good farm land through disease, warfare, and a series of so-called treaties. In 1775 alone, all Cherokee lands in Kentucky were lost to whites as the British acknowledged the failure of a promise to confine the colonists to the east of the Appalachians. In an effort to preserve their lands, one faction of Cherokees in the north Georgia hill country devised apian of accommodation that called for remodeling their society — from building architecture to a constitution — after the younger United States of America. The Cherokee nation in northern Georgia was divided into eight districts (Amohee, Aquohee, Chattooga, Chickamauga, Coosawatee, Etowah, Hickory Log, and Taquohee), each sending representatives to the council at the newly established capitol of New Echota, near present-day Calhoun, Georgia.

The north Georgia Cherokees believed themselves exempt from the new policy of removal since its stated aim was to protect whites from "savages" and give the Indians more time to become "civilized." After all, the Cherokees published a weekly newspaper, followed the Christian faith, and adopted white techniques of farming. Many were totally unprepared for the New Echota Treaty of 1838, and the resultant Trail of Tears which gave testimony to the white man's lust for good Indian lands.

After the removal, only about 1,000 Cherokees remained in the East, mostly in western North Carolina. They had rejected accommodation, but more important to their survival, their land was of little value to the frontiersmen. When the state of North Carolina auctioned off the mountainous land it confiscated under the removal program, the most interested bidders were the Cherokees themselves — or rather the whites who acted as their agents since North Carolina didn't recognize the rights of Indians to own land. Within a few weeks of removal, one group of Cherokees in Graham county bought 1,200 acres of their own land through three white men. Other groups, like the Euchella and Tsali bands, moved further into the mountains; but a large number of North Carolina Cherokees were never serious candidates for forced removal. Rather than move from their land after an 1819 treaty, the nearly 400 Oconaluftee or "Quallatown" Indians relinquished their Cherokee status and became North Carolina citizens. The Oconaluftee's land, called the Qualla Boundary, is now the main Cherokee reservation in the eastern United States. But it is unlikely that even their North Carolina citizenship would have protected them from removal if the land had been more suitable for cultivation or contained the gold of northern Georgia.

The rights of Indians to own land became even more tenuous after the 1838 removal. Technically, all the Cherokees were in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma — they didn't "exist" in North Carolina at all. A few white agents in the state held title for the Cherokees. But in the late 1860's, the principal agent, William Holland Thomas, a trader and lawyer, fell ill and went into debt. His creditors sued, and the courts made no distinction between land owned privately by Thomas and land held by him for Cherokees. Some Cherokees found themselves in the predicament of once again purchasing their own land.

In 1868, the North Carolina Cherokees met in general council at Cheoah in Graham county to draw up a constitution and reassert their legal status over the land. The constitution went into effect in 1870 with the election of the Band's first principal chief, Flying Squirrel. In the subsequent court cases which established the Eastern Band of Cherokees as a legal corporation, the Federal government was invited in as a trustee for the Indian land, since Cherokee land-owning was still a doubtful entity to the state.



Today, the Eastern Band of Cherokees numbers 6,000 people and owns 56,500 acres in four western counties of North Carolina. Needless to say, their reservation was anything but "given” to them by the government. Considering their history, it is not surprising that reservation land cannot be sold, willed, or in any way permanently lost into the hands of non-Cherokees. Even a non-Indian spouse of a Cherokee cannot inherit land, although the spouse may hold it in trust for the couple’s children. You must be at least one-sixteenth Cherokee to be enrolled as a Band member, but in the past the degree has been as low as one-thirty-second. In the 1880's and '90's, many whites claimed minimal Cherokee ancestry in order to establish ownership of reservation land. Other whites, known as Five Dollar Indians, wormed their way in through bribes. As late as 1930, the ancestry requirements were not strictly enforced, and the Band jumped from nine  teen hundred members to three thousand, with the additional 1,100 members all one-sixteenth or less Cherokee.

Technically, individual Cherokees do not own any portion of the reservation; the Eastern Band corporation holds title to the land. But a compromise between private property and communal ownership has evolved with the creation of possessory rights. A person with possessory rights to a section of the reservation may sell or trade it as if it were private property, provided the new owner is a Band member. Under complete communal ownership, land no longer in use by an individual would revert to the Band at large. With possessory rights, a person can will the land to his or her heirs, or subdivide it among them.

With the growing number of Cherokees, the major problem now facing the Band is the lack of enough usable land to go around. Not a single family now supports itself by farming, while fifteen years ago only ten per cent earned a living this way. Gardening and the gathering of wild foods such as ramps (a turnip-like root) and ginseng are supplementary activities, but not sufficient for a decent income. A fencing law passed in the 1930's reduced available pasture areas and caused stock-raising to dwindle. Lumbering is also limited. The forest to the north and west of the reservation is part of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and environmental regulations restrict cutting. To the south and east, timber land is owned by whites.

A mushrooming tourist industry has taken advantage of the Cherokees' land and helped push the days of self-sufficiency further into the past. Located next to the Smoky Mountains and offering a variety of Indian-made crafts, the reservation has become a regular stop for vacationers and second-home dwellers in southern Appalachia. But the benefits to the Cherokees from this shift to tourism are far from obvious. Many of the crafts sold in shops are made either by Plains Indians or commerical companies. And the nearly sixty non-Indian-owned tourist enterprises on the reservation get most of the visitors' money, even though twice that number of businesses are owned by Cherokees. Holding long  term leases from the Band, outside investors now dominate the market with motels, shops, restaurants, campgrounds and recreational attractions. A tourist economy also means unemployment among the Cherokees, which fluctuates wildly from a low of one per cent during the tourist season to twenty per cent during most of the year. A few non  tourist, light industries have moved into the area and employ nearly four hundred people, but most Cherokees have to commute off the land to find work.



As the population on the reservation grows, conflicts over land rights have become commonplace.

Land disputes have plagued the Cherokees for decades, long before the 1959 Band Council defined its major project as conducting "an accurate survey of holdings and the formulation of an effective land code." But in 1972, a land code was still needed, and over 400 applications and counterclaims were pending before the Land Committee. Disputes are particularly distressing to the Cherokees since they invariably involve bickering among the family members of a dead landholder in a larger community that values interpersonal harmony very highly. Nevertheless, the same disputes are frequently presented again and again before new members of the Land Committee in hopes of a different settlement. Many individuals must live in doubt for long periods of time over whether or not they really have possessory rights to a certain tract of land.

Internal quarrels among the Cherokees are small compared with their grievances against the U.S. Government. After nearly two hundred years, the government is paying the Eastern Band of the Cherokees $1,855,254 or $1.10 per acre for the 1,700,000 acres taken from their ancestors in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky. It took twenty-five years after the Indian Claims Commission had been set up to arrive at this figure. But finally, in 1 972, the government made its offer and the first Cherokee general council in over 100 years was called to consider it. A group of young men urged the Council to demand land, not money, as compensation. Although their suggestion was applauded, the council went on to accept the government's offer of cash.

The emphasis now is merely to protect the Band's land from further depletion. Misguided whites have all too often perceived the reservation as a ghetto or "prison" where Indians are trapped, and have therefore supported programs to terminate its existence. From the Cherokees' point of view, however, the reservation is the last remnant of their former homeland. To give up even these small and inadequate territories would be to divorce themselves from their heritage. For the Cherokees, holding onto the land is critical to survival as an ethnic unit.



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