Prison Camps & The Trail Of Tears (Part 2)

Mark Anthony Rolo: Recalling the Trail of Tears

“The Trail of Tears began 170 years ago this week. We should recall it not as an aberration but as a logical outgrowth of an inhumane policy. And we should insist, in its memory, that Indian treaties and Indian sovereignty be honored.

When President Andrew Jackson ordered the Cherokee Nation off its Georgia homelands, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Cherokees, promising them a $5 million payment upon successful removal west of the Mississippi.

October: For most Cherokee, the “Trail of Tears” begins.


The Legend of the Cherokee Rose.


No better symbol exists of the pain and suffering of the Trail Where They Cried than the Cherokee Rose(pictured at top of page). The mothers of the Cherokee grieved so much that the chiefs prayed for a sign to lift the mother’s spirits and give them strength to care for their children. From that day forward, a beautiful new flower, a rose, grew wherever a mother’s tear fell to the ground. The rose is white, for the mother’s tears. It has a gold center, for the gold taken from the Cherokee lands, and seven leaves on each stem that represent the seven Cherokee clans that made the journey. To this day, the Cherokee Rose prospers along the route of the “Trail of Tears”.


Military forts were already in place when theroads leading to those forts were being made more passable. Yet with no “removal treaty” known to Cherokees, settlers sarcastically made references to the military forts becoming the Cherokee’s new homes. Principle Chief John Ross was so alarmed by the forts, roads, and cruel teasing that he traveled all the way to Washington to express his grave concerns to Andrew Jackson.

Jackson hypocritically told them:

“You shall remain in your ancient land as long as grass grows and water runs.”

Principle Chief John Ross also tried desperately to escape the peril of Treaty of New Echota (the “removal treaty” which no true representative of the Cherokee Nation ever signed) for his people by sending a letter to the U.S. Senate and House, dated September 28, 1836:

Cherokee letter protesting the Treaty of New Etocha  from Chief John Ross, “To the Senate and House of Representatives”


By the stipulations of this instrument, we are despoiled of our private possessions, the indefeasible property of individuals. We are stripped of every attribute of freedom and eligibility for legal self-defence. Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints. We are denationalized; we are disfranchised. We are deprived of membership in the human family! We have neither land nor home, nor resting place that can be called our own. And this is effected by the provisions of a compact which assumes the venerated, the sacred appellation of treaty.

The U.S. Senate and House ignored his plea, and when 31 forts with adequate roads were in place to be transformed into prison, concentration, and death camps…the Cherokee received this letter from General Winfield Scott on May 10, 1838:

Address to the Cherokee Nation


“Cherokees! The President of the United States has sent me with a powerful army, to cause you, in obedience to the treaty of 1835 [the Treaty of New Echota], to join that part of your people who have already established in prosperity on the other side of the Mississippi. Unhappily, the two years which were allowed for the purpose, you have suffered to pass away without following, and without making any preparation to follow; and now, or by the time that this solemn address shall reach your distant settlements, the emigration must be commenced in haste, but I hope without disorder.

Being Forced by the U.S. military to the internment, concentration, or death camps:


During the roundup intimidation and acts of cruelty at the hands of the troops, along with the theft and destruction of property by local residents, further alienated the Cherokees. Finally, Chief Ross appealed to President Van Buren to permit the Cherokees to oversee their own removal. Van Buren consented, and Ross and his brother Lewis administered the effort. The Cherokees were divided into 16 detachments of about 1,000 each.

“I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades. And 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….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…”

Private John G. Burnett

Captain Abraham McClellan’s Company,

2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Infantry

Cherokee Indian Removal 1838-39

The military forts which were transformed into prison, concentration, and death camps were naturally armed with rifle towers and weaponry.1100 Cherokee were held as prisoners for almost 6 months at FORT HETZEL with no restroom facilities and little nourishment.



Starvation is a severe reduction in vitamin, nutrient, and energy intake, and is the most extreme form of malnutrition. In humans, prolonged starvation (in excess of 1-2 months) causes permanent organ damage and will eventually result in death.

I would be tempted to say that the soldiers intentionally fed the Cherokee less in order to alleviate sanitation problems, if it weren’t for the facts that several Cherokee died in the internment camps and on the Trail of Tears, due to a murderous philosophy:



Eugenics is a new term for an old phenomena which asserts that Indian people should be exterminated because they are an inferior race of people. Jefferson’s suggestion to pursue the Indians to extermination fits well into the eugenistic vision. In David Stannard’s study American Holocaust, he writes: “had these same words been enunciated by a German leader in 1939, and directed at European Jews, they would be engraved in modern memory. Since they were uttered by one of America’s founding fathers, however…they conveniently have become lost to most historians in their insistent celebration of Jefferson’s wisdom and humanity.” Roosevelt feared that American upper classes were being replaced by the “unrestricted breeding” of inferior racial stocks, the “utterly shiftless”, and the “worthless.”

The soldiers must have wanted them dead, for transferring dead bodies out of the internment camps and disposing of them must have been more inconvenient, than giving a prisoner a shovel to cover up feces, while they also died of diseases.

Having given Wilma Mankiller’s book away last summer, I think an earlier paragraph from my last diary referred to what occurred at Fort New Echota (at least), because the Cherokee were supposed to have been given corn, I remember:

Fort New Echota (Fort Wool):

General Scott was shocked during a trip to inspect Fort New Echota when he overheard members of The Guard say that they would not be happy until all Cherokee were dead. As a result, he issued meticulous orders on conduct and allowed actions during the action. Troops were to treat tribal members “with kindness and humanity, free from every strain of violence.” Each Cherokee was to receive meat and flour or corn regardless of age. Scott’s orders were disobeyed by most troops that were not directly under his control.NEW ECHOTA

Here was the paragraph:


The reader needs to understand that the Cherokee are a matriarchal society. Plainly put: the clan mother can trump the chief, women choose HER mate based on HIS cooking skills, and a man knew he was divorced if all his things were outside when he got home. So when the soldiers raped the women in the prison camps and on the Trail of Tears, they raped the tribe’s leaders as well. It was about taking away power. When the soldiers passed the women around like whiskey bottles raping them, it was about taking away power. When the soldiers scalped the women’s genitalia and wore their vaginas on their hats, it was about raping power to the most excruciating degree imaginable. I think it’s common knowledge how soldiers identified “leaders” in concentration camps and killed them, in order to keep the hostages under control. Still, one hundred and fifty-one years later nuns are raped and tortured…

Last of all, what happened in Fort Cumming may be ambiguous, but let us assume the “horrors that occurred inside the walls” were similar and at least equal to the extermination via internment camps and relocation against the Cherokees that occurred at the other forts, if not worse.

Fort Cumming:


…Strangely missing from detailed physical description of the fort is any mention of the horrors that occurred inside the walls.

The 13 groups of 7 clans left in late August through late September of 1838, arriving January through March of the proceeding year.


They would lose their land 50 years later with the Land Run of 1889. While 12 groups traveled by wagon on land, Chief John Ross’s group traveled by water by boat.

Strong seasonal rain made the dirt roads too muddy to travel, their horses could not graze enough to be sustained, and hunting was scarce. The U.S. government gave them very little food to take. Even if they had been able to maintain their horses and wagons, they still would have had to walk across the frozen Mississippi or Ohio River, or be trapped in between them.


Looking across the river today, one can only imagine the suffering that was taking place more than 150 years ago. Disrespectfully uprooted, homeless, they were embarking on a long journey in worn-out moccasins in the unforgiving dead of winter.  Enduring river crossings, ice floes and relentless winds, they had only a blanket for warmth – if they were lucky.  You imagine huddling around a fire, comforting your mother while she gets weaker and weaker … wondering, as she, when the suffering would end, and whether she would even live to see it.

I forgot that was why they walked with little or no shoes across jagged ice and snow for miles upon miles. You only get that at the museum, because there is a large approximately 6 x 4 picture of the Mississippi River in the winter covered in snow with jagged ice. I don’t know how as many survived as they did; nearly 2000 Cherokee died on the Trail Of Tears. The least number of reported total deaths is 4000, combining the deaths at the internment camps. The greatest estimated number is 8000.


Two-thirds of the ill-equipped Cherokees were trapped between the ice-bound Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during January. Although suffering from a cold, Quatie Ross, the Chief’s wife, gave her only blanket to a child.

“Long time we travel on way to new land. People feel bad when they leave Old Nation. Women cry and make sad wails, Children cry and many men cry…but they say nothing and just put heads down and keep on go towards West. Many days pass and people die very much.”

Recollections of a survivor:

She died of pneumonia at Little Rock. Some drank stagnant water and succumbed to disease. One survivor told how his father got sick and died; then, his mother; then, one by one, his five brothers and sisters. “One each day. Then all are gone.”

The last things I remember about going through the exhibit are the stories constantly being told through audio with representative statues. Voices are heard over each other, yet surrounding voices are soft enough to hear the one you’re currently at with clarity.


The soldiers forced the Cherokees to abandon their dead at the side of the road.

Amidst the surrounding voices in the museum was the voice of a Cherokee survivor expressing how her grandfather died. Her grandfather had to sneak away for a couple days to hunt for food, so that she and others could live. The few soldiers wouldn’t notice, apparently. She tells how as a little girl, she knelt beside him as he died. What I recall the most was her saying, “Grandfather, Grandfather?” I think a soldier hit him, but I can’t exactly recall. She had to just keep walking.

An elder once told me how some still walk the Trail Of Tears, to remember and honor their ancestors by their graves of stones. “But it takes about 6 months to do it,” he said. I heard another elder tell a group about his family’s forced relocation, “When my relative’s relatives died, they buried them, picked up their pipes, and moved on.”

Now I know why I repeated that to myself over and over again.

Mitakuye Oyasin

(All my relations)

Detailed map:


Remember that the small groups of Cherokee would forage for food as they proceeded, so the map is only a general representation of the routes.


Cherokee Prayer:


As I walk the trail of life

in the fear of the wind and rain,

grant O Great Spirit

that I may always walk

like a man