Sarah Hill: Historian Documents Georgia's Role in Trail of Tears





Georgia's expulsion of the Cherokees was executed with swift, military precision. In three short weeks in the late spring of 1838, members of the Georgia Militia arrested several thousand men, women and children, evicted them from their homes in North Georgia, and marched them to military camps in Tennessee for resettlement.

The removal of the Cherokees in Georgia — and later that summer in neighboring states — marked the start of what history now calls the Trail of Tears.

Most of the tangible evidence — from the hundreds of Cherokee farmsteads that dotted the landscape and the military posts that were built to supervise the removal — have been erased by modern highways, reservoirs and urban development.

To make sure the episode is not also erased from public consciousness, Atlanta historian Sarah Hill has been doggedly pursuing a trail of a different kind.

The paper trail she has uncovered in state and national archives provides the most detailed picture yet of one of the most shameful chapters in Georgia history.

"Seeing some of the accounts firsthand is a shocking reminder of what is going on today in other parts of the world," Hill said. "But it's a story that most people in Georgia know very little about."

The Cherokees have a saying that the Trail of Tears began at the doorstep of every Cherokee family. Included in Hill's research is an account that starkly reinforces that reality — the testimony of a Cherokee woman named Ooloocha, who recalled the day of removal in her subsequent claim for property in Georgia that the family lost:

"The soldiers came and took us from home," she recounted. "They first surrounded our house, and they took the mare while we were at work in the fields and they drove us out of doors and did not permit us to take anything with us, not even a second change of clothes. They kept us in the fort [Fort Wool, near present-day Calhoun] and then marched us to Ross's Landing [near present- day Chattanooga]."

A Cherokee census

But there were other perspectives. Two days later, in May 1838, Georgia Militia Capt. William Derrick rounded up more than 425 men, women and children from Cherokee towns and farms near Ellijay in Gilmer County. Derrick proudly attributed his high capture rate to the fact that he had broken up families and refused to let the Indians bring any of their possessions.

An 1835 census of Georgia recorded 8,936 Cherokees — plus 776 Cherokee-owned black slaves and 68 intermarried whites — living in North Georgia, most of them in small towns and log-house farmsteads. Their property included 6,000 dwellings and outbuildings, 80,000 head of livestock, and 63,000 peach trees.

By the late summer of 1838, however, nearly all of the Cherokees in Georgia and neighboring states — including their slaves, who accompanied them to Oklahoma — were gone. The Indians' land and property had been given to white settlers.

Hill and other researchers say the confiscation of property and the swift, efficient removal of the entire population of Cherokee villages is eerily like the early stages of the waves of "ethnic cleansing" that swept the Balkans in the 1990s.

"In the late spring of 1838, thousands of Cherokees were forcibly marched along roads leading from their settlements to nearby forts or encampments, then on to the New Echota [near Calhoun] headquarters of the Middle Military Command," Hill said.

"Larger U.S. Army forts in North Carolina, Tennessee or Alabama served as holding areas until the Cherokee could be sent on to Oklahoma."

'Shock and awe' of 1830s

Preparations were under way long before the removal — in some cases as early as 1830, when Congress first passed the Indian Removal Act. Hill says the 15 forts or military posts built in Georgia were not intended to be holding areas for the Cherokees, but to house soldiers and serve as a 19th-century form of "shock and awe" to intimidate the Indians in advance of their eviction and discourage any thought of resistance.

"To expedite removal, all posts were positioned near major roads, which had to be sufficiently wide to accommodate wagons as well as horses and thousands of captives," she said. "All but one of the roads was in place by the time the Cherokees were expelled."...



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