Learning from the Trail of Tears

Today is the Trail of Tears Commemoration Day, the recognition of a national tragedy.

The seeds of what culminated in the near-annihilation of several entire tribes of Native Americans, most notably the Cherokees, were planted in the soil of the sinful souls of fallen, materialistic men. Settlers had always moved west, coveting the opportunity to settle the fertile Indian lands, but that temptation was intensified by the discovery of gold in northeast Georgia, the heart of the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokees had been transformed into a peaceful people, their last military conflicts with the settlers occurring about the end of the Revolution. They were, in fact, foremost in what were known as the Five Civilized Tribes. They had, thanks to the genius of Sequoyah, developed their own alphabet (syllabary) and written language. They published their own newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. They had formed a democratic form of tribal government based in large part on America’s own founding documents. And many of them had embraced education for their children.

This much is readily admitted by secular historians. What they downplay or ignore is the dramatic role played in all of these civilizing actions by the Christian missionaries and teachers who ministered among the Cherokees. Many individuals and Christian denominations had a hand in making the Cherokees the civilized people they were. Among those people were

  • John Gambold, Abraham Steiner, and Gottlieb Byham–Moravians
  • Evan and John Jones–Baptists
  • Joseph Miller and William McMahon–Methodists
  • Gideon Blackburn, Cyrus Kingsbury, and Samuel Worcester–Presbyterians

DSC00189

These ministers founded numerous missions among the Cherokees, including those at Park Hill, Mulberry, Brainerd, and Springplace. Part of the work of those missions was education, so one might say that the Cherokees were among the earliest participants in the Christian school movement!

The Cherokees even had their own preachers, including the first native Baptist preacher, Kaneeda, and the more renowned Jesse Bushyhead.

But then the State of Georgia, desiring the Cherokees’ gold and land, began imposing its laws on the sovereign Cherokee Nation. The peaceful Cherokees patiently tried to resolve the problem diplomatically. But they were divided over how to counter their enemies’ efforts. Some, led by John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, wanted to negotiate a treaty with the U.S. government, surrender their lands (for a price), and move west. john-rossOthers, led by John Ross, wanted to resist legally as long as they could. Within that group were a few who favored hiding in the mountains and even resisting with force if necessary. Even the various missionaries were divided over the issue.

Then two of the missionaries were arrested and imprisoned, allegedly for living and working within the Cherokee Nation without a license from Georgia’s governor. Underlying this official charge, however, was the fact that they were helping the Indians oppose the theft of their lands and their forced removal. The missionaries appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and, in the 1832 ruling in Worcester v. Georgia, they won.

John Ross

andrew_jacksonPresident Andrew Jackson, however, disagreed with the ruling and refused to do his constitutional duty and enforce the ruling. “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it,” he crowed. The Court, of course, has no power of enforcement, and the Georgians, ignoring the Court, took the Cherokee lands. Then the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was enforced, bringing about the Trail of Tears.

Historians disagree about Jackson’s motives. Some point to his history as a ruthless Indian hater and fighter and conclude that he was trying to exterminate not only the Cherokees but also all other Indians. Others say that he foresaw the terrible bloodshed that would result from the continued presence of the Indians within white society.

Only God knows Jackson’s true motivation. The fact remains, however, that an entire nation suffered, both Christians and non-Christians. An estimated 4,000 people, especially the youngest and the oldest, lost their lives during the arduous trek. And some of the missionaries went with their congregations and shared their sufferings and deprivations. And many other tribes were also caught up in the relocation.

trail-of-tearsThe Trail of Tears is not something of which we can be proud. It should, however, be instructive. Some Cherokees thought, It can’t happen here. We’ve adopted the white man’s ways. We’ve even accepted the Christian religion. Others thought, It could happen, but it won’t. Our leaders won’t allow it. God won’t allow it. But it did happen.

Similarly, the German people didn’t think that a Nazi takeover could happen, but it did. Christians and Jews alike thought that such intense persecution as the Holocaust couldn’t happen. But it did. Hardly any natural American or Japanese-American thought that forced relocation of a race could happen, but it did.

And in our nation today, many people believe that we could never lose our freedoms. “It couldn’t happen here–we have the Constitution.” Germany also had a constitution, as did the Cherokees. Constitutions can be changed quickly and catastrophically. In fact, there’s a positive-sounding but very dangerous movement afoot to call a constitutional convention, but that could backfire, being used by devious forces to “fundamentally transform America.” If men were angels, maybe they could be trusted. But men are not angels.

Freedom is fragile. The lessons of history–including those afforded us in the events leading to the Trail of Tears–tell us to beware. “Eternal vigilance is ever the price of freedom.”

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