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The End of the Cherokee Trail : TRAIL OF TEARS The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle (Anchor Press/Doubleday: $19.95; 480 pp.)

September 11, 1988|Dee Brown | Brown is the author of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" (Holt). His historical novel, "Creek Mary's Blood" (Holt), contains a fictional account of the Cherokee exodus

Most Americans have at least some vague image of the Trail of Tears, but not very many know of the events that led to that tragic expulsion of several thousand Indians from their homeland. In "The Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation," John Ehle presents the full history of a native American democratic state, the Cherokee Nation. Like the United States, it was born in bloodshed, but instead of enduring, it flourished for only a few years and then was destroyed by President Andrew Jackson and the government of the state of Georgia.

Although the history of the Cherokee Nation has been told before, Ehle's version may be the best. He has found sources previously unused, affording human touches that enliven the narrative. Yet it is not so much the content as the telling that counts here. Ehle can be stark at times and lyrical at times, a style that suits his subject almost to perfection.

To lend a personal interest to his history, Ehle focuses upon one of the tribal leaders, The Ridge, and follows him closely from childhood through all the turmoil of a tribe attempting to form a nation. When Ridge was born in 1771, the Cherokees claimed a vast area from Kentucky southward into Georgia. Along their frontier, intermarriages with white settlers sometimes occurred. Ridge was one-quarter Scot. His family settled in northwest Georgia with several other mixed-blood Cherokees, and it was there that the tribe's power eventually was centered.

When Ridge reached manhood and became a warrior, he was taken in hand by Doublehead, a brutal and corrupt chief. Doublehead took him on raids against white settlers. At 17, Ridge killed his first white man, but his mentor's viciousness repelled him. Doublehead was also growing wealthy and was suspected of taking bribes from government agents to trade away tribal lands.

Before Ridge was 30, he was an outstanding speaker in the councils. When the leaders decided that Doublehead had broken a severe trial law by trading land to whites and must be executed, Ridge was one of those chosen to carry out the death sentence. During this period of upheaval, of jockeying for power, of conflicts between fullbloods and mixed bloods, Ehle's dramatic history is remindful of Shakespeare's bloody chronicles of the English kings.

In 1813, Ridge organized a Cherokee regiment to assist Gen. Andrew Jackson in the war against insurgent Creeks. With him as adjutant went John Ross, 20 years his junior, one-eighth Cherokee, seven-eighths Scot. Like a converted religious zealot, Ross was more Cherokee than the Cherokees.

Jackson made Ridge a major, and from that day to the end of his life, he was Ridge. Through all the strife and gore, Ridge and his associates prospered, creating plantations and orchards, building fine homes. Some families sent their sons to schools in New England. Maj. Ridge's son, John, and his nephew, Buck Watie, went to Connecticut, where Buck changed his name to that of a benefactor, Elias Boudinot. Both boys returned with excellent educations and New England wives.

Meanwhile, Ridge with John Ross (now principal chief) had laid out a capital for the Cherokee Nation at New Echota, modeled after Washington. The council house for two legislative bodies was completed. Thanks to Sequoyah's ingenious syllabary, a printing plant was quickly built to publish the first newspaper by Indians in their own language. Plans were under way for a Supreme Court building, a museum, a post office, an academy.

All this progressive activity, all this talk of a Cherokee Nation made the Georgia governor and legislature uneasy, and they began passing laws against the Cherokees. They forbade council meetings and proclaimed that the Cherokees were merely tenants on Georgia soil. During this same period, Andrew Jackson was elected President, and his first message to Congress advocated removal of all Indians from Eastern America.

Under young Ridge's guidance, the Cherokees took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that a Cherokee Nation was legal. The tribe's elation soon turned to despair when Jackson ignored the court's ruling and supported the Georgians in their moves to take over Cherokee lands and property.

When surveyors came to stake out plots for sale and ordered Cherokees out of their houses, the Ridge faction knew they had lost. They signed a treaty exchanging Cherokee lands for land in Indian Territory. In one of his eloquent speeches, Ridge summed it up: "You asked us to throw off the hunter and warrior state: We did so--you asked us to form a republican government: We did so--adopting your own as a model. You asked us to cultivate the earth and learn the mechanic arts: We did so. You asked us to learn to read: We did so. You asked us to cast away our idols and worship your God: We did so." But willing hearts had gained them nothing.

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