The story of the Cherokee Indians is one of tragedy and triumph: a tragedy of sorrow and a triumph of the human spirit.
My personal encounter with the Cherokees was a trip our family took several years ago to the Great Smoky Mountains, the Eastern homeland of the most civilized of American Indians.
Living in these beautiful mountains on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in Cherokee, N.C., are the remnants of those who were removed by force to the west in what is called the "trail of tears."
While there, we were privileged to see in the amphitheater "Until these Hills," the dramatic and incredible story of the small number of Cherokees who managed to hide out in the mountains and remain to this present day.
The heroic drama is one of the most compelling we had ever seen. It tells of Tsali and his wife, who were a part of a group of over 14,000 Cherokees rounded up and herded westward to Indian Territory purchased for them by the federal government.
After being corralled in makeshift stockades for months, the Cherokees left their mountain home on Oct. 20, 1838, driven along by United States Army troops under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott.
As the march began, many of the Cherokee looked back longingly at the land they were leaving; some walked too slowly. Tsali's wife was one of them. So she was prodded by a soldier with a bayonet. Tsali and several of his friends rushed to the rescue, attacked and killed the soldier with their bare hands and escaped into the mountains of North Georgia.
Other Cherokee were also hiding out in the mountains to avoid removal. Tsali would never be taken alive.
A search was made by U. S. soldiers, but every path ended in wasted futility; American Indians were at home in the forests and the soldiers were bewildered strangers.
Exasperated, the military commander sent a message to Tsali by one of the Indians offering freedom to all the Cherokees remaining in the hills, if he and his sons would surrender and face the sentence of death for the crime of murder.
Tsali and his sons accepted the offer in order to save their people; they were shot by other Indians in a forced execution ordered by the military commander. The youngest son, Watisunia, only a child, was spared.
He and his descendents remained with those who became the nucleus of what is now the Eastern band of Cherokees. When Hernando deSoto, the Spanish explorer, visited America in 1540, he found a unified Cherokee nation of about 25,000. During the next three-hundred years, the Cherokees were divided, and lost most of their 135,000 square miles of land covering portions of what is now Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina.
This was known as Cherokee Territory; their capital changed from place to place depending upon the residence of the chief.
After the revolution, a major push was made by white settlers to remove the Cherokee. Land was offered to them in the west by the U. S. Government. Some willingly went west, and by 1825, thousands of Cherokees, Creeks and Seminoles were resettled in Oklahoma.
Most of the Cherokees resisted. From 1818 to 1825, New Echota, near Calhoun was the capital of the Cherokee Nation andwas the center of the most ambitious of all Native American exploits, the earliest experiments in national self-government ever attempted by an American Indian tribe.
Here in Georgia, the Cherokees established their own government patterned after the U. S. government, with a House and Senate.
Their reasoning was, "If they can, we can."
Groundwork for this impressive and unprecedented achievement was laid years earlier by Sequayah, the creative scholar, who invented the alphabet and syllabary for writing the Cherokee language.
Early in the 1800s, Christian missionaries began work among the Cherokees, educating and coverting many of them. These missionaries, many of whom were highly educated, tried to develop a written language, but failed.
Sequoyah never learned to read and write English, but he did what no one else had been able to do. Permanently crippled by a hunting accident, he buried himself in studies, and in 1808 began to put together his system of writing adapted to the language of the Cherokees.
Sequoyah was grossly misunderstood and often accused of witchcraft by other Cherokee. In 1818, he was with a group of over 2,000 that moved west. What he left behind was priceless.
Fortified with a system of writing, the Cherokees of New Echota wrote their own constitution and established their own nation.
At Echota they also built he very first Americn Indian printing press and printed the first bilingual newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, in Cherokee and English. The paper made headlines, not only in Georgia, but throughout the civilized world.
The Cherokees became the only people in the New World who had their own printing press, a symbol of their efforts to become civilized.
Georgians were delighted with the good news of this major turning point in Cherokee history, but they were not pleased with the fact that the Cherokees were also the first Native Americans to devise their own constitution and establish their own nation.
They were not pleased with having a separate nation within their own bounds.
Leaders in Georgia, upset by years of hostile border incidents and other problems involved in their dealings with the Cherokees and the other tribes, came to grips with the Indian issue and decided on a removal policy.
These leaders were convinced that no progress was possible while the American Indians were still in Georgia.
This lead to the fateful meeting December 29,1835, when representatives of the U. S. government and Cherokee leaders signed a treaty for removal to the west. Territory in the east was ceded to the government in exchange for $5,700,000 and land grants in the Indian Territory.
This action was repudiated by more than nine-tenths of the Cherokee Nation, and a number of them were put to death as traitors.
Then came the forced removal, "The trail of tears," which took nearly 200 days through torrential rains, ice storms, disease and broken spirits, a trek that took the lives of over 4,000 men, women and children.
It was a tragedy and a triumph for the Cherokee who met their rendezvous with destiny.