Changing Views of the Removal of the Cherokees from Georgia (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 25)

[NOTE:  Over the past several years, while researching Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1807-1845 (2015), I read a lot of books on Cherokee removal and the “Trail of Tears,” key events during the years covered in that volume.  These works run the gamut when it comes to their usefulness to the classroom teacher who is trying to help students make sense of Georgia’s treatment of the Cherokees.  So, I thought I’d offer a rundown of some of them, with a few comments of my own, as a way of suggesting how well they might go over in the classroom, or at least how they might serve as a resource for the teacher.  I’ve arranged the list chronologically, in order of publication.] 

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Wilkins, Cherokee Tragedy

Wilkins, Thurman. Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People.  Paperback; 2nd ed., revised. Norman, Okla. Red River Books, the University of Oklahoma Press, 1986 (1st ed., 1970). As the subtitle suggests, this is the story of Cherokee removal and the “Trail of Tears” through the eyes of Major Ridge and his son John Ridge. Well-researched, clearly written, and more even-handed than the subtitle might suggest.  And, as a paperback imprint of Red River Books, this volume should be readily available.

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Ehle, Trail of Tears

Ehle, John. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. Paperback; New York: Anchor Books, 1988.  I found this work frustrating, and occasionally infuriating. Ehle seems to be writing as a novelist, or at least for the stereotypical “general reader.” He only cites sources for direct quotes, and many of those are taken from other secondary works on the topic. But, if you’re interested in “story” rather than “history,” this might be the book for you.  In fairness, it is engagingly written; the chronological scope runs from the birth of Major Ridge (c. 1771) through the Trail of Tears (1838-1839); and an epilogue carries the story to the end of the Civil War, at least in a sketchy way.

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Perdue, Boudinot

Perdue, Theda, ed. Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot. Paperback; Athens, Ga., and London: Brown Thrasher Books, the University of Georgia Press, 1996. A wonderful compilation, not least because the editor demonstrates consummate skill in selecting important editorials from the Cherokee Phoenix, along with Boudinot’s more propagandistic efforts (e.g., An Address to the Whites; and his controversial pamphlet, Letters and Other Papers relating to Cherokee Affairs: Being a Reply to Sundry Publications Authorized by John Ross); as well as a few of Boudinot’s contributions to other contemporary American periodicals. Also not to be missed: Perdue’s 35 page biographical introduction; no fan of Boudinot, the editor’s closing assessment of the man is thoughtful, yet devastating.  And, because this is an imprint of Brown Thrasher Books, it should be available for years to come.

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Garrison, Legal Ideology of Removal

Garrison, Tim Alan. The Legal Ideology of Removal: The Southern Judiciary and the Sovereignty of Native American Nations.  Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, 2002. Garrison views the work of the southern courts in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee as crucial in creating the legal justification for Indian removal, which, once developed, enabled southern states, especially Georgia, to ignore the rulings of the United States Supreme Court involving the Cherokees. The cases he examines grew out of decisions by southern states to extend their laws over territory claimed by the Cherokees within their borders.  Garrison explicitly shifts the focus of the removal controversy to state courtrooms, away from the famous clash of President Andrew Jackson and various Georgia governors with Chief John Ross of the Cherokees, which makes the volume pretty dry.  This one’s for teachers, not for high school or college students.

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Perdue and Green, Cherokee Removal with Documents

Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green. The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents.  Paperback; 2nd ed. Boston & New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. Just what it says: the history covers about 25 pp., documents about 160 pp. Also includes chronology and serviceable index.  This text is perfect for the classroom, especially if used in conjunction with readily available primary sources on the subject (see NOTE below).

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Perdue and Green, Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears

Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green. The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears. New York: Viking, 2007. Short (164 pp. of text), hardback volume in the “Penguin Library of American Indian History.” Another fine selection for the classroom.  A concise treatment of the topic, with no primary sources included (i.e., it’s like an expanded version of the 25-page history of Cherokee removal offered by Perdue and Green in the preceding volume, but with none of the documents that might help bring the issue to life).  Considering both cost and the approach adopted here, I recommend the preceding Perdue/Green volume from Bedford/St. Martin’s over this one.

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Langguth, Driven West

Langguth, A.J. Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. A strange yet readable volume by a popular historian, Driven West tries, with mixed success, to place Indian removal within the concept of Manifest Destiny and, by extension, within the struggle over slavery in the territories that led to the Civil War. Langguth traces the story using chapters focused on both prominent white American figures (Henry Clay through John Tyler) and Native Americans (Sequoyah through Stand Watie). Overly ambitious, but accessible.

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Hicks, Toward the Setting Sun

Hicks, Brian. Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011. Cherokee removal set within the rivalry between Andrew Jackson and John Ross. Very harsh on the “Treaty Party,” whose members signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, describing them as “a group of renegade Cherokees, hungry for the money promised for their land if they relocated beyond the Mississippi, [who] joined forces with Jackson’s men on a removal treaty.”  But, for balance, one also needs to consider Daniel Blake Smith’s An American Betrayal:  Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears (see below), which tends to support the members of the “Treaty Party” over the Ross faction.

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Smith, An American Betrayal

Smith, Daniel Blake. An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears.  New York: Henry Holt, 2011.  Once more, Andrew Jackson is the villain, but the “Cherokee Patriots” in the subtitle are none other than the members of the “Treaty Party” who signed the New Echota agreement (1835), with special emphasis on John Ridge and Elias Boudinot.  Smith’s treatment needs to be compared with that by Hicks, above.

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Inskeep, Jacksonland

Inskeep, Steve. Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and the Great American Land Grab.  New York: Penguin Press, 2015. As the subtitle suggests, Inskeep casts his tale, like Brian Hicks above, as the product of the rivalry between two former allies, Andrew Jackson and Cherokee Chief John Ross (during the Creek War that culminated in the epochal Treaty of Horseshoe Bend in 1814), who dueled for over a quarter of a century about whether the Cherokees would be allowed to remain in what Inskeep dubs “Jacksonland.” Jackson is clearly the villain here, but Inskeep paints his villainy in soft, muted colors; Ross is the hero, though, again, the author does not enlist in his cause uncritically.

I especially enjoyed Inskeep’s treatment of the part ultimately played by Georgia’s infamous Yazoo Land Fraud in Indian removal (see here and here), which goes off in some surprising directions but makes sense nonetheless. Moreover, Inskeep’s handling of the greedy, arrogant, quick-tempered Georgians who made life so difficult for Ross and the Cherokees is admirable, says one who’s been studying them for almost five decades.  This work also includes the best explanation of the motives of the leaders of the Treaty Party that I’ve seen, again without validating their position. A thoroughly delightful read about a complex, depressing subject.

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One thing that comes through in reviewing these volumes is that there has been a decided shift in trying to explain Cherokee removal over the last half century or so–the first edition of the Wilkins book was published in 1970.  In the works examined here, unlike in earlier works, there is no real effort to exculpate President Andrew Jackson for his role in the Cherokee removal controversy:  the attitude is, more or less, he’s white, he’s President, he’s southern, he’s a slaveholder, so what more could you have expected?

On the other hand, there is still a serious historical debate when it comes to apportioning blame among Cherokee leaders. Was John Ross’s stubborn resistance to removal noble, or was he simply being unrealistic in the context of 1830s America?  Were the leaders of the “Treaty Party” a bunch of “Uncle Tom-Toms,” or were they the ones who saw the future most clearly and attempted to pull the Cherokees in the “right” direction, only to lose their lives as a result?  These are not easy questions for the classroom teacher, nor for his/her students, to answer, but grappling with them is certainly worth the struggle.

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[NOTE:  Please remember that using one or more of the works discussed in this post should not be the only source(s) a teacher employs to help his/her students make sense of the events leading up to the “Trail of Tears.”  Any teacher worth his/her salt will want to incorporate primary sources into such a study.

For example, Georgia newspapers of the period, many of which are available online, would be wonderful supplements to whichever secondary source(s) a teacher elects to assign.  In addition, I have posted on this blog a two-part essay on the Cherokee Phoenix and its role in covering the Indian Removal crisis from the perspective of the Cherokees that is sympathetic to Phoenix editor Boudinot and other leaders of the “Treaty Party” (see here and here).

Please bear in mind that I’m not offering my effort in explaining the coming of the “Trail of Tears” as the be all and end all.  The blog posts on Boudinot and the Cherokee Phoenix, and those on the Yazoo Land Fraud, noted above, sketch my interpretation; for additional details and deeper context, see Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities.  Still, working through the Cherokee Removal issue enabled me to approach the topic in that book with some degree of objectivity, and without having to ram my head into the nearest wall, metaphorically or otherwise.]

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For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)


About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in "Cherokee Phoenix" (newspaper), American History, Books, Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Removal, Chief John Ross (Cherokees), Civil War, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Form, WP Long Read and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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