Native American Legends
The Trail Of Tears
("Nunna daul Tsuny" translated from
the Cherokee, "The place where they cried")
This is a true story of the Cherokee Indian Removal, known as the
"Trail of Tears" as told by Private John G. Burnett, McClellan's
Company, 2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Infantry, to his children
on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It is the most telling and
most painful account of this sad chapter in our nation's history
that I have read. You cannot read it without a lump in your throat
and a tear in your eye.
After reading it you may feel it is not appropriate to share with
your young young Indians until they are older - but be sure to read
it yourself - and share it with them when they are ready. It is
-- Big Eagle Charlie Stone
This is my birthday, December 11, 1890, I am eighty years old today.
I was born at Kings Iron Works in Sullivan County, Tennessee, December
the 11th, 1810. I grew into manhood fishing in Beaver Creek and
roaming through the forest hunting the deer and the wild boar and
the timber wolf. Often spending weeks at a time in the solitary
wilderness with no companions but my rifle, hunting knife, and a
small hatchet that I carried in my belt in all of my wilderness
On these long hunting trips I met and became acquainted with many
of the Cherokee Indians, hunting with them by day and sleeping around
their camp fires by night. I learned to speak their language, and
they taught me the arts of trailing and building traps and snares.
On one of my long hunts in the fall of 1829, I found a young Cherokee
who had been shot by a roving band of hunters and who had eluded
his pursuers and concealed himself under a shelving rock. Weak from
loss of blood, the poor creature was unable to walk and almost famished
I carried him to a spring, bathed and bandaged the bullet wound,
and built a shelter out of bark peeled from a dead chestnut tree.
I nursed and protected him feeding him on chestnuts and toasted
deer meat. When he was able to travel I accompanied him to the home
of his people and remained so long that I was given up for lost.
By this time I had become an expert rifleman and fairly good archer
and a good trapper and spent most of my time in the forest in quest
The removal of Cherokee Indians from their life long homes in the
year of 1838 found me a young man in the prime of life and a Private
soldier in the American Army. Being acquainted with many of the
Indians and able to fluently speak their language, I was sent as
interpreter into the Smoky Mountain Country in May, 1838, and witnessed
the execution of the most brutal order in the history of American
I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes,
and driven at bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill
of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like
cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started
toward the west.
One can never forget the sadness and solemnity of that morning.
Chief John Ross led in prayer and when the bugle sounded and the
wagons started rolling many of the children rose to their feet and
waved their little hands good-by to their mountain homes, not knowing
they were leaving them forever. Many of these helpless people did
not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefooted.
On the morning of November the 17th we encountered a terrific sleet
and snow storm with freezing temperatures and from that day until
we reached the end of the fateful journey on March the 26th, 1839,
the sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The trail of the exiles
was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the
ground without fire. And I have known as many as twenty-two of them
to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold, and
exposure. Among this number was the beautiful Christian wife of
Chief John Ross. This noble hearted woman died a martyr to childhood,
giving her only blanket for the protection of a sick child. She
rode thinly clad through a blinding sleet and snow storm, developed
pneumonia and died in the still hours of a bleak winter night, with
her head resting on Lieutenant Greggs saddle blanket.
I made the long journey to the west with the Cherokees and did
all that a Private soldier could do to alleviate their sufferings.
When on guard duty at night I have many times walked my beat in
my blouse in order that some sick child might have the warmth of
my overcoat. I was on guard duty the night Mrs. Ross died. When
relieved at midnight I did not retire, but remained around the wagon
out of sympathy for Chief Ross, and at daylight was detailed by
Captain McClellan to assist in the burial like the other unfortunates
who died on the way. Her unconfined body was buried in a shallow
grave by the roadside far from her native home, and the sorrowing
cavalcade moved on.
Being a young man, I mingled freely with the young women and girls.
I have spent many pleasant hours with them when I was supposed to
be under my blanket, and they have many times sung their mountain
songs for me, this being all that they could do to repay my kindness.
And with all my association with Indian girls from October 1829
to March 26th 1839, I did not meet one who was a moral prostitute.
They are kind and tender hearted and many of them are beautiful.
The only trouble that I had with anybody on the entire journey
to the west was a brutal teamster by the name of Ben McDonal, who
was using his whip on an old feeble Cherokee to hasten him into
the wagon. The sight of that old and nearly blind creature quivering
under the lashes of a bull whip was too much for me. I attempted
to stop McDonal and it ended in a personal encounter. He lashed
me across the face, the wire tip on his whip cutting a bad gash
in my cheek. The little hatchet that I had carried in my hunting
days was in my belt and McDonal was carried unconscious from the
I was placed under guard but Ensign Henry Bullock and Private Elkanah
Millard had both witnessed the encounter. They gave Captain McClellan
the facts and I was never brought to trial. Years later I met 2nd
Lieutenant Riley and Ensign Bullock at Bristol at John Roberson's
show, and Bullock jokingly reminded me that there was a case still
pending against me before a court martial and wanted to know how
much longer I was going to have the trial put off?
McDonal finally recovered, and in the year 1851, was running a
boat out of Memphis, Tennessee.
The long painful journey to the west ended March 26th, 1839, with
four- thousand silent graves reaching from the foothills of the
Smoky Mountains to what is known as Indian territory in the West.
And covetousness on the part of the white race was the cause of
all that the Cherokees had to suffer. Ever since Ferdinand DeSoto
made his journey through the Indian country in the year 1540, there
had been a tradition of a rich gold mine somewhere in the Smoky
Mountain Country, and I think the tradition was true. At a festival
at Echota on Christmas night 1829, I danced and played with Indian
girls who were wearing ornaments around their neck that looked like
In the year 1828, a little Indian boy living on Ward creek had
sold a gold nugget to a white trader, and that nugget sealed the
doom of the Cherokees. In a short time the country was overrun with
armed brigands claiming to be government agents, who paid no attention
to the rights of the Indians who were the legal possessors of the
country. Crimes were committed that were a disgrace to civilization.
Men were shot in cold blood, lands were confiscated. Homes were
burned and the inhabitants driven out by the gold- hungry brigands.
Chief Junaluska was personally acquainted with President Andrew
Jackson. Junaluska had taken 500 of the flower of his Cherokee scouts
and helped Jackson to win the battle of the Horse Shoe, leaving
33 of them dead on the field. And in that battle Junaluska had drove
his tomahawk through the skull of a Creek warrior, when the Creek
had Jackson at his mercy.
Chief John Ross sent Junaluska as an envoy to plead with President
Jackson for protection for his people, but Jackson's manner was
cold and indifferent toward the rugged son of the forest who had
shaved his life. He met Junaluska, heard his plea but curtly said,
"Sir, your audience is ended. There is nothing I can do for
you." The doom of the Cherokee was sealed. Washington, D.C.,
had decreed that they must be driven West and their lands iven to
the white man, and in May 1838, an army of 4000 regulars, and 3000
volunteer soldiers under command of General Winfield Scott, marched
into the Indian country and wrote the blackest chapter on the pages
of American history.
Men working in the fields were arrested and driven to the stockades.
Women were dragged from their homes by soldiers whose language they
could not understand. Children were often separated from their parents
and driven into the stockades with the sky for a blanket and the
earth for a pillow. And often the old and infirm were prodded with
bayonets to hasten them to the stockades.
In one home death had come during the night. A little sad-faced
child had died and was lying on a bear skin couch and some women
were preparing the little body for burial. All were arrested and
driven out leaving the child in the cabin. I don't know who buried
In another home was a frail mother, apparently a widow and three
small children, one just a baby. When told that she must go, the
mother gathered the children at her feet, prayed a humble prayer
in her native tongue, patted the old family dog on the head, told
the faithful creature good-by, with a baby strapped on her back
and leading a child with each hand started on her exile. But the
task was too great for that frail mother. A stroke of heart failure
relieved her sufferings. She sunk and died with her baby on her
back, and her other two children clinging to her hands.
Chief Junaluska who had saved President Jackson's life at the battle
of Horse Shoe witnessed this scene, the tears gushing down his cheeks
and lifting his cap he turned his face toward the heavens and said,
"Oh my God, if I had known at the battle of the Horse Shoe
what I know now, American history would have been differently written."
At this time, 1890, we are too near the removal of the Cherokees
for our young people to fully understand the enormity of the crime
that was committed against a helpless race. Truth is, the facts
are being concealed from the young people of today. School children
of today do not know that we are living on lands that were taken
from a helpless race at the bayonet point to satisfy the white man's
Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope
posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like
the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an
Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our
superiors. We had no choice in the matter.
Twenty-five years after the removal it was my privilege to meet
a large company of the Cherokees in uniform of the Confederate Army
under command of Colonel Thomas. They were encamped at Zollicoffer
and I went to see them. Most of them were just boys at the time
of the removal but they instantly recognized me as "the soldier
that was good to us". Being able to talk to them in their native
language I had an enjoyable day with them. From them I learned that
Chief John Ross was still ruler in the nation in 1863. And I wonder
if he is still living? He was a noble-hearted fellow and suffered
a lot for his race.
At one time, he was arrested and thrown into a dirty jail in an
effort to break his spirit, but he remained true to his people and
led them in prayer when they started on their exile. And his Christian
wife sacrificed her life for a little girl who had pneumonia. The
Anglo-Saxon race would build a towering monument to perpetuate her
noble act in giving her only blanket for comfort of a sick child.
Incidentally the child recovered, but Mrs. Ross is sleeping in a
unmarked grave far from her native Smoky Mountain home.
When Scott invaded the Indian country some of the Cherokees fled
to caves and dens in the mountains and were never captured and they
are there today. I have long intended going there and trying to
find them but I have put off going from year to year and now I am
too feeble to ride that far. The fleeing years have come and gone
and old age has overtaken me. I can truthfully say that neither
my rifle nor my knife were stained with Cherokee blood.
I can truthfully say that I did my best for them when they certainly
did need a friend. Twenty-five years after the removal I still lived
in their memory as "the soldier that was good to us".
However, murder is murder whether committed by the villain skulking
in the dark or by uniformed men stepping to the strains of martial
Murder is murder, and somebody must answer. Somebody must explain
the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer
of 1838. Somebody must explain the 4000 silent graves that mark
the trail of the Cherokees to their exile. I wish I could forget
it all, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over the frozen
ground with their cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my
Let the historian of a future day tell the sad story with its sighs,
its tears and dying groans. Let the Great Judge of all the earth
weigh our actions and reward us according to our work.
Children - Thus ends my promised birthday story. This December
the 11th 1890.
-- John G. Burnett
Also read The
Trail of Tears - Choctaw
Native American Legends
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