Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears
by Brian Hicks, Atlantic Monthly Press, 421 pages
On a stormy winter day in 1832 that brought snow and ice to New York City, a group gathered in Clinton Hall to hear two Cherokee speakers who were traveling the country in a final and desperate effort to ward off their tribe’s removal from its ancestral homelands. “You asked us to throw off the hunter and warrior state: we did so,” one of them told the crowd. “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.”
The speech so moved the crowd that the Cherokees left the city with $800 in donations and more than 6,000 names on a petition to Congress. But as Brian Hicks reports in his new book Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees,
and the Trail of Tears, no appeal to better nature of citizens, no political strategy, no legal arguments could save the tribe from landhungry Georgians. A few winters later, with hardly more than the clothes on their backs, the Cherokees would be forcibly marched west. As many as 4,000 perished on the way, and the ordeal became known as the Nunna daul
Isunyi — “ the Trail Where They Cried” — one of many relocations American Indians would endure in the 19th century.
The tale Hicks tells in his book is not new. In fact, it is now included in most standard American history textbooks. But in Hicks’ skilled hands, this account is a damning indictment that spares almost none of the nation’s leaders and creates an emphatic and engaging portrait of John Ross, who became known as the Cherokee Moses.
In 1828, when Ross was elected unanimously as chief of the Cherokees, he seemed an unlikely choice as a leader. Only one-eighth Cherokee, the son of a white man who had almost been killed by Cherokees, educated in white schools, and a merchant, Ross faced a daunting task. The national election that same year put Andrew Jackson in the White House and signaled to Georgians they would have a free hand to expel the Cherokees and seize their valuable land. Within two years Congress enacted, and Jackson signed, the Indian Removal Act, giving the president the right to negotiate removal treaties with eastern Indian tribes in which they would get land in the west in exchange for moving. The law was, at best, a legal ruse; at worst, a thinly veiled connivance to rid the east of Indians.
Ross, however, tenaciously clung to the belief that the Supreme Court would never permit the abrogation of more than a dozen treaties. But the Court ignominiously declared the Cherokees lacked standing as a sovereign people and declined to hear the case. It partially redeemed itself by ruling in a subsequent case that Georgia had no right to rule over the Cherokees; only the national government possessed such authority.
It was too little and too late. With the blessing of Jackson, the Georgians began to take over the Cherokee lands. In fact, Hicks movingly recounts how Ross returned late one night from one of his endless and fruitless trips to Washington to find a new family living in his house. He was begrudgingly accorded a bed in the guest room.
The laws, governance, and culture that the Cherokees had been urged to adopt did not live up to their own promise. A soldier who was charged with arresting Ross neatly summed up the failure. Questioned about his authority, the soldier tells Ross, “In Georgia it’s not law, it’s all power.” So it fell to Ross, as one of his last acts as a leader, to lead his defeated Cherokees on the famous and deadly trek west, during which his wife died along with thousands of others.
Toward the Setting Sun is a solid, wellresearched work that helps set the record straight on the injustice done to the Cherokees and illuminates a dark chapter in our nation’s history. It is what historians do best.
One fault that some readers may find with the author’s work is Hicks’ belief that the Cherokee’s adoption of white civilization was a desirable thing rather than a loss in and of itself. In praising the Cherokees for becoming one of the “most civilized” American Indian tribes, Hicks fails to see how the calamity that befell them took root long before they were forced from their ancestral homeland. It began when they were enticed to adopt the white man’s way and renounce their own. They gained nothing but betrayal.
— James McGrath Morris