To­ward the Set­ting Sun: John Ross, the Chero­kees, and the Trail of Tears

by Brian Hicks, At­lantic Monthly Press, 421 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

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

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