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By RAY LENARCIC
Any success I have had in life is due to the education I received at Fredonia State University and elsewhere. As for the latter, I evolved from a nerd-looking loner to “one of the boys,” a social butterfly accustomed to Jack and Rose Nolan’s convivial palace, the Colonia Inn, where the 25-cent Michelob replaced milk as the drink of choice and real-life experiences replaced the things I had heard about the opposite sex.
Academically, I had the great opportunity to be educated by a group of the best history teachers in the world – Doctors Roselle, Chazanof and Hagan.
Hagan’s course on American Indians had the most profound and lasting impact on my professional life. Not only did he expose me to the truth about what happened to our Native people, but he later motivated me to develop a Native American history course at Herkimer County Community College – the first of its kind in the state on a two-year university level. In his memory, I have chosen one of the aforementioned truths as the basis for my July 4, 2022 article.
On July 4, 1838, as millions of Americans celebrated our 62nd birthday, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, John Ross, and thousands of his people languished in what historian Francis Prucha called “concentration camps.” The fact that the Cherokee were there was the consequence of one of the most despicable acts ever perpetrated by a government against a people. Unlike many other Indian nations in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Cherokee opted for peaceful reconciliation and assimilation rather than violent resistance in the face of the white man’s relentless efforts to drive them from their homes. ancestral lands.
By the 1830s their transformation was so complete that some whites contemptuously called them “apples”-red on the outside and white on the inside. When Ross was ELECTED Principal Chief by his UNICAMERAL (one house) legislature, the National Council, he found himself presiding over a literate, BILINGUAL AND ECONOMICALLY DIVERSIFIED population governed by WRITTEN LAWS enforced by a POLICE FORCE and administered by a JUDICIAL SYSTEM. Many Ross voters were CHRISTIANS attending churches overseen by native pastors. The Cherokee had become the model par excellence of assimilation.
Unfortunately, their transformation meant nothing to a federal government led by a president (Andy “get rid of the $20 bill” Jackson) who appeased his agitated pro-slavery southern supporters by pressuring Congress to pass the Removal Bill of 1830 which provided him with the money to renegotiate treaties with Indian nations east of the Mississippi . Despite a Supreme Court decision written by iconic Chief Justice John Marshall in 1832 (Worcester v. Georgia) upholding the federal government’s treaty obligations, Jackson’s agents successfully bribed a Cherokee politician named John Ridge and his cronies representing only 5% of the population to sign a new treaty (Echota) in 1835. None other than Henry Clay castigated the Senate’s ratification of the fraudulent Echota as a disgrace.
Ross and the majority of the Cherokee chose to resist the withdrawal passively in hopes of having the treaty abrogated. But without the support of an American public still adhering to the “Indian as Savage” stereotypical and unable to convince enough senators to change their votes, Ross’ delaying tactics failed. Martin Van Buren, a Jackson puppet and his successor, ordered General Winfield Scott and several thousand troops to drive out the Cherokees. The result was a diaspora that would forever stain the face of this nation.
Lt. James Mooney provided eyewitness testimony of what happened. He described several families gathered together in the middle of their evening meal, allowed to take with them only what they could carry.
As soon as they leave, the dregs of humanity following in the army’s wake occupy their homes and steal their possessions.
The lieutenant marveled that, despite their work, there was no incident of resistance. Ross wouldn’t allow it. And he marveled that the Cherokee still raise their voices in praise of God during Sunday services in the concentration camp. They had lost everything except their faith in a religion that meant so much more to them than to the President and Congress.
In what Grant Foreman labeled “The Path of Tears” over 14,000 Cherokee went west on their own death march from Bataan. An estimated 4,000 people died, many of them children and women, including Ross’s beloved wife. Most perished of starvation and disease while others were killed by bayonets. They ended up in northeastern Oklahoma where, although they had to overcome many hardships, under Ross’s leadership they rebuilt a new life as farmers and ranchers. Today, the Cherokee are the largest Native American nation in this country with some 380,000 tribal citizens living worldwide (140,000 reside in Oklahoma). For more on the Cherokee, check out And Still the Water Runs by Angie Debo.
On the 4th, the most memorable words of Jefferson’s (John Locke) semi-plagiarized statement will be repeated in countless towns and cities. “We hold these words to be self-evident, that ALL men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain INALIENABLE Rights, among which are LIFE, FREEDOM, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As we celebrate our 246th anniversary, let us pledge, in memory of the victims of the Trail of Tears, to work together to make these noble sentiments a reality for ALL. And let’s never forget that while July 4, 1776 marked the beginning of our independence, it marked the beginning of the end for the Cherokees.
Ray Lenarcic graduated from the State University of New York at Fredonia in 1965 and resides in Herkimer.