What’s In a History? “Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation”
When is the last time your immersed yourself in the history of a research locality? You might know the records well and have a basic understanding of the history and geography, but reading a full length book is an excellent way to bolster your genealogy knowledge.
As a southern United States researcher I often come across land records that state something like “land obtained by the Creek Session of 1832.” I had a vague understanding of the five civilized tribes removal from the states of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Alabama in the 1830s but hadn’t connected that to the land records I viewed. It wasn’t until I read John Ehle’s account titled Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation that I truly understood how my ancestors were able to move west and settle “new lands.”
Ehle published the book in 1988 and in the acknowledgements gives the reader the reason for writing.
My editor, Marshall DeBruhl, and I grew up in Asheville, not far from Cherokee, and as children we absorbed many impressions of the Cherokees and stories of their past. Early in life we became aware, as they taught us, that the earth is flat and is suspended from its four corners by great ropes, and in the center of the Earth live the Principal people, the Cherokee.
Sixteen pages of end notes, a six page bibliography, and a full index make this an excellent resource for anyone seeking to understand the era. Ehle focuses on a few key individuals and their engrossing story takes the reader from 1781 post-revolutionary United States to the newly formed Indian Territory of 1841.
I was particularly interested in this book because many of my paternal ancestors had moved north from Texas into Indian Territory by 1900. The territory became the state of Oklahoma in 1907 and my dad lived for a time in Tahlequah in the 1930s. Tahlequah was the capital of the Cherokee Nation after moving west and remains the capital of the two Cherokee tribes in current day Oklahoma.
Discovering the why and how of Indian Territory has been a goal for the last few years. I’ve read short articles to get the general idea of the history, but there is nothing like diving into a 400 page book to truly understand the why and how of the past.
Reading Trail of Tears I not only learned about the settling of Indian Territory in the 1830s by the five civilized tribes, I discovered how their land was divided up by the government and sold to white settlers following their expulsion. The land records I had located and studied took on new meaning.
Consider the land grant for George W. Dillard, dated 31 July 1840 for 320 acres located in Section 5, Township 21 North Range 27 East, St. Stephens Meridian. The title for this land was granted or sold to him under the military act of the Creek Treaty of 1832. The land record gives the original owner as “Emarthal or E-he Molly, a chief.”
Could this have been the same chief described in Trail of Tears as “Chief Enah Emathla” who at age 84 was driven west with a thousand of his people? (p 286) Perhaps not, but I can’t help wonder.
How about the land case file for my 3rd great grandfather, Thomas B. Royston. Witness statements by two fellow settlers state
that said Royston settled on said quarter prior to January 1837- that he erected a dwelling house unfinish [sic] in which he has lived and made his home from that time to the year 1840 . . . and that he cultivated during that period about sixty acres and was the head of a family having a wife and children.
Why did Thomas B. Royston move on to the land in DeKalb County, Alabama? The 1832 treaty agreed to the relocation of 20,000 Creeks in Alabama to Indian Territory in the west. Land speculators from Columbus, Georgia, bought up the Creek lands then encouraged hostilities between the Native Americans and the white settlers. The brief Creek war of 1836 ended with the military rounding up the Creeks and sending them to Indian Territory.
With the expulsion of the Creeks, Thomas Royston moved onto the land, and after having lived there for a certain time, paid for the land, and received a land patent from the United States government.
John Ehle in Trail of Tears cites a newspaper article discussing the situation in 1835.
Is this country never to enjoy a season of repose? Are interested land speculators from Alabama and Georgia longer to palm off their deception on the public? Who believes that the Creeks are about to assume a hostile attitude toward the whites/ We answer no one. . . . The war with the Creeks is all a humbug. It is a base and diabolical scheme devised by interested men, to keep an ignorant race of people from maintaining their just rights. (p. 285-6)
As genealogists and family historians we tend to look at our ancestor’s with rose colored glasses but really they were just people, caught up in the reality of their time and place. How important is it for us to learn the history? That is for each of us to determine. As for me, I’ll never again look at another land record with dispassionate eyes. Instead I’ll remember what it took for that land to be available to the white settlers. All because I read a book.
What books have you read that shed new light on your family history research?
SourcesRuth Royal Crump, Chambers County, Alabama,Tract Book, (Huguley, Alabama : Genealogical Roving Press, 1984), 87.  Thomas B. Royston (DeKalb County) cash entry file. 1842. state volume patent no.5969. Lebanon, Alabama, Land Office.; Land Entry Papers 1800-1908, Record Group 49: Records of the Bureau of Land Management; National Archives, Washington, D.C.