("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
Indians until they are older - but be sure to read it yourself - and share it
with them when they are ready. It is powerful.
-- 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 campfires
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 for water.
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 of
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 Warfare.
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
On the morning of November the 17th we encountered a terrific sleet and
snowstorm 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 snowstorm, developed pneumonia and died in the still hours
of a bleak winter night, with her head resting on Lieutenant Greggs saddle
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 bullwhip 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 scene.
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
McDonal finally recovered, and in the year 1851, was running a boat out of
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 gold.
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 saved 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
given 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 bearskin 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 the body.
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 greed.
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 music.
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 memory.
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
-- John G. Burnett