For decades, these native people had sought to live alongside the descendants of white Europeans. The Cherokee dressed like whites, built similar homes and farms, and tried to govern themselves with institutions modeled on those of whites – but their small nation was ultimately no match for the combined power of the U.S. and Georgia governments. In the end, the Cherokee were expelled from the state; forced to travel to territories west of the Mississippi along a route that would be called the “Trail of Tears.”
Many people know the tragic story of the Cherokee, but a new project led in part by the University of West Georgia’s Center for Public History is adding a new depth of understanding to this chapter in American (and Native American) history.
It is the first of what may be a series of projects in which UWG joins with the National Park Service to do historical research.
“It’s a win-win-win situation,” explained Jeff Bishop, whose research on the Cherokee removal is directed by UWG on behalf of the Park Service.
He said the government benefits from front-line work in an age of budget austerity; UWG profits by giving students “real hands-on experience”; and students like himself benefit not only by doing such projects, but by doing so under the experienced leadership of the Center for Public History.
Bishop’s work this semester has focused on the area around Cave Spring, which not only was the site of one of several removal forts used to round up the Cherokee for deportation, but was a major community for the Native Americans decades earlier; one which was the scene of early incursion by whites – including, unfortunately, people from Carroll County.
Bishop explained that Highway 27 follows the route of an ancient Indian trade route which crossed a similar path running east-west near Tallapoosa.
“It would be accurate to say that Carroll County was kind of the doorway to the Cherokee nation. It was right there on the border and that’s where (whites) streamed in, was on the Carrollton road.”
It was this road that the “Pony Club” – a loose association of horse thieves and bandits based in West Georgia – used to raid into Cherokee lands and occasionally attempt to take over Cherokee farms. In February 1830, eight years before the removal, a group of 17 white families from Georgia and Alabama took possession of Cherokee homes near what was then known as Beaver Dam. They were driven out by the Cherokee in a skirmish that the Cherokee newspaper, “The Phoenix,” reported as the “first blood” shed in the removal process.
In the years leading up to the removal, such incursions became more frequent. The discovery of gold, Bishop said, has been “overemphasized” as the reason whites wanted the land – mostly it was the farmland the Cherokee had already developed. Georgia’s government offered no protection, because it had already moved to nullify the Indians’ laws over their own territory.
“Because Cherokees could not testify against whites in court, if a Cherokee had been wronged, there was no recourse. The whites could come in and basically just take what they wanted,” Bishop said, and that included farms that had already been cleared, with houses and outbuildings ready to occupy.
In Cave Spring, Bishop and his fellow researchers have found what remains of an original Cherokee building which was encased within a hotel built by whites after the removal. The Floyd County town was also the location for The Cedar Town Station, one of several sites where the Cherokee were concentrated before being sent west.
Bishop explained that the Cherokee sought legal protections from the federal government against the actions of Georgia, but although they had a winning legal argument, President Andrew Jackson endorsed the state’s desire to evict the Cherokee and sent federal troops to do so in 1838. The removal took place over the next few years, and it was the Cherokee themselves who took over the last forced evacuations, taking the route known as the “Trail of Tears.”
Bishop, a former newspaper reporter with a lifelong interest in the Cherokee, is working with the Park Service to create brochures and other material that will tell their story in a way never done before.
“No brochure exists right now to let people know where these places are,” he says. “For the first time, if people want to tour the Trail of Tears they can do so using this brochure … this is the first time we’ve ever actually had a brochure like this to tell the story.”
UWG is working with the Park Service under a Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Units agreement, a program set up by the Interior Department to partner with universities to do this kind of research.
“This is the first time that (UWG) has engaged in this,” Bishop said. “We hope this will be the first of many, many, many to come.”