Situwaki contingent reached Indian Territory on Feb. 2, 1839
A map on the side panel of the “Remember the Removal” bicycle trailer shows the routes taken by Cherokee people in 1838-39 to reach Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. A majority of Cherokee people used the Northern Route to reach I.T. COURTESY
Shadow Hardbarger of Marble City, a member to the 2019 “Remember the Removal” team, stands next to a National Park Service sign that signifies that Fort Cass at Charleston, Tennessee, was the starting point for Cherokees who traveled the Trail of Tears. Thirteen contingents, including one led by Cherokee leader Situwaki, left from Charleston in late 1838 to travel to Indian Territory. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
A quote by Cherokee leader Elijah Hicks is part of an outdoor Trail of Tears exhibit near Adams, Tennessee. The exhibit sits next to a preserved part of the trail used by Cherokee people as they made their way up the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears. Hicks led one of the 13 contingents that traveled the Northern Route. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
JAY – On Feb. 2, 1839, one of 13 Cherokee contingents that traveled overland from Tennessee to Indian Territory completed its journey, settling in what are now Delaware and Mayes counties in eastern Oklahoma.
This contingent, led by Cherokee leader Situwaki, left a camp near Charleston, Tennessee, on Sept. 7, 1838, and traveled into Kentucky, Illinois and then across Missouri and Arkansas, stopping in Indian Territory. The route would become known as the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears.
Research archeologist at Western Carolina University, Brett Riggs, Ph.D., has researched and followed this contingent of Cherokees from the Aquohee (The Big Place) Community in North Carolina. He said the contingent voluntarily prepared to be moved west by the U.S. Army in June 1838 and were prepared to move when soldiers arrived to escort them to holding camps.
“This is a group of people, a community that was at Aquohee in North Carolina where present-day Brasstown is, were waiting at the Baptist church of Peter Oganaya. They left there on June 13, 1838, under Army escort,” Riggs said.
Before the roundup of Cherokee people began in May 1838, without consent of the Cherokee Nation government, the U.S. government set up forts throughout the CN in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee in preparation of forcibly removing the Cherokees when title to their lands expired at the end of June 1838, according to the Treaty of New Echota. Gen. Winfield Scott set up headquarters in Charleston and established a process to arrest and remove Cherokee people.
According to the book, “Cherokee Removal: Before and After” by William L. Anderson, thousands of Cherokees were moved to “emigration camps” in May 1838 to await removal. Riggs’ research states about 1,500 of the approximately 10,000 Cherokees held in and around Fort Cass near Charleston died from dysentery, starvation, food poisoning from the rancid meat and rotted corn meal, exposure, dehydration and other diseases common to such conditions of imprisonment.
The camps near Fort Cass were located between Charleston and Cleveland, Tennessee, south of and bordering on the Hiawassee River.
Initial plans to move Cherokees by boat in the summer of 1838 had to be changed because of low water levels on the Tennessee River. The first three contingents of Cherokee emigrants, with approximately 2,800 people, were divided and traveled by water on the Tennessee River. The first group, numbering approximately 800, departed June 6, 1838, with the other two detachments leaving after June 15. These three contingents traveled under military supervision.
The first three contingents are thought to have had a much higher death rate and desertions than the 13 subsequent contingents that left under their own supervision and without military escort.
Riggs said decades of artwork depicting U.S. soldiers pushing Cherokee people along the trail with bayonets is not accurate. He said the CN was in charge of the overland removals, so no U.S. soldiers were present.
“The leadership of the Cherokee Nation petitioned the removals be delayed because to move in mid-summer was like a death sentence. The country was dealing with cholera...something no one knew how to deal with,” he said.
Cholera infects the small intestine and is transmitted by contaminated water or food. Before the June roundup of Cherokees from North Carolina, Cherokee children were also dealing with whooping cough and dysentery that also affected the intestines and caused diarrhea. So the diseases were prevalent in the camps, and Cherokee and Army doctors could do little to help.
“I’m convinced that the major portion of mortality, of loss of life, in the whole process of the removal of the Cherokee people happened in these camps,” Riggs said.
In his research paper titled, “The Road from Aquohee – The Journey of a Cherokee Community,” Riggs said the trip to Indian Territory was supposed to take three weeks to nearly a month by steamboat, but because of low water levels on the Tennessee River, Cherokee people were to take an overland trip.
After a three-month delay, on Sept. 7, 1838, Situwaki led his contingent from Charleston to begin a five-month trip to Indian Territory. Along the way, the approximately 1,250 people from Aquohee endured one of the coldest winters in the 19th century.
Rev. Evan Jones, a white minister who had learned to speak Cherokee, assisted Situwaki. The detachment’s manager was Peter Oganaya, whose church the Aquohee people had gathered at to await the soldiers.
“They arrived at Beattie’s Prairie near the present-day town of Jay in Delaware County and disbanded at the mouth of Hogeye Creek on Feb. 2, 1839,” Riggs said.
Of the approximately 1,250 people who departed from Charleston, Tennessee, 71 died, and there were five births on the trail. Usually not accounted for are the deaths that occurred after the people reached their destination. It’s believed 800 to 2,000 more people died in I.T. along with the approximately 2,000 that died in the holding camps and on the trail.
Riggs said the Aquohee Cherokees “fanned out” from Beattie’s Prairie to settle in the Spavinaw Creek and Eucha area in what are now Delaware and Mayes counties.