“We are now about to take our leave and kind farewell to our native land, the country the Great Spirit gave our Fathers, we are on the eve of leaving that country that gave us birth, it is with sorrow we are forced by the white man to quit the scenes of our childhood…we bid farewell to it and all we hold dear.”
-Charles Hicks, Tsalagi (Cherokee) Vice Chief speaking of the Trail of Tears, November 4, 1838
From the summer of 1838 to the spring of 1839, about 18,000 indigenous Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their homeland. Among the Cherokee this time is known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands of indigenous people died during this forced relocation. Those who refused to leave either fled deeper into the mountains or some, being married to white settlers, were allowed to remain as second-class citizens with extremely limited rights. Direct descendents of those who stayed still live in North Georgia today. For them the Trail of Tears and the brutal legacy of genocide and forced removal at the hands of Anglo and Scots-Irish settler colonialist still stir painful memories.
The story of the Cherokee people’s conflict with European settler colonialists is far from unique. For decades the squatters who invaded this land and the occupying military force that soon followed honed their skills on dozens of other indigenous tribes in the east before moving into the Cherokee nation. The new settlers didn’t spare women, children or old people; in fact, they frequently targeted them.
Those same squatters and their descendants would later continue west in a deliberate effort to exterminate hundreds more tribes on the other side of the Mississippi. But perhaps no tribe made a stronger effort to assimilate into the culture of the new European settler colonialists than the Cherokee of the early 1800’s. They drafted a constitution, built schools, organized a court system, and adopted the clothing and customs of their white neighbors. Some of the wealthier Cherokee, often the product of indigenous intermarriage with European settlers, even built sprawling plantations and owned slaves, in a clear effort to adopt European economic practices and social structures.
In the end, none of this saved them from the fate the befell almost every other indigenous nation in what is now the United States. The state (and colony) of Georgia had been trying to move into Creek and Cherokee territory as early as the time of James Edward Oglethorpe with little luck.
In 1828 gold was discovered in the North Georgia mountains. Interestingly, even this little bit of history, so cherished by many locals, is wrapped in a troubled legacy. Of course the Cherokee knew about the gold long before European settlers arrived, but there are varying accounts as to which European settler “discovered” gold in the region. One account has Frank Logan finding gold along Dukes Creek in what is now White County, although it is very likely his African slave (name unknown) was responsible. Other alleged “discoverers” of local gold are known to have bought slaves on the square in downtown Dahlonega and imported others in the off-season from southern plantations.
Of course only in recent times, and rarely in local historical accounts, is this issue given any attention. The finding of gold in the area, though, is still celebrated, almost to the point of obsession. The city has an annual 3-day Gold Rush Days festival, an entire gold museum, and references to gold coat everything from local tourist literature, to the Lumpkin County Historical society logo, to the Dahlonega city seal.
Despite the presumption that slavery was mostly absent from Southern Appalachia, there are historical accounts of African slaves being forced to work in the local mining industry. Whether any of them lost their lives in the mining process is not documented, but it’s not difficult to imagine how miserable their working conditions must have been.
The southern Appalachian mountains, especially much of eastern Tennessee and parts of western North Carolina, was generally less supportive of the Confederate States of America (“the South”) during the civil war than the rest of the region. That likely had less to do with opposition to slavery than local people’s desire not to have their lives dictated (or their property taxed) by a faraway state government.
Lumpkin and Fannin counties were well-known hideouts for union sympathizers, deserters, and draft dodgers who refused to fight in a war in which they saw no interest. But the mixed sentiment and heavy anti-confederate sympathy in some parts of the region couldn’t spare everyone.
There were regular searches, beatings, and slayings of union sympathizers by confederate officials and vigilantes. In 1864, a Dahlonega businessman executed several suspected deserters. He was never brought to justice and the names of those victims are never mentioned in local historical accounts. Their story is not unique, though, and like those of the Cherokee and the African slaves who preceded them, they deserve to be remembered.
The counties and landmarks in this region: Gilmer, Forsyth, Lumpkin, Winfield Scott; still echo the names of avowed Indian killers, state governors, and government officials who oversaw the destruction, removal, and continuous breaking of government treaties with the Cherokee people. The names of famous Cherokee people, when remembered at all, are given token appreciation and stereotypical representation. Racist sentiments are high and sympathy for past racists and former and current white supremacist institutions remains strong in the area. We seek to put an end to that.
The descendants of those responsible for the Cherokee removal seem content to forget the part their ancestors played in destroying a thriving indigenous culture, but there are still several thousand Cherokee descendants in North Georgia alone. Their continued presence speaks to the enduring strength of Cherokee culture and history. Their stories deserve to be told and the destruction and genocide their ancestors faced need to be remembered.
There are several signs around Dahlonega that make passing reference to the Trail of Tears. One, placed by the Lumpkin County Historical Society and the City of Dahlonega, goes so far as to call the memory “bittersweet” – much to the dismay of local Cherokee residents who find nothing remotely sweet about their ancestors’ removal and the suffering it caused.
None of the signs speak to the actual horrors the Cherokee people faced on their thousand mile trek, which many didn’t even survive, to an unfamiliar land in northwest Oklahoma called “Indian Country.” In fact, the “Maibaum History Tree” in Hancock Park (also place by Lumpkin County Historical Society and City of Dahlonega) goes so far as to place the series of historical events completely out of order, making it seem as if the Cherokee left this land (or were forced away by some far away foreign entity) and then white settlers discovered gold and moved into unclaimed territory. Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of local history knows this is grossly inaccurate and it seems disturbingly intentional. White settlers squatted on Cherokee lands while the state of Georgia did everything in its power (even defying a Supreme Court ruling that sided with the Cherokee and auctioning off land to white settlers through a lottery system) to steal this land from its native inhabitants.
The state-run Gold Museum contains an exhibit about the Cherokee removal. Nowhere else but the Yahoola Cherokee Museum, run entirely by direct descendants of local Cherokee and funded by donations, can visitors (or even residents) find an accurate portrayal of what happened in this area. The Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee have worked diligently to get the museum up and running, part of a larger effort to build a permanent museum and pow wow grounds in the area. They continue to fight for local government recognition of the Cherokee people’s history and enduring legacy. They were able to get the Dahlonega city seal changed to include acknowledgement of an indigenous presence (an Indian in a canoe facing a miner panning for gold) and the name Dahlonega (Cherokee da-lo-ni-ge: place of gold) in the Cherokee syllabary directly below the (much larger) English name.
But the struggle continues. As descendants of European settlers (even if they weren’t original colonizers of this area), who have benefited from the theft of Cherokee lands and from black slavery and oppression, we have an obligation to make these things known and challenge racism and white supremacy in our community. We can never forget what happened in this land. We can never forget how we got here and who lost their lives, their homes, and their freedom, as a result. The Cherokee people are part of our history, but they do not lie only in the past. Despite all they’ve faced, including a concerted effort to exterminate their race and culture, the Cherokee and other indigenous people across the continent still live among us and they continue to resist. We can choose to either turn a blind eye to their suffering or join them in their fight for recognition, remembrance, and liberation. There is no room to waver.
As residents of the area surrounding the historical starting point of the Trail of Tears, Action in Dahlonega intends to show our support and solidarity with our Cherokee neighbors in their ongoing struggle for remembrance and respect. We will actively confront racism and white supremacy in Lumpkin County whenever we see it and wherever it attempts to hide. We will support the workers in our community and fight for respect of the workers who made this land what it is – and who lost all they had so we can be here.
As American Indian Movement activist and political prisoner Leonard Peltier said: “The injustice you allow against others will become injustice that comes against you.”
We choose to fight injustice not simply because we fear allowing it will come back to haunt us, but because we see ourselves as part of a larger family in a larger struggle. We see the Cherokee people, other indigenous Americans, and all oppressed people as fellow travellers in the journey toward liberation. And when they’re hurting, we hurt as well. We believe an injury to one is an injury to all and we will continue fighting for justice until all of us are free.