Today marks the 176th anniversary of the arrival of the final group of displaced Cherokee people to the “Indian Territory” in present-day state of Oklahoma. This is also the 2nd annual “Trail of Tears Remembrance Day.” It’s estimated that about 18,000 Cherokee people were forced from their homes, many dying along the way, on the thousand-mile journey to the other side of the Mississippi.
Over 125,000 Native Americans lived in the southeastern United States at the beginning of the 1830’s. By the end of the decade, nearly all of them were removed to make way for white settler colonialists. Some, however, remained, either moving deeper into the mountain wilderness or as second-class citizens who were married to, or descendants of, European settlers.
Dahlonega is, if not the physical at least the psychological, starting point of the Trail of Tears. Local historical lore would have us believe the Cherokee people were removed because gold was found in the area. No doubt that precipitated the events that led to the Indian Removal Act, but Georgia settler colonialists had their eyes set on the area west of the Savannah River from the time James Edward Oglethorpe founded the colony in 1733. By the 1830’s, the state of Georgia and other US territories completely surrounded the sovereign Cherokee nation.
Nor is it only the federal government that bears responsibility for the forced Cherokee removal, Native American genocide, and attempted extermination of indigenous nations over the course of more than two centuries. Supreme Court rulings in 1831 and 1832 decided in favor of the Cherokee. Still, president Andrew Jackson moved ahead, declaring, “John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” This paved the way for the state of Georgia to auction off Cherokee lands (which they’d already been doing even before the Indian Removal Act and the discovery of gold) to white settler colonialists and remove the People from their ancestral home, with the assistance of the US Army. The local mining industry boomed, thanks in great part to the forced labor of black slaves.
Today our county bears the name of the man who served as governor during the Cherokee removal, Wilson Lumpkin. Nearby counties and landmarks still echo the names of other governors and public officials — George Gilmer, John Forsyth, General Winfield Scott — who were prominent in the forced removal, rape, and killing of indigenous Americans.
This history, and the fact that the Trail of Tears proceeded in clear violation of US Constitutional law, only serves to reinforce our belief that the law and our system of government is designed to protect the privileged few and, when necessary, will always devalue and destroy the less privileged. Our nation’s history is ripe with examples of structural violence against non-white people, from the wars on indigenous people, to slavery, to government intervention on behalf or businesses and against workers, to the convict leasing system, to modern mass incarceration and state-sanctioned police violence. The law serves to protect the wealthy and the powerful at every turn. Descendants of those displaced or murdered during the US war against hundreds of indigenous nations continue to suffer the effects of that oppression.
Despite local efforts to cast aside our history and minimize, if not totally erase, the continued presence of people of indigenous Cherokee descent, the continue to live among us. Their mere presence speaks volumes to the resilience of their culture and serves as an example for the ongoing resistance of oppressed peoples in the United States. Today we remember not only their losses during the Trail of Tears, but their ongoing struggle and the spirit their continued presence represents to all of us.
For more on the Trail of Tears and the Cherokee people:
Action in Dahlonega Statements and Articles on the Trail of Tears and Cherokee Removal: