Just One Dress to Walk 800 Miles
— P. Kingfisher
The good-faith claim of the US government resonates as Pamela narrates the litany of losses experienced by Native peoples since the 1500s. More than two hundred years later, as she steps out of the Cherokee County Courthouse near her home in Oklahoma, Pamela is nearly brought to her knees: she has obtained the deed to one of the “last original Cherokee allotments.” She rejoices as she cleanses her soul in the sacred creek on this land, knowing she is the last woman descendent of Nanyehi (Nancy Ward 1736–1824), a Cherokee leader who negotiated with settlers and their governments in the name of peace and friendship, but was in the end stripped of her political power and right to land ownership. Sadly, four years after Nanyehi’s death, the remaining Cherokees were driven off their ancestral homelands by the 1830 Indian Removal Act; 8,000 were forcibly marched out of Georgia alone. One painful detail speaks volumes: “Most women had only one dress to walk 800 miles” writes Pamela, “and many were without shoes.”
As a member of the GIA board of directors and chairperson of the GIA Indigenous Resource Network, I encourage all of us to remain cognizant of the authenticity of a First Voice such as Pamela Kingfisher’s when we move from place to place for our annual conference. More importantly, I encourage us simply to take a moment to pause, reflect, and honor our shared history.
— Lori Pourier is president, First Peoples Fund.
December 9, 1948, in the shadow of the Nazi Holocaust, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention establishes “genocide” as an international crime, which signatory nations “undertake to prevent and punish.”
The Convention defines genocide as any of a number of acts committed with intent to destroy,
in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
There are arguments concerning our use of the word holocaust vs. genocide, but for me, one culture cannot own that word or that experience. I have spent my life pulling the threads of my people into something I could see and understand. My life’s path has been to find the women in my family- all those grandmothers I never met. I wanted to discover my history through their stories – to hear their voices. I have found many threads and whispers, mostly in government documents, and I have spent a lot of time in our woods, historical and sacred sites, imagining what they felt.
The Cherokee Holocaust was a long slow process. From our first documented visitors in the 1520s through the wars and land claims, we have stood in the path of a conquering world wanting what was ours. To commemorate other travesties, there are shrines and museums, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall of names, and the Jewish Holocaust Museum’s pile of empty shoes, but what do we have to tell the story for the Cherokees and all Native Americans? We have a few native museums, but there is such a political correctness to them—steering away from the more horrific “American” truths, they make me wonder, what would our symbol be? It can’t just be the four thousand plus names from the Trail of Tears; there were so many more murdered over the centuries, many whose names will never be known.
If I were the curator of the Cherokee Holocaust Museum, what would I choose as the symbol of all those lost souls? Would I choose boxes of pearls and temples of corn from 1542; a chunk of gold from 1826 representing the greedy theft of our lands; would I go to 1836 and the wagons of dead trailed by women with just one dress to walk 800 miles; or would I jump to 1932 and a small box of braids representing all the Indian Schools serving up assimilation when annihilation didn’t work? I choose the voices of the women who lived and died throughout our Cherokee Holocaust, and the hope of those who live on as the mothers of our nation today.
DEATH BY CONTACT
South Carolina, 1545
Senora of Cofachiqui and Xuala 1 They came through like a swarm of vile creatures—just two visits and we were all dying. My aunt was smart enough to flee ahead of them, but I was excited! I was so young and arrogant; I wanted to meet these foreign men. I accepted their pleas for help and met them with dignity, and then I gave them all we had to share. They wanted gold, but they took our pearls and our corn. And me—stealing me like some slave girl. They know I am the niece of the Queen, but they had no fear and no shame. Desoto was amazed by the amount of corn we had stored in our large temples. His group of 900 men would camp in the surrounding abandoned villages. We showed them our stores of corn, so they ate as much of it as they could, and then they took the rest for their journey. In this way they endangered our people to starvation as well as the diseases spread by his men and the swine they left behind.
Tame Doe Moytoy My daughter, Nanyehi, was born into the worst smallpox outbreak ever to strike our people. It was said to come from a slave ship that unloaded its cargo in Charles Town harbor in March of that year. A few slaves ran away, carrying the disease and eventually came into a Cherokee Middle town with some hunters. Soon everyone was sick, and any messengers who had left the town had carried the disease all the way to the capital of Chota and the other Overhill towns in Tennessee.
It was a very hot spring and it was dry. The usual rainy season did not come as it should have, and the creeks were running thin and slow. Almost everyone was sick that summer. The center of Chota was choked with thick smoke so it was hard to see or breathe. There was a constant fire on the east side where the bodies were being burned. As you walked in on the main path, you could see that every hut had smoke coming from the hot houses and there were fires outside of the houses for cooking and constant water boiling. The few women who were not sick were washing, gardening, and nursing full time.
People were gripped with a hard fever, chills, sweating, and painful muscles. There was lots of coughing, and the Medicine Priest came and told us to use the hot houses. As they got sicker, the diarrhea and vomiting began to smell very badly, and everything just got worse. Our Medicine Priests threw away their most sacred items sending word to other Priests from the Overhill and Middle towns—fearing the disease as a violation of ancient law. The great eagle wing and Redstone pipes that had been handed down from father to son for six generations were destroyed—broken, burned and buried. 2
Then in the late summer, a new trader arrived in town with two barrels of rum to trade for deer hides. He stayed on the outskirts of town, knowing to stay away from our diseased state. That evening, a few men went out to his tent and traded a few hides for the rum and began to drink in their anger and fear. They were so unhappy, they just kept drinking. By the third night some of our bravest warriors were moved to take their spirit in the most tortuous ways: shooting, stabbing or even dancing into the fire and burning themselves alive rather than live with the scars and the public shame of their scorn by Creator. 3
DEATH FROM WAR
Most of the smaller coastal tribes have all died or been killed by settlers by now. Cherokee warriors had dwindled to about 2,600 when the French Indian War began to rage. There is another smallpox outbreak and a group of Chiefs were murdered in Charleston, South Carolina.
That same year, Nanyehi’s husband, Kingfisher, was killed in one of the last big wars with the Creek Nation. There were very few years between then and our removal in 1836 when we were not at war with someone—the French, the English, the settlers and other Indians. Nanyehi, a mother of two young children became Blooded in the Battle of Taliwa after Kingfisher was killed. Her war cries and violent attack inspired the almost-defeated warriors to beat the Creek and claim the northern lands in Georgia. 4
Nanyehi, later known as Nancy Ward (1736–1824), was one of the younger women to be so esteemed by our people. She came from a family of Chiefs and Clan Mothers in the White Peace Town of Chota, spending her lifetime in council and negotiations with settlers and their governments. One of the Beloved Woman’s duties was to act as peace negotiator, and it is through this role that Nanyehi became known to the settlers as “friendly.” Nanyehi learned diplomacy from her uncles and became a shrewd negotiator. She had grown up during a time when continued white settlement on Cherokee lands, in violation of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 in which the British Empire had recognized the rights of Native people, created constant tension in Indian-white relations.
Nanyehi, like many other Cherokee women, married a white Scots trader named Bryant Ward in 1758. This began the dilution of our blood in our children. We didn’t know they would change the face of our nation forever, more readily accepting the ways of our white neighbors. Nanyehi’s daughter Betsy married a white man who worked for the government, but soldiers eventually murdered her in her yard. At the same time soldiers like Col. Montgomery were busy burning all the Cherokee lower towns, killing many Cherokee. The next spring he destroyed fifteen more towns including all of our fields, orchards, and granaries. People ran to the hills to live in caves and were forced to kill their horses for food.
TAKING THE LAND WITH PAPER
Georgia and Tennessee, 1775–1826
In 1775 at Sycamore Shoals, Cherokee leaders sold the settlers over twenty million acres for 2,000 pounds sterling and goods worth 8,000 pounds. This was the biggest corporate real estate transaction in US history. Over 1,200 Cherokees attended the purchase. In July 1781, Nanyehi entered into peace talks with Tennessee politician and soldier John Sevier at the Little Pigeon River in present-day Tennessee and said the following words:
It would never occur to Nanyehi or other Cherokees that English women did not decide matters of war and peace. At the end of the Revolutionary War, lands in Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia were given to the soldiers in military reservations, and the states began to form within these ceded Indian lands.
The Treaty of Hopewell, signed on November 28, 1785, was the first treaty negotiation between the Cherokee with the new government of the United States. Signed by thirty-six chiefs and attended by a thousand Cherokee people, the meeting lasted ten days. Here, the Cherokee leaders acknowledged the supremacy of the United States for the first time.
This was the first Federal and Indian conference, and new boundaries for the Cherokees to stay in were drawn up. Before signing the treaty, Old Tassel requested that the Woman of Chota talk to the commissioners. Nanyehi represented the matriarchy once again at the Hopewell treaty conference. She was forty-eight years old when she offered the following words:
I am old, but I hope yet to bear children, who will grow up and people our Nation, as we are now under the protection of Congress and shall have no more disturbances. The talk I have given you is from the young warriors I have raised in my town, as well as myself. They rejoice that we have peace, and hope the chain of friendship will never more be broken.
She gave them two strings of wampum, a pipe, and some tobacco. 6
By June 15, 1789, the United States government’s attitude toward the Cherokee had changed and their goal was to obtain all of the Cherokee lands. Secretary of War, Henry Knox, wrote to President George Washington and said, “As the settlements of the whites shall approach near to the Indian boundaries established by the treaties, the game will be diminished, and the lands being valuable to the Indians only as hunting grounds, they will be willing to sell further tracts for smaller consideration” (American State papers, Indian Affairs.) Knox then follows up with a letter to James Robertson: “… the average price paid for Indian lands in various parts of the United States within the past four years does not amount to one cent per acre.” In the fall of 1790 President Washington sent 1,900 troops to destroy our towns once again. After intense fighting off and on for one year, only 500 troops went back. Cherokees knew at that point they were fighting for all of their lands.
Nanyehi was the last woman leader in the original matriarchy. She was our Tribe’s Beloved Woman and Head Clan Mother when the US Government forced us to outlaw the matriarchy in 1808. The US government knew they had to get the land out of the hands of the women. Ironically, Nanyehi applied for reservation land but was refused. Even after her death, her children could not get land. So it was that Cherokee women lost their traditional political power and ownership of their lands when the ancient Cherokee law of matrilineage was overturned in 1808. A council of headmen (there is no evidence of women participating) established a national police force to safeguard a person’s holdings during life and “to give protection to children as heirs to their father’s property, and to the widow’s share” thereby changing inheritance patterns and officially recognizing the patriarchal family as the norm.
That same year the Women’s Council, with Nanyehi at its head, made a statement to the Cherokee people urging them to sell no more land. 7
But the illegally signed cessions were enforced anyway. Between 1721 and 1819, over ninety percent of our traditional territories had been ceded over to the settlers. Thomas Jefferson knew he wanted to create a new Indian Territory within the new Louisiana Purchase, and planned to move them there. Jefferson warned John Adams in a letter that despite the progress of some Indian nations, such as the Cherokee, to adopt representative government, many Native Americans will relapse “into barbarism & misery, lose numbers by war & want, and we shall be obliged to drive them with the beasts of the forest into the Stony mountains.” In a previous August 28, 1807 letter to his secretary of war, Henry Dearborn, Jefferson stated, “If ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.”
ILLEGAL REMOVAL, 1830–1840
In 1830 the US Government passed the Indian Removal Act. Almost simultaneously, GOLD was discovered in our homelands in Georgia, in a mountainous northern county of Georgia where mostly full-blooded families lived. These people were driven off their lands and never really compensated for either the land or the gold. Georgia immediately held lotteries to give the land and mineral rights to white men and stopped all Cherokee government functions. The settlers and soldiers moved in quickly. This event sped up the efforts to take all of the homelands and remove the Cherokee people from the whole region. The Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit against Georgia in the Supreme Court and won. But when President Jackson heard of it he said, “John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can.”
Over the strong protest of more than fifteen thousand Cherokees, the US Senate ratified the Removal Treaty or the Treaty of New Echota on May 23, 1836, by just one vote. Our mixed blood progeny were responsible for changing the face of Cherokee society and their descendents negotiated the treaty of cession with the US commissioners. The US government sought out these few who agreed with removal and dealt only with them.
Of the twenty signers at New Echota on December 29, 1835, there were twelve Georgians, four Tennesseans, four Alabamans, none from North Carolina—and very few full blood Cherokees. A few months later in Washington, DC, only nine of the original signers and nine new signers came to sign the final treaty. Of the additional nine, seven of them were from Georgia. There was not one major chief who agreed to this sale of all Cherokee territory east of the Mississippi for five million dollars and new land in Indian Territory, and there were only three hundred to five hundred Cherokee citizens attending. 8
In 1836 the government built twenty-nine removal stockades in four states. In May 1838 over 6,500 federal troops and state regulators were called into service to move the remaining Cherokee. There were still an estimated 8,000 Cherokees in the state of Georgia alone. The soldiers and volunteers swept through the land and took people as they found them. Children ran to the woods and were lost to mothers. Women out visiting were seized and children dragged off with strangers. All of their belongings and money that weren’t on their backs were lost. The settlers were standing ready to seize it all for themselves.
Prodded by bayonets, whipped and exposed, our people were herded like cattle to the camps. Most women had only one dress to walk 800 miles and many were without shoes. They carried babies trembling with cold and their lips blue—alongside old blind men and ancient women who were completely worn out by the travel—to the stockades, everyone broken hearted. In two or three days, every one in the Nation was poor, homeless, and captive.
By that summer three groups had left from Chattanooga, but there were still over fifteen thousand captives in the camps. There were over five hundred people fenced in a wet, muddy pen for days – but this turned to months for many of the people. At Red Clay, the stockade in Tennessee, there were eight thousand Cherokees, many quickly becoming very sick. The Chief pressed for delay in removal and asked that the Cherokee people be able to remove themselves. The delay was granted, but the people remained prisoners. The Cherokee leaders refused the money the government offered them, saying that they were prisoners, not volunteers. They only took food from the soldiers, not money or clothes, saying, “The treaty was not made by the authorities of the nation, so we will not take your money.” Even the missionaries were selling Cherokee lands, claiming it as theirs in order to be paid by the government, and then driving away in new buggies.
The volunteers raped the women and girls at night—even at Brainerd, which was a Moravian mission stockade in Tennessee. When the women’s camp called out for help, the volunteers cursed them and called them liars. The murders were all committed on Saturday night after much liquor was consumed. The night woods were filled with drunks, both white and Cherokee. No one could sleep on Saturday nights. Everyone was sick. At Calhoun, Georgia from four to ten people died every day in the camps. There were no toilets or privacy and much dysentery and bloody flux. They had to lie on the bare ground, exposed to rain and wind. One of the doctors was accused by Cherokees of killing Cherokee patients. He admitted he was only a dentist. By July there were twenty deaths a day in the camps. Then the suicides started.
During the roundups, at least half of the babies under one year and most of the elders over age sixty were killed, and at least one quarter of the rest were sick until the move. Reverend Buttrick at Brainerd Mission wrote, “This is a very expensive and painful way of killing people” Even though, in a June 20 letter, the Secretary of War says “Hurry Up! And get them moved,” the Cherokees were not removed from Brainerd until September.
In 1838 there were many claims from women for their land, but they were mostly mixed bloods. There is evidence of Cherokee lands being “taken” by settlers long before this. Sallie Hughes was a wealthy ferry operator in Georgia. She was paid for her home before removal but lost her lands. A land speculator saw her thriving ferry business, so he went down the main road a half mile, turned the road and built a new ferry there, thus stealing her business and shutting her down. He then claimed all of her lands, saying she had abandoned them. 9
Nancy Callahan Dollar hid with her family in an Alabama cave for two years during and after the removal. She had to hunt for food at night to feed the family while their father was in Florida. They lost everything on their small farm. Later in life, she dressed as a man and drove a supply wagon from Atlanta, Georgia, to Alabama and sold to stores along the way. She carried a rifle, smoked a pipe, and lived to be 108 in Alabama, living with her dog and roosters and many memories of Cherokee life before the white settlers came in. 10
Elizabeth Pack and her mother, Elizabeth (Peggy Shorey) Lowry, who were my relatives, both ran ferries and owned a lot of land and stock in Tennessee. In 1839 they paid attorneys to fight fraudulent claims to their lands in Tennessee. After removal to Oklahoma, Elizabeth was paid with one check for $2,569.75 and her mother received $6,820 for her 650 acres on Battle Creek, and her house, barns, stock and ferry. They also received $1,170.00 for another 95 acres on Battle Creek with five houses and a corn crib. They rode their horses to the bank and back home where they continued to farm their new land in rural Oklahoma. 11
THE TRAIL WHERE THEY CRIED, 1834–1840
During a cold November, twelve groups of one thousand people began walking west toward this new Indian Territory.
Sometimes they went two or three days without food. Most of the troops drank and gambled. The soldiers would force the women to drink liquor and then keep them out all night. They would drag the women around by the arm or hair after they were drunk. After making one woman drunk, they tied her dress over her head and left her in the street that way to shame her. They also taught the women to be prostitutes. One old grandmother tried to save her daughter during a rape and had to fight two soldiers who had knives. Babies were born on the side of the roads with the help of the few grandmothers surviving. They would quickly tie the baby on the mother’s back in order to catch up with the group. No one was allowed to rest from sickness or childbirth. They were driven on as long as they could walk and then thrown in the wagons.
At Lafayette, a woman fainted and fell in the road, so the soldiers drove over her. When the people died, their bodies were left on the side of the road, but sometimes family members could bury them if they knew about the death. Wagon masters reported in their logs how many babies died in their wagons each day. Families would carry sick women on liters even after they died until they could bury them. One woman in childbirth fell at the river, so a soldier stabbed her with his bayonet killing her and her baby. One man tells of his mother, then father, and then five brothers and sisters all dying, “One each day. Then all are gone.”
On the four different “Trails of Tears” over sixteen thousand Cherokees were forced marched. No one can really know how many died during roundup and captivity, but there was an estimate by one missionary, Dr. Butler, that over four thousand died along the way. That would be about one-fifth of the nation, mostly elders and babies. 12
SURVIVING AND THRIVING
In 1918 Grandma Louella Kingfisher Duffield died from the swine flu epidemic when my mother, Floy, was two years old. Mose Shankle and his daddy drove their wagon up the holler where my grandparents lived, delivering milk and eggs, and they picked up the dead. Mose picked up Grandma Louella and carried her down to the Teresita cemetery where they buried her by a cedar tree.
In 1932 Louella’s husband, Grandpa George Duffield, was murdered in Long John Holler and buried at the Moody cemetery, ending the family home at Teresita. Uncle Roy moved in with Grandma Duffield, and Aunt Nancy moved in with grandpa and grandma Kingfisher, but my mother wanted to go to school. Her uncle, Tom Roach, worked at the BIA and helped her attend Chillocco Indian School, way out past Tulsa. She was twelve years old and watched as “they cut our hair and threw our braids in a big box.” She worked in the kitchen, laundry, and the infirmary. It prepared her to run a home, but not the many businesses she later bought and operated.
By 2004 I could touch those precious papers deeding this land to my grandmother Louella. It is time to plant some corn and bloodroot. It was time to prepare for my granddaughter. I remember… it was Wednesday, a hot July in northeast Oklahoma. My people pray by “going to the water,” so I drove down to the river to give thanks. Along the way I found one more turtle in the road, for my shakers, which I wear when I dance at Cherokee ceremonies handed down for generations. Then I was ready. It was such a momentous event for me. This was the end of a thirty-year odyssey of loving this land, waiting for this original allotment of 160 acres to pass on to my name; land that has never been listed in the name of a man, never been bought or sold by a white man.
To an outsider, that day in the Cherokee County Courthouse would have seemed ho-hum. The lady at the county registers wrote the transaction in a huge book and asked me for $19. She gave me a receipt and looked at me as if to say, “Well, what are you waiting for? Get out of here.” I landed on the sidewalk in two minutes, stunned and giddy. This was one of the last original Cherokee allotment sections! Still in one piece and still in the hands of the same family! I wanted to shout and cry and hug someone. I wanted to dance around crazy and yell to the whole town. But it was just another small act at the courthouse. One more piece of land moved around between names.
I got in my truck and headed north in a state of elation and heightened awareness…. I drove the twenty miles to our land, realizing I had driven this road to work at the hospital for so many years, but that it felt different now. I got out and walked to the creek bed, dropping my clothes along the way, thinking of those Cherokee women of long ago with just one dress to walk 800 miles. Saying a prayer for them, I realized this creek, where ceremonies have been performed for generations, was even more sacred now. I dove straight into the deepest pool of water, shocking my breath and body with the icy waters.
This is what it’s all about. Water and land, in the hands of women, being taken care of by women. And now it is my turn, my responsibility to protect this land in the name of all the Kingfisher women, all the women of my DNA. That day signaled a personal revival of the matriarchy for me; it’s a continuum of Cherokee women as keepers of the land. It’s also the spirit of my mother and grandmothers all touching me. This land was always in the hands of women. We created corn and we knew how to feed our people. We maintained the town’s fields and ensured nurturing and health of our people. That is still our role today; we have survived and our population is growing.
So the holocaust of invasion, colonialism, annihilation, assimilation, and absorption put upon us has not been so effective. America’s shameful past will be known and healed, because we are alive, because our children are learning the Cherokee language, and because our women are keeping the land. Wado.
Originally published in Eating Fire, Tasting Blood: An Anthology
of the American Indian Holocaust, Marijo Moore, Editor. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission.
- The Florida of the Inca by Garcilaso de la Vega; University of Texas Press, 1723, translated 1951
- Mooney, James “Myths of the Cherokees and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees.” Nashville, Tennessee. 1982.
- Stannard, David E. “Disease and Infertility: a New Look at the Demographic Collapse of Native Populations in the Wake of Western Contact.” Journal of American Studies, 24 (1990),3,325-350
- Alderman, Pat. Nancy Ward, Cherokee Chieftainess. Overmountain Press, Johnson City, TN. 1978.
- Kappler, Charles J. Indian Treaties, Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, Senate Document No. 319. Washington, DC, US Printing Office,1904
- Haywood, John: The Civil and Political History of Tennessee from the Earliest Settlement up to the Year 1796. Knoxville, TN
- Marion L. Starkey, The Cherokee Nation, New York, 1946, 6, 7. The message from the delegation of women, dated June 30, 1818 is preserved in the Papers of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
- Shadburn, Don. Cherokee Planters in Georgia 1832-1838; Cumming, GA, 1989
- Shadburn, Don. Cherokee Planters in Georgia 1832-1838; Cumming , GA, 1989
- Ferguson, Marjorie, The Legend of Granny Dollar, Fort Payne, AL, 1992
- Chase, Maybelle, 1842 Cherokee Claims, Flint District, Vol. 1; 1991
- The Journal of Rev. Daniel S. Buttrick, Cherokee Removal, Park Hill, OK 1998