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Rave review just in from the Dallas Morning News (Nov. 27)!

 The opening pages of this powerful, haunting book tell of the assassinations of three Cherokee statesmen in Tahlequah, Indian Territory, on June 22, 1839. The victims had been denounced as traitors for defending the treaty by which the Cherokee Nation gave up its ancestral lands and submitted to “removal” to a place later called Oklahoma.

The title and subtitle of the book are laden with bitter irony as is the entire saga of the Trail of Tears. The murdered Cherokee leaders considered themselves patriots, as did the Cherokee assassins. But in truth the real treachery did not occur among the Cherokees. The Trail of Tears was a true American betrayal, the exclusive property of the federal government and its politicians.

The forced emigration of the Cherokees and other tribes of the southeastern states had its source in the simple land greed propelled by George Washington’s declaration in 1789 that Indian lands were fundamentally up for grabs. The president wanted his “red citizens” to be “civilized,” to raise crops and livestock and to abandon their hunting grounds. Beneath this lofty-sounding ambition lay an ugly truth: that Indian lands were coveted by monied white men, both in government and out.

Paradoxically, of all the Indian people affected by the uprooting scheme, the Cherokees were the very model of acculturation. By the 1820s, they had become economically self-sufficient, trading in produce, cotton and livestock throughout the South; they had a written language, their own national newspaper and a constitution based on the U.S. model. (The Cherokees, together with the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole people, having adapted in varying degrees to white American life, were known as the “five civilized tribes.”)

The author writes with clarity of the tangled political climate of the Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren presidencies that implemented the removal treaty, and of the Cherokee leaders and their clashing ideas on the future of their people. These leaders included certain “Treaty Party” members who believed the emigration represented a fresh start in a new place, necessary to save the Cherokees from extinction, and among them were a past member of the National Tribal Council, a former adviser to the primary chief John Ross and the founding editor of the  Cherokee Phoenix  national newspaper.

These were the three men assassinated at Tahlequah in 1839 by their Cherokee compatriots, the killings creating what the author describes as “a violent coda in the haunting and powerful story of heartbreak and loss, conflict and controversy that is the Trail of Tears.”

Daniel Blake Smith’s depiction of that perfectly named 1836-39 journey from homelands in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, to what is now northeastern Oklahoma, is a narrative masterpiece: movingly written, infinitely sad, memorable throughout. The journey, an average of about 800 miles, was made by river barge, horseback, wagon and afoot, mostly the latter, attended by every species of human misery: suffocating heat, choking dust, fatigue, exposure, filth, disease — cholera, smallpox, dysentery, measles, whooping cough, malaria — and the evils of lurking whiskey peddlers and brutally crooked traders. Of the estimated 4,000 Cherokees who died as a result of the relocation, about 1,600 died on the trail, the others in internment camps and depots en route.

The Trail of Tears was “a devastating commentary not only on white greed and power but also on the increasing racialized world of Jacksonian America,” the author concludes in this splendid re-creation of it and the awful circumstances that made it inevitable.

Dale L. Walker of El Paso is author of many historical books.

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