charles m. meacham




Migration of the Indians; Noted Chiefs Buried in Hopkinsville; Politics in the Forties.

In the treatment of the Southern tribes of American Indians in 1838, by the United States Government, is found one of the tragedies of our civilization and a dark spot in the history of a great Christian nation. The transfer of the Cherokees and other tribes from their Southern homes to a bleak and barren waste beyond the Mississippi river was for no cause other than the cupidity of the whites who coveted the rich lands of the Indian Reservation. The nations had become civilized and were peacefully occupying their lands in Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina and Northern Georgia and Alabama, where they had been for 300 years. They had their own schools, churches and villages and had become an industrious and prosperous class of people. The lands they occupied covered 40,000 square miles—a territory as large as Kentucky. They were there in 1540 when DeSoto visited this country and the Indians were friendly with the Spanish. Their capital in 1838 was in Eastern Tennessee at Echota. In 1730 seven Cherokee chiefs were invited by Sir Alexander Cumming to go with him to England. They were given a good time in England and, while enjoying themselves, were induced to enter into a treaty acknowledging the sovereignty of England and to permit the settlement of no white people among them but the English. In 1738 a slave ship brought the cholera to South Carolina, which spread to the Indians. The Indians treated any severe sickness with cold plunges in running streams, and small-pox being a new disease, they followed their custom and lost half of the tribe.

The whites pushed farther and farther into their territory. In 1748 Dr. Thomas Walker explored their country and about two years later crossed into Kentucky at Cumberland Gap. Kentucky was their hunting ground and the Indians resisted the settlement of the country. In the Revolutionary War, the British made allies of the Cherokees and there was a period of hostility. In 1794, a band of them moved to Arkansas and established themselves, as they thought, out of reach of the whites. From that time on the differences became acute and open hostility was forced upon some of the Indians, all of whom were anxious for peace. These conflicts culminated in 1835 in a much disputed treaty made at New
Echota by a minority, which provided for the removal of the whole Indian nation of 17,000 people, together with the Creeks and other smaller tribes, to a territory West of the Mississippi.

After strenuous but fruitless opposition on the part of the majority of the tribe and their many white friends, including such men as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, the Government ordered Gen. Winfleld Scott to take the Indians westward in 1838.

The Cherokees residing in western North Carolina, on account of their greater inaccessibility, had had less contact with the whites than the major portion of the tribe, and for that and other reasons were one of the most conservative elements among their people. When General Scott’s troops tried to gather in this portion of the tribe living in the country of the Great Smoky Mountains they encountered difficulties, many of the Indians fleeing and secreting themselves in mountain caves and other hiding places.

Realizing the difficulty of capturing this elusive band, the general finally decided to permit its members to stay if several of their number, who shot and killed a few of his troops, were delivered up. This was done, they were mercilessly shot, and the Indians have resided in these mountain caves ever since. The band of original refugees were added to at different times by stragglers who managed to slip back from the West.

These Indians in 1848 numbered 1,517. They furnished 400 soldiers to the Confederates in the Civil War and in 1866 the State of North Carolina permitted them to become land owners and citizens. It is not this remnant, but the main body of 12,000 who passed through Hopkinsville with whom this history has to deal. The obnoxious treaty under which the Indians were removed was made by an agent with a sub-chief, the Government to pay $4,000,000 in money and the same acreage in the West. It required the approval of the Cherokee nation in council assembled. Some of the ablest men in the nation espoused the cause of the Indians and there was a delay of three years, but all hopes of the Indians were blasted and it was finally claimed that conditions had been complied with and the time of departure was set for May 26, 1838, and Gen. Winfleld Scott, with 7,000 men, was directed to carry out the order.

The removal of the Indians was pathetic in the extreme. A Georgian, who was a Confederate, said of it:
“I fought through the Civil War and saw men shot to pieces, and slaughtered by the thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the most cruel work I ever knew. The Indians prayed for relief, but in vain, and with tears in their eyes, they hugged the trees in a farewell embrace— they loved their land so well. There is a deep spring near Red Clay, Georgia, from which still bubbles the coolest and purest water in this former Indian country. This spring has the reputation of being bottomless, and could it speak, it could reveal some wonderful secrets, for it holds
within its bosom the treasures of the Cherokees. When being driven west, many of them cast their highly prized possessions into its waters.”

A graphic account has been written of the round-up of the exiles:

“General Scott scattered his troops throughout the Cherokee country, built stockade forts, and the Indians, like cattle, were forced into these stockades preparatory to their removal. Men were seized in the fields at work, women at their homes, and children while out at play were taken at the point of the bayonet and marched away from their homes. Often bands of lawless men followed and looted the homes of the Indians in search of pillage, and many an Indian in turning his head to take a farewell look at the dearest spot on earth saw his house being destroyed by flames. The plan employed by the soldiers was to slip up on the Indians while in the houses and take them by surprise. But often in their cruel march many Indians escaped to the mountains, where those who did not die of starvation subsisted on roots of plants until the procession had gone forth. After gathering about 17,000 Cherokees into the various stockades, about 5,000 of them were brought to Calhoun and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Guntersville, Alabama, placed on boats and sent by water to the west bank of the Mississippi river, and the journey continued by land to the Indian Territory. This removal took place during the hottest period of the year and as a consequence it was attended with much sickness and many deaths.

“Carrying out the provisions of a resolution of the National Council, John Ross and a few other Chiefs submitted a proposition to General Scott that the remainder of the Cherokees be permitted to remove themselves later in the year when the danger of sickness was not so great. General Scott granted the request, providing that by October 20th all of them would have started.

“The Cherokee council appointed officers to attend to the removal, and the Indians were collected into companies of one thousand each, with two leaders to each party. Including the negro slaves, there were 13,000 Cherokees thus enrolled.

‘The Indians who were to undertake their own emigration met at Rattlesnake Springs, near Charleston, Tennessee. In October, 1838, the long expected journey was begun, a few choosing to go by water, and nearly 13,000 by land. The procession of exiles was as interesting as it was picturesque. There were six hundred and forty-five wagons in the middle of the procession, loaded with old men, women, and children, clinging to their blankets, cooking vessels and other personal property, while the monotony of the procession was broken by hundreds of Indians on foot marching in front and riding horseback and mounted officers riding along the line and in the rear of the procession.

“The exiles crossed the Tennessee river, near the mouth of the Hiawassee, and the procession passed on a little to the south of Pikeville, Tennessee, through McMinnville, crossing the Cumberland river at Nashville, and on through Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Here the noted Chief Whitepath was stricken with disease and died and his comrades buried him by the wayside, covering his grave with a simple box and poles bearing streamers around them. that those who followed might observe the spot and remember the faithful old chief. The mortality rate ran high, as many as twenty dying in a single day, and Chief John Ross suffered the misfortune of having to give up his beloved wife, and this added more grief to the chief of the Cherokee Nation. The train crossed the Ohio river near the mouth of the Cumberland and traveled through the southern part of Illinois, striking the Mississippi river just across from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in the midst of a cold, raw winter.

“The river being full of ice, the procession was compelled to halt until a favorable time when it could be crossed. The suffering during this period of waiting was so terrible that sixty years was insufficient to soften the memory of old immigrants to the bitterness of the halt. Crossing the river at Cape Girardeau, the line of march was through Missouri to Indian Territory, where they arrived in the month of March, 1839, after nearly six months of bitter experiences on the road. The loss of life from disease on the way was estimated at 4,000.”

Hon. Jas. F. Buckner, who lived in Hopkinsville at the time and afterwards moved to Louisville, gave his personal recollections of the migration some 40 years later in an article published in a Louisville paper. Among the things he said: “They were divided into detachments of about 1,200, together with their stock; all passed through Hopkinsville. The old and infirm were carried in wagons and on horseback. The able-bodied, with their slaves, of whom there were many hundreds, were on foot. Each detachment was controlled by one or more chiefs. An occasional detachment of soldiers brought up the rear to prevent straggling and to preserve order. Stations were established about 15 miles apart along the road, where provisions were supplied by contractors, and detachments passed about every 48 hours. The Indians occupied a camp on the east bank of the east fork of Little River, near the city, at what was then Gibson’s Mill, later Wood’s Mill. The Indians were a source of great curiosity and interest to the citizens. The prominent ones, particularly the ministers and their families, were invited to the houses of citizens. The churches were thrown open to them and nearly every night when a detachment was in camp, services were held in some one of the churches.

“At the head of one of these detachments was Fly Smith, an old man, late a member of the Cherokee Council. He was accompanied by Stephen Forman, a Presbyterian minister, who had been educated at Andover, Mass. On the morning when the detachment was paraded to start on its journey it was found that Fly Smith was sick and unable to resume his journey.
“His friends were compelled to proceed without him. Forman and his wife remained to take care of him. He was very old, broken in spirit, and travel-worn. The next detachment came up in charge of Whitepath. His fame had preceded him and there was great curiosity to see him. He was accompanied by Jesse Bushyhead and his family. He was a Baptist minister, well educated, a celebrated orator, and one of the most influential men in the nation. When the detachment halted at the camping ground in the grove, the fires had been lighted, and the provisions issued, many citizens, myself among them, sought out the tent of Whitepath. We were met by Bushyhead, and told the chief was ill, and, as he believed, would die. He was old and feeble and much exhausted by travel. Physicians of the town offered to administer to him, but he declined. He died the next morning. He had lately been president of the Cherokee Council, of which Fly Smith was a member. They were both buried in the evening on the east bank of the river near the camp in a clump of cedars, and a simple monument placed over each grave. Addresses were delivered in the church by both Bushyhead and Forman to crowded audiences, in which sketches were given of the lives of these distinguished chiefs, with occasional allusions to the history and trials of the Cherokees, and while I have since heard many eloquent funeral sermons, yet none more impressive or eloquent than those spoken by these two Indian ministers over the graves of Fly Smith and Whitepath.”

The grove in which the graves were located has long since been cleared away. The rude headstones did not remain long. The entire site of the camp in the bend of the river is now a well-kept pasture and fat cattle graze over the graves of the Indian leaders of 90 years ago.

It is recorded in Perrin’s history that Maj. John P. Campbell had the contract to feed the Indians here. It was a big job to furnish provisions for 1200 or 1500 people every other day, but the duty was well performed during the month it required them to pass through.

The writer has talked to many people who saw the Indians. His father was a young man of twenty years of age and he well remembered how the people from all parts of the county flocked to town to see the Indians in their camp. In a long line through what is now Ninth Street and passing by the Rock Spring, that is now covered by the I. C. Railroad Depot and approach, they crossed the shallow ford in the river at that time, thence to Seventh Street and westward by the way of Princeton to Golconda, Ill.

Children were frequently born to the squaws during the migration. Old citizens told people now living of many incidents. A child was born in one detachment a few miles east of town. The mother was allowed to drop out and stop in the woods and two squaws were left with her. People in the vicinity furnished them with food. The women camped for the night and the detachment stopped for a day in Hopkinsville and the following day the mother of the new-born child left with the detachment.
The wealthy people of the detachment were permitted to stop at the hotels and many were guests in private homes.
The Indians were orderly at all times, but it was a sad and mournful experience for them, but with the stoicism of their race, they passed into exile.


The Presidential election in 1844 was one of the most exciting in the history of American politics. Gen. Harrison had been elected in 1840, but lived only one month. His successor, President Tyler, had not been popular enough to secure a renomination, and Henry Clay, who had been defeated by Andrew Jackson in 1828, was again the nominee of the Whigs. The Democratic party, after a long deadlock, had nominated the comparatively unknown James K. Polk, of Tennessee. It is recorded that Polk was not at the convention and did not know until it had adjourned that he had been nominated. It was Henry Clay’s last real effort to realize his ambition to be President, and he made the greatest effort in his brilliant career. As described by old citizens who took part in the campaign, it was remarkable for its intense excitement, the sharp divisions of the people and the bitterness of the contest. It was a day of few newspapers and stump speaking played an important part in the campaign. Nowhere did it wax hotter than in Christian County. The Democratic and Whig parties were pretty evenly divided and there were brilliant men and gifted orators in both of them. Great rallies were held with orators making the welkin ring with their impassioned and vehement eloquence. Whole families attended these gatherings and women showed their colors for Clay and Polk by painting the cheeks of their babies with daubs of red clay or the scarlet juice of poke-berries. The election was so close in the Union that it turned upon the vote of New York. That state was so evenly divided that it was a week or more before it was known that Polk had carried it by a few hundred votes. Polk became the President and Clay remained in the Senate for ten years, and the Missouri compromise of 1854 was the beginning of the end of the slavery question.

The election of Polk may be said to have added an empire to the Union. The admission of Texas, which had seceded from Mexico in 1836, but had never had its independence recognized by Mexico, was the great issue. The admission of so much southern territory meant more slave territory. Polk favored admission, Clay opposed it. Texas was promptly admitted following the Democratic victory and, in 1846, the war with Mexico broke out.
With war declared the people speedily buried their own differences and the country, Whigs and Democrats, flew to arms. Kentucky was asked to send 5,000 volunteers and three times as many clamored to be first. Half of them were sent back disappointed, including a whole company of Christian County patriots. A few men from the county got in from other states, some were in the regular army, but the county had to content itself with claiming as a native son, Jefferson Davis, one of the heroes of the war. Kentucky, in the Presidential election of 1848, helped to sweep Gen. Zachary Taylor into office on his war record, though he did not live to finish his term. President Taylor is buried in the soil of Kentucky, the only President who can be credited to Kentucky.

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