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The legacy of Indian removal still impacts lives today

Mountain Stewards
Diane Wells, left, stands with Susie Helton in front of Helton's house in the cove in White County, Ga. Photo by Don Wells

Mountain Stewards
By Don and Diane Wells

Susie Helton’s great-grandmother, Abigail Hester Helton, was part Cherokee Indian, and her great-great-grandmother, Katie Owl Helton, was a full-blood Cherokee.

Her family did not live on a reservation; they lived in Georgia in an almost hidden cove among the Blue Ridge Mountains. In that cove, every generation of her family, for at least the past 150 years, has struggled to maintain a life, existing on what they could grow and gather from the land. As a family with Indian heritage, they were fearful of being found and taken to Oklahoma, so generation after generation of family members never talked about their heritage outside the family.

The United States Congress voted in 1830, after a highly contentious and bitter debate, to pass the Indian Removal Act, forcing the Indians to cede their national sovereign lands and move to Oklahoma.

President Andrew Jackson said in his second annual message to Congress, December 6, 1830: "It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation. Two important tribes have accepted the provision made for their removal at the last session of Congress, and it is believed that their example will induce the remaining tribes also to seek the same obvious advantages."

Georgia, in particular, was involved in a contentious jurisdictional dispute with the Cherokee Nation that occupied the majority of lands north of Atlanta. The state enacted many laws taking away the rights of Cherokee Indians, even though they were a sovereign nation not under the jurisdiction of Georgia.

After the Removal Act was passed, Georgia surveyed all of the Cherokee lands in the 1832 Land Lottery and distributed those lands to Georgia citizens. However, it was not until 1838 that the U.S. government forced the removal of all Indians from Georgia and other southern states in what is now known as the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Seventeen-thousand Cherokees were forcibly gathered from their homes in the southern states and marched to Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died along the route and another 1,000 disappeared. However, not all Cherokees embarked on the Trail of Tears.

Many Cherokee people, who lived apart from the Cherokee villages scattered across the southern states, intermarried with some of the settlers who moved into the Cherokee territory before they had the right to live there. Some married traders who frequented the Cherokee Nation to trade goods with the Indians. The features of those who intermarried changed to the point they could claim other heritage and avoid the removal proceedings of 1838.

Ricky Butch Walker from Alabama told us his family, who were of Creek and Cherokee ancestry, claimed black Dutch or black Irish to avoid removal. He said families like his had to make a forced choice: They could give up their lands and go on the removal, or they could stay. His family stayed but they had to hide their Indian heritage for 150 years.

Others of Indian ancestry went on the Trail of Tears or left of their own accord earlier and moved to Arkansas and Oklahoma. The infighting among Cherokees who sided with the government to sign treaties and those who did not brought violence to the area, and some left to return to their native lands. When they returned, they began a new life but hid their culture so as not to be taken back to Oklahoma.

Heltons’s family was like Walker’s family. They made a choice not to leave, and they hid during that most grievous period of American history. In our travels across the nation researching Indian culture, we have met many families who share similar stories. These families lived under the constant burden and worry that someone in authority would discover they were Indian and would come to remove them to Oklahoma.

Gail King, a Cherokee descendant from Alabama told us, “My grandmother buried the family Bible, so their family history could not be discovered.” One gentleman from Arkansas who is helping us research the Indian marker trees in that state told us he does not want his name used because his family with Indian heritage is still concerned some law may be used to remove them to Oklahoma. Stan Cartwright from Georgia told us his father took him, as a young man, to see the location of the caves near their home in which the family would hide in if someone came to remove them.

Helton’s family, like many others over many generations, has lived under the fear they could still be impacted by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This fear is handed down from one generation to the next and, today, continues to be a heavy burden for these families to carry.

One impact of this fear about sharing their Indian heritage is that these families, in some cases, have lost the knowledge of that heritage. Nothing was written down and oral stories have been lost. Even families that have not had to hide their culture have failed to document their family’s history and, in many cases, it is also all but lost.

Next month, we will explore more of Helton’s early upbringing and her family’s struggle to survive in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

More Mountain Stewards articles describing our rich heritage ...

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