Most of us are aware of the horrific events that occurred during the Cherokee Nation's removal during the Trail of Tears.
The suffering and deaths that occurred were misery enough and were compounded by the reports of the acts of cruelty of many of the soldiers assigned to accompany them. However, there were earlier exceptions both to the large removal that occurred and the compassion of at least one soldier, according to his diary.
Removal, at least voluntary removal, began occurring several years before the mass exodus of 1838-39. Actions by the State of Georgia accelerated after the Indian Removal Act was approved by Congress in 1830 and, for at least a small percent of Cherokee citizens it appeared that the “handwriting was on the wall” so they reluctantly opted for voluntary removal.
Still, the numbers were comparatively minimal. Superintendent of Emigration Benjamin F. Curry reported that by the spring of 1832, only six hundred eighty two had been removed, representing a whole year's work.
But apparently after arriving most were not happy with their new surroundings because many wrote letters back home encouraging the rest to “stay put.” And, to compound matters, that same year the other four eastern civilized tribes all gave in to pressure and agreed to move.
“Staying put,” the advice of the first contingent of emigrants, was becoming increasingly difficult. By the following summer conditions for the whole tribe were getting worse.
With support from the Georgia government, white intruders were confiscating property, including that of Cherokee leaders like John Ross and Joseph Vann, few crops were put in and the pro-treaty faction was solidifying.
To compound these circumstances, even for those considering moving, an outbreak of cholera occurred near Chattanooga and the major waterway to the west, the Tennessee River passed right by. Cholera only affects humans and is spread by unsafe water and food, circumstances not known by medical doctors of that era.
It was during this period that Lieutenant Joseph Harris was assigned to “commissary duty,” military speak at the time for Indian removal. A graduate of West Point, Class of 1825, he was an experienced officer having served for nine years at several military posts along the Atlantic Coast.
But as words from his diary reflect, the lieutenant was not emotionally prepared for this latest assignment. His responsibility was to organize and lead a contingent of tribesmen gathered along the Hiwassee River that emptied into the Tennessee about 35 miles north of Chattanooga.
After some time and even with the cholera scare during this period of turmoil, the lieutenant gained the confidence of his charges. Writing in his diary he noted, “This is the third season that the cholera has scattered desolation and dismay over the western waters.
Without my presence there was little hope they would get off unless I went as far as the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers.” Setting out by flatboat on March 13, 1834 and traveling with 457 men, women and children, the bond between them grew even stronger.
Following several harrowing incidents and several lost, drowning while floating down the Mississippi on barges attached to a steamboat, the party reached the Arkansas River. Unfortunately, when they arrived at Little Rock, a large number had contracted cholera.
Seeking medical help Harris wrote, “My blood chills even as I write, of the scenes I have gone through today. At one time stretched around were eight of these afflicted creatures dead.”
Despite obtaining medical assistance for his charges seven more died the next day and the day after seven more prompting him to note, “On some occasions when pressed we have been obligated to put two or even three bodies in one coffin.” Unfortunately, the doctor he enlisted to administer to his charges near Little Rock contracted the disease and also died.
Re-boarding and arriving near present day Clarksville, Arkansas Lieutenant Harris, the disease raging and himself now infected with cholera, made the decision to proceed with his charges to Indian Territory by land.
Gathering whatever possessions they could carry, all those able to travel on foot, followed the leader they had come to trust and set out on the final leg of their journey.
On May 10, 1834 the decimated group reached Dwight Mission near present day Sallsaw and, within a few days disbursed seeking new land and a new life. As a result of their journey Harris listed 81 that died and, later it was disclosed that of the party that reached their new home, nearly half died within a year.
Reporting to superiors at Fort Gibson, the lieutenant then returned to Little Rock, however due to low water between there and the Mississippi, Harris rode from Little Rock to St. Louis on horseback.
The journey west, his own bout with cholera compounded with his determination to lead his charges safely to their new home, and perhaps the journey to St. Louis all took their toll.
A compassionate leader who not only supervised the journey but administered to the needs of his charges, Harris also became a victim of the Trail of Tears when he died at his home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire from the effects of the journey. Lieutenant Joseph W. Harris was 32.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.