There were many special moments that occurred during the infamous Trail of Tears, the evacuation of the Cherokee from their native land in Georgia to Indian Territory during the winter of 1838-39. But possibly one of the most poignant caught the attention of William Shorey Coodey who was present as the first of twelve detachments led by Hair Conrad left on August 28, 1838. Coodey, a nephew of John Ross, was a gifted writer who would later compose the new Nation’s constitution in 1839. He wrote, “I glanced along the line and the form of Goingsnake, an aged and respected chief whose head eighty winters had whitened, mounted on this favorite pony passed before me and led the way in advance, followed by a number of young men on horseback.” Coodey’s statement captured in a moment the dignity and courage of the Cherokee profiled by one of their most respected citizens.
Goingsnake or I-na-du-na-I as he was otherwise known, was a prominent leader who, as a close associate of John Ross, had done everything possible to preserve the Cherokee Nation. He was a respected warrior, a gifted orator, a prominent political leader and now, at an advanced age, he was once again demonstrating those characteristics. Born in 1758, as a young man he was elected chief of his town. In 1808 he was appointed as a representative on the National Council. Goingsnake was among 700 Cherokee warriors that fought under the command of then General Andrew Jackson when the Lower Creeks were virtually annihilated at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. He also actively participated in years of negotiation with the federal government prior to the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, and was among the leaders who convinced General Winfield Scott to allow Cherokees to lead detachments of their citizens to Indian Territory. Scott’s attempt at removal of some of the tribe during the spring of 1838 had proven to be a disaster and while the concept of detachments was an improvement, hardships were still horrendous and many lives were lost. Conrad’s detachment left with 739 members on August 28, 1828 and arrived in Indian Territory January 17, 1839 after a 143 day journey with 654 survivors, among them the venerable Chief Goingsnake.
Goingsnake chose a site for his cabin approximately six miles north of present day Westville near the Arkansas border. There was no specific gathering place enabling the new arrivals to become oriented or receive promised supplies. Earlier migrants and most of the twelve detachments crossed the boundary at various places between Arkansas and Indian Territory. Many, disenchanted earlier with circumstances in Georgia and traveling by water, followed the Arkansas River arriving at what was known as Phillips Landing, later Van Buren. They then followed a trail north that generally coincides with present day Highway 59, crossing into Indian Territory at various sites, founding communities like Piney, south of present day Westville.
Following his arrival, Chief Goingsnake immediately became involved in the politics of the new Nation. He participated in the general convention between the Eastern and Western Cherokee at Tahlequah in July, 1839. Considerable animosity had developed between the two factions. After arriving in 1828, the Western Cherokee had established a government, but the new arrivals, the Eastern Cherokee or Ross faction, argued that the latest treaty with the federal government recognized them as the governing body. Exhibiting typical leadership, Goingsnake, as well as Sequoyah and other Cherokee statesmen, negotiated a satisfactory compromise that evolved into a constitution enabling the Nation to move forward. Unfortunately, the venerable chief died soon after making that final contribution.
The Cherokee leadership was well aware of Goingsnake’s many contributions and, in one of the first acts after the government was organized, recognized the chief by naming one of the nine districts in his honor. Located in the eastern hill country bordering Arkansas, the Goingsnake District has been the site of numerous notable historical events. The Baptist Mission congregation arrived in the vicinity in 1839 and, under the leadership of Reverend Evan Jones built a new church. Years later in 1859, the church became “the seat of abolition” when Jones was instrumental in reviving the Keetoowah Society opposed to slavery. The church was burned during the Civil War, than rebuilt afterward. Names on the stones of the graveyard nearby are mute reminders of the early history of the region. Another well known occurrence was the Goingsnake Masssacre on April 15, 1872. The massacre occurred at Whitmire School near Christie during the trial of Zeke Proctor, charged with killing Polly Beck. At the conclusion, nine men were dead and two mortally wounded after factions of the two families clashed. In order to highlight these and other important events, in 1978 the Goingsnake District Heritage Association was organized. The association meets monthly to share, review and discuss regional historical events and also focuses on Cherokee genealogy. Undoubtedly, Chief Goingsnake, a scholar himself, would be pleased that the history of the region bearing his name continues to be highlighted.
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.