Papers shed light on relocation of Cherokees, boost genealogy
CHATTANOOGA (AP) — Jamie Russell reverently runs his finger down page after photocopied page, looking at names, seeking special ones.
He can’t stop smiling. Like everyone who looks at the words from the long-forgotten and nearly 200-year-old papers — documents that show how Cherokee Indians lived while stockaded in Chattanooga just before the infamous Trail of Tears — he understands the value these pages hold for finding family and local history.
“Some of these names — families — are still prominent in the Cherokee society today,” says Russell, who is Cherokee. “This is a very valuable thing to have here.”
Recorded by Albert S. Lenoir, a federal Indian commissioner during the Cherokee and Creek removal from 1836 to 1838, the papers list names such as Songshell, Raincrow, Calvin Wolf, Ave Vann and Chugualookee. They show that, over time in the encampment at New Echota, a Cherokee capital just north of Calhoun, Ga., Songshell and others had changing numbers of people in their family unit — usually decreasing numbers. And they show that the rations — corn, beef, bacon and salt — also were varied but most often were sparse.
The papers, technically known as Army ration papers, were donated to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Public Library in the 1940s by the Zeboim Cartter Patten family, descendants of the soldier who recorded the ration distributions at New Echota. Lenoir, the recorder, was the grandfather of Zeboim Cartter Patten’s wife.
Only in recent months, after a visit from Cherokee expert Dr. Duane King, did anyone realize what the ration books represent for Chattanooga, the beginning point of the Trail of Tears. About 4,000 Cherokees died on the forced march of about 15,000 Cherokees from their homes in Georgia to reservations in Oklahoma.
King said the papers gives historians another way to look at the removal.
“The most important thing is they put names with the numbers, in that we can now know about how many Cherokees were forced to remove, and we (can) know when they were removed and how they were removed,” King said.
The papers also provide information on the first regional home areas of Cherokees east of the Mississippi, something not really available before, he said.
“The value of these documents will continue to increase over time, simply because of their age. And as our understanding of them begins to increase, their importance will be even more appreciated,” King said.
The books were cataloged and stored among boxes of other Patten papers, said Mary Helms, head of the library’s local history and genealogy department.
“Dr. King said these papers are priceless,” she said. “He handled them with gloves and helped us understand their importance.”
Now the photocopied pages are available for perusal in the local history section of the library, Helms said. The originals are in safekeeping.
Soon archivists hope to be able to index the pages, she said.
American Indian villages and farms were rich and plentiful along the rivers and streams of the Tennessee Valley when the Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto came here in 1540.
But by the time the American Revolution ended in 1783, many Cherokees had assimilated into normal European settler life, intermarrying and carrying on ordinary pioneer lives.
However, President Andrew Jackson, an Indian fighter in the early 1800s, wanted them gone. Under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, he ordered the removal of Cherokees from the eastern half of the country.
Cherokee families who did not head on their own to reservations in Oklahoma were rounded up and moved to stockaded encampments at several locations in the tri-state region around Chattanooga. Groups gathered in these encampments to begin the trip that would become known as the Trail of Tears.
The Patten ration papers include lists from several of those encampments, including New Echota.
One missionary journal account of the time chronicles a rain-soaked night at the Brainerd Mission (near the present-day Eastgate Town Center) when Army officers camped with a group of 200 rounded-up Cherokees and allowed some to take shelter inside by the fire.
“ … Their little lips, blue and trembling with cold, seemed yet (to) form a smile of gratitude for this kind reception. … We wept and wept again, and still wept at the thought of that affecting scene,” wrote the Rev. Daniel S. Butrick on May 31, 1838.
Russell, a student of Butrick’s journal, said the ration papers add another page to Cherokee history and another way for people to learn their own stories.
“Traditional Cherokees believe if you have one drop of Cherokee blood, you’re a Cherokee,” he said. “I’m always running into people who say their great-great-grandmother or great-great-grandfather was Cherokee, but they get to a point where they can’t trace it back. Well, one thing about these (papers), if people have a name, they could come in here and try to trace it.”
Published in The Messenger 5.21.08