Burnett's Story of the Trail of Tears
Birthday Story of Private John G. Burnett,
Captain Abraham McClellan's Company, 2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade,
Mounted Infantry, Cherokee Indian Removal, 1838-39.
This is my birthday, December 11, 1890, I am eighty years old
today. I was born at Kings Iron Works in Sulllivan County, Tennessee,
December the 11th, 1810. I grew into manhood fishing in Beaver
Creek and roaming through the forest hunting the deer and the
wild boar and the timber wolf. Often spending weeks at a time
in the solitary wilderness with no companions but my rifle,
hunting knife, and a small hatchet that I carried in my belt
in all of my wilderness wanderings.
On these long hunting trips I met and became acquainted with
many of the Cherokee Indians, hunting with them by day and sleeping
around their camp fires by night. I learned to speak their language,
and they taught me the arts of trailing and building traps and
snares. On one of my long hunts in the fall of 1829, I found
a young Cherokee who had been shot by a roving band of hunters
and who had eluded his pursuers and concealed himself under
a shelving rock. Weak from loss of blood, the poor creature
was unable to walk and almost famished for water. I carried
him to a spring, bathed and bandaged the bullet wound, and built
a shelter out of bark peeled from a dead chestnut tree. I nursed
and protected him feeding him on chestnuts and toasted deer
meat. When he was able to travel I accompanied him to the home
of his people and remained so long that I was given up for lost.
By this time I had become an expert rifleman and fairly good
archer and a good trapper and spent most of my time in the forest
in quest of game.
The removal of Cherokee Indians from their life
long homes in the year of 1838 found me a young man in the prime
of life and a Private soldier in the American Army. Being acquainted
with many of the Indians and able to fluently speak their language,
I was sent as interpreter into the Smoky Mountain Country in
May, 1838, and witnessed the execution of the most brutal order
in the History of American Warfare. I saw the helpless Cherokees
arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet
point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain
on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep
into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the
One can never forget the sadness and solemnity
of that morning. Chief John Ross led in prayer and when the
bugle sounded and the wagons started rolling many of the children
rose to their feet and waved their little hands good-by to their
mountain homes, knowing they were leaving them forever. Many
of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them
had been driven from home barefooted.
On the morning of November the 17th we encountered
a terrific sleet and snow storm with freezing temperatures and
from that day until we reached the end of the fateful journey
on March the 26th, 1839, the sufferings of the Cherokees were
awful. The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had
to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire. And I
have known as many as twenty-two of them to die in one night
of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold, and exposure. Among
this number was the beautiful Christian wife of Chief John Ross.
This noble hearted woman died a martyr to childhood, giving
her only blanket for the protection of a sick child. She rode
thinly clad through a blinding sleet and snow storm, developed
pneumonia and died in the still hours of a bleak winter night,
with her head resting on Lieutenant Greggs saddle blanket.
I made the long journey to the west with the Cherokees
and did all that a Private soldier could do to alleviate their
sufferings. When on guard duty at night I have many times walked
my beat in my blouse in order that some sick child might have
the warmth of my overcoat. I was on guard duty the night Mrs.
Ross died. When relieved at midnight I did not retire, but remained
around the wagon out of sympathy for Chief Ross, and at daylight
was detailed by Captain McClellan to assist in the burial like
the other unfortunates who died on the way. Her unconfined body
was buried in a shallow grave by the roadside far from her native
home, and the sorrowing Cavalcade moved on.
Being a young man, I mingled freely with the young
women and girls. I have spent many pleasant hours with them
when I was supposed to be under my blanket, and they have many
times sung their mountain songs for me, this being all that
they could do to repay my kindness. And with all my association
with Indian girls from October 1829 to March 26th 1839, I did
not meet one who was a moral prostitute. They are kind and tender
hearted and many of them are beautiful.
The only trouble that I had with anybody on the
entire journey to the west was a brutal teamster by the name
of Ben McDonal, who was using his whip on an old feeble Cherokee
to hasten him into the wagon. The sight of that old and nearly
blind creature quivering under the lashes of a bull whip was
too much for me. I attempted to stop McDonal and it ended in
a personal encounter. He lashed me across the face, the wire
tip on his whip cutting a bad gash in my cheek. The little hatchet
that I had carried in my hunting days was in my belt and McDonal
was carried unconscious from the scene.
I was placed under guard but Ensign Henry Bullock
and Private Elkanah Millard had both witnessed the encounter.
They gave Captain McClellan the facts and I was never brought
to trial. Years later I met 2nd Lieutenant Riley and Ensign
Bullock at Bristol at John Roberson's show, and Bullock jokingly
reminded me that there was a case still pending against me before
a court martial and wanted to know how much longer I was going
to have the trial put off?
McDonal finally recovered, and in the year 1851,
was running a boat out of Memphis, Tennessee.
The long painful journey to the west ended March
26th, 1839, with four-thousand silent graves reaching from the
foothills of the Smoky Mountains to what is known as Indian
territory in the West. And covetousness on the part of the white
race was the cause of all that the Cherokees had to suffer.
Ever since Ferdinand DeSoto made his journey through the Indian
country in the year 1540, there had been a tradition of a rich
gold mine somewhere in the Smoky Mountain Country, and I think
the tradition was true. At a festival at Echota on Christmas
night 1829, I danced and played with Indian girls who were wearing
ornaments around their neck that looked like gold.
In the year 1828, a little Indian boy living on
Ward creek had sold a gold nugget to a white trader, and that
nugget sealed the doom of the Cherokees. In a short time the
country was overrun with armed brigands claiming to be government
agents, who paid no attention to the rights of the Indians who
were the legal possessors of the country. Crimes were committed
that were a disgrace to civilization. Men were shot in cold
blood, lands were confiscated. Homes were burned and the inhabitants
driven out by the gold-hungry brigands.
Chief Junaluska was personally acquainted with
President Andrew Jackson. Junaluska had taken 500 of the flower
of his Cherokee scouts and helped Jackson to win the battle
of the Horse Shoe, leaving 33 of them dead on the field. And
in that battle Junaluska had drove his tomahawk through the
skull of a Creek warrior, when the Creek had Jackson at his
Chief John Ross sent Junaluska as an envoy to
plead with President Jackson for protection for his people,
but Jackson's manner was cold and indifferent toward the rugged
son of the forest who had saved his life. He met Junaluska,
heard his plea but curtly said, "Sir, your audience is
ended. There is nothing I can do for you." The doom of
the Cherokee was sealed. Washington, D.C., had decreed that
they must be driven West and their lands given to the white
man, and in May 1838, an army of 4000 regulars, and 3000 volunteer
soldiers under command of General Winfield Scott, marched into
the Indian country and wrote the blackest chapter on the pages
of American history.
Men working in the fields were arrested and driven
to the stockades. Women were dragged from their homes by soldiers
whose language they could not understand. Children were often
separated from their parents and driven into the stockades with
the sky for a blanket and the earth for a pillow. And often
the old and infirm were prodded with bayonets to hasten them
to the stockades.
In one home death had come during the night. A
little sad-faced child had died and was lying on a bear skin
couch and some women were preparing the little body for burial.
All were arrested and driven out leaving the child in the cabin.
I don't know who buried the body.
In another home was a frail mother, apparently
a widow and three small children, one just a baby. When told
that she must go, the mother gathered the children at her feet,
prayed a humble prayer in her native tongue, patted the old
family dog on the head, told the faithful creature good-by,
with a baby strapped on her back and leading a child with each
hand started on her exile. But the task was too great for that
frail mother. A stroke of heart failure relieved her sufferings.
She sunk and died with her baby on her back, and her other two
children clinging to her hands.
Chief Junaluska who had saved President Jackson's
life at the battle of Horse Shoe witnessed this scene, the tears
gushing down his cheeks and lifting his cap he turned his face
toward the heavens and said, "Oh my God, if I had known
at the battle of the Horse Shoe what I know now, American history
would have been differently written."
At this time, 1890, we are too near the removal
of the Cherokees for our young people to fully understand the
enormity of the crime that was committed against a helpless
race. Truth is, the facts are being concealed from the young
people of today. School children of today do not know that we
are living on lands that were taken from a helpless race at
the bayonet point to satisfy the white man's greed.
Future generations will read and condemn the act
and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers
like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by
General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had
to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in
Twenty-five years after the removal it was my
privilege to meet a large company of the Cherokees in uniform
of the Confederate Army under command of Colonel Thomas. They
were encamped at Zollicoffer and I went to see them. Most of
them were just boys at the time of the removal but they instantly
recognized me as "the soldier that was good to us".
Being able to talk to them in their native language I had an
enjoyable day with them. From them I learned that Chief John
Ross was still ruler in the nation in 1863. And I wonder if
he is still living? He was a noble-hearted fellow and suffered
a lot for his race.
At one time, he was arrested and thrown into a
dirty jail in an effort to break his spirit, but he remained
true to his people and led them in prayer when they started
on their exile. And his Christian wife sacrificed her life for
a little girl who had pneumonia. The Anglo-Saxon race would
build a towering monument to perpetuate her noble act in giving
her only blanket for comfort of a sick child. Incidentally the
child recovered, but Mrs. Ross is sleeping in a unmarked grave
far from her native Smoky Mountain home.
When Scott invaded the Indian country some of
the Cherokees fled to caves and dens in the mountains and were
never captured and they are there today. I have long intended
going there and trying to find them but I have put off going
from year to year and now I am too feeble to ride that far.
The fleeing years have come and gone and old age has overtaken
me. I can truthfully say that neither my rifle nor my knife
were stained with Cherokee blood.
I can truthfully say that I did my best for them
when they certainly did need a friend. Twenty-five years after
the removal I still lived in their memory as "the soldier
that was good to us".
However, murder is murder whether committed by
the villain skulking in the dark or by uniformed men stepping
to the strains of martial music.
Murder is murder, and somebody must answer. Somebody
must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian
country in the summer of 1838. Somebody must explain the 4000
silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their
exile. I wish I could forget it all, but the picture of 645
wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their cargo of
suffering humanity still lingers in my memory.
Let the historian of a future day tell the sad
story with its sighs, its tears and dying groans. Let the great
Judge of all the earth weigh our actions and reward us according
to our work.
Children - Thus ends my promised birthday story.
This December the 11th 1890.