G. Burnett’s Story of the Removal of the Cherokees
Birthday Story of Private John G. Burnett, Captain Abraham McClellan’s Company, 2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade,
Mounted Infantry, Cherokee Indian Removal, 1838-39.
Children: 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
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
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 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,
The long painful journey to the west ended
March 26th, 1839,
with four-thousand silent graves reaching from the foothills of the SmokyMountains 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 SmokyMountain 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.
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 mercy.
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.
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.
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 the matter.
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 SmokyMountain 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.
- Thus ends my promised birthday story. This December the 11th, 1890.