Illuminating History’s Shadows Through Fiction
Illuminating History’s Shadows Through Fiction

On the Trail

May 25, 2024

On May 26th, 1838, the United States Government began enforcing the terms of the Treaty of New Echota (1836) upon the Cherokee people residing in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Troops began arresting and imprisoning Cherokee citizens, holding them in purpose-built forts in anticipation of transporting the entire population of over 16,000 souls West one-thousand miles, and thereby virtually clearing the lands east of the Mississippi of autonomous Indian Nations.

This exodus of the Cherokee between 1838-39 – one of much tragedy and suffering that became known as The Trail of Tears – actually happened many times over on a smaller scale in the years in which Red Clay, Running Waters takes place. Leaving aside previous historical events, not long after John arrived in Cornwall in 1818 to attend the Foreign Mission School, several thousand Cherokee broke off from the majority, formed a faction, negotiated a separate treaty with the US Government, and made the same exodus to the frontiers of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Those immigrants, including Sequoyah, the future creator of the Cherokee Syllabary, became known as the ‘Old Settlers.’ It was they who awaited those forced west by the New Echota Treaty.

As I filled in the answers to the question that kick-started my fascination with John and Sarah Ridge’s story – how the tragedy of the Trail of Tears happened, and how the Ridges, once patriots, got the blame – a new comprehension of those events and their influences on American society immerged, for, though the Trail of Tears may be the most well-known event people associate with the Cherokee, it was one of many forced removals of the time.

The actual events of the Trail are briefly mentioned in Red Clay, Running Waters This wasn’t always the case. At one time, my intention was to carry the story forward with a character who did walk on the Trail with Ross supporters – Lizzie Shoeboot. Early in the evolution of the story I had created a subplot thread following the Shoeboot family, showing how the lives of the mixed-race family (so wonderfully brought to light in Tiya Miles work, Ties That Bind) became part of the Ridges’s lives, and what John Ridge did to ensure their futures. Lizzie, the oldest daughter of Shoeboot and Doll, his slave, did travel on the Trail, ultimately settling not far from where Major Ridge and Suzanna made their home in Indian Territory. I was excited. I wrote about Lizzie, her time in a fort. . .

But it was not to be. The manuscript was already at 800 pages, and I hadn’t written the Trail scenes yet, let alone the rest of the story. Reader/editor feedback said the subplot wasn’t needed, breaking my heart as I cut out the early thread of events that set the stage for the Shoeboots in the Ridges’ drama. I won’t deny I still retain fantasies about a ‘Directors Cut’ . . . which would be madness, of course.

Writing any novel is full of multi-branching choices like a choose-your-own-adventure – hard compromises necessary to get a work readable and published, so the Shoeboots and the Trail are now mere mentions in the book. The Shoeboots’ path through the life of the Ridges and beyond still fascinates and inspires me. It is one I wanted to tell, but in lieu of more pages of my already ample work, I certainly recommend Ties That Bind to anyone who is curious.

Readers of RCRW will understand that the events represented by the Trail of Tears, though not shown, are so much more than the physical expulsion of a people. Today, the Cherokee, the Creeks, Choctow, Chickasaw along with other Native American tribes forced from their lands during events of the 1830s, commemorate the exodus and honor those who made the journey through a National Trail Commemoration Day and through the Trail of Tears Association and their State Chapters (North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma). This volunteer group is dedicated to saving, marking and preserving sites as well as supporting Cherokee history and cultural heritage events. If you live in these areas, you may have seen the signs. And if you have read Red Clay, Running Waters, you understand more of how the path to theTrail was laid for them.

My journey into the Ridges will carry on in my thoughts and heart for the rest of my days, as will my remembrances of the events that began and concluded in those days nearly two-hundred years ago. As the Cherokee carried their stories with them to their new homeland, wherever I reside, the Ridges and the Cherokee of that time will always be with me.

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