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, Dec. 11, 1890, and I am 80 years old today. I was born at Kings Iron Works in Sullivan Co. Tennessee. I grew up fishing Beaver Creek and roaming through the forest hunting the deer, wild boar and timber wolf. Often spending weeks in the solitary wilderness with no companions but my rifle, hunting knife, and a small hatchet I carried in all of my wilderness wanderings.
On these long hunting trips I met and became acquainted with many of the Cherokee Indians, hunted with them by day and sleeping around their camp fire by night. I learned to speak their language, and they taught the art 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. He eluded his pursuers. When I found him he was weak from blood loss, he 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 chestnuts and toasted deer meat. When he was able to travel I accompanied him to the home of his people and remained so long I was given up for lost. By this time I had become an expert rifleman and a fairly good archer and a good trapper. I spent most of my time in the forest in quest of game.
The removal of Cherokee Indians from their lifelong homes in the year of 1838 found me a young manin the prime of life and a Private soldier in the Army. Being acquainted with many of the Indians and able to fluently speak their language, I was sent as interpreter into the Smoky Mountains 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 bayonet into the stockades. In the chill of a drizzling rain on Oct. morning I saw them loaded like cattle into six hundred and forty five wagons and started toward the west.
One can never forget the sadness of that morning. Chief John Ross led in prayer and when the bugle sounded and the wagons started rolling many children rose to their feet and waved 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 their homes barefooted.
On the morning of Nov. 17th we encountered a terrific sleet and snow storm with freezing temperatures and from that day until we reached the end of our fateful journey on Mar. 26th 1839, the sufferings of the Cherokee was awful. The Trail of exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire. 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 own blanket for the protection of a sick child. She road thinly clad through a blinding sleet and snow storm, developing pneumonia and died in the still hours of a bleak winter night, with her head resting on lieutenant Greegs Saddle Blanket.
I made the long journey to the west with the Cherokee 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 didn’t retire, but remained around the wagons out of sympathy for Chief Ross, and at daylight was detailed by Captain McClellan to assist in the burial like the other like the other unfortunates who died along 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 blanket, and they had many time sung their mountain songs for me, this being all they could do to repay me for my kindness. With all my association with Indian girls from Oct. 1838 to Mar. 26th 1839, I did not meet one who was a moral prostitute. They were kind and tender hearted and many were beautiful.
The only trouble I had with anybody on the entire journey 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 near 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 cut 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 2nt Lieutenant Riley and Ensign Bullock at Bristol Tennessee 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 1851 was running a boat out of Memphis, Tennessee.
The long painful journey to the west ended Mar. 26th, 1839, with four thousand silent graves reaching from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains to what is now known as Indian Territory in the West. Covetousness on the part of the white race was the cause of all the Cherokee had to suffer. Ever since Ferdinand DeSoto made his journey through the Indian Country in 1540, there had been a tradition of a rich gold mine somewhere in the Smoky Mountains, and I think the tradition was true. At a festival at Echota on Christmas nigh 1829, I danced and played with Indian girls who were wearing ornaments around their neck that looked like gold.
In 1828, a small Indian boy living on Ward creek had sold a gold nugget to a white trader, and that nugget sealed the doom of the Cherokee. 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 flowers of his Cherokee scouts and helped Jackson to win the battle of Horse Shoe, leaving 33 of them dead on the field. In that battle Junaluska had driven 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 of 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 Cherokee’s fate was sealed. Washing, DC, had decreed that they must be driven West and the 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, into the Indian Country and wrote the blackest chapter on the pages of American history.
When Scott invaded the Indian country some of the Cherokee fled to caves and dens in the mountains and were never captured and they are there today. I have long intended to go there and try to find them but I have put it off going so long and now I am too feeble to ride that far. The fleeing years have come and gone and old age has over taken me. I can truthfully say that my rifle nor my knife were stained with Cherokee blood.
I can truthfully say that I did my best for them when they certainly needed a friend. Twenty five years after the removal I still live in their memory as “the soldier that was good to us”.
However murder is murder whether committed by the villain sulking in the dark or by uniformed meen stepping to the strains of Martial music.
Murder is murder, and somebody must answer. Somebody must explain the stream of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer of 1838. Somebody must explain 4000 silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokee to their exile. I wish I could forget it all, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over frozen ground with 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 earth weigh our actions and reward us according to our work.
Children – Thus ends my promised birthday story. This December the 11th 1890.