"If our nation be doomed to inextricable adversity and extinction," Chief John Ross proclaimed in 1835, "then, as one people, let us be united, and calmly disappear with colors flying, and leave a character on the page of history that will never dishonor the name of the Cherokee nation."
Ross never wanted to bow to the inevitable. A perceptive, passionate and principled leader, he had made the Cherokees "the most civilized" of American tribes, hoping against hope that Congress would grant them autonomy. For years he had resisted the efforts of the state of Georgia, the U.S. Congress and President Andrew Jackson to remove the Cherokees from their ancestral homelands and send them along a "trail of tears" to land west of the Mississippi River.
In "Toward the Setting Sun," Brian Hicks, a senior writer for the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., who is part Cherokee, revisits this tragic episode in U.S. history. Clear and compelling, the book is at its best sorting out the factional disputes between Ross and Maj. John Ridge, his mentor-turned-rival.
Hicks is a gifted storyteller, albeit with a tendency toward hyperbole. John Quincy Adams' demand that treaties with Indians be honored, he insists, incorrectly, "cost him the South" in the presidential election of 1828. And Hicks persists in reading the minds of his subjects. Ross, he guesses, thought that federal agents "had little shame, much less any sense of irony."
Unlike some of their contemporaries, Hicks does not question the commitment of Cherokee leaders to the welfare of their people. Nor does he take a position on when the Cherokees should have agreed to removal. Maj. Ridge, who believed that the only path to safety for the Cherokees was a treaty of cession, Hicks concludes, is "perhaps the most tragic figure" in his story. John Ross, who opposed the Treaty Party until the very last minute, "saved his people, and his nation, ensuring both would survive into the coming centuries."
The Cherokees, of course, had no good options from which to choose. "When the strong arm of power is raised against the weak and defenseless," Ross told his people, "the force of argument must fail." Although they were morally superior to their adversaries, he added, Cherokee warriors were no match for the U.S. Army. They would be judged favorably by history, but now, they should leave. "Grown men cried," Brian Hicks reports, "but not nearly so much as they would" on the Trail of Tears.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.