A Soldiers Testament
Following is the 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 the 11th, 1890.
I am eighty years old today. I was born at Kings Iron Works in Sullivan
County, Tennessee, December the 11th, 1810. I grew into manhood fishing
in Beaver Creek and roaming through the forest hunting the deer the wild
boar and the timber wolf. Often I spent 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 become
acquainted with many of the Cherokee Indians, hunting with them by day
and sleeping around their campfires by night. I learned to speak their
language, and they taught me the acts 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 from lack of water.
I carried him to a spring, bathed and bandaged the bullet wound, built
a shelter out of bark peeled from a dead chestnut tree, nursed and protected
him, feeding him on chestnuts and roasted 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,
a fairly good archer, and a good trapper, and spent most of my time in
the forest in quest of game.
The removal of the Cherokee Indians from their
life-long homes in the year of 1818 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 west.
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 bye 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
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 snowstorm, developed pneumonia and died in the still
hours of a bleak winter night, with her head resting on Lieutenant Gregg's
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
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 mountain home in Tennessee, and the sorrowing cavalcade
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 very 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, Tennessee,
at John Oberson's show, and Bullock jokingly reminded me that there
was a case still pending against me before a court marital 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 on a boat out of Memphis, Tennessee.
The long, painful journey to the west ended
March 26, 1839, with four thousand silent graves reaching from the foothills
of the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee 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 of 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 Echata on Christmas night 1829,
I danced and played with Indian girls who were wearing ornaments around
their necks that looked Gold.
In the year of 1828, a little Indian boy living
on Ward Creek (Tennessee) 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 over run with armed brigands claming 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
(of the White Race). Men were shot in cold blood, lands were confiscated.
Homes were burned and the inhabitants driven out by these gold hungry brigands.
Chief Junaluska was personally acquainted with
President Andrew Jackson. Junaluska had taken five hundred of the flower
of his Cherokee scouts and helped Jackson to win the battle of the Horse
Shoe, leaving thirty three 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 their mercy.
Chief John Ross sent Junaluska as an envoy
to plead with President Jackson for protection for his people, but Jackson's
manner was very 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 . Their lands were given to the white man, and
in May 1838 an Army of four thousand regulars, and three thousand 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 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
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 creatures good bye, and with a child on 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 for
gold. Future generations will read and condemn the act, and I do hope posterity
will remember the private soldiers like myself. And like the four Cherokees
who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children,
we had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the
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. 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 of the nation in 1863. And I wonder if he is still living?
He was a noble hearted fellow, 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 should 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 an 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 fleeting years have come and gone,
and old age has overtaken me. But I can truthfully say that neither my
rifle nor my knife are 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 live in their memory as "the soldier who 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 four thousand silent graves
that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile. I wish I could forget
it all, but the picture of six hundred and forty five 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.