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Birthday Story of Private John G. Burnett, Captain Abraham McClellan’s
Company, 2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Infantry, Cherokee Indian
“Children: This is my birthday, December 11, 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 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 wanderings.
On these long hunting trips I met and became acquainted with many of the
Cherokee Indians, hunting with them day and sleeping around their camp fires
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 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 lifelong 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 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- 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
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
midnight I did not retire, but remained around the wagon out of sympathy for Chief
Ross, and at daylight was detailed 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 the roadside far from her native home, and the sorrowing Cavalcade moved
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 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
The long painful journey to the west ended March 26th, 1839, with four-thousand
silent graves reaching from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains 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 Smoky Mountain 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.
In 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
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
Men working in the fields were arrested and driven to the stockades. Women
were dragged from their homes 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.
In another home was a frail mother, apparently a widow and three small children,
one just a ba. 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-, with a ba 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 ba 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.
Future 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
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 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 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 the villain skulking in the dark
or 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.
Children – Thus ends my promised birthday story. This December the 11th
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