“This is the most desolate looking country that I ever saw.”
When John Lowery Brown made this observation on July 19, 1850, he was talking about this stretch of trail in southern Wyoming. Standing here a few weeks ago with his diary in my hand, it seemed little changed in 168 years. It’s still mighty desolate country. I couldn’t help but think about the even more desolate country that lay ahead on Brown’s route. To the west, things were going to get a lot worse for him and his companions — a group of Cherokee Indians caught up in the Gold Rush to California.
What? You never saw a Western movie about the Cherokee 49ers? Me neither. It’s yet another chapter of colorful American pioneer history that didn’t capture the European-American imagination. It’s so obscure, it’s almost like it never happened. Almost.
I stumbled upon a tantalizing clue studying a National Park Service California Trail brochure. Unfolded, it revealed a map that was nearly four feet long. A web of solid brown lines showed the many ways gold seekers traveled between Missouri and California. Toward the bottom of the map I noticed a dashed line wandering across the southern Plains all by its lonesome. It was labeled “Cherokee Trail.”
Huh? I thought the “Cherokee Trail of Tears” ended in Oklahoma? What’s it doing clear out here in Colorado? Then I remembered a smattering of “Cherokee” place names in the Sierra foothills. There’s a one-horse town, a river bar, a ridge, a camp, a flat, a creek or two — maybe this Cherokee Trail wasn’t about tears but about something else.
The “Cherokee Trail of Tears” refers to the forced march of people from their homes in southern Appalachia to Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) in 1838. They were evicted with little warning, incarcerated in stockades, then made to walk more than a thousand miles through a very cold winter. More than 4,ooo people died from starvation, exposure, and sickness. The events leading up to this horrific removal were complicated but a pivotal component was the discovery of gold on ancestral Cherokee lands in 1799 and 1828.
These early U.S. gold rushes played right into the Cherokee’s hands — at first. They became skilled at placer mining. In fact, they excelled to such an extent that the white men in power eventually took the rich land without even pretending their unscrupulous means were legal.
Many Cherokee families found Oklahoma a pathetic substitute for their homelands. Most tried to make the best of it. They set up schools and started newspapers that were published in both Cherokee (Tsalagi) and English. But when the California gold strike came along, hundreds jumped at the chance to put their placer mining skills to use again — hopefully under more egalitarian circumstances.
The Cherokee advertised for non-Indians to join their wagon trains. One big advantage to throwing in with them was “the Cherokee can pass across the prairies with perfect safety from the molestation of the Indians … as they are on most friendly terms …” They were skilled at keeping the peace between nations when it was in their best interest.
The Cherokee also knew what they were doing when it came to traveling long distances. After the deadly “Trail of Tears”, (over which they’d had little logistical control) they were painfully aware of all the provisions that had been lacking. They weren’t going to let that happen again. And although the Cherokee were skilled farmers, they had also continued to hunt and gather. They knew how to live off the land.
The Cherokee made the crossing with little sickness, few deaths, at least one successful birth, minimal losses of stock, and only one minor inter-tribal hostility. The Cherokee companies sent home articles and letters describing their passage. Several diaries chronicling the journey survived.
In California, many of the Cherokee enjoyed success in the placer mines. Others set up shop or went into farming. An impressive number nurtured the fledgling newspaper business as writers, editors, and publishers. The most famous was John Rollin Ridge, who wrote The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta in 1854. It was the first novel published in California, the first novel published by a Native American, and the first American novel to feature a Mexican protagonist. The story eventually morphed into the swashbuckling character of Zorro — fictional book, comic, and film star in America, Mexico, Europe, and even India.
Basically, these industrious and creative folks got to California and kicked butt.
As I stood on the Cherokee Trail near the spot where John Lowery Brown and the Cherokee ox teams crossed the Green River in Wyoming, it was strange to realize that I knew Brown would make it safely to California and back again to marry his sweetheart. But on the 19th of July in 1850, he had no idea if he’d survive another day.
I looked at the faint trace of the trail as it descended toward the river at a place that’s still called Buckboard Crossing. I touched my lips and blew a blessing into the wind. Good luck fellow travelers! I’ll see you on the other side.