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716: Trail of Tears

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

When Lucian Truscott tries to explain how he's related to Thomas Jefferson, he says, OK, he's 73. He used to visit a great grandmother, who used to visit her great grandfather, Thomas Jefferson's grandson.

Lucian Truscott

So there was only-- when I was growing up, when I visited my great grandmother, there was only one dead person between me and Jefferson.

Ira Glass

When Lucian was a boy in the early 1950s, just six or seven years old, when he would visit family in Charlottesville, sometimes they would drop him off with his brother at Monticello, Jefferson's home. Lucian says it was before the place had been remade for tourists like it is today. Basically, visitors who pay maybe $1 and walk through the house.

Lucian Truscott

You know, my great aunts, they treated the place like it was still the family home. And we had the run of the place. We used to fill our pockets full of pebbles from the walkways up there, and go up on the second floor and third floor of the place and crawl out windows onto these parapets that are up around the top of Monticello and drop pebbles on the tourists that were walking around the house. And--

Ira Glass

Very asocial behavior.

Lucian Truscott

Yeah. And you're talking to one of-- probably the only person you'll ever talk to in your life that's actually jumped on Thomas Jefferson's bed. I mean, we would play on the bed. We'd go through that little doorway and up the stairs into the closet, which is above the bed there, and sit up there in the closet. And when tourists came through the room, we'd stick our faces out of the window up there and say boo and scare them. We'd hide out there. And so--

Ira Glass

There was no adult supervision at all.

Lucian Truscott

No, no adult supervision at all.

We went through all the bedrooms and stuff up there. And then, of course, we'd play down in the basement rooms. And then of course what they call the dependencies, which were the slave rooms that run under the two wings that run out from Monticello itself.

Ira Glass

It would be decades before the slave quarters were part of the Monticello tour, Lucian says. These were just empty rooms under the house. No furniture or anything else in them. He and his brother would explore and run around.

Lucian Truscott

And play hide and seek or whatever little boys did.

Ira Glass

It's amazing to me the degree to which it felt like a family home. Did it feel that way to you as a kid?

Lucian Truscott

You know, I have to tell you that all of this stuff in my family was just taken for granted.

Ira Glass

These days, of course, nothing about the legacies of the Founding Fathers is taken for granted. Just this week, a special committee appointed by the mayor of Washington, DC called for removing, relocating, or contextualizing a bunch of monuments to slave-owning Founding Fathers, including the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument, which, by the way, the mayor doesn't actually have jurisdiction over.

Meanwhile, the president, of course, has put his arms around this issue. Right after he began his reelection campaign, he gave a speech at Mount Rushmore to make clear that he does not want to remove any monuments or rename any buildings or military bases.

But this great, great, great-- whatever it is-- direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson, Lucian Truscott, he's got a special perspective on this. He led the charge to convince all the other white descendants of Thomas Jefferson to allow the Black descendants of Thomas Jefferson into their official family association.

The Black family members, of course, trace back to Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of the people he enslaved. Lucian thinks that everybody needs to get real about the slave-owning past of some of the Founding Fathers.

Ira Glass

Like, how do you feel about people taking down monuments of Thomas Jefferson?

Lucian Truscott

I think they ought to be taken down. I think that the great monument to Thomas Jefferson is Monticello. And I think it's an appropriate monument, because it actually puts Jefferson's life in context. It puts his slave-owning as part of his life and in context. If you visit Monticello today, you get to see where the slaves lived. You'll be shown where Sally Hemings's brother John did woodwork in Jefferson's bedroom, and study, and so forth.

Slaves built that place. I never heard that slaves built that place when I was growing up. But it's talked about today. The history of Monticello at this point is about half Jefferson history, half slave history. I think that's appropriate. As a memorial, it tells the story of the whole man, not just this sort of god-like Thomas Jefferson we've all been raised to venerate.

Ira Glass

What are we supposed to do with the shameful parts of America's past? This is being talked about so much today. And back in the early days of our radio show, in the late '90s, one of our contributors, Sarah Vowell, did a story that took that on in this very vivid and complicated way.

She set out on the road with her sister Amy to visit the site of a historic tragedy, one that involved part of their own family 160 years before that. And we wanted to replay it this holiday weekend because the questions that it addresses, the things that it is obsessed with, are all so much more talked about today than 22 years ago when she did that story.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. We take a road trip into history today. Stay with us.

Act One: Act One

Ira Glass

So Sarah Vowell and her sister Amy were born in eastern Oklahoma, in what was called Indian Territory before statehood. That's where our story ends, and that's also where it begins. They're enrolled citizens of the Cherokee Nation, like their parents, which, as you'll hear, is important to this story.

Here's the opening line of Sarah's story from 1998.

Sarah Vowell

Being at least a little Cherokee in northeastern Oklahoma is about as rare and remarkable as being a Michael Jordan fan in Chicago. I mean, who isn't?

Ira Glass

I'm guessing I don't need to explain that antique 1998 sports reference to many of you, but I do have one note before we play the rest of the story. And it's about the word "Injun." Sarah asked me to point out to anyone hearing this today that her grandfather was born in Indian Territory before statehood. And he used the word "Injun" as a term of affection. It was never derogatory. OK, so picking up, Sarah's part Cherokee.

Sarah Vowell

It goes without saying that my twin sister Amy is, too, except that I have dark eyes and dark hair, and she's a blue-eyed blonde. And so our grandfather nicknamed me Injun and her Swede.

Here's Amy's take on all this. I must point out that while my sister and I don't really look alike, we sound almost exactly alike. A hint for listening to this story, I'm usually the grouchy one. Here's Amy.

Amy Vowell

I mean, those roles were assigned to us, you know, Indian and Swede, because of the way we looked. But it was also more like the things we were told about ourselves, and she was the one who was given the Cherokee language book. And I was the one who was always told how much alike I was to our Swedish grandmother. And I think I was probably 6 or 7 or something before I realized that I was Cherokee, too.

Sarah Vowell

We're a little French, and Scottish, and English, and Seminole, too. Typical American mutts. But the Cherokee and Swedish sides of the family were the only genealogies anyone knew anything about. Here's what we knew about ourselves.

Ellis Island, Trail of Tears. And I think, to a kid, Trail of Tears, the Cherokees' forced march from the East to Oklahoma, where we were born, seemed enormously more interesting, just as a name. Even the smallest children know what tears mean. And I think in my earliest understanding of where I came from, I pictured myself descended from a long line of weepers with bloodshot eyes.

The Trail of Tears. Between 1838 and '39, the US army wrenched 16,000 people from their homes, rounded them up in stockades, and marched them across the country. 4,000 died.

Every summer when we were children, our parents would drive us to a place about half an hour from where we lived called Tsa-La-Gi, which is the Cherokee word for "Cherokee." Tsa-La-Gi is the tribe's cultural center. There's a recreated village, a museum. And this was our favorite part, an amphitheater which staged a dramatic recreation of the Trail of Tears.

Every summer, we watched Chief John Ross try like mad to save the Cherokee land back East. We saw his hothead rival, Stand Watie, rage off to the Civil War. We especially loved the Death of the Phoenix, a noisy, magenta-lit, interpretive dance in which the mythic bird would die only to rise again.

Amy Vowell

We would get these programs or brochures, and Sarah was kind of in charge of them. And sometimes she'd let me look at them. She had a whole little file, and we would look through them. And it was-- I mean, I did take it to heart. It was a story that was really tragic. I have a reverent feeling towards it. And I think it's because of this play, because this play was so serious and told such a detailed story, that it took this place of significance, like it was really important and it really mattered.

Sarah Vowell

Here's the measure of how important the amphitheater show was to Amy and me. Our father and our grandfather used to show us photographs of Cherokee leaders in books, but even now, when I imagine Stand Watie, I picture the actor at Tsa-La-Gi.

So all my life, I knew I wouldn't exist but for the Trail of Tears, and it struck me as a little silly that most of the things I knew about it were based on an amphitheater drama I haven't seen for nearly 20 years.

At first, I thought I'd read some books about it, which I did. But then I wanted to see it, feel it, know how long a trek it was. I wanted it to be real. I enlisted Amy. Perhaps she'd like to do all the driving? A historical tragedy in five 14 hour days behind the wheel? Who could pass that up?

And so I fly from Chicago, she from Montana, and one spring morning, we find ourselves in a rental car on our way to northwestern Georgia, the homeland of the Cherokee before they were shoved out to Oklahoma, the place the Trail of Tears begins.

The Cherokee Territory once encompassed most of present day Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as parts of Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Even before contact with the Europeans in 1540, they were a proto-democratic society. They built these enormous council houses, big enough to fit the entire tribe inside, so everyone could participate in tribal decisions.

We're barely on the road an hour when we spot them. Injuns, ceramic ones, three feet tall at a shack on the side of the road. Amy drives past them, we do a double take, and we don't even discuss whether or not to stop. She just backs up immediately and parks.

Sarah Vowell

Are you of Native American descent?

Man

I'm a Mexican, from Texas.

Sarah Vowell

From Texas? And what brought you to Calhoun, Georgia?

Man

The work.

Sarah Vowell

The eight little Indians he's selling are of the kitschy teepee-toting Plains Indians variety, which are probably a lot easier to sell than the stereotypical image of a Cherokee, a tired out old woman, tromping through the Trail of Tears in rags. Who wants that as a lawn ornament?

Sarah Vowell

Who buys these statues, these Indian statues?

Man

People here from Calhoun, around Georgia. People here around Georgia love Indians.

Sarah Vowell

Really?

Man

Uh-huh.

Sarah Vowell

Well, after they got rid of them?

Man

Oh, that's right. That's true. You're telling the truth there.

Sarah Vowell

Thank you very much.

The Cherokee, especially the mixed bloods, were always your nerdy, overachiever, bookish sort of tribe. And in the early 19th century, they launched a series of initiatives directly imitating the new American republic. In one decade, they created a written language, started a free press, ratified a constitution, and founded a capital city.

New Echota was that capital. Now it stands in the middle of nowhere, a Georgia State Park with a handful of buildings across from a golf course.

Sarah Vowell

Can we follow you in this car?

Man

Drive on in.

Sarah Vowell

New Echota was founded in 1825. To call it the Cherokee version of Washington, DC is entirely applicable, given the form of government the tribe established there. They ratified a constitution based on that of the United States, dividing into legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Its preamble begins "we, the representatives of the people of the Cherokee Nation, in convention assembled in order to establish justice, ensure tranquility, promote our common welfare, and secure to ourselves and our posterity the blessings of liberty."

Unlike Washington, New Echota is cool, and quiet, and green. Site manager David Gomez showed us around the grounds, and Amy and I were unprepared for the loveliness of the place, for its calm lushness, its fragrance. Everywhere, honeysuckle was in bloom.

Sarah Vowell

I like it here.

David Gomez

It's nice. It's peaceful, and it's right for the-- the atmosphere is right for what was going on in the story that we tell here. It's a story that's sad in a lot of ways, but there was a lot of great things happening with the Cherokee Nation.

Sarah Vowell

The Cherokee, along with the other southeastern tribes who suffered removal to Oklahoma-- the Chickasaw, the Creek, the Choctaw, the Seminole-- are one of the so-called five civilized tribes.

It was in 1822 that the Cherokee hero, Sequoyah, developed an alphabet, inventing the sole written language of any North American tribe. Only six years later, Cherokee editor Elias Boudinot founded The Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual English-Cherokee newspaper published at New Echota.

Many Cherokee, especially the mixed bloods, practiced Christianity. And because many of these lived as civilized, Southern gentlemen of the early 19th century, they owned prospering plantations, which meant they owned Black slaves.

More than any other Native American tribe, the Cherokees adopted the religious, cultural, and political ideals of the United States, partly as a means to self-preservation.

By becoming more like the Americans, they hoped to coexist with this new nation that was growing up around them. They weren't allowed to.

Georgia settlers wanted their land and their gold, which was discovered near New Echota in 1829.

David Gomez

They were really progressing so fast at this time period. The printing operation was going with their newspaper here. Things were moving so fast for them for a short while here that it looked very promising. But because of gold and the big demand for the land, their fate had already been really sealed for them in earlier years.

Sarah Vowell

The tribe allowed Christian missionaries to live and work among them and to teach their children English. The most beloved of these was the Presbyterian Samuel Worcester, who built a two-story house at New Echota, which functioned as a post office, school, and rooming house. It's still there, and David Gomez walks us through.

David Gomez

We've got some steep steps here. Y'all hold on as you go down. I don't want y'all to have a broken leg on the rest of your trip.

Sarah Vowell

The state of Georgia, which of all the Southern states treated the Cherokee with the most hostility, passed a number of alarming laws in the 1820s and '30s, undermining the sovereignty of the nation.

One of these laws required white settlers within the boundaries of the nation to obtain a permit from the state of Georgia. Samuel Worcester refused to apply for such a permit, arguing that he had the permission of the Cherokee to live on their lands and that should suffice.

Georgia arrested Worcester and imprisoned him for four years. Worcester appealed to the Supreme Court, and the case Worcester v. Georgia became a great victory for the tribe. The court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled that the Cherokee Nation was just that-- a sovereign nation within the borders of the US, and therefore beholden only to the federal government, i.e. not under the jurisdiction of Georgia State laws.

David Gomez

And the Cherokee Nation was elated. They thought, all right, the highest court in the land of the United States, this government that we're trying to copy, they've ruled in our favor. This is gonna be good.

And of course Andrew Jackson, who was pro-removal from the early years-- he had campaigned on that issue-- decided he wasn't gonna back the Supreme Court ruling.

Sarah Vowell

Think about that, what that means. Jackson is violating his own oath of office to uphold the Constitution.

Anyway, the state of Georgia was thrilled when Jackson thumbed his nose at the court, and immediately dispatched teams to survey the Cherokee lands for a land lottery. Soon white settlers arrived here.

David Gomez

They show up two years later in 1834 with a land lottery deed, and with Georgia soldiers saying, I've got this land from the lottery. Get off of it.

Sarah Vowell

One small constitutional violation that was part of the land grab, Georgia seized the Cherokee printing press, so they couldn't publicize their cause and win political support in states up North. The tribe was divided about what to do. Stay and fight, or demand cash for the land and head West? No one exploited this split more than Andrew Jackson. And no one annoyed Jackson like principal Chief John Ross.

Ross was a Jeffersonian figure in almost every sense. A Founding Father of the Cherokee nation in its modern legal form, he preached to liberty while owning slaves. An educated gentleman planter, he was their chief from 1827 to 1866.

In his later years, he corresponded with Abraham Lincoln. In his early years, he was such a believer in the inherent justice of the American system that he lobbied relentlessly in Washington, DC, believing that once the Congress and the president understood that the Cherokee were a virtuous, sibling republic that they'd treat the tribe fairly, as equals.

Once the state of Georgia began evicting the Cherokee, and John Ross among them, Ross wrote, "treated like dogs, we find ourselves fugitives, vagrants, and strangers in our own country."

The vast majority of the tribe wanted to stay put and supported Ross, but around 100 men, including Phoenix editor Elias Boudinot and his brother Stand Watie, 100 in a tribe of 16,000, met at Boudinot's house in New Echota and signed a treaty with the US government.

They had no authority to do this. Called the Treaty of New Echota, it relinquished all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for land in the West. They figured, Georgia was already seizing Cherokee land. This might be the only way the Cherokee could get something for it.

John Ross, whom the Georgia militia arrested so that he could not protest, was stunned. He accused the treaty party of treason. The rest of the 16,000 Cherokee signed a petition calling the treaty invalid and illegal. Congress ratified the treaty by only one vote, despite impassioned pleas on behalf of the Cherokee by senators Henry Clay and Davy Crockett. The tribe was given three years to remove themselves to the West.

Now we're standing at the side of Elias Boudinot's house, where the infamous New Echota treaty was signed.

David Gomez

When the spring of '38 rolled around, about like right now, nobody was going anywhere. Georgia and the federal government thought they were gonna have some problems, and you had about 7,000 troops come in to forcibly remove the Cherokees from their farms, from their houses, and initially rounded up in what were known as forts or stockades, and then moved up into eastern Tennessee and northeastern Alabama to three immigration depots, where they were then transferred and then moved out on the Trail of Tears, as everybody knows it.

So technically this is the starting point for the Trail of Tears. For the individual Cherokees, it really started at their front door or wherever they were rounded up from, though.

Sarah Vowell

Amy and I want to step on it, this patch of grass where the treaty was signed, but we hesitate. It's not a grave, Gomez tells us, but that's what it feels like. We tiptoe onto it, this profane ground. And then we tiptoe away.

Perhaps we should be embarrassed by certain discrepancies between our Trail of Tears and theirs. We're weak, we're decadent, we're Americans, which means road trip history buffs one minute, amnesiacs the next. We want to remember, except when we want to forget.

We register at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, the Chattanooga Choo Choo. It's a hotel now, a gloriously hokey, beautifully restored Holiday Inn, in which the lobby is the ornate dome of the old train station, and the rooms are turn-of-the-century rail cars parked out on the tracks.

We're in giggles the entire night for the simple reason that the phrase "choo choo" is completely addictive. We try to work it into every sentence. "What should we do for dinner? Stay here at the Choo Choo?" We end up going out for barbecue saying, "this is good, but I can't wait to get back to the Choo Choo."

We watched The X-Files in our train car commenting, "is it just me, or is this show even better in the Choo Choo?" I sent email from my laptop just so that I can write, "Greetings from the Chattanooga Choo Choo," exclamation point. Number of times I just said "Choo Choo? Seven. Number of Choos? 14.

Chattanooga Choo Choo!

Sarah Vowell

Day two. Sadly, we check out of the Choo Choo and drive across town to Ross's Landing. It used to be where John Ross's ferry service carried people across the Tennessee River. But in 1838, it was one of the starting points for the water route of the Trail of Tears.

I stand on the sand and read a weathered historical marker.

Sarah Vowell

"Established about 1816 by John Ross some 370 yards east of this point. It consisted of a ferry, warehouse, and landing. Cherokee parties left from the landing for the West in 1838, the same year the growing community took the name Chattanooga." And I'm sure there's no connection at all between those two points. That sounds so nice. They "left for the West." Bye-bye. Bon voyage.

I haven't mentioned that Ross's Landing also functions as Chattanooga's tourist center. Up the hill from the river is the gigantic Tennessee Aquarium and an IMAX theater. The place is crawling with tourists, a crowd so generic and distinguishable from one another they swirled around us as a single t-shirt.

160 years ago, thousands of Cherokees came through this site. In the summer, they were forced onto boats and faced heat exhaustion and a drought that stranded them without water to drink. In the fall, they headed west by foot, eventually trudging barefoot through blizzards.

Either way, they died of starvation, dysentery, diarrhea, and fatigue. A quarter of the tribe was gone. And here, in the shadow of the aquarium, the Trail of Tears is remembered by a series of quotations from disgruntled Native Americans carved into a concrete plaza.

One of the citations from a Cherokee named Dragging Canoe is from 1776.

Sarah Vowell

"The white men have almost surrounded us, leaving us only a little spot of ground to stand upon. And it seems to be their intention to destroy us as a nation." Good call. We're moving diagonally across the sidewalk. And Andrew Jackson, in 1820, "It is high time to do away with the farce of treating with Indian tribes as separate nations." We'll step on that one.

Amy Vowell

These cracks in the sidewalks, they are symbolic of broken promises.

Sarah Vowell

Are you making that up?

Amy Vowell

No, it says right here, some of the pavers are cracked to symbolize the broken promises made to the Indians.

Sarah Vowell

Hmm.

Most Americans have had this experience. Most of us can name things our country has done that we find shameful, from the travesties everybody agrees were wrong, the Japanese internment camps or the late date of slavery's abolition, to murkier partisan arguments about legalized abortion or the Enola Gay.

World history has been a bloody business from the get-go, but the nausea we're suffering, standing on the broken promises at Ross's Landing, is peculiar to a democracy. Because in a democracy, we're all responsible for everything our government does.

Sarah Vowell

This is the letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to President Martin van Buren in 1838. "A crime is projected that confounds our understandings by its magnitude, a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokee of a country.

For how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government or the land that was coerced by their parting and dying imprecations our country anymore?

You, sir, will bring down the renowned chair in which you sit into infamy if your seal is set to this instrument of perfidy, and the name of this nation, hitherto the sweet omen of religion and liberty, will stink to the world."

And the path ends with a quotation from an unknown survivor of the Trail of Tears, who said, "long time we travel on way to new land. People feel bad when they leave old nation. Womens cry and make sad wails. Children and many men and all look sad like when friends die, but they say nothing and just put heads down and keep on go towards West. Many days pass, and people die very much. We bury close by trail."

That last passage, especially the part about when friends die, bring us to tears. And we just stand there, looking off towards the Tennessee, brokenhearted.

Meanwhile, there are little kids literally walking over these, words playing on them, making noise, having fun. We sort of hate them for a second. We ask a teacher who's with a group of fourth graders why she isn't talking to them about Cherokee history. And she says, normally she would, but it's the end of the school year, and this trip is their reward for being good. It sounds reasonable. I ask Amy if she thinks these kids should share our sadness.

Amy Vowell

Well, I think it's a sad story. I mean, it's sort of like the Holocaust. You don't have to be Jewish to think that that's definitely a sad part of history. And I think the Trail of Tears is America's version of genocide. And I mean, really, it started right over there.

You look like you're about to hit something.

Sarah Vowell

Still, I can't take my eyes off those children. I envied them. I want to join them. I'm an IMAX person. I had been to an IMAX theater just weeks before.

I wanted to come on this trip to get a feel for this trail that made us, but standing here at Ross's Landing, it hits me how crazy that is. Suddenly, the only thing I get out of it is rage. Why should we keep going?

Sarah Vowell

I don't know. I don't know why. I don't know why we're here. I seriously don't. Like, I know it's an interesting story, and yes, we are always interested in our past, but I don't-- sometimes I wonder what good comes of that.

I don't think it makes me a more contented person at all. In fact, I think I feel really haunted by all of this, and I feel very weighed down by the pain. Part of me thinks this whole thing is a mistake.

And maybe I feel more knowing about it, but I mean, it's not like this is a story where the more you know, the better you'll feel. It's just the opposite. The more I learn, the worse I feel and the more hatred I feel towards this country that I still love, and therefore the more conflicted.

And it's just the most-- I just feel all this anger at everything, and we're standing next to this stupid aquarium building and talking to Coast Guard guys. And there are ducks around, and now there's a calliope? And I mean, I don't know. Now I just feel-- I feel worse. I feel worse.

There are only so many hours a human being can stomach unfocused dread. I was tired, and confused, and depressed, and I needed the kind of respite that can only come from focused resentment. In the Trail of Tears saga, if there's one person you're allowed to hate, it's Andrew Jackson, the architect of the Indian removal policy.

And since the Trail of Tears passed through Nashville anyway, we stop at his plantation, the Hermitage.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell and her sister enter the enemy's bedroom. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Act Two

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today, a program about the past and what to make of the past. We continue with the story of Sarah Vowell and her sister, Amy, who are retracing the path of the Trail of Tears.

They have just arrived, if you remember from before the break, at the home of the president responsible for the trail, somebody they hate and intend to keep hating, Andrew Jackson, who incidentally is one of President Trump's favorite presidents.

President Trump placed Jackson's portrait in the Oval Office. He spoke at Jackson's home to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Jackson's birth. In that speech, he called out Jackson as a people's president, like himself, out for the common man, somebody who defied the political class of his day.

Donald Trump

It was during the Revolution that Jackson first confronted and defied an arrogant elite. Does that sound familiar to you?

[CROWD CHEERING]

I wonder why they keep talking about Trump and Jackson, Jackson and Trump. I know the feeling, Andrew.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

So I pointed out earlier that today's program was first broadcast in 1998. In the years since Sarah and Amy visited Jackson's home, they've updated the exhibits. The museum there includes exhibits on slaves and on Native American removals that Jackson enacted. There's an audio tour that focuses entirely on the enslaved people who lived there. Again, from our original story, here's Sarah Vowell.

Sarah Vowell

The house and museum are closed to the public when we arrive because of astonishing tornado damage. Part of me wanted to destroy Andrew Jackson and everything he represented. Seeing all those hacked up trees made me feel like someone had beaten me to the punch.

Sarah Vowell

God, look at it. All the trees are down.

Amy Vowell

Yeah.

Sarah Vowell

The wrath of God.

Inside there's no display mentioning Indian removal because, remarkably, there is no display about Jackson's presidency. Carolyn Brackett showed us around the house, a columned antebellum mansion that looks like a cross between Graceland and Tara. Unfortunately for my spite spree, I liked Carolyn Brackett. I felt bad for her. Like, she would point into the library and say Jackson subscribed to a lot of newspapers before his death. And I'd say, "was one of them The Cherokee Phoenix?" She wasn't sure. She wanted to show off the mansion's painstaking restoration.

Carolyn Brackett

All of the rooms that have original wallpaper, all of the paper was conserved and had to be cleaned with an eraser the size of a pencil eraser. So that was quite an undertaking. The portrait of Jackson was finished nine days before his death. I think he shows the wear and tear of his life in that portrait.

The one over the--

Sarah Vowell

He looks like he's sticking his head out of a car window.

[LAUGHTER]

Carolyn Brackett

I guess he wasn't worrying about his hair much by then.

Sarah Vowell

Carolyn guides us past the flower garden planted by Jackson's wife, Rachel, and into the family graveyard. There are a few piddly headstones and one Greco-Roman monstrosity with an obelisk rising from the center.

Sarah Vowell

Let me guess which one of these graves is Jackson's.

Carolyn Brackett

Here he is. He actually had this designed for Rachel and left room for himself. And these are other family members.

Sarah Vowell

I pull a book out of my backpack, a book with the subtitle Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. Carolyn and Amy exchange a worried look.

Sarah Vowell

Well, so I'm standing here on-- I'm standing here on Andrew Jackson's grave, and there is part of me, as a person of partly Cherokee descent, that wouldn't mind dancing on it, you know? I'd like-- there's a letter that Jackson wrote about the removal of the Southeastern tribes. And can you hold that? This is his opinion on the Southeastern tribes leaving their land.

Carolyn Brackett

Mm-hmm.

Sarah Vowell

"Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers, but what do they more than our ancestors did nor than our children are doing? To better their condition in an unknown land, our forefathers left all that was dear in earthly objects. Our children by thousands yearly leave the land of their birth to seek new homes in distant regions."

And then it ends, "Can it be cruel in the government when by events which it cannot control the Indian is made discontent in his ancient home to purchase his lands, give him a new and extensive territory, to pay the expense of his removal, and support him a year in his new abode? How many thousands of our own people would gladly embrace the opportunity of removing to the West on such conditions?"

I mean, there's something-- there's something nutty about Old Hickory in this passage, just the fact that he just thinks, well, to compare the removal of Indians from their land with the opportunity of his generation to just go out West. Do you think-- I mean, what do you make of that? Can you help me understand that mindset?

Carolyn Brackett

Probably not. I mean, the interesting thing about that era was that they really felt that they were preserving. This is how they justified it in their own minds, was that they were actually helping preserve it, that this was inevitable. It was the early thought of Manifest Destiny, that it was inevitable that this would happen.

Interestingly to me is, they never seemed to think that we were gonna settle the country all the way to the West, all the way to California. So if they just kept moving everybody further away, they would suddenly get to a point where there wasn't gonna be any settlement, which of course didn't happen.

Sarah Vowell

We drive on into Kentucky, towards Hopkinsville. When the Trail of Tears passed through southern Kentucky in December of 1838, a traveler from Maine happened upon a group of Cherokees.

He wrote, "We found them in the forest by a roadside, camped for the night under a severe fall of rain accompanied by heavy wind. Canvas for a shield against the inclemency of the weather and the cold, wet ground for a resting place.

After the fatigue of the day, they spent the night. Several were then quite ill, and an aging man we were then informed was in the last struggles of death

Even aged females, apparently ready to drop into the grave for traveling with heavy burdens attached to the back, on the sometimes frozen ground and the sometimes muddy streets with no covering for the feet, except for what nature had given them.

We learned from the inhabitants on the road where the Indians passed that they buried 14 or 15 at every stopping place."

John Ross's wife died in a place like this, in winter, of pneumonia. She had one blanket to protect herself from the weather, and she gave it to a sick child during a sleet storm.

There's more. It gets worse. I always knew the Cherokee owned slaves, that they owned them in the East, and that they owned them in the West. Only in the course of this road trip did it occur to me that the slaves got to Indian Territory in the same manner as their masters, on the Trail of Tears.

Can you imagine? As if being a slave wasn't bad enough? To be a slave to a tortured Indian made to walk halfway across the continent?

Day 3, Hopkinsville. We stopped here because it was on the map, but pulling into town, we saw signs for a Trail of Tears Memorial Park we didn't know about. It seemed like a good idea to go there.

Sarah Vowell

You work here?

Joyce

Yes, I do.

Sarah Vowell

Mind if we bother you a second?

Joyce

What you need?

Sarah Vowell

Can you tell me about what the origin of this place is, and why there's a park here, and how it came about?

Joyce

Hopkinsville was a ration stop along the way on the Trail of Tears. And the Cherokee camped here. They were here for a week or so. While they were here, two of their chiefs died, and they're buried up on the hillside. If you start here and walk up to the grave area, there are three bronze plaques on each one of the posts.

The last one, just before you enter the grave area, tells you about the two chiefs, Whitepath and Flysmith.

Sarah Vowell

The plaque nearest the grave says that Whitepath was one of the Cherokee who fought under Andrew Jackson in 1814 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Jackson even gave Whitepath a watch for his bravery.

In that battle, a Cherokee saved Jackson's life, which hints at the level of Jackson's betrayal of the tribe. Had a Cherokee not saved his life then, Whitepath and Flysmith might not be buried here beneath our feet.

The graves are up on a little hill. You can hear the highway down below, but still it's serene. Up until this moment, all the graves along the trail had been metaphorical. All through Tennessee, Amy and I kept saying, "we're driving over graves. We're driving over graves."

But even then, we just imagined them there, under the blacktop, off in the woods. But here the skeletons suddenly had faces, specific stories. The graves were real.

It took the Cherokee about six months to walk to Oklahoma. We're doing it in five days. Every 10 minutes, we cover the same amount of ground they covered in a day.

We drive with the sun in our eyes, on back roads, through Kentucky. We duck into a remote section of downstate Illinois Chicagoans fear to tread. A plaque marks the spot where thousands of Cherokee camped, unable to cross the Mississippi because of floating ice. We cross it in under a minute.

I know we're going fast, but it doesn't feel fast. We plod through most of Missouri, stopping at yet another Trail of Tears State Park. There's actually a name for what we're doing. It's called heritage tourism, which sounds so grand, like it's gonna be one freaking epiphany after another. But after a while, we just read the signs without even getting out of the car. At the end of every day, we fall into our motel beds, wrecked.

Day 4, in the morning, we plow through Arkansas. We get to Fayetteville in the afternoon. We have lunch with two old roommates of mine, Brad and Leilani, who take us to a little Trail of Tears marker next to a high school parking lot.

Leilani

That looks plaque-like, huh? "On this site in the summer of 1839, there camped 1,000 Cherokees, men, women, and children en and route to their home--"

Sarah Vowell

The sign's facing a semi-circular arrangement of boulders. Anyone who's ever been to high school would recognize it immediately as the place students go to sneak cigarettes or get stoned. And once again, it's striking how the two American tendencies exist side by side, to remember our past and to completely ignore it and have fun.

Like how we treat all our national holidays. Don't we mourn the dead on Memorial Day with volleyball and sunscreen? Don't we, the people, commemorate the 4th of July by setting meat and bottle rockets on fire? Which makes a lot of sense, when you remember that a phrase as weird and whimsical as "the pursuit of happiness" sits right there in the second sentence of the founding document of the country.

[MUSIC - CHUCK BERRY, "BACK IN THE USA"]

The most happiness I find on the trip is when we're in the car and I can blare the Chuck Berry tape I brought. We drive the trail where thousands died, and I listen to the music and think, what are we supposed to do with the grisly past?

I feel a righteous anger and bitterness about every historical fact of what the American Nation did to the Cherokee. But at the same time, I'm an entirely American creature. I'm in love with this song and the country that gave birth to it.

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearn for you. Uh-huh. Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge. That alone, just to be at my home back in old St. Louis.

Sarah Vowell

Listening to "Back in the USA" while driving the Trail of Tears, I turn it over and over in my head. "It's a good country. It's a bad country. Good country. Bad country." And of course, it's both.

Anything you want, they got it right here in the USA. I'm so glad I'm living in the USA.

Amy Vowell

"Welcome to Oklahoma, Native America." Huh. I don't remember the signs used to say that. Do you?

Sarah Vowell

No. I think, didn't they used to say, "Oklahoma's OK"?

Amy Vowell

Well--

Sarah Vowell

That's about right, too. It's OK.

[LAUGHTER]

Across the state line, we're in the Western Cherokee Nation. And the maddening thing, the heartbreaking, cruel, sad, cold fact is that northeastern Oklahoma looks exactly like northwestern Georgia. Same old trees, same old grassy farmland.

The Cherokee walked all this way, crossed rivers, suffered blizzards, buried their dead, and all for what? The same old land they left. We breeze through Tahlequah, the Cherokee capital. Even though the Trail of Tears officially stops there, our trail won't be over until we get to our hometown, Braggs. It's about 20 minutes away, and we plan on spending the evening with our aunts and uncles there.

[KNOCKING ON DOOR]

Aunt Lil

Come inside, girls.

Woman

Hi.

Aunt Lil

It's so good to see you. How are you?

Sarah Vowell

Hi, Aunt. Hi, uncles.

I wanted to talk to my Uncle John A, my mother's brother. At 74, he's my oldest living relative. I asked him about his great grandfather Peter Parson, who came to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.

John A

He was 12 years old, and he grew up here from 12 years old. And he was a stone mason. And some of his work is still around Tahlequah. If you're going up to the village tomorrow, you'll see two big columns.

Sarah Vowell

He built those?

John A

He built-- he helped build those two columns. See, they built that right after they came up here.

Sarah Vowell

I didn't know that. The columns he's talking about, and there are actually three instead of two, are the great symbols of the Cherokee Nation in the West. For years, I've had an old photograph of them stuck on my refrigerator door. They're all that's left of the remains of the Cherokee Female Seminary, the very first public school for girls west of the Mississippi, which my great grandmother attended.

Everything about the journey until now has been a little world historical. Hearing that our ancestor helped build the columns is the first time I felt an actual familial connection to the story.

I ask John A about our family and the Cherokee presence in Oklahoma. I ask him a lot of off-topic questions about his service in World War II, mainly because I was dying to. I was never allowed to ask him about it when I was a kid.

And then I asked him a mundane reporterly question about whether he thinks the state of Oklahoma has done a good job educating its students about American Indian history. He says yes, then jumps into a non sequitur about his own education that I haven't been able to stop thinking about since.

John A

I just wish that I could have maybe went to school a lot more. I didn't get no education. And that was one of my big faults.

But when I was growing up, it took everybody to make a living. So I had to work. There's Hoy, he's got a master's degree in education, and I got the third grade. Did you know that?

Sarah Vowell

No, third grade?

John A

That's all I got, the third grade. Duke is about third or fourth grade. We didn't get no education. So what you learn, you can't afford to forget, you know.

Sarah Vowell

On this trip, I've been so wrapped up in all the stories of all the deaths on the Trail of Tears. Sitting there, listening to my uncle ask what if, I realized that there are lots of ways that lives are pummeled by history.

If the Trail of Tears is a glacier that inched its way West, my uncle is one of the boulders it deposited when it stopped. He had to work the farm. And then came the dust bowl, and then came the war. All these historical forces bore down on him, but he did not break.

Compared to him, compared to the people we descend from, I am free of history. I'm so free of history, I have to get in a car and drive seven states to find it.

John A

It's good to know where you're from, to know where your beginning is. And it really probably don't amount all that much, only just to oneself. It has nothing to do with you getting out here, doing what you're gonna do tomorrow, or a week or two from now. But at least if you wanna look back, you can look back maybe on this trip and say, well, I was down in the area there, where some of my ancestors originated from.

Sarah Vowell

Day 5, Tsa-La-Gi.

Sarah Vowell

Do you remember this, Amy?

Amy Vowell

What?

Sarah Vowell

Do you remember this?

Amy Vowell

Yeah, don't you?

Sarah Vowell

Yeah. I mean, we came here once a year. Those columns are a lot smaller than I remembered. I remember them just being these arrows into the sky, and they can't be more than, what, 20 feet tall?

Amy Vowell

Oh, I think they're taller than that.

Sarah Vowell

Look, now we're at-- this is the amphitheater entrance. Oh, here's where you'd get your program. Walk up here. And there's the statue of Sequoyah.

Amy Vowell

Over there is where the Phoenix would rise again.

Sarah Vowell

Over there-- over there, isn't that-- down there on the right, that's where I remember Stand Watie would-- he was always throwing a fit.

Amy Vowell

I thought he was over there.

Sarah Vowell

Oh, really?

Amy Vowell

Mm-hmm.

Sarah Vowell

Unfortunately, due to loss of funding, the drama here at Tsa-La-Gi won't be performed this summer. Amy and I sit in the chairs where we first learned about the Trail of Tears and talk about our trip. Our experiences were different. She minored in Native American Studies in college. She not only owns a copy of Black Elk Speaks, she could quote from it. And for her, the trip was about empathy.

Amy Vowell

You know, I've been pretty close to tears sometimes, just thinking about the pain or whatever, like what the kids must've been thinking. Like, when we were driving, I just kept imagining the kids saying, where are we going? Where are we going? You know? Like, what is happening?

I guess I've been thinking about what it really must've been like.

Sarah Vowell

I've been thinking about those kids, too. But the person I identify with most in this history is John Ross, the principal chief during the Trail of Tears, because he was caught between the two nations. He believed in the possibilities of the American Constitution enough to make sure the Cherokee had one, too. He believed in the liberties the Declaration of Independence promises and the civil rights the Constitution ensures.

And when the US betrayed not only the Cherokee but its own creed, I would guess that John Ross was not only angry, not only outraged, not only confused. I would guess that John Ross was a little brokenhearted. Because that's how I feel.

I've been experiencing the Trail of Tears not as a Cherokee, but as an American.

John Ridge, one of the signers of the Treaty of New Echota, once prophesied, "Cherokee blood, if not destroyed, will wind its courses in beings of fair complexions, who will read that their ancestors became civilized under the frowns of misfortunes and the causes of their enemies."

He was talking about people like my sister and me. The story of the Trail of Tears, like the story of America, is as complicated as our Cherokee, Swedish, Scottish, English, French Seminole family tree. Just as our blood will never be pure, the Trail of Tears will never make sense.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell, she printed a version of this story about the Trail of Tears in her book, Take the Cannoli, Stories from the New World. But in the years since she told this story on the radio, she has written a number of surprisingly funny books, retelling some very grim American history. The Wordy Shipmates about the Puritans, a book on LaFayette, another book on Hawaii, one called Assassination Vacation. Just Google, and you'll see what I'm talking about.

[MUSIC - THE BAND, "TEARS OF RAGE"]

Ira Glass

Today's program was produced by Julie Snyder and myself, with Nancy Updike and Alix Spiegel. Senior editor for this show, Paul Tough. Contributing editors for today's show, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere, Sarah Vowell. Production help from Pat Hannah, Laura Doggit, and Sylvia Lemus.

Additional help on this rerun by Emanuele Berry, Noor Gill, Diane Wu, Nick Mott, Stowe Nelson, and Matt Tierney. Special thanks today to Ben Loyd, Leilani Schweitzer, and Brad Summerhill, Pat and Jenny Vowell, and to Sarah's sister, Amy.

Lucian Truscott IV, who you heard at the beginning of the show talking about Monticello is a columnist at Salon who wrote about monuments to Jefferson for The New York Times. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to any of our over 700 programs for absolutely free.

Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who today is hearing our program from Chattanooga and asks--

Sarah Vowell

Is it just me, or is this show even better in the Choo Choo?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Tears of rage, tears of grief. Why must I always be the thief?