According to Andrew Jones, Ph.D., much of what is known about the Trail of Tears does not come from the Cherokee people, but instead comes “from the members of the armed forces who escorted the Cherokee to Oklahoma and from the missionaries and ministers who went alongside them.” As a Post-Doctoral Teaching Historian at Reinhardt, Jones will spend the next nine months teaching history classes and working with the Funk Heritage Center to expand the Trail of Tears narrative in a special project called Cherokee Voices. By transcribing primary source documents, Jones will be able to help tell the story of Cherokee removal from a Native American perspective.
Jeff Bishop, director of the Funk Heritage Center, explains that when the Cherokees were removed from their land, they submitted claims to the United States government to be paid for their losses. “These claims are, in some cases, quite detailed,” explains Bishop. “They talk about where they were living and what they owned prior to their removal, such as livestock, outbuildings, barns, houses, and fields. In many cases, they described what happened to them when they were removed, and their journeys toward their ultimate destinations.”
Jones will lead a team of three undergraduate researchers to transcribe and digitize the documents. “Several volumes of these claims have been collected, but they are still in the long hand cursive from the 1840s,” says Jones. Once the project is complete, it will be available to researchers to further the scholarship on the Cherokee removal and Cherokee history as well as to members of Cherokee nation interested in genealogy and learning more about their ancestors. “It’s kind of a dual motivated project with one side toward scholarship and the other toward justice, bringing these voices back to bear upon the Cherokee story.”
To do this work, Jones brings a unique skill to the job – paleography. Paleography is the study of old texts and manuscripts. “For the last five to seven years I have been researching Scottish history in the exact same time period as the Cherokee removal (1830s – 1850s). Many of the primary sources I read in the Scotland archives were written in a very similar longhand cursive format.”
Jones also has a personal investment in this project that grew from his interest in genealogy. “My father appreciated our family history. Growing up as a white person, I had the ability to trace my genealogy because of the records that were well kept by my ancestors – white, male planters, farmers, and merchants. Those documents were well preserved because, in history terms, and with respect to the period, my ancestors ‘counted’ more than native people and people of color. This project allows me to use my skills and interest in genealogy to make the history of a different people group more accessible, more available, and more of an open story for future generations.”
Cherokee Voices is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Sustaining Humanities Infrastructure Program (SHIP) award.