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Trading with the Cherokee

Beginning as early as the 1830s, settlers coming into Texas from Illinois, Missouri, and the southern states most likely traveled along what was known as “The Trail of Tears.” The Trail of Tears was made up of over 5000 miles of land and water trails taken by native American tribes during the US government’s “Indian Removal” project. This massive undertaking starting with The Removal Act of 1830, forced the relocation of the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole (among others) to a newly-declared Indian Territory just west of the Arkansas border in what is now Oklahoma. During this removal process, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 native Americans were relocated and that some 15,000 died along the trail, thus the name—“The Trail of Tears” or as the Cherokee called it, “the trail where they died.”

In my new historical novel, Gone to Dallas, The Storekeeper, 1856-1861, my main character—Sara Darnell— and her new husband join a wagon train traveling across Arkansas along “The Trail of Tears” to Fort Smith, located on the Arkansas/Texas border, and then southwest into Indian Territory, and down the Texas Road to the Red River. This route carries them through Indian territory and across land belonging to several of the Civilized Tribes—who lived much like the settlers would live in Texas. Small farms lined the road and many tribal members supplemented their livelihood by selling supplies to the travelers. I want to share a brief excerpt from Gone to Dallas to give you a taste of an experience travelers might have had on the Texas Road to the Red River.

To set the stage for this scene, let’s read a paragraph from earlier in the book:  At Fort Smith, Arkansas, Lieutenant John Thomas Hill told them, Youll certainly see Choctaws and Chickasaws on your trip. Youll also touch the edge of the Cherokee Nation as you leave Fort Smith. Young Cherokee bucks will follow you for a while . . . Theyll show up in costume asking to trade. Seems like its a game to them. Thats fine, but they are notorious livestock thieves. They lurk along the Texas Road, all the way to the Red River, stealing horses. Best to guard your horses and milk cows.”


Before setting out from Tennessee, Morgan and Sara knew that the trail to Texas would take them through Indian Territory. A merchant selling them supplies had said, “Once you’re in Indian Territory, chances are you’ll be visited by Indians, especially the Cherokee, who want to trade. Best to have somethin’ to trade.” Lieutenant Hill had echoed this when they met him at Fort Smith. Sure enough, they were startled one morning when the wagon line ahead of them came to a sudden stop. Young Daniel Pollard came running down the line. “Dozens of Indians ahead, Pa says to stay calm. Most likely want to trade, like we heard.”

Sara felt her heart pounding in her chest. Dozens of Indians? She forced herself to take a few deep breaths and unclench her fists. Morgan saw her fear. “It’s okay, honey. You heard what Daniel said, they’ll just want to trade . . . like the couple with the berries.”

“Somehow this feels different. I guess because there are so many.”

In a few moments, they heard Captain Pollard call for the wagons to circle. After the wagons pulled into place, the men stood by their wagons. “Stay calm and no brandishing of weapons,” Pollard called out. Most of the women disappeared into their wagons. Sara stood by Morgan.

“Get in the wagon, honey, where you’ll be safe.”

“No, I’m not about to miss this.”

Everything went quiet as the Indians approached. Sara could hear the soft thud of their unshod horses’ hooves as they rode closer and closer to the circled wagons. A light wind swirled the dust around the horses’ feet as they came forward. The only other sound was a murder of crows cawing in the trees. Out of the corner of her eye, Sara saw Captain Pollard step outside the circle to face the approaching Indians. One of the Indians rode forward to engage Pollard. He dismounted, and Sara heard him say, “Trade,” as he gestured toward the wagons and pointed back to the waiting Indians.

Pollard nodded and said, “Yes, trade.” Sara exhaled without realizing she had been holding her breath.

As the remaining Indians started toward the wagons, Pollard and the Indian walked into the circle. The Indian wore a blue US Army coat with no buttons over a bare chest partially covered with what Sara thought might be a breastplate. Made of rows of small, tubular bones strung together horizontally, the garment extended from his shoulder blades almost to his waist. His legs were clad in deerskin pants with decorative beadwork along the outer side seam. Ornate beadwork also covered his moccasins. He wore three feathers in his long, braided hair, which Sara thought looked greased. His skin was the color of oak, and his silver earrings dangled at least four inches and swung as he looked around the circle. He turned and motioned the rest of the Indians forward. A dozen or more scattered to the various wagons.

A short Indian, dressed in a fringed buckskin shirt and breeches, approached Morgan at the front of the wagon. Hearing a noise, Sara looked back to see another Indian rummaging through things in the back of their wagon. She turned and ran to the rear of the wagon to face a big man with braids down to the middle of his chest. He was wearing a torn frock coat, derby hat, and loincloth. He had a different but not unpleasant smell. Cinnamon . . . He smells like cinnamon. Embarrassed by his partial nakedness, Sara was speechless for a moment.

Meanwhile the Indian had pulled a hand mirror out of an open box. He waved it at Sara, then held a large, cloth sack of what looked like blueberries out to her. “Trade?”

Sara’s momma had given her the mirror for her sixteenth birthday. Sara shook her head vigorously and reached for the mirror. “No, something else.”

He frowned. “Trade!” he said more forcefully, holding the mirror out of her reach. Tucking the mirror under one arm, he took a berry out of the bag, ate it, and pushed the sack at Sara, indicating she should taste.

Ignoring the berries, Sara looked for something else to barter with. Holding up one of Morgan’s shirts, she offered, “Trade?”

The Indian shook his head and began looking at himself in the mirror.

Reaching into a small box which had been tucked into a back corner, Sara pulled out a large, pleated paper fan. She unfolded it, revealing colorful painted flowers. She fluttered it back and forth, generating a bit of breeze. Then she held it in front of her face, peering over the top. She definitely had his attention. Folding it back up, she dangled it in front of him. “Trade?”

“Trade,” he agreed, setting the mirror down. He then handed the sack of berries to Sara. He turned, opened the fan, and walked away fanning himself. Sara tasted the berries. Mmm, sweet. Well have cobbler tonight.

Sara returned to the front of the wagon just as Morgan had concluded his trade. “A package of tobacco for these deerskin moccasins. I think they’ll fit you, honey.”

Morgan was right. Soft and colorful, the beaded moccasins were a perfect fit. Sara was touched that Morgan had bartered for something for her instead of for himself. He can be so thoughtful. Sara hooked her arm around his waist and looked up at him, “Thank you.”

A few days later, a second visit by a group of Indians started much the same but ended differently. Trading was underway when old man Thornton, the grandpa of the Thornton family, flipped his false teeth out of his mouth and into his hand. As Sara watched, the young brave, who had been offering him a buffalo bone necklace as his barter item, took one look at the teeth, shrieked, and ran for his horse. Eager to expand the joke, old man Thornton then began to hold the teeth, clicking them open and closed as he walked among the Indians. It only took a few moments for this to cause minor hysteria among the Indians, who mounted their ponies and dashed away in a cloud of dust. At the end of the day, an older Indian  appeared, asking to see the “didanawidgi.” Sara was in the group that gathered to hear his conversation with Captain Pollard. It took a while for Pollard to explain that old man Thornton was not a medicine man and the false teeth were not magic, just an invention of white men for those who had lost their teeth. Old man Thornton made the rounds of all the wagons that night reliving the incident and announcing that it was the high point of his life.

And that ends a brief reading from Gone to Dallas, The Storekeeper 1856-1861 by Laurie Moore-Moore.  Gone to Dallas is available as both an ebook and paperback on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Ingram Spark, Smashwords. and Kobo.

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