An interesting fact I did not mention in last week's article was that Benjamin Chastain and his wife, Rebeckah Denton Chastain, moved into a hewn-log house vacated by a Cherokee Indian family with an English name. According to information furnished by Brett Riggs, archaeologist, "spoliation claims filed from 1838-1847 indicate that Benjamin Chastain commandeered the home and farm of George Owens, Sr., a Cherokee, of Tuckahoe Town." The location of the cabin and Fort Chastain built on Chastain farmlands is now under the waters of Blue Ridge Lake. This departure point was once a gathering place for those removed westward on the Trail of Tears.
When gold was discovered on Duke's Creek in Habersham County (now White) in 1828, and in other north Georgia locations, a virtual gold rush started. Greed was the name of the game. By 1829, gold rush fever was rampant and prospectors poured in with get-rich quick schemes. Unscrupulous in their dealings with the Indians, the white men confiscated lands.
To Georgia's discredit, the state was a moving force in Indian removal. In 1828, a bill passed the Georgia Legislature which put all Cherokee under state law and declared their government and customs null and void after 1830. Georgia guards were sent to patrol and bring to court Indians who infringed on restrictions set in the 1828 law.
In 1830, the Removal Act passed the U. S. Congress.
After that law passed, when President Andrew Jackson was in office, many Indian Agents were appointed to deal with the Cherokee on terms of removal. Negotiations were made for purchase of Indian lands, but at inferior prices. Thirty-seven treaties signed by 1828 between the Cherokee and government had to do with "a tract of land ceded to…" with white settlers as recipients. It was thus that Benjamin Chastain, Indian Agent, received the farmland and home of George Owens, Sr, Cherokee, of Tuckahoe (or Taccoa) Town.
President Jackson's successor, President Martin Van Buren, continued to push for Indian Removal. In 1836 he appointed General Winfield Scott to commandeer the removal. He ordered his army to be humane and to appeal to Indians to go voluntarily to collection points—the forts that were quickly built in various locations in the Cherokee lands.
Fort Chastain at Star Creek on the Toccoa River was one of the collection points. How long the Indians had to wait there before being removed over the long Trail of Tears is uncertain. Their life in the forts was not easy. Forced to vacate cabins and possessions, the Indians were allowed to take only the barest necessities with them. They lived in very crowded conditions in the forts. Sanitation was poor and hunger and sickness prevailed. Being herbalists in medical applications, they no longer had available to them the natural herbs and cures for the illness that beset them. Many, especially among the elderly and very young, died before they left on the Trail of Tears.
One of the soldiers with General Scott's army wrote in his memoirs: "I later fought through the Civil War and have seen men slaughtered, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew."
Benjamin Chastain on whose land Fort Chastain was built was of the fourth generation of Chastains in America from Pierre, Sr., Pierre, Jr., John "Ten Shilling Bell" Chastain, the famous preacher, and then Benjamin himself. Benjamin's great grandfather had left Europe because the Huguenots endured bitter persecution. The Chastains had followed the paths of freedom, with Benjamin's father, John, pledging his support to the American Revolution. Circumstances occur in the rush of history that, when we look back upon them, fill us with mixed emotions. Such were the times in the 1830s when Benjamin Chastain, citizen of Georgia, state legislator, pioneer farmer, and Indian agent, due to circumstances in which he lived, had to make some hard decisions.
c 2009 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 25, 2009 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.