Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama Retells the Trail of Tears in Cherokee, NC
Millions of visitors have attended Unto These Hills, presented by the Cherokee Historical Association, which tells the story of the Cherokees and the Trail of Tears. Taken from the pages of history, the play by Kermit Hunter follows the story of the Cherokee of the Eastern region up to their removal via the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. The drama includes notable Cherokee historical figures, including Junaluska, Tsali, and Yonaguska.
What was the Trail of Tears?
Taking place in the 1830s, the Trail of Tears was the forced and brutal relocation of approximately 100,000 indigenous people (belonging to Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole, among other nations) living between Michigan, Louisiana, and Florida to land west of the Mississippi River. Motivated by gold and land, Congress (under President Andrew Jackson) passed the Indian Removal Act by a slim and controversial margin in 1830. The Cherokees resisted removal through every possible means. Even Junaluska, who had saved Andrew Jackson’s life at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, traveled to Washington to plead the Cherokee’s cause, but Jackson would not see him.
The Treaty of New Echota
In 1835, the Treaty of New Echota was signed by a minority of Cherokees, including Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot, in an act of absolute betrayal (the three were assassinated by other Cherokee in 1839). Major Ridge claimed to represent the Cherokee Nation, but he was only considering a small group of people. The Treaty would give Cherokee land west of the Mississippi to the US in exchange for $5,000,000. In 1836, the U.S. Congress ratified the treaty (by one vote in the Senate) and gave Cherokees two years to remove themselves. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army began constructing stockades in preparation for the removal, which would become known as the Trail of Tears.
The Forced Removal of the Cherokee People
The Cherokee Nation rejected the Treaty of New Echota. As a result, between May 1838 and March 1839, federal soldiers and state militia rounded up 16,000 Cherokees from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina, taking them to stockades, and forcing them to get on boats and then march to Indian territory, present-day Oklahoma. At least 4,000 Cherokees died—one quarter of the population—and many were buried in unmarked graves. This devastating chapter in American history is known as the Trail of Tears.
Cherokee Heroes Emerged
One group of Cherokees, the Oconaluftee Citizen Indians, remained in North Carolina. Sixty families, led by Yonaguska, Long Blanket, and Wilnota, had land in their own names under the Treaties of 1817 and 1819. They lived sober, industrious lives, and were able to successfully appeal to the North Carolina legislature to remain on their lands, mostly near the Oconaluftee River.
During removal, three to four hundred Cherokees hid in the wooden mountains of Western North Carolina. In November of 1838, Tsali and his family killed two soldiers who were attempting to capture them. Tsali and his family became fugitives from the federal government. Aided by William Holland Thomas (Yonaguska’s adopted son), the American soldiers found Tsali. Tsali agreed to give himself up and be executed so that other Cherokees would be allowed to stay in their homes in the mountains.
Honoring the Cherokee Nation
All together, about a thousand Cherokees, including those who stayed in the mountains or made their way back from the Trail of Tears, became the ancestors of today’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Today, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a sovereign nation with over 14,000 members.
Visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to experience the story of the Trail of Tears through artifacts, artwork, audio narration, and life-sized figures.
Tickets for Unto These Hills in Cherokee, NC
Unto These Hills is a powerful retelling of Cherokee history, in a narrative about the Trail of Tears that is heartbreaking and hopeful. As one of the oldest outdoor dramas in the United States, it has been stirring audiences since the very first production opened in the Cherokee Mountainside Theater in 1950. We hope you will see it for yourself and be transformed by the vibrant and enduring spirit of the Cherokee people. Purchase tickets for your whole family to see Unto These Hills through the Cherokee Historical Association Box Office, by phone at 866.554.4557, or online.