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Unraveling the Truth: Red Clay, Running Waters and the Prologue of the Trail of Tears

Leslie K. Simmons' book about the Cherokee struggle to survive in a white world challenges the history of a famous tribal leader



One of the wonderful aspects of becoming a debut author is meeting other authors, sharing our stories of our writing journeys, and seeing years of work pay off. I've been lucky to meet many excellent writers, especially Leslie K. Simmons, who also published with Koehler Books, and also wrote a deeply researched historical novel about Native Americans.

        

Leslie's debut book, Red Clay, Running Waters, and my debut novel, Blood to Rubies, both share themes of Native American tribes facing a terrible dilemma: how to survive in a changing white world. Leslie writes about a Cherokee leader, John Ridge, and his white wife Sarah, in the 1830s who struggle to navigate a changing world in which white immigrants from Europe have come to the New World in dramatic numbers, encroaching on Cherokee land. Another shared theme is that both Indian tribes, the Nez Perce in my novel and the Cherokee in Leslie's, struggled in earnest to co-exist with whites and accepted many of their ways and religion, so the historical outcomes were even more deeply ironic and tragic.

          

Red Clay, Running Waters  is a tour-de-force of both exhaustive research and powerful narrative. Leslie's real-life characters come alive, rising from the pages into your heart as you experience their struggle to preserve a free Cherokee Nation. Red Clay, Running Waters  has received accolades from NYT bestselling authors, such as Rilla Askew (The Mercy Seat, Prize for the Fire, Fire in Beulah) and the great Cherokee author, Margaret Verble (Maud's Line, Cherokee America, Stealing).  

 

 Following is a Q&A with Leslie about Red Clay, Running Waters:



1.     The original inspiration for your book came from a home you admired while attending college in Arkansas. Tell us about that.

 

LS: The Sarah Ridge House is the oldest house in Fayetteville Arkansas, dating back to the 1830s. I love old houses and have restored two historic homes. I was a student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, studying Anthropology, and worked in the museum that held artifacts from an excavation at the house. I was told the house once belonged to a widow, a white woman married to a Cherokee leader. This struck me as very unusual for the time, as White women marrying Native Americans was not a common practice in the early 1800s. Curiosity piqued, I began to research Sarah Ridge at the local historical society and uncovered a lot of intriguing information. What I found created a burning desire in me to know more, leading me to undertake many more years of research, ultimately resulted in Red Clay, Running Waters. The house, now owned by the Washington County Historical Society and open to the public on a limited basis, displays some of the very artifacts I handled back in 1982.


2.   North American tribes all faced a terrible dilemma: how to survive the white onslaught. The main character of your book, John Ridge, was the son of a great Cherokee leader, called "The Ridge." John’s parents thought it best that he be educated in white ways to better serve his tribe. He ended up being caught between two worlds. Can you explain his dilemma?


LS: Well, that takes the whole book to unravel, but beginning at the beginning, John, along with his cousin Elias, were seen as the hope of the Cherokee Nation after they returned from New England with a ‘classical’ education. Proving they could ‘assimilate’ was a huge honor, imbuing a great sense of responsibility, pride and purpose in John, his cousin, and John’s father. Armed with an understanding of white society, the Cherokee held the belief they would be recognized for their ‘advancement’, eventually proving their capabilities, so they could enjoy equality and live peacefully beside their White neighbors.

 

Cherokee society enjoyed a renaissance of sorts during the 1820s, forming a republican government, developing written laws, and creating their own written language. However, the assumption of equality, so connected to the issue of ‘rights’, soon proved elusive, turning their aspirations, accomplishments, and expectations on their head.

 

Understanding both worlds, John steadfastly sought a balance between Cherokee traditions and ‘civilized’ ways throughout his life. This was something he waged a constant battle to resolve. Although he dressed, wrote, spoke, and lived in a manner similar to Southern whites (as many in Cherokee leadership did) his heart was always deeply committed to his people first and foremost. He was highly principled, analytical, bitingly eloquent, and never considered himself or his people inferior, striving to prove this to both whites and Cherokee through his actions. This made him enemies within white society, and among his own people, who often viewed him as ‘selling out’ because of his attitudes and lifestyle. These character traits became the source of many misunderstandings, giving ample opportunity for whites to slander his efforts to their advantage. It also accounted for a great deal of his tarnished historical reputation among the Cherokee.



3.     Red Clay, Running Waters is almost as much about John Ridge’s wife, Sarah, who was a very educated and strong white woman. This inter-racial marriage was shocking and illegal in 1824. Why did you choose to feature her so prominently in the book?


LS: My learning about the Ridges’ story, and consequently the Trail of Tears, started with Sarah.  I was equally as interested in what she experienced because of her choices as I was in John’s remarkable journey. At a time in American society when women were relegated to their ‘separate spheres’ and laws against miscegenation common, I knew Sarah must have been a remarkable, independent woman, with strong convictions and enough courage to withstand the enmity of her own society against her marriage. To willingly leave everything she knew for the man she loved and commit to joining his people required more than your average fortitude in a time when most women rarely ventured from the places in which they were raised.


Although there exist scads of John’s writing, only a few pieces from Sarah exist from which to glean her personality and thoughts. I had to believe John’s character had some reflection in hers. She, after all, embraced a life amongst strangers who didn’t speak her language and had different world views. She was also obliged to adopt a southern plantation lifestyle among many enslaved people, something that would have been alien to her New England sensibility. It was confronting these paradoxes that captured my imagination.


Though a true friend and partner to John, she was often alone while he was in Washington, leaving her to manage their vast holdings in Georgia and raise their seven children while she fostered education and remained steadfast in face of the extremities imposed upon the Cherokee. Along with her unflinching support for John, she remained, as he said, his ‘only sanctuary’. I came away with the deepest admiration for their love for each other and what she accomplished and endured. I wanted her voice to be heard.



4.     Your quote from John Ridge in the beginning of your book leaves it to posterity to judge his motives and stance in history. Red Clay, Running Waters is your very eloquent and compelling exoneration of John Ridge. But Ridge’s stance among his own people and the annals of history has not been so kind. Talk about this.


LS: The motivators for writing the Ridges’ story were two-fold. One, living near the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, I developed a deep desire to understand how such a thing as the Trail of Tears could have happened. I knew little (and had been taught even less) about the Antebellum Era and Indian Removal; understanding that era transformed my understanding of America, which I wanted to share.  Two, although there are volumes and volumes of non-fiction books and materials written about this era, the Cherokee, and the transformative social changes of that time, I knew that the Ridges’ side, in particular John’s side of the story behind the Trail of Tears, had never been told.  He and his family received much of the blame for the tragic events of the Removal and the Trail; many among the Cherokee still consider the Ridges traitors.


I felt compelled to understand how a once prestigious family went from respected leaders to pariahs. In satisfying my curiosity, dichotomies between John’s historical reputation and the person revealed in his actions surfaced that were so contradictory, I felt compelled to unravel them. When I came across that quote in a letter he wrote, his voice reached out to me, calling out for what he most longed for, redemption, and their story became a smoldering ember that could not be extinguished.

 

Read more about Red Clay, Running Waters and purchase a hardcover, paperback or Kindle at this link:

 

  You may also enjoy these related Notes from the Frontier posts:


• Cherokee Chief Wilma ManKiller

• Today's Largest Indian Tribes

• The Sacred Bond Between the Irish & The Choctaw


"Unraveling the Truth: Red Clay, Running Waters and the Prologue of the Trail of Tears" (a novel about Cherokee leader John Ridge) was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on March 21, 2024, Thursday.

         

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular NotesfromtheFrontier.com blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook

 

Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  

 

Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on DeborahHufford.com, Facebook, and Instagram.

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