James and all the men of the household were in the hayfield, cutting and forking hay into stacks in the late Saturday afternoon, when Caleb Starr drove his horse at a fast pace up the path in his carryall. Drawing near James he waved his arms for everyone to come near, looking grave and saying nothing in greeting. The boys—family and slave—stripped to their waists and covered in dust and sweat drew close to the grandfather.
“I want everyone to hear this together,” he said, waiting until the farthest workers had hurried near before continuing to speak. “Major Ridge was murdered this morning just a few miles north of here at Rocky Creek.”
James staggered and slowly lowered himself to the ground. A chorus of exclamations and questions followed—Why? Who did it? Why him? Why now? What were they trying to prove? Is Ross behind this? While Caleb continued to sit on the carryall seat, the rest of them sat on the ground around James and waited for their Grandfather to tell them more. He cleared his throat and remained silent for a finger of time.
“I don’t know much. The Major stayed overnight at Ambrose Harnage’s cabin at Cincinnati. He was heading south to Van Buren to check on the slave Daniel. Daniel had fallen ill after Major sent him there on an errand,. The slave boy named Apollo was with Ridge; he’s about your age, Will. The boy said they were crossing White Rock Creek when several shots rang out, Ridge slumped in his saddle, and then toppled off. When he saw that Ridge was dead, he high-tailed it to Dutchtown, said Ridge had been shot and killed, and he needed help.”[i]
“Poor fellow was probably scared to death,” interjected Sam.
“I suppose so,” Grandfather Caleb continued. “I don’t know for sure but I think this be an execution for Ridge’s signing the treaty. I don’t know if Ross has anything to do with it, but I’m thinking he does. What we have to consider is how many more treaty-signers may be in danger, and that list has you on it, James. You spoke out about the need for the treaty long before it was signed.”
“That’s the truth, Father, We all knew the risk we took when we signed it, so I’m not going to run away from it now.”
“Son, you have to take measures to protect yourself. I just want you to be alert. I do not want you to run away. I want you to be watchful and not take risks if you can steer clear.”
“I’ll keep my men around me.”
They talked for two hands of time about the killing of the man who had for years served as the official Speaker for the Cherokee Nation. His popularity spread far until he began to speak in favor of negotiating a treaty that would make the best terms they could expect. When Grandpa Caleb took his leave, they had no more interest in the hay. No clouds were in the sky to threaten, so they stopped work for the day and began their return to the house and barns.
Sam, Red Wolf, and Will were walking together. Red Wolf said, “I can’t believe the Major is gone. He was like a grandfather for the whole nation.”
Sam said, “I always heard his name spoken with respect. It is a dishonor to all of us.”
“No honor in it,” Red Wolf responded. “I remember there was much talk when the treaty was signed. Some people expected all the signers would be killed. There was a law that no one could sign away the Cherokee lands for their own benefit. The Major had proposed the law himself. On penalty of death, it was said. My grandfather said all the signers knew that some people would bear a grudge—they wanted blood, and now they have it.”
“Grudges can work both ways,” said Sam. “Where will it stop? Will they kill my father too?” They were quiet after that, until they reached the barn to do their chores
[i] This account comes from p. 338, Cherokee Tragedy by Thurman Wilkins.