Cherokee folklore: The legend of the Cherokee Rose

For the Cherokee people the Cherokee Rose was a special symbol given in answer to their prayers to give them hope and strength through a terrible ordeal.  This work briefly looks at the terrible circumstances that caused most of the Cherokee and other people to be forcibly uprooted and moved to a new home many miles away.  It also tells a version of the legend of  how a wild flower became a symbol of hope for the Cherokee people and a sign that they were not forgotten.


The Cherokee Rose (Rosa laevigata) – Public Domain

On the 28th of May 1830, the United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This authorized Andrew Jackson, the President of the United States of America and his successor, Martin Van Burrens, to begin the “negotiations” for the removal of the southern Native American people from their homelands to land west of the Mississippi River. The intention was to free up their land for the ever increasing number of settlers who were steadily displacing them.  It was not supposed to legalize the enforced removal of people and although the Cherokees won an appeal in the Supreme Court Andrew Jackson would not comply and forced relocations, or death marches were enacted.

Although some had left voluntarily it was mostly through force that the relocations took place and involved the Cherokee, Seminole, Chocktaw, Chickasaw and Muscogge, or Creek people who were regarded as the Five Civilized Tribes.  It also involved other people including the Kickapoo,  Wyandot, Lenape,  Potowatomi and the Shawnee and some African slaves and European Americans and was done in stages.  A few of them who owned land were allowed to stay and some continued to live in the wilds.   Between 1830 and 1850 most were sent under armed escort on a a long and hazardous journey west of the Mississippi to land that the government had designated to them.   Some went overland and some went by river. Either way it was a terrible journey and many died.  The first of the people to be forcibly removed were the Choctaw who suffered greatly on the journey. One of their chief’s described it as a “trail of tears and death” and thereafter the forced journey became known as the Trail of Tears.

By 1928 the discovery of gold in Georgia put pressure on the government by settlers and prospectors and they forced the Cherokees and the other peoples to move to the allotted Indian Territories west of the Mississippi River which became Oklahoma.  Many Cherokees and other Native Americans died on that enforced march that began in 1834.  It was estimated that of about 16,543 Cherokees who took part up to 6,000 died on the journey.

The Trail of Tears

It was a long and terrible journey and although the brave Cherokees were hardy and stoic their ordeal began to tell on them.  Many children perished through disease and malnutrition along the way.  Their mothers were so full of grief and tears they began to struggle to help and encourage the remaining children to keep going and survive the journey to the new lands.

The Elders of the Cherokee people saw this and grew worried.  They knew that the children were the future of their people and for the people to survive in the future the children had to survive in the present, even under such terrible conditions.   For the children to survive they needed their mother’s strength and love and so they prayed for help and guidance and a sign.

Their prayer is answered

Their prayers were heard and they received a message and were told,

“In the morning tell the women to look back along the trail where their tears have fallen and watered the earth.  For every tear they will see the small green shoots of plants that will grow upwards fast and then fall back to the earth.  Wherever it touches the earth another plant shall grow and another and another and so forth.  The plant will grow fast in in the morning light and by the afternoon will flower with a beautiful rose with five petals.   

The petals of the rose will be pure white representing the purity of the tears of the Cherokee mothers.  The center is gold symbolizing the gold taken by the greed of those who drove the Cherokees from their ancestral lands.  The rose has seven leaves on each stem representing the seven clans of the Cherokee people.

This plant will spread.  It will be a strong plant and will take back some of the land stolen from the Cherokees.”

In the morning the mothers woke up and began weeping but the Elders told them to look back down the trail and the mothers obeyed.  Looking back the way they had come they marveled to see a small green shoots sprouting along the trail in the earth that their tears had watered.  As they walked on, each time they looked back they saw a trail of green plants back along the trail they had just walked along.  By noon these plants had grown into a beautiful white flowering rose.

The flower was created as a sign that they were being watched over and that they were still loved and to give them hope and strength. It became known as the Cherokee Rose and came to symbolize the pain and suffering of the Cherokee people on the long and terrible Trail of Tears that they call it “nu na hi du na tlo hi lu i,” or the “Trail Where They Cried.”

Today the Cherokee Rose grows all along the Trail of Tears all the way from Georgia and North Carolina to east Oklahoma to the land that had been decreed by the government to be the new home of the Cherokee Nation.

© 24/06/2016 zteve t evans

 References and Attributions

Copyright May 24th, 2016 zteve t evans