Saturday, March 16, 2013

From The Trail Of Tears To The Great Hunger, Or, Things They Didn’t Teach You In History Class

Apologies in advance for obsessing over my Irish roots, but, you know, ’tis the season
In any event, this has less to do with being Irish than it does with being human, and it happens to be one of the greatest stories you’ve probably never heard. I knew nothing about it until today:
[O]n March 23, 1847, the Indians of the Choctaw nation took up a collection.

Moved by news of starvation in Ireland, a group of Choctaws gathered in Scullyville, Okla., to raise a relief fund. Despite their meager resources, they collected $170 and forwarded it to a U.S. famine relief organization.

It was both the most unlikely and the most generous contribution to the effort to relieve Ireland’s suffering.

Begun two years before in the fall of 1845, the potato blight and subsequent famine had reached its height in 1847. It was, of course, much more than a mere natural disaster. British colonial policies before and during the crisis exacerbated the effects of the potato blight, leading to mass death by starvation and disease. For example, in March of 1847, at the time of the Choctaw donation, 734,000 starving Irish people were forced to labor in public works projects in order to receive food. Little wonder that survivors referred to the year as “Black ’47.”

First through letters and newspaper accounts, and later from the refugees themselves, the Irish in America learned of the unfolding horror. Countless individuals sent money and ship tickets to assist friends and family. Others formed relief committees to solicit donations from the general public. Contributions came from every manner of organization, from charitable societies and businesses to churches and synagogues. By the time the famine had ended in the early 1850s, millions in cash and goods had been sent to Ireland.

What made the Choctaw donation so extraordinary was the tribe’s recent history. Only 16 years before, President Andrew Jackson (whose parents emigrated from Antrim [i.e., County Atrim, in Ulster]) seized the fertile lands of the so-called five civilized tribes (Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee) and forced them to undertake a harrowing 500-mile trek to Oklahoma known as the Trail of Tears. Of the 21,000 Choctaws who started the journey, more than half perished from exposure, malnutrition, and disease. This despite the fact that during the War of 1812 the Choctaws had been allies of then General Jackson in his campaign against the British in New Orleans.

Perhaps their sympathy stemmed from their recognition of the similarities between the experiences of the Irish and Choctaw. Certainly contemporary Choctaw see it that way. They note that both groups were victims of conquest that led to loss of property, forced migration and exile, mass starvation, and cultural suppression (most notably language).
Special thanks to my Twitter friend Marty Dunleavy (@LaborIrishDem) for alerting me to this story. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has more on their incredible act of generosity, here.
It’s a beautiful story that demonstrates the commonality of all people, and the unity and empathy that oppressed people ought naturally to feel towards one another. The native American Indian population has suffered as much if not more than any demographic group in this land of plenty; yet even in their desperation – or, perhaps because of their desperation – the Choctaw found it within themselves to scrape together what few dollars they had to help Ireland’s starving millions.
In a way, that $170 donation is more meaningful than all the charitable donations by all the millionaires in the world. It’s easy to give when you have more than you could ever want; to buy a little absolution for whatever you did to get your fortune. It’s real charity to divvy up the tiny portion you have to give a little to people you’ll never meet, but whose struggles you understand on an innate level because they’re your struggles, too.
What really gets me about this story, though, is that incidents like this are essentially unknown. Yes, it’s a minor occurrence in the totality of our history, but the way we approach history is a problem in and of itself. History, as it’s taught in America, is for the most part the history of politicians, generals, and millionaires. It’s the history of the wealthy and the powerful; it’s not the history of the vast majority of people, or the history of oppressed people, and it’s certainly not the history of indigenous peoples in the Americas, in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East …
Which is not to say that we don’t teach kids that the Trail of Tears or the Great Hunger occurred; we do, but that’s it: This horrible thing happened, thousands (or millions) of people suffered, the end. Then it’s on to the next war, or the next major event that affected or was caused by the rich and powerful. Meanwhile, there were real people who were forced to trek from Mississippi to Oklahoma; or who were forced by starvation to sail across the Western Ocean to America. Or, were slaves; or were Jews who were sent to forced labor camps and death camps; or were Japanese Americans interned in the western states. They really weren’t just statistics. They had actual experiences, and these events had an enormous impact on them. And on their descendants, who are still among us.
That’s the party of history that’s gone missing from textbooks and classrooms in America. And I think that’s really sad.
[Cross-posted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles]


  1. What a wonderful story, I'm going to share it with my sister.

  2. In downtown Boston, about two blocks from the old Massachusetts State House, there is a memorial in a square. It is a pair of bronze statues of several figures (

    Oddly, there are no statues, that I'm aware of, of the various native american tribes who were "assisted with relocation" by the British and newly free American gummints. An oversight, I'm sure.

    Andrew Jackson was scum.

  3. Because others might be curious, too, apparently "170 dollars in 1847 had the same buying power as 4775.0 current dollars." (Source: