Book Review: Blood Moon by John Sedgwick | More2Read

Blood Moon by John Sedgwick

Blood Moon is the story of the century-long blood feud between two rival Cherokee chiefs from the early years of the United States through the infamous Trail of Tears and into the Civil War. The two men’s mutual hatred, while little remembered today, shaped the tragic history of the tribe far more than anyone, even the reviled President Andrew Jackson, ever did. Their enmity would lead to war, forced removal from their homeland, and the devastation of a once-proud nation.

It begins in the years after America wins its independence, when the Cherokee rule expansive lands of the Southeast that encompass eight present-day states. With its own government, language, newspapers, and religious traditions, it is one of the most culturally and socially advanced Native American tribes in history. But over time this harmony is disrupted by white settlers who grow more invasive in both number and attitude.

In the midst of this rising conflict, two rival Cherokee chiefs, different in every conceivable way, emerge to fight for control of their people’s destiny. One of the men, known as The Ridge—short for He Who Walks on Mountaintops—is a fearsome warrior who speaks no English but whose exploits on the battlefield are legendary. The other, John Ross, is descended from Scottish traders and looks like one: a pale, unimposing half-pint who wears modern clothes and speaks not a word of Cherokee. At first, the two men are friends and allies. To protect their sacred landholdings from white encroachment, they negotiate with almost every American president from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln. But as the threat to their land and their people grows more dire, they break with each other on the subject of removal, breeding a hatred that will lead to a bloody civil war within the Cherokee Nation, the tragedy and heartbreak of the Trail of Tears, and finally, the two factions battling each other on opposite sides of the US Civil War.

Through the eyes of these two primary characters, John Sedgwick restores the Cherokee to their rightful place in American history in a dramatic saga of land, pride, honor, and loss that informs much of the country’s mythic past today. It is a story populated with heroes and scoundrels of all varieties—missionaries, gold prospectors, linguists, journalists, land thieves, schoolteachers, politicians, and more. And at the center of it all are two proud men, Ross and Ridge, locked in a life-or-death struggle for the survival of their people.

This propulsive narrative, fueled by meticulous research in contemporary diaries and journals, newspaper reports, and eyewitness accounts—and Sedgwick’s own extensive travels within Cherokee lands from the Southeast to Oklahoma—brings two towering figures back to life with reverence, texture, and humanity. The result is a richly evocative portrait of the Cherokee that is destined to become the defining book on this extraordinary people.


“Stunning . . . A must-read.”
Men’s Journal

“Engrossing . . . Mr. Sedgwick’s account is filled with riveting, often gory details. . . . The harrowing parts of the story add not simply drama but insight . . . Mr. Sedgwick’s subtitle calls the Cherokee story an ‘American Epic,’ and indeed it is.”
—H. W. Brands, The Wall Street Journal

“With powerful, graceful prose, John Sedgwick brings to life a haunting, largely forgotten tale about the Cherokee, one of the most storied tribes in American history.”
—Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic

“This is a wild ride of a book—fascinating, chilling, and enlightening—that explains the removal of the Cherokee as one of the central dramas of our country. The story of the Trail of Tears, and of its aftermath in Arkansas and Oklahoma, has never been told with more passion or finesse. Parts of it read like a nonfiction True Grit. I found Blood Moon to be an unputdownable read.”
—Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains and On the Rez

“The most important history to know is the history that has been deliberately hidden from us. John Sedgwick’s absorbing and ultimately damning story of the destruction of the Cherokee Nation—so that white settlers could pour in and take over their rich lands—finally unearths the ugly but quintessentially American truth about our young nation’s path to expansionism.”
—Rinker Buck, author of The Oregon Trail and First Job

“John Sedgwick has captured and brought to life one of the most dramatic untold stories of nineteenth-century America: the forty-year blood feud waged between two proud and powerful Cherokee chiefs that instigated the notorious Trail of Tears and shaped the sorrowful history of the tribe even more than the reviled President Andrew Jackson. Sedgwick has been blessed with the historian’s essential gifts—the compelling ability to produce a page-turning saga combined with the insight into a tragedy that is still keenly felt today.”
—Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, authors of The Heart of Everything That Is and Lucky 666

“A vigorous, well-written book that distills a complex history to a clash between two men without oversimplifying.”
Kirkus Reviews


Two Cherokee leaders John Ross and The Ridge, rivals, in disputes and wars, taken through their days up till the civil war and the removal of a nation.

With all the details, the crimes, the removals, the wars, the briberies, and deals made, the forced integrations and the insidious diluting of a nation, a lack of concern for a culture and their ways to be preserved, to have them behave in what certain men think the right way. A detailed history of greed and need for monies, land and the toxic pull of capitalism.

There are facts, truth within and there maybe some stereotypes and untruths within this tale, I have read after finishing this from comments from educated people in this field. Don’t burn these books, discuss, learn, and educate.
The cerebral prose, the narrative was captivating, and kept me reading on its grand length, it took some reading to get through and was not the easiest non-fiction of recent.

A portrait of a Cherokee Nation, a tragedy and drama of truth work, agreements signed and broken, love gained, tongues learned, doctrines learned, lives lost, the toxic promise of great monies and gunpowder tempting leaders to sign off their nations demise and doom.


“While the Indians were skilled as scouts, trackers, horsemen, and sharpshooters, their greatest value may have been their fighting skills. Shaped by a warrior culture, most were used to violence, and they took to battle. Their long black hair spilling out from under their caps, their shoddy uniforms ill-fitting, their faces painted in harsh war colors, they surged into battle with a terrifying cry, equipped not just with army-issue rifles but also with hunting knives, tomahawks, and, often, bows and arrows. Even when mounted on horses, they exhibited a deadly aim, and their arrows sank deep, leaving their victims as much astonished as agonized. They’d close fast, whip out a tomahawk to dispatch their man, then pounce on the corpse with a bowie knife to shear off a scalp to lift to the sky in triumph. The New York Tribune fulminated against an “Aboriginal Corps of Tomahawkers and Scalpers” among the rebels, but President Jefferson Davis was not embarrassed enough to order his Indians to stop. The natives killed as Indians, and they often died as Indians, too. When one dwindling band of sharpshooters, fighting for the Union at Petersburg, Virginia, in the yearlong siege at the close of the war, found themselves out of bullets, surrounded by a tightening ring of Confederates, they lifted the blouses of their uniforms over their heads and chanted their tribal death song until the end came.
If that is the last big surprise, another one lies hidden within it—about the mysterious behavior of the Cherokee in the conflict. Of all the tribes that fought in the Civil War, the Cherokee were one of the very few to come in on both sides, and, of those few, by far the most notable. The internal nature of their own conflict doubled the slaughter, and also drew the fight into their territory, bringing more sweeping devastation. Nearly a dozen battles were fought on Cherokee land, more than on any other Indian territory, starting with Caving Brooks in 1861 and Cowskin Prairie the following year; continuing through Pea Ridge just outside it, the greatest pitched battle in the West; and running through other battlegrounds that have been ignored by history. By the time of the surrender in 1865, the war had devastated the Cherokee Nation.”


“The Cherokee were only too happy to trade with these materialists, fully stocked in firearms and other figments of modernity, and so made their first foray into the world of capitalism.”


  “The Ridge was typical of the rising class of mixed-bloods, as his fortunes rose in the new economy. Farming might have been women’s work, but he threw himself into it. Other Cherokee men raised livestock like the game of old, letting their cows and pigs roam freely and then hunting them down like bear and deer. The Ridge fenced his in, and bought African slaves to tend them. No simple country farmer, he sought to become a planter like the refined white gentlemen in light cotton suits he’d seen sipping lemonade on front porches at their plantations farther to the south in Georgia. Like them, he shifted to cotton, a more valuable crop, and then bought yet more slaves to raise it. When he outgrew his original parcel of new lands on the Oostanaula River, he acquired more, and then more after that. Before long, he would turn his log cabin into the finest house around—a true mansion of two stories, pitched-roofed, clapboard-sided, with glass windows and doors that closed, and all the refinements, such as genuine silverware and fine china, of a plantation grandee. And he would ride about town in an unimaginable conveyance for that part of the world: a cream-colored coach drawn by four gleaming horses and driven by a liveried Negro if he didn’t take the reins himself. In society, he would deck himself out in a frock coat, ruffled cravat, and fine derby hat. Everything about him declared that The Ridge had arrived, and he intended to stay. For Susanna, the change was no less dramatic. Silent and deferential as a bride, she was the one to milk the cows, to learn the arts of animal husbandry, to manage the slaves, to spin the cotton to weave into cloth for market, and to prove her mettle as a capitalist. “Females have made much greater advances in industry,” Ross’s grandfather John McDonald declared with a hint of disapproval when he first surveyed these enterprising women. The government cleverly offered to pay the Cherokee annuities due from the land sales in fine goods that were likely to catch a Cherokee woman’s eye, like silk stockings, gold lace, damask tablecloths, and fancy “morocco” shoes, at exaggerated prices. Susanna took hers in cash.”


“While Christianity was taking hold of the mixed-blood elite, eager to get ahead in the world, the old beliefs still captivated everyone else. Many were disturbed by the modern ideas that seemed to be rushing into the nation like an ill wind. Practically everyone shook with the frightening news of the Cherokee couple who’d taken shelter in an abandoned Georgia cabin—and there seen a vision that lit up the nation. One night, they’d been jolted awake by thunder and lightning, but when they went to the window they found, instead of rain falling from heavy clouds, hundreds of Indians in war paint galloping across the night sky on black horses all to the terrible pounding of unseen drums. And these Indians were shouting themselves hoarse, saying that the Great Spirit was enraged because the Cherokee had let the whites overrun their country and change its ways.  

So began the Ghost Dance movement. If the missionaries were pulling the nation one way, the Ghost Dance movement was yanking it back. It drew on loss and longing to rouse the bygone spirit of the Cherokee to cast off all things white. It had many seers, but one above all—a one-eyed Shawnee dubbed the Prophet. His blind eye revealed an inward vision of a land cleansed of marauding whites and restored as the paradise the Great Spirit had bestowed upon the Cherokee. Such a vision would not have been nearly so captivating if the Prophet hadn’t had a powerful brother, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, to make it real. Nearly godlike, Tecumseh had a giant-size personality that made others chiefs seem puny. “About six feet high, straight, with large, fine feathers, and altogether a daring bold-looking fellow,” one American captain described him. Tecumseh was determined to win back Indian land. To do it, he sought to fulfill Dragging Canoe’s dream of uniting all the Indian tribes into a single confederation to take on the Americans in the ultimate conflict, a kind of Indian Armageddon.”

“At a time when Jackson presented the Cherokee with two bad choices—stay as Americans or leave as Cherokee—the missionaries supported a third, to remain as enlightened Cherokee, equals of any Americans, and worthy of deciding their own destiny.”


“Neither Ross nor Ridge had made much progress with Christianity. Ross wouldn’t become religious until years later when it suited him socially; and, despite his curiosity about good and evil, Ridge had trouble letting go of the comforting notion of a spirit world, free of moral conundrums. Besides, Christianity was so bizarre. How could a god allow himself to be nailed to a cross? Why did true happiness not come until after you were dead? Both Ross and Ridge would have agreed with Cherokee chief Drowning Bear’s appraisal of the Book of Matthew: “It seems to be a good book. Strange that the white people are not better after having it so long.”


“Of all the mysteries of the white settlers—their gunpowder, whiskey, diseases, and God, among many others—the most potent had been their “talking leaves,” the papers lined with pen scratchings that held meaning here and then proclaimed it, verbatim, there and there and there.”


“More than a Gutenberg, Sequoyah was a Leonardo, an inventor who created not just an invention, but modernity. It is hard to find in all of recorded history as dramatic a transformation of a people in such a brief period of time. It unleashed an outpouring of notes, letters, essays, records, reports, newspapers, Bible translations, books. It was remarkable, a miracle. Yet all the excitement had little effect on Sequoyah, who continued to tend his little farm, with just a few cows, leaving only to tend his salt kettles at the lick near Lee’s Creek, ten miles from home, in what is now called Sequoyah County, in his honor.”


“What was more hazardous, the population had increased only slightly to just under 14,000, and they were surrounded by well over 1 million whites south of the Ohio and west of the Alleghenies crushing in from above, and hundreds of thousands of Georgians pressing up from below. In 1822, whites continued to pour in, defying the laws intended to keep them out. And they could be insidious, these insurgents. “Well armed,” Meigs admitted, “some of them [of] shrewd & desperate character, have nothing to lose & hold barbarous sentiments towards Indians.” Believing the Cherokee had more land than they knew what to do with, they simply took what they wanted, and would pay for it later only if they had to. Jackson was urging them on, but the state of Georgia was proving the real threat, all of it under the dubious authority of an egregious “Compact” it had signed with the United States back in 1802, and now was primed to enforce.
Of all the interlopers, the Georgians were the worst. Their low character stemmed in part from the state’s peculiar history. The last of the colonies to be formed, Georgia had not been settled by hardy pilgrims and thrifty pioneers like the others; rather, it was founded from afar by a board of trustees in London headed by James Oglethorpe, who conceived of Georgia as a repository for the debtors who were overcrowding British prisons, rather like Australia for felons. That plan never materialized, but the high-handed attitude persisted even as cotton and rice plantations spread out from the coast. The colony was ruled by an imperious governor who proclaimed himself “His Excellency, Governor and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of this State and of the Militia thereof.”



Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 29 April 2018