He gave invaluable insight into his life and times in his memoirs which he entitled My Autobiography. His descriptions of places and events were clear and incisive. He was living with his parents in Murray County, Georgia when the Cherokee Indian Removal occurred in 1838. His parents were John Vance Cotter, born November 28, 1789 in Union District, South Carolina and his mother was Mary Ann Nall Cotter, born June 12, 1796 in Chatham County, North Carolina. The Cotter family lived in Hall County, Georgia where son William Jasper was born November 16, 1823. They moved to Murray County in 1832 and settled in the area of the Carter Plantation (now Carter’s Lake area) along the old Federal Road.
In his life story, the Rev. Cotter gave vivid accounts of what he saw and experienced as the Cherokee were rounded up and moved west.
When he was a teenager, he was hired as a delivery boy to haul loads of corn to some of the posts where General Winfield Scott’s soldiers were encamped. He saw first-hand much of the action of rounding up the Indians and holding them in forts awaiting the removal to Oklahoma.
From his book we read: “On a mild May morning, two men stood at our gate. Dismounted from his large, raw-boned white horse, his bridle rein on his arm, stood General Scott, with White Path, an Indian, for whom White Path Gold Mine (in Gilmer County) was named. There was neither a white man nor an Indian there, only two old soldiers who had met at the battle of Horseshoe Bend. Chief White Path exhibited a medal that General Jackson had given him for his bravery in the battle.” (p. 42)
A quartermaster in General Winfield Scott’s army, Colonel W. J. Howard, boarded at the Cotter’s house. It was from him that the young Cotter received his orders to deliver loads of corn to the soldiers. The going rate for corn at that time, under the inflated economy and the dire need for corn, was one dollar per bushel. Young Cotter returned almost every day he hauled a load with five dollars for his father. One day, he returned with thirteen dollars. He hauled the corn on an ox-drawn wagon.
He remembers: “It was a hard day’s work, starting early and getting back late, and this was the daily round.” When he was not hauling corn, he was engaged to move the household goods the Indians had been forced to leave in their cabins when they were taken to the forts. Five or six soldiers went with Cotter as guards. The soldiers forced open the cabin doors and left Cotter to load the meager goods. He recalled that he could load “the stuff of two or three families at one load.” The soldiers left him to the sorry task of loading. He wrote, “The soldiers galloped away, leaving me in worse danger than anyone else; for if there had been an Indian hiding out, I would have been the one to suffer.” (p. 40)
The situation gave Cotter great concern. Cows and their calves had been apart for days and the calves were starving. Cotter turned them together. Chickens, cats and dogs scattered at the approach of the soldiers and Cotter and his ox team. Indian ponies stood under shade trees fighting flies. Bells around necks of cows and ponies made an eerie music in the spring air. Dogs howled mournfully for their owners. As cabins were emptied, the doors were left ajar. Cotter commented, “To have seen it all would have melted to tenderness a heart of stone.” (p. 40)
Cotter saw fields of corn the Indians had planted. It had been a warm spring and they had seeded the fields early, maybe with the idea that if they proceeded with life as usual the removal would not occur.
Cotter emphasized that the Indians were not mistreated in captivity. “From General Scott down, every soldier and citizen looked upon them with an eye of pity. The Indians were neither prisoners nor captives. They were defenseless wards of the government, cared for and fed from the commissary stores.” (p. 43)
According to Cotter’s account, the Indians were not crammed inside the forts. They were encamped outside the forts awaiting the move to Ross’s Landing. Cotter saw the children and youth playing and “happy as larks.” When the move began, the ill and infirm were transported by wagons. As a first-hand observer of the action, Cotter stated that published reports of Indians having to survive on roots and berries were untrue. “They felt no fear of the soldiers, realizing at once they were their protectors. Not one of the Indians could have been tempted to leave the camp a mile. I am persuaded that more than half of them were glad and ready to go.” (p. 45)
Yet even with the humane treatment of the Cherokee that Cotter observed, he noted that a pervading sadness lingered like a pall. The vacated Indian cabins and deserted animals stood in stark contrast to the cultivated fields with crops of corn and beans growing in the spring warmth.
In addition to hauling loads of corn from his father’s farm to the army camps, young Cotter was also hired by Colonel Howard on occasion as a messenger boy to take papers from Murray County to Fort Hartzell in Ellijay. It was a journey of about seventeen miles across rugged mountains. The lad encountered a huge man with a gun and feared for his life. But the man did not fire his gun at Cotter. The lad spent the night in the mountains, cold and lost, but the next morning he determined which direction he should go and he and his horse arrived at the fort safely.
William Jasper Cotter was fourteen when he worked as a delivery and messenger boy during the Indian Removal. What he saw made such a lasting impression on him that he could write his eye-witness accounts in his autobiography when he was an old man of about ninety. He died in Newnan, Georgia on January 4, 1922.