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The Welshman who saved the Cherokee; In the mid 19th Century the Cherokee Indians were ousted from their ancestral lands and forced to embark on a long dangerous journey across America to find new homes. And, as a Nathan Bevan found out, their leader on that epic trek turned out to be a Welshman.

E was a draper from Powys who somehow ended up a key figure in one of the darkest periods of American history.

HEvan Jones from Llanigon would become an unlikely saviour to the Cherokee Indians in the 19th Century US, his actions instrumental in saving entire communities from what was essentially government sanctioned ethnic cleansing.

And now S4C has made a three-part series highlighting the incredible missionary work of this little known - in his homeland at least - transatlantic folk hero who embarked on a journey as epic as it was dangerous to lead his adopted people to safety.

Entitled Evan Jones a'r Cherokee, the show is the work of Ohio-born former Harvard professor Jerry Hunter, whose love of Welsh culture first drew him to the missionary's strange story.

"I first got a degree in English literature and quickly realised that Wales had lots of great stuff too, both old and contemporary," says Jerry, who went on to do a PhD in Celtic literature and language before eventually becoming Vice Chancellor and professor in Welsh at Bangor University.

"I originally came over here in 1986 but I've been aware of Evan since my teens, before I ever really started to get involved with Welsh in any way.

"Then, years later, I came across his name again while researching something about the Native American language and minority rights - it was then that my interest was really piqued."

Saturday, March 19, 2016 WEEK END 4 A curious mirror of Jerry's own transatlantic journey from the US to Wales, Evan's path to America seemed to materialise from out of nowhere.

"He was a very unsettled character really and we can't quite be sure of the psychological motivation behind anything he did," says the academic.

"For example, he was raised in the Anglican church, then married and moved to London - shortly after which he left the church and became a Methodist.

"Then he taught himself Greek and Hebrew and tried to become school teacher."

Finally Evan decided to follow in the footsteps of his widow mother who'd previously emigrated to just outside Pennsylvania in the States - an area which would become a popular enclave for homegrown ex-pats.

And, uprooting his wife and young children, he then converted to the Baptist religion - "It was like he trying to find his proper place in the world," adds Jerry.

"There was a big Welsh Baptist area where he'd settled know locally as Duffryn Mawr and he'd barely been the a year when the call came.

"Missionaries were being sought to go live with the Cherokees and try to convert them to Christianity.

"So a whole group of them, Evan included, went out to North Carolina in the early 1820s to spread god's word, but life was incredibly hard there and many of the missionaries gave up.

"Not Evan, though, and after a few years he and his family were the only ones left."

To make things worse the Cherokees didn't take well to the white man telling them what to do, how to live and who to worship.

"That whole question of language, identity and religion is an interesting one, because it's still relevant in places like Wales today," says Jerry, adding that, eventually, Jones' perseverance slowly wore away at the Cherokee's initial and sometimes hostile resistance to his cause.

Indeed, he learned their language, taught their children how to read, translated the Bible into Cherokee, helped create a Cherokee newspaper - all of which resulted in him, along with his youngest son John, being given full tribal membership in 1868.

"After the American Civil War - a conflict which saw Native Americans fighting on both sides - the Cherokee government reconvened and made Evan and youngest son John full citizens of their nation," says Jerry.

"It was the first time something of that nature had been bestowed upon a father and son outside marriage."

But it was for his earlier role in the Trail of Tears, the mass displacement on the Native American people by the US government, for which Evan is best remembered.

A shameful episode, it saw legislature drafted to remove the Cherokees from their ancestral land - and seize whatever gold lay therein - an expulsion which became known as the Trail of Tears.

And, unable to prevent it happening, Evan volunteered to lead a group of more than 1,000 people on an epic 800-mile trek across mountains and rivers - all during a brutal winter - to their new home in Oklahoma.

By the tine they arrived, many had lost their lives, with even more losses having already felt in makeshift and disease-ridden concentration camps, set up to inter the Cherokees prior to their journey.

"We call it ethnic cleansing these days," says Jerry.

"When people first came from Europe to North America, at least 250 native languages were spoken.

"Terms such as 'American Indians' suggest they were just one group of people - in fact, there were hundreds of different tribes living in different areas, speaking their own languages."

Nowadays, though, only 300,000 people are officially registered as Cherokee, with just 10,000 able to speak the language.

That said, over the past few years, efforts have been made to ensure the language survives with the opening of Cherokee schools and the teaching of the language in universities.

And it's Evan Jones' role which is undoubtedly key in helping sew the seeds of all that.

"When the white man arrived, he brought disease and war - which led to the loss of land and, eventually, ethnic cleansing.

"So it's a miracle that the Cherokee survived at all."

A miracle which, in no small part, might have been down to a humble fabric seller from the edge of the Brecon Beacons.

Evan Jones a'r Cherokee is on S4C Wednesday March 23 at 9.30pm (English subtitles) >Jerry Hunter on the trail of Evan Jones, right. Far right, Jerry talks to prominent members of the Cherokee tribe

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The Trail of Tears immortalised in Robert Lindneux's painting in 1942
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:100NA
Date:Mar 19, 2016
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