Maritole is the protagonist and main narrator of the novel. She is a mother, wife, sister, aunt, daughter and neighbor. Throughout the novel, Maritole’s struggles with her marriage and the unity of her family and her people, as well as her internal struggle for materialistic items and individuality. Maritole’s time on the trail is constantly filled with a longing for her previous life in North Carolina and her grandmother’s home in which she and her husband, Knobowtee, lived. Temptations and curiosities also rise between Maritole and a soldier, Sergeant Williams.
Knobowtee is Maritole’s husband. He is angered and confused by the Indian Removal. His narratives give insight into his anger at treaties, or the written word, and at other Cherokee, mainly those from Georgia, who he believes caused the removal. Knobowtee’s loss of power and frustrating helplessness stem from the fact that he can no longer farm the land, his main role as a man, resulting in his loss of masculinity. Knobowtee’s reaction to all these problems is violence, hatred and separation from Maritole.
Sergeant Williams is one of the soldiers hired to help guide the Cherokee Indians across the Trail of Tears. While the novel depicts many negative views of cruel and unjust soldiers, it also gives views of sympathetic men, one of whom is Sergeant Williams. Initially described as the “man with blue eyes,” Williams’s name becomes more individualized as his character becomes more familiar and personal to Maritole. He provides her with food, clothing and warmth, resulting in an angered Knobowtee and ostracized Maritole. Their questionable relationship eventually leads to Williams’s dismissal from his job.
Maritole’s father travels the trail with his wife, daughter, son and extended family. While he remains nameless in the novel, Maritole’s father represents hope for the Cherokee in the future.cit req Many of his passages display a yearning for the old land, food and customs, yet he tries to bring calm and peace to his family and neighbors on the trail. Maritole’s father understands that although much of their old life was taken, their family and unity is what is most important.
Reverend Bushyhead is a real historical figure, fully named Reverend Jesse Bushyhead. According to A Cherokee Encyclopedia, he "attended Reverend Evan Jones’s Vally River Mission School in North Carolina and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1830" (Conley 45). In the novel, Reverend Bushyhead travels the trail with his wife, who gives birth to a daughter, Eliza, on the trail. Bushyhead preaches to the Cherokee, gives them messages of hope, and fights for their treatment and protection.
Luthy is the wife of Tanner, Maritole’s brother, and mother of two sons, Mark and Ephum. Luthy aids in representing motherhood and the loss of power women experienced as they were taken away from some of their traditional roles in a matriarchal society. In some passages, a tone of jealousy and longing resonates within Maritole towards Luthy, who still has her children. Luthy lost her parents at a young age. She gradually weakens and is overcome with bouts of delirium.
Tanner is Maritole’s brother. He tries to protect his family, especially his wife and two sons, as best as he can along the trail. Although he has a family to keep safe, Tanner joins the rest of the Cherokee men during the removal who were frustrated at the government, their loss of land, and the weakening of their masculinity. He sometimes conflicts with Knobowtee, his sister’s husband, who results to acts of violence that stem from his anger and bitterness.