Retracing the Trail of Tears—Land&People

When Cherokees around Chattanooga speak of the Trail of Tears, they express a need, surely older than history, to stand on the soil of particular ancestral sites and invoke the time that made these places sacred. It is not enough for them to know of the events that imbue the site. The place itself needs to be touched at that exact spot. The character of the terrain–the juxtaposition of hills, forest, or field with river and sky–must be embraced by the eye, inhaled by the soul. Only in this way can the event be seared into shared memory.

That is why Cherokee people must commemorate the actual paths of the Trail of Tears and the precise locations of the internment camps that preceded it. "Many of our ancestors suffered and died on the Trail of Tears just because they were Cherokee," says Harley Grant. "They were ripped out of their homes and marched off. We need to preserve the sites and places where we know this occurred while we can, before they're all developed and built over, and we have no place to go to remember."

Grant is a rare registered Cherokee in a place–Chattanooga, Tennessee–where the Cherokee Nation once was dominant. As president of Applied Thermal Coatings, a multimillion-dollar business headquartered here, Grant is as comfortable as a Cherokee suspended between two cultures can be. His ancestors were equally assimilated into the white European culture of their time before the cruel brunt of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 finally fell, in 1838, on his nation. They farmed the land, elected their leaders, published a newspaper in both Cherokee and English, and intermarried with European farmers.

Between 1817 and 1837, the Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Cherokee tribes all were persuaded or compelled to give up their ancestral lands. The Cherokees had negotiated successive treaties with Washington deeding nearly 90 percent of their land to the U.S. government, and many resisted the edict to relocate the tribes to the unknown "Indian Territory" to the west. Then, in rapid strikes from May 25 to June 6 in 1838, some 16,000 Cherokee people were evicted by the U.S. Army and state militias, often brutally, from their homes in eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and South Carolina, and northern Georgia and Alabama. As prisoners of war, they were herded into squalid internment camps and stockades near the Tennessee River from Chattanooga to Charleston, Tennessee, 40 miles north, to await a forced march to a reservation more than 800 miles away in Oklahoma.

Starvation and rampant illness took a heavy toll throughout the ordeal. Many would die on the journey to Oklahoma and once there, many more–demoralized, weakened, and sick from the march–would die within the year. Ultimately, just 12,000 Cherokee would survive the relocation. The three main overland routes and the water route the tribes traveled would come to be called as one: the Trail of Tears.

Those tears were never forgotten. Indeed, in the intervening years the Trail of Tears has become iconographic, a cultural grail recalling not just the ordeal of the Cherokees but the larger removal, between 1830 and 1850, of nearly 100,000 Native Americans from their tribal lands in eastern states to reservations west of the Mississippi River.

The Trail of Tears was at last recognized by Congress in 1987 as a National Historic Trail, with commemorative work to be administered by the National Park Service in cooperation with state and local agencies, Cherokees, interested groups, and private landowners. Even so, commemoration of the trail is at best a patchwork endeavor, requiring the voluntary cooperation of landowners. And after more than 160 years of development along the routes, opportunities to recognize segments of the trail are rare.

This in part explains why the Trail of Tears holds bitter irony for Cherokees like Harley Grant, and why the chance to preserve a piece of the trail near his business is so important for the area's Cherokees.

As it turns out, Grant's thermal-coatings plant is practically sitting on the first stretch of the Trail of Tears. His plant lies at the neck of Moccasin Bend, a peninsula of ancient Indian land across the Tennessee River from downtown Chattanooga and Ross's Landing, the city's earliest ferry dock. The first two of 16 Trail of Tears detachments departed Chattanooga's internment camps by riverboat from Ross's Landing. A third detachment was ferried over to Moccasin Bend, then, under armed guard, marched along an old road, passing the site of Grant's present-day plant, to the far side of Moccasin Bend. There, at Brown's Ferry, this detachment of 1,000 Cherokee continued their long march toward Indian Territory.

Chattanooga's present-day Cherokees–with significant aid from the Trust for Public Land and many others in the community–are trying to preserve that first segment of the Trail of Tears in tandem with a long-standing dream of making Moccasin Bend a national park.

From the entrance to his offices, Grant gestures over his shoulder to the Trail of Tears route, a tangible piece of painful history barely a stone's throw away. It recalls his own Cherokee heritage–a heritage first suppressed, then neglected to the point of becoming invisible to federal authorities and the white culture.

"I'm very, very adamant about my culture being portrayed in a positive light befitting the proud Cherokee people," he says. "They were literally fighting for their lives. They had a very deep feeling for the land; they were very spiritual for Mother Earth.

"But with the coming of the Europeans, they had to adapt to the European way. Still, they had a very successful life. Then they resisted removal and were denied relief and relocated. Now what we want is simple reverence for this part of the Trail of Tears and Moccasin Bend."

Cherokees in Chattanooga are quick to remind a listener that there are as many trails of tears as there were uprooted Cherokee families. A different one began at the threshold of every surrendered home. Still, most agree that the recognized Trail of Tears began at Moccasin Bend. This, together with the ancient Indian habitation of Moccasin Bend, has bolstered support for preservation of Moccasin Bend as a national park.

An Ancient Indian Crossroads

Moccasin Bend is best seen from a promontory on Lookout Mountain opposite the toe of the bend. From this perch, the name seems fitting: the peninsula, encircled on three sides by the Tennessee River, is shaped like a lower leg and foot that would fit a moccasin.

The bend's history of human habitation, spanning 12,000 to 14,000 years, is unique. Research suggests that Moccasin Bend may be the nation's most significant repository of Native American history. Its strategic location made it a crossroads of early Native American culture. Lying just west of the Appalachian Mountains near the mouth of the Tennessee River Gorge, the bend occupies a gentle valley of rich bottomland. The scenic valley bisects the steep escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau, making the bend the region's best staging ground for east-west, waterborne travel.

Blessed with a temperate climate, fertile soil, and abundant water, the bend proved ideal for game animals and early hunter-gatherers, and as a nurturing place for settlement and agriculture. Native Americans of the Paleolithic and Archaic periods, and later the Woodlands and Mississippian periods, naturally gravitated there over millennia, establishing a succession of villages and major towns.

Sparse and respectful exploration of 18 important sites on the bend have yielded abundant evidence of habitation across these eras. Tools, Clovis points, pottery shards, remains of houses, and innumerable burial sites document a concentration of Native American habitation virtually unmatched in the Southeast.

Among the bend's most celebrated archaeological sites are the Vulcan site, where midden deposits, hearths, and pit house features have been radiocarbon-dated to 1335 b.c., and Hampton Place, near the heel of the bend, where remains show that a large, palisaded Indian town existed for a time dating from at least 1430 a.d.

Evidence also suggests that early European explorers–Hernando de Soto in 1540 and Juan Pardo in 1566-68–eventually arrived in the area and possibly passed through the bend itself when Creek Indians occupied it. Much later, well after the Cherokees had been removed, the bend was occupied by Union soldiers as the Civil War raged around Chattanooga. Earthen artillery emplacements remain today, not far from Indian burial mounds.

Despite removal, Native Americans have never lost their attachment to the bend. Local descendants of the Cherokees and other Native American people regularly visit to pray among the mortuary sites or to seek solitude and remembrance. A deputized Native American patrol, established some years ago, helps police the bend and has virtually eliminated the midnight grave-robbing and relic-hunting that once desecrated the ancient burial mounds.

Moving Toward Protection

Following the Civil War, flood-prone Moccasin Bend was left mainly to those few who chose to risk farming in the floodplain. But after World War II, with a new flood-control system in place, pressure for development began to build. State and local officials–cognizant of its ancient Indian and Civil War history–then moved to purchase most of the bend and to establish a national park there. Authorizing resolutions passed in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and the bill designating Moccasin Bend a national park was ready for President Harry Truman's signature when Governor Frank Clement, newly installed in January 1951, suddenly withdrew state support in a fit of political pique over Chattanooga's failure to support his election a few months earlier.

Clement's crushing action failed to extinguish interest in preserving the bend as a national park. Advocates have nurtured the dream for the last half-century, and the land has been largely preserved through public ownership. Some conflicting uses–a hospital, a golf course, and a waste-treatment plant–have been permitted, eroding the available acreage for parkland by a third and fueling skepticism among Native Americans. Yet these and past depredations also have helped sustain a groundswell of public support for national park status.

Among the strongest supporters of a national park are the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma, representing the Southeastern tribes that once shared this corner of the country. Other fervent advocates include U.S. Representative Zach Wamp, local and state political and civic leaders, the Trust for Public Land, and the Friends of Moccasin Bend, which already is nurturing support for establishing a major Trail of Tears interpretive center on the bend at the gateway to the proposed park. The center would be devoted to the Cherokees' Trail of Tears experience and the region's rich Native American history.

Such continuing support for preservation has again propelled legislation to confer national-park status to the brink of approval. Through the enthusiastic efforts of Congressman Wamp, a bill passed the House last October, and action is pending in the Senate as this article goes to press.

Recently, the land at the top of the bend containing the precise Trail of Tears segment where the Cherokees were marched as they left Chattanooga became available. Bobby Davenport, director of TPL's Chattanooga office, was instrumental in the purchase of the wooded, 98-acre site, one of the last remaining undeveloped Trail of Tears properties in the downtown Chattanooga area. The land now stands to be included in the national park.

Davenport also successfully negotiated for an 11-acre site along the shore of Moccasin Bend opposite downtown Chattanooga. That acquisition would give the proposed national park a graceful gateway accessible by car, foot, or bicycle via Chattanooga's renowned Riverpark greenway, and by water taxi from Ross's Landing. This site also is ideally suited for the planned Trail of Tears Interpretive Center.

Keeping Promises

In separate but related Trail of Tears work in nearby north Georgia, TPL also is helping Friends of the Chief Vann House to save a significant 95-acre tract of land opposite the historic plantation of Cherokee Chief James Vann, who with his family was evicted by the Georgia militia in 1838 and marched off on the Trail of Tears.

Bulldozers had already begun cutting roads for a mobile-home and strip-mall development across the highway from the mansion, a certified site of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, when the Friends group called TPL. TPL quickly negotiated an option to purchase the land and stop the development. Now they're seeking $1.5 million in public and private funds to complete the purchase. "We have a unique opportunity to preserve a significant piece of land that helps tell the story of this era, the Vann family, and the process of removal," says TPL's Davenport.

Aaron Mahr Yanez, historian for the Long Distance Trails Office of the National Park Service, which administers the Trail of Tears, describes the era of Indian removal as "a highly significant part of our collective history," ranking in importance as a nation-shaping event with westward expansion and the Civil War. Much more needs to be done, he says, to preserve portions of the Trail of Tears and to enable Americans to walk them. "You cannot start at one point and walk the entire Trail of Tears," he says. "But, hopefully, you can visit and walk along some of the segments and envision what it was like to travel that trail 165 years ago."

Yet for all the work now under way to commemorate and tell the story of the Trail of Tears, some Chattanooga-area Cherokees remain mistrustful. They recall the nation's long history of broken treaties and betrayal, the brutal removal, and how those who endured the trail were cheated even of the pitiful compensation promised by Washington.

Yet still they harbor hope. "Moccasin Bend has survived development for a reason," says Alva Crowe, a full-blood Cherokee. "All these sacred sites are here. Now is a time when we can see if the white man has learned to keep promises and respect the land."

Harry Austin is editorial page editor of the Chattanooga Times and writes often about environmental issues. He is a member of TPL's Chattanooga Advisory Council.