I started the morning of February 11th in Guthrie, Kentucky – a small town on the Tennessee border. I was met there by Kentucky Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association (TOTA) member Ellis Rouse and chapter president, Alice Murphree. Ellis is a construction contractor in the Hopkinsville area and, since business is slower in the winter, he graciously offered to escort me along the entire 95-mile Kentucky segment of the Trail!
The weather was nice and my feet were rested, so we took off – only to stop a few minutes later. On the northern edge of town is Gray’s Inn, the first of seven Registered Historic Sites on the Trail of Tears in this state. Gray’s Inn is also known as the Stagecoach Inn because it was a stagecoach stop in the 1830s. The detachments kept mostly to roads that were used by stagecoach lines so they passed many stagecoach stops, but this one holds a special place in the hearts of Cherokees.
Chief Whitepath was in the 2nd detachment that left the Rattlesnake Springs Stockade at Fort Cass, Tennessee (where I also started my Walk) on October 4, 1838. He began feeling ill as they passed through Nashville. When the group rested at Gray’s Inn, they drew water for Whitepath to drink and he felt better.
Of course, Ellis and I had to stop and look at the Inn and its “Well of Sweet Water”. We were surprised to see that the Inn is up for sale! It’s kind of amazing that you can buy a piece of history just like that. (The house also played several roles in the Civil War a few decades later.) If I could, I would love to re-open it as a Bed & Breakfast and extend some hospitality to other history buffs out there!
By the end of the day, we made it to Radford Farm – also a Registered Historic Site on the Trail. The old farmhouse was built in 1799 and has been modified, but it still stands guard over at least a mile of original Trail of Tears roadbed. As we walked up, we saw horse and buggy tracks from the traveler before us – a local Mennonite farmer. It just gave the whole scene a feeling of being completely untouched in 170 years!
Mid-afternoon the next day, we arrived at the Trail of Tears Commemorative Park in Hopkinsville. Certified in 1996, this is not just the first Registered Historic Site on the Trail in Kentucky, but also the first on the entire National Historic Trail of Tears. It was well-documented that each detachment of exiles rested on this land for several days. Chief Whitepath and clan leader Fly Smith were in the first group to arrive in Hopkinsville and they died there while waiting for food and supplies that never came.
Today, the area is a 12-acre park with a small but comprehensive Heritage Center that’s housed in a period log cabin. A very knowledgeable staffer named Ethel gave me, my wife, and a local TV reporter a guided tour of the museum. Afterward, we went out to pay our respects to Whitepath and Fly Smith. They are buried behind their larger-than-life bronze statues, in a private cemetery once owned by a kind-hearted white family named Latham. I’ve read so much about these great men that I felt like I knew them. I couldn’t help crying at their graveside, thinking of all the strong leaders like them who have fought and died for the rights of our people.
You know, February is Black History Month and I just heard a few appropriate quotes from one of their great leaders. The Doctor Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
He also said: “A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.”
This is one of the main messages I want to share on my Walk. The great chiefs of the past stood up and fought for us, and it wasn’t easy. Some may say they lost the battles, but they didn’t. It’s because of their struggles that WE – you and I – are here NOW, that we weren’t wiped out as a race.
We’re right to remember their sacrifices, but we bring more honor to them by standing tall and proud here in the 21st century. The Native people are one of the best parts of America’s history, and we can and should be a big presence in her future too.