Trying to decide where to begin and end my Trail of Tears hike was tough. My first idea was to go from the old capital of the Cherokee Nation to the new one. That would have me starting at New Echota near Calhoun, Georgia and ending in Tallequah, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, my estimates put the mileage at nearly 950 miles and I just don’t have that kind of time. The official Auto Route begins in Charleston, Tennessee and I thought that was a logical starting point. Charleston was the location of Fort Cass, the largest of four major internment camps used during the Trail of Tears days. General Scott was at Fort Cass when he received the orders from President Martin Van Buren to commence with the forced removal of the last Native Americans in the area. Heat and sickness claimed the lives of too many Cherokee on the Trail during the summer of 1838, so the remaining ten thousand plus were kept at these “relocation stations” until the bulk of the detachments left in October and November.
Some people disagree with my choice to start at Charleston. (A member of the Trail of Tears Association was actually angry at me for not starting in her home state of North Carolina!) But the fact is: if you just consider the Cherokee, there were four main routes with dozens of detours along the way and I can’t hike all of them. In actuality, if you think about it, there are more routes than you can count because for tens of thousands of families the Trail of Tears began where they stepped out the front door of their homes.
My chosen start date would be Monday, January 17th. What we called “T-Day” (Trail-Day) fell on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which I found rather appropriate. Not only do the African Americans share Native Americans’ dismay and frustration about their treatment at the hands of Anglos, but they have a historical tie to the Trail of Tears, too. A good number of Cherokee farmers had large plantations and, in keeping with the times, they also owned slaves. Recording the details of “human property” was not a priority at the time, but historians agree that several hundred blacks were also marched to the new Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears. In addition, free blacks who were residing within the Cherokee Nation, as well as in other tribes, were considered members of the tribe and suffered the same fate.
The week before “T-Day” brought a snow and ice storm that kept me and my wife in the RV. We were able to get out on two days to see a few of southern Tennessee’s registered historical sites for the TOT. A home owned by the John Ross family is in Rossville, on the south side of Chattanooga. Right in the city is a cemetery that marks the location of the Brainerd Mission. Half an hour to the northeast, near Benton TN, you can see the grave of Cherokee “Beloved Woman” Nancy Ward and a tower from the stockade at Fort Marr. This “blockhouse” is interesting because it’s the last physical remnant of the old internment camps. A little further northeast, in the town of Venore, is the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum which honors the formerly illiterate Cherokee man who invented their alphabet.
Our favorite local site was Red Clay, the Cherokee council grounds until the removal. They have nice replicas of important buildings and a great museum with lots of cultural artifacts from the 1830s. We walked down to the sacred spring there (also known as “The Blue Hole”) and I took a long drink, feeling a strong connection to those who came before. A short walk up the hill took us to the Eternal Flame – one of the most moving tributes of its kind. Hot coals from the Red Clay council ground were taken by the exiles on the Trail of Tears, a flame from those coals was returned to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee in the 1950s, and then they sent runners carrying the fire back to Red Clay in 1984, bringing it full circle. The Red Clay State Historic Park is a beautiful place, both naturally and spiritually – a must-see on any TOT tour.