Exploring The Parks: Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail

Cherokee Eternal Flame in Red Clay State Historic Park in Tennessee. Photo by David and Kay Scott.

The National Trails System Act of 1968 established a national system of scenic and historic trails. At inception, the act created the Appalachian and Pacific Crest national scenic trails and proposed the study of additional trails to be included at a later date. Additional categories for national recreation trails and national water trails were subsequently included in the system.

Thirty national historic and scenic trails are currently managed by the National Park System, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or some combination of the three. Traveler readers are almost certainly familiar with many trail system components including the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, Pony Express National Historic Trail, and Santa Fe National Historic Trail. Other units including the Florida National Scenic Trail, Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, and Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail tend to be less well-known.

We recently had the opportunity to visit several sites on a trail that many Americans have heard of, but typically think of only as an abstract, if unpleasant slice of our country’s history. Trail of Tears National Historic Trail follows two major routes (and numerous minor routes) used by Cherokee Indians when in 1838-39 they were forcibly rounded up and made to relocate west of the Mississippi River in what was then Indian Territory. One of the major paths, a 1,226-mile water route, followed the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas rivers from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

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NPS Ranger Christopher Young at Ross's Landing. Photo by David and Kay Scott.

The overland route that also originated in southeastern Tennessee and ended in Tahlequah was shorter, but required much longer to complete.

The eviction of the Cherokee from their homeland that once included most of Kentucky and Tennessee, along with large portions of Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia, is a sad chapter in U.S. history. The U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that called for forcing Indians to exchange their lands held in the states and territories, and begin moving west of the Mississippi River. The Cherokee’s home state of Georgia passed laws that essentially took away all of the Indian’s rights and forced a temporary move across the border to Tennessee.

It was from Tennessee that the Cherokee departed on their forced journey to Oklahoma. Most Cherokees resisted the demand to leave for the West until 1838, when General Winfield Scott and 7,000 soldiers forced the Indians to large camps where they were to be placed on flatboats and steamboats, or forced to march west to Indian Territory.

The boats arrived at their destination in about two weeks, but those walking overland required up to eight months. Groups traveling both overland and by water faced harsh conditions that resulted in many deaths along the way. The trails followed by the Cherokee (several land routes were utilized) are administered by the National Park Service along with a variety of individuals and groups including private landowners, the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (Cherokee descendants who didn’t relocate to Oklahoma), and the Trail of Tears Association.

The trail’s sites stretch across nine states, and include Elkhorn Tavern in Pea Ridge Military Park (Arkansas), Camp Ground Cemetery (Illinois), Mantle Rock (Ohio), and Chief Vann House Historic Site (Georgia). Many of the trail’s important sites are in southeastern Tennessee where the Cherokee were initially sent and held prior to their forced journey to Oklahoma. This is where we visited several of the trail’s sites.

Chattanooga, with many important sites within or nearby the city, is the ideal location from which to begin exploring the Trail of Tears. On the city’s downtown riverfront, Ross’s Landing is the location from which several Cherokee detachments began their forced journey to Indian Territory. The site’s plaque and sculptures help interpret the story of the Cherokee culture. Other Trail of Tears sites in Chattanooga include Moccasin Bend National Archeological District where the NPS plans to construct an interpretive center, and Audubon Acres where a pre-removal Cherokee cabin is located.

A short distance northeast of Chattanooga, Brainerd Mission Cemetery is at the location where a mission, founded in 1817, was dedicated to educating and Christianizing the Cherokee. Many of the missionaries accompanied the Indians on the Trail of Tears. The mission operated until 1838 when the Cherokee were removed.

Brown’s Ferry Tavern, another site of interest just southwest of Chattanooga, is on a route used for removal of the Indians. The tavern, along with 640 acres, was once owned by John Brown, a prominent Cherokee leader.

Northeast of Chattanooga, the small towns of Charleston and Cleveland are home to several important sites related to the Trail of Tears. Charleston served as the location of the Cherokee Agency, the federal organization that handled day-to-day operations with the Cherokee Nation. Nearby is the site of former Fort Cass that from 1836 to 1838 served as military headquarters for the U.S. Army in the Cherokee Nation. The majority of troops involved in the removal were stationed at Fort Cass. Cleveland’s Museum Center at 5ive Points houses exhibits that interpret the region’s history including the influence of the Cherokee.

South of Cleveland near the Georgia border, Red Clay State Historic Park preserves the last capital of the Cherokee Nation. Red Clay became the council ground in 1832 when Georgia passed legislation forbidding Cherokee assembly.

In 1984, for the first time in 146 years, the Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians held a joint council meeting at Red Clay where the Eternal Flame of the Cherokee Nation was lit to reaffirm their unity. Additional sites in southeastern Tennessee include the campsite of the first detachment of emigrating Cherokees, a number of associated gravesites, and several museums.

In all, over two dozen sites relevant to the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail are convenient to Chattanooga.