Trail of Tears
“… At Ross’s Landing, a woman, in the pains of childbirth, stood and walked as long as possible, and then fell on the bank of the river. A soldier coming up, stabbed her with his bayonet, which, together with other pains, soon caused her death.”
That’s from an Aug. 20, 1838, journal entry of missionary Daniel S. Butrick, who traveled west from Chattanooga with the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears.
This fall marks the 175th anniversary of the Trail of Tears — something not to be celebrated, but certainly something to be remembered somberly and with prayers for forgiveness.
The glimmer of greed for gold pushed Americans of the time to clamor for the removal of American Indians, who at that point lived here in homes, plantations and farms just as the immigrant settlers from England and Scotland and Germany did.
Chief John Ross ran a trading post and ferry just below Cameron Hill on the Tennessee River. Major Ridge, who had fought with Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe Bend, owned a plantation replete with slaves in North Georgia. These people were not in teepees, nor did they wear war paint. They simply lived on land where our government thought gold might be.
So, after years of fighting in the halls of Congress and in the courts, Jackson ordered American Indians be removed to what would become Oklahoma.
It was — and still may be — America’s lowest point. We must remember it and learn from it.
An opportunity to do that comes this weekend when officials with the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and Friends of Moccasin Bend host the grand opening of the Old Federal Road, the route across Moccasin Bend that the Cherokees, Creeks and other tribe descendants walked during their forced removal.
The road was not new, even then. Just across the river, surveyors or road builders carved their names in rocks alongside the Federal Road as they rested. One name is dated: 1801-1802.
By 1803, the road was well used by the Cherokee and settlers alike. Sixty years later it was a major supply line for Union forces sneaking supplies through the “cracker line” to troops in Chattanooga in 1863.
Foundation grants, donations and volunteer work in recent years funded the use of high-tech tools and GIS mapping to identify the road and, several months ago, archaeological work identified the corridor through which the Federal Road passed. A dig uncovered mule shoes, a harness buckle, minie balls and an even older plank road that far predated Civil War days.
The effort to unearth our rich, albeit sad, history is commendable. And the new park trail across Moccasin Bend commemorating that old road traveled — the first real public access point to the new part of the park we call Moccasin Bend National Archeological District — is a place to begin reconciling our cruel past with the reverence of understanding a better future.
Though the Old Federal Road is not completely and historically restored yet, it is symbolically important.
This is who we in Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama are: We are descendants, inheritors or immigrants to a land that was Cherokee and Chickamauga and Muskogee Creek and Choctaw and Chickasaw and many other Indian tribal cultures.
Past, present or future, we are us.