COKER CREEK, Tenn. - As he walks the trail that leads across almost 400 acres of woodland south of Coker Creek, Tenn., it's not hard for Jim Sirmans to imagine the Appalachian native peoples living and thriving among the hollows and majestic peaks.
"They didn't want to leave," said Sirmans, about the Cherokee who were forced from their homes and farms in the 1830s so whites could settle there.
Nearly 200 years later, this remote segment of the Cherokee Trail of Tears in eastern Monroe County, Tenn., is on the edge of modern development, once even eyed for homes.
But thanks to a joint effort of the U.S. Forest Service and the nonprofit organization The Conservation Fund, a key piece of the path the Cherokee trod as they were forced west from their homeland now will be preserved.
Crunching through the leaves scattered on the path in red, yellow and orange, Sirmans -- vice president of the Coker Creek Heritage Group and a volunteer at the Coker Creek Welcome Center a mile north of the site -- says there was a holding pen at nearby Fort Armistead where the Cherokee were kept until they were marched west to Oklahoma.
"None of them wanted to be there," he said. He noted that the starting point for the forced exodus was in Murphy, N.C., about 20 miles southeast as the crow flies.
The newly preserved tract of land on the western edge of the Cherokee National Forest not only will protect the segment of trail, it will connect historic sites and other trails, such as the Unicoi Turnpike Trail, which overlaps the Trail of Tears in places.
"The trail is on Forest Service land over there and on Forest Service land over here," Sirmans said, sweeping his hand across the mountains to the east, "and this piece takes care of part of the gap in between."
He said the Coker Creek Heritage Group's long-term hope is that the fort and the trail "are totally accessible to the public."
The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail was designated by Congress in 2009 and runs along a section of the Unicoi Turnpike. The turnpike is one of the oldest traces in North America -- Native Americans used it as far back as prehistoric times, according to officials with the Forest Service and The Conservation Fund, as did the European explorers and the settlers who followed them.
In 2013, The Conservation Fund purchased the whole 392-acre property, conveying 170 acres earlier this year to the Forest Service and making the final transfer of property and permanent preservation of the remaining 222 acres in October.
The property will be managed by the Forest Service in conjunction with the National Park Service, the Cherokee and Creek tribes and other state and local agencies and organizations.
"This acquisition is a big step toward ensuring that this important site is protected," Cherokee National Forest Supervisor JaSal Morris said in a release on the acquisition. Morris noted "significant" public support for acquiring land to protect the historic site.
Ralph Knoll, Tennessee representative of The Conservation Fund, said the organization is proud to help preserve historically important land and consolidate some of the Forest Service property in the Cherokee National Forest.
"Natural lands like this connect us to our past, and their preservation gives us the opportunity to walk in the steps of America's native ancestors and experience the land much like they did," Knoll said.
"It is a key part of our history," he said. "These are the actual footpaths they used. It's neat and inspiring to stand on the trail that was used such a long time ago."
Quentin Bass, Forest Service archaeologist, said the land acquisition began in 2005 with the first tract that had identifiable original segments of the Unicoi Turnpike/Trail of Tears roadbed. In 2009, the segment of the Unicoi Turnpike between Hayesville, N.C., and Athens, Tenn., was made part of the official Trail of Tears.
The newly added tract "is critical to the protection and enhancement of the legacy of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail," Bass said.
Looking forward, the Forest Service, National Park Service, National Historic Trails Office, National Trail of Tears Association, the Cherokee and Creek tribes and the Coker Creek community will be working together in 2015 on plans for future management and uses, Bass said.
Knoll said officials are also thankful for Tennessee lawmakers who supported the effort.
"Preserving historic sites such as this allows us to learn firsthand about our heritage and the people, events, and ideas that have shaped us as Americans," U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said in a release on the acquisition.
"I thank the U.S. Forest Service and The Conservation Fund for their efforts to ensure this important piece of Tennessee history is appropriately recognized," U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said in the release.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/BenBenton, www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.