Discovering the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

The Trail of Tears National Historic trail is a bit hard to follow, but the sites along the various routes offer a look into a dark chapter in the country's history of removing the Cherokee Indians.

Written by

Jason Barnette


April 22, 2018

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I had no idea the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail even existed. That’s not to say I didn’t have a passing familiarity with the history of the Trail of Tears, but I had no idea the National Park Service had designated an historic trail. But as I delved into this trail I realized the NPS had very little to do with the sites that existed and very little information to offer.

The Trail of Tears NHS map laying out the various routes to follow and sites to visit today.

When I arrived in Cleveland, Tennessee, a nice town about an hour northeast of Chattanooga, I was greeted by the warm and friendly Melissa Woody. Her nine-to-five job was vice president of tourism development for the Cleveland-Bradley Chamber of Commerce, but for the next few days she would be my personal tour guide in the region. I rode around town with her, my pen rarely leaving my notepad as I jotted down every note I could, but there was topic she broached that really caught my attention: the Trail of Tears NHS.

TOP: The creation of the Red Clay Council House. BOTTOM: The Eternal Flame of the Cherokee Nation, a memorial to all Cherokee who died on the Trail of Tears.

One of the first places she took me was Red Clay State Park near the Georgia border. It was in the visitor center here that I saw a map of the Trail of Tears NHS for the very first time. Laid out in color-coded lines stretching across nine states from Georgia to Oklahoma were three land routes and a water route that retraces the Trail of Tears today. Those routes were dotted with sites to visit to learn and see more. One of those sites was Red Clay State Park.

Park manager Erin Medley took me on a walking tour through the small state park while explaining the it’s connection to the Trail of Tears. When the state of Georgia outlawed the Cherokee National from holding any meetings they left the capital of New Echota and moved across the border to Red Clay. A simple structure with a wooden tile roof is a replica of the meeting house that was built here in 1832 for the Cherokee Nation’s meetings. These meetings were attended by thousands of Cherokee anxiously awaiting news on whether or not they would lose their homes in accordance with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It was at Red Clay in 1838 that the decisive moment in history was made and all hope was lost; these were the first tears shed on the trail.

Armed with a Trail of Tears NHS map for Tennessee and focused determination I left Cleveland a few days later in pursuit of other sites to visit on the Northern Route. About ten miles north along Highway 11 I came to the small town of Charleston, once the location of Fort Cass. This fort was the headquarters of the US Army during the Cherokee Removal in 1838. Around 16,000 Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homes in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, and brought here to a massive encampment to await being marched to Oklahoma.

Today the small town is the site of the Hiwassee Heritage Center. The center is the product of hard work by several locals, including Melissa Woody, serving as an educational resource for anyone hoping to learn about Cherokee heritage and the Trail of Tears.

TOP: A plaque noting the tears shed on the trail. BOTTOM: Names of heads of Cherokee households who passed through Blythe’s Ferry on the Trail of Tears.

Heading across the Tennessee countryside along narrow, two-lane roads the next stop on the Northern Route was the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park. Similar to the Heritage Center, which was funded by grants and operated by a local non-profit, the memorial park was a partnership between the Tennessee Valley Authority, Meigs County, and several state agencies. The small park had a nice museum, a friendly volunteer staff of one, and a commanding view on a knoll above the Tennessee River. But the heart of the park is the Memorial Wall; a collection of seven towering granite slabs engraved with 2,535 names of heads of Cherokee households who were marched through here.

Just outside the park is the site of Blythe’s Ferry. Cherokee boarded a small ferry operated by William Blythe, crossed the Tennessee River, and forever left their ancestral lands behind. After taking the last group across the river Blythe, who had operated this ferry for almost thirty years, headed West along with his Cherokee wife.

It was at this point that I realized the Trail of Tears NHS website was only slightly helpful. The website contains some information on the history of the trail and they have lists of places to go in each state. An interactive map displays each of the routes and shows the address of sites along the way. But without visitor centers or information kiosks it’s really a self-guided tour along the national historic trail. The park’s headquarters is even located in Arizona, a state that is far removed from any portion of the Trail of Tears.

TOP: The only building in the commemorative park also serves as a museum and office. BOTTOM: A statue depicting a scene on the Trail of Tears.

In Hopkinsville, Kentucky, I found another site on the Northern Route that, similar to the Hiwassee Heritage Center, was funded and operated by a local non-profit organization. The Trail of Tears Commemorative Park featured a small, rustic log cabin with a very nice museum. Inside I met Kristina Scott who would be one of my greatest resources in retracing the routes of the Trail of Tears.

Kristina’s passion for telling the stories of the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears was evident. She pointed out various artifacts in the museum, showed me the Trail of Tears NHS map for Kentucky, and made phone calls to put me in touch with various people with the Trail of Tears Association. I sat for a few hours and even came back to the next day to listen to more stories, jot down more notes, and begin to formulate my best plan yet.

But it had been five weeks since I started this journey at Red Clay State Park. I had traveled three hundred miles across Tennessee and Kentucky. Despite the long journey I had only found a few sites commemorating the Trail of Tears and even less information about each. I had come to realize the National Park Service does not own or operate many of these sites.

Discovering the Trail of Tears National Historic Site led to some profound bittersweet excitement. I was able to retrace portions of the route the Cherokee had been forced to march almost two hundred years ago and learn snippets of their history along the way. It was because of the passion of people like Melissa Woody, Erin Medley, and Kristina Scotts, along with dozens of non-profit organizations like the Trail of Tears Association, that all this was possible.

And, of course, the National Park Service who put together the most complete list of sites to visit I’ve seen yet. While driving the routes can be frustrating and confusing (I only got lost once) the fact the NPS has printed brochure maps is a good first step for the fledgling national historic trail. But I wonder if it would ever be possible for the NPS to fund and staff some of the sites, build visitor centers along the way, and put up signage to mark the routes?

Because I don’t know about you, but I want to trace the route of my Cherokee ancestors and learn the story of how they survived the Trail of Tears.

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