It’s just a list of names etched in stone on towering blocks of granite. The blocks are arranged in a circle in a beautiful park near the banks of the Tennessee River. Surrounded by a lush and well-maintained landscape with a nice visitor center and gift shop nearby it’s easy to overlook the purpose of this park. It’s a memorial to the Cherokee who were forcibly removed from their homes. It’s the gut-wrenching, tear-inducing moment when these men, women, and children were sent across or down the Tennessee River never to see this area of the country again.
It was a hot and humid summer day when I visited the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park for the first time. The large parking lot was empty, most likely because there was a heat wave rolling across the South and it was early on a Thursday. I sauntered into the visitor center to escape the heat and met a very nice lady who explained to me the history and purpose of the memorial park.
It’s located in Birchwood, Tennessee at a place called the Historic Blythe Ferry. In 1809 William Blythe was granted permission to operate a ferry across the Tennessee River; today the location of the ferry is marked where the two lane road meets the water. During the Cherokee Removal the ferry was used for a very different purpose: the forced removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands in northern Georgia and southeast Tennessee. Nine of the thirteen detachments crossed the river at Blythe Ferry and never saw their homeland again.
A large stone map carved into a patio lays out the various routes of the removal, more commonly known as the Trail of Tears. One route was by water along the Tennessee River while the other three were by land. One of those land routes passes through modern-day Nashville, Tennessee and Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
The central feature of the park is the Memorial Wall. 2,535 names are etched into towering granite blocks. The name listed was taken from the Henderson Roll during the 1835 census and was the current head of the household. The blocks are divided into the different states were the family was removed from. Some names are written in English, indicating these Cherokee had “modernized” and adapted to the new society of America, while other names are written in Cherokee.
Looking at the massive map and the Memorial Wall nearby it’s hard not to feel…something. It’s a mixture of emotions. Some might argue it’s an event that happened almost two centuries ago. But I would argue no amount of time could ever lessen the impact of that terrible event. When you visit be sure to pop inside the visitor center for some artifacts and more information, read the history of the removal through several panels outside, study the map to see just how far these people had to travel on foot, and browse through the names of those who lost everything on that day.
The short version: in 1838 the United States government forcibly removed over 16,000 Cherokee from their homes in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Surrounded by armed soldiers they were only allowed to take what they could carry as they traveled by land and water, in the middle of the winter, nearly 800 miles to the newly-created Indian Territory (today known as Oklahoma).
The slightly longer version: expansion across the frontier in the United States was happening too fast. Descendants of European settlers were eager to own land, something which their ancestors were rarely allowed to do. The southern Appalachian Mountains were perfect for new settlers: rich soil was great for farming, multiple rivers allowed easy access and transportation, and the landscape was more beautiful than most settlers had ever seen. There was only one problem: the Cherokee Nation occupied the land.
The United States government quickly and easily passed laws to strip the Cherokee of this land and literally give it to white settlers. No sooner had soldiers removed a Cherokee family from a home had a white family moved in. With the Indian Removal Act of 1830 in full effect it took just eight years to round up all Cherokee in the Southeast inside internment camps near Cleveland, Tennessee, and then march them across the frozen landscape. Nearly 4,000 died during the journey, and those that made it found a foreign landscape and utter confusion.
The National Park Service does it’s best to preserve history like this through the creation of historic park sites. Working with local and state agencies the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail strives to preserve historic sites along the three land routes of the Trail of Tears and create monuments and memorials. Beginning near Cleveland, Tennessee the national historic trail continues across north Georgia and north Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky, converging in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
The Trail of Tears is a relatively new creation barely a decade old. The headquarters is ironically located in Arizona. Along with county and state governments and non-profit groups the national park service is working to create visitor centers, monuments, and memorials to tell the story of this forced removal. Be sure to visit my website at www.southeasterntraveler.com/destinations/national-parks/trail-of-tears/ to read about more stops along the trail as I continue to explore it all the way to Oklahoma.