When Jack and I moved to the farm, our first holiday was Thanksgiving. We relaxed and after an early dinner I took Holly out for a walk and met our neighbor Pat. As we walked along he asked me if knew the history of the wet-weather creek that formed the southern border of our farm.
“Let’s walk down there,” he said. “You can tell me what, if anything, you sense about that part of your property.” Bone dry all summer and a mosquito hangout, I’d avoided it. Now the air was crisp; the creek was full and flowing after two weeks of heavy rain.
I’d only done a smattering of research on Salem or Dent County and wondered what Pat meant. We stood in silence for some time and when I looked up, he was waiting.
“My answer might be a little bit woo-woo, Pat, but there’s something not right, even a sadness that seems to only apply to this part of the farm. I can’t really find the words.”
He smiled and said, “I knew you would get it. Your farm and ours are part of the Trail of Tears when the government forced the Cherokee living in North Carolina off their land and marched them to Oklahoma.”
Standing at the creek and hearing this for the first time, Pat gave me a more personal meaning to the myth of Thanksgiving and how what I was taught in grade school compared to what I was still learning.
If Pat (or I) had known Latin we might have used the term “genius loci” or the genius of place that acknowledges a presiding spirit. I felt what looked like a wound on a mountain side after the lumber company’s loggers had left. But it was only after the move to the farm that I came to believe even untouched land can hold a spirit. The peaceful upper pasture felt welcoming to me, Holly, and to the deer who often slept there at night, leaving the tall grass in a swirl where they’d rested.
The Trail of Tears has faded from most history books but it encapsulates so much about the formation of the US and the treatment of the indigenous peoples that populated the early southeastern states.
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson’s proposal to “relocate” southern tribes, making room for settlers, to land west of the Mississippi River failed. But thanks to President Andrew Jackson the Indian Removal Act of 1830 became law and broke the Supreme Court’s promise to provide protection for the tribes and their property. As a result, between 1837-1838, the forced migration called the Trail of Tears began. Native families were tricked with false promises, rounded up, and hunted down.
According to historians, there were at least 33 military posts and camps across North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama erected for the removal. Nearly 4,000 soldiers were also present to escort them over land and river trails.
Upon arrival in Oklahoma, much of the land promised by the government as part of various treaties prior to the forced removal was taken away.
While other tribes were also driven off their land, the Cherokee nation was the largest and known for their traditions, language, spirituality, food, storytelling, and art. They had established a newspaper, become prosperous merchants and farmers, and drafted their own constitution and laws.
They also sustained the greatest losses. It’s estimated that 13,000 Cherokee were forced on the 1200-mile march from Tennessee to Oklahoma and resulted in over 4,000 deaths. Many were from starvation, disease, and extreme exposure to the winter elements.
Standing at the creek together and acknowledging what we both felt created a bond between us that lasted as long as I lived on the farm. Pat also warned me that afternoon to be careful about asking around about the Trail that went through many parts of Salem.
“Some local families are proud of their ancestry with the displaced Cherokees,” he said, “while others hide their family’s heritage. It wasn’t until 1985 that the Dent County Historical Society finally created the White River Trace portion of the Trail of Tears marker and identified several burial sites where those who perished were laid to rest.”
The librarian in Salem hesitated before leading me to where she kept the books from that time. And, when I offered to write about the establishment of the White River Trace marker my editor at the newspaper said, “You need to be here longer before what you write – no matter how honest and true – will not seem to some of our readers like poking a hornet’s nest. Let’s wait on that one.”
Following up on my interest in the Trail, Pat and his wife invited Jack and I down for dinner one night. Afterward Pat showed us his vast collection of arrowheads, pottery shards, and tools he found whenever he plowed one of his pastures.
“In case you’re wondering,” he said, “I return the bones to a burial site I’ve made at the edge of the creek. It might seem meaningless but it makes me feel better. I can tell by the size of the bones that many are those of infants and children.”
Today, Oklahoma, the final destination for the forced march, has the largest population of Cherokee people in America with over 240,400 Cherokee Nation citizens.
In December 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill that included an official apology to all American Indian tribes for past injustices. The resolution, however, did not call for reparations and included a disclaimer that it wasn’t meant to support any legal claims against the United States.
Photo credits: Fall leaves – timothy-eberly, creek – sigmund.
If you want to learn more about the Cherokee Nation, you can find it here: https://www.cherokee.org/about-the-nation/