Heritage: Trail of Tears
They were businessmen, judges, and lawyers. They operated an independent printing press and organized their own police force and Supreme Court. Their elite lived on large estates with substantial farms. The Cherokee in Alabama “basically had tremendously successful businesses and lives,” says Sharon Freeman, an historian and president of the Alabama Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association. While much of the Cherokee’s rich economic and civic life was erased by the events of the Trail of Tears from 1838 to 1839, the 175th anniversary of their forced removal has also sparked increased interest and helped shore up efforts to make Alabama’s Cherokee history visible again.
The Trail of Tears spanned some 800 miles of the southern Appalachians and midwest, crossing North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and into southern Illinois and Missouri, before arriving in Indian Territory, or Oklahoma as it was later known. In Alabama, sites of Cherokee removal centered on the northeast, where at Fort Payne federal troops established a camp to carry out the expulsion. Today a cabin site in DeKalb County, uncovered and preserved by archaeologists and volunteers with the Trail of Tears Association, marks the location of the military establishment. The majority of the Cherokee in Alabama made their exodus through Fort Payne. According to the National Park Service, there were 20 such removal forts in total, located in Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. In all, some 16,000 Cherokee departed their homes in the southeast, and an estimated 4,000 of them died en route to Indian Territory.
Their departures unfolded along a number of routes, moving by rail, boat, wagon, and water. Most refused to leave until they were forced out. Chief John Ross, who was elected Principal Chief in the reconstituted Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, was counted among the last to depart his Alabama home. While Ross was strongly opposed to removal, his brother Andrew was among the Cherokee who believed that given the federal government’s penchant for Indian lands agreeing to removal offered their only hope for self-preservation. Andrew’s home remains standing in Fort Payne. The house is a private residence, and while it is not open to the public, its structure and grounds capture what was known as the “Cherokee Plantation.” The Ross family built a two-story home on the premises, complete with a chimney and two fireplaces, a large kitchen, stables, a hen house, and several smaller cabins.
In Sheffield, the Tuscumbia Landing site was not only central to Cherokee removal, but also to the forced departure of the Creek, Chickasaw, and other smaller Indian groups in Alabama. The landing facilitated movements made by water, as Indians traveled via the Tennessee River until exiting at lower water areas and traveling by rail. “Thousands boarded steamboats in Tuscumbia Landing and Waterloo, Alabama to travel west,” says Freeman.
Since 2005, Alabama’s chapter of the Trail of Tears Association has identified and undertaken the preservation of sites associated with the movement of the state’s Cherokee. “The Alabama forts, camps, ferries, and landings play an integral part in the overall story of Cherokee removal,” says Freeman. With the help of volunteers their group has undertaken three archaeological excavations. They are also currently erecting signs to identify locations associated with paths of the Trail of Tears and constructing informational kiosks wherever possible.
Freeman says the association focuses its efforts on education. They give talks to historical and genealogical societies, and also work with the National Parks Service to educate Alabama teachers about the Trail of Tears.
“Awareness is increasing,” says Freeman, and “education is the main vehicle that is increasingly awareness.”
Additional information (not published in the magazine):
- In all, five American Indian Nations were removed from the southeast to Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). In addition to the Cherokee, the federal government also targeted the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole.
- The efforts of the Alabama chapter of the Trail of Tears Association include correcting misconceptions about Cherokee life and culture in the state. Freeman explains that many people believe that southern Indians lived in teepees, when in fact only Plains Indians lived in teepees.