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Trail of Tears

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 1999

   


Sometime near the end of 1837, a Creek Indian named Samuel Carr quashed out his fire, packed his belongings and set out on an 1,800-mile journey across central Alabama and into one of the darkest chapters of American history.

A few weeks ago, my sister Lilla and I tried to follow his footsteps, chugging in a dusty blue Chevy from the streets of Montgomery, Ala., to the plains of central Oklahoma.

Our sojourn was not quite the same one as Carr endured. By most accounts, he and a contingency of Creek tribesmen traveled by foot about 12 miles a day, taking five or six months to reach his goal. By car, we tackled the distance in a week. Veritable captives as they moved west, the Indians had to sleep in crowded canvas tents and subsist on cornmeal and other meager rations. We dined in restaurants and overnighted in roadside motels.

Twice I found myself lurching up in one of those motel room beds from startling dreams about Carr's trek. Here he was shivering under a blanket in a barge crossing the Mississippi. There he was standing on the banks of the Arkansas river, looking into the barren plain that would become his home. The more I traveled, the more absorbed I became with his saga. And no wonder: Samuel Carr was my great-great-great-grandfather.

Carr's cross-country trek came about as the result of a White House policy to uproot the Creek and four other tribes occupying vast expanses of the South and force them into the rough territory beyond the Mississippi. The plan, enforced without mercy in the late 1830s, resulted in the eviction of about 60,000 Indians. One of six would perish en route. A Choctaw tribesman, asked by a newspaper reporter to describe the historic crossing, gave it a name that resonates even today. He said it was nothing but "a trail of tears."

By following his path, I hoped to explore my Native American roots. A fifth-generation Oklahoman born of an African American mother and a father of mixed Creek and black blood, I remembered childhood tales from relatives of ancestors who followed the trail to Oklahoma. My father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, has lost almost all memory of his family's past. Reanna, my Creek grandmother, died when I was 5, leaving only the recipe for sofkie, a hominy dish beloved among Creeks. My grandfather Robert, who had been a Creek freedman – a descendant of blacks who had been enslaved to Creeks and made a member of the tribe after emancipation – had also long since passed. A portrait sitting on my father's mantel is the only picture I have left of them.

Whenever I look at the image of my grandmother in that picture – with her black tresses and high cheekbones – I pause to reflect on what it means to be descended from Indians. Over 2 million Americans claim Indian ancestors, according to official census estimates. And yet, many of us so-called mixed bloods have no sense of how our Native American heritage shaped us, what mark it left on our characters, what mannerisms it bequeathed us.

And so I took to the road, with a partially completed family tree in hand, hoping to find some answers. After the first couple of days, Lilla peeled off and rejoined me again in Oklahoma. The trip delivered me headfirst into Native America, both past and present. One day would find me in a carload of Cherokee on a Tennessee highway, searching for a cedar tree they needed to ward off evil spirits. A few days later I was in the home of a Cherokee woman in Missouri, hunched over a plate of kanachi, the dish of ground hickory nuts that is one of her tribe's passions. And then there was the night I spent in a lonely corner of Oklahoma at a Creek stomp dance – a tribal religious ritual – chanting all night around a blazing fire.

My first stop was Alabama, a former stronghold of the Creek, where I began looking through old census records and microfilm files in the archives of the Montgomery Advertiser. There I stumbled across a faded daguerreotype the newspaper had published on the front page in July 1837. It featured several hundred Creek warriors, shackled at the feet and chained hand to hand, being prodded by bayonet-wielding soldiers down a street in Montgomery.

The scene was a reminder of the brutal tug of war that was taking place between Indiansand whites across the South in the early 1800s. Until then, the federal government at first sought to assimilate the Indians – who had long-established tribal lands throughout the region – into the culture of immigrants arriving from Europe. Many tribes embraced the lifestyles of the settlers (some gave up hunting for farming, for example, while others even purchased black slaves), but Washington eventually abandoned the policy of "civilizing" the Indians in favor of an all-out campaign to push them into the less-settled West. Andrew Jackson, the hawkish Tennessee general turned president, persuaded several Indian chiefs to sign treaties exchanging their tribal lands in the South for tracts on the other side of the Mississippi. But rank-and-file tribesmen bitterly opposed the move.

That haunting picture of Indians being prodded along by whites, glowing on the microfilm reader, called for a reaction. But like a child frozen for a second after touching a hot iron, I could not respond straight away. Hunched over the projector, I stared at the detainees for so long that the librarian eventually came over to ask whether everything was all right.

A couple of days later, I woke early and walked down Dexter Avenue, past the brick church made famous in the days when Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor, to the spot where the photo had been shot. There was no plaque to commemorate the site, nothing but a few office buildings and a fast-food restaurant.

Before climbing in the car for the long drive west, I paused. My mind flashed back to the photo, which I had been fruitlessly perusing for the face of Samuel Carr. Although I was not sure what he looked like, I imagined that he shared my slightly puffy jowls and dark eyes. These were features I had inherited from my father, which he in turn took from his mother. Why shouldn't Carr have them, too?

The road to Oklahoma was lined with characters who seemed to know a lot about Indian culture and the forging of the trail. Like a butterfly I wandered from one to the other, taking a taste at every stop.

In Sweetwater, Tenn., it was Joyce Bear, the schoolmarmish cultural preservation officer of the Oklahoma-based Creek Nation, who first caught my ear. The setting was the annual meeting of the Trail of Tears Association, a four-year-old national grass-roots group, composed of descendants of Indians who traveled on the trail, as well as scholars, government officials, history buffs and a few curiosity seekers.

I sat on the edge of my chair in a hotel conference room as Bear gave the gathering highlights of Creek history: of the Creek War of 1813-14, in which the tribe's warriors sought to beat back U.S. military incursions into Alabama, only to fall decisively at the Battle at Horseshoe Bend; of the events of 1825, when principle Creek Chief William McIntosh, after cutting deals with the U.S. government to sell off some tribal lands, was executed by Menawa, one of the tribe's fiercest warriors; of the diehard resistance some tribesman put up when U.S. troops came to round them up for the move westward.

"We are a proud people," she said resolutely. "We stand our ground."

Over a dinner of buffalo ribs and sweet potatoes, I met Duane King, one of the country's best-known scholars on Indian culture, who explained the distinctions in the experiences tribes had on the trail. The Chickasaw, who had assimilated the most into the culture of the European settlers, apparently went with little fuss. The Cherokee, who had the most developed government, negotiated terms to take charge of their own passage rather than be subjected to hired guards. The Choctaw also resigned themselves early to the uprooting. The Seminoles and Creek put up the strongest resistance.

When I told King of my efforts to recapture the spirit of the journey of my forebear and others who marched along the trail, he warned of the complications of the task. For one thing, he said, the tribes took at least a dozen different paths, including several involving barge trips up the Mississippi River and others over land. For another, the experiences of the marchers were all different. "In a sense, the trail started at the home of every Indian yanked from their houses throughout the South," he said, "and it ended wherever they put down stakes and made a new home."

Relaxing on the side of a tree-covered mountainside in Cherokee, N.C., I closed my eyes and let a soft breeze brush across my face. Before the moment passed, however, I was yanked back in time to the sounds of a heart-wrenching dispute over the trail. Troops had arrived to round up local Cherokees and panic broke out as everyone desperately sought a place to hide.

No, the saga of the trail wasn't creeping into my daydreams. I was in the audience of "Unto These Hills," an outdoor drama staged about the Trail of Tears every summer by a local theater group.

Produced for its 50th year this summer, the reenactment of the events leading up to the removals was one of three substantial Indian attractions in Cherokee. Populated by descendants of Cherokee tribe members who hid in the surrounding mountains during the removals and emerged after they were complete, the town is now the base of the eastern band of Cherokees, a separate tribe from the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation.

If you want to know anything about the Cherokee, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian probably has the answer. The town's second-biggest draw, the museum features exhibits on just about every detail about the tribe – from its history dating back to the Paleoindian period to the alphabet created in the early 19th century by Sequoyah, the most celebrated Cherokee scholar.

At first blush, Cherokee struck me as a heavily touristed town cluttered with too many Indian gift shops and kitschy sideshows. But it also gave me a chance to spend some time with tribe members, all of whom offered advice on understanding the soul of Cherokees. Bo Taylor, a young archivist, stressed how the tribemen – who have long favored western dress and mannerisms – have had to adapt to the mountain culture of North Carolina. But it was the message of Joyce Dugan, chief of the eastern band, which resonated most. "We have faced dramatic changes over the years and had to adjust to survive," she said in a chat in her office. "But we've never forgotten our spirituality. It's at the heart of who we are."

Pausing over coffee at a Burger King just outside Cherokee, I surveyed maps to plan the next few days' travel along the Trail of Tears. While the routes taken by the Creek are fuzzy in most historical records, the Cherokees' trails were more clearly marked. The National Park Service has even created a Trail of Tears National Historic Trail Automobile Tour, which tracks a northern route several groups took through Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and on to Oklahoma. I opted to follow that route for a couple of days, in hopes of reconnecting with the Creeks later in the journey.

It took me first to the Red Clay State Historical Park in Cleveland, Tennessee, a tribal area where the Cherokee chiefs held their final council in the East in the fall of 1838. According to an interpretive display, their discussion centered on the dissolution of the tribe and plans to move its seat to the new tribal lands south of the Mississippi.

Eager to make up some ground, I pushed on, covering in a matter of hours a distance that would have taken the Indians more than a week on foot. My destination was Chattanooga, a quaint city on the Tennessee River, where several contingencies of Cherokees departed for the journey west. A placard at Ross's Landing, a barge stop, marks the site where the boatloads pushed off. It is named after John Ross, the Cherokees' answer to George Washington. A Cherokee chief during the 1850s and '60s, he traveled back and forth, escorting several contingencies of tribesmen along the trail.

It was already Day 5 of our trip, and we were intent on making Oklahoma by the end of the week. We pushed on, passing the Days Inns, Super 8s, Comfort Inns and Holiday Selects that now line the trail. Hopkinsville, a small town in Kentucky marked on the Park Service's automobile route, seemed too poignant to miss. Whitepath, a Cherokee chief, is buried here. Fly Smith, another Cherokee, was also laid to rest nearby. Both graves are in the Trail of Tears Park, a well-maintained, shady resting spot. I paused over the graves and prayed, thinking of the thousands who died amid the snow, bitter cold and disease that followed them. Many of their burial sites have been forgotten or neglected, but the Trail of Tears Association has started a project to restore and protect them.

In the 1830s, the Mississippi River marked the boundary between the civilized East and the unsettled West; traversing it was a psychological hurdle for the exiles. The major barge crossing was at Cape Girardeau, Mo., also a site on the Park Service's auto tour. Groups of Indians had to wait in camps on both sides of the river for days until all the exiles had crossed.

We drove the Chevy over the bridge that today leads into Cape Girardeau. As soon as we arrived on the other side, we spotted a sign for the Trail of Tears State Park, located 10 miles away on Missouri Highway 77 in Jackson, Mo. A small museum featured a display about the trail and a statue of an Indian family marching along it.

slight detour from our course. Following the Park Service route was useful, but it rarely made mention of tribes other than the Cherokee. Fort Smith, which marked the last administrative jurisdiction in the United States before the border of Oklahoma, then known as Indian country, was a point of passage for Indians from various tribes, including Choctaw and Creeks. A two-story, red-brick courthouse sits in the middle of town, a reminder that this was the place that whites and Indians alike had to come to resolve legal questions.

The vast territory across the Arkansas River was the final destination for Indians. I walked past the remains of the old fort and headed for the river. My thoughts turned again to Samuel Carr.

Lilla rejoined me for the last leg of the trip, and as we barreled across the rolling hills of northeastern Oklahoma, it was easy to imagine the setting the Indians encountered when they arrived here in the late 1830s. The landscape was probably much the same sprawl of tomato-colored earth and gnarled pine trees that rose before us. Except for billboards and the occasional clusters of Wal-Marts, Dairy Queens and other stores, this part of Oklahoma seemed stuck wistfully somewhere deep in the past. In the town of Pawhuska, we stopped at a vast nature preserve where bison roam freely across barren plains.

The mark early Indian settlers left was also strongly felt. The names of every other town we passed appeared to be taken from Indian villages in the South – Broken Arrow, Wewoka, Muskogee. Shop windows everywhere were plastered with signs welcoming all comers to powwows, Indian cultural celebrations held throughout the state all summer. Several posters trumpeted the coming of the Red Earth Festival. A gathering of Indian artisans, dancers and singers held every June in Oklahoma City, is billed as the country's largest Native American cultural gathering. Although the census counts only about one in 10 residents of the state as Indian, Oklahoma – translated "land of red men" in the Choctaw language – lives up to its name.

And no enclave in the state lives up to it more than Tahlequah. It would take us the better part of day to tour this town, which the Cherokee Nation has fashioned as its capital. With Mary Tidwell, a Cherokee Nation staffer as our guide, we started with the Tsa-La-Gi Ancient Village, created on the grounds of the Cherokee Heritage Center as a reminder of what life among Cherokee had been like before the Europeans came. Barefoot Cherokees performed a show and told of how they made spear points, played stickball, wove baskets and moved between open cabins in summer and moundlike earthen houses in winter. Adams Corner, a cluster of small cabins, was designed to demonstrate the way living conditions of the tribe had evolved by the end of the 19th century. The adjacent exhibit featured a collection of modern artifacts, from clay pipes to designer bows and contemporary paintings.

Many of the townspeople I met were children of the Trail of Tears: Jack Baker, a burly Cherokee insurance executive and avid historian, who devotes his free time to tracing the ancestral roots of his tribesmen; Tidwell, with jet-black hair and a down-home manner, whose ancestor had been forced from his home in Cherokee, N.C., onto the trail; and Chad Smith, an eager scholar of Cherokee law who this month won a close election to become principal chief of the tribe.

A ceremony to mark the burial places of those who arrived on the Trail, organized by Baker and Tidwell, took place coincidentally at the time of our visit. On a sultry Saturday afternoon, a few dozen Cherokees and I gathered at the grass-covered Oak Hill Cemetery and unveiled gold plaques on the graves of John Ross – the much-heralded chief in the mid-1860s – and his tribesmen. They ended with a fervent rendition of "Amazing Grace" in Cherokee. The scene, marked by a bright sun dappling bowed heads, was a poignant marker of a moment in history.

"Our past is important to us," Baker said later. "By preserving it, we are charting a better path for our future."

A stop in Muskogee, at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, helped me fill some of the gaps in my family tree. Samuel Carr's great-grandson, Dave, settled around the town of Yahola, Okla., in the 1860s. He would eventually father Reanna but give her up for adoption to the family of Tobe and Dilsey Franklin.

My grandfather's family were African-rooted people who had been enslaved to a landed Creek family. According to a special post-emancipation law that allowed blacks who had been owned by tribe members to claim tribal privileges, my great-grandfather, Johnson Drew, became a Creek freedman as a child in 1867. His son Robert, my grandfather, was also listed on tribal rolls as a freedman. He married Reanna Franklin in the early years of the century, soon after Oklahoma had just become a state. My father, Fred, was their sixth and final child.

Hungry for more information about the Creek, I picked up Grant Foreman's "Five Civilized Tribes," a history of the people who had suffered the trail. The Creek were "haughty and arrogant," Foreman writes. "As a people they are more than usually devoted to decoration and ornament."

By the time we reached the town of Okmulgee, the capital of the Creek Nation, my curiosity was near bursting. We passed through the Creek tribal lands in central Oklahoma. At first blush, the dusty town of 50,000 bore no noticeable marks of Indian culture. There were no souvenir shops, no musuems and no guides to point us to places of interest. The surrounding Creek tribal lands, whittled down over the past century and a half, reflected little of the expanses the tribe had left behind in Alabama and Georgia. Downtown Okmulgee, as sleepy as a pasture of cows, was dominated by a stretch of brick office buildings and furniture stores.

As we wandered, we discovered a few tribal landmarks: a stone monument to Sam Cheote, a chief in the late 1800s; the Creek Mound building, an office complex designed in the style of the earthen lodges tribesmen used as dwellings in Alabama and Georgia; a couple of Creek Baptist churches built in the style of traditional Creek ceremonial grounds.

For visitors, the most tangible symbol of the tribe is the Creek Nation Council House, in downtown Okmulgee. A stately 19th-century two-story building once used for tribal meetings, it is now a small museum exhibiting pictures of the tribe's early chiefs, as well as spinning wheels used to weave cloth and other tribal artifacts. A library has books about the tribal history.

Although the current Creek tribal rolls currently list 48,000 members, only a fraction of that number plays an active role in the community. But the tribe is fighting to keep its culture alive. Three years ago, Creek cultural leaders developed a plan to teach the Creek tongue to local schoolchildren. Earlier this year, efforts began to repatriate tribal remains and artifacts discovered in different parts of the country. And a search has just begun to locate and mark the graves of tribe members who arrived on the trail. But many – including, alas, Samuel Carr's – have not been found.

As evening fell, a couple of tribe members invited me to a stomp dance on the edge of Okmulgee. It was the beginning of the celebration of green corn, the Creek new year, when tribemen make pilgrimages to these parts to partake in traditional tribal rituals. Around midnight, the lighting of a huge campfire began. One by one, participants began marching around it and singing Creek chants. I joined in slowly but gradually warmed to it, picking up the rhythm and the lyrics. By the first light of day, I felt I had just begun to penetrate the world of Samuel Carr. I wanted to go further, but that would have to wait for another day.

As Lilla and I finished our whirlwind tour of Creek country, I remembered what King, the scholar in Indian history, had told me about where I could find the beginnings and ends of the trail.

And so I would bring my own journey to a close with a stroll down Cheyenne, a street in Tulsa. I started at one end, where a ceremonial oak tree, planted by Creeks when they first arrived from the East, towers near the banks of the Arkansas River.

I ended two miles north, in the wooden two-story house where I was raised and where my parents have lived for more than three decades.

As a result of the trip, I think I know myself a bit better. I understand a few things about my father, too – his lifelong aversion to travel, his stubborn insistence on holding his ground to the bitter end of an argument. These characteristics may be in his historical memory.

But most of all, I think I know why, even as he gradually loses that memory, he spends a few minutes every day looking into the piercing eyes of his mother and the soft smile of his father, in the photograph sitting on his mantel.

For those seeking more information, John Ehle's "Trail of Tears" (1988, Anchor Books, Doubleday) is a good primer. To follow the Trail, request a map of the National Park Service's automobile route from the Trail of Tears Association, 1100 N. University, Suite 133, Little Rock, Ark. 72207-6344.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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