Remembering the Trail of Tears

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“The Trail of Tears” was painted by Robert Lindneux in 1942. The Granger Collection, New York 

A pivotal chapter in the nation’s past played out in northeast Alabama, leaving lasting marks on the region.

Text and photos by RANDY GRIDER

LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN AND ITS SURROUNDING VALLEYS have a long, rich heritage filled with tragedy and triumph – bolstered by mankind’s biases, frailties and, ultimately, its determined spirit. This land has been fought over, captured, occupied and defended by numerous peoples over thousands of years. These battles shape the landscape and the culture to this day.

No period in this area’s history has carved its signature more prominently than the arrival of expansion-minded colonists, a development that gave rise to the settlements that are the modern cities, towns and communities where today’s citizens live, work and dream of building brighter futures.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]..

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Of course, people of European decent weren’t the first to build a life here. For centuries, Native Americans of various tribes called this region home. With the quest for more land by an increasing American population, Native Americans found themselves conceding more of their territory and being squeezed into smaller areas.

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Historic markers lining the Trail of Tears’ Benge Route from Fort Payne to Guntersville, Ala., were placed in 2012 – a reminder of a tragic but culture-shaping chapter of the area’s history.

Despite the Creek Indians’ occupation of the Lookout Mountain region for hundreds of years, the contraction of Cherokee lands in the Appalachian Mountains farther north set up an unlikely alliance between the Cherokee people and white settlers against the Creek. Once the Creek were pushed southward, the Cherokee found themselves taking refuge against their short-term, white allies in parts of southern Tennessee, western Georgia and northeast Alabama by the early 19th century.

The once-fierce Cherokee warriors began adopting the ways of the arriving settlers in an attempt to keep their nation together – choosing to wage war in courts and with diplomacy rather than on the battlefield. Despite a vigorous challenge to ceding more of their land, these efforts ultimately proved futile with the passage of the Indian Removal Act during Andrew Jackson’s administration and the signing of the Treaty of New Echota, which sealed the Cherokees’ fate.

In places still part of the lexicon today – Turkeytown and Willstown, for example – the Cherokee were rounded up for relocation to lands west of the Mississippi River. Perhaps no place in this region has been branded deeper with the reminder of this period than Fort Payne, Ala. Its name sprung from the building of a fort here to serve as a temporary encampment for the Cherokee people before they were forced west on what today is known as the Trail of Tears.

After military escort resulted in hundreds of deaths and horrible conditions for the first detachments of Cherokee people, Cherokee Principal John Ross and the federal government came to terms allowing the Cherokee to oversee their own removal. In late September 1838, under the direction of Capt. John Benge – a Cherokee leader and official conductor of what is today known as the Benge Detachment – approximately 1,200 Cherokee began slowly streaming out of Fort Payne and into history.

As the chosen route winds up Sand Mountain toward Gunter’s Landing (now Guntersville) and the Tennessee River, one can only wonder how many of these proud people turned to look one last time at Wills Valley – their home for generations and the place where they attempted to make a final stand as a free nation.

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This chimney is all that is left of a fort where approximately 1,200 Cherokee people were held before they were forced west on the Trail of Tears. Landmarks of DeKalb County now owns the property, which is a certified historic site on the Trail of Tears Historic Trail.

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