Remembering the removal: Wayside markers trace the Trail of Tears in WNC
A growing collection of roadside signs has been popping up along rural drives and main thoroughfares in Western North Carolina over the last decade, and while their presence might be barely noticeable to the untrained eye, they trace the history of a story that shaped the region before most of the roads they adorn were even built.
The Trail of Tears.
The trail is the route that Cherokee people were forced to follow when they were taken from their native lands in the Southeast in 1838 and marched to a reservation in Oklahoma, where the Cherokee Nation is today. The reason for the term “Trail of Tears” isn’t hard to imagine — in addition to the reality of being forced to leave the land where their culture had grown up, the Cherokee people, as well as other tribes forced along the same routes, were treated terribly by the soldiers and many of them died along the way.
But while the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail — part of the National Parks System — has been around since 1987 to commemorate the key places and events along that route, North Carolina wasn’t included until 2009. The trail had largely focused on the route from Eastern Tennessee, where Cherokee people gathered in large camps were sent off toward Oklahoma.
“A lot of the political drama of removal focuses on Georgia, because that’s where the Cherokee capital was and Georgia is the state that pushes hardest for Cherokee removal,” explained Andrew Denson, history professor at Western Carolina University and a board member of the N.C Trail of Tears Association. “It’s Georgia that really precipitates the political crisis that leads to removal.”
But North Carolina has a definite place in the story as well, and it’s a story with a unique spirit and vigor within the larger Trail of Tears narrative.
“Here in North Carolina,” Denson said, “the Trail of Tears story ends up being a story of perseverance, survival, resistance and not just a story of terrible injustice.”
Cherokee people in North Carolina resisted removal as best they could — sometimes by working through political channels, other times by deceiving troops bent on rounding them up for removal, and other times by simply hiding out. And while history shows that even the North Carolina Cherokees lost most of their land, some of them wound up prevailing as the Qualla Boundary was created and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians established.
“Here in WNC there are really interesting episodes that aren’t very widely known outside this area,” Denson said.
Telling those stories is a goal of the N.C. Trail of Tears Association. The state is now part of the trail — after years of work by Brent Riggs, Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies — and 16 different wayside exhibits have been installed throughout the region to tell various parts of the story. And thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership, the North Carolina Trail has a new website and newly printed brochures to guide visitors through the route.
“As an enrolled member of the Eastern Band we try to do all that we can to stress the importance of the culture to tribal members, and of course the Trail of Tears is a big important historical point,” said Mary Wachacha, a tribal member who is on the board for the North Carolina chapter.
In Cherokee, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have some ancestor who was involved in the removal. So passing that heritage on is of vital importance.
“It’s just a living, breathing history for myself, and unfortunately a lot of our young people and a lot of adults just don’t realize that the Trail of Tears still exists today,” she said. “I want to be part of the North Carolina chapter to make sure we keep working not to let that be forgotten.”
Accessibility was an important consideration to that end.
“The sites are all really easy to access,” Denson said. “It’s more a question of whether you have time to follow them.”
Perhaps in the future, he said, the website could include a few suggested routes to cover a cross-section of the larger story without requiring too much driving.
One of the challenges with bringing the trail to life, Denson said, is that very few structures — houses, forts, graves, etc. — still exist to engage visitors with the story. Though the good thing about WNC is that the mountains and forests are still here to give a clue as to what the landscape looked like back in the 1800s.
“It’s changed, obviously,” Denson said, “but you can still get a sense of the landscape, what it was like in the early 19th century.”
And by standing there, feet planted on the same ground where the tragic story played out between American soldiers and native people who had grown roots there for millennia, hopefully people will feel themselves drawing closer to the stories and the people who lived them. And maybe, Denson said, greater understanding of the many sovereignty and political issues facing Native Americans today will result.
“The removal itself is one of those few Native American history episodes that is pretty famous and in a general way is kind of well known,” Denson said, “so I’m interested in how we can use what’s well known about that story to expand that and talk again about the persistence of Native American people in the Southeast and America.
“There’s a lot more you can do with that story or use that story as an anchor for talking about a broader array of subjects that continue to be important in Native American communities today.”
Resistance in Qualla Town
Marker location: Museum of the Cherokee Indian grounds, Cherokee
Qualla Town, the precursor to the modern-day Cherokee, became something of a refugee haven for Cherokee people during the removal era.
Before the removal began in 1838, Cherokee land was ceded to North Carolina, acreage that included some of the nation’s most sacred sites — Nikwasi, Cowee, Kituwah, for example. But the agreement contained a provision for land preserves, and many Cherokee people went through the process to take them. They became U.S. citizens and claimed their 640 acres of land.
“North Carolina doesn’t particularly like that, and North Carolina meanwhile distributed a lot of that land to non-Indians,” said Andrew Denson, history professor at Western Carolina University and a board member of the N.C Trail of Tears Association.
Many of the Cherokee people who planned to stay on those reserves wound up in Qualla Town.
Qualla Town residents, with U.S. citizen William Holland Thomas as their advocate, managed to convince the U.S. government they should be exempt from the removal. But that didn’t mean that the drama of the historical moment eluded them. Cherokee people who were not on the list of those “allowed” to remain continued to come, and there was an ongoing tension between Qualla Town Cherokees and U.S. soldiers — the resident Cherokees wanted to protect their fellow Cherokees from deportation but had to balance that with the desire not to be deported themselves. After all, would anyone in the government really raise a fuss if the U.S. soldiers took a few trouble-making Qualla Town residents to Oklahoma along with those slated for removal?
“What’s important about Qualla Town is it became part of the founding of the Eastern Band after removal, but they also play a role in helping other Cherokees who are supposed to be removed to stay,” Denson said.
Marker location: uphill from the Almond Boat Ramp, Almond
When Cherokee people were rounded up from their various homes and villages, soldiers took them to one of many small forts established throughout the mountains. Fort Lindsay, which was built in 1837 somewhere under what is now Fontana Lake, was one of those sites.
Even when still standing, said Andrew Denson, history professor at Western Carolina University and a board member of the N.C Trail of Tears Association, “The forts themselves aren’t all that impressive but they give you a sense of the geography of removal.”
In this particular location, geography was on the Cherokees’ side. Soldiers had a hard time finding fugitives in the dense forest and rough terrain characterizing the area, and many residents of the nearby Nantahala community successfully eluded capture.
The troops would fan out from Fort Lindsay, gather Cherokees, bring them to the fort, and then march them down to Fort Butler in Murphy. From there, they’d travel the Unicoi Turnpike Trail toward the larger camps in East Tennessee.
Today, boats bob peacefully on the level waters of Fontana Lake. There’s no clue above the water as to the human suffering that happened within the now-invisible fort.
“One of the challenges in North Carolina for this sort of work is we don’t have a lot of structures,” Denson said.
Mostly, just stories.
Valley River Resistance
Marker location: Rest stop on U.S. 74 at Andrews
During the removal, certain Cherokee families were given exemptions and allowed to stay — mostly those with political and economic connections. The John Welch family, near Andrews, was one of those.
“The soldiers quickly realize the Welches are helping people who are supposed to be removed to avoid the troops,” said Andrew Denson, history professor at Western Carolina University and a board member of the N.C Trail of Tears Association. They’d feed them, or relay information to the hills as to the soldiers’ plans and whereabouts.
As a result, John Welch was arrested and detained in Tennessee for the duration of the removal, though allowed to return afterward.
“It kind of breaks his health,” Denson said. “He suffers for that political decision to help his fellow Cherokees.”
Meanwhile, a white emigration officer named Preston Starrett working on the site began to develop some sympathy for the Cherokee people. He began giving out deportation exemptions willy-nilly, not just to the “important” people they were intended for.
“Pretty quickly you get these military leaders coming back to headquarters where the officers are, reporting ‘There’s this guy named Starrett. I think he’s kind of overstepping his authority,” Denson said.
So, the troops came in, basically ignoring all those exemptions that had been handed out. But even all that couldn’t stop the area around Welch’s farm from becoming a gathering place for those Cherokees who did stay. Small Cherokee communities coalesced around the area, referred to as Welch’s Town.
It’s a fascinating story that’s not really told in literature outside the region, Denson said, but it’s one of the many stories rooted in WNC that delivers “a more human element” to the narrative of Cherokee removal.
Become a member
The N.C. Trail of Tears Association is looking for members who want to go deeper in learning the story of the forced removal of Cherokee people from North Carolina.
“Most people have so very little knowledge of the significant places and events associated with the Cherokee Removal from the region, and one of the goals of our organization is to change that,” said Sue Abrams, chapter president.