Native Trails

Ed Ayers travels back to his childhood stomping grounds in search of traces of the dispossession that took place there generations earlier.
[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the third installment in the series.]

The next leg of our trip was a homecoming, of sorts. We pushed out from Charlottesville and headed for the place where Abby and I grew up — Kingsport, Tennessee. We spent the first night at Warriors’ Path State Park, a place I used to walk to by way of the railroad tracks down the hill from our family’s house. The park is built around a TVA lake, and has evolved since its opening in 1952. The miniature golf course that I remember is gone, replaced by a welcoming playground for children of all abilities, as well as fields for disc golf and soccer, all things unheard of in my youth.

The park has always had a lovely campground, wooded and overlooking the lake, that I’ve strolled through in years past. I was always curious about the various kinds of campers and RVs I saw there, but never imagined that I would one day occupy one. Abby and I were assigned a relatively flat spot — not to be taken for granted in southern Appalachia — and set up shop. My sister Kim and her husband Fanie came to visit, bearing local strawberries. We had a fine conversation. Fanie, a South African and omnicompetent mechanic and carpenter, appreciated Bertha’s many fine structural features. I was as proud as if I’d designed them myself.

The name of the park, Warriors’ Path, intrigued me when I was a kid. I eventually learned that the place we lived in the Holston River Valley had been a central avenue of Native trade, hunting, and war. In fact, the Long Island of the Holston had been an important base for the Cherokee. That island also become an important way-station for white settlers from Virginia on their way to the Cumberland Gap and up into Kentucky in the first great wave of migration into the “west” in the 1780s and 1790s.

Kingsport got its name not from an actual king who practiced some kind of sport, as I hoped as a boy, but rather from a man named King who shipped salt down the Holston from the mines in Saltville, Virginia. Daniel Boone “kilt” his bear not far from my childhood house, and a local school was named for Davy Crockett. I, unfortunately, was saddled with Andrew Johnson as the name of my school, an ignominy I did not appreciate at the time. Johnson lived only thirty miles from Kingsport, so it made sense geographically. Abby went to Andrew Jackson. There was also a Lincoln School, for mysterious reasons in East Tennessee, and a Frederick Douglass School for all too obvious reasons.

By the time Abby and I were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Long Island had long been occupied by a vast assemblage of tanks, pipes, and buildings of the Tennessee Eastman Company, the dominant industry of our small city. The company, along with the paper mill, concrete plant, printing press, ordnance facility, and other industries that made Kingsport “the model city” for private enterprise, filled the air with heavy white particles that settled on cars parked for even a brief period. “The air smells like money” was the common refrain.

[Image via Bob Lawrence’s Kingsport]

The chemical company’s presence on the river was evident when I canoed by the island as a Boy Scout, on our way down the river in a race. Stretching south from the island was a vast zone devoid of fish or vegetation. In recent decades, most of the interdependent and interlocking industries of Kingsport have moved, shut down, or come under new ownership. Downtown Kingsport, an active and welcoming place in our childhoods (at least for the white majority), now shows many boarded windows and empty parking spots. The four-lane highway once known as the “bypass” is now the center of trade, lined with franchises that make Kingsport look like any other place in America. The remarkable history of the place is invisible.

The next day, we headed south, down the interstate that followed the Warriors’ Path to other important places in Cherokee history. We stopped first at the birthplace of Sequoyah in Vonore, near the Tennessee state line with Georgia. Sequoyah was the remarkable man who invented a “syllabary” — an alphabet based on the sounds particular syllables make — by himself in the 1810s and 1820s. It is apparently the only such achievement in history. Sequoyah lived a complex life that reflected the complexities of his time and place. He was fathered by a white man named Gist who left before the boy was born, and bore that man’s name nevertheless, even as he grew up fully immersed in the Cherokee world, without speaking or reading English.

In a twist of history that belies common understanding, Sequoyah fought against the Creeks alongside Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. In that war, Sequoyah saw the benefit of written language, as Jackson and his fellow officers communicated over long distances. When the Cherokees were relentlessly dispossessed from their lands, despite their aid to the United States, Sequoyah traveled to lands in the Arkansas Territory that had been ceded to the Cherokees. There, he toiled on his syllabary alone, facing considerable resistance — including from his wife, who burned the pages she blamed for taking him from his traditional duty of hunting to provide for his family.

Sequoyah eventually completed his work and came back east to share it with Cherokee leaders. They were skeptical, until Sequoyah had his young daughter read a message he wrote her in their presence. The language spread rapidly, for it was easily learned. Missionaries printed a Bible in the new written language and the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper started publishing in both English and the native alphabet. Sequoyah enjoyed new prestige and received a medal for his work. He traveled to Washington to help represent his people in their failed efforts at just treatment by state and federal governments. He died on a trip to Mexico to recover Cherokees taken there, not living to receive the stipend awarded him for his work.

I was curious to see how Tennessee told Sequoyah’s story. Inside the visitors’ center, situated next to a lake, we discovered excellent exhibits, with dioramas, life-sized figures of Sequoyah, and effective visual presentations. They seemed tailored for younger visitors, whose laughter, energy, and questions filled the gallery. An animated film dramatized the act of creation of the syllabary, emphasizing the charming story of his daughter, A-Yo-Ka, and the alarming moment when Sequoyah’s work went up in flames. Another presentation had Sequoyah speaking directly to the visitor, encouraging diligence and ambition.

Video exhibit in the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum [Image: Ed Ayers]

Outside, we watched an interpreter engage the kids. He later told us that he had been there since the opening of the exhibit, and had been recently made an honorary member of the Cherokee Nation. He seemed pleased by the support the site had been given by the State of Tennessee, and said he met only encouragement from visitors as well. Abby and I had lunch on a picnic table overlooking the fields where people had lived long before they met their great injustice.

Abby and I decided to get an RV because we knew we would be moving frequently from one spot to another, often among relatively isolated places. Much of the history of the new nation took place outside of cities, on the then-frontier, in small towns, plantations, and in cities expected to boom that never did. We didn’t want to tow a trailer, so we chose the smallest self-contained RV we could find with a comfortable shower, bed, and table. We wanted to be able to stop any night we needed at a Walmart or Cracker Barrel, where they welcome RVs, and to take advantage of farms and vineyards that offered bucolic spots.

But most of the time we would be staying in campgrounds of the sort we had been disheartened to see at Davy Crockett’s park. It turns out that it’s helpful to have all the electricity and water you need without exhausting your batteries or tanks. Abby assumed the task of finding a campground each night and quickly discovered that every camping spot looks about the same in the pictures: a rectangle of gravel or sand, a pole with a gray box with a power outlet, and a water pump. Sometimes there was a tree, a well-used picnic table, or a barbecue grill held together by red rust and black grime. Maps of the campgrounds didn’t help much, since a place on the edge of the main road might be a refuge from traffic or a left-over space with an unnamed deficiency.

We discovered the limitations of research when we pulled into a site in north Georgia. We looked forward to welcoming Abby’s sister, Marsha, and her husband, Tom, driving up from Atlanta to glimpse our exciting new lifestyle. We wanted to make a good impression and were therefore disheartened to proceed to our numbered space to find it was a gravel pit looking into a pile of rusting machinery in the woods. I’m notably squeamish about making demands as a customer (perhaps the result of having grown up with a used-car salesman for a father and knowing how peevish customers can be), but I went to the front desk and politely asked for another spot. The woman cheerfully told me we could trade up to a “premium” site for eight dollars and I jumped at the offer. The new site, it turned out, had a small brick patio and was relatively level. We motored to it as we heard that Marsha and Tom would soon be arriving. In the nick of time, we extended Bertha’s awning and Abby finished a delicious salad she had started at home. Our visitors brought wine. We had to move chairs around to get out of the sun, using Bertha herself for shade, but we unfurled a red-checked tablecloth and felt ourselves quite the sophisticates. The twenty or so other RVs parked all around us faded into the background as we enjoyed the company and laughed at the absurdity of the setting.

Each night proved its own adventure, as every campground offered a particular set of charms and annoyances. One offered nice open sheds with wooden checkers and cornhole games; another enforced rigid rules about every aspect of camping; another required me to reach deep into a hole in a barrel to turn on the water; another had to loan us extension cords and hoses because the utilities were too far away. One campground was about fifteen feet off the interstate, an easy stroll to a Publix; another was at the end of a long and twisting road that ended up in a lovely glen. Some offered spots that our automatic leveling system handled with ease; other spots sloped or dipped so that the automatic system gave up and flashed lights of surrender. We could either walk uphill or sideways inside Bertha or experiment with plastic leveling blocks beneath her wheels. Walking around campgrounds, we saw all kinds of strategies to get level, ranging from precarious stacks of blocks to wheels lifted off the ground. I studied the videos on that process but have yet to master it. Trial and error, my specialty, seems the preferred strategy.

The same is true for draining the so-called “black tanks” of waste water. Some campers construct elaborate conduits with supports the whole time they’re on site, while others pull up to a central dump station as they depart. The process of handling the tanks turns out to offer a wider array of techniques, technologies, and options than I had assumed. The world of RV videos is vast, filled with helpful pieces of advice that conflict with one another. We are slowly finding our own way, patiently making every mistake that seems possible and learning from each. We hope to exhaust the list before long.

A little farther south from the Sequoyah site lies New Echota, in north Georgia. If the Sequoyah Birthplace museum made a powerful impact because of how carefully orchestrated it was, New Echota was just the opposite. It derived its haunting power from its incompleteness.

New Echota was “new” in 1825, and was named after a principal town in Tennessee. It was created as a capital for the Cherokee Nation, and like its counterpart on the Potomac River, was designed from the ground up. Leaders laid out wide streets and a town square, making space for stores and homes to fill in among them. It was all meant to demonstrate the Cherokees’ embrace of the machinery of a nation within a nation.

The plan never came to fruition, however, because the Cherokees ran out of time. Even as the Cherokee Phoenix was being read across the North and in Britain, the state of Georgia and President Andrew Jackson were doing everything they could to deny the legitimacy of the Cherokee nation and dispossess its people.

In 1827, the Reverend Samuel A. Worcester — a young Vermonter with a striking gaze — came to New Echota with his wife and daughter to help run the printing office, teach school, and minister the gospel. Gold was discovered on the land the next year, however, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830, driven by Jackson, encouraged Georgia and private citizens to take Cherokee land by purchase, fraud, and intimidation. In 1832, Worcester challenged a law that prevented any white person from living among the Cherokee without a license, and was put in prison as a result. In Worcester v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, but Jackson and the Georgia legislature ignored the verdict. Worcester, banished from the state, headed west with the Cherokee. He ministered there until his death 20 years later.

Samuel Worcester [Image: Cherokee Messenger, via New Echota State Historic Site]

In New Echota, some leaders of the Cherokee, including Elias Boudinot, editor of the Phoenix, signed a treaty to exchange their land for five million dollars and new lands in the west. Many Cherokees opposed the deal, but it was ratified by the U.S. Congress by one vote in 1836.

Jackson gave the Cherokee two years to vacate the land. In 1838, 7,000 federal and state troops arrived to drive away those who had refused or been unable to leave. The soldiers put the Cherokee in stockades, sometimes seizing them without time to gather clothes for the trip ahead of them. New Echota itself became one of the stockades. Boudinot and his allies were assassinated by fellow Cherokees for their role in selling the people’s land.

[Image: Creating the American South, Digital Scholarship Lab, University of Richmond]

Thus began what would come to be known as the Trail of Tears, marked by brutality, incompetence, and death. New Echota was abandoned, and gradually dissolved into farmland for white families; only the Worcester house remained. White citizens purchased the land in the early 1950s and began archaeological work to identify the location of buildings and streets. The site opened to the public in 1962, and added buildings over the next 30 years. Today, wide spaces where streets might have been lie between reconstructed buildings. We saw a farmstead, a court and council house, and the office of the Cherokee Phoenix. It was both beautiful and haunting, the empty spaces filled with wildflowers carrying their own messages of dreams and promises broken.

New Echota State Historic Site [Image: Ed Ayers]

Abby and I chatted with an interpreter who told us that visitors are often surprised by what they see. Many non-Native people have heard of the Trail of Tears, but don’t understand its origins, costs, or legacies. The film in the interpretive center is, unfortunately, from 1992 and shows its age. It speaks in a language of “civilization” that so often marked portrayals of the Cherokee and the other four peoples of the Southeast who tried, desperately, to accommodate the religion, clothing, language, and even slaveholding of the white population. A new film is in preparation and we are eager to see it.

The story told at New Echota is hard to understand. Nothing in it looks like what most people think of as “Indian.” Most of the students who visit, we were told, are second and third graders, too young to comprehend the brutal meaning of a site that is now orderly and charming. The story is not taught in Georgia’s high schools, where it might find greater resonance and consequence.

The Trail of Tears itself is invisible at New Echota. So we set out for another place we thought we might glimpse more of the story — a trail at the Moccasin Bend Archaeological Site, part of the Chickamauga Battlefield National Park near Chattanooga. Abby, Bertha, and I traversed an industrial part of the city, uncertain of what we would find. The trail turned out to be hidden away, a stretch of road the Cherokees had cleared early in the 19th century to carry their produce to market, and was then used years later to drive them from their lands. Later, the road would be used to traffic enslaved people from the upper South to the cotton lands of the lower South.

Trail at the Moccasin Bend Archaeological Site [Image: Ed Ayers]

Today, what was once a road of multiple injustices is now merely a trail in land not useful for anything else. A sign explains its meaning, but otherwise the landscape bears no marks of the suffering it witnessed. Perhaps that is a kind of blessing, but if nature covers its scars, people cannot afford to do so. We need to continue worrying at the wound, even if it hurts, precisely so that those injustices do not escape our collective memory. Abby and I resolve to visit other places along the Trail of Tears, following the path of suffering that began at New Echota.