Dig Adds to Cherokee "Trail of Tears" History

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
January 23, 2006
Archaeologists working in the rugged mountains of southwestern North
Carolina are adding new details to the story of a tragedy that took
place more than 160 years ago.

The scientists are uncovering the remains of farms and homes belonging to the Cherokee Indians before they were forced to abandon their property and move to Oklahoma.

About 16,000 Cherokee and hundreds of other Native Americans were forced out of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama in the late 1830s. The event came to be known among the Cherokee as the Trail of Tears.

Brett Riggs, an archaeologist with the University of North Carolina's Research Laboratories of Archaeology, is leading the excavations. He said the relocation of the Indians was a form of ethnic cleansing.

"A group of people in possession of sovereign territory with a sovereign government were forced to abandon that land, and were forcibly deported," Riggs said.

"They were detained by the U.S. military, and then moved away from their homes to open the area for settlement by a whole different population. That fits the bill for describing ethnic cleansing as well as anything I can think of."

Everyday Life

Riggs and his crew of UNC archaeologists are working about 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of Asheville. They're uncovering remnants of the Cherokee's lives before they were rounded up and moved west.

"What we're finding in the ground is the stuff of everyday life—refuse, people's trash," Riggs said. "In terms of documenting the Trail, this confirms that these particular sites were associated with Cherokee families."

The archaeologists have recovered pieces of pottery and china, buttons, glass, cast-iron cook pots, and other artifacts.

"These objects suggest that the lifestyle of the Cherokee on one hand was surprisingly modern and westernized but that they were still very distinctive and native," Riggs said.

In 1987, the U.S. Congress included about 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of the Trail of Tears in the National Park Service's National Trails System.

But the federally recognized segment of the trail begins in eastern Tennessee, where assembly camps for the Cherokee were established to prepare for the trek west.

A bill is pending in Congress to include other sections of the trail in the national system. If approved, the legislation would also provide money to mark sections of the trail and erect displays to tell the story.

Some National Park Service officials think the UNC excavation will help justify adding about 130 miles (210 kilometers) of trails through the North Carolina mountains to the National Trails System.

"In reality, the Trail of Tears started at the doorstep of every Cherokee who was forced out of their house," said John Conoboy, an administrator with the National Trails System in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Forced Resettlement

The decision to move eastern Indians is rooted in the U.S. purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803.

When white settlers moved into the newly acquired land, they began pressing the federal government to remove Native Americans east of the Mississippi River.

The pressure to move the Indians increased in 1829 when gold was discovered on Cherokee land in northern Georgia.

A small group of Cherokee signed a treaty in 1835 agreeing to leave their lands. Although the group didn't represent the entire Cherokee Nation, the U.S. government used the treaty as justification for rounding up the Indians and forcing them to move to what is now Oklahoma.

Most Cherokee were angry and deeply resentful, and some saw indications of divine displeasure as well.

In August 1838 William Shorey Coodey was one of several hundred Cherokee who started the journey from a detention center near the Georgia-Tennessee border.

At the moment the command was given for the caravan to move out, thunder rumbled ominously from the west.

Coodey later wrote in a letter: "In almost an exact westward direction a dark spiral cloud was rising above the horizon and … I almost fancied a voice of divine indignation for the wrongs of my poor and unhappy countrymen, driven by brutal powers from all they loved and cherished in the land of their fathers, to gratify the cravings of avarice."

A few hundred Cherokee managed to avoid relocation and stayed in the North Carolina mountains. But for the rest, as many as 15 percent died during the journey west, and the dislocation had a profound psychological effect on the tribe.

"I believe that it was very traumatic," said Jack Baker, a Cherokee who is a retired insurance accountant in Oklahoma City. "The Cherokee people have very few stories of what happened during the removal."

"The older people who endured it wouldn't talk about it because it was too painful. That's very unusual."

Human Details

A dry and clinical tale of the relocation was left behind in records compiled by the federal government and missionaries of the Moravian Protestant sect in western North Carolina.

Riggs, the UNC archaeologist, used some of those records to figure out where to look for abandoned Cherokee farms.

Historians are praising the work the UNC archaeologists are doing to add human details to the story.

"There isn't much known, so this is very significant work," said Aaron Mahr, a National Park Service historian in Santa Fe. "We really have an incomplete understanding of Cherokee culture in the 1830s and of the removal experience in general."

There are other reasons for learning more about the relocation of the Cherokee, said Jane Eastman, an anthropology professor at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Eastman also is president of the North Carolina Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association.

"There's this idea that America is a place where this type of thing couldn't happen," Eastman said. "We think of ethnic cleansing as happening in the former Soviet bloc. It's important to understand that not only could it happen here, but it has happened here."

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.

Free E-Mail News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).


© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.