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.

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