On Monday, a group of young riders from the Cherokee nation began a journey into their past, looking for their future.
“These men and women will retrace our tribal nation’s route to Oklahoma — from our ancestral homelands in the east to our current capital city,” said Principal Chief Bill John Baker in a media release prior to the beginning of the ride.
“It will be a personal and life-changing journey for them. As a student of history, and specifically Cherokee history, I am envious of the journey they are undertaking and the understanding they will attain by traveling the route of removal.”
The 950-mile “Remember the Removal” bike ride began in 1984, according to Taylor Alsenay.
“Dr. Michael Morris founded the ride and we continue it today,” Alsenay said.
Among the Cherokee students taking on the trail their ancestors took to Tahlequah 175 years ago was Jon Ross.
His great-great-great-great-grandfather was Lewis Ross, brother to then Principal Chief John Ross.
Lewis Ross was the businessman and the procurement agent, working closely with John, the politician of the family, to peacefully agree for the Cherokees to vacate seven states, including Tennessee, and start a new life in Oklahoma.
The forced removal began the infamous “Trial of Tears” where many Cherokee and other tribes died during the trek westward.
“We started out in New Echota,” said Jon Ross.
“It was very enlightening to ‘come home’ to a land I had never seen,” Ross said speaking of the area and after visiting Cherokee, N.C., where many of the Cherokee fled and established the Eastern Band of the Cherokee in the mountains of that state.
“The experience has also been very humbling. Our ancestors walked, rode wagons or animals. I am riding it on a bike,” he added.
Standing in front of his great-great-great-great-grandfather’s house located on Market Street in Charleston, he became somewhat emotional.
“I really expected it to be rundown. I am happy to know someone cares about preserving its history, that they are taking care of my Papaw’s house,” Ross said.
The house and property, which are privately owned, are under a preservation and reconditioning project.
On numerous occasions, the National Park Service and historic research groups from Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation have visited the property and home. The most recent visit was in December.
Remains of the original structure are buried in the walls of the Lewis Ross House. Foundations still support the structure and outbuilding foundations and walls continue to exist on the property where history said the final paperwork and conversations between Gen. Winfield Scott, the Rosses and others finalized the move westward.
It was said a mighty oak in the front yard of the privately owned home in Charleston, was where the paperwork was signed.
A remnant of the tree stands inside the Museum Center at Five Points — a memorial to the meaning of the removal and likeness of a Cherokee carved into the wood.
“I hope it’s not the last time I get to go on this ride,” Ross said.
Ross, 23, is a student at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah.
The other 18-plus riders also attend area colleges, universities or high schools.
The convoy of bikers was led by the Cherokee Nation Marshals Service.
Two trailers, SUVs and vans carried the bikers’ personal items.
The journey will take the riders from Georgia through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and on to Oklahoma.
The bikers are expected to be on the road for three weeks.
Alsenay was on the first ride in 1984.
“I was fortunate to be on the first ride. We trained for a year and when we started the trail, we rode 100 miles each day,” Alsenay explained.
In 1984, the Trail of Tears was not very well documented or marked. Since then, many studies have been completed and the Trail of Tears is in the National Park Service system and markers and maps placed.
The group traveled from Red Clay State Park, stopped by the new Charleston Hiwassee River Heritage Center for refreshments and at the Ross House and Rattlesnake Springs prior to making their way to Blythe Ferry in Meigs County.
“When we made it to Cherokee, it was like a family reunion. Cousins of the Eastern Band were meeting, sometimes for the first time, their kin from the Cherokee Nation,” Alsenay said.
“Many of the Eastern Band members have never been to Oklahoma, and vice versa. They don’t realize what they have been able to keep in this area. The mountains and beauty of the land of our ancestors remains,” Alsenay said.
Along the trail, Alsenay reflected on his past rides.
“You can see the wagon ruts still in places. Can you imagine hearing the wagons and our people moving along the trail … the creaking of the wagons?” Alsenay asked.
“It is a very spiritual experience,” he said.
Although they began the trek in New Echota (in Calhoun, Ga.), the 900 or so miles before them will pass during the next two weeks.
“Every pedal we take takes us closer to our home in Oklahoma,” he said.
Up to 4,000 Cherokee died along the Trail of Tears in 1838, after the federal government under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, forced the Cherokee and other tribes to give up their land.
Chatata Valley, Charleston, Rattlesnake Springs, Fort Cass (formerly Lewis Ross property), Blythe Ferry in Meigs County, Ross’s Landing in Hamilton County and other locations where Cherokee people encamped prior to the removal.
“We know this is going to be a tough physical and emotional journey ahead, and it’s not going to be easy,” Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, told the riders as they visited Cherokee this week prior to their ride to Georgia.
It has been said that 9,000 of an estimated 16,000 Cherokee people were held at Charleston and the surrounding areas, and according to historical accounts, nearly 4,000 died during their incarceration and removal effort.
Today, the group will leave Hopkinsville, Ky., en route to Metropolis, Ill., then onto Cape Girardeau, Mo.