Manifest Destiny took hold of American settlers looking to expand westward toward the setting sun and the promise of a new life.
For the Cherokee Nation, going west spelled certain doom.
Dr. R. Michael Abram said it is important to understand all of the nuances of the Cherokee culture to fully grasp the travesty of the Trail of Tears. The forced march of the Cherokee took place from 1838 into 1839.
“As the approximately 16,000 Cherokee left, there were a lot of footprints, but as they went along there were more and more deaths — and fewer footprints,” Abram explained. “And more tears, because of the sorrow and sadness and grief for the ones lost as well as leaving their homeland.”
Red Clay State Park recently opened a new exhibit “‘Fewer Footprints and More Tears,’ Commemorating the 175th Anniversary of the Trail of Tears” in an effort to further explain the history and effects of the Trail of Tears. The exhibit is provided by The Cherokee Heritage Museum and Gallery, owned by Abram and his wife, Susan, and in conjunction with The North Carolina Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association.
Visitors first see the Henderson Roll on their way to the exhibit’s main room. Every Cherokee household head was written down along with the number of men, women and children under their care. The list was not taken alphabetically. Instead, the names were separated by where the homesteads were located.
Under the heading “Ten River” were written many names. The first of which was Suetz Lee Justice with this description of his household, “Five halfbloods. Two read Cherokee. A farm and two farmers. One weaver and one spinner. Three reservees.”
Charles Reese’s homestead was broken down to the dry facts, “Eleven Cherokees; One halfblood and ten quarterbloods. A farm and one farmer. Six read English and eight read Cherokee. Three weavers and five spinners.”
One after another, the displayed portion of the Henderson Roll lists the names of Cherokee removed from Tennessee.
The exhibit then highlights four documents integral to the removal of the Cherokee people: the 1802 Georgia Compact, the General Assembly of Georgia’s mandates, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Treaty of New Echota of 1835.
Each document is displayed in its full form with pictures of the men behind the plans — both American officials and Cherokee proponents.
“These [documents] are ones they will read about in history books,” Abram explained. “But, they may never have had an opportunity to read the entire documents.”
All of the documents have been placed in black frames, the Cherokee color for death. Abram explained the color symbolizes how the Cherokee felt about the forced removal and the many lives lost.
Each one of the cardinal directions had a color and symbolic meaning.
“North was symbolically called the Frigid Land. It was the color blue,” Abram explained. “It represented depression and defeat (either to defeat a disease or enemy or be defeated).”
South was seen as white and symbolic of peace, comfort, good health, happiness and longevity of life. East was symbolically called the sun land. It was represented by the color red and meant power, victory, blood, medicine, war, the clan and success.
West was black and known as the darkened land which represented death. The Cherokee would often rid themselves of illnesses and troubles by sending them west. To be ordered west by the United States government was the equivalent of a death sentence.
Cherokee proponents like John Ross fought hard against plans of the American government. Abram explained the official plans went into motion with the 1802 Georgia Compact made between President Thomas Jefferson and the Georgia General Assembly. A series of laws was later enacted by the General Assembly in 1828, 1829 and 1830 with the sole goal of making life in Georgia difficult for the Cherokee people.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 gave the president and Congress the right to move all Indians from the east of the Mississippi to the west of the river, according to Abram. The final nail in the proverbial coffin was hammered in by the Treaty of New Echota of 1835.
Details provided by the exhibit explain how the Cherokee were betrayed by a reverend, how the final treaty was unconstitutional and the split between the Cherokee who wanted to leave the land and those who wished to stay.
Documents and background into the Cherokee culture shift into a representation of the Trail of Tears as told by art made by today’s Cherokee people.
A stone carving by Robert Maney depicts a woman trudging along the trail. The piece is entitled “My Guardian Spirit Follows Me on this Tearful Journey” for both her deceased husband who now watches over her and the guiding Eagle Spirit. Abram explained while the loved one has passed away, the sculpture suggests the woman will not due to both her husband’s careful watch and the animal spirit’s guardianship.
Maney also has two slate carvings on display. Both are inverted tears with the face of an old Cherokee carved into the tear-shaped slate. Abram explained it was Maney’s way of turning the pain and adversity around. By turning the tear upside down, Abram said it reflects how Maney believes the Cherokee people have overcome, but not forgotten, the troubles of the past.
Paintings by Dee Smith, like “Spirit Blessing for a Departed One,” express the emotions felt by the Cherokee over the Trail of Tears.
An explanation explains the final portion of Abram’s trail representation, “Where tears fell along the Trail of Tears, corn bead plants (also known as Job’s Tears) and Cherokee rose bushes sprouted. When the Cherokee arrived in Indian Territory, the tears that feel upon the ground transformed into barite roses. To the Cherokee people today, these three items represent the tears cried on the Trail of Tears.”
The final portion of the exhibit centers on how the Cherokee remember the forced removal and their fallen ancestors today.
Several T-shirts, a bandana and sections of the One Feather Newspaper depicting a bike ride across the Trail of Tears close out the exhibit. These events are taking place across the country by way of everything from active trail walks to symposiums. The section will grow as more events by the Cherokee take place to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Trail of Tears.
Abram made it clear more items could have been added to the Red Clay exhibit.
“What I wanted to do was create an exhibit so a host could have a small portion of it, a large portion or a great, big portion,” Abram said. “Whoever hosts the exhibit, depending on the size, can have objects that will fit in the space.”
The exhibit is free to visitors of Red Clay and museums looking to host the commemorative collection. According to Abram, the exhibit will travel for two years in honor of the march which took place in both 1838 and 1839.
He encouraged the young and old alike to visit the exhibit.
“It gives them an understanding of the people who were here (southeast Tennessee), the indigenous people,” Abram said. “What the early people did. It allows them to be able to observe how the Cherokee were and are a very adaptable people with a very in-built survival way about them.”
Added Abram, “Because this (extensive Trail of Tears recap) is not taught in grade school. It is not taught in high school. It is not taught in college. The only place people are going to get the information is places like Red Clay.”
More information can be found by visiting Red Clay State Park where the exhibit will remain until Aug. 31. Those interested in learning more about the exhibit or hosting the collection may contact Abram at 334-707-0287.