East Tennessee: Land of the Cherokee
Native American heritage flows through East Tennessee as surely as the Tennessee River. I am reminded of this rich heritage while hiking on the Blue Blazes Trail in the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District near downtown Chattanooga. Most likely I am walking in the footprints of Cherokee because Native Americans had lived on this bend in the river for more than 10,000 years. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 decided their fate because it mandated the removal of all American Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River. It robbed the tribes of their homeland and cast them on a journey that was to cost thousands of lives. The saga of the Trail of Tears fills my thoughts on the recent walk in the woods.
Chattanooga, a city that began as a river trading post operated by Cherokee Indian Chief John Ross, has kept a firm grasp on important chapters of its Native American history. A walled walkway known as The Passage runs from busy downtown streets to Ross’s Landing on the Tennessee River. Ceramic disks bear symbols of the Cherokee Nation, and a statue of a proud Cherokee marks the riverfront as the Indians’ homeland and subsequently their point of departure for the far-distant Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma.
Even before the Cherokee, Indian communities prospered in the mountains of Southern Appalachia. For centuries, tribes built villages. They cultivated the soil and hunted the plentiful game. Many heritage sites and museums describe their culture, one that has strong ties to the Tennessee, Hiwassee, Tellico, Ocoee, and Little Tennessee rivers. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore honors the Native American who created a writing system for the Cherokee. “Tanasi,” the Cherokee word for the village near Vonore, was adapted by European settlers and became “Tennessee.”
At Red Clay State Historic Park in Bradley County, a Cherokee farm and council house have been reconstructed so people can learn of their traditional ways and visit the sacred Blue Hole Spring. “The Cherokee Chieftain,” a sculpture by artist Peter “Wolf” Toth, gazes across Johnston Park in Cleveland. The Museum Center at 5ive Points, also in Cleveland, examines the rich history of the region’s Native people.
These and other Cherokee attractions are highlighted on the Tanasi Rapids to Railroads Trail, a self-guided driving tour that weaves through ancestral lands. The Hiwassee River Heritage Center, a museum opened in 2013 in Charleston, commemorates the region’s role as a major gateway to the Cherokee Nation. In the early 1800s, passports were required for entry, and now visitors can pick up their own “Passport to Explore Cherokee Heritage,” a brochure depicting the region’s significant historical sites.
The confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers was one of the main staging areas for the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee Removal Memorial Park northwest of Cleveland pays tribute to those who suffered in the encampments prior to their forced departure. The riverbanks are forever linked to one of the darkest chapters in American history.
The journey to Cherokee historic sites can be done in many ways. In addition to the Tanasi Trail, a second driving tour strings together important places in regional history. The Unicoi Turnpike Trail, an old trade and war path, is now a self-guided auto trail. People can park their cars and hike on the original trail located in the Cherokee National Forest near Coker Creek.