Some places I visit are inherently sad. The former Cherokee capital at New Echota, Ga., is one those places. From there, 15,000 members of the Cherokee Nation started on their 800-mile march to Oklahoma, known to history as the Trail of Tears. The Cherokees were ripped from their homes without supplies, kept in disease-ridden camps before their move and forced to make the trip in winter, conditions under which more than 4,000 of them died.
Gen. Charles Floyd sent a message on June 18, 1838, to his commander, Gen. Winfield Scott: "I have the pleasure to inform you that I am now fully convinced there is not an Indian within the limits of my command, except a few in my possession who will be sent to Ross’ Landing tomorrow. None can escape our troops. Georgia is ultimately in possession of Cherokee Country."
Georgians had begun coveting the Cherokee land when gold was found there. As the pressure for more farmland grew, steps were taken to take possession. The Cherokee problems were taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice John Marshall said what was being done was illegal. President Andrew Jackson’s reaction was, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."
It struck me as I toured the two state historic sites set up along the Trail of Tears that their development was an act of contrition, an apology for the earlier act of greed. Here was a group of native people who had taken on white ways, built log cabins, farmed, ran businesses, set up a printing press, translated books into their language and tried to fit in.
A lottery was set up, and the Cherokee nation was divided into lots, which included the homes of the residents. Lots were put into one barrel and the names of Georgians who wanted the land put in another and drawings were made.
These transfers were made without the Cherokees’ knowledge. One day the new owner would arrive and take over.
Cherokee capital at New Echota
The more interesting of the two sites is the restoration of the Cherokee capital at New Echota, a short distance off Interstate 75 between Chattanooga, Tenn., and Atlanta. At the center there is a small museum with artifacts, stories and a 20-minute film giving background on the events leading up to the removal of the Cherokees. Only one of the original buildings is intact, but careful archeological research has located original sites and the buildings have been restored and furnished in period style.
The most interesting to me was the print shop. The Cherokee had their own newspaper printed with the alphabet created by Sequoyah so his people could have "talking leaves." He is the only person known to have single-handedly created a written language.
The second site is the Vann house, 17 miles north on the Trail of Tears highway. It was owned by a Cherokee chief who became quite wealthy by knowing where the federal highway was going through the land and setting up businesses such as taverns and a ferry along the way. He also owned 110 slaves and had them make the bricks and the lumber for what in those days was a magnificent house.
Here there is also a 20-minute background movie, a small museum and a guide who takes you through the period-furnished house and tells you the history of the Vann family.
Both sites are in pleasant settings. I was there on a spring day when the weather was perfect. This gave me a feeling as to why there was so much resistance to moving to far-away Oklahoma.