Saturday, October 27, 2012

Red Clay stories from my grandfather

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail has always held a sad fascination for me. I grew up hearing tales of Red Clay (before it became a state historic park) and John Ross. Red Clay State Historic Park is in the extreme southwest portion of Bradley County, Tennessee along the Georgia state line.

Blue Hole Spring at Red Clay
Growing up, my family visited what is now Red Clay State Park many times. One of the key features of this Trail of Tears site is the deep Blue Hole Springs. On each visit to the park, my grandfather would tell me that this Blue Hole Springs (one of several in the area) was special.

According to him, the Cherokee Indians had to carry their belongings on the Trail of Tears. He said that they could not carry was supposedly thrown into the spring. In this way, the items would be protected from the white Europeans even if lost forever by the Cherokee.

I always asked about the depth of the spring at Red Clay. He was fond of saying that the bottom was never found. My grandfather said that later, men in the community gathered all the rope that they could find. A heavy old stove was tied to the rope and hoisted into the stream. I was told that no matter how they tried, the stove never hit bottom.

A cool creek still runs from the mouth of the stream. My grandfather told me stories of cooling watermelons in the water. He also talked to me about the peaches, corn and other crops that grew well in the surrounding lands.

Eventually, the stories always turned to the Trail of Tears and he would become sad. The site of Red Clay State Historic area is the geographical beginning of one of the most tragic events in U.S. History.

Tension between the whites and Native Americans had been growing for years before the removal. The tensions were primarily over lands and the discovery of gold in Dahlonega, Georgia. Other factors were probably also involved. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed that allow the government to forcibly relocate Native American Indians from their ancestral homes to lands in the west.

The Choctaw Nation was the first to be moved in 1831. The Seminole, Creek, Chickasaw nations followed soon after. Some of the groups were moved by treaty but others, like the Cherokee would take their case to court. Those efforts would prove futile.

The Trail of Tears would begin in the winter of 1838. Red Clay is the final tribal council ground of the Cherokee. It was here that that word of the removal was received. The people would be moved during what would become one of the harshest winters on record.

Frozen ground yields little in terms of water or the small game that larger animals depend upon. Hunting and foraging produced minimum results. One fourth of the Cherokee who began their journey from Red Clay would not live to see Oklahoma.

Green fields of Red Clay State Park
A national trail has been developed to approximate the routes that were used. The nine states that are included in the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail include North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Illinois, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. A Trail of Tears map was created by the National Park Service and is online at thislink.

A marker at the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park tells us that the Trail of Tears was named for those who died, and cried on the journey westward. The journey would be forever known as the Trail of Tears. 

There is some doubt as to the accuracy of each of the stories. Some, like the watermelon story, I know to be true. I have eaten from cool watermelons that were placed in the creek from Blue Hole Spring. There is no doubt that Red Clay was a tribal council ground. Everything else is subject to interpretation and has become part of the lore of the area.

Read more of my articles about the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park and Three National Trail of Tears historic sites in Tennessee. At the end of the day the stories of watermelons are not important. What matters is the people who walked, cried and were lost on the Trail of Tears that began at Red Clay.