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A Personal Journey : Following the Trail of Tears : A sad chapter in U.S. history, the forced march of Native Americans to the unsettled West, takes on vivid new meaning as one man charts part of his family's past.

September 05, 1999|GARY LEE | WASHINGTON POST; Gary Lee is a travel writer for the Washington Post

The scene was a reminder of the brutal tug of war that was taking place between Indians and whites across the South in the early 1800s. Until then, the federal government at first sought to assimilate the Indians, who had long-established tribal lands throughout the region, into the culture of immigrants arriving from Europe. Many tribes embraced the lifestyles of the settlers (some gave up hunting for farming, for example, while others even purchased black slaves), but Washington eventually abandoned the policy of "civilizing" the Indians in favor of an all-out campaign to push them into the less-settled West. Andrew Jackson, the hawkish Tennessee general turned president, persuaded several Indian chiefs to sign treaties exchanging their tribal lands in the South for tracts on the other side of the Mississippi. But rank-and-file tribesmen bitterly opposed the move.

That haunting picture of Indians being prodded along by whites, glowing on the microfilm reader, called for a reaction. But like a child frozen for a second after touching a hot iron, I could not respond straight away. Hunched over the projector, I stared at the detainees for so long that the librarian eventually came over to ask whether everything was all right.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 17, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction; Wire
Trail of Tears--A Washington Post story about the forced evacuation of Native Americans to the West in the late 1830s ("Following the Trail of Tears," Sept. 5) incorrectly referred to a photo of the journey published in the Montgomery Advertiser in 1837. The illustration was an artistic reproduction of the event printed by the newspaper at a later date.

A couple of days later, I woke early and walked down Dexter Avenue, past the brick church made famous in the days when Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor, to the spot where the warriors had been herded. There was no plaque to commemorate the site, nothing but a few office buildings and a fast-food restaurant.

Before climbing into the car for the long drive west, I paused. My mind flashed back to the photo, which I had been fruitlessly perusing for the face of Samuel Carr. Although I was not sure what he looked like, I imagined that he shared my slightly puffy jowls and dark eyes. These were features I had inherited from my father, which he in turn took from his mother. Why shouldn't Samuel Carr have had them too?

The road to Oklahoma was lined with characters who seemed to know a lot about Indian culture and the forging of the trail. Like a butterfly, I wandered from one to the other, taking a taste at every stop.

In Sweetwater, Tenn., it was Joyce Bear, the cultural preservation officer of the Oklahoma-based Creek Nation, who first caught my ear. The setting was the annual meeting of the Trail of Tears Assn., a 4-year-old national grass-roots group composed of descendants of Indians who traveled on the trail, as well as scholars, government officials, history buffs and a few curiosity seekers.

I sat on the edge of my chair in a hotel conference room as Bear gave the group highlights of Creek history: the Creek War of 1813-14, in which the tribe's warriors sought to beat back U.S. military incursions into Alabama, only to fall decisively at the Battle at Horseshoe Bend; the events of 1825, when principal Creek Chief William McIntosh, after cutting deals with the U.S. government to sell off some tribal lands, was assassinated by Menawa, one of the tribe's fiercest warriors; of the die-hard resistance some tribesmen put up when U.S. troops came to round them up for the move westward.

"We are a proud people," Bear said resolutely. "We stand our ground."

Over a dinner of buffalo ribs and sweet potatoes, I met Duane King, one of the country's best-known scholars of Indian culture, who explained the differences in the experiences tribes had on the trail. The Chickasaw, who had assimilated the most into the culture of the European settlers, apparently went with little fuss. The Cherokee, who had the most developed government, negotiated terms to take charge of their own passage rather than be subjected to hired guards. The Choctaw also resigned themselves early to the uprooting. The Seminoles and Creek put up the strongest resistance.

When I told King of my efforts to recapture the spirit of the journey of my forebear and others who marched along the trail, he warned of the complications of the task. For one thing, he said, the tribes took at least a dozen different paths, including several involving barge trips up the Mississippi River and others overland. For another, the experiences of the marchers were all different.

"In a sense, the trail started at the home of every Indian yanked from their houses throughout the South," he said, "and it ended wherever they put down stakes and made a new home."

Relaxing on the side of a tree-covered mountainside in Cherokee, N.C., I closed my eyes and let a soft breeze brush across my face. Before the moment passed, however, I was thrust back in time to the sounds of a heart-wrenching dispute over the trail. Troops had arrived to round up local Cherokees, and panic broke out as everyone desperately sought a place to hide.

No, the saga of the trail wasn't creeping into my daydreams. I was in the audience of "Unto These Hills," an outdoor drama staged about the Trail of Tears every summer by a local theater group.

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