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Tens of Thousands Bike the Trail of Tears

The growing event pays tribute to the Cherokees who were forced into the brutal trek in the 1830s.

September 21, 2003|From Associated Press

WATERLOO, Ala. — Tens of thousands of motorcyclists offered a rumbling, 200-mile tribute Saturday to Cherokee families who were forced from their homes to present-day Oklahoma in the brutal trek that became known as the Trail of Tears.

The annual ride from Chattanooga, Tenn., to northwest Alabama began in 1994. Eight motorcycles started the ride that year, but their number swelled to about 100 by the time they reached their destination.

On Saturday, the caravan stretched as long as 40 miles as it entered Waterloo, said Debbie Wilson, director of tourism in nearby Florence.

Cherokee descendant Keith Sneed said the ride is the only public acknowledgment of a shameful episode of history, when the federal government forced thousands of Cherokee families from their homes, herded them to Chattanooga, then took them by boat, wagon and on foot to present-day Oklahoma in 1838-39. The brutal conditions of the trek killed thousands.

Sneed, 55, of Cherokee, N.C., said the ride inspires discussion and questions among spectators, including children.

"The Trail of Tears has been forgotten," he said.

Charles Palmer, who first participated in 1999, said the event has changed even since then. "The crowd is different," Palmer told the TimesDaily of Florence. "There's 10 times more women riding now than my first one."

Wilson said a count of riders was not immediately available. Tourism officials had expected 90,000 to 100,000, and Wilson said many riders had joined the procession along the way.

Bill Cason, the ride leader and organizer, said money raised by selling T-shirts and mementos helps provide college scholarships for American Indians in Tennessee and Alabama and is paying for historical markers.

"Our main thing is education," said Cason, 65. "They even take it out of history books, and we'd like for them to put it back in."

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