Washington, D.C. to Tennessee: Trail of Tears

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks, Bob Brown

Missionary Daniel Butrick kept a journal of his travels with the Cherokee People as they were force-marched to Indian Territory during the winter of 1838-39. It is one of the saddest episodes in American history, with the depths of despair grippingly described in this entry: “… the government might more mercifully have put to death everyone under a year 
or over sixty; rather it had chosen a more 
expensive and painful way of exterminating these poor people.”

Days 1-3: Breaking Away from the Beltway

In pre-Columbian times, the Cherokee People’s land stretched from the Ohio River to present-day Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. But by the early 1800s, various treaties had reduced Cherokee lands to a fraction of their former size. At the same time, European diseases devastated much of the Cherokee Nation. 

Those who survived adopted many aspects of European culture and enterprise, including farming, a written language, a court system, a printed newspaper, and even Christianity. Cherokee settlements looked and functioned much the same as white settlements of the day. However, in 1828, gold was discovered on Cherokee land in North Georgia, and white settlers began ignoring legal Cherokee boundaries. By 1830, the Cherokee had lost any legal claim to their lands. That year, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, and President Andrew Jackson signed it into law; he had long advocated Indian removal to lands west of the Mississippi River. 

So, our story and motorcycle sojourn begins at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on a hot, humid day in early September. After touring the National Museum of the American Indian, it’s time to motor south and explore the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

Bob Brown, my wingman, is riding a green Indian Chief Vintage, and I’m piloting a blue Indian Roadmaster. The big, 111-cubic-inch V-twins pack quite a punch, and we’re anxious to give these thoroughbreds free reign out on the open road. We spend the next three days enjoying the curves and stunning scenery of the Blue Ridge Parkway on our way to Cherokee, NC.

Day 4: An Insufficiently
Celebrated Genius

Our immersion into Cherokee culture and history begins on a clear morning with temps in the mid-60s. Cherokee, NC, is the present-day home base for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, descendants of some 800 Cherokee who remained after the other 15,000 members of the tribe were forced to resettle in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Today, Cherokee is a small but vibrant resort town. Gaming establishments are available for adults, and a host of outdoor activities and shopping venues abound for all to enjoy.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the January/February 2017 back issue.