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

Riding Motorcycles From Washington, D.C. to Tennessee: Trail of Tears
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.

Riding Motorcycles From Washington, D.C. to Tennessee: Trail of Tears
The Tennessee riverfront in Chattanooga was an embarkation point for Cherokee traveling the Trail of Tears.

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.

Today's Little River Canyon National Preserve, in Cherokee County, AL, was once home to Cherokee prior to their removal.

Day 4: An InsufficientlyCelebrated 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.

But Bob and I are focused on learning more about the Cherokee People themselves. There’s no better place to start than the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in downtown Cherokee. We spend several hours perusing numerous artifacts, exhibits, sculptures, dioramas, and other artwork recounting Cherokee culture and seminal events in Cherokee history. It’s easy to see why some referred to them as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” virtually all of which were removed from the southeastern states.

Riding Motorcycles From Washington, D.C. to Tennessee: Trail of Tears
The former home of Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross is located near Chattanooga.

By late morning we’re back on the pavement following some of the region’s most iconic motorcycle roads. My goal in designing this tour, after all, was to ride interesting roads between the various Trail of Tears historical sites. First up is the Tail of the Dragon. Although it’s a relatively short distance, the 318 curves make it seem much longer. Navigating the heavily loaded Indian, Bob gets a baptism by fire on his first ride down the Dragon. But all goes well. After this double-espresso ride, we’re both wide awake and eager for more.

Motorcycles & Gear

2016 Indian Roadmaster
2016 Indian Chief Vintage

Helmets: Schuberth 3C Pro Modular, Shoei GT-Air
Jackets: Indian Motorcycle Tour, Speed and Strength Society Leather
Pants: Draggin Jeans, Draggin Jeans Retro Fit
Boots: Oxtar, BMW Airflow 3
Gloves: Klim Element Short, REV’IT! Sand Pro

On an island in Tennessee’s Tellico River, we find reconstructed Fort Loudon. The British colony of South Carolina built the original fort here during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). This helped to ally the Overhill Cherokee Nation in the fight with the French and preserve trade with the Cherokee. But relations broke down, and the Cherokee captured Fort Loudon in August 1860.

Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Village Inn is a special treat for motorcyclists. We especially liked the covered motorcycle parking. The inn, with its rustic ambiance, is perched on a high cliff with sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Find it at 12255 NC 226A, Spruce Pine, NC, (828) 765-9394

A mile farther down the road we find the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum. Sequoyah (1776-1843) was a soldier, statesman, silversmith, blacksmith, and, most importantly, creator of the written Cherokee language. His development of the Cherokee syllabary marked one of the few times in history that a member of a preliterate people independently created an effective writing system. The Cherokee Nation officially adopted Sequoyah’s syllabary, and their literacy rate soon surpassed that of surrounding European-American settlers.

We cap off our day of discovery with an exhilarating ride back into North Carolina on the glorious Cherohala Skyway.