Removal Bike Ride commemorates 180th Anniversary of the Trail of Tears

By Albert Bender
- Nashville, Tennessee (NFIC) -

From Murfreesboro, Tennessee to their next stop in Guthrie, Kentucky the intrepid young cycling Cherokees made their way non-stop through Nashville on a June day.

Tennessee’s capital city has numerous Trail of Tears road signs indicating the calamitous route trodden by beleaguered Cherokees 180 years ago.

Beginning in Tahlequah, Oklahoma the capital of the Cherokee Nation on May 29 were ten Cherokee cyclists that met eight cyclists from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) for the commemorative passage that begins in New Echota, Georgia on June 3.

This was the 180th Anniversary of the Trail of Tears.

The riders covered 950 miles from New Echota to Tahlequah. New Echota was the last official capital of the Cherokee Nation before the Trail of Tears and is now a National Historic Landmark.

Prior to constructing the town of New Echota, the Cherokee capital had been moved from the once flourishing center of Chota in  east Tennessee to the  town of Ustanali  in  northern Georgia.  In 1825 the capital was moved to the nearby site of New Echota, named in honor of the former capital in Tennessee.

This move was in response to the brutal and treacherous assassination of Old Tassel, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and several other prominent Cherokee leaders under a flag of truce, by settler militia in 1788.  

Old Tassel and other leaders had gathered in response to a request from the colonists to discuss peace between Cherokees and white settlers. This was during the Cherokee - American War when the foremost war chief, Dragging Canoe, was commanding the nation’s forces in resisting the settler invasion.

After peace was concluded in 1794 (Dragging Canoe died in 1792) a period of comparative tranquility ensued. But the greed of the white settlers made for future conflict and the Trail of Tears.

With the exception of mountainous terrain, Cherokee lands comprised valuable farming acreage ideal for the growing of cotton as did most other tribal land in the Southeast.

Although most Cherokees lived on small family farms, a few did engage in cotton production and this was looked upon as an economic threat by whites who sought to get rich as southern planters while using captive Africans as slave labor.

But southern whites harbored a murderous, racist hatred of Native people   engendered by decades of warfare because of the Euro-Americans lust for Indian land.

There was also a  hideous thirst for revenge because of the Indigenous resistance.

During the lead up to the removals, there was a proliferation of novels allegedly portraying tortuous captivities of whites held by Indian people.  In fact many whites  were so appreciative of the democracy and equality of Indian life they lived that some did not want to return to Euro-American society when peace was declared.

The fabricated accounts were produced to inflame the prejudices of white Americans to promote a racist attitude in favor of Indian removal. This was the historical background setting of the “Remember the Removal Bike Rides.”

A Painting Alfred Jacob Miller, via Wikimedia Commons

A special send-off ceremony was held in Tahlequah on May 29. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John baker and other Cherokee leaders addressed the cyclists and wished them a successful ride and a safe return.

The Cherokee Nation youth making the journey ranged in age from 18-24. The ceremony was held at the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex.

At Cherokee, North Carolina the cyclists participated in cultural activities and team building exercises.

The cyclists followed the Northern Route, one of several comprising the Trail of Tears covering parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas until reaching their final destination in Northeastern Oklahoma on June 21.

The riders retraced the tragic route the Cherokee ancestors traveled when they were forced out of their Southeastern homeland by the federal government in 1838-1839.

The original Remember the Removal Bike Ride began in 1984 as a youth leadership program and resumed in 2009 as an annual journey.  The riders typically covered  35-70 miles per day.

Team members wore matching outfits, provided by Cherokee Nation, that displayed  historically meaningful designs. They  showed  the faded signatures of the Cherokee National Council that signed a petition to protest the Removal. Also,  shown were seven stars to represent the seven clans of the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee Flag

The Eastern Band of Cherokee joined the ride in 2011 with their Oklahoma brethren and this year commemorated  the seventh year of participation.   

On June 21, the bike riders arrived in Tahlequah, finishing their three week  journey. The Cherokee  Nation held a return ceremony at the new Cherokee National Peace Pavilion in Tahlequah, where tribal leaders, family and friends congregated to meet the intrepid cyclists.

The cyclists had to be mindful that 16,000 Cherokees who were forced to make the harsh Trail of Tears journey to what was then Indian territory in 1838.

Several thousand Cherokees as well “self-emigrated” in the face of white settler pressure prior to the forced march. In fact, this writer’s family emigrated west under the Treaty of 1817, originally settling in Arkansas, prior to being forced again to move to Indian Territory by the U.S. government.

Over 4,000 Cherokees perished in 1838-1839 as a result of  the Trail of Tears. Other estimates put the number as high as 8,000. Also many Trail of Tears survivors are said to have died after reaching Indian Territory from illnesses resulting from sufferings experienced on the drive West.

The Riders visited historical landmarks such as Blythe Ferry in East Tennessee. The site is now officially the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park.  

The Bike Riders also visited Mantle Rock in Kentucky, an area where many Cherokees sojourned while waiting for a safe crossing over the frozen Ohio River.

Also, on the Trail, now Murfreesboro Road, on the south side outskirts of Nashville, where the road crosses Mill Creek, historical records indicate detachments spent several days to weeks resting before continuing their journey  through the city.  

But, the Remember the  Removal Bike Riders continued on and arrived in Oklahoma triumphant as did the ancestors 180 years ago.



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