175 Years Later: Documenting the Historic Buildings of the Trail of Tears

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This segment of the Bell Route of the Trail of Tears, located in Village Creek State Park in Arkansas, was once part of the old Memphis to Little Rock Road.

It has been 175 years since more than 15,000 Cherokee were forced from their homes to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) on the Trail of Tears. Have you ever thought about the roads the Cherokee took or the buildings they passed by and asked yourself how much of this historic landscape still exists? With the hope of answering that question, the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) is partnering with the National Trails Intermountain Region of the National Park Service to conduct a nine-state survey to identify and document historic buildings associated with the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Over the last year, we have been out on the road driving the Trail’s routes and documenting its incredible sites.

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Cherokee traveling on the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears crossed the Cumberland River in Nashville by way of a covered toll bridge. This ca. 1819-1822 abutment is all that remains of the bridge today. Photo courtesy of Native History Association.

Despite modern development and improvements, the historic landscape of the Trail of Tears remains rich in material culture. From roadbeds to buildings to even a rare bridge abutment, physical reminders of that bygone era still dot the landscape and offer a tangible connection to the past. Sometimes these important resources are difficult to identify from the many changes they have undergone over the years, but if you look hard enough and start peeling back the layers of time, then you will see clues that point to the age of these resources. Dig a little deeper into the historic records and you might even uncover a little-known story that offers an eyewitness account of the Trail of Tears.

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The portion of the Brown-Cathey-Grimmitt House that Thomas D. Cathey built as it appears today.

Take the Brown-Cathey-Grimmitt House in Maury County, Tennessee, for example. The western section of the house pre-dates the Trail of Tears and was built by Thomas D. Cathey. His nephew, Alexander Blair Cathey, built an addition to the east of the original house many years later. The house continued to change over the years, obscuring its original design.

Alexander Blair Cathey was just 12 years old when a detachment of approximately 1100 Cherokee, 60 wagons, and 600 horses led by John Benge passed by the family home on the Trail of Tears. Seventy years later, Alexander penned his memory; “On Saturday night [the Cherokee] camped at Chappell’s ford and on Sunday they moved to Love’s branch where they stayed all day. A great many people went to see them, some of the Indian half-breeds were quite wealthy, owned slaves and rode in fine carriages.” You can almost imagine the Cathey family standing on their property in 1838, looking north to the Cherokee encamped approximately one mile away on Love’s Branch.

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This map depicts the location of the Benge Route, Love’s Branch, and the Brown-Cathey-Grimmitt House (TRTE-TN-MU-01).

The Brown-Cathey-Grimmitt House is just one of many buildings with storied connections to the Trail of Tears. To date, we have completed documenting buildings in Illinois and Kentucky and are nearly finished in Tennessee. In the coming months, we will be wrapping up survey work in Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and North Carolina, followed by Georgia later in the year. The final report of our findings will be completed in early 2015. So far we have identified approximately 170 buildings with known or possible connections to the Trail. Many are simply “witness buildings,” meaning that they were standing at the time when detachments passed by and therefore “witnessed” the removal. Others are homes of Cherokee or places where they camped or purchased food or supplies. The reality, though, is that many buildings have already been lost, even before their association to the Trail was rediscovered, providing us with an urgent reminder of the necessity and importance of this survey work.

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(Originally posted on March 17, 2014 in the Southern Rambles blog)