So let me catch you all up, as I’m a few weeks into this incredible journey (148-miles into it, to be exact, with about 680 miles left) by going back to how this trek began.
After careful consideration (a check of the NFL playoff schedule) my wife Kristal and I picked Monday, January 17th as the start date for the hike. This gave us two weeks after the holidays to explore northern Georgia and southern Tennessee. We parked the RV in Calhoun, Georgia for the first week of the year, and accidentally began where we now recommend everyone start their Cherokee history tour: New Echota.
New Echota was the Cherokee National Capital from 1825-1838. Half of the old townsite is now protected by the Georgia State Park system. The exhibits include almost a dozen buildings that have been faithfully re-created and an original farmhouse built by Samuel Worcester, a white missionary and loyal friend of the Cherokee. The museum, video, exhibits, and especially the employees who work there are all seriously top notch! If you’ve ever wondered what led this tribe of Indians to be called one of the five “civilized” tribes, a visit to New Echota will provide all of the answers. We were amazed by how completely the Cherokee adapted to the changing times. They were the first Native Americans to have a written language and unique alphabet. They published a bi-lingual newspaper with international circulation. They perfectly emulated the three branch government system, built tongue-in-groove homes and businesses, participated in every profession. In all honesty, many of their people lived better then than many Americans do now!
The next day we drove to Dahlonega – the location of America’s first gold rush. The government had been pressing the Cherokees to cede their land for two decades before someone yelled, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” in 1828. Suddenly, Georgians had a more urgent need to run the Cherokees out. In 1832 they held land lotteries to subdivide and re-assign ownership to the property that Cherokees inhabited. The Cherokee leaders filed lawsuits, taking the issue all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which upheld the natives’ rights to their homesteads. President Andrew Jackson – in a move that has never since been equaled – ignored the Supreme Court and ordered the Army to round up all the remaining Native Americans in the deep-south and escort them to the new Indian Territory in the west. Apart from individuals who hid out (now known as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee), the last Indians walked the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma in the winter of 1838-39.
That afternoon we decided to lighten our moods and drove ten miles deep into the Chattahoochee National Forest. From a small parking area, a mile-long hike takes you to the top of Springer Mountain where plaques mark the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The view across the hills of Georgia is breathtaking and very much worth the drive. The desire to do a big thru-hike like the 2,140-mile Appalachian Trail was the inspiration for my upcoming journey. I was much more excited than apprehensive as we stood there and imagined the adventures that lie ahead.
Before leaving Georgia, we took time to learn more about Major Ridge and Chief James Vann – two of the most famous and wealthy figures in Cherokee history. Half an hour on either side of Calhoun you can tour their lovingly restored homes, both of which (and New Echota) were at some point saved by the locals and donated to posterity. They have since become registered historic landmarks on the Trail of Tears. This is a list that’s growing every day, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Georgia Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association (TOTA). We were able to visit the sight of an internment camp in Cedartown only because chapter president Jeff Bishop tipped us off. (When the Georgia Chapter installs the signs this coming March, it will be the southernmost recognized site on the Trail.) We finished the week by attending a meeting of the Georgia TOTA, where they were quite enthused about this plan to hike the Trail of Tears. It was an exciting week and we learned a lot!