On June 3, 22 riders embarked on a 950-mile journey through seven states to retrace the Trail of Tears their ancestors had trekked 175 years before.
“The ride has been an amazing experience and shaped my perspective of what our ancestors encountered along the trail,” said Jon Ross, rider and descendant of Chief John Ross, in a press release. “It’s been a hard trek, but the struggles offer a small taste of what our ancestors experienced many years ago.”
The riders—15 from the Cherokee Nation and seven from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians—traveled from New Echota, Georgia to Tahlequah, Oklahoma over three weeks.
Riders ranged in age from 15 to 54, but all had the same goal—to “Never Forget,” what their ancestors had been through.
Yona Wade, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, told the Cherokee Phoenix he could only imagine what it must have been like for the Cherokee to leave their homes, as he left his in Cherokee, North Carolina and to cross the Tennessee River at Blythe Ferry and watch the mountains fade away.
“The Trail of Tears is a very important part of Cherokee history as a whole and us as one people, so it was very important for me to participate in this to understand the trials and tribulations our people faced during their journey to Oklahoma,” Wade said.
Marvel Welch, 54, was the eldest on the journey, and one of the seven riders from the Eastern Band to join the ride.
She had her own struggles during the journey, but didn’t let it stop her. She recounted to the Cherokee Phoenix one particulary difficult hill in Tennessee’s Cumberland Gap. She refused to get off her bike though. Other riders came back and offered support as they saw her struggling. They placed their hands on her back for encouragement without pushing her as she made it to the top.
“It’s just amazing the energy that was there and the togetherness. I thought I was here to watch over them, and they were watching over me,” she said.
Welch led the riders into Tahlequah to the cheers of family and friends on the final day June 21.
“These riders returned to us safely with the words ‘Never Forget’ emblazoned on the back of their well-traveled jerseys, and with a better understanding of what our ancestors experienced along the Trail 175 years ago,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said during the return ceremony. “We will never forget their sacrifices, and that we are here today because of our ancestors’ strength, perseverance and fortitude.”
The ride was started in 1984 so Cherokee youth would remember the hardships their ancestors faced. During the 950-mile journey, riders stop at a number of sites along the way, including Blythe Ferry in Tennessee, the last piece of Cherokee homeland the ancestors stood on before beginning the trek to Indian Territory, and Mantle Rock in Kentucky, which provided shelter for the ancestors as they waited for the Ohio River to thaw so they could safely cross.
Learning is what prompted LaTasha Atcity, one of the Cherokee Nation riders, to go on the journey.
“That’s something that really motivated me—to figure out what my heritage is and (learn about) the ancestors that brought me where I am today,” she told the Cherokee Phoenix. “When I struggled every single day or when it was hot and I’m hungry, I knew that there was an end. My ancestors didn’t really know what the end was going to be. I’m going to go home, and I’m going to be able to sleep in my bed and see my family. They didn’t have that opportunity.”
Of the estimated 16,000 forced to make the journey to Indian Territory, about 4,000 died of exposure, starvation and disease.