Though often glossed over in the history of the Great Smoky Mountains, one of the most critical aspects of America’s history is the Trail of Tears — more appropriately named the Nunna Dual Isunyi by the Cherokee Nation. The Trail of Tears is marked not only by the fallen tears of the indigenous people forced to relocate from their homelands, but by over 5,000 dead bodies. More than 20,000 natives made their way along a trail spanning several states while plagued by exhaustion, disease, and starvation.
The Beginning of a Great Clash
It can be difficult to imagine such brutality near one of our historical landmarks, but for the Cherokee Nation living in North Carolina and other states in the southeastern part of the United States, this was more than a dark spot on the United States’ past; it was a tragedy that nearly wiped out their people.
The problems started with a clash of lifestyle and beliefs between the Native American tribes and the white population that was quickly growing in Georgia and the Carolinas. The gold rush around Dahlonega in the 1830s did little to ease the tensions, as many white settlers felt the natives weren’t efficiently using their land.
Despite the evidence showing how many tribes adopted modern farming techniques and were celebrating an economic surplus, the United States still justified the Indian Removal act of 1830 as a way to better utilize the land. They wanted to trade their eastern land for the western side of the Mississippi River and felt their rapid immigration (and the possibility of gold) was reason enough to enact legislation to enforce their claim.
A So-Called Agreement
Throughout the Cherokee Nation’s timeline, sacrifices were made repeatedly to help spur the growth and expansion of the United States — but one of the heaviest was the Treaty of New Echota. This “agreement” was never accepted by the leaders of the Cherokee people, but President Andrew Jackson signed it nevertheless. Going against the Supreme Court, he used the military to supervise the removal of Five Civilized Tribes from their homes to a new destination further west.
Though some of the Cherokee escaped the army via the area known today as the Tail of the Dragon, most of those rounded up under the command of President Martin van Buren were put into concentration camps where they suffered or died even before the long march began.
For many years, there were those who believed the forced move was humanitarian in nature — they argued on behalf of President Jackson’s reasoning that he didn’t wish for them to face the same fate of the Delaware, Mohegan, and Narragansett, or they pointed out that many enrolled themselves in the emigration process. But the Trail of Tears, or the “trail where they cried” paints a different story — a scarier, but more honest story — of a unique people forced from their home, either through violence or through fear.
It’s not a pretty story and there’s no happy ending. But if we’re going to celebrate the land that would one day become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park it is important that we celebrate the Cherokee Nation too — and that means remembering their history, both good and bad. The Trail of Tears stands as a monument of suffering, sacrifice, and fear. But it stands as something else too: it stands as a beacon of hope that our country will never forget and never repeat the mistakes of those who came before us.
For inspiration about historical figures whose influence would help shape the world, take a moment to read about these Cherokee people of great influence. They are proof that together, we can do better and be better.