UPDATED OCTOBER 3: New information added from National Parks Service and Native History Association.
With an assist from Google Earth, the Native History Association (NHA), a nonprofit group based in Nashville, Tennessee, has identified a little-known segment of the infamous route of the Trail of Tears.
Between 1838 and 1839 the Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homelands in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. They traveled by foot, horse, wagon or steamboat; many died along the way, which is why the horrific journey was dubbed the “Trail of Tears.”
According to the NHA, all of the trail’s routes passed through Tennessee. One crossed through Rutherford County, passing north of Murfreesboro to avoid tolls on the main roads. Instead, it cut through the town of Old Jefferson, located at a fork in the Stones River near Smyrna, Tennessee.
Many historical references say Old Jefferson was under water when J. Percy Priest Dam was built in the 1960s. But when NHA vice president Toye Heape was investigating the route on Google Earth in late summer, he realized this wasn’t the case. “When I got to the area of Old Jefferson, I was puzzled,” Heape said in an NHA release. “Looking at the satellite images, the river doesn’t appear wide enough at that point to cover a whole town.”
More research revealed that the town was not flooded. And then Heape found an 1878 map of Old Jefferson. “I almost fell out of my chair,” he said. “The main road through the town matched up almost exactly with the Trail of Tears route and it was clear that it was not only on dry land, [but that] a visible path could be seen on Google Earth.”
The site is on property owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—it’s part of the Twin Forks Horse Trail near the East Fork Recreation Area in Rutherford County—and the National Park Service (NPS) knew about the route. “This alignment has been identified [since] 1992,” said Steve Burns Chavez, an NPS landscape architect. “It is not unusual to find that people who live on or near the historic route of the trail may be completely unaware that a particular road that exists is or may be a surviving road that was used during the removal.”
Regardless, it feels like a discovery to Heape, who explained that many corps staff members didn’t know a segment of the Trail of Tears was on their work site. “There is no reference to the Trail of Tears on any [Army] Corps of Engineers materials related to J. Percy Priest Lake that we have been able to find,” he said, adding that nobody else knew the segment was there, not even local historians. “We have yet to find anyone in the local community around Old Jefferson that knew a Trail of Tears route came through the area.”
NHA President Pat Cummins, who is of Cherokee descent, went to investigate in person on Labor Day. When he got to the Twin Forks Horse Trail he wasn’t sure which way to go, so he called Heape for some help. “[Heape] used Google Earth as a kind of eye-in-the-sky to direct me over the phone, turn by turn.” Cummins said. “It was a very emotional moment for me. The old roadbed appears very much intact, and I realized I was standing where approximately 4,218 Cherokee men, women and children had traveled 174 years ago, with every inch taking them farther away from all they had ever known. I couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed by all that this place represents to us as Cherokee people, but I also felt an enormous sense of satisfaction knowing that we had found this trail segment, which has survived despite its turbulent past and near destruction.”
NPS will now work with the corps to mark the Trail of Tears segment with historic trail signs.