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

By Amy Kostine, Trail of Tears Project Historian, Center for Historic Preservation

1.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.

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.

2.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.

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 the 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.

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.

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

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

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.

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

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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Special thanks to Bill Bostick, Bob Duncan, Cindy Grimmitt, and the Native History Association. Stay tuned for more blog entries on the Trail of Tears. In the meantime, explore the Trail in Tennessee and download the Tennessee Trail of Tears brochure or request a printed copy by contacting Amy Kostine at Amy.Kostine@mtsu.edu.

About chp1984

Southern Rambles is an outreach initiative of the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) at Middle Tennessee State University. The CHP joins with communities to interpret and promote their heritage assets through education, research, and preservation. Established in 1984 as a Center of Excellence, the CHP fosters partnerships and mentors students across the state, region, and nation.
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3 Responses to 175 Years Later: Documenting the Historic Buildings of the Trail of Tears

  1. I was excited to find your info about Trail of Tears, particularly about the Cherokee crossing the Cumberland on the covered bridge. I have written a novel based on life of my 3-g grandmother who with my half-Cherokee gret-great granrdfather came to Illinois on Trail of Tears. Knowing there was covered bridge at Nashville, I made a “learned assumption” they crossed on the bridge and included chapter about Nancy and her son Charles Richard Allen crossing covered bridge.

    • amykostine says:

      Dear Ms. Roney, I’m glad to hear that you found the blog post informative, and thank you for sharing your family’s history. Pat Cummins and Toye Heape of the Native History Association have done extensive research on the covered toll bridge and discovered some fascinating information about it. Efforts are now underway to preserve the remaining abutment.

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