The “Remember the Removal” bike trip was meaningful and personal to me. Having my genealogy done before the walk allowed me to put names with places and to understand how my family history fits into the places we visited.
I was able to visit the home of my direct ancestor John Downing. I am a descendant of his eighth generation. The Tuckasegee River (in North Carolina) runs through this property and here I could see the fish dam still standing 183 years later. It has worn out over time but clearly visible despite constant currents and recreational use. I saw a kayaker struggling over it as I stood on the shores.
I was able to visit John Hair Conrad’s house. I am a fifth generation descendant of him. The house is still intact. I was able to sit on the porch and walk around the property watching the flowing springs. He spent the summer of 1838 in a concentration camp just 10 kilometers from his home and did not move west until September.
Something else that made this trip meaningful was to tie pieces of history together. In “The Journal of Rev. Daniel S. Butrick ”there is a diary entry for August 20, 1838, which I think sticks to anyone who reads it. An unnamed pregnant woman who was giving birth fell to the ground in pain and a soldier stabbed her with her bayonet, killing her. At Blythe’s Ferry, there is a census of the Cherokees who have been there, and I learned that the unnamed woman was Lizy Ratley and that she had eight Cherokees with her (probably all of her children), and that the half -Brother of John Hair Conrad was James (Hair) Hare.
The significance of this is that James Hare took over all of Lizy’s children to care for them after her death. It is moments of realization like this that arouse so much emotion in me. It’s no wonder my family and others didn’t share stories about what it was. All I heard was “it was really bad” and nobody wanted to talk about it. The reality is it was a lot worse, and I find it hard to talk about it, and I haven’t experienced it.
I learned about it in Oklahoma history in school. It seemed more about “this treaty and this president, and how it led to this or that movement”. It barely covered the “Trail of Tears”. It seemed to come down more to a death toll. He certainly did not enter into the trials and struggles they face on a daily basis. During this trip, I learned how smart and advanced our Cherokee nation is. How our people didn’t call it the “Trail of Tears”. They called him ᏗᎨᏥᏱᎸᏍᏔᏅᎢ (di ge tsi yi lv sta nv i) meaning that they were led like animals. Even Reverend Butrick, a non-native, described the inhumane overcrowding that occurred on the flat-bottomed boats (often leading to shipwrecks and more deaths) by making a comparison that no one would treat the pigs of the same way the “good poor Cherokees” were treated.
From the time our people were forced out of their homes in May 1838 and arrived in Indian territory, it was over 10 months later. Nearly 4,000 Cherokees have died – a quarter of our people. Most in the summer from dysentery, some murdered by soldiers, and some so weak that they passed out on the road and wagons rolled over. During the winter, they had to wait for the frozen rivers to thaw before continuing, never having proper clothing or shelter or enough food. My team and I drove the northern route in 17 days. The hardships I experienced on this hike will never compare to those of my ancestors, but I feel closer to them and my culture from this hike. It was mentally difficult; however, physically, I felt stronger every day. I woke up with the goal of honoring them. My ancestors were strong and resilient and their very blood flows through me. I am eternally grateful for this opportunity to travel 950 miles, retracing their steps to honor them.
Tracie Asbill participated in the 2021 “Remember the Removal” hike as a mentor pilot. She is a pediatric nurse at the Cherokee Nation Outpatient Health Center in Tahlequah.