Cherokee Riders "Remember the Removal"

Photo by Sara Howell

The Removal Riders ride into Big Springs in Princeton.

It was a rainy ride through Western Kentucky on June 7 and 8 as 21 Cherokee men and women continued to follow the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears, retracing the steps of their ancestors. Ten riders represent the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and eleven are from the Cherokee Nation (Oklahoma). After training for months, the two groups met each other for the first time on Memorial Day weekend and then embarked upon their emotional journey at New Echota, Georgia. They are scheduled to complete their 950-mile ride on June 20 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Shortly before they crossed the Kentucky border, they spent some time at Port Royal State Historic Park. According to ancestral and government records, this was the last stop on the Trail of Tears before they left Tennessee. As they cycled to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, the rain followed them, but they were exuberant as they entered the Trail of Tears Commemorative Park. During that visit, the riders were presented with the Key to the City of Hopkinsville and a Proclamation from Governor Matt Bevin declaring the week of June 2 as Trail of Tears Remembrance Week, in celebration of the the 35th anniversary of the Trail of Tears Ride.

Leaving Hopkinsville with the rain still falling intermittently, the riders enjoyed the long flat stretches of Ky 91 surrounded by early corn, wheat, and newly sprouted soybeans. The light rain became heavier as they entered Princeton, and the much anticipated visit to Big Springs was shortened so the cyclists could dry themselves and enjoy a luncheon provided by the local Trail of Tears Association.

After returning to the Hopkinsville area to regroup, resupply, and rest, the riders returned to Princeton on Saturday and departed for Mantle Rock. Although a fairly challenging journey with more and more hills as they approached the river, it remained fairly dry until they arrived at the Mantle Rock Nature Conservancy.

Along the way, they made several stops that helped them prepare for the emotional visit to the place where numerous Cherokee died during the harsh winter of 1838-1839. Mantle Rock remains just one of those places that they were able to look back on how far they had come and, at the same time, realize that it was at that spot of beauty that would be as far as some of them would go. They took time for reflection, prayer, and a song and wandered silently as they gathered their thoughts and touched the sides of the arch where their ancestors spent such a perilous winter.

After her seventh day of riding, Tonya Carroll shared her thoughts, "This journey isn't just about riding a bicycle on the Trail of Tears Historic Route." She goes on while looking back their last ride through Kentucky to the banks of the river where many the 1838-1839 travelers froze to death awaiting the government ferries that were to transport them downriver. Carroll recalled, "One of the Trail of Tears Association members had pointed out a house along the way where her husband's grandmother had stood on the porch and watched the detachments go by. We all have our emotional moments," Carroll added, "but, this story for some reason gets to me every time I hear it."

Stopping at the Crider Complex, Carroll went on to reflect that the Cherokee people stopped there to get supplies, and now her generation visits the two cemeteries that are there where it is believed that "mainly babies are children are buried."

As Carroll continued, she related that all during the final ride through Kentucky, she was mentally preparing herself for Mantle Rock. "They came to wait for the ferries to come and transport them; the river is only less than two miles away, and this is as far as many of them would come." A group sang "Guide Me Jehovah", in Cherokee, while in the shadow of the arch, and as they later climbed the hill so they could make their way to the river to the ferry landing, past Mandy Falls, the clouds began to threaten once again as the riders and staff broke down their bicycles to be packed, so they could safely be transported across the bridge--safe from the elements and the I-24 weekend traffic.

They had been pleased to meet a woman who had watched them go by her house who had immediately gathered her boys to come and meet them. "What a small world we live in," she added. "Stops like these are what keeps us going when we are tired or hungry or just don't want to go on. We keep going because we want to honor what others have done for us to have better lives or even just to be alive at all." And as the riders have said at some time during the ride, "We are doing this to remember."

Monica Wildcat, another rider added, "I want to be a better Cherokee, and what I'm learning along this ride gives me the knowledge I want. This is a tremendous experience, and I'm thankful I'm on this journey; it's amazing." Wildcat adds, "During this part of the ride, I could feel things . . . just to put myself in their place of where they walked on their path--nothing compared to what they did, but I'm just thankful I got a sense of it."

In next week's continuing series, read what other riders and members of the support staff shared about their trip through Kentucky and how it added to what they have learned, not only from classes they took to prepare for the journey, but also what they have learned and observed firsthand, along the way, surrounded and touching the footsteps of their ancestors.