Cherokee Lands

(This column was first published in the October 6, 1997 Buffalo News.)

    Billy Shaw is a Cherokee Indian, tribal leader of the Deer Clan.  In mid-September he and his wife, Debbie, guide five of us deep into the Bankhead National Forest of northwestern Alabama.

    We hike down into lovely glens along Parker Branch and the Sipsie Fork of the Black Warrior River where woodland streams cascade over rock outcroppings to form picturesque waterfalls.  We also visit the Kinlock Rock Shelter, a gouge into a steep hillside that appears like something more appropriate to a prehistoric saga.  It is an amphitheater perhaps a hundred feet across with ceiling rocks rising at the entrance to about forty feet.  The cave does not penetrate far into the bedrock, however, and soon narrows to a twenty foot hole barely large enough for us to stand.  Despite this, we are dwarfed by the surrounding rocks.  The walls are lined with ledges that might have served the Flintstones as bunk beds.  A few ancient pictographs are cut into a rock table and in the entrance stands a huge boulder that Cyclops himself might have rolled aside.

    These lands represent the southernmost reach of the Appalachians and most of the vegetation is familiar to me from earlier hikes in Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.  The largest trees are tuliptrees, muscular giants with massive trunks and commanding heights.  There are even a few hemlocks, rare trees in this region.  In springtime the area must be beautiful with all of its rhododendrons and azaleas.

    But even with the similarities to more northern regions, the ambiance here is different.  These were once Cherokee, Creek and Chickasaw lands and Shaw's ancestors first fought near here on the side of General Andrew Jackson against renegade Creeks.  As president, Jackson turned against his former supporters and a few of those same ancestors fled to these forests to avoid the tragic "Trail of Tears," the removal of the tribes to Oklahoma -- one of those terrible blots on our nation's history.

    These were also lands fought over during our Civil War not only by Union and Confederate armies, but by local guerrillas and partisans as well.  Earlier in the library in Hartselle, Alabama I read Wesley S. Thompson's Tories of the Hills, a largely historical account of those times.  Much to my surprise -- and the surprise of many locals with whom I spoke -- I learned that the vote for secession in Alabama was only 54 to 46 and that hundreds of men from the northern counties joined the Union armies.  Indeed, the residents of several counties met very near where we are hiking and voted to secede from the state.  They only changed their vote and agreed to remain neutral after an impassioned plea by one of their leaders.

    There were few slave owners in North Alabama and the local perception was that the War Between the States would be "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight."  Much evidence supported their view: the conscription voted by the Montgomery legislature applied to "all men aged 18 to 35 except those owning 10 or more slaves" and almost all of the fighting took place in these poorer northern counties.  The families holding out against conscription and land confiscation retreated to these hills and forests, like the Cherokees had before them.  They were called Tories after the colonists who fought on the British side in the Revolutionary War.  In the guerrilla actions that took place here many terrible atrocities were committed.

    My mind turns to those 19th century episodes as I sit watching my hiking companions explore the cave around me.  If we could wind back time, I think, how much of that history would we see from this very spot?