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Hidden portion of Trail of Tears is rediscovered

10:37 AM, Sep 30, 2012   |    comments
Historians are excited by the find, saying previously unknown sections of the trail are sometimes discovered by local residents. / John Partipilo / The Tennessean
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In the woods of the East Fork Recreation Area in northern Rutherford County - amid aging rock walls and the crumbled remnants of old streets - Pat Cummins and Toye Heape are rediscovering the Trail of Tears.

The two lead the newly formed Native History Association and say they found a section of the trail that was thought to be lost, covered by the Stones River when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built J. Percy Priest Lake in the 1960s.

But the area is not under water. It's "high and dry," Cummins said.

Now, Cummins and Heape hope to convince the National Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of their findings and want official Trail of Tears markers and interpretive signs along the route.

"So many people are completely unaware that the Trail of Tears even passed through this area," Cummins said.

"People need to know," he said. "They need to know they can access this place. They can come out and hike the trail and learn something about the history of the Trail of Tears as it passed through Rutherford County into Davidson."

The Trail of Tears is central to the story and heritage of the Cherokee people. The Cherokee and other eastern tribes were forced out of their homelands in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. During the 1830s, the Cherokee made their way along several routes to what is now Oklahoma.

The journey west is known as the Trail of Tears.

According to the National Park Service, the northern route of the trail passed through Rutherford County. But near Murfreesboro, the route briefly splits, and Cummins and Heape said several detachments of Cherokee took this alternative route to avoid expensive tolls.

It is in this area that the trail passed through the town of Jefferson, the original county seat of Rutherford County. Old Jefferson was razed to make way for the lake.

"In this particular instance, for whatever reason, there must have been a miscalculation," said Cummins, who is of Cherokee ancestry. "The water level never really did come up to totally engulf the site that was Old Jefferson.''

Heape made the initial discovery. He said he was virtually driving the Trail of Tears on Google Earth and Google Streetview when he came to where Jefferson once stood.

He, too, thought the area was under water. Indeed, a history posted on the Rutherford County Historical Society's website said Jefferson was a river town "now covered by the waters of Percy Priest Lake."

Heape said he found a map of Jefferson from the 1800s and compared it to the Google images.

"At that point, I realized the town wasn't flooded and we had a Trail of Tears segment here that no one actually knew about it," said Heape, who also is of Cherokee ancestry. "It was amazing."

Toby Francis, 74, a retired teacher and board member of the Rutherford County Historical Society, grew up in Jefferson. He's known that the area hasn't been under water for years and led a tour of the area in 2003 to mark the town's 200th anniversary.

"I walked from east to west and my shoes never got wet," he said.

He said the discovery of a Trail of Tears segment is important.

"It would be very significant and something many of us did not know about," he said.

Carroll Van West, director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University, agreed.

"This is exciting news," he said. "The records for the Trail of Tears tell us that some detachments followed this route for directness and to avoid tolls."

Hidden in plain sight

The area is on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property and is part of the East Fork Recreation Area, where a mixed-use hiking trail runs through the Trail of Tears segment Cummins and Heape say they found.

Cummins said that will make it easier to install signs.

"We want to increase public awareness and make it more publicly accessible as an educational resource," he said.

Todd Yann, the Corps of Engineers' J. Percy Priest Lake resource manager, said the agency is reviewing the information and will contact the National Park Service on the issue.

Aaron Mahr, the superintendent of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, said the National Park Service is still reviewing the information from Cummins and Heape.

But he said the park service is optimistic and called the finding an "exciting development."

"We are going to be eager to work with the local constituency to make it available for public benefit," Mahr said. "This is something we are in full support of and, hopefully, all the of documentation will turn out to be strong."

The official Trail of Tears outlines the overall routes, Mahr said. Identifying specific segments in local communities can take time, he said.

Additional research regularly uncovers segments of the trail, he said, with local residents often leading the way .

"Volunteer research is critical," Mahr said.

To Cummins and Heape, discovering the section was a moving experience. They plan an Oct. 13 event on the site for the public to learn more.

"The site here is really beautiful," Heape said. "A good place for people to come and spend time."

When he first got to the site, Heape said, "It was like going back in time to the period when the Cherokee were actually coming through there. It was a very moving experience."

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