By Laura Ann Tipps/Staff Writer
Sept. 28, 2013 marked 175 years since the Native Americans of Northeast Alabama were forced to begin a journey that would take them through Etowah County and all the way to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
A memorial to this 1838 detachment opened on that anniversary at the Elliott Community Center in Gadsden. It is the first of its kind to be displayed in Alabama, and features drawings, photos, murals, a fountain, and plaques of information to guide visitors through the exhibit.
“The memorial is like a trail in itself,” said Danny Crownover, President of the Etowah County Historical Society.
Crownover spearheaded the Trail of Tears memorial project, and for him, it was a true labor of love.
Descended from Cherokee Indians on both sides of his family, Crownover has a personal connection to the stories he helped to weave into the trail-like memorial in the Elliott Community Center’s courtyard.
“It’s not a huge exhibit, but it’s extremely informative because of all the information on the signs and plaques that lead you through it,” said Jana Younger, who is a member of the Cherokee Tribe of Northeast Alabama and serves as their genealogical researcher.
“It’s important to me because I’m a member of the tribe, but also because there’s nothing else like this in the state and this is one of the largest Trail of Tears memorials in the Southeast,” Younger said.
Both Younger and Crownover are proud of their Indian descent and lovingly relate stories passed down through five generations about Cherokees who were forced to leave and about those who stayed and, by some twist of fate, were spared. The vast majority of the Cherokee Indians did depart from Northeast Alabama, along with members of several other tribes.
They left from what is now a town called Lebanon, in DeKalb County, and passed through Etowah County before leaving the state and making their way to Oklahoma. There, those who had survived the trail dispersed.
This departure is known as the Benge detachment, named for the Cherokee man who led that particular removal. Once removals were initiated, the Cherokees asked to have some of their own people put in charge of certain groups as they left.
“They felt that would be the best way to ensure that they would receive the fairest treatment possible, under the circumstances,” Younger said.
Many Southeastern Native Americans died along the trail from sickness, starvation, or exhaustion, earning it the infamous name, “Trail of Tears.”
The September 28 grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony, featured guest speakers from local and state tourism boards, as well as Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton.
Representatives from multiple Indian tribes spoke, including Ron Cooper, a Comanche Indian from Oklahoma who took on the monumental task of walking the Trail of Tears in 2011.
Also at the ceremony, there was a demonstrations of Indian pottery making, cooking, and dancing, in addition to an educational Trail of Tears video.
A special memorial was set up to honor the late Gail King, who was the President of the Alabama Trail of Tears Association, a state anthropologist, and an archaeologist whom Crownover credits with his involvement in the project.
Crownover said he hopes that the memorial will eventually be certified by the National Park Service as a part of their Trail of Tears Trail System.
The exhibit will be a permanent fixture at the Elliott Community Center.
For more information, call 256-655-5842.