Cherokee history projects in Charleston open
A crowd attends the March 29 opening and dedication of an expansion at the Hiwassee River Heritage Center in Charleston, Tennessee. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Wes Shamblin of Calhoun, Tennessee, on March 29 tours a newly opened exhibit hall at the Hiwassee River Heritage Center in Charleston, Tennessee. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Historians, donors, Cherokee Nation citizens and Hiwassee River Heritage Center staff take part in a March 29 ribbon cutting for the National Historic Trail Experience in Charleston, Tennessee. Taking part in the ribbon cutting were Hiwassee River Heritage Center Manager Darlene Goins, second from right, and Melissa Woody, far right, vice president for Tourism Development of the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce and President of the National Trail of Tears Association and Cherokee Nation citizen Jack Baker, far left. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
The National Historic Trail Experience in Charleston is dedicated on March 29 in Charleston, Tennessee. The first segment of the trail is called “Voices from the Past” and features significant quotes about the Cherokee Removal at Fort Cass from Cherokee people and missionaries and military figures. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
CHARLESTON, Tenn. – The Hiwassee River Heritage Center and the National Historic Trail Experience’s expansion opened on March 30, but a ribbon cutting with donors and supporters was held the day before.
Cherokee; Charleston-Calhoun, Tennessee; and Civil War history from the area are included in the center’s George Robert and Doris Bolen Johnson Exhibit Hall. The expansion also allowed for the Carl E. Colloms Education Room, a library and a larger greeting area.
“This project has been in development for many years and we are so grateful for the opportunity to share these important stories with residents and visitors, groups and individuals,” Darlene Goins, Hiwassee River Heritage Center manager, said.
National Trail of Tears Association President and Cherokee Nation citizen Jack Baker attended the ribbon cutting. He said Fort Cass, built in Charleston to facilitate the Cherokee people’s removal, and Charleston was the starting point for many Cherokees who were removed to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.
“There our people continued the Cherokee Nation, the sovereign Cherokee Nation, and established a new government. Today, we are a nation of more than 370,000 citizens,” he said. “This is our ancient homeland. I really do appreciate all that the local community has done on this project and remembering the Cherokee people and our forced removal.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture was a major supporter for the center’s expansion and the trail, and area donors donated funding and time to the two projects.
“We could never have accomplished these projects without donors and supporters. We have been so blessed to have the right people in our paths at the right time, and it has been a whole host of people who have made this center and trail happen over these last 13 years of working and planning,” Melissa Woody, Tourism Development of the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce vice president and development chairwoman for the Charleston-Calhoun-Hiwassee Historical Society, said.
She said she and Goins grew up in Charleston and Cleveland and never knew the stories of the area, but knew it “had something to do with the Trail of Tears,” however, “the significance had been lost over the years.”
“At that point we learned. We started learning a lot. We were able to get the story at least to where we could understand what happened here. At the time we were uncovering American history that had not been really been documented or explained in a public setting, and so we feel so privileged and honored to be a part of that process,” Woody said.
Goins and others formed the Charleston-Calhoun-Hiwassee Historical Society in 2008 and opened the Hiwassee River Heritage Center in 2013 with the intent of adding an exhibit hall and education room.
“It was one room pretty much with information panels. We were able to greet people, host people, start telling the story, but it begged for more. It begged for illustrations, artifacts, more space to host groups and students. We wanted to be able to host bigger groups and share this American history with everyone,” Woody said.
She said the CCH Historical Society has raised $750,000 to expand the museum and build the National Historic Trail Experience.
“So, what is the story? The story is Charleston, Tennessee, was the military operational headquarters for the entire Cherokee Trail of Tears removal,” Woody said. “All of the orders that went to other emigration depots, went to other military installations, came from here, from Gen. Winfield Scott just over the bridge in Calhoun, Tennessee. That was America. When the treaties of 1819 (between the U.S. and CN) were signed, you could look across the river and that was America and you would be standing here (Charleston) in the Cherokee Nation. We are able to tell this story in this wonderful heritage center.”
Woody and other speakers, including former CN Tribal Councilor and National TOTA Executive Director Troy Wayne Poteete, thanked Tennessee TOTA member Shirley Lawrence for bringing the idea of telling the Cherokee story and what happened at Fort Cass to Woody.
“Her coming here and telling Melissa about this is very typical. She gets it done. We are gratified after 25 years of the (Trail of Tears) Association that these elders can look back and say, ‘golly, we really did something, we really did make something happen,’” Poteete said. “I’m very honored to be a part of this.”
He said he has “a great affinity” for Charleston and Calhoun because many Cherokee people from the area eventually settled in Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, where he lives.
The exhibit hall features information beginning with pre-Cherokee Native peoples and goes through Cherokee settlements, the federal Indian Agency, Fort Cass and the Cherokee Removal. The exhibit also examines Charleston and Calhoun’s role in the Civil War.
The National Historic Trail experience also made its debut on March 29. The trail’s first segment connects the Hiwassee River Heritage Center to the Charleston Park. The National Park Service conceived the design and funded it with a grant.
The segment is called “Voices from the Past” and features quotes about the Cherokee Removal at Fort Cass from Cherokee people, missionaries and military figures. The Middle Tennessee State University Center for Historic Preservation Team, with assistance from HRHC volunteer Laura Bryan Spann, researched and designed the signs.
“The trail sets the stage for learning more about the Trail of Tears and bringing the struggle of that time to a personal level,” Woody said. “Presenting quotes from the people affected by this difficult time in history really brings this story to life and to a relatable place for all of us as human beings.”
The trail experience and the heritage center are two components of a master plan for heritage development in Charleston and Calhoun. The trail is intended to extend beyond the Charleston Park and eventually reach the Hiwassee River at a park. There is also intent to connect with the Cleveland/Bradley Greenway as it extends toward the Hiwassee River.
“We are looking forward to offering a more detailed experience for our visitors. Our vision is to host groups – students and adults, increase our programming, continue extending the greenway and ultimately preserving this nationally significant history in our communities,” Bryan Spann said. “This expanded facility and trail will allow us to fulfill these goals.”