The “Remember the Removal” Bike Ride journey was meaningful and personal to me. Having my genealogy done before the ride allowed me to put names with places and understand how my family story fit into the places we visited.
I was able to visit my direct ancestor John Downing’s home. I am an eighth-generation descendant of his. The Tuckasegee River (in North Carolina) flows through this property, and here I was able to see the fish weir still standing 183 years later. It has worn down over time but clearly visible despite constant currents and recreational use. I witnessed a kayaker wrestle over it as I stood on the banks.
I was able to visit John Hair Conrad’s home. I am a fifth-generation descendant of his. The house is still intact. I was able to sit on the porch and walk around the property peeking at the springs that flow by. He spent the summer of 1838 in a concentration camp only 6 miles from his home and didn’t move west until September.
Something else that made this journey meaningful was connecting pieces of history together. In “The Journal of Rev. Daniel S. Butrick,” there is a journal entry for August 20, 1838, that I think sticks with everyone who reads it. An unnamed pregnant woman going into labor fell to the ground in pain and a soldier stabbed her with his bayonet killing her. At Blythe’s Ferry, there is a census of Cherokees who passed through there, and I learned that the unnamed woman was Lizy Ratley and she had eight Cherokees with her (likely all her children), and that John Hair Conrad’s half-brother was James (Hair) Hare.
The significance of this is James Hare took in all of Lizy’s children to care for them after she was killed. It is moments of realization like this that stirs so much emotion in me. It is no wonder that my family and others did not pass down stories of what it was like. All I ever heard was that “it was really bad” and no one wanted to talk about it. Reality is that it was much worse, and I find that it is hard for me to talk about it, and I did not live it.
I learned about it in Oklahoma history in school. It seemed to be more about, “this treaty and that President, and how it led to this movement or that.” It hardly covered the “Trail of Tears.” It seemed to be more summed up as a death toll. It certainly did not go into the hardships and the struggles they faced on a daily basis. On this journey, I learned how smart and advanced our Cherokee Nation was. How our people did not call it the “Trail of Tears.” They called it ᏗᎨᏥᏱᎸᏍᏔᏅᎢ(di ge tsi yi lv sta nv i) meaning they were being driven like animals. Even Rev. Butrick, a non-Native, described the inhumane overcrowding that occurred on flat bottom boats (often leading to sinking and more death) making a comparison that no one would treat swine the way “the sweet poor Cherokees” were being treated.
From the time our people were forced out of their homes in May 1838, and arrived to Indian Territory it was more than 10 months later. Nearly 4,000 Cherokees died – a quarter of our people. Most during the summer from dysentery, some murdered by soldiers, and some so weak they would faint on the road and wagons would roll over them. During the winter, they had to wait until frozen rivers thawed before moving on, never having appropriate clothing or shelter or enough food. My team and I rode the northern route in 17 days. The struggles I experienced on this ride will never compare to what my ancestors faced, but I feel closer to them and to my culture because of this ride. It was mentally challenging; however, physically I felt stronger every day. I woke up with purpose to honor them. My ancestors were strong and resilient and their same blood flows through me. I am forever grateful for this opportunity to ride 950 miles retracing their steps to honor them.
Tracie Asbill took part in the 2021 “Remember the Removal” ride as a mentor rider. She is a pediatric nurse at the Cherokee Nation Outpatient Health Center in Tahlequah.