Red Clay State Historic Park, located twelve miles south of Cleveland, was the site of the last seat of Cherokee government before their forced removal by federal troops along the Trail of Tears. From 1832 to 1837 it was the site of eleven general councils, some attended by as many as five thousand Cherokees.
Those years were troubled times for the Cherokees as they worked to ensure their future. It was at the council meetings at Red Clay that the Cherokees learned that they would have to leave on Nunahi-Duna-Dlo-Hilu-I, or the “Trail Where They Cried,” on their way to Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma. A young Cherokee, Jane Bushyhead, wrote a friend from “Red Clay Cherokee Nation March 10, 1838” with her fears that “we Cherokees are to be driven to the west by the cruel hand of oppression. . . . It is thus all our rights are invaded.” (1)
At one time the Cherokees claimed all of Tennessee and Georgia and parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Alabama as their homeland. As the first settlers started crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains and entering Cherokee territory, however, they had little respect for the Cherokee’s kinship with the land and saw that land as free for the taking.
By the early 1800s the Cherokees lived very much like their white neighbors. By 1826 the Cherokee nation had their capital at New Echota, Georgia, with a surveyed city including a courthouse, printing office, houses, and streets. However, in 1832 the State of Georgia stripped the Cherokees of their political sovereignty and made it illegal for the Cherokees to meet together for any reason other than to treaty away their land. Georgia also divided the Cherokee’s land by lottery. As a result, the Cherokee nation moved its capital to Red Clay in Tennessee.
A U.S. Department of War removal treaty was presented at two council meetings at Red Clay in 1832. After the council unanimously rejected the treaty, they adopted a resolution to send a delegation to Washington to attend to the business of the Cherokee nation. For five years at meetings at Red Clay, the council heard reports from various delegations, and agreement or disagreement with the actions of these delegations divided the Cherokees into factions.
Not only did the Cherokees send delegations to the president and to Congress, but they also took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1833 they hoped for support from the president or Congress because the Supreme Court had decided in favor of the Cherokee nation remaining in its ancestral land (Worcester v. Georgia).
In 1834 the treaty party led by John Ridge, Major Ridge, and Elias Boudinot began formal efforts for acceptance of a Cherokee treaty with the United States. Principal Chief John Ross led the Cherokee fight to keep their eastern lands and not to emigrate. By 1835 two rival delegations were in Washington to negotiate a treaty, and the factions held separate council meetings. Seemingly a compromise was made in October 1835, but while Chief Ross was in Washington, the Ridge faction signed the Treaty of New Echota.
During the last council meetings at Red Clay, after protests to this New Echota treaty and all views were heard, the council appointed another delegation. A regular council session was scheduled for 1838, but due to the collection and removal activities that meeting never happened. As many as seventeen thousand Cherokees were rounded up and kept in holding stations until the government was ready to move them to Indian territory. The Cherokees endured great hardships in these camps, and they suffered during the trek westward. It is estimated that over four thousand died in the camps and on the trail.
It was almost 150 years before the Cherokee met again in council at Red Clay. The Cherokee Council Reunion in April 1984 was commemorated by a return of the eternal flame to Red Clay. This symbol of the council fire remains burning to honor those Cherokee of the 1830s, those who died during the forced removal, and those Cherokee living today and tomorrow.
Today these Cherokee council grounds form the core of a Tennessee state park which includes a museum and outdoor replicas of an 1830s Cherokee Council House, sleeping huts, and a farmstead. Red Clay State Historic Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a certified site and interpretive center on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, and is honored by today’s Cherokees as sacred ground.