533 Miles to go on my Trail of Tears Journey

Ron Cooper
2/24/11

As my hiking escort, Ellis, and I pushed northward out of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, my wife got a guided tour of the area.  We like to learn about the history of the towns that the Trail of Tears passed through, so Kentucky Trail of Tears Association (TOTA) chapter president Alice Murphree offered to show Kristal around.

Hopkinsville has something of interest for everyone.  Jefferson Davis – the man who would be the Confederate States of America’s only President – was born in the county.  A museum and a 361-foot tall obelisk mark the spot.  The famous psychic Edward Cayce was also born and buried in Hopkinsville.  A few miles north is the farm that hosted one of the greatest unexplained alien encounters, locally known as the Kelly Green Men.  These days, Hopkinsville is known for its manufacturing and distribution warehouses.  A company called Ebonite International makes 98% of the world’s bowling balls right in Hopkinsville, KY!

I celebrated completing of the first third of my journey by drinking from the Big Spring near downtown Princeton, KY.  The spring gushes a river of water that once supplied the whole town, so it was surely where the Trail of Tears procession paused to rest and refresh themselves and their livestock.  The spring is a Certified Site on the Trail and is the centerpiece of a nice little park.

Getting ready to leave Princeton the next morning, we were met by two locals at the park.  Linda experienced the Trail of Tears by foot and wagon train in 1988 and she asked if she could walk a few miles with us.  The answer is always “Of course!”  Anyone and everyone is welcome to walk with me for as long as they’d like!

The other local was Donny, a history buff from up the road.  He offered us a place to stay and a tour of his county at the end of the day – both of which we accepted and enjoyed!  Among other fascinating remnants of the past, he showed us foundation impressions where the town of Centerville once was.  Centerville was referenced in several journals from the Trail of Tears, but just a few decades later it had completely vanished.  Alice said she had been trying to find it, without success.  I’m so happy that my walk brought these people together!  Every day it becomes more obvious that it’s the local historians, volunteers and hobbyists who are keeping our history alive.  They work tirelessly, researching and documenting these events and locations – a critical step that allows them to eventually become Certified Historical Sites.  What would the future be like without these snapshots of the past?

Near Salem, Kentucky, I walked my 300th mile… and then I stepped off the shoulder-less road for a passing car and twisted my good knee!  It’s pretty sad when the only part of your two legs thatdoesn’t hurt is the bad knee that you had surgically repaired four years ago!

Even though I was in pain, we pressed on because I was looking forward to seeing the most recently dedicated Certified Historic Site on the Trail.  At 188 feet long and 30 feet high, Mantle Rock is the largest freestanding arch east of the Mississippi.  It was also perfectly located to give shelter to some of the Cherokees who were waiting to cross the river into Illinois.  There are stories that some of their dead are buried under the span, but the graves haven’t been found.

The Mantle Rock site also contains a long section of well-preserved Trail of Tears roadbed.  It makes for a very peaceful and thought-provoking hike.  I highly recommend that everyone visit there.

Past the park boundary, the Trail roadbed follows a cascading creek as it descends from the ridge.  There are several places where you can see it clearly on the left as you travel just three more miles to the next Certified TOT site.

The Ohio River crossing was serviced by Berry’s Ferry, a steam-engine powered flatboat that held only two or three wagons at a time.  Each round-trip lasted an hour, so you can imagine how long it took for 11, 000 people to get across!  The procession backed up along the road for miles and just got worse when ice on the river prevented the ferry from operating for weeks at a time.  To add insult to injury, the operator of the ferry charged the Cherokees $1 each for the service, while charging everyone else the going rate of 12 cents.  He also gave everyone else boarding priority, further showing his prejudice for the exiles.

My original idea was to burn a dollar on the riverbank, but Native American tradition says that smoke takes your thoughts and prayers to those who will hear them in Heaven.  Since I don’t think that’s where Mr. Berry is, I decided to bury my dollar so it would be closer to where he is now.

For me, the shore of the Ohio River marked the end of the Kentucky segment and the completion of my second state.  Wow.  Amazing!  It also meant I was losing my faithful escort, so I got a little choked up.  Overall though, I was happy for the week Ellis and I spent together, making great memories for life – and I’m thankful that modern technology will keep us in touch.

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Please visit www.RonHikesTrailofTears.com or the Facebook page of the same name for more information about the Coopers’ adventures on the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

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