Everybody, thanks for coming! It’s really great to see you all here. I appreciate you being willing to sit in a dark, windowless room on October 4th when the mountains are so beautiful outside. My name is Xavier Denson. I work at Western Carolina University where I teach history. I’ve also been involved with the Cherokee Studies Program down there. Prior to this, my research focused on Cherokee history, particularly in the West.

Today, I want to talk about my current research project. I’m in the midst of writing a book about the history of the commemoration of Cherokee removal. While I’m interested in the historical events of the removal itself, my primary focus for this research is on how people in the 20th century South have remembered it in public. I study monuments, museums, public celebrations, anniversaries, and similar commemorations. I’m a member of this association, which has also been involved in this work.

This talk is not so much about the Trail of Tears itself but about how the Trail of Tears has been remembered publicly. As many of you know, there is a substantial amount of commemoration of Cherokee removal over the last century. Not all of it is accurate or satisfying by today’s standards, but there’s a lot out there. When I started this project years ago, I thought it would be a few articles between other book projects. Instead, it has taken on a life of its own due to the sheer volume of material.

The monuments, museums, and historic sites go back to at least three major eras of commemoration. First, the early 20th century, especially the 1930s, saw significant commemoration, partly due to the 100th anniversary of Cherokee removal and a tourism boom in Southern Appalachia. Second, the 1950s and 60s saw a larger wave of commemoration, with state-developed historic sites like New Echota in Georgia and the Trail of Tears Park in Missouri. Finally, beginning in the mid-1980s, there was an even larger wave of commemoration, including the National Heritage Trail and this association, which has catalyzed more communities to get involved in remembering this part of American history.

Public memory interests scholars because it provides a window into the culture of the people doing the commemorating. What we remember from history says a lot about our identities and values. It speaks not just to the past but to the present. My work explores why Southern communities chose to remember Cherokee removal during these various periods and what these commemorations tell us about Southern culture in those times.

Discussing past commemorations can invite us to reflect on our work as modern commemorators. We’re all involved in public history and memory, and looking at older examples of commemoration can teach us lessons about our own work. It can also help us reflect on our roles as memory makers.

Let’s look at a few examples of Cherokee commemoration from the early 20th century, especially the 1930s. There were commemorations before the 1930s, particularly by local heritage organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), which began erecting monuments to Indian history around 1910. For example, the Nancy Ward Gravesite Memorial near Benton, Tennessee, was established in 1923 by the DAR. Another example is the Junaluska Memorial, originally dedicated in 1910, commemorating the Cherokee leader who supposedly saved Andrew Jackson’s life at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

The DAR tended to gravitate towards “helper Indian” stories, highlighting figures who assisted early American figures. For example, the Junaluska Memorial emphasizes Junaluska saving Andrew Jackson, though it omits his resistance to removal later in life. Similarly, Nancy Ward is celebrated for warning settlers of impending Cherokee attacks, transforming her from a complex Cherokee figure into a simplified pioneer helper.

While these early monuments may seem reductive by contemporary standards, they were important for inscribing Cherokee history onto the landscape. However, they also serve as cautionary tales about what gets included and excluded in public history.

The larger wave of Trail of Tears commemoration in the 1930s was tied to the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As the park developed, tourism in Southern Appalachia grew, and Cherokee history became a part of that tourism narrative. This led to public festivals, historical pageants, and the establishment of historic sites.

One notable example is the Cherokee pageant directed by non-Indian Margaret Pierson Spearin in 1935, involving Cherokee actors and depicting removal not as a story of disappearance but of survival and revitalization. This contrasted with other contemporary pageants that often portrayed removal as the end of Indian presence.

A significant national commemoration was the 1938 Chickamauga Celebration in Chattanooga, marking both the Battle of Chickamauga’s 75th anniversary and Chattanooga’s centennial. This event included a Cherokee removal commemoration, adding complexity and contradiction to the otherwise patriotic and progress-focused celebration. Cherokee leaders from both the Eastern Band and Oklahoma participated, and new monuments were dedicated to sites like the Brainerd Mission and the John Ross House.

Tourism can provide a context for remaking historical identities and inviting diverse narratives into public consciousness. While early commemorations often flattened historical figures into caricatures, they also laid the groundwork for more nuanced and inclusive narratives. As modern commemorators, we must carefully consider our motivations and strive to present a balanced and reflective view of history, recognizing the messiness and contradictions inherent in the past.

Thank you for listening. I’m happy to take any questions or engage in further discussion.

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