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Explorer finds water route for Trail of Tears; makes 1,300-mile solo kayak journey

October 27, 2012 at 01:00 AM

The Associated Press

HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Anyone who paid attention in fifth-grade social studies can tell you about the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of five southeastern Indian tribes from their homelands to the Indian Territory of present-day Oklahoma.

They might not recall the Indian Removal Act of 1830 or Andrew Jackson’s role, but they know the U.S. government forced Native Americans on a brutal march that killed thousands en route from starvation, exposure and disease.

That’s basically what Hendersonville-based explorer Dale Stewart knew, or thought he knew, until he encountered three sentences in a book that referred to a “water route” taken by Cherokees and other tribes during the Indian removal.

That brief reference intrigued Stewart, a former firefighter and commercial diver who now travels the globe teaching survival skills, camping in exotic locales and studying indigenous peoples.

“Most of the history that’s known by the average American about the Trail of Tears is the Hollywood version,” said Stewart. “But through my research, I found it was just not factual.”

His curiosity about the “water route,” combined with his thirst for exploration, culminated in an epic journey this past summer: a 60-day, 1,300-mile solo kayak trip retracing the riparian Trail of Tears from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Fort Gibson, Okla.

Along the way, Stewart — who claims not an ounce of Native American blood — unearthed new information about the journey braved by roughly 3,000 displaced Indians in the late 1830s, which he’s collecting into a video documentary called “Four Rivers” and a book.

Stewart survived close encounters with massive barges, endured 20 straight days of 100-degree temperatures and paddled through the pain of a torn ligament. But he emerged from the rivers Aug. 18 with a newfound respect for the Cherokee people’s tenacity.

“One of the messages I hope to get across to the young men and women of the Indian nations, and to the public, is they are realists; they are survivors,” Stewart said. “Not only are they still here, but one could say the Cherokee Nation is one of the most successful nations or tribes around. And I don’t mean in the casino business.”

Last spring, Stewart was looking for his next big adventure. Recently back in Hendersonville from a trip to Belize, where he lived with and studied Mayan tribes, Stewart wasn’t just hunting for another exotic destination. He wanted a quest for enlightenment, too.

“One of the reasons I explore is to acquire knowledge and then to share that knowledge with people,” he said. “And anytime somebody tells me, well, here’s a dramatic part of history that not much is known about, that sort of piques my interest.”

In this case, a brief passage hinted at a larger story that needed telling: beginning in June of 1838, three detachments of Cherokees — totaling roughly 2,800 people — boarded steamships and barges in Chattanooga and embarked on a trip that followed the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and Arkansas rivers to what is now Fort Coffee, Okla.

Stewart went looking for more information, first visiting the Museum of the Cherokee Indian two hours away, then traveling to the Sequoyah Research Center in Little Rock, Ark. before digging into the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Each place yielded a few new clues.

“Most of the information about the water route was either written by missionaries or by military people who were assigned to the different Indian groups,” he said. “The Cherokee themselves, at that time, wrote very little.”

Each new research discovery painted a picture much different from what Stewart had been taught in school. Not only did the Cherokee board ships laden with supplies paid for by the federal government, they did so voluntarily, not under duress from soldiers.

John Ross, the tribe’s principal chief, had “negotiated with the government that Cherokees would do their own removal,” Stewart said. “Even though (Ross) fought a long time for the Cherokee Nation to retain their sovereignty, ultimately he saw the writing on the wall and said, ‘We’ll do our own thing.’ And they did.”

Ross left Chattanooga for the Indian Territory on a steamship he bought for his family, accompanied by friends, some slaves and missionaries, but not prodded by an army of bayonets.

“Most of the groups that departed only had one or two military people with them,” Stewart said. “Generally, they were young lieutenants, right out of military academies. One thing I learned was they were pretty humane. They allowed the Indian groups to stop and hunt, cook meals, that sort of thing.”

The 1,200-mile journey was still fraught with misery, Stewart said. Often the ships encountered obstacles that would require off-loading everyone and trekking across land to another awaiting boat. But Stewart’s retracing of the water route, which began near Ross’s Landing in Chattanooga on June 18, offered a different set of challenges.

“The obstacles that the Indians faced were all natural,” he said. “The shoals, the sandbars, the low rivers. The obstacles that I faced on my trip were all man-made: dams and locks.”

Paddling a 16-foot Kevlar kayak filled with gear, Stewart didn’t want to bang up his boat in the concrete locks that dot our nation’s largest rivers. So friends drove him around dams whenever possible. Other than those short shuttles, he propelled himself the entire way, camping at state parks or on sandbars.

“I had paddled big rivers before,” Stewart said. “I knew I had to read the river pretty well, looking for currents, floating debris, logs and trees in the water. And I also had to be aware of other boat traffic, especially the large tugboats and push boats.”

At every opportunity, he stopped at historical sites linked to the water route: in Decatur, Ala., where the Indians had to be taken around shoals by train to Tuscumbia Landing; in Savannah, Tenn., where Chief Ross had visited relatives; and in Little Rock, Ark., where Ross’s wife, Quatie, was buried in 1839, one of thousands of Cherokees who died en route.

Amazingly, Stewart’s only dunking occurred on the Mississippi River, coming into Helena, Ark. A small motorboat came by, spooking a large Asian carp that leapt from the water and hit Stewart’s shoulder.

“Instinct was I flinched and my boat went sideways, but that was the only time everything got wet. I only lost one camera,” he said.

Throughout his two-month journey, it rained hard only once. But high wind, strong currents and scorching heat were daily challenges. And as he entered the Arkansas River in late July, Stewart felt a sharp tweak in his wrist; it turned out to be a torn ligament.

“It was pretty painful for a couple of days,” he said.

Stewart originally intended to finish his journey in Fort Smith, Ark., but members of the Cherokee Nation convinced him to paddle another 70 miles or so to Fort Gibson, Okla.

“Fort Gibson was the final place where the removal tribes came through,” he said. “It was where they were assigned their land, where they were given money. Most of the steamships couldn’t get past Fort Smith, because there were two (waterfalls) near Webber’s Falls.”

Despite months of arduous paddling, despite the record heat, there was a part of Stewart that wanted to keep going. And in a way, he said, the journey hasn’t really ended.

“It’s just moved on to a different stage, if you will,” he said. “The reporting stage.”


Information from: Times-News,

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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