A Pilgrimage to the Old Country
Following Highway 9 across the Alabama border from Northwest Georgia, I was captivated by the height of the mountains that spanned the breadth of my vision on either side of the road. Sparsely populated, the region had an oddly familiar quality that betrayed the timelessness of the generational memory that radiated from the very ground itself.
I was reflecting on the beauty of the landscape, and the growing sense that I was traveling in a place that had been walked by my ancestors from time immemorial…or at least since we made the journey South from the lands of the Lake people in Iroquois country many generations past. Lost in thought, I nearly missed the Salem United Methodist Church as it abruptly appeared across from what I now realized was Scraper Mountain.
Some years ago, while researching this history of my family, I came across an article from the Cherokee County (AL) Historical Society, which offered the following insights:
Salem United Methodist Church is located Township 9 South Range 11 East very near the Alabama-Georgia State line. It is north of the Coosa River. McCoy Ferry and Perkins Ferry were near the church. The lands were occupied by the Cherokee Indians in the early 19th Century. The home of Chief Scraper was in the vicinity, and Scraper Mountain was named for him. Later the peak in Scraper Mountain was called Bogan Peak, because Mr. George Washington Bogan had an extensive vineyard on the mountain. In 1836 it was decreed that the Indians would be moved to Indian Territory, west of the Mississippi River, but some friendly Indians begged to stay, and offered a gift of one-half bushel of gold to be allowed to remain. The cabin of Chief Scraper, near Lawrence Station was pointed out to Visitors in 1926.
Obviously, some of the information was inaccurate. I’ve made the pilgrimage to our family cemetery in Scraper Hollow, OK many times to see the grave of “Chief Scraper,” or “The Scraper,” as he was known by so many. Our family records include claims made by The Scraper for redress after surviving the forced removal of 1838. Nonetheless, with hope that perhaps the Salem United Methodist Church might give me some idea about where to begin my trek up this large mountain, I pulled into the parking lot and placed my truck in Park.
I stepped out of the cab of my Dodge Ram and was immediately greeted by the high relative humidity that is so common to my ancestral homeland. I slowly began to survey my surroundings, and couldn’t help but gaze up toward what was once (apparently) called “Scraper Mountain,” but which had since come to be called “Bogan Peak.” Was the Bogan family responsible for taking over my ancestral lands after my family was forced into cattle stockades, awaiting forced relocation to the West? I couldn’t help but wonder.
To the East of the Church lay an old cemetery. Casually and carefully traversing some of the old plots (I am an ordained elder in the Oklahoma Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, myself), I found myself curious as to whether I might see some familiar names. My family has been Methodist for many generations. Was it possible that we became Methodist as a result of the ministry of this little church from which, at one time, our home could be seen? I doubt that I will ever know the answer to that. Thirty minutes and many careful footsteps later, and having found nothing that seemed connected to my family, I turned my attention North to the mountain that I had come to see.
I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Scraper being (today) a Cherokee surname. A poor translation of Di-su-ga-s-gi, (literally, “to scrape at the skin”) our family history tells of a time when “The Sixkiller,” changed his name to “The Scraper,” after having been referred to as such by Euro-Americans who had witnessed his role in one of our age-old traditional ceremonies. It was, at one time, common for our warriors (or stickball players) to have their arms, chest, back, and legs scraped with the bone of a wolf, prior to “going to water.” For this reason, the Scrapers and Sixkillers of today’s Cherokee Nation are all distantly related.
When my wife (who is also of Cherokee descent) brought up the idea of traveling to visit her mother in Atlanta for a few days, I began to wonder about the possibility of offering a traditional prayer on the mountain that represents my ancestral homeland. After much research and preparation, a great deal of driving, and a little bit of pizza…I now found myself staring up the slope of the mountain that I had read about for so many years.
Not far to the East, State Highway 121 curved its way toward the top of the mountain, fortunately on the very slope that my family’s cabin would have rested on at one time. Not knowing for certain where I wanted to offer my prayer, but knowing that I wanted to do so as near the peak as possible I made the decision to follow the road as far as I could. Asking God for guidance (u-ne-tlv-nv-hi, in Cherokee), I hopped back into my truck and set off.
Mountain roads tend to follow mountain trails. As the road wound up the side of the mountain, passing various small homes and cabins tucked into the slope along the way, it began to narrow until it was only slightly wider than my truck. Looking at the beauty of the mountainside outside of my window, sloping up on the right and dramatically down on the left, I couldn’t avoid the sensation that I might very well be following the very trails once used by members of my family…perhaps for generations…before our home was wrenched away from us.
At every small turn, the trail seemed to narrow. I continued to ask God if I should continue and in response, continued to feel the strong sense in my spirit that I was being nudged further on.
Further on, I continued.
Eventually, I reached the end of the trail…or at least, the end of traversable road. As I rounded the last bend, in front of me loomed a gate with a large sign warning that everything beyond was “private property.” The irony of the simple fact that I could no longer travel up the mountain of my ancestors because it had been stolen from us and was now “private property,” was not lost on me. No matter, I was close enough to the peak by now anyway. I pulled my truck to a stop and hopped out. Looking around at the incomprehensible beauty of the place, I again asked God if this was the place for me to pray. The unrest in my spirit was almost indescribable, so I decided to be obedient and survey my surroundings one more time. As I looked opposite the private property, I noticed a small trail leading nearer the peak. Thinking that I had already come this far and may as well go a bit further, I started my trek along the trail.
Shortly, the trail opened into a clearing from which I could see the bottom of the mountain far below, Highway 9 snaking off into the distance. If I squinted, I could just barely make out the Salem United Methodist Church. Perhaps this would suffice. This must be close enough.
Stopping where I was, I asked God again if this was the right place. Again, with unrest in my spirit, I felt nudged to press on. Not knowing where to go, I looked up just in time to see two Whitetail Deer move into the clearing near enough to me that both of us should have been concerned. Yet in that moment, one overwhelming idea consumed all of my thought: I had to follow them.
Difficult as it is to explain the strength of that nudge, I remember thinking two things simultaneously: 1) I couldn’t believe that the deer were not afraid of me, and 2) If all of these “nudges” turned out to be ridiculous, at least I had the consolation of knowing that no one would ever need to know of them. Little did I know what awaited me at the top of the slope.
The deer headed up-slope to where the clearing ended and the woodline began again. Dutifully, I followed behind. By the time I reached the edge of the clearing, the deer were long gone. Yet, as I began to survey the woodline, I noticed something strange just beyond the trees. I stepped forward to take a closer look, and walked upon the ruins of an old cabin.
Tucked away in the trees, there wasn’t much left. Initially intellectually skeptical, my heart knew what I was looking at. I tried to rationalize my way into something that made more sense. This couldn’t be the ruins of the cabin of my ancestors. Many of the crumbling walls were made of cinder block, more so indicative of the early 20th century than the mid-19th. Yet…there was that nudge again.
Working my way through the vines and undergrowth, I found my way into the center of the ruins of this cabin. With no roof remaining, it wasn’t as difficult a trek as it could have been. When I reached the ruins and looked at the foundation, my heart nearly stopped. Though the remaining, crumbling walls were made of cinder block, they were indeed built upon a much, much older wooden foundation.
I stood there, right in the middle of the ruins of the cabin. Alone. Unsure of what to think or how to feel, I could hardly believe what was happening. Had I been led to this place? Could this really be my great-great-great grandfather’s cabin? When I looked up, in my mind’s eye I could see my ancestor, The Scraper, and his son A-tsi-la-gi-li (who would later be called Archibald Scraper) standing there…looking at the cabin one last time and wondering if anyone in their family would ever see it again. In that moment it felt as if a thousand generations of my ancestors stood with me.
“Ahani.” I’m here.
Silly as it sounds, I said it out loud…and I began to cry. They had endured so much. Hated so completely because of our race, our entire people-group was forced out of our country. Almost ⅓ of my entire race wouldn’t survive the journey. I was/am from Oklahoma because of what happened there on that day…the last day…the last time that my ancestors would ever look upon their home.
And yet…I’d come back.
No…not back. I had come home, and somehow I know that they knew. You’ll never convince me otherwise.
Standing there in the middle of the ruins of my family’s home, my spirit knew that it was in the right place. I was home. It was time to pray, and I knew what to say. I removed the ceremonial tobacco from my pocket and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving.
I gave thanks for my home. I gave thanks for my ancestors. I gave thanks not that they had to endure the Trail of Tears, but that they did endure the Trail of Tears. I gave thanks for their indomitable spirit and unwillingness to give up. I gave thanks for the many ways in which they would serve their nation and people in a new land, so that a new life could be built for generations that they would never see. I gave thanks for the legacy that is attached to my surname, and I gave thanks for an unrelenting hope that saw them through the worst that humanity has to offer.
I really didn’t want to leave, and yet sometime later it was certainly time to return. I’ve not the words to describe the emotion of turning to look at the cabin one last time, wondering if anyone in my family would ever see it again. I made a promise, and then turned away to follow the small trail back to my truck. Someday, I will return. I’ll take my wife and daughters with me and stand in that place again where the truth of our home radiates from the very land itself.
What is that truth?
We endured. We were not extinguished by hatred. We are still here, and we are thriving.