Last weekend, I travelled to North Alabama to visit my grandmother for the day. She now lives in Boaz, but we took a drive to nearby Guntersville to visit old haunts. I was born in Guntersville at a hospital overlooking the lake. For years, my Mom and Dad would point out the room I was born in from the road by the red curtains hanging in the window. The hospital is now gone, like so many other things, but my memories of eating at Reid’s restaurant, fishing on the lake, and driving out to Buck Island are fresh.
Since beginning the research on my family history, I have discovered a connection to the Cherokee on both sides of my family. I still find it ironic that I was born in a hospital on the lake my great grandfather helped dig, near the river that served as a final highway for some of my ancestors on the Trail of Tears. I knew none of this as a child, but life has a way of coming full circle sometimes.
Today’s Guntersville was once known as Gunter’s Landing. Back in the 18th century, John Gunter, a white settler from North Carolina, discovered salt deposits and began to trade with the nearby Cherokee. He eventually married into the tribe and opened a store called “Gunter’s Landing.” This store in the middle of nowhere resulted in a small town forming called Gunter’s Landing. When Andrew Jackson travelled through Gunter’s Landing on his way to battle the Creeks, he enlisted many Cherokee to help, including one of John Gunter’s sons. Even today, heading up Sand Mountain on Highway 431, you’ll see indications of Jackson’s path through this area, including a subdivision on the brow of the mountain overlooking Guntersville called “Andrew Jackson Heights.”
By 1820, Gunter was operating a ferry across the Tennessee River. Many settlers coming into Alabama immediately after the first Creek War used the Tennessee River as a highway. This includes the several families such as the Lees on my Mom’s side that would eventually settle in southern Jefferson and northern Shelby counties. Gunter’s Landing became a gateway into the interior of the Alabama Territory. Unfortunately for the Creek and Cherokee, this gateway also served as a means to eventually rob them of their homelands. By the late 1830’s, most of the Cherokee in Northern Alabama would be gone.
Often at our annual family reunions on Lake Guntersville, I wonder down to the water’s edge and sit quietly. While gazing out at the Tennessee River, I try to imagine the thoughts of my Cherokee ancestors as they gazed on their homeland for the last time. As their barge slowly moved up the river away from Gunter’s Landing, I can imagine tears of fear and loss rolling down many a face. I close my eyes and slowly, the modern sounds of family talking and cars passing by fades away. All that’s left is the gentle lapping of the river water…and the silence is deafening.
-cover image courtesy of http://www.backpackingbelievers.blogspot.com