Late in 1837, Federal Troops arrived in Will’s Valley to establish a fort for the purpose of removing the Cherokee Indians from the area. Principal Chief John Ross and other leaders had lost their political and judicial battles with The United States and the Cherokee would be forced to leave their homeland in Northeast Alabama, as part of what’s now known as the Trail of Tears.
To accommodate officers, soldiers, Cherokees, supplies and animals, the local property included a fort, water supply (the Big Spring), holding pens, cabins, encampment areas and associated outbuildings. Some structures were built specifically for the compound, while others, owned by the Cherokee, were confiscated for use as part of the fort.
For generations, many area residents have told the story of one such structure — a log cabin — used by the soldiers during the removal. Believed to be the last undeveloped part of local property seized by Federal Troops as part of the complex, all that remains of the cabin are a chimney, a foundation outlined in stones and evidence of a small root cellar. A stacked stone well is situated nearby. The structural remains of the log cabin are visibly evident and documented by archaeological research done by Tim Mistovich (1984) and Sharon Freeman (2009). Materials and method of the chimney’s construction are consistent with those built in the early 19th century according to Architectural Historian Robert Gamble. Architect Winston Walker III, who was involved in several research projects relating to the pre-statehood period of the area, stated “the cabin was most probably built between 1800 and 1825”.
The exact function of the log cabin during the time of the removal is in question. Some think it was used for storage, others claim it was officers’ quarters, still others believe it was part of the fort – although two reports place the fort “two hundred yards northeast of the Big Spring”. There is better evidence suggesting the identity of the cabin’s owner prior to the removal. John Huss (Spirit the Preacher) a Cherokee and ordained Presbyterian minister, moved to Will’s Valley around 1824. From John La Tourette’s 1837 map and recent research including the government evaluation of his property, it is believed that Huss’ land included or was nearby the cabin site. Huss and his family voluntarily left for the western territory in November of 1837.
By April 1838, Fort Payne (it is believed to be named for Captain John Payne) had been established and a fort completed. In July of 1838 there were over 800 Cherokee assembled at the fort. On September 29th the first group of Willstown captives left the fort and their homeland, with other groups following daily, creating a great caravan. A Cherokee, John Benge, son of famed warrior Bob Benge, was selected to lead them. His father-in-law George Lowery, the chief known as “the George Washington of his people”, assisted him. Two Cherokees, Otterlifter Hughes and Two Thousand, served as gravediggers. Soldiers did not accompany the Benge group and those that followed. They were allowed to leave without armed escorts after Gen. Winfield Scott agreed to plans worked out by John Ross and other chiefs. By early October 1838, 1079 Cherokee held at the fort were on the road to the west. The army closed Fort Payne and departed Willstown.
The opening of the longest signed section of the Trail of Tears in the country, from Fort Payne to Guntersville, was held on June 23, 2012. The opening ceremony began at the Cabin Site in Fort Payne, followed by driving the newly signed section of the Trail and ended with a ceremony at Guntersville Lake.
The other two certified properties are owned by Landmarks of DeKalb County. They are Willstown Mission Cemetery located off Godfrey Avenue on 38th Street NE, which is open to the public, and the the Andrew Ross Home, also know as The Cherokee Plantation, a private home now owned by Dr. Brewer. For further information, contact Landmarks at (256) 845-6888 or send email to: Landmarks.
Many thanks to archaeologist Sharon Freeman of the Office of Archaeological Research in Moundville, archaeologist Gail King, president of the Alabama Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association and Olivia Baxter Cox, Landmarks board member, for all their hard work on this certification effort.
To get driving directions for the Benge Route of the Trail of Tears, click here.