Tracing the Cherokee Trail

Cherokee Trail marker on the ridge north of Currant Creek looking east ~ near the Buckboard Crossing of the Green River, Flaming Gorge

“This is the most desolate looking country that I ever saw.”

When John Lowery Brown made this observation on July 19, 1850, he was talking about this stretch of trail in southern Wyoming. Standing here a few weeks ago with his diary in my hand, it seemed little changed in 168 years. It’s still mighty desolate country. I couldn’t help but think about the even more desolate country that lay ahead on Brown’s route. To the west, things were going to get a lot worse for him and his companions — a group of Cherokee Indians caught up in the Gold Rush to California.

What? You never saw a Western movie about the Cherokee 49ers? Me neither. It’s yet another chapter of colorful American pioneer history that didn’t capture the European-American imagination. It’s so obscure, it’s almost like it never happened. Almost.

I stumbled upon a tantalizing clue studying a National Park Service California Trail brochure. Unfolded, it revealed a map that was nearly four feet long. A web of solid brown lines showed the many ways gold seekers traveled between Missouri and California. Toward the bottom of the map I noticed a dashed line wandering across the southern Plains all by its lonesome. It was labeled “Cherokee Trail.”

Huh? I thought the “Cherokee Trail of Tears” ended in Oklahoma? What’s it doing clear out here in Colorado? Then I remembered a smattering of “Cherokee” place names in the Sierra foothills. There’s a one-horse town, a river bar, a ridge, a camp, a flat, a creek or two — maybe this Cherokee Trail wasn’t about tears but about something else.

The “Cherokee Trail of Tears” refers to the forced march of people from their homes in southern Appalachia to Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) in 1838. They were evicted with little warning, incarcerated in stockades, then made to walk more than a thousand miles through a very cold winter. More than 4,ooo people died from starvation, exposure, and sickness. The events leading up to this horrific removal were complicated but a pivotal component was the discovery of gold on ancestral Cherokee lands in 1799 and 1828.

These early U.S. gold rushes played right into the Cherokee’s hands — at first. They became skilled at placer mining. In fact, they excelled to such an extent that the white men in power eventually took the rich land without even pretending their unscrupulous means were legal.

Many Cherokee families found Oklahoma a pathetic substitute for their homelands. Most tried to make the best of it. They set up schools and started newspapers that were published in both Cherokee (Tsalagi) and English. But when the California gold strike came along, hundreds jumped at the chance to put their placer mining skills to use again — hopefully under more egalitarian circumstances.

The Cherokee advertised for non-Indians to join their wagon trains. One big advantage to throwing in with them was “the Cherokee can pass across the prairies with perfect safety from the molestation of the Indians … as they are on most friendly terms …” They were skilled at keeping the peace between nations when it was in their best interest.

The Cherokee also knew what they were doing when it came to traveling long distances. After the deadly “Trail of Tears”, (over which they’d had little logistical control) they were painfully aware of all the provisions that had been lacking. They weren’t going to let that happen again. And although the Cherokee were skilled farmers, they had also continued to hunt and gather. They knew how to live off the land.

The Cherokee made the crossing with little sickness, few deaths, at least one successful birth, minimal losses of stock, and only one minor inter-tribal hostility. The Cherokee companies sent home articles and letters describing their passage. Several diaries chronicling the journey survived.

In California, many of the Cherokee enjoyed success in the placer mines. Others set up shop or went into farming. An impressive number nurtured the fledgling newspaper business as writers, editors, and publishers. The most famous was John Rollin Ridge, who wrote The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta in 1854. It was the first novel published in California, the first novel published by a Native American, and the first American novel to feature a Mexican protagonist. The story eventually morphed into the swashbuckling character of Zorro — fictional book, comic, and film star in America, Mexico, Europe, and even India.

Basically, these industrious and creative folks got to California and kicked butt.

As I stood on the Cherokee Trail near the spot where John Lowery Brown and the Cherokee ox teams crossed the Green River in Wyoming, it was strange to realize that I knew Brown would make it safely to California and back again to marry his sweetheart. But on the 19th of July in 1850, he had no idea if he’d survive another day.

I looked at the faint trace of the trail as it descended toward the river at a place that’s still called Buckboard Crossing. I touched my lips and blew a blessing into the wind. Good luck fellow travelers! I’ll see you on the other side.

Packed Away

“I felt instinctively that should she ever decide to move one of the surrounding mountains to the other side of the canyon, she would go about it calmly and deliberately, some evening after supper, perhaps. And she would move it – every stick and stone of it – and would ask no help.”

~ Nell Murbarger
“Josie Pearl, Prospector on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert”
Desert Magazine, August, 1954.

The West is rich in stories about strong, independent women. You may have to scratch the surface to find them, but they’re always there. Of course there’s your standard-issue pioneer wives, cowgirls, and widowed ranch women who run the place singlehandedly once their man is gone. But there are others who don’t fit the comfortable categories we’re used to pinning on them. Lately I’ve been thinking about two such gals. They never knew each other but they have one odd thing in common, an extravagance I find hard to explain.

The first is Nellie Bly Baker O’Bryan. Early in life, Nellie seemed an unlikely candidate for becoming a gutsy mountain mama. She started out working as a secretary for Charley Chaplin’s film company, First National Studio. Chaplin noticed her and invited her to play bit parts in his silent films. Eventually Nellie acted in 13 films alongside the likes of Joan Crawford, Edna Purviance, and Chaplin himself. She wasn’t a star, but work was steady and the pay was good. She’d made it in Hollywood.

By 1939, Tinsel Town had lost its luster and she took off for the rugged Sierra. She bought the ramshackle remains of a remote mining camp named Lundy near Mono Lake. She built her home out of boards scavenged from weathered shacks. Eventually she constructed four more cabins, a store, and a restaurant and christened her place the “Happy Landing Resort”. She lived year-round in this remote, avalanche prone canyon and became California’s first licensed fishing and hiking guide. Nellie toughed it out in Lundy until she was almost 60.

I once heard a story about Nellie’s first winter. She was freezing in her makeshift cabin during a typical Sierra blizzard. Snow blew through the cracks and she’d thrown every quilt and blanket she owned on the bed. Through her shivering she remembered a full-length fur coat packed away in a trunk. In desperation, she dug through the trunk, found the coat, turned it inside out, wrapped herself up in the furry cocoon and got back into bed. She said it was the first time she’d been warm in a week.

Many years after hearing Nellie’s story, I encountered the tale of Josie Pearl. She was a bona fide desert rat whose “retirement” cabin sat in a canyon on the edge of the Black Rock Desert. Josie had lived in boomtowns most of her life. She waitressed, ran boarding houses, prospected, and mined — mostly for gold. She was good at it too. When journalist Ernie Pyle visited her in the 1930s, he wrote, “Her dress was calico, with an apron over it; on her head was a farmer’s straw hat, on her feet a mismated pair of men’s shoes, and on her left hand and wrist $6000 worth of diamonds! That was Josie — contradiction all
over …”

Pyle noted something else that, after Nellie’s story, came as no surprise. Inside Josie’s rough cabin was an “expensive wardrobe trunk with a $7,000 seal skin coat inside …” Of course! No hard-ass Western hermit woman would be without one.

There’s no mention of Josie ever sleeping in her fur coat. Or maybe she did sleep in it but didn’t think it worth mentioning. We’ll never know. The funny thing is, every winter when the blizzards start blowing, I think about those fur coats packed away in trunks. Now I’m not a fan of wearing furs. I was brought up when magazines featured Greenpeace pictures of pathetic baby harp seals about to be bludgeoned. But I realize that fur coats used to have a mystique for women that they don’t have now. They represented luxury and status. In cold northern cities, they actually kept you warm. But when Nellie and Josie were young, well-off married women, a warm fur coat was hardly necessary in Hollywood, California or Goldfield, Nevada.

So why did these women haul expensive fur coats out to their ratty cabins in the  sagebrush? It’s hard to imagine many opportunities to dress up in your fur and heels. If they didn’t have a practical use, what purpose did they serve?

Maybe they were like money in the bank — you could always take them to Reno and pawn them in a pinch. But jewelry or coins would have been handier for that.

Maybe it had to do with a certain feminine ideal they couldn’t part with? As long as they owned a fur coat, they were in some magical way, a “lady” by association. Maybe they remembered a woman who felt at home in a more glamorous world.

And they didn’t want to forget her.


In my last post I wrote about the Confederate monument in Waverly, Missouri. That summer morning, I met two little girls playing near the statue. That got me thinking about the statues I grew up around and the impact they had on me. Like the contested Confederate monuments in Charlottesville or Richmond, we also had a towering man on a horse. The statue was “El Cid Campeador” in San Diego’s Balboa Park. It was created in 1927 by Anna Hyatt Huntington, a famous American sculptor. El Cid was a flamboyant Spanish knight brandishing a flag. He looked down on you with furrowed brows, a dagger poised on his belt. So, we too had our mounted military hero with a flag from an extinct nation state.

But that was not my favorite statue. About fifty steps away, in the courtyard of the Hospitality House, was a fountain called “La Tehuana” (Woman of Tehuantepec). She was sculpted in 1935 by local artist Donal Hord. I remember being drawn through the dark Moorish arches into the light of the open courtyard by the sound of falling water. There the stone woman sat, endlessly pouring water from her olla. I had to look up into her serene face, but not too far up. She didn’t tower above me. Instead, it felt like she welcomed me into the embrace of the courtyard and the blue tiled fountain. I could dip my fingers in the water and reach — but never quite touch — the water pouring from the olla. I thought of her as Mother Earth.

I loved her long hair that trailed in two thick braids down her back. Like my hair. And how she sat crossed legged in bare feet, the way I often did. As a little girl, I didn’t think about why I ran to this fountain every time we went to Balboa Park. But looking back on it now, I think I felt validated in her presence. Here, in this public place, women in bare feet with long braids were honored. “La Tehuana” made me feel monumental too.

Finding the Lost Cause

We wrap history around ourselves and we use it to define who we are and we sometimes don’t want to face the fact that the stories we’ve always heard may have been flawed or limited or even wrong.

 ~ Tiya Miles

I made my first cross country road trip earlier this summer. I was tracing family roots back to the Blue Ridge Mountains prior to the Revolutionary War. My route took me through Missouri, the “Gateway to the West.”

One morning I headed toward the Missouri River in search of a Lewis & Clark historical marker. Along the way, I passed through the little town of Waverly. In the center of town was a small park. In the center of the park was a statue surrounded by flags.

Confederate flag? ✔️

Military dude on a horse? ✔️

Historical plaque about Confederate war hero? ✔️

Plaque donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy? ✔️

Yep. I had accidentally arrived in the Land of the Lost Cause.

According to the plaque, the guy on the horse was General “JO” (Joseph O.) Shelby, famous for refusing to surrender and riding into Mexico at the end of the Civil War. Jo Shelby was a wealthy Waverly slave owner who became a leader of pro-slavery bushwhackers before the Civil War. He married a much younger cousin, Betty Shelby, which probably explains why the Betty Shelby Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored this historic plaque.

Later that day I looked up General Jo Shelby. His refusal to surrender seems to portray him as the quintessential unReconstructed Southerner. But Shelby was more complex and thoughtful than that one part of the story implies. Toward the end of his life, he voiced regret for his actions in the Border Wars, telling historian William Elsey Connelley, “I was in Kansas at the head of an armed force. I was there to kill Free-state men. I did kill them. I am now ashamed of myself for having done so. I had no business there. No Missourian had any business there with arms in his hands.”

Over the last hundred and fifty years, there’s been little room for regret and shame in the Land of the Lost Cause. Historical land mines like Shelby’s confession get swept under the rug. So we’re left with yet another statue of a guy on horse beneath a Confederate flag. No apologies and no explanation.

You can tell this statue is a recent addition (2009) to the Confederate pantheon because the horse is kinda wimpy. Its legs are too long, its head too small, and the ears look like an afterthought. If this monument had been made during Reconstruction or Jim Crow (the peak of Confederate monument building) you can be sure the sculptor would have gotten the horse right. I take hope in Shelby’s mutant equine. Maybe it’s a sign that the flaws of the Lost Cause story are finally coming to the surface.

In an article in the Kansas City Sun, Waverly mayor, Barbara Schreiman, said she hadn’t received any complaints about the monument. I hope I’m not the only one who sent that gal a letter.

Sister Cities

On a narrow peninsula in San Diego harbor rises a graceful Japanese bell tower surrounded by a moat. Beneath the sturdy beams hangs a massive bronze temple bell called a bonshō. It’s six feet tall and weighs two and a half tons. The bell is struck from the outside using a wooden beam suspended on chains. A bonshō’s deep tone can carry over twenty miles and reverberate for a full minute. The sound permeates to your bones.

This Friendship Bell was a gift to San Diego from the people of Yokohama in 1958. After the terrible destruction of World War II, President Eisenhower founded the Sister Cities International program as a way to rebuild trust and friendship between nations. The pairing of San Diego and Yokohama was one of the first sister relationships on the West Coast.

Yokohama’s gift is only rung on special occasions and New Years Eve when the local Buddhist Temple invites the community for Joya No Kane, the tolling bell ceremony. It’s customary to ring a temple bell 107 times before midnight and once just after midnight. The sound of the bell purges misdeeds, reveals illusions, expresses thanks, and on the last toll, offers a prayer for a fresh start in the New Year. Buddhists believe the bonshō bells have sacred powers and can even be heard by people who have died — or are not yet born.

I don’t remember being aware of any of these concepts when I was young and my family would go to ring the bonshō. I just remember the excitement of the gathering crowd and the anticipation as we were allowed to cross the moat and climb the steps toward the bell that I could easily fit inside. It took all my strength (and help from my dad) to pull back on the rope attached to the striker log. We’d swing it back and forth a few times, gathering momentum, then we’d let it hit the bell. The vibrations struck my body making it tingle and then continued out into the night like the pulse of the universe. I can still hear it ringing in my ears.

I hadn’t thought about that bell for a long time but then the idea of Sister Cities came echoing out of the past. After the American “War of 2016”, I wondered if it might be a good idea for communities within the nation to become “sisters”? If foreign nations can rebuild trust and friendship, maybe the American people can do it too?

Which begs the question, did President Eisenhower’s vision of Sister Cities even work? Did the people of San Diego and Yokohama learn to understand and trust each other after being mortal enemies?

I think the answer is yes. I may have been a little kid but the significance of the Friendship Bell wasn’t lost on me. The bell’s creator, Katori Masahiko, said, “…part of the spirit of the bell is the wishes and prayers that the people who make [a bonshō] put into it.” And he meant that literally. All kinds of things might be added to the molten bronze before it was poured into the bell’s hand-carved clay mold — copper plates with the names of those who contributed, coins from around the world, broken swords, and even poems and prayers written on paper scrolls. The Japanese concentrated their hopes of peace and healing into the crucible, poured them into the bell, then shared them with us. We could feel it.

What an amazing gift! They could have given us a statue but instead they gave us a sound. And not just any sound. A sound that carries through space and time.

And there was something more. According to foundry bell maker Ikko Iwasawa, “The thing that matters is not the form, but the function, the content, the space inside. … in this space is the bell’s true meaning.” So, from a Japanese perspective, the Friendship Bell is a frame for whatever we might wish to fill it with. It is an emptiness created by peoples’ hope for peace. It is an invitation.

That’s the kind of beauty that can happen between international Sister Cities — reconciliation that transcends (and hopefully ends) human atrocities. As my own country flounders in hatred and conflict, thinking about the Friendship Bell gives me hope. Thank you, people of Yokohama. It’s taken my whole life but I’m gradually learning to appreciate the magnitude of your gift. ありがとうございました


(And thanks to Kongo of for the use of the close up photo of the Friendship Bell.)

Day of Remembrance

Seventy-five years ago, on February 19th, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9066 forcing all West Coast people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes for confinement in inland detention camps. The families only had a few days to prepare and could only bring what they could carry. Successful businesses, farms ripe with crops, houses, cars, pets, Victory gardens, all had to be hastily sold, leased, given away, or abandoned. The majority of the “evacuees” were imprisoned from 1942 to 1946 without criminal charges or trial. By the end of the war, most had lost everything and had to start over from scratch.

This photograph by Dorothea Lange shows an art student at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, June 16, 1942. The evacuation ordeal is only two months old. Already University of California art professor Chiura Obata has set up art classes for his fellow detainees. This woman is probably only a few miles from home at this point but she’ll end up living in some horrid dusty “camp” in Utah or Arizona for years. She doesn’t know any of this yet. Perhaps art will help her survive. As Delphine Hirasuna wrote, “Everything was lost, except the courage to create.”*

As with all of Dorothea Lange’s photographs, this one is beautifully composed and executed. There’s a compositional tension between the vertical streaks of sunlight coming through the doors behind the artist, and the soft light washing over the horizontal surfaces of the tables. The placement of the larger tables focuses our eye on the small table holding the still life. Beneath the fruit bowl is a folded newspaper. It’s the Pacific Citizen, a weekly journal published by the Japanese American Citizens League. The headline is about the Relocation Centers. The paper has just moved from San Francisco to Salt Lake City to avoid being shut down. It will become the communication lifeline for the imprisoned Japanese American community. The whole scene conveys a quiet strength and dignity.

This image, and about 800 more of Dorothea’s Internment Camp photographs, were censored. Even though the War Relocation Authority hired Lange to document the “evacuation,” military officials quietly made sure the public never saw the photographs. For many years after the war, Dorothea didn’t know what had become of her work. Eventually, the prints showed up in the National Archives with “Impounded” written across them.

Those in power didn’t want the public to see photographs of well-dressed, middle-class American citizens, mostly women and children, living in horse stalls with open sewers flowing outside their doors. There could be no pictures of guard towers, barbed wire fences, armed soldiers, and especially resistance. No one was supposed to see the depression and despair on the people’s faces. They had been good neighbors, fellow students, church members, valued customers, and upstanding citizens but now, according to war-time propaganda, they looked like the enemy.

Dorothea didn’t see it that way. She had friends behind the barbed wire and quietly focused her camera on the injustice. Others would have to censor her vision.

* from The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 by Delphine Hirasuna.

For more of Dorothea’s photographs see: Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro (Editors).