There’s been much ado about memorials of late, many which, sadly, draw people to opposing sides and defeat their intended purposes. So it was refreshing recently to experience a memorial not embedded with controversy, not erected for profit, not seeking the glamour of fame. This opportunity arose when, once again, my wife dragged me reluctantly, along with our 10-year-old grandson, Wesley, on one of her intently planned journeys. The miles we drove were few but the three-day adventure carried me an untold distance.
The first evening we attend a family reunion in Colbert County, Alabama—a gathering of descendents of Colonel George Colbert (aka, Tootemastabbe, Chickasaw Chief) my wife’s third great-grandfather. We share a covered dish supper and fascinating conversation with these Chickasaw-Scots and with Chickasaws, Cherokees, Creeks and Choctaws visiting from Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Alabama and Texas, to name a few, whose ancestors survived or perished on the Trail of Tears.
The next day we drive into the woodlands adjoining the Natchez Trace and here, just above the “Devil’s Backbone,” my wife introduces Wesley and me to Tom Hendrix, descendent of the ancient Native American Yuchi tribe. The three of us sit under the canopy of hardwoods near a meandering stone wall, listening. For a couple of hours we remain entranced by his words—the stories that have traveled across generations are now shared with us and we see why his Yuchi people call him “Stonetalker.” Three decades past, Tom felt an urgent need to find some way to tell the journey story of Te-lah-nay, his Yuchi great-great-grandmother, born in the Shoals. We learn that in the 1830s, 13-year-old Te-lah-nay, having just witnessed the murder of all her family, is forced to walk with thousands of Creek, Chickasaws, Choctaws and Cherokees, the many miles of hardships, sickness and deaths, to the West. Even before reaching Oklahoma Territory she yearns for her home on the “Singing River” in Colbert County so much that she determines to return. Shortly after the group reaches their destination, she manages to escape the Indian Territory West, and travels alone for three years, finally reaching home to hear the music of her beloved “Singing River.” This lone remnant of the Yuchis marries and produces a daughter who passes this story on to her descendents, eventually reaching the ears of her great-great-grandson, Tom Hendrix.
After much reflection, Tom formulates a plan—a way to keep alive the story of his great-great-grandmother’s long and difficult journey west far from her birthplace, and her valiant trek out of exile, back to Alabama’s Tennessee River. He would build a wall of stone gathered from the nearby shoals, the shoals that sang the songs beckoning Te-lah-nay back home.
He drives down to the river bank, loads his truck with river rocks and begins laying the wall in his woodland front yard. A half-ton of rocks does not make much of a wall, so Tom continues his frequent treks to the river bed. Three decades later, after wearing out three trucks and dozens of pairs of gloves, Tom has laid 9,300,000 pounds of rocks to build the wall honoring Te-lah-nay. But it is not finished. He explains that he personally has laid almost every single stone that forms the wall using no mortar. Only on a few rare occasions has Tom allowed anyone else to place a rock. “Every stone,” he says, “represents a footstep taken by one of the people forced from their home on the westward march.” When Tom learns that our grandson’s blood flows with Chickasaw and Cherokee blood, he invites Wesley to select a rock from his truck and place it on an unfinished section of the wall, a defining moment for us all. The construction continues.
Visitors have come from all over the U. S. and from across the world to leave memorabilia on the Wichapi Wall (meaning “like the stars”). Guided by the wall, they wind through the woods, frequently moved to spontaneously pause for meditation.
It is appropriate that Te-lah-nay’s memorial is near Tuscumbia for two reasons. First, the Shoals area is her birthplace and, second, during that horrendous “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s, the citizens of Tuscumbia noted the conditions of the Indians as they waited to be transported across the Tennessee River and came to their aid. The compassionate Tuscumbians are still remembered for their acts of kindness providing food, clothing and blankets to the starving and ill-clothed native tribes.
One can view this magnificent memorial wall by going to www.ifthelegendsfade.com or better still, arrange a visit by emailing Tom Hendrix at firstname.lastname@example.org. It is a compelling journey into the depths of Alabama history.
For more information on AHF’s “Journey Stories” exhibit, now in Marion through Nov. 10, please visit www.ahf.net/journeystories.