I sit down on the bench under the heavy canopy of hardwood trees that seem almost tragically out of place on the fringe of an old shopping mall whose heyday passed thirty years ago. To my right, I look down a lane badly encroached upon by overgrown boxwoods. The path terminates at the original entrance, and an ornate double hung iron gate closed in by a larger chain link gate. Beyond that, the backdoors of who knows what retail business or dentist offices trace the shapes of gravestones.
Closing my eyes, I imagine fires lighting native dancers and storytellers, drumbeats filling a wood that once must have stretched from Missionary Ridge to Chickamauga Creek. I see travelers on foot kicking up dust along a narrow track where Brainerd Road now lies—the road to Ross’s Landing, and a path many Cherokee walked in 1938 when the Brainerd Mission closed for lack of a people to convert. I listen for the voices of ghosts left behind by those people, but all remains quiet.
Moving on, I find Lisa standing among a crescent-shaped row of benches facing U.S., Tennessee, and Cherokee flags. Each bench is dedicated to a chapter, donor, or officer of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Beneath the flags, obscured by tall grass clearly not mowed in more than a season, a granite marker informs us that this cemetery was founded in 1817 for the Cherokee Indians by the American Missionary Society.
We wander back through the grounds in the dark, exploring gravestones by flashlight. Most of the graves are marked by either rough limestone blocks set in the ground, or unmarked erect rectangular slabs.
Only a handful of the several dozen grave markers scattered about the property are inscribed, and best I can tell, all of these honor missionaries, preachers, and otherwise once prominent or wealthy folks of European descent.
We found only two monuments honoring individual Cherokees. One commemorates the life of The Reverend Stephen Foreman, born October 1807 to Scotch-Cherokee parentage. A gentleman of the old southern type, a scholar of much culture and learning, a writer of prominence, it reads. Among other things, Mr. Foreman is praised on the cast-iron plaque for translating the New Testament into Cherokee and for being in charge of a wagon train when the Cherokee were removed.
The other Cherokee memorialized in the cemetery was Ann Shorey McDonald, Cherokee Grandmother of Chief John Ross, a man who rose to the position of Principal Chief in spite of being only one-eighth Cherokee. Like Foreman, Ross was of Scottish ancestry.
The large obelisk honors an ordained minister and missionary from New England.
Just before leaving, Lisa notices a plaque in the northeast corner of the cemetery. Oddly, it is outside the chain link, but facing in. It offers this:
Established in 1817 by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, (the Brainerd Mission) played an important part in the educational development and Christianizing of the Cherokee. Brainerd Cemetery contains graves of whites and Indians who died in the Mission, which was discontinued in 1838, at the time of the Cherokee Removal.
I found no ghosts in my three visits to the Brainerd Mission Cemetery, but I was haunted in that small patch of wood by how we whitewash our
history to celebrate “winners,” and romanticize or forget losers.
If ever there were Cherokee ghosts in this cemetery, I can only hope they heard the cries of their brothers who, in 1838, walked a long lonesome trail that passed just a few hundred feet away, and joined them for that walk west. If there were ghosts of missionaries in this ground...well...I suppose only their god knows where they are now.