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A visit to the Brainerd Mission Cemetery finds no Cherokee spirits
SIX FEET OF CHAIN LINK TOPPED WITH three strands of barbed wire send a clear message as we approach the old cemetery. We did not come here expecting to engage in criminal trespass, but we are ghost hunting and the idea of breaking laws and scaling fences adds to the excitement. The sun has already set, but it is not yet dark and I ponder if we should come back later, when we can hide in the shadows, be shiftier, avoid detection. Surely such an entry would make us more acceptable to the spirits. I do not share these thoughts with my girlfriend Lisa who follows behind with her camera.
Reaching the southwest corner of the cemetery, we find a break in the chain link and a low iron gate attached to a knee-high stone wall paralleling the chain link just inside. I am puzzled by such an angry border serving no purpose other than to funnel those who might step over the beautiful stones rather than walk a few yards to the gate.
Above the gate, a large brown sign bears three words in the Cherokee language, followed by this in English: Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Then, in much larger print: Brainerd Mission Cemetery. This is all I know of this place.
There is no lock. The gate swings in with the kind of creak synonymous with all things haunted—and we are granted entry. At first glance, the place seems to have been abandoned years ago. On our right, a shiny granite stone commemorates the life of Shelley Hahn Stack, 1909-2008, remembered as Treasurer of Old Brainerd Mission Cemetery for 31 Years. The marker seems oddly modern and out of place in this forested patch dedicated to the Cherokee people. In front of me and too far off the path to be read by my flashlight, an information board is dense with hand-drawn maps and faded history.
Darkness is encroaching and a monkey grass border in bad need of weeding is all that keeps us on the path. Almost immediately, the path splits tracking east and north. We choose the east fork and follow until it curves north and abruptly stops, leaving us standing between two rows of small, unmarked tombstones. The grave markers lean at odd angles, and have the feel of a mock graveyard created for trick-or-treaters—simple blank slabs with no names or dates.
I sit down amid the stones and listen as Lisa wanders further with her camera. Not far to the south interstates 24 and 75 drone steadily. A jet screams loud and low overhead. Closer and seemingly from all directions I hear brakes squeal, engines accelerate, and transmissions shift. Between peaks in the sounds of human progress around me, I hear a lone insect trill a steady beat from the top of a hickory tree. Other than the occasional crunch of early autumn leaves under Lisa’s feet, this is the only sound coming from inside the walls.
The photographer disappears into the darkness, leaving me to sit in the quiet waiting for creepy shadows, voices on the breeze, unusually cool air pockets, any sign of the otherworldly. Of course I would never want anything to happen to Lisa, but I secretly hope for a scream from the darkness, a loud thud, a sinister laugh, but the only thing delivered on the faint breeze is diesel exhaust. I rise and move on.
I pass through the center of the cemetery where the largest and most prominent monument stands—a short white obelisk atop a large block with extensive script engravings. The entire monument stands roughly six feet and I wonder what great Cherokee chief is remembered here. Not far from the monument, a bench commemorates the Golden Jubilee of the Chickamauga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
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.