The land around the Hiwassee River was a different place 200 years ago. It was a thriving Cherokee community with missions, farmlands, stores, and families. Present-day Charleston was once the location of the federal Cherokee Indian Agency providing protection for the Cherokee people. This was a gateway to a separate nation from the United States of America, the Cherokee Nation.

 "In 1819, the northern side of the river, which now became Calhoun was part of the United States,” explained Calhoun City Manager, Joe Bryan. “On the south side of the river, which was not Charleston at the time, it was just the Cherokee nation. Those two remained two separate nations for almost twenty years."

Soon after America gained its independence from England, the landscape around the Hiwassee began to change. The Cherokee Agency site and the miles around it became Fort Cass, a collection of encampments where Native Americans, mostly Cherokee, were assembled and held under supervision of federal troops. Fort Cass was the headquarters for the entire removal operation.

In the fall of 1838, the agency area was the scene of one of the greatest American tragedies in history, the forced removal of the Cherokee from their eastern homeland on what is now known as the Trail of Tears.

"A lot of it was, if you stay, you can keep land if you pledge you allegiance to the United States,” said Bryan. “But unfortunately at the removal point we forced them to leave to. And then the white man just came and took over."

The Trail of Tears travels 781 miles from Calhoun to Westville, Oklahoma.

The Hiwassee River Heritage Center was designed some 200 years later to ensure the story of the Trail of Tears and other notable historic events don’t get lost in time. Through interpretive panels and displays, the heritage center introduces the stories of early settlers of Charleston, the Cherokee and their forced removal on the Trail of Tears, the Civil War and the eventual destruction of the area. It also provides a way for visitors to record documents and photographs into a searchable database.

Darlene Goins is in charge of most of what happens in the center.

"As far as I can tell I have absolutely no Cherokee in my ancestry, she explained. “But you get the feeling like, my people did this. My people weren't here at that time but they moved in after, they took advantage. So you really get the sense that you were involved whether you were or not."

Goins and other members of the Hiwassee River Heritage Center will continue to tell this story. Visit their website for any other information or to plan a trip.