An 18-story office building in Vinings with sweeping views of the Atlanta skyline is a strange place for a statue memorializing one of the most horrific chapters in American history.
The building at 2727 Paces Ferry Road is separated from the road by a hilly forest. In a courtyard off the front lobby is a tall bronze statue of a woman, barefoot, her hair pulled back into a braid, with a child clinging to her leg, its face buried in her dress.
The woman’s left hand holds the bottom of her apron, creating a fold filled with something. She is extending her right arm. In that hand is a piece of fruit — a peach with a stem and leaf.
A bronze plaque nearby identifies her as Nancy Still, a member of the Cherokee Nation who lived near the Creek native village of Standing Peachtree. Hilarie Johnston is the sculptor.
The woman who raised me, and is as much my mother as my actual mother, Bea Bea Mize, was part Cherokee and wore a beaded headband to work in our house every day, a touch of color to offset the white uniform. She often told us the stories of her ancestors, who hailed from the North Georgia mountains.
In elementary school, we learned about the Trail of Tears. In my remembering, the Cherokee people were driven off their land and forced to walk across nine states.
I later learned about Standing Peachtree and the Creek Nation. I didn’t know then Buckhead was on the cusp of the two nations. The Creek were to the south and east of the Chattahoochee River and the Cherokee to the west and north.
When I started studying our area’s history, I learned the Trail of Tears wasn’t just the Cherokee, but all the Eastern Woodland Indians of the South – including the Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole.
I suppose the Trail of Tears is associated with the Cherokee because other tribes, like the Creek, were more sanguine about their fate. In his book, “The Politics of Indian Removal,” Michael Green explained the Creek continued to seek diplomatic solutions to their plight.
As a result, their leaders accepted the terms thrust upon them by the United States, though reluctantly, in hopes of their case eventually being resolved in their favor.
The Cherokee, on the other hand, were more knowledgeable. They fought relocation at every turn, which is part of the reason the United States passed the 1830 Indian Removal Act.
Before the legislation, more than 125,000 Native Americans lived in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida on land that had been in their tribes for thousands of years. Those states wanted the land for their own, and used the levers of the federal government.
In 1836, the United States drove 15,000 Creeks off their disputed lands, relocating them to Oklahoma. More than 3,500 died on the journey.
The Cherokee proved a more challenging adversary. Some left their lands for the new Indian territory, but a vast majority refused. Finally, in 1838, more than 7,000 United States soldiers rounded up the remaining Cherokee — about 14,000 — and marched them halfway across the country. More than 5,000 died.
Which brings us to Nancy Still.
According to the Vinings Preservation Society, Still had six children. Her family had already moved from their home here to New Echota in North Georgia when she wrote a desperate letter to Gov. Wilson Lumpkin. She pleaded with him to allow her and her children to remain in Georgia in spite of the Indian Removal Act.
The plaque at the Vinings office building carries some of her words, taken directly from the letter. I have provided more here, written as she wrote them. Keep in mind English was not her first language: “… my little children has made all the improvements with thare hands and know to looseit this time of year an go in the woods they can’t make nothing to live on … if we are turnt out my children will perish.”
Lumpkin actually intervened on her behalf, telling the survey department to exempt her house from the land lottery. Whether that is revisionist history or his order fell on deaf ears, we do not know.
We do know the federal government forced Still and her children from their home. There is no record of them reaching Oklahoma.