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NPS designated Cherokee house as Trail of Tears site

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Members of the Wilson family sit outside their house around 1900. This photo hangs inside the house, which is now owned by Bob and Nancy Erwin. The National Parks Service designated the house as being part of the Trail of Tears Historic Trail. - Will Chavez

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Owners of the historic Wilson - Erwin house in Cleveland, Tennessee, Bob and Nancy Erwin, share the history of the nearly 200-year-old house with visitors on March 29. The National Parks Service designated the house as being part of the Trail of Tears Historic Trail. - Will Chavez

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Coreen Donnelly, left, a landscape architect with the National Parks Service, Oklahoma Trail of Tears Association member Mildred Taylor, and Tennessee Trail of Tears President Debbie Moore visit the Wilson-Erwin house on March 29. The National Parks Service designated the house as being part of the Trail of Tears Historic Trail. - Chad Hunter

CLEVELAND, Tenn. – A house built around 1826 in present-day Cleveland by Alexander Harvey “Harve” Wilson for his Cherokee bride, Jane Swan, has been designated as being part of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail by the National Park Service.

Trail of Tears Association members, the NPS, a Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce representative and Charleston-Calhoun-Hiwassee Historical Society members gathered March 29 on the lawn of the house to dedicate an NPS sign designating the property as a Trail of Tears site. 

The NPS partnership certification agreement signed in 2014 states the Wilson-Ervin House at 914 Walker Valley Road meets the national historic trail criteria established by the National Trails System Act. In 1838, Cherokee people traveled through Cleveland on their way to holding camps in Charleston, just northeast of Cleveland, and the tribe’s makeshift capital at Red Clay was nearby. 

During the ceremony, the house’s current owners, Bob and Nancy Erwin, spoke about acquiring the house in 1979 and its history. Bob said it’s believed the house was built between 1826 and 1831. One story about the house is that it had been built before 1826 “in the condition of a log cabin,” and after Wilson and Swan married in December 1826 and moved in, they expanded it. 

“There’s really no good written records of those early years, but there are lots of traditions within the family. Family traditions are sometimes accurate; sometimes they are not. They are all that we can tell you at this particular point,” he said. 

He said family stories state Alexander got along with his Cherokee neighbors and was accepted by the Cherokee Nation. Behind the house is a stream, and beyond that there was once a field that was used for stickball play, the “Cherokee version of knock down, drag out,” he said, and the Cherokees held meetings next to the stream and played in it. 

“Apparently, what we can conclude from those early two years is that he (Wilson) fit in very well with the Cherokees. The only problem we’ve ever identified is that in one of the ball games it got just a little rougher than usual and one or two of them had just a few too many, and a couple of people were killed. He was called out to restore order, which apparently he did. Obviously, he was well received by the people, so he could infuse some degree of order,” Bob said. 

Wilson and Swan had five children. She died around age 39. Wilson remarried about a year after Swan’s death to Sarah (who was called Sally) Ross, who was related to Principal Chief John Ross. Bob said he did not know how closely she was related to Chief Ross. Sally died when she was 29. 

Wilson eventually created a 1,000-acre farm, which was passed on to his and Sally’s son, Wood Alexander Wilson, before another descendant, Tom Wilson, inherited the farm. 

“He (Tom) was a very likable person,” Nancy said. 

After being in the Wilson family for approximately 153 years, the house was sold to the Erwins in 1979. 

“Bob said to me, ‘do you want that house?’ and I said yes. It was really for me,” Nancy said. “It was just an impulsive, emotional bond. There was something here. I don’t know what it was.”

After entering the home, a statement from Bob and Nancy hangs near the front door with a photo of the Wilson family in front of the home about 1900. 

The statement, in part, reads: “Through the years, we have come to love and respect the house for it continues to stand true, providing comfort and shelter for those who are privileged to live within its walls. Our feelings about the house have been kindled by more than an interest in its rich history or by a curiosity about its past days. Rather, they spring from a feeling of special kinship with those who lived here before us, including our Cherokee predecessors. We sense the integrity of their ways of life and of their deep feelings of love for this land.”


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