Travel Blog

The Slow Road to Deadhorse

Wichahpi Stone Wall, Alabama

I headed north, crossing the broad expanse of the Tennessee River, leaving the storied town of Muscle Shoals behind me.  After 20 minutes, just shy of the Alabaman border, I pulled over, parking my car on a gravel road next to a soaring field of corn.  I wandered into a thicket of beech and oak where I was greeted by Tom Hendrix.  He smiled warmly at me, shaking my hand: “welcome.”  His eyes were gentle and warm, eyelids drooping just above his pupils. He had a full head of grey hair and his skin was weathered, darkened by the sun and, evidently, his ancestry.  His bulbous nose flared broadly at the nostrils.  If you didn’t know his background he’d be difficult to place.  Tom was a descendent of the Yuchi Indians.

“This is the wall I built,” Tom said pointing in both directions at a broad six-foot high stone wall meandering out of sight into the dense forest.  “I built it to honour my great-great grandmother, Te-lah-nay.  Please, James, take a seat.” 

One of the cruellest acts in the history of humanity occurred here in the early 19th century.  As the early European settlers successfully established themselves along the eastern seaboard their ambitions grew.  They wanted to cultivate more land.  However, there was an issue: Indians.  It’s not known exactly how many Native Americans were here before the Europeans arrived but a consensus of around 10 million is a fair guess.  “President Andrew Jackson signed The Indian Removal Act into law in 1830,” Tom told me.  “In 1839, the Yuchi Indians around here were rounded up by government soldiers to be shipped off west of the Mississippi to their new home in the Indian Nation of Muscogee, Oklahoma.  During this process, the soldiers found two young girls, scared, hiding, not wanting to leave the home they loved.  One was my great-great grandmother, the other her sister.”

The mass removal of Indians became known as the Trail of Tears.  Millions were marched off their sacred homelands. An untold number perished.  Te-lah-nay spent one winter in Oklahoma but she desperately missed her home.  Her tribe believed a spirit-woman lived in the Tennessee river, guiding them with singing as the waters gurgled over the stones.  She didn’t hear this singing in Oklahoma.  The following spring Te-lah-nay snuck out of camp and started walking home.  It was a journey that would take her five years to complete.

“This wall here represents her journey against her will,” Tom said, pointing right.  “And this wall, her journey home. Come,” he said, walking with me along it. The warm forest was alive with cicadas, flies, chirping birds; twigs cracked under our feet as we walked. I pictured Te-lah-nay, a brave but scared young girl walking through this forest, five years alone. 

"She eventually made it back here," Tom told me. "But as her tribe were all gone, she started assimilating into the local community.  She met a local white man - he was to become my great-great grandfather.  They wanted to marry but the local court wouldn't let them: Te-lah-nay was not recognised as a US Citizen."

It took Tom 37 years to build the walls.  He moved 8.5 million pounds of rock on his own; that’s equivalent to the weight of 1,400 elephants.  “Building this wall wore out 22 wheelbarrows, 2,700 pairs of gloves, three dogs and one old man.”  Tom smiled fondly, content with his achievement. Today it’s the largest unmortared wall in the US and the largest memorial to an Indian woman.  The wall is recorded in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

“What was your motivation, Tom?” I asked him.

Tom stopped to look at me.  “Well,” he said, scratching his head, “I’d always wanted to find a way to honour my great-great grandmother. But I didn’t know how.  Then, many years ago, I met an elderly Yuchi Indian lady.  She became my spiritual teacher.  One day she said to me, ‘We shall all pass this earth. Only the stones remain.’”