Wrong turns on backroads near the Oklahoma-Arkansas line had me running late, but the kindly landowner drove down the twisting drive to unlock the gate, then led the way across a field. She came to stop on a hill overlooking a stream and pointed toward the grave of one of the oldest Cherokee to survive the Trail of Tears: the elder I-na-du-na-i.
His name translates as “a snake goes along with him,” simplified in English as Goingsnake.
He was born in 1758 near the junction of Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, and died in the Cherokee Nation of Indian Territory in 1840. Known for his eloquence, Goingsnake became a town chief and speaker of the Cherokee National Council. His grave may have the oldest legible birthdate on a gravestone in Oklahoma.We parked at the edge of the field, looking down a gully with long grass and brush. I hiked out in the direction she pointed, tromping back and forth with flashlight waving as I approached the water of Ward’s Branch Creek and headed back up – no luck. We conferred and moved a little, and I kept looking, crunching through icy patches, picking my way through sticks and clumps of grass. Night had fully descended, and the temperatures had dropped into the 20s. Still no sign of a grave.
On the last sweep heading back up, my foot caught in a pile of branches and down I fell. I lay face up on the cold ground, looking upward though puffs of icy breath. The woods were quiet, and the stars brilliant in an inky sky.
This is the view that Chief Goingsnake gazed up to at night. This is the sky that awaited him after the forced march, the sky just inside the border of Indian Territory.
His departure on the Trail of Tears – the first of 13 relocation drives to be undertaken by 14,000 Cherokee – was witnessed by William Shorey Coodey, nephew of Cherokee Chief John Ross. Coodey noted that the sky itself seemed to protest as the Cherokee set out from their homeland. In a letter to a friend dated Aug. 28, 1838, he told of the scene as Goingsnake stoically began the trek:
“At length the word was given to ‘move on.’ I glanced along the line and the form of Going Snake, an aged and respected chief whose head eighty summers had whitened, mounted his favorite pony, passed before me and led the way … At this very moment a low sound of distant thunder fell upon my ear. In almost an exact western direction a dark spiral cloud was rising above the horizon and set forth a murmur. I almost fancied a voice of divine indignation for the wrongs of my poor and unhappy countrymen, driven by brutal power from all they loved and cherished in the land of their fathers, to gratify the cravings of avarice.”
Goingsnake survived the march, and lived a year and a half after his arrival in Indian Territory. He was buried far from the land of his fathers, overlooking the creek now frozen below in the darkness.
I left that night, returning weeks later in the bright of day to find his gray granite gravestone nestled among trees. The site is surrounded by a chain-link fence, topped by his name welded in a tribute in rusty rebar. Silhouetted against an overcast Oklahoma sky, the block letters are textured snakes, standing guard over the bones buried nearly 180 years ago in the land of the distant thunder.
Editor’s note: An ongoing series exploring the final resting spots of Oklahoma’s earliest residents, with gravestone birthdates pre-dating the American Revolution.