In 1830, US president Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, authorizing the forced exodus of tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands and their resettlement in parts of the country that were unknown to them.
One of these Native Americans was a teenage girl from the Euchee tribe who lived alongside Alabama's Tennessee River, which was revered as Nunnuhsae, the Singing River. Her name was Te-lah-nay, and she was sent with her sister and the rest of their tribe to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma, a walk of almost 600 miles due west along what became known as the Trail of Tears.
Te-lah-nay was unable to settle in Indian Territory as none of the rivers or streams there could sing to her like the river she knew, so the young girl decided to walk back alone, guided only by the location of the rising sun each morning. The journey took her five years.
When he was growing up in the town of Florence, where the Euchee people had lived, Tom Hendrix, now 87, was told about his great-great-grandmother Te-lah-nay's walk, among other tales he first heard at his grandmother's knee.
“This started with me in the early 1930s, when my grandmother wrapped me in a quilt one morning and started sharing these beautiful stories with me,” Hendrix told me in his gentle Alabama accent in the shade of the woods around his home.
“They were children's stories – How Brother Rabbit lost his tail, why Brother Turtle smiles, how Sister Hummingbird came to be – and captured this little boy's imagination a very long time ago. And she's made this old man a very, very passionate old fellah.”
When Hendrix also heard the stories of his great-great-grandmother's remarkable double walk of almost 1,200 miles, he knew even at that young age that he wanted to commemorate the journey in some way.
“Thirty-five years ago a Miss Minnie Long came to visit me,” he explained. “She was a Euchee Indian like my grandmaw, from Oklahoma. She came and spent three days and three nights with us, and on the third day, she looked at me and said: ‘Mr Hendrix, you have a problem.’ I said: ‘Yes, I do have a problem. All my life I wanted to do something for my great-great-grandmother, and I have no idea how to do it.’ She asked me if I was talking about a memorial, and I said yes. She then told me: ‘Mr Hendrix, we shall all pass this Earth. Only the stones will remain. Honour your grandmother with stones.’”
So Hendrix did.
The Euchee elder told him to build two walls, one for each journey. She instructed him to use no mortar or cement, and to lay one stone at a time for each step Te-lah-nay made. He decided to use stones from the Singing River.
“I told my wife what I was going to do,” Hendrix said. “And she said: ‘Well, you've got 10 miles to the Tennessee River, but five miles from here, just take a left on County Road 4 and that's where the big cotton gin is with the monstrous scales. Weigh your truck empty, go on to the river and get a level load of rocks. Come back and weigh your truck again. We'll know how many pounds.
My lorry load weighed 900lbs, so today we know there's more than 8.5 million pounds of stones here. But I picked them up and put them on the truck, and carried them off the truck, and then carried them to the wall, so in 35 years, I've picked up about 27 million pounds. I've wore out three trucks, 22 wheelbarrows, 2,700 pairs of gloves, three dogs and one 87-year-old man.”
Hendrix’s wall, now about 1.25 miles long and as high as 6ft, snakes around the woodland outside his home, curling like some giant serpent then disappearing into the trees. It is the largest un-mortared rock wall in the United States, and the largest memorial anywhere to a Native American woman.
Hendrix has the tag Te-lah-nay wore on the forced walk, with the number, 59, printed on it. Tags both identified and dehumanised the group.
Hendrix recounted, “She told people in later years, ‘We all thought the shiny buttons had changed our names… I thought I might need my name when I got back so I brought my name with me,” she said.
In the Oklahoma archives, Hendrix’s great-great-grandmother is listed as “Alabama Female, 18 years old, Number 59, Deceased”. Because she simply disappeared, the authorities assumed she had died. In fact, after walking the 600 miles back to her beloved Singing River, she found love and happiness with a white man she met, Jonathan Levi Hipp – though the two couldn't get a marriage licence because Native American Te-lah-nay was told she was not an American citizen.
At the age of 87, Hendrix has finally stopped adding to the wall. He admits to slowing down a little, and these days he likes to be on hand to greet visitors. “I'm having so many people come, we're open seven days a week. This past Saturday, we had 386 people. People come from all over the world,” he told me.
Hendrix doesn't advertise his wall, but its fame has spread by word of mouth and it has become something of a pilgrimage site.
“We've got some Tibetan monks coming,” Hendrix said. “They've asked to come to three spiritual places when they come to the United States: the Medicine Wheel in Wyoming; the Hopi Indians in Arizona – and this is the third place they've asked to come.”
Tom's Wall, officially known as the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall, is just off mile marker 338 on the Natchez Trace Parkway at 13890 Lauderdale County Road 8, 16 miles northwest of Florence, Alabama. The wall is accessible daily from 8am to 4pm, and Tom Hendrix is usually there to greet visitors.
I wondered how Hendrix would describe himself? An artist? A craftsman?
“A crazy old man, I guess,” he laughed. But Hendrix’s memorial remains a moving tribute to his ancestor, and to the dedication of her great-great-grandson. Only the stones will remain.
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