A Trek Through Tahlequah
Tahlequah, capital of the Cherokee Nation, brims with Cherokee heritage. Explore this charming town with us as we enjoy everything from casinos to a scenic river ideal for float trips.
|Photo: David Fitzgerald|
Since I started working with the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, I have learned that every town, even a small one, has something special. You never know what special thing you may find in Oklahoma’s small towns. So far, I’ve found treasures like rose rocks, hilarious land pirates and great eats in hometown restaurants. In Tahlequah, I found a city proud of its history and heritage - Cherokee heritage.
George M. Murrell Home
We began our exploration of Tahlequah’s Cherokee roots at the George M. Murrell Home. This home was built in 1845 and is the only antebellum mansion left standing in Oklahoma. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is a Certified Trail of Tears Site. George Murrell was a wealthy merchant from the East Coast who married Minerva Ross, niece of the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and made the move to Oklahoma with her family during the Trail of Tears.
We walked up to the house on an unsteady path made of stone that has existed for generations to meet our tour guide. As we sat on the huge wrap-around porch, our guide explained the history of the home which was once part of a large plantation. She told us that the Cherokee tribe brought their custom of owning slaves to Oklahoma with them and that slave labor built this home and worked the plantation fields. During the Civil War, most of the homes in the area were destroyed and this home was one of the few that remained.
The inside of the home held lots of antiques and memories of the life that George and Minerva Murrell enjoyed in the home over the years. George Murrell had a pretty good life in spite of all that was going on at the time. This home is really an historical gem.
After our tour of the home, we walked over to some of the outbuildings on the property, which included a smokehouse and a cabin that slaves or employees of the plantation would have lived in. A volunteer demonstrated some everyday tasks to show us what life would have been like during the plantation’s heyday.
Bells and Whistles and a Wonderful Meal
Off we went to the next attraction, the Cherokee Casino in Tahlequah. This medium-sized casino is just big enough to make you feel like you’re in a big-time casino, but not so big that you feel overwhelmed. You will enjoy your visit in one of two ways - playing the machines or eating the cuisines.
I have never felt so welcome in any other casino, and believe me, I have been to many casinos. The staff was so friendly and accommodating and the machines are not squished together so much that you’re sitting in the lap of the person next to you. I heard so many machines singing as they paid out that it was like a Mariah Carey song full of high notes.
At the Cherokee Casino in Tahlequah, you’re not limited to fast food hotdogs or expensive buffets. What you will find is great food at a great price with mouthwatering desserts to top off an excellent lunch or dinner. We thoroughly enjoyed our lunch and decadent desserts and stuffed ourselves appropriately. You can bet your bottom dollar I will be back if for no other reason than to enjoy an Indian taco with extra sour cream and the peach cobbler that melts in your mouth with a scoop of homemade ice cream on top.
A Cherokee Nation Treasure
Remember how I said Tahlequah is proud of its Cherokee history earlier? Well, our next stop completely confirmed this for me. With a museum, education center, rural village and ancient village tour, the Cherokee Heritage Center exemplifies Cherokee pride.
One of the most striking and memorable exhibits in the museum is a Trail of Tears area with life-size casts of actual Cherokee tribal members during the forced removal. As I entered the Trail of Tears exhibit, the sounds of the wind swirled around me, a woman cried out and a baby whined. The statues sobered me, especially the one of a lady who had just given birth to her baby in the snow. Another was of a child being pulled by a stranger away from her mother who had died. It was a terrible time and the museum has captured this ordeal in a masterful way that makes you feel the pain of those who were on that trail.
Many of the other exhibits in the museum are interactive. You can press a button and watch holograms of real people telling stories of the Trail of Tears. “I was told that it was dead silent on the trail you couldn’t hear a sound through miles and miles of people and ever so often the silence would be broken by a moan or cry of pain,” one young lady said. Sit by a campfire and hear a tribal elder tell stories of the old way of life, or walk into a cabin where a rocking chair squeaks as the family is rounded up and herded into camps to prepare for the forced march.
Speaking of an interactive experience, the tour through Diligwa, a 1710 Cherokee village adjacent to the museum was fascinating and fun. The village shows how the Cherokee people lived in their native lands in the eastern U.S. prior to European contact. Our tour guide, Robert, greeted us at the gate of the village which is surrounded by a huge stockade-type fence. Dressed in buckskin with long, flowing hair, Robert was exactly what you would imagine a Cherokee man from a few hundred years ago would look like – with a dash of Fabio thrown in. A true Renaissance man, Robert greeted us in the Cherokee language, English and German for the visitors from Germany that passed by as we began our tour.
As I entered the Trail of Tears exhibit, the sounds of the wind swirled around me, a woman cried out and a baby whined.
As we approached a small dwelling made of mud and tree limbs, Robert explained that the Cherokee tribe was matriarchal, meaning that the children, the home, and everything in it belonged to the woman of the house. If the husband failed to provide well or misbehaved, the woman of the home simply set his clothes and hunting equipment outside the home and she was rid of him. Robert then invited us into the tribal council house at the center of the village. He explained how the seven clans of the tribe sat in individual sections of the council house and the role that each clan played in governing or supporting the village. He gave us roles to play as heads of the various clans and took us all back in time as we engaged in his storytelling.
As we moved on through the village, Robert had the men singing to us while the women kept time with turtle shell rattles. He showed us how dugout canoes were crafted, taught us how to use antlers to fashion arrowheads, and introduced us to basket weavers sitting by the houses weaving baskets as they would have done long ago. Two of the most interesting activities were the blowgun and stickball lessons. Robert showed us how the river cane was hollowed out with hot rocks to create the gun and how thistle fibers were affixed to wooden shafts to create the blowgun darts that were used on small game such as rabbits. He let us give the blowgun a try using a Styrofoam rabbit as a target. Then it was time to learn about the important role that stickball played in their society. We were each given the opportunity to hurl the small ball at a fish target high on a pole with lacrosse-type sticks. I developed a true appreciation for the Cherokee culture and felt like I had learned enough to become an honorary Cherokee.
B&B and Sugar Cookies Too
Next it was off to a bed and breakfast in town. It felt like I was at a home away from home with the owners of the Mary Geasland Guest House. Mary and her brother greeted us as we pulled up and gave us an excellent tour of the rooms and cottage. The rooms were very well put together, with flat screen TVs, memory foam mattresses, an oversize Jacuzzi tub in one of the rooms and a ‘hostess with the mostest’ who baked us the best sugar cookies in the world. There was plenty of space and privacy and the best prices you could ask for. The Guest House is perfect for an off-the-beaten-path honeymoon or a romantic couple’s getaway. Mary informed us that she does offer a continental breakfast with your stay. But if you are a meat and potatoes person she said you could probably talk her into that too.
War Eagle Resort
The Illinois River was up next, so we headed just outside of town to scenic Highway 10. The road runs right alongside the Illinois River and is home to several canoe and raft outfitters and cabin and camping areas. Today we were invited to visit War Eagle Resort to get a feel for the types of accommodations that are available along the river. As we pulled up to War Eagle Resort, we were invited to hop aboard what once was a school bus, but had now been customized into a lean mean convertible tour bus machine. We jumped into the topless school bus and were taken on a tour of the War Eagle grounds where we found a motel with 32 full-size beds, adorable A-frame log cabins with two bedrooms and kitchens, a bunk house that sleeps sixty, primitive campgrounds and campgrounds with electric hookups. We also saw a swimming pool, a super water slide that is longer than a football field and lighted sand volleyball and basketball courts for their guests to enjoy when they aren't on the river.
But the main attraction at War Eagle Resort is the river itself, and they make it easy to get on the river. They offer float trips of varying lengths in canoes, sit-on-top kayaks and rafts. During the summer months, the convertible school bus will take you and all the equipment you need upstream where they'll help you get launched. Then you can enjoy the day floating back downstream to the resort. At War Eagle, you’ll have plenty of fun, plenty of sun and the planning is already done.
Unfortunately, with all there was to see and do in Tahlequah and the long drive from Oklahoma City, we didn’t have time to take our own float trip this time. This was just fine with me, as I am still learning to appreciate outdoor adventures and need to take baby steps. So I was hesitant as we headed to a public access point on the Illinois River – and it didn’t help any that the area was called No Head Hollow. Here I was coerced into taking off my shoes and socks, rolling up my jeans and stepping into the river to enjoy what my co-workers referred to as the calming coolness of the water. It seemed harmless as I watched them step in, but that didn’t slow my heart rate down any. I cautiously stepped into the water, thinking to myself that avoiding sudden moves should keep me safe and calm. But I quickly discovered that I wasn’t the only living, moving creature in the water that day! Little black guppies were attacking me – OK, maybe they were just exfoliating my feet – but it seemed like a pack of attack guppies to me. And underneath my feet were daggers that were ripping my feet apart – OK, maybe they were just the rocks that line the riverbed – hence the reason that people wear water shoes when doing this sort of thing.
The Illinois River was beautiful and it turned out that I loved every minute of being in it! I would do it again in a heartbeat. Another day of Oklahoma, and all the wonderful things it has to offer, was just what I needed and Tahlequah was a wonderful place to experience it.
- Cherokee Heritage Center
- Cherokee Nation Tourism
- Lake Tenkiller Area - Including Tahlequah
- Oklahoma Indian Country Guide
- Oklahoma Travel Guide and Map Kit
- Native American Culture
- Monthly TravelOK eNewsletter