The Milkweed Diaries

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Trail of Tears Beans

This year, for the 4th or 5th season, I am planting shiny black beans known as Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans. We will let the beans dry on the vine and harvest them in the late fall for delicious dry black beans. These beans are close to my heart, and I love to plant them and share seeds because their ancestors came from this place, and they are gifts from the people who lived in these mountains before me.

They carry the history of a people that survived brutality, dislocation, and degradation. And planting these beans represents to me a homecoming of a land-based, earth-honoring tradition in these mountains.

In 1839 the US government forced most of the people of the Cherokee nation to walk west from Georgia, North Carolina, northeastern Alabama, and Tennessee to what is now Oklahoma. The distance traveled by most of the people was about 1,000 miles, with the vast majority of the travelers making the entire journey by foot. The forced march, now called the Trail of Tears, began in October of 1839. Cherokee people walked the thousand miles over the course of a harsh winter. The walk began after many had already been held for months in internment camps, where conditions were degrading, violent, and cruel. By the time the removal was over, roughly one-third of the men, women, and children had died.

When the time of internment and removal began, many Cherokee people were forced to pack quickly. People took only what they could carry, often having to decide in a hurry what was most important to them that could be taken on the journey to an unknown new home. Some people carried seeds.

The seeds of dry black beans now called the Cherokee Trail of Tears Black Bean were grown in the mountains of Western North Carolina for thousands of years. Someone carried them on the Trail of Tears. A Cherokee man in Oklahoma donated seeds from this bean variety to the Seed Savers Exchange and so we are able to bring a
few back to the mountains to plant in our river valley, where Cherokee people and their ancestors lived for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.

The Cherokee people, and the other peoples of the decimated cultures that remained after the European invasion of the Americas saved the seeds that had been planted by their ancestors: corn, squash, herbs and flowers, grains. And beans: hundreds, maybe thousands of ancient varieties of beans.

Skimming through the Seed Savers Exchange catalog it is easy to see the fingerprints of First Nation seed-keepers:

Hopi Gold: "another strain guarded as ancient legacy by Hopi elder James Koorshongsie." Hyote: "from Violet Ruben, Seneca, Tonawanda Reserve." Seneca Stripe: " via Geraldene Green, Seneca Faith Keeper, Cuttoragus Reserve." Speckled Algonquin: "via Tamarack Song of WI, originally from Algonquin Indians of upper Midwest." Taos Pueblo Red: "Native American name is Ta-pie-eh-na, red-streaked pod, red seed, on of traditional foods cooked for boys during training in the Kiva. . .from the late Old Joe Concha."

What is our responsibility to these elders? How can we honor and give gratitude to James Koorshongsie, Violet Ruben, Geraldine Green, Tamarack Song, Old Joe Concha, and all of the unnamed figures in the largely unwritten history of the food on our tables?

How do we retrace the steps of these ancestors and recover the intimacy with the natural world that was at the core of their systems of living? By planting a bean, covering it with dirt, giving it water and sun. By encouraging all of the life in the soil and air and water that nurtures the seed: worms, beneficial insects, microscopic life forms. By cultivating intimate relationships with the plants that feed us and the earth, air, water, and light that feed them. By preserving the seeds that sustain human life for another generation.

Nurturing the small bean plants in my garden, I honor the lost, forgotten, fragmented, and violated cultures and people that stand at the beginning of an unbroken chain of life between the tiny green plants in my garden and the plants grown by peoples of the Americas before European invasion.

Harvesting the beans in the fall, I invoke and offer gratitude to the people who stewarded, protected, and cultivated the bean-ancestors of my garden plants. I say a prayer to the earth for the restoration of human relationships with the natural world.

Planting beans in my garden, I give thanks.

The Swananoa Valley river bottom land where we are growing food, where people have grown food for thousands of years....


Quadashka said...

I too share the heritage of my forefathers that saved the Cherokee Trail of Tears Black Beans. For the second year now my vines have topped 6 feet. They seem to love the place they are in and are very happy and loved.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful essay! Very touching and inspiring. I grew these beans this year from a sample of seeds a neighbor gave me. I am harvesting dry beans now to plant out next year. My seeds are four different types though: solid black, pink and black speckled, tiger eye brown, and white. I can only assume they have crossed with other beans. any ideas?


Milkweed said...

Hi Robing, and thank you for visiting and much gratitude for your comments on this post!

I would say that your beans most definitely crossed - I have a great reference book called "Seed to Seed" (Suzanne Ashworth)about seed saving. She says that any changes in seed coat color do indicate crossing in the previous generation...

I recently wrote another post about these beans (Local Protein, Sept 08). I had been saving seeds for a few years but found that mine had crossed, and now it looks like the ones I planted this year, which I bought from Seed Savers Exchange, were crossed too before they came to me! Arg!

I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

Bill Fordham said...

We are growing these beans for the first time along with corn and squash on our small allotment in Surrey, England.


It looks like we will have a good harvest and the beans will be dried to use throughout the Winter months.

We would be very interested to know of any dishes that you can use these beans in.

Bill & Heather

Milkweed said...

Thanks for finding me, Bill & Heather. . .I would love to see photos of those beautiful black beans growing at your place across the pond!

I make black bean chili with them, bake them with tomato sauce, serve them over rice with homemade salsa, and (my favorite) slow cook them with mole sauce. How do you cook them?

Bill Fordham said...

We have a blog showing how our patch has developed from rough pig pasture to cultivated land.

You can find it here :

No pictures of our beans yet, but I hope to publish some soon. We are growing the beans with corn and squash in 'three sisters' fashion.

We have never cooked these beans before as this is the first time we have ever grown them... the black bean chili sounds good though !

Prairie Sunset said...

I am Muscogee Creek and mother says to plant the bean with red bud flowers for a larger yield. I am trying it this year. Thanks for your essay it means so much when people honor the heritage of indigenous peoples.

Milkweed said...

Thank you, Prairie Sunset - that means a lot to me to hear. I love the redbud tip! It might be hard here because the redbuds bloom so early, too early to plant beans. Do you know about Fife Creek okra, another heirloom with a connection to the Creek people?

abbye west pates said...

I Googled the Cherokee black bean and found this post! This is my first year to eat them. Do you also harvest them and eat them in their pods, just like string beans? Would love the advice!


Milkweed said...

Hey Abbye,
No, they're not very good as green beans. Best to let them dry on the vine and harvest as dry beans. Good luck and enjoy!

Tennwalk said...

I was wondering where could i purchase some of these beans?

Milkweed said...

I originally got my seed from the Seed Savers Exchange - they are at They have a retail catalog and their seed comes from the original seed gifted to them by Dr. Wyche, whose Cherokee ancestors carried the seed to Oklahoma.