Ironically, the Mantle Rock Nature Conservancy site is located a mere two miles north of Joy in Livingston County, but the history is anything but happiness. Trekking through the woodlands, one discovers numerous bluffs, caves, crevices, shelters, and rock formations that might have served as protection from the elements, but during the harsh winter of 1838-1839, there were not enough places for about 1,800 Cherokees to take respite from the harsh weather, and they could not turn back as their homelands longer existed.
“While the Ohio River, to the north and west, was not frozen all the way across, it was full of large ice floes that prevented the scheduled ferries from transferring the Cherokees who were a part of the Peter Hildebrand detachment,” explained Jerrel Jacobs, anthropologist from Southern Illinois University on Friday. “There was nowhere that the ice was solid enough for them to walk across — some with horses, all carrying personal possessions, along with women, children, and babies who had been born along the way. All they could do was look for a place to hide from the weather, and there were just not enough places to shelter from that kind of winter.”
Escorting a walking tour, organized by the board members of the recently reorganized Mantle Rock Native Education and Cultural Center of Marion, Jacobs pointed out native trees, grasses, and herbal plants that the Native Americans believed were placed there by the Creator for their healing and sustenance. Along the way, the walkers dodged the antics of “acorn dive-bombing” from a few squirrels taking aim from above, but that just added to the journey as the walkers kept a steady pace toward the 30-foot high natural sandstone bridge that spans 188 feet.
Once there, the stillness and silence only served as a reminder of what must have taken place inside the walls of the caverns and crevices. Even the young children, who were a part of a home school group were quieted by the awe and the grandeur of the natural formation. Jacobs, whose study of anthropology led him to an interest in the Native Americans because of his university mentor, told several stories to the children — one in particular about the lute and how it came to be fashioned to create such beautiful music.
“It is believed that every good creation is for another person, rather than self,” Jacobs added, “and the lute had its own place in the history of the people.”
A group of young children being so attentive to the music of the lute from Jacobs was mesmerizing for all, as Jacobs played “Mother Earth is Crying,” from the Dakota tribe. It later inspired Adai Holmes to sing a single verse of “Amazing Grace” in native Cherokee. The children were also curious about the turtle, who was a gift from the Creator, to help cleanse the waters of pollution.
After a picnic break at the eastern end of the mantle, the hikers were challenged by a series of exposed roots, loose shale, and narrow crevices to traverse, but with some handholding and support from the stronger, more agile hikers, those who were less steady on their feet were able to complete the journey with several large, flat stones to rest upon along the way. There were so many deep caverns and rock formations created when the area was an underground sea, that there was more than enough opportunities to ponder what must have happened during that treacherous winter.
“To the Native American, everything has a spirit,” explained Jacobs, as he continued to point out the flat smooth stones and the leaves of the various trees. “It all comes from the Creator,” he repeated. There were passion fruit vines, hickory nuts, buck brush, and the rose hips were ready, but the hikers left everything in place, as is the custom of a nature conservancy.
As the young children left to return to their school, the older group moved to the Mandy Falls area to learn the story of Amanda Flanary. Her mother reportedly fled from the soldiers at the beginning of the Trail of Tears, but as a young woman, she returned to the area where she later had a family. Now a part of the conservancy, the flat smooth ledges of the falls lead northward to the Ohio River, and even though the group found only small streams and a ponding of water in various areas, board member Stella Brown explained: “During periods of heavy rain, the sound of the falls is beautiful; all you can hear is the rush of the water as it cascades from ledge to pool and back to the ledge again. For reasons known only to her, Flanary visited regularly to hold vigil for the Cherokees.”
Brown then led the group to the depression in the rock ledge that is the spot where Flanary would build a fire and tend it through the night, as she meditated.
While board members of the Mantle Rock Education Center encourage visitors to explore the site and study the history of the peoples who journeyed in the area and whose spirits that many believe, are still there, they reminded the public that the area is fairly rugged.
“We have plans and hopes that we can find enough volunteers to help clear the paths, so that visitors can walk and hike safely, but it all takes hours of work and people who will volunteer their time. A forest reclaims itself,” Brown said.
“The Mandy Falls area is particularly difficult to access, as the access road is rutted and blocked after only a short distance. The rocks and ledges are covered in moss and lichen in places and the ponded water will make it slippery, but finding a good resting spot provides peaceful, calm, and beautiful surroundings in any season of the year.” Brown added that all visitors are reminded to leave the plantings, rocks, and natural formations as they found them, but to collect any man-made litter that might have been left behind from those who might not have been as considerate.
More guided tours will be offered in the future, along with classes and displays at the center just east of Marion on Sturgis Road. While the Web site is under construction, activities and plans are posted on the group’s Facebook page. Any groups or individuals who want to volunteer to reclaim the area should contact the board members. Alyssa Gill may be contacted at 635-1524.