Manitou Cave is located near the town of Fort Payne, DeKalb County, Alabama, in the side of Lookout Mountain. The area around the cave was once a major Cherokee settlement. The cave was discovered and probably used by early residents of the area. Manitou is not a Cherokee word, it is Ojibwa, which means “Spirit.” Manitou Cave is the Caucasian name given to this site. At the time of the American Revolution, the valleys, mountains, and ridges now included in DeKalb County were within the Chickamauga settlements of the Cherokee Nation. The area around Manitou Cave was then called Willstown, and was composed of many settlements located in DeKalb County. The Cherokees presence in this area resulted from many Cherokee people moving out of their heartland to the east to avoid encroaching white settlers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Decades later, the Cherokees served as valuable allies of the United States during the Creek War of 1813–1814. Though the Cherokees fought bravely for US General Andrew Jackson, he later campaigned for their removal.
Probably early in the 19th century, George Guess, better known as Sequoyah, moved from Tennessee to Willstown with his mother. In addition to leading an active role in war and politics, he was a veteran of the Creek War, Sequoyah’s greatest legacy to the Cherokee Nation was his development and invention of a syllabary, a written version of the Cherokee spoken language, that enabled the Cherokees to record their traditions and establish a native language newspaper. Some of the best known Cherokees from the early to mid-19th century were the Ross brothers. One of the brothers, John, led the Cherokee Nation’s fight to stay on their lands. John Ross took the battle for sovereignty to the US Supreme Court in 1832. Though the court ruled for the Cherokees, President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the decision. The forced removal of the Cherokees began in September, 1838. Willstown, known as Fort Payne today, served as one of 13 collection stockades and as one of five debarkment stations scattered throughout the Cherokee Nation, and was the only one located in Alabama. From these places, 13 detachments of emigrants departed. About 1,200 Cherokees marched over the John Benge Route, the north Alabama trail named for its Cherokee conductor, to join the mass-exodus along the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory. The Trail of Tears may well have passed below Manitou Cave.
The Cherokee presence is still very much a part of this area of Alabama. Many citizens claim Cherokee ancestry, insisting that their ancestors hid and/or escaped to avoid removal. There are some that believe that some of the Cherokees hid in the caves, Manitou being one of them. With the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation, Manitou Cave was vacated in 1838.
During the American Civil War, it became a troop encampment, and saltpeter was mined from the cave during the later years of the war. Manitou Cave was opened by the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company in 1888 as a tourist attraction. It remained open as a public park through the early 20th century. There is evidence in the cave that Manitou was prepared to be used as a fallout shelter during the Cold War. After years of neglect, Manitou was reopened as a commercial cave in the mid 1960s, and it remained open until the mid 1970s. In the years since it was closed, Manitou had been largely neglected.
In 2014, Annette Reynolds and a relative were told that Manitou Cave and the land surrounding it was for sale, so they went to look at the cave. When Annette arrived, she found the gate standing open. Annette walked in, and found herself in awe of Manitou’s sacred beauty, and quietness. Annette stated that as she walked further through the cave, and saw the damage that had been done, she knew in her heart that she had to save this historic Cherokee relic.
Annette set out on a quest. In 2015, she raised enough funds through anonymous donors to purchase Manitou Cave and the surrounding land. She founded Manitou Cave of AL, Inc., a non-profit organization whose mission is protection, preservation, conservation, and education. Annette grew up in Miami, home to the Seminole Indians, descendants of the Native Americans who escaped the forced removal. She lived in Oklahoma, among the descendants of the Native American settlers, on the same land allocated to their ancestors, west of the Mississippi River at the end of the Trail of Tears. While living in the Southwest, Annette visited cliff dwellings, kivas, and pueblos. She learned about Native American traditions such as black pottery, talking sticks, and basketry depicting “The Man in the Maze.” Her daughter and granddaughter lived in Maggie Valley which is next to Cherokee, North Carolina. Annette has participated in many sweat lodges, and has always liked the Native American creation stories which are animal/critter/nature based. Annette loves sacred circles, and has made gods eyes, dream catchers, drums, medicine wheels, and labyrinths. She has led hundreds of labyrinth workshops as a meditation tool, which may be why she has become known as “the Labyrinth Lady.” It is through these ties, spiritual, ceremony, mythology, medicine, crafts, Mother Nature, and environmental respects, that Annette is deeply connected to the Native American culture. These deep connections make Annette uniquely qualified to be the steward of Manitou Cave.
In just a few short months, Manitou is beginning to heal as a peaceful, spiritual place. The bats and other cave life are beginning to once again call Manitou home. Once the cave was purchased, it was gated to help protect it from any further damage. Many donors, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, helped to fund the gate. Volunteers from the Birmingham Grotto, the caving community, and the friends and neighbors that live around Manitou Cave, have donated hundreds of hours of work and support. The land and water surrounding the cave are once again becoming beautiful and peaceful. Since Annette has become the steward of Manitou Cave, she has become affectionately known as “The Cave Lady.” She is happy to share the history of Manitou, the Cherokee history, and the beauty of this natural, living museum and sacred place.
The writer of this article wishes to thank Annette Reynolds for her help in the research and fact checks with this article. The 2016 SERA committee thanks Annette for leading tours into Manitou Cave this year. You can reach Annette at email@example.com.