By Nathania Sawyer :: Illustration by Micah David
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ollowing the path of history can lead down some difficult routes—especially when looking at European exploration, settlement and expansion in relation to the indigenous peoples who lived here first. But, as Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” and understanding the struggles of those who came before us gives a lot of insight into everything from how our state developed to the continuing struggles between cultures competing for the same resources.
One good place to start is by exploring the journey taken by the tribes of Native Americans who passed through Arkansas on their way to a newly designated Indian Territory during the 1830s.
“The Trail Where They Cried”
Long before Arkansas became a state, the U.S. government, under the leadership of President Andrew Jackson, forcibly removed Native Americans from the lands east of the Mississippi River through a series of land cession treaties. In fact, many of the Native Americans living in Arkansas when it became a state in 1836 had moved here from southeastern states after ceding their lands.
However, the 1830 Indian Removal Act led to the great migration known as the “Trail of Tears.” Approximately 60,000 members of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole tribes were removed from lands in the East and relocated to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). During the difficult journey, thousands died from disease or hardships along the way.
The government moved the tribes not along one distinct road but across a web of land and water routes from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee—all of which passed through Arkansas Territory. Getting across the territory required navigating a variety of terrains and finding routes around a variety of hazards.
Daniel Littlefield, director of the Sequoyah National Research Center in Little Rock, explained: “The travel routes in those day followed the contour of the land, and there were only certain areas where roads could be put—particularly when you’re talking about the areas between Little Rock and Memphis.”
For example, the route had to dip south in eastern Arkansas to avoid what are now known as the Wattensaw Bayou and Cache River Bottoms. “Those swamps were too impenetrable,” said Littlefield.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “They traveled upriver on contracted steamboats and along primitive roads. Large caravans and small independent groups rode west with wagonloads of possessions, herds of horses. Others walked barefoot, wearing thin, ragged clothes. Weather was often a fateful factor as Arkansas experienced some of its coldest winters and driest summers during that decade. The military, private contractors, or tribal leaders arranged supplies of food, fodder and firewood along some paths. Even with physicians assigned to most removal groups, many died from infectious diseases such as cholera, dysentery, measles, and smallpox.”
The phrase Trail of Tears has become most closely associated with the Cherokee Nation’s removal during the winter of 1838–1839. Congress designated a 2,200-mile route commemorating nunahi-duna-dlo-hilu-I (the trail where they cried) as the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail in 1987.
Traveling the Trail of Tears
Several groups, including the Trail of Tears Association, the Sequoyah Research Center, and the Department of Arkansas Heritage have worked to identify the routes, gather information related to the removal and preserve significant locations.
Littlefield says following these metaphorical paths (because most of the original trail routes now lie in developed areas) and catching glimpses of how the people traveled and what they endured provides a much richer experience than just reading about this chapter of Arkansas’ history.
For more information on the Trail of Tears routes, visit aymag.com/historicgems.