Stone Songs on the Trail of Tears

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While doing some research on local Cherokee history this past week I was reminded of a University of Arkansas Press publication from 2005 entitled Stone Songs on the Trail of Tears: The Journey of an Installation. Written by artist Pat Musick with help from Jerry Carr and historian Bill Woodiel, the book documents the installation of Musick’s artwork—Yokes on the Trail of Tears— along the Benge Route, an alternate path led by John Benge that passes through north-central Arkansas near the Current River and down through Batesville. Much of the path follows what was known at the time as the Military Road.

The installation art piece is made up of five separate wooden yokes with a native Ozark sandstone suspended on steel rods between the oak boards. Designed to represent the struggle and forced removal of families from their homes, these pieces were then placed at points along the route where Musick and her collaborators took photos of the pieces against the backdrop of the largely rural landscape. The Cherokees traveled this route from October 1838 to January 1839. To capture the icy landscape and skeleton trees the Cherokee encountered along the path, Musick and her crew installed the art and took photos in March of 2002. In the photos you can glimpse ice in pools of water, see remnants of former stone walls, and observe how the trail transversed creek beds and steep hills.

In deciding where to place the pieces, Musick and her partners engaged in a year’s worth of historical research to identify twenty-three points along the historic route. “The locations were defined,” writes Musick, “by using survey maps from 1830 to the 1850s provided by the Arkansas State Land Surveyors Office. They were overlaid with contemporary plot maps furnished by each of the county Cooperative Extension Service offices.” When they found correlations between the old Military Road and the current records, they’d first travel to these sites and seek out any evidence of the former route. In most cases the road passed through private property. Often the land owners were aware of the route and could even point to deep wagon ruts in the sandstone. In other cases Musick and her crew were the first to educate the landowners about the historical significance of their property.

The photos begin on Pitman Ferry Road near the Arkansas Missouri line and head southwest to three sites along Catalpa Spring owned by Steve Saunders, then Vice President of the Arkansas Trail of Tears Association. When the installation traveled through what is now the town of Batesville, city workers helped to set up the artwork and take it down after the shoot. A photo from a frosty morning on Wray Farm near Calico Rock clearly shows evidence of the once frequented road: a thin layer of ice covers the pools of freezing rain gathering in still visible ruts. The installation nears its end at Ballard Creek, Oklahoma where the artist and her crew find more tracks of wagon wheels imprinted in the flat sandstones along the creek. After the installation, the five pieces were purchased as part of the permanent art collection of Tyson Foods, Inc in Springdale where they are now housed near the administration building.

Photos near the end of the book capture what the instillation process was like behind the scenes. There are images of local volunteers helping set up and take down the heavy pieces, shots of some of the property owners who came out to watch the process, and a few images of high school students from Calico Rock who helped to assemble a site near Wray Farm. A short essay by the late Ozark novelist Donald Harington opens the book alongside short essays from both the author and Jack D. Baker, President of the National Trail of Tears Association.

Are you familiar with the Benge Route along the Trail of Tears? Are there stories about this route that have been passed down in your family? I’d love to hear more. You can visit me online at www.boileddownjuice.com where you can also find images from the book and links to ordering information from the U of A Press. Thanks so much for reading.

Further Reading:

Trail of Tears entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas 

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier newspaper in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.