Trail of Tears 175th Anniversary

Trail of Tears map, National Park Service

Trail of Tears map, National Park Service

Earlier this week the Cherokee Nation marked the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the final group of Cherokees into what is now the state of Oklahoma Arriving on March 24, 1839, this final detachment marked an ending to the Trail of Tears.

According to historians, the term Trail of Tears most likely originated with the Choctaw tribe, the first among many southeastern tribes to be relocated after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Passed by Congress on May 28 during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, this act forced the Muscogee, Chickasaw, Seminole,Choctaw, and Cherokee people to leave their ancestral lands in the southeast. White communities throughout the south largely supported the removal, especially since this meant white settlers would gain access to the farmable and homesteading lands formally owned by these tribes. Traveling with the tribes were white spouses, numerous missionaries who made their homes in Native American communities, and an untold number of African American slaves owned by tribal members.

Though multiple tribes were forced out of their homes, the Trail of Tears has become largely associated with the Cherokee Nation. The trek is known in the Cherokee language as nunahi-duna-dlo-hilu-i, “the trail where they cried.” The trail wasn’t one specific route, but rather a series of numerous paths, many of which passed through Arkansas along waterways and dirt roads. Many Native Americas travelled in wagons while others walked, even during the harsh winter. Of the approximately 16,000 Cherokees who traveled the Trail of Tears, it is estimated that about 4,000 or more died in route.

The Trail of Tears Association, a nine state volunteer network based out of Little Rock, helps assist the National Park service with research and interpretation regarding these numerous routes, educating the public about the numerous paths that cut through the south. In the northern part of the state the Cherokee passed through Pea Ridge and on through Fayetteville in a route known today as the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. In a recent column we discussed the lesser-known Benge route which traveled along north central Arkansas, entering the state via the Current River and traveling on through Randolph County before heading into Fayetteville. Many groups combined both water and land routes with some groups passing through Monroe and Ouachita Counties.

The groups that traveled along the northern part of the state were all Cherokee. But members of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole tribes traveled with the Cherokee along what is now known as the Trail of Tears Historic Trail along the Arkansas River through Memphis, Little Rock, and Fort Smith. The area that would eventually become the city of North Little Rock was one of the busiest places during Cherokee removal with members of all tribes passing through the area. Principle Chief John Ross—the Cherokee leader who left with the final group of 228 members and traveled through Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi,and Arkansas—lost his wife Elizabeth while in route. She was buried in Little Rock.

Further reading:

*If you have suggestions for resources we should include here, please let us know!

Trail of Tears Association 

 Sequoyah Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Trail of Tears, Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture 

Articles on the 175th anniversary:

“Cherokee Nation Marks Trail of Tears anniversary”

“175th year of Trail of Tears’ end commemorated” 

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier 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.