Trail of Tears on the Natchez Trace

Cherokee removal—Trail of Tears—Water Route Overlook, Natchez Trace. ©Michael Haynes/NPS
Cherokee removal—Trail of Tears—Water Route Overlook, Natchez Trace.

©Michael Haynes/NPS

Official Trail of Tears routes crossed the Old Trace in several places. There is no known documentation of exactly how the Old Trace was used to move tribes to access points. Since the Old Trace was a major travel corridor, it is likely that it was the last trail people walked prior to departing on the major removal routes.

What was the Trail of Tears?
In May 1838, Federal troops and state militias began to gather the Cherokee people into stockades. In spite of warnings to troops to treat them kindly, the experience proved harrowing. Families were separated and only given moments to collect cherished possessions. White looters followed, ransacking homesteads as Cherokee people were led away.

Three groups left in the summer, traveling by rail, boat, and wagon. One group, traveling overland in Arkansas, suffered three to five deaths each day due to illness and drought.

Fifteen thousand captives still awaited removal. Crowding, poor sanitation, and drought made them miserable. Many died. The Cherokee asked to postpone removal until the fall, and to voluntarily remove themselves. The delay was granted, provided they remain in internment camps.

By November13, groups of 1,000 each had trudged 800 miles overland to the west. Heavy autumn rains and hundreds of wagons on the muddy route made roads difficult if not impassable. Little grazing and game could be found to supplement meager rations. Two-thirds of the ill-equipped Cherokee were trapped between the ice-bound Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at times during January. Some drank stagnant water and succumbed to disease.

By March 1839, all survivors had arrived in the west. No one knows how many died throughout the ordeal, but the trip was especially hard on infants, children, and the elderly. Missionary doctor Elizur Butler, who accompanied the Cherokee, estimated that over 4,000 died—nearly a fifth of the Cherokee people.

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail
The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail commemorates the forced removal of Cherokee from their homelands, the paths that 17 Cherokee detachments followed westward, and the revival of the Cherokee Nation. The trail passes through 9 different states including Alabama and Tennessee. The sites on the trail, stretching 5,043 miles, form a journey of compassion and understanding.

Benge Route
The detachment led by John Benge began its journey from Wills Valley, eight miles south of Fort Payne, Alabama. The detachment of 1,090 people passed through Huntsville and Gunter’s Landing in Alabama and Reynoldsburg Landing on the Tennessee River in Tennessee, and probably Columbia, Kentucky.

An unimproved path near Sheboss Place (milepost 400.2) along the Natchez Trace Parkway is where they crossed into Hickman County. The Benge detachment ended their journey near present-day Stilwell, Oklahoma, on January 17, 1839.

Bell Route
John Bell led one detachment from the Cherokee Agency at Charleston, Tennessee, westward across the southern part of Tennessee to Memphis and then to Indian Territory. This route is now Highway 64 and crosses the Natchez Trace Parkway at milepost 370.

His party consisted of about 650-700 Cherokee who supported the removal treaty and opposed John Ross. Bell’s detachment also differed from the Ross-allied parties in that it had a military escort. Lieutenant Edward Deas, who had earlier led a party by river, commanded the Bell’s detachment military escort. The Bell detachment took a more direct route than did the Ross-allied parties, and reached Indian Territory in January 1839.

Drane Route
This detachment of 1,070 Cherokee from Georgia had a US Army escort commanded by Captain G.S. Drane. In late June of 1838, the detachment was forcibly marched overland from Ross Landing at Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Waterloo, Alabama due to low water levels in the Tennessee River. They arrived in Waterloo, just west of the Natchez Trace Parkway, in poor condition on July 10, 1838. From there the detachment boarded boats to continue their journey west.

The Drane Route crosses the Natchez Trace Parkway in Alabama at roughly milepost 333 on Lauderdale County Road 14, also known as Waterloo Road.

Water Route
Three detachments of Cherokee, totaling about 2,800 people, traveled by river to Indian Territory. The first of these groups led by Lieutenant Edward Deas left on June 6, 1838 by steamboat and barge from Ross Landing, present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee. They followed the Tennessee River, Ohio River, Mississippi River and the Arkansas River and arrived near Fort Coffee on June 19, 1838.

The second detachment, led by Lt. Robert H.K. Whiteley, left in mid-June and arrived two months later near Stilwell, Oklahoma.

The final detachment, led by John Drew, left in the late fall and arrived in Indian Territory the following March.

The Water Route crosses the Natchez Trace Parkway along the Tennessee River at milepost 328.7.
Map of Trail of Tears routes crossing the Natchez Trace Parkway
Map of Trail of Tears routes crossing the Natchez Trace Parkway



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      Last updated: November 27, 2023

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