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[graphic] Strengthening the Spirit

Landscape of bare trees and fallen leaves, Northern land detachments route, Pea Ridge National Military Park, Benton County, Arkansas
National Park Service photo

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail commemorates the the removal of the Cherokee Indian people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia by the federal government, and the paths that 17 Cherokee detachments followed westward in the winter of 1838-39, when at least an estimated one-fourth of their population died on their way to "Indian Territory" (today Oklahoma). This tragic chapter in American and Cherokee history became known as the Trail of Tears, and culminated the implementation of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which mandated the removal of all American Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River to lands in the West. The Indians of the Cherokee Nation, living in the southern Appalachians, had adapted European-American culture and had created a written language and a government modeled off the American example. This written language was developed by Sequoyah (ca. 1770-1843), who in Oklahoma eventually became the President of the Western Cherokee. The Cherokee had adapted a Constitution, a Supreme Court, and they even had a bilingual newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, but their very advances in European-American culture and successfully adapting it caused many in the region, especially in the State of Georgia, to fear that the Cherokee Nation might be able to exclude whites from the desirable lands they held.

[photo] Two-story chinked log home, John Brown Tavern, on the route of the Bell and Drane detachments, Chattanooga, Tennesee
National Park Service photo

In 1828, the State of Georgia began adapting laws to break up the Cherokee Nation, and the State's politicians urged Congress to remove all American Indians beyond the Mississippi River. The Cherokee, in response, took their case to the US Supreme Court in the Cherokee Nation v. the State of Georgia, and retained the famous lawyer William Wirt of Baltimore as their attorney. But, as Historian Ralph H. Gabriel wrote in his entry on the subject for the New Encyclopedia of the American West, "Chief justice John Marshall wrote in his opinion of the Court that the Indians were not a foreign nation in the sense of the Constitution, but, in part because they resided within the boundaries of the United States, the Indians were "domestic dependent nations," and thus could not sue as a foreign nation before the Court." However,the Supreme Court did side with the Cherokees the following year, in Worcester V. State of Georgia. In 1830, gold was discovered on Cherokee lands and laws were passed that stated the Cherokees could not mine for gold and testify in court against whites. Various laws sought to strip the Cherokee of legal rights. An unauthorized minority of the Cherokees signed the Treaty of New Echota, which called for their removal west of the Mississippi. This treaty was held binding although the Cherokee's principal leaders were arrested before the signing and since failing to appear to sign the treaty would be counted as in favor of any treaty made, the U.S. government under President Jackson executed the treaty despite protests from the Cherokee. This treaty was the final attempt by the U.S. government to coerce the final removal to Oklahoma of the Cherokee (although some in western North Carolina remained on lands which were outside the Cherokee Nation--today the eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continues to live here on their reservation).

Northern detachments route and campground area near Campground Church, Union County, Illinois
National Park Service photo
In May 1838, Federal troops and state militias placed the Cherokees into stockades. The first groups left westward in the summer of 1838. The main groups, consisting of 12 groups of roughly 1,000 each, left in November. By March 1839, all survivors had arrived in Oklahoma after a harrowing winter--the number of dead remains unknown, but Missionary doctor Elizur Butler, who accompanied the Cherokees, estimate nearly a fifth of the removed Cherokee population, or over 4,000, died. Today the Trail of Tears National Historic Site encompasses about 2,200 miles of land and water routes, and traverses portions of nine states. The National Park Service, in partnership with other federal agencies, state and local agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private landowners, administers the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Participating national historic trail sites display the official trail logo.

The National Park Service, in partnership with a wide variety of state agencies, universities, and other entities including the Trail of Tears Association, has begun an initiative to nominate properties associated with the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail to the National Register of Historic Places. Associated properties eligible for the National Register help trail enthusiasts to positively identify the Trail of Tears on the ground and promote the significance of the trail in our communities, and it may offer additional protection features to the sites. A key feature of the initiative is the completion of the National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form for the Cherokee Trail of Tears, entered in the National Register on June 26, 2003. A selection of National Register of Historic Places nominations for sites on the Trail of Tears are available online. The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program has taken a lead role in identifying and nominating eligible properties including: Village Creek State Park Military Road, Blackfish Lake Ferry Site (a crossing point for a detachment heading west lead by mixed-blood Cherokee, John Bell), Memphis to Little Rock Road-Henard Cemetery Road Segment (a segment through which Bell's group passed), and Memphis to Little Rock Road-Village Creek Segment (one of the most intact segments of road that Bell's group traversed). The National Register's Teaching with Historic Places program has also posted online a lesson plan entitled The Trail of Tears: The Forced Relocation of the Cherokee Nation, suitable for educators and students.

For further information visit the Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail website.

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