as a new state admitted to the union in 1836, with a long western border separating
it from Indian Territory, Arkansas became an important through way for the forced
relocation of Native Americans who were traveling there, particularly during the
winter of 1838-39.
Though the conflicts over Indian land began almost as soon as the first European
settlers arrived on the continent, the immediate origins of relocation began in 1830
when the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act (IRA) and President Andrew
Jackson signed it into law. It provided for an “exchange of lands” with Indians in
the east and decreed their “removal west of the river Mississippi.” Some Native
Americans had voluntarily moved previously as settlers encroached in the east
(a group of about 1,000 Cherokees moved to Arkansas in 1810-11), but after the IRA
passed, government agents enforced the law. The tribes forcibly removed included
the Choctaw from Mississippi, Muscogee Creeks from Alabama and Georgia,
Chickasaw from Tennessee, Seminoles from Florida and Cherokees from the
Appalachian Mountains in Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee.
A minority of Cherokees followed John Ridge, one of the architects of the Treaty
of New Echota in 1835-36, which called for voluntary removal to Indian Territory
within two years. (His wife, Sarah Ridge, moved to Fayetteville after his death,
where her house, the oldest in Fayetteville, is still partly standing.)
When few Cherokees chose to move, the U.S. government sent soldiers to enforce
the treaty and compel the tribe to undertake the journey west. After early tragic
losses to disease on the water routes, John Ross, the Cherokee principal chief,
petitioned to let the Cherokees control their own removal. Over the course of the winter
of 1838-39, many hundreds of the 15,000 tribe members lost their lives en route.
The Northern Route was followed by most Cherokees and eventually traversed
southern Missouri and entered Arkansas on a road that passed Elkhorn Tavern
in what is now Pea Ridge National Military Park before continuing south to
Fayetteville and then west into Oklahoma and Tahlequah.
A path farther south, the Benge Route, consisted of a detachment led by Cherokee
leader John Benge and started in Alabama, headed north to near Cape Girardeau,
Missouri, then dipped down into Arkansas through Batesville and across the north
central part of the state along the White River to Fayetteville and beyond.
The Bell Route followed the old Memphis to Little Rock military road through what
is now Village Creek State Park in Wynne on to North Little Rock, Conway, Russellville
and Evansville on the Oklahoma border. This detachment, headed by John Bell, was
made up of 660 Cherokees who had favored the Treaty of New Echota and thus took
a different path to Indian Territory than did the groups organized by John Ross.
The Bell detachment was disbanded in Arkansas on January 7, 1839, to avoid any
encounters with the anti-treaty Cherokee detachments in the Indian Territory.
In the 1830s, the Creek, Chickasaw and Choctaw also followed this route to the
Indian Territory. A 2-mile trail in Village Creek State Park is an extended preserved
stretch of the road, and the National Park Service has called it “the most dramatic
remaining section of the Trail of Tears.” A historic marker in Marion, Arkansas,
from 1931, believed to be the oldest site on the route, acknowledges the use of the
military road as a means to transport Choctaw and Chickasaw tribe members to the
Indian Territory. Other informational displays can be found in the Delta Cultural
Center in Helena-West Helena and the Village Creek State Park visitors’ center.
While most Cherokees traveled the Northern Route, the contingent carrying John
Ross’s family took the Water Route, which included a journey up the Arkansas
River from its mouth at the Mississippi. His wife, Elizabeth (or Quatie), died on
a steamboat and was buried in Little Rock. A memorial to her stands in the city’s
Mount Holly Cemetery. The Water Route also was traveled by other removed
Indians, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole, and many
of them passed through Little Rock and the north bank of the river; interpretive
markers now line North Little Rock’s Riverfront Park, explaining the route.
Historic Washington State Park in Hempstead County also has interpretive panels
relating to the Choctaw.
Scholarship and research on the Trail of Tears in Arkansas is ongoing. The Trail
of Tears Association is headquartered in Little Rock and works with the Cherokee
Nation, the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail and the National Park Service
to uncover new information and extend interpretation. The Sequoyah Research
Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has an enormous collection
of documents related to removal. Extensive driving directions for following the
various routes of the Trail of Tears and more information can be found through
the Arkansas Heritage Trails division of the Arkansas Department of Parks and
Tourism at arkansasheritagetrails.com/Tears.
Through the work of many who wish to honor those who suffered and help inform
those who wish to learn about this painful history, Arkansas provides a rich,
moving and educational experience of the Trail of Tears.