Trail of Tears Marker on the Argenta Riverwalk in North Little Rock
Trail of Tears Marker on the Argenta Riverwalk in North Little Rock

Native American Heritage in Arkansas: Trail of Tears

As a new state admitted to the union in 1836, with a long western border separating it from Indian Territory, Arkansas became an important throughway 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.

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.