Where They Cried
A historic trail marks the paths of thousands of Native Americans who endured a forced march in the 1830s.
Among the cliffs and glades of western Kentucky, a mile-long trail cuts across a patch of prairie. A sandstone arch called Mantle Rock looms in a nearby hollow, where thick carpets of moss soften the shapes of exposed rock. Along the trail, you might spot pockets of rare June grass or the bright bloom of a prickly pear cactus.
Mantle Rock Nature Preserve is a peaceful place these days, but the serene landscape belies a dark chapter in its history. Through the winter of 1838 to 1839, thousands of Cherokee people walked this trail and hunkered in these woods, enduring cold, hunger, and disease on a forced march from their homeland in the southern Appalachians to present-day Oklahoma. Survivors described the journey as “the place where they cried.” Today, much of the original trail is gone, but the National Park Service leads a collaborative effort to preserve traces of the paths and memories of those who made the trek. The Cherokee diaspora is memorialized at dozens of sites like Mantle Rock, across nine states and 5,000 miles, by the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.
As the American frontier bulged westward in the early 19th century, settlers began to crowd into the Cherokee homeland in the southern Appalachians. Squatters carved illegal homesteads out of tribal lands while the government of Georgia passed laws stripping Cherokees of basic rights. In 1829, Andrew Jackson gained the White House on the promise of opening vast tracts of western lands to white settlement. “As Americans headed west, they wanted the Indians to go away, and they didn’t care how or where,” said Frank Norris, a historian with the Park Service’s National Trails Intermountain Region.
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The Cherokees fought for their homeland all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in the Cherokees’ favor in 1832. Nevertheless, in 1835, a federal delegation met a rogue faction of Cherokees at their capital in New Echota, Georgia, and negotiated a treaty ceding all of the tribe’s land to the United States and setting a two-year deadline for the tribe to move west of the Mississippi. Though 16,000 Cherokees—a vast majority of the tribe—signed a petition objecting to the Treaty of New Echota, Congress ratified it in 1836.
Across the Cherokee Nation in the spring of 1838, its farmers tilled their fields and planted rows of corn and beans in fertile Appalachian valleys as they had done for generations. Then the deadline passed. U.S. troops charged through Cherokee towns and homesteads, seizing everyone they found. Many were taken away wearing only the clothes on their backs, carrying whatever they could grab.
The army rounded up 16,000 Cherokees and imprisoned them in stockades, where some waited months to begin the 800-mile journey west. Once under way, they traveled without adequate food or shelter over rough country as late-summer heat gave way to bitter winter storms. A white missionary traveling with the Cherokees wrote in his journal that they “were obliged to lie down on the naked ground, in the open air, exposed to wind and rain … many are hastening to a premature grave.” An estimated 1,000 Cherokees perished of disease, exposure, and famine.
The Cherokees were just one of five tribes in the Southeast to suffer under Jackson’s removal policies. The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole—likely more than 90,000 people in all—also were rounded up and moved to Indian Territory. “All went through their own versions of the Trail of Tears,” said Norris.
WHEELS OF HISTORY
Each summer, students from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina retrace the Trail of Tears by bike, visiting key sites and meeting groups involved with the trail. To prepare for their 950-mile trip, the riders train for three months and study their ancestors’ experiences during the removal.
Since the establishment of the national historic trail in 1987, the Park Service has partnered with tribes, public agencies, nonprofits, landowners, scholars, and amateur historians to preserve and explain points along the various routes to Indian Territory. Most of the established stops relate to the Cherokees’ experiences, but increasingly, partners are working to tell a larger narrative about all five tribes. It’s an ongoing, collaborative project as new sites open to the public and more stories emerge.
Among these sites, Mantle Rock is a rarity: Most of the historic trail traverses private land or has been paved over by neighborhoods, downtowns, and highways, but here, visitors can walk on the same dirt trail the Cherokees traveled that deadly winter. In 2010, the Park Service and The Nature Conservancy set up an exhibit along the trail about the Cherokees who camped here while waiting for the nearby Ohio River to thaw. And just this March, a series of signs was installed to mark the trail through downtown Chattanooga, a point of departure for thousands of Cherokees.
Many who survived the journey arrived in Indian Territory with nothing, and government-issued rations mostly failed to meet their needs. So from the unfamiliar soil of their new home, the Cherokees began to rebuild. Today, the survivors’ descendants make up the Cherokee Nation, a thriving cultural and political entity of more than 300,000 citizens in northeastern Oklahoma.
“We didn’t get involved in marking the trail because we wanted to perpetuate our ancestors as victims—though they were persecuted, no question—or to appropriate their victimization for ourselves,” said Troy Wayne Poteete, executive director of the Trail of Tears Association and chief justice of the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court. “We use it to celebrate our ancestors’ tenacity and resistance. Every time someone marks a new site along the trail, it’s an opportunity for Cherokees to tell the bigger story of our nation’s revival.”
About the author
Julia Busiek Author
Julia Busiek has worked in national parks in California, Colorado, Hawaii and Washington state. She lives in Oakland, California.