In 1838, the United States government forcibly removed more than 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia, and sent them to Indian Territory—a place we now call Oklahoma. Both the route they followed and the experience itself are known as the Trail of Tears, and they are commemorated by The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.
The Trail covers thousands of miles of land and water routes in parts of nine states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee) and "was designated to preserve the story, the routes, and support the associated sites that commemorate the Cherokees' forced migration." Much of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is on waterways. People were moved onto boats and traveled along the Mississippi River, and then disembarked and walked.
The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail isn't a single, contiguous route managed by a one agency, but a cooperative effort by number of federal, state and local agencies, organizations, tribes, and private individuals to administer sites that are either along the original route or which have exhibits or other information about the migration.
The National Park Service's National Trails Intermountain Region staff helps plan and coordinate efforts by a wide variety of partners to create Trail of Tears retracement hiking trails, signage and exhibits. Representatives from the Cherokee Nation, The Nature Conservancy, the Trail of Tears Association, the National Park Service and the public came together recently in western Kentucky and southern Illinois to remember the original events and celebrate progress in developing the National Historic Trail.
At Mantle Rock Preserve in Livingston County, Kentucky, The Nature Conservancy unveiled its new retracement hiking trail as well as the new wayside exhibits. Both of these were completed in partnership with the National Park Service. Visitors can walk more than a mile of the same historic road that the Cherokee walked and camped along in 1838.
Over 10,000 Cherokee came through this area during the winter, when frozen rivers and extreme cold trapped many of the Cherokee in the Mantle Rock vicinity. The exhibits feature original watercolor paintings by National Trails Intermountain Region Interpretive Specialist Cookie Ballou, that visually tell the story of removal. Several of the exhibits also feature the natural wonders of prairie, woodland, and glade protected at Mantle Rock Preserve.
In Pope County, Illinois, officials and members of the public celebrated a sign unveiling event that will help the public to visit original route segments of the Trail of Tears. Although many of the original roads along the 800-mile route of the Trail of Tears have disappeared, there are places along the historic route like the 8.5 miles of historic road in Pope County that have survived, allowing visitors to retrace and remember this tragic event in our nation’s history. The Pope County project is a prototype for ongoing efforts across the entire length of the trail to sign the roads that are the surviving original route of the Trail of Tears.
Featured guests and speakers at the events included Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Chad Smith and the First Lady Bobbie Gail, Deputy Chief Joe Grayson, Jr., Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Judge Troy Wayne Poteete, Trail of Tears Association President and Tribal Council Member Jack Baker, a representative from the Kentucky governor’s office and the local congressman’s office, a state representative, Department of Transportation officials, and other local officials.
Principal Chief Smith, interviewed by media at the Pope County unveiling, remarked that the new signs and exhibits play a major role in increasing awareness of the Trail of Tears experience. He stated that “What this monument does is not only reflect that there were a people here, but that they were a real people, and they are being remembered.”
Like to learn more, or visit some of these locations? The Trail's website includes information, organized by state, about a number of locations associated with the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.