Several years ago, driving four miles north along Highway 19, I noticed that the White River Trace/Trail Of Tears sign on the west side was barely readable. The sign had been placed there in 1985 by the then Dent County Historical and Genealogical Society, marking what had been a route for one of the saddest events in American history.
After 25 years of withstanding the elements, the lettering on the sign had largely faded, but up close I could make out the words that described an event the Cherokee Indians had endured almost 175 years before.
The sign reconstructed Dent County’s role in one of the most controversial events in American history, an event that produced a fierce debate in Congress, two significant Supreme Court rulings, and an act of defiance against those rulings by President Andrew Jackson.
The event was a decision by the federal government to push most of America’s Indian tribes, then living in the eastern United States, out of their homelands and across the Mississippi River to reservations in what became the state of Oklahoma.
For the Cherokees, it meant being taken from their ancestral home around north Georgia, eastern Tennessee, and the Carolinas, being interned in a stockade, and then forced to march 800 miles to the Oklahoma reservation. The reservation in Oklahoma was an area then of vast plains that was very different from the eastern woodlands that they had lived in for centuries. The routes of that march -- there were many paths taken by the Cherokee refugees -- and the events that transpired during the march, have been designated by the term, “Trail of Tears.”
The Cherokees were part of what were called the “Five Civilized Tribes,” a term that arose because these tribes in the Southeastern U.S. had adopted many of the economic and social customs of the white society that surrounded them. In the early 1800s, President Thomas Jefferson had encouraged them to turn from a nomadic life of hunting and gathering so they might “cultivate the earth” as farmers, which would allow them to better assimilate with their white neighbors.
This the Cherokees did. According to Ray Billington, a well-known historian of the westward movement, “the 15,000 members of the tribe owned 22,000 cattle, 1,300 slaves, 2,000 spinning wheels, 700 looms, 31 grist mills, 10 saw mills, eight cotton gins, and 18 schools.” One Cherokee chief, Sequoya, invented a written Cherokee language, which was then used to publish a newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix. He also enlisted in the Cherokee Regiment, fighting beside Sam Houston (adopted son of a Cherokee head man, governor of Tennessee, President of the Republic of Texas) and General (President) Andrew Jackson in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in the War of 1812, which effectively ended the war against the Creek Indians.
This attempt to assimilate apparently wasn’t enough to satisfy many of their white neighbors. One reason was the discovery of gold in north Georgia, a discovery that led many speculators to trespass on Cherokee lands. An even more important reason was the westward march of cotton farming. After Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, it became much easier to clean Upland Cotton, a plant that thrived in the soil of Gulf Plain’s states such as Georgia. Good cotton land became a hot commodity, and white settlers did all they could, legally and illegally, to obtain it.
A third reason was a constitutional question: Should there be a “state” within a state, such as an Indian territory that was not under the control of state authorities? Should Cherokees have the freedom to live in a separate Cherokee Nation, exempt from the laws of the State of Georgia?
The 50,000 Indians in the Five Civilized Tribes occupied some 33 million acres of land, much of it in this cotton belt. In earlier times, white settlers pushed Indians off their land under the pretext that the tribes were not using land productively to farm the soil. But because the Cherokees and other tribes had taken to farming, that rationale was no longer credible.
In 1829, for the newly elected President Andrew Jackson, the solution was to remove the Indians to new land beyond the Mississippi River. Jackson had long been a proponent of Indian removal, and in his first message to Congress, proposed just such a measure. According to Jackson, the legal justification was contained in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution: “No new State shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other State” without the consent of its legislature. The Georgia state legislature clearly didn’t want a separate Cherokee nation within its borders,
In 1830, with a great deal of pressure from Jackson, Congress debated the Indian Removal bill, which would force many members of eastern tribes, including the Cherokees, to relocate to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
The debate in Congress was fierce. Opposition to the forced removal was strong, particularly among Protestant church groups. Opponents included Tennessee frontiersman and U.S. Congressman Davy Crockett, normally a supporter of Jackson, who explained, “I bark at no man’s bid.” The vote was close; in the House it passed by only five votes. Yet, in the end, Jackson prevailed and signed the Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830.
In 1831, the Choctaw were the first among the Civilized Tribes to move. The last, and most resistant, were the Cherokees.
The Cherokees continued to insist on sovereignty over their land in Georgia, a sovereignty that had been guaranteed by earlier treaties with the U.S. Government. But the Georgia state government refused to recognize an independent Cherokee nation within its borders. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rights of the Cherokees against Georgia on two separate occasions.
President Jackson is reported to have commented, “(Chief Justice) Marshall has made his opinion, now let him enforce it.”
In the end, the Cherokees were forced to abandon the land that had been their home for centuries. One group moved west voluntarily, but most Cherokees remained until General Winfield Scott and 7,000 soldiers rounded them up and placed them in prison stockades.
Jackson biographer Robert Remini has painted a picture of what it was like for the Cherokees. “’Men were seized in the fields, women were taken from their wheels, and children from their play. As they turned for one last glimpse of their homes they frequently saw them in flames, set ablaze by the lawless rabble that followed the soldiers, scavenging what they could. These outlaws stole the cattle and other livestock and even desecrated graves in their search for silver pendants and other valuables.”
The estimates vary, but somewhere between 13,000 and 17,000 Cherokees were forced to endure this forced migration. At least 4,000, and perhaps as many as 8,000, died along the way, many of them while they waited in internment camps in Tennessee for transport to the West.
At the outset, the migration was conducted by the U.S. Army. At some point early in the march, the forced removal was turned over to the supervision of the Cherokee Council. Twelve wagon trains were formed.
According to Bob Runner, a former president of the Dent County Historical and Genealogical Society, one party of 625 traveled the 800 miles with only one wagon for every five persons. The wagons carried mostly the sick and aged, plus what personal affects the Indians were allowed. The result was that most of those who traveled the 800 miles were forced to walk the whole way.
The man who conducted the 12th group was U.S. Army Captain Peter Hildebrand. It was this group of 1,766 that trekked through Dent County in late December 1838 (then Crawford County). Other groups took different routes, some of them through Missouri, as well.
The Captain Peter Hildebrand Cherokee group trekked through our part of Missouri along a trail called the White River Trace. This trail enters northeastern Dent County in what is now Indian Trails Conservation Area and travels southwest until it leaves the county just southwest of the White River Trace Conservation Area. According to Runner, the Trail “probably was first a series of game trails, then a foot path made by native Shawnee and Delaware Indians,” and then used by later Indian tribes and early pioneers heading west. In 1835 U.S. Army surveyors were tasked to identify a route prior to moving the Eastern Indians from east of the Mississippi to the reservations in Oklahoma (Indian Territory). The 1835 U.S. Army survey along with other sources was used to later generate the 1844 map of Missouri published in St. Louis, Missouri by Edward Hutawa (five years after the last Trail Of Tears forced transfer).
On August 3, 1854 the “Trace” became a post road (mail route) established by the U.S. Congress and is the site of Dent County’s first and oldest road. It was not until December 4, 1855, that Dent County was approved and came into being by the Missouri State Legislature, then due to a technical legality reorganized on December 4, 1858, to become officially a Missouri county. Salem was organized and designated as the county seat site on July 4, 1851 (when the county land agent, Joseph Millsaps, identified two adjoining 40-acre tracks to be broken up into lots for the purpose of the county seat). In the late 1870s, according to the last known and reported traveler of the “trail,” Mr. E. W. Bennett, who was quoted in a later newspaper article by the Honorable, W. P. Elmer, saying “the trail was an open road right across the county, though now it has become largely fenced in.”
I can’t say I was totally unfamiliar with the Trail of Tears story. Back in the 1980s, when I was working in the Pentagon, my father, Al Hayman, kept me posted on the activities of the Dent County Historical and Genealogical Society. Dad was one of the past presidents, a member of the Society, and the project manager for the Trail Of Tears signs and markers project along with such active community volunteers as Bob Runner, Ed Ray, Ed Gill, Ken Fiebelman and Kathy Love. It was their good work that was responsible for the original signs and markers.
In 1985, the Society had made four signs, two placed on the trail, one in the Salem library, one in the Dent County Museum (funded by Missouri Committee for the Humanities Inc. the state based arm of the National Endowment for the Humanities) and placed 65 road crossing markers provided by the county judges (county commissioners now) along the trail where it intersected Dent County roads.
The markers were white, used grader blades with a stenciled logo of a red tear drop crossed by a white feather and black stenciled words “White River Trace.” When I first got interested in what had happened to the trail since 1985, I could locate only 21 or 22 markers, and the logos had mostly faded. I eventually found, and turned in to the county, 26 used grader blades/markers.
Today’s My Story is the first of a three-part series written by Dennis Hayman about the Trail of Tears. Submit a My Story on any subject to email@example.com or P.O. Box 798, Salem, MO 65560.