Illinois portion of Trail of Tears re-emerges

Tuesday, April 6, 2004

DIXON SPRINGS, Ill. -- The Illinois portion of the Cherokee Indians' Trail of Tears is re-emerging as researchers and enthusiasts work to document the path used by thousands of Indians forced to relocate in the late 1830s.

While the Trail of Tears is celebrated in other states, only now is there an organized effort in Illinois to look for the trail, which followed old military roads to the west. Scholars are finding the trail on paper and then walking what's left of it to be sure of where it passed.

As they do, they have amassed a more-complete account than ever before of the Cherokees' passage through Illinois.

The trail has been more forgotten than lost. It can be found weaving on and off Illinois Highway 146. In the Shawnee National Forest, it follows a rutted hilltop trail. Along an old cemetery at Mount Pleasant, the trail's covered in purple flowers.

The federal government forced thousands of Cherokee families from their homes in the east, herding them by boat, wagon and on foot to present-day Oklahoma between 1838 and 1839. The brutal conditions of the trek killed thousands.

Illinois has been the only state to date along the Cherokees' relocation route without an information and education center. The only commemoration of the ordeal is a plaque in Vienna.

In Missouri, the relocation is acknowledged by the Trail of Tears State Park, located on 3,415 acres in Jackson where nine of the 13 Cherokee groups landed.

The public can find out more about the history through the park's exhibit about the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears.

The groups crossed the Mississippi River from Golconda, Ill., into an area in Missouri called Moccasin Springs in December 1838, when the winter weather conditions made the journey across the river difficult.

From there they followed Greensferry Road into Jackson.

Some groups then went north, following present day Highway 72 and then into the foothills of the Ozarks, where the trail history gets murky, said Dr. Frank Nickell, a history professor at Southeast Missouri State University and director of the university's Center for Regional History.

"Many communities in western Missouri claim the Trail of Tears went through there, and they might be accurate," he said.

Some of the Cherokee in Missouri went as far north as Salem and then on to Springfield, while others went south to Poplar Bluff, Nickell said.

In Illinois, Southern Illinois University professor John Burde and a graduate student have traced the trail through forests, library archives and local folklore.

"The whole idea is to let the public know what happened here and what's still here to look at, because right now, even the local folks don't have a clue," Burde said.

He says the amount of neglected historical information they've found has been staggering.

The discoveries coincide with efforts to expand and promote the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, where signs point the way along roads from Charleston, Tenn., to Tahlequah, Okla. There were at least four land routes, and the Illinois route from Golconda to the Mississippi was the northernmost and the one most used.

Congress is considering legislation that would recognize other routes used by the Cherokees in addition to those major routes.

In 1838 from August to December, between 11,000 and 13,000 Cherokees in 13 groups went west over land. The last of them arrived in Oklahoma on March 24, 1839, after a cold winter in Southern Illinois.

Many of them died here.

"It was some of the hardest part of their trip," said Karen Frailey, an SIU graduate student researching the Cherokees' plight. "They were camped all across Southern Illinois in a very cold, wet, miserable environment."

Besides the SIU effort, Illinoisans have shown an increasing interest in the trail. An Illinois chapter of the private Trail of Tears Association opened last summer and aims to mark the trail and develop an educational center along its path.

"It's extremely important. We don't know exactly in a lot of cases where this historic movement occurred. We have some general ideas," said Andrew West of the Illinois chapter of the Trail of Tears Association. "There are people coming out of the woodwork down here that are interested in the trail."

Staff writer Kathryne Alfisi contributed to this story.

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