Following the Trail of Tears to Pea Ridge in Arkansas

Mar 24, 2016

This once popular road, as described by Troy Banzhaf, was equivalent to modern-day highways as it connected several states and was highly traveled. A portion of this road is also infamous in the role it played in a dark time in history. Banzhaf is the chief of interpretation at Pea Ridge National Military Park in Garfield, Arkansas. This site is best known for its Civil War history and the battle that occurred there in 1862. It also contains nearly three miles of vegetated path that is designated part of the Trail of Tears.  Other than historical markers indicating its significance, the trail would be otherwise hard to distinguish, as to resemble the Trail’s original conditions.

A Trail of Tears marker crisscrosses a dirt path at Pea Ridge National Military Park. See image two for the Trail of Tears path itself.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

Kevin Eades is the superintendent at Pea Ridge.

“The way that we’ve documented the Trail of Tears is, it was also was on the Old Wire Road or Military Road.  Which is the same road 24 years after the Trail of Tears happened that the battlefield participants marched up and down,” explains Eades.

This was the northern route along the Trail of Tears. From December 1837 through March 1839, nearly 10,000 Cherokee traversed through Pea Ridge, which at the time was known as Ruddick’s farm. By the time the tribes had reached Arkansas, they’d already traveled thousands of miles from their homelands in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

“This chapter, and it’s a very sad chapter, of Cherokee history about the removal of our ancestors forcibly from the homelands in the southeast,” says Poteete

TroyWayne Poteete is executive director for the National Trail of Tears Association and Chief Justice of the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court. He explains that the Cherokee were considered one of the “civilized” tribes with a constitutional government of their own.  They possessed a higher literacy rate than the people in the Nation’s surrounding southern states, and had even begun publishing their own newspaper. 

Looking east from the marker, the trail represents the types terrain the various tribes had to navigate in the 1830s.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

“Andrew Jackson had come to power in 1828.  By 1830 he gets the Indian Removal Act passed making provision for tribes to be moved west of the Mississippi River.  Then gold was discovered.  And so there’s a lot of pressure on this Cherokee Nation government,” Poteete explains.

Poteete says Georgians wanted the Cherokee “gone” and between state and federal maneuvering and harassment, the Cherokee signed a fraudulent treaty with the federal government which was then used against them. 

Thirteen different detachments of Cherokee proceeded across the Trail.  The encampments were described as concentration camps and Poteete shares it was the hottest summer and coldest winter as the tribe moved through.  He says it was “as orderly as it could be” but…

“People were without adequate provisions and [many] died in the camps.  It was a holocaust,” says Poteete.

In fact, an estimated 4,000 died from hunger, exposure and disease, hence the Trail of Tears name. It continues to be honored by the Cherokee Nation as a way to lend a voice to its story, as well as the removal of many other tribes sharing similar fates.

“Every time we mark a stretch of that road, every time we participate in a sign dedication or wayside exhibit where we put up something where you can see on the landscape…like at Pea Ridge where you can see the road….you get a sense of place.  It looks like it did where our ancestors were nearing the end of a horrible journey,” shares Poteete.

Poteete adds that the trail markings help depict the resiliency and will of the Cherokee people, given its rough terrain.

Pea Ridge National Military Park Superintendent Kevin Eads explains the path looks mostly untouched these days, keeping the vegetation and surroundings authentic to the original Trail.  He shares that in Arkansas one can trace a piece of land back to when it was originally surveyed,  and attributes much of what they know about the area today because of a surveyor  by the name McClellen in 1837.

“He was there one month prior to the first group that came through on the Trail of Tears.  And the significance to that is he documented what the vegetation looked like.  So not only do we know what the road looked like and its location but also what the surrounding area looked like,” says Eades.

Each year an event called “Remember the Removal” begins in the southeast at the old tribal capital near Calhoun, Georgia where event goers bicycle across the Trail and several states. 

Participants are usually high school-college age, although any age is welcome, and training for the spring event often begins in January.  Local Trail of Tears Associations host events along the way, and the ride often is an opportunity to celebrate a new sign or conduct a marker unveiling. Poteete says many participants are decedents of or specialize in Cherokee ancestry, and the ride allows them to learn their genealogy and significant parts of the Trail.

“We see that’s one of the lessons that we learn and the way to combat that is through education,” explains Poteete.

Poteete shares that through such events and the ongoing efforts by state chapters of the Trail of Tears Associations, plus local historical societies and national parks, they are able to connect the younger generation.

This year’s participants of the annual “Remember the Removal” ride are anticipated to reach Pea Ridge around June 21st, where they will be greeted at the visitor’s center. The park will be one of the many stops on this nearly 950-mile journey. 

Find additional stories related to the Trail of Tears by listening to NPR Story Corps interviews.