Remember the removal
Cherokee bike riders stop locally, following footsteps of ancestors.
On Dec. 23, 1837, a group of 356 Cherokee Indians stopped in a field that now is part of Pea Ridge National Military Park. They had traveled the Trail of Tears from Georgia, headed for their new lands in Indian Territory.
Another group of Cherokees did the same June 20, 180 years later, as they followed the footsteps of their ancestors in the Remember the Removal bicycle ride, tracing the northern route of the Trail of Tears. Twenty cyclists, ages 17 to 50, traveled 950 miles over three weeks, starting in New Echota, Ga., and finishing in Tahlequah, Okla., the capital city of today’s Cherokee Nation.
With the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the United States government forcibly moved thousands of American Indians from their ancestral lands in the
Southeast to new homes in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Traveling by existing roads and by rivers, many groups left in the fall, hoping to avoid the disease and heat of summer travel. They instead faced treacherous winter weather.
“Hundreds died during the ordeal — remembered today as the Trail of Tears,” reads the U.S. National Park Service website about the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.
“For many of the Native Americans, especially the very young and the very old, the Trail of Tears was a death march,” adds a narrative by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.
“The Cherokee Removal — the most famous feature of which was the Trail of Tears — could be cynically said to have had its beginnings with the first contact between the Europeans and the native peoples of this land,” the AHHP information continues. “One could choose at will any date of contact and get a sense of things to come. Quite simply, Native Americans had what the newcomers wanted — land.”
“Despite the hardships of the journey, the people of the five tribes of the Southeast established new lives in the West,” reads the park service website. “They stand now as sovereign nations, proudly preserving cultural traditions, while adapting to the challenges of the 21st century.”
Indian removal produced fierce and bitter debate, according to the park service website. Supporters claimed it was a “benevolent action to save the tribes east of the Mississippi River from being overwhelmed and lost in the onslaught of an expanding American population. Opponents decried its inhumanity and the tragic consequences it would have for the Indian peoples. One thing was certain; removal freed millions of acres of desired Indian lands for use by white settlers.”
The federal government forcibly removed approximately 12,000 Cherokee, 21,000 Muscogee (Creek), 9,000 Choctaw, 6,000 Chickasaw and 4,000 Seminole, the park service noted.
The remembrance ride stops each year at the Pea Ridge battlefield park because land in the park was part of the Trail of Tears, said park superintendent Kevin Eads. He shared the story of the Cherokee in the park with the members of the Remember the Removal ride.
Three miles of the current tour road through the park was built on a 19th century road bed
traversed by the Trail of Tears, as well as the Butterfield Overland Express and armies of both the North and South during the Civil War. By 1860, Northwest Arkansas’ first telegraph wire was strung along the road, leaving the road with the name “Telegraph Road” or “Wire Road.”
This Brightwater segment of the Springfield, Mo., to Fayetteville road is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Through the park area, the trail ran from north of the current Elkhorn Tavern building south to the site of the federal trenches along Little Sugar Creek, Eads said.
“The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail commemorates the tragic experience of the Cherokee people, who were forcibly removed by the United States government in 18381839 from their homelands in the eastern United States to new homes hundreds of miles to the west,” reads the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program information.
“Eleven (of 17) different contingents of the Trail of Tears went through the park — 10,000 of 16,000 people total (on the Trail of Tears),” Eads said.
The first recorded group of 356 Cherokees was led by B.B. Cannon, arriving in the park area on Dec. 23, 1837. And Cannon kept a journal of the passage, noting 15 deaths along the trail, Eads said.
A journal entry of Dec. 23, 1837, references “Reddick” (actually Ruddick, a farmer in the area whose field was later the site of the decisive skirmish of the Union victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge). This gives the first evidence of the group having come through Northwest Arkansas, reads the AHHP information:
“Buried Rainfrog’s daughter (Lucy Redstick’s child). Marched at 8 o’c A.M. halted at Reddix 3 oc
P.M. Encamped and issued beef, corn and fodder. 10 miles today.”
And during that decisive Civil War battle, two Confederate Cherokee companies, the 1st and 2nd Cherokee militia rifles, fought at Foster’s Field and Round Mountain, Eads told the riders as they toured the park.
“During that part of the battle, they were able to push the Union troops back,” he said.
CONNECTING TO THE PAST
J.D. Arch of North Carolina, 50, the veteran services officer of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee tribe, joined the Remember the Removal ride for the second time. He said his family did not travel on the Trail of Tears.
“Most of my ancestors had education and power among the people, so they were not included. They stayed behind,” Arch said.
He told the story of one man with the federal government who would write passes exemp them from removal for those Cherokee who were “contributing to the community. Once he realized the federal government was going to move them, he wrote all the Cherokees passes,” Arch said.
The Remember the Removal ride started in New Echota, Ga., because it was the last known Cherokee town, Arch said. The Cherokee people were bilingual. They had their own government, newspaper and trades.
“On turning for one last look as they crossed the ridge, [the captives] saw their homes in flames, fired by the lawless rabble that followed on the heels of the soldiers to loot and pillage,” reads the AHHP information. “So keen were these outlaws on that scene, that in some instances, they were driving off the cattle and other stock of the Indians almost before the soldiers had fairly started the owners in the opposite direction.”
The new settlers tried to destroy the Cherokee property because the Indians had many more advantages than the people around them, Arch said.
Many people think of the Trail of Tears as something of a bygone time. “It’s easier to downplay how horrific it was,” Arch said.
But the ride helped him connect with the people who traveled the Trail of Tears. He said he connected in thought, spirit, action, motivation, inspiration, dedication and more.
“Once you connect, it’s hard to make it disappear,” he said. “When the family is all talking about it, it is hard to displace, but my family didn’t talk about it.”
In Brian Barlow’s home, the Trail of Tears was “something that was kind of discussed in the house sometimes,” he said.
Barlow, 22, of Tahlequah, also works part time for the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville.
“My motivation was going home, being welcomed by family,” Barlow explained of his ride. But when his ancestors got to Tahlequah, “they were just as lost as when they left
home [in Georgia].
“That changes how you look at the trail. I can’t imagine what it would have been like.
“The point for me was crossing into Oklahoma and recognizing the landscape,” he said. “That was a relief they didn’t have. The last 60 miles looked like the previous 900 miles. And they were still losing people.”
The Remember the Removal ride can be life changing. Skylar Vann of Locust Grove, Okla., 23, a student at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, noted his skills in working with others in a team.
The group showed Barlow the connection between all Cherokee people. Some among the group discovered they were seventh cousins.
“It’s a new family,” he said. “We’re not very far apart from each other. The connections are closer than we thought. And in 20
years, we’ll still be connected.”
“I’m real proud of our progress,” Barlow continued, speaking of the people of the nation. “I’m proud we’re still here because we survived. We didn’t see the Cherokee Nation wear away.
“The people who traveled the Trail of Tears deserve our respect. You can’t walk thousands of miles and not be Cherokee. Knowing even a fraction of what it takes to walk the
Trail, we deserve to enjoy what our ancestors sacrificed.
“Keep your eyes open. You will see big changes coming up,” concluded Barlow, explaining tomorrow’s leaders of the tribe might come from the young members of this or other rides. “We’ll be setting new standards.”
Cherokee Indians traveling the Trail of Tears stopped in 1839 on land that now is part of the Pea Ridge National Military Park. A group of Cherokee bicyclists taking part in the Remember the Removal ride last month stopped there, too. Three miles of the military park’s tour road were built on a road bed that served the Trail of Tears, and the cyclists followed the trek of their ancestors.
Kevin Eads, superintendent of Pea Ridge National Military Park, shares the history of Cherokee Indians within the park site and at the Battle of Pea Ridge with bicyclists on the Remember the Removal tour. Eleven contingents of the Trail of Tears traveled through the park area in 1839, and journals record nights spent in Ruddick’s and Lewis Pratt’s fields 1839. Two Cherokee rifle units fought for the Confederacy during the battle in 1862.