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Something Thoughtful from Today's Tribune.

Indians' path of sorrow re-emerges
In far southern Illinois, the Trail of Tears endured by Cherokees 165 years ago is getting new respect

By James Janega
Tribune staff reporter
Published April 5, 2004

DIXON SPRINGS, Ill. -- Sometimes in plain sight, sometimes in wilderness, scholars armed with settlers' writings and aerial photographs are tracking down where the Cherokee Indians' Trail of Tears in the late 1830s snaked across the southern end of Illinois.

It weaves on and off Illinois Highway 146 and is buried under cracked blacktop near Campground Church. In the Shawnee National Forest, it follows a rutted hilltop trail. It is carpeted in purple flowers beside the weathered cemetery at Mt. Pleasant.

While celebrated in other states, the Trail of Tears has been virtually ignored in Illinois, only to be rediscovered after 165 years by researchers and enthusiasts mixing traditional sleuth work at historical societies and small-town libraries with modern maps and hand-held Global Positioning System receivers.

They have found the trail was more forgotten than lost. What is remarkable is that no one had looked for it earlier.

For the first time since thousands of Cherokees walked the old military roads to the west in the winter of 1838-39, scholars in southern Illinois are finding the old trail on paper, then walking remnants of it to be sure of where it actually passed.

As they do, they have amassed a more-complete account than ever before of the Cherokees' passage through Illinois. Though just 60 miles of the thousand-mile forced march from Tennessee to Oklahoma cross the southern part of the state, new attention is being given to the infamous Trail of Tears here, among the harshest passages in the Indian nation's relocation to the West.

To date, Illinois has been the only state along the Cherokees' relocation route without an information and education center known as an interpretive site. The only commemoration of the ordeal is a plaque in a park in Vienna, Ill..

Misplaced totem

In a sign of how much remains to be understood, a rough-hewn totem pole stands above it--a symbol of Pacific Northwest Indians, not southeastern natives like Cherokees.

Hoping to address the lack of interpretive sites in Illinois and redirect the well-intentioned ignorance typical of early efforts to commemorate the trail in the state, 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," said Burde, who teaches at SIU's Carbondale campus.

The amount of neglected historical information they found has been staggering, he said, as was the discovery of long stretches of the old road, thought to have been paved over or weathered away.

Instead, long, rutted miles still mark Illinois' wilderness.

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

Bill before Congress

Legislation now before Congress would recognize other routes used by the Cherokees in addition to those major routes.

At the same time, the National Park Service, which manages the trail, has its own efforts under way to create an online interactive map of the entire forced removal. The park service's driving map of the trail parallels Illinois 146, crossing the Mississippi at Cape Girardeau, Mo., rather than farther north where the Cherokees crossed at Willard Landing and Bainbridge.

As it struggles to catch up, Illinois has seen a rash of new interest. Besides the SIU effort, an Illinois chapter of the private Trail of Tears Association opened last summer, and trail supporters said there has been a steady demand for more information about the trail.

The goal is to mark the trail and develop an interpretive center somewhere along its length, said Rowena McClinton, who heads the Illinois chapter of the Trail of Tears Association and teaches Native American studies at SIU-Edwardsville.

Until now, no centralized effort has been made to collect all the available information. It is hoped the current SIU project will weave together family accounts before they are forgotten.

"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.

The Trail of Tears joined the National Park Service's national historic trail system in 1987, though it was unfunded until 1996, when it was given an annual budget of $40,000. The annual appropriation increased to $300,000 last year, yet the Trail of Tears remains one of the least researched trails in the nation.

Much is known about the Cherokees, however, and their forced relocation was the capstone of the Indian removal policies established in the Andrew Jackson administration.

Wars and treaties led to the removal of even more--principally the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Cherokees, opening 25 million acres to white settlement. The Cherokee left without widespread violence, but not without controversy.

Though a small faction without tribal authority signed a treaty agreeing to move, more than 15,000 Cherokees later signed a petition in protest.

When the U.S. Senate ratified the removal treaty in 1836, nonetheless, the Cherokee were ordered to migrate within two years.

By 1837, Jackson had removed more than 40,000 natives from lands east of the Mississippi.

Though 2,000 left on their own, many more herded into stockades and relocation camps by federal troops.

Between 11,000 and 13,000 Cherokees in 13 groups went west overland between August and December, 1838, the last of them arriving in Oklahoma on March 24, 1839, after a cold winter in southern Illinois.

Trapped by ice floes on the Mississippi that prevented ferry traffic, thousands of Cherokees camped in canvas tents erected on muddy ground within miles of one another.

Depending on who did the count, between 400 and 4,000 Cherokees died en route overland, many of them in Illinois.

"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."

From settlers' accounts drawn from SIU's special collections, nearby libraries and local historical societies, Frailey and Burde have pieced together stories about the trail between Golconda and the Mississippi, as it became part drawn-out campground, part graveyard.

Bits of the Cherokees' passage can still be found there, Frailey said, including the old road behind the Mt. Pleasant cemetery.

She and Burde had been able to track the old trail for miles under gravel roads and through forests and farm fields.

It seemingly vanished altogether until they found it again at the cemetery's edge, covered in day lillies and grape ferns, and invasive purple flowers that were planted on settlers' graves and spread to the Cherokees' path.

As spring peeper frogs chirped in the background, she and Burde stepped carefully over barbed wire and followed an old roadbed for a quarter-mile before it dead-ended in a new home's back yard.

"I've always heard of the Trail of Tears, but it's different to learn the history about it and to actually be on some of those spots," Frailey said in a voice still hushed from the graveyard.

Searched in winter

She said she walked the trail in winter, mapping a section in the Shawnee National Forest that has been gnarled and chewed by all-terrain vehicles.

In the quiet and cold, it was just as it was when the Cherokees waited for ice to clear on the Mississippi, she said.

Nearby, a pair of canted limestone headstones peek from between oak trunks. When she found the old path a few yards away, it made the hair stand up on the back of her neck.

"I know that was the trail they walked on," she said.

It's a feeling many have when they're told they're standing on the actual trail, said Trail of Tears Association president Jack Baker, many of whose ancestors made the trek.

"It's very powerful," he said. "You think of the people who came along there, what they felt and what they did.

"Now I think we're well on our way to start marking the various sites and putting up interpretation," Baker said. "I'm feeling a great deal of hope that we're making very good progress."

Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune

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