For every proud moment in human history, there is another that shames us.
The forced removal of approximately 15,000 Native American people from their homelands in the Southeast to Indian Territory (then, beyond “civilization,” now, Oklahoma) is nothing to praise.
The part of this 1838–39 tragedy involving the Cherokee of the Southern Appalachians (Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee), mandated by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, is commonly known as the Trail of Tears.
Sometimes, offering a gesture—giving a nod to that bleak moment in history—makes things a little better. Is that the case with Trail of Tears State Park in southeastern Missouri? Does naming a pretty park after a bad act help?
On the one hand, this lovely park (3,415 acres), open for free as are all of Missouri’s state parks, might be seen to dismiss the Cherokee who passed through the area on the “Northern Route” in a play for tourist attention via the recognizable historic name.
On the other hand, perhaps creating a park that owns acknowledgment of the human suffering that unfolded among the beautiful bluffs, breathtaking narrow ridges, and unbelievably steep ravines along the western shore of the majestic Mississippi River is a kind of alleviating triumph. Note the placement of Cherokee language signs in the Visitor Center restrooms and on the National Park Service Trail of Tears National Historic Trail map available in the information rack. What are we saying when we juxtapose natural wonder with recognition of terrible acts?
What is not in question is the beauty of this wild, pristine, heavily wooded place on the lip of the Mississippi. Hiking trails and primitive camp sites take you into wilderness that remains unchanged since before the harsh winter months when thousands of men and women, from babies to elders, passed through. Did they notice the beauty? Or was this gently rippled, sometimes steeply challenging topography just a harsh reminder of the mountainous eastern birthplace they had been forced to leave?
Missouri is hardly alone in commemorating a Trail of Tears site. Some sort of acknowledgment for the entire Five Nation displacement can be found at various locations in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Note that many of these places, usually camp sites for the on-the-move groups, are located near water—creeks, waterfalls, rivers, lakes. In western Kentucky, Big Spring in Princeton and Berry’s Ferry and Mantle Rock near Paducah are examples. Certain military forts also document where the march originated or passed through.
Aside from being essential to life, water was the interstate of the nineteenth century when this coerced exodus occurred, and no one wanted it to drag on any longer than necessary to shift so many people from one place to another.
Although the 7,000 Army troops enforcing the march located water for drinking or for transport, nothing was done to make the removal a success for those being forced out of their homes so others could expand their own culture into those anciently occupied places, farm the land, mine the gold, take the fertility and bounty for themselves.
Hundreds upon hundreds of Native Americans died along the way, even when guided by their own people. Iced-over rivers forced many detachments (the orchestrated staging of one group after another, numbering from several hundred to a few thousand each) to stay in make-shift camps without adequate shelter, food, or clothing in freezing weather.
The weather was wintery when not killing; every river crossing was cold. People froze. They starved. They died from disease. The horror of being evicted and then herded to an unknown place is the universal refugee experience to this day, and it is depressing, exhausting, inhumane, no matter the conditions or surroundings. Of course people died.
And they died in places we now think of as wonderful, rejuvenating destinations full of sights and sounds and experiences that lift us up, free us from stress, and bring us back to life, places we treasure and preserve—parks. Hard to fathom. Hard to contemplate.
By the time the Cherokee crossed the Mississippi at Green’s Ferry (south of this park’s current boat ramp), they were about halfway to their new home in what is now eastern Oklahoma. In 1957, recognition came to this terrible relocation event not just in place but in name when Trail of Tears State Park opened near the town of Jackson.
Anyone seeking to follow the Trail should look to river edges where the waters of the east flowed inexorably to the Mississippi, even though much of the trek was a hard overland haul. Today’s travelers can drive either the “auto route” or trace the “original route” across the Southeast following National Historic Trail signs.
Start at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina, the land of a civilization so advanced, its newspaper was bilingual when many white people couldn’t read. Move on to Chattanooga, Tennessee, site of (John) Ross’s Landing, named for the Cherokee Chief (1828–1866) who tried using white men’s diplomatic ways to stay the evacuation of his people. Go further west and imagine drinking a beer in Elkhorn Tavern in Pea Ridge National Military Park in Northwest Arkansas, watching thousands of “dreaded savages” dragging by, hardly alive.
You won’t find many grave sites along either route. These “removed” people weren’t “worthy” of the time and effort it took to create proper graves and conduct sacred ceremonies.
It’s impossible to dismiss the ghosts of this marvelous, modest Missouri state park, its existence one small admission to a national embarrassment, and it’s impossible to ignore its wonders. About two hours equally from St. Louis in Missouri and Paducah, Kentucky, this one is not just a happy wonderland for picnicking, swimming, boating, fishing, hiking, backpacking, primitive camping, horseback riding, and gathering with friends.
This park carries the weight of a particular chapter in human history on its beautiful shoulders. The scenic overlook at the end of Overlook Road is astounding. You can see the Mississippi Valley in the same way you can see the Grand Canyon—sweeping, encompassing, magnificent.
Then imagine thousands of displaced people crossing these frigid waters, just where you stand, against their wills.
And now, for a happier ending: “One will not hear the anguished voice of a forgotten and broken people. Instead one might hear the pride of people who faced overwhelming adversity and persevered.” —Cherokee Nation (from the National Park Service Trail of Tears National Historic Trail map)
It is worth a visit to experience the beauty of this unprepossessing state park that faces its past straight up and reflect on all that is human—the good and the bad—in our history.
SEE ALL TRAIL OF TEARS STATE PARK IMAGES HERE: