New exhibits explain Cherokees’ difficulty crossing Mississippi River
National Trail of Tears Association President Jack Baker, left, Illinois TOTA Chapter Vice President Heather Carey, Cairo Mayor Thomas Simpson, TOTA Executive Director Troy Poteete and Illinois TOTA Chapter President Sandy Boaz take part in unveiling two new wayside exhibits that share information about the water route used by Cherokees during the forced removal. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Two new wayside exhibits created by the Illinois and Kentucky Trail of Tears Association chapters along with the National Park Service are on display at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in Illinois. The exhibits share information about the water route used by Cherokee people to reach Indian Territory. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
This wayside marker tells of the federal government’s plan to move Cherokees to Indian Territory in 1838 by a water route, but low river levels forced most Cherokees to make the move west by land. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Principal Chief John Ross stopped his steamboat on the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois, in January 1839 to go to Cherokee detachments stranded on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. He replaced some detachment leaders and encouraged the detachments to continue moving west. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Four Cherokee water route detachments passed by the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and 11 land detachments crossed the Mississippi River north of the confluence in 1838 and 1839. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
National Trail of Tears Association President Jack Baker, right, speaks to TOTA members and Cairo city officials during an Oct. 14 dedication ceremony for two National Park Service wayside exhibits that share information about the water route used by Cherokees during removal. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
CAIRO, Ill. – Through the efforts of the Illinois and Kentucky Trail of Tears Association chapters there are now two wayside exhibits at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in Illinois.
The National Park Service markers explain the situation of how detachments of Cherokees making their way west became trapped in Illinois because the frozen Mississippi River was impassable. Removal plans by the U.S. government had called for transporting Cherokee people to Indian Territory by boat, but low river levels in the summer of 1838 forced most of the approximately 16,000 Cherokees who had been rounded up to travel by land.
Principal Chief John Ross traveled the water route, and according to historian Dr. Dan Littlefield of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Cairo was the site of “a major personal and political decision by John Ross” on his way to Indian Territory.
During an Oct. 14 dedication ceremony for the wayside exhibits, Illinois TOTA Chapter President Sandy Boaz read Littlefield’s research about Ross’s decision to stop at the Mississippi to encourage Cherokee people to continue west.
The last large detachment to leave the old Cherokee Nation in the east was led by John Drew and included Ross and his family, including his wife Quatie. They left the Cherokee Agency in Tennessee aboard four flatboats on Dec. 5, 1838. They went down the Hiwassee and then connected to the Tennessee River passed by Muscle Shoals and stopped at Tuscumbia Landing on the Tennessee in Alabama.
In Tuscumbia, Ross purchased the steamboat Victoria. Though “he was profoundly concerned about the illness of his wife,” he stopped the steamboat in Cairo in January 1839 when it reached the Mississippi River to visit detachments traveling overland who were held up by ice on the river on the Illinois side of the river.
“He had received numerous letters when he was in Paducah (Kentucky) pleading for his guidance. He tied up her at Cairo at the confluence and took a smaller boat up (the river) and met with the contingents at Jonesboro and at Willard’s Ferry,” wrote Littlefield. “There was a rebellion developing among some of the contingent leaders. They felt it was going to be safer for the contingents to move by water, and they were petitioning John Ross to get steamships for them to go down the river. He was trying to encourage them it would be better if they continued on the land route.
“So, while he was in Union County, he encouraged the travelers and fired some of the rabble-rousers, and then he returned on horseback to Cairo because he couldn’t catch a boat and then he continued his trip to Indian Territory,” Littlefield wrote.
Boaz added Ross’s visit with the detachments did motivate them to continue after they crossed the icy river.
The Drew Detachment arrived in Indian Territory on March 18, 1839. However, Ross lost his wife to pneumonia on Feb. 1, 1839, near Little Rock and she is buried there. Ross wrote: “My children became motherless and the remains of Mrs. Ross were left in a strange land.”
“This caused John Ross much personal tragedy and loss, and it’s often been questioned if had not tied up here for six days (at Cairo) would Quatie had lived to make it to the journey’s end,” Littlefield wrote.
Boaz said the exhibits are located where there are already many commemorative signs, including signs commemorating the Lewis & Clark expedition that began in 1804 and stopped to camp in the area.
At the time of the removals the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers was about a quarter mile north of where it is now south of Cairo.
“Since that time in the last 200 years, the land has silted in and landfills have been done and bridges built,” Boaz said. “Some thought we should put them at the actual confluence, but I reminded this area is often flooded including about six months this year. If the current didn’t destroy the signs, the floating debris or a barge that was tied up might have destroyed them.”
Cairo Mayor Thomas Simpson also attended the Oct. 14 ceremony.
“It’s wonderful you are doing this presentation here today to share the history of this area. A lot of people come through here on a day-to-day basis and they go down to the point (confluence of two rivers). I see folks from all over the country get to the point, get out of their cars and look at the river,” he said. “My thinking is you always need to know where you came from and where you are going, and I appreciate all you do to share the history of this country. I am honored and delighted to be with you here today.”