Trail of Tears marker commemorates water route
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Trail of Tears Association, Memphis and National Park Service officials gathered Oct. 7 with TOTA members to dedicate a Trail of Tears marker on the east bank of the Mississippi River.
The NPS marker tells the story of how Cherokee people were moved from their homelands by riverboats in 1838 following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. It also provides information about the Indian Removal Policy and the land trails used by Cherokee people to reach Indian Territory during the removal.
The marker dedication was part of the TOTA’s annual convention held Oct. 7-9 in Memphis.
TOTA President and Cherokee Nation Tribal Councilor Jack Baker thanked the NPS for “fast tracking” the placement of the marker.
“I think it’s significant that we remember the water route because so much of our work is done on the land route and marking sites along the land route that we tend to forget there was a water route. We forget the three (Cherokee) detachments that were sent west almost immediately after the roundups. One of the detachments had 145 deaths on the way,” Baker said.
He said some of his ancestors used the water route to go to Indian Territory, one of who died.
Baker said Principal Chief John Ross came through Memphis on a boat and three or four days after passing Memphis his wife Quatie died near Little Rock, Arkansas.
TOTA Director Graydon Swisher said Memphis is known as a bluff city, which made it an ideal landing spot for boat traffic on the Mississippi River.
“This is Chickasaw territory. We’ve got a lot of history here in Memphis. The Bell Route (Cherokee) came through Memphis. It was a land route and it came in...where the Wolf River came in,” Swisher said. “We are working on a land route marker just like this one to be put up there some time in the next year or so. Because the convention was here, we were able to make some things happen.”
I think it’s significant that we remember the water route because so much of our work is done on the land route and marking sites along the land route that we tend to forget there was a water route.
– Jack Baker, Trail of Tears Association president
Swisher said other signage has been placed around Memphis to commemorate and mark events that took place during the forced removal of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee Creek and Choctaw in the 1830s. The Seminoles, who were moved to Indian Territory from Florida, were moved by ship across the Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi for part of their journey.
NPS National Trails Superintendent Aaron Mahr said Swisher played an important role in this year’s conference and for getting the Trail of Tears marker placed along the river.
“This is (a) particularly exciting development here. This is in an urban area. It’s highly visited by families, by all sorts of groups, by ethnically diverse groups who come here and see this on a daily basis. It’s really important that we have that ability to reach so many people,” Mahr said. “You can’t really understand the trail unless you come to Memphis, unless you come to Tahlequah, unless you come to Cherokee, North Carolina. Tying all of these together – these urban areas, these rural areas – that’s what the trail experience is all about, so having this development here in Memphis is particularly important for us. It just raises awareness of the trail that much more.”
The TOTA – made up of nine state chapters from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina and Georgia – met for the first time in Memphis.
TOTA Executive Director and CN Supreme Court Justice Troy Wayne Poteete said the annual meetings are held in part “to encourage scholarship” about the Indian removals among its members.
“It encourages the scholars and professional historians who study our history to continue in that vein and to share their work, and it provides an opportunity for the enthusiasts, the people who study the trail, who work on marking it, to come together and hear those scholars, to interact with them, to hear about their research,” Poteete said. “It also raises public awareness of the removal story in whatever community we go to.”
He said the association does not study and share the Trail of Tears story so that the Cherokee and other tribes who were affected by the forced removals can be seen as “victims.”
“We work on marking this route and talking about this history because it gives us the opportunity to honor their resilience because they persevered. They overcame those hardships and rebuilt the Cherokee Nation. It gives us an opportunity to say, ‘their endurance wasn’t in vain; we’re still here. We’re a viable people,’” Poteete said.
There are around 600 TOTA members, Poteete said, with about 125 to 175 members who attend the annual conference. He expects close to 175 attendees at next year’s 20th annual conference in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
Also, at the TOTA conferences participants get acquainted with the NPS and the services they provide to aid the TOTA in carrying out the Congressional mandate, Poteete said.
“The Trail of Tears Association backs up their efforts to carry out the Congressional mandate to mark the trail. A lot of times we look on like they’re helping us, but we’re helping them do what Congress said to do,” he said. “Congress is able to give relatively small amounts of money to the Park Service. Through the volunteer efforts of people in the association, we leverage that funding to get a lot more trail marked than if they (NPS) had to do the research themselves, and if they had to have the personnel to interact with the local officials to make arrangements for the signs to go up.”
For more information about the TOTA, call 501-666-9032 or visit www.nationaltota.org