Driving the Trail of Tears

On the National Historic Trail
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In contrast to more glamorous historical trails like the Oregon Trail or the Pony Express Trail, which glorify heroic moments in American history, the Trail of Tears represents a blot on our national conscience. People have tended to want to forget the whole affair, and as a result not much has been preserved to commemorate this event. The original evacuation route has had few sites maintained as a remembrance; many of the sites where the Cherokee were herded together for the march, where they camped during the trek, or where the bodies of those who died along the way were buried have been paved over, destroyed, or forgotten.

The government is attempting to rectify this oversight by establishing the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. The trail follows four parallel paths that approximate the original paths taken by the Cherokee on their forced march. Three forks of the trail follow what were known as the"land routes"; the fourth parallels to the south and was known as the "water route." Two of the land routes, Benge's route and Bell's route (named after the army officers in charge) took a southerly path to Oklahoma. The third land route became known as the "northern route" and was the one over which most of the Cherokee traveled. This route marched the Indians over the hills of six states, while the water route forced the evacuees over a circuitous route via boats on the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers. Together these four trails cover over 2,000 miles.

Following the entire route today would be a difficult undertaking, and walking the entire original trail would be a near impossibility given the development that has occurred along the route. But by following the auto tour route that closely tracks the northern land route of the historic trail, you can get a feel for the original path and immerse yourself in the history and natural beauty of the region.

The autoroute begins in Charleston, Tennessee, weaving westward through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas, before ending in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the end point of the march and the current tribal capital of the Cherokee Indians. Along the way the trail bisects numerous state parks and forests as well as national forests, and goes through some of the most scenic mountains and upland plains of the southeast.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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