Trail of Tears

The Cherokee Indians were once a great tribe living in and around the Great Smokey Mountains. They were probably the most civilized tribe in America with well established churches and schools that could be compared with any of the whites at that time.

They are credited with an independent development of the log cabin. The Cherokees had their own recorded code of tribal laws with elected officials to govern them. They adopted the white mans ways and Christianity, were skilled at farming and cattle raising. Some even owned Negro slaves like their white neighbors.

Chief John RossTheir trouble began in part over gold mines that opened on Cherokee lands. A movement had been gathering since about 1802 for the removal of all Indians to reservations and the discovery of gold had fueled the fire in earnest.

The Georgia legislature ruled to acquire the lands. A law was passed that no Indian or descendants of an Indian shall be deemed a competent witness in any case in court that a white person may be a party.

Other states where Cherokee lands fell adopted similar laws. Many Cherokees were given whiskey by the whites who took advantage of their drunkenness and bribed the Indians out of their land holdings with paltry sums of money and empty promises.

About 2,000 moved west through this trickery. Some 15,000 were not fooled by these methods and were forced to walk the Trail of Tears as it became known for its many hardships and sorrows it brought to their people.

President Andrew Jackson gave his full support to the removal of the Cherokees from their land. An armed force of 7,000 made up of militia, regular army, and volunteers under General Winfield Scott forced the remaining 15,000 Cherokees from their homes in the Great Smokey Mountains and removed them to stockades at the U.S. Indian Agency near Charleston, Tennessee.

Their homes were burned and their property destroyed and plundered. Farms belonging to the Cherokees for generations were won by white settlers in a lottery.

The march of 1,000 miles began in the winter of 1838. Carrying only a few light blankets and wearing scant clothing with daily rations of only salt pork and corn meal, many sickened and died along the way. Medical care was nearly non-existent.

Only the very old, sick, and small children could be carried in wagons or ride on horseback. Over 8,000 were on foot, most without shoes or moccasins. They crossed Tennessee and Kentucky, about the 3rd of December, 1838, they arrived in Southern Illinois at Golconda.

To reach Golconda from Kentucky, the Cherokee had to cross the Ohio River. They were forced to pay $1 a head for a ferry passage on Berry's Ferry operating out of Golconda. This was rather exorbitant considering it normally cost only 12 and half cents for a Conestoga wagon and all you could carry.

Berry's Ferry made over $10,000 that winter out of the pockets of the starving Cherokees. They were not allowed passage until the ferry had serviced all others wishing to cross and were forced to take shelter under Mantle Rock, a shelter bluff on the Kentucky side, until Berry had nothing better to do. Many died huddled together at Mantle Rock waiting to cross.

Many contagious diseases spread among the tribe during their journey- cholera, whooping cough, and small pox. The Cherokee were given used blankets from a hospital in Tennessee where an epidemic of small pox had broken out.

Because of the diseases, the Indians were not allowed to go into any towns or villages along the way; many times this meant traveling much farther to go around them. However, one family in Golconda had compassion on them and shared their pumpkin crop with the Cherokee.

While staying near Golconda, several Cherokee were murdered by locals. The killers filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Government through the courthouse in Vienna, suing the government for $35 a head to bury the murdered Cherokee. They lost their suit and the bodies were thrown in shallow, unmarked graves near Brownfield where a monument to the Trail of Tears now stands.

The Cherokee marched on through Southern Illinois. Their trail is marked by crude camps from Golconda through Dixon Springs, Wartrace, Vienna, Mt. Pleasant, and Jonesboro to the Dutch Creek Crossing. About December 15, 1838, they were forced to spend the winter in the area of what is now the Trail of Tears State Forest.

Floating ice on the Mississippi River made it impossible to cross. Many died there during the long, cold winter. Some were sold into slavery and a few escaped.

Silkwood InnThree miles north of Mulkeytown, IL is a shapeless sandstone that marks of the grave of Priscilla, a quadroon slave whom Brazilla Silkwood, owner of the Silkwood Inn, had bought from a Cherokee chief when that tribe was encamped in the Trail of Tears State Forest.

As he hated slavery, Silkwood purchased young Priscilla for $1,000 in gold and took her home to be raised the same as his other 15 children. Priscilla was known for the hollyhock trees she grew from seeds that she had brought with her from Georgia.

Those who escaped the march hid in the hills. Some eventually returned to their land in the Smoky Mountains and their descendents live to this day in and around Cherokee, North Carolina.

Annually they re-enact the tragic events of that winter and their forced march in a play called Unto These Hills. At least 4,000 Cherokee Indians died that winter along with the pride of a nation that may never be restored.

Source: 1999 Visitors Guide, Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau.

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