The Exodus of the Cherokee to the West

In 1830 President Andrew Jackson had forced the Indian Removal Act through Congress and then in 1835 Congress ratified the fraudulent Treaty of New Echota. After the treaty’s ratification, the pressure for the forced removal of the Cherokee remaining in the East gained momentum.

For more than three years the Cherokee successfully and peacefully resisted removal by appealing to public sentiment and waging the first legal battle between an Indian Tribe and the United States Government.

After carrying the case to the US Supreme Court and winning a favorable decision, President Jackson refused to acknowledge and enforce the decision with the statement, “that’s John Marshall’s decision; now let’s see him enforce it.”

Their farms had been confiscated by the State of Georgia and issued to whites by lottery, and the Cherokee were “rounded up” and driven into “concentration camps.” In an effort to avoid unnecessary hardship and suffering, Principal Chief John Ross agreed to accept the responsibility for removal. Leaders were appointed to supervisory positions and the Cherokee were divided into Groups and started to the West.

Trail of Tears - Official Brochure
Trail of Tears - Map

Timeline of the Trail of Tears

February 15,665 people of the Cherokee Nation memorialize congress protesting the Treaty of New Echola.
March Outraged American citizens throughout the country memorialize congress on behalf of the Cherokee.
April Congress tables memorials protesting Cherokee removal. Federal troops ordered to prepare for roundup.
May Cherokee roundup begins May 23, 1838. Southeast suffers worst drought in recorded history. Tsali escapes roundup and returns to North Carolina.
June First group of Cherokees driven west under Federal guard. Further removal aborted because of drought and “sickly season.”
July Over 13,000 Cherokees imprisoned in military stockades awaiting break in drought. Approximately 1,500 die in confinement.
August In Aquohee stockade Cherokee chiefs meet in council, reaffirming the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation. John Ross becomes superintendent of the removal.
September Drought breaks: Cherokee prepare to embark on forced exodus to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Ross wins additional funds for food and clothing.
October For most Cherokee, the “Trail of Tears” begins.
November Thirteen contingents of Cherokees cross Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois. First groups reach the Mississippi River, where there crossing is held up by river ice flows.
December Contingent led by Chief Jesse Bushyhead camps near present day Trail of Tears Park. John Ross leaves Cherokee homeland with last group: carrying the records and laws of the Cherokee Nation. 5,000 Cherokees trapped east of the Mississippi by harsh winter; many die.
January First overland contingents arrives at Fort Gibson. Ross party of sick and infirm travel from Kentucky by riverboat.
February Chief Ross’s wife, Quati, dies near Little Rock, Arkansas on February 1, 1839.
March Last group headed by Ross, reaches Oklahoma. More than 3,000 Cherokee die on Trail of Tears, 1,600 in stockades and about the same number en route. 800 more die in 1839 in Oklahoma.
April Cherokees build houses, clear land, plant and begin to rebuild their nation.
May Western Cherokee invite new arrivals to meet to establish a united Cherokee government.
June Old Treaty Part leaders attempt to foil reunification negotiations between Ross and Sequoyah. Treaty Party leaders John Ridge, Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot assassinated.
July Cherokee Act of Union brings together the eastern and western Cherokee Nations on July 12, 1839.
August Stand Watie, Brother of Boudinot, pledges revenge for deaths of party leaders.
September Cherokee constitution adopted on September 6, 1839. Tahlequah established as capital of the Cherokee Nation.
Pvt. John G. Burnett, Cpt. Abraham McClellan’s Co.2nd Reg. - 2nd Brig. - Mtd. Inf. - Cherokee Indian Removal (1838-39)

I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west … On the morning of November the 17th we encountered a terrific sleet and snow storm with freezing temperatures and from that day until we reached the end of the fateful journey on March the 26th 1839, the sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire. And I have known as many as twenty-two of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold and exposure

The Benge Route

The Benge Route is named for the conductor of the detachment, John Benge. His was the only group to follow this route. This detachment of about 1,200 Cherokee departed Fort Payne, Alabama, October 1st, 1838, and disbanded in Indian Territory, January 11th, 1839.

Conductor: John Benge
Assistant Conductor: Lowery, George C.
Physician: Rowles, William P.
Interpreter: Lowery, A.P.
Commissary: Rogers. James H.
Assistant Commissary: Lovett, George W.
Manager: Boot, John F.
Assistant Managers: Campbell, Archibald; Lovett, Jesse; Money, Cryer
Wagon Master: Benge, Robert
Assistant Wagon Master: Campbell, George W.
Subcontractor (for Lewis Ross): Colborn, J.L., Col

Actual numbers are difficult to obtain. The number of Cherokee departing with the Benge Detachment varies according to various sources of information available and range between 1,079 to 1,200. The other information is fairly consistent with 1132 arriving in Indian Territory, 33 deaths and 3 births. Some of the other detachments have a category for “desertions”; however, there is no listing for deserters in the Benge records. When all is summed up, this detachment had one of the lowest attrition rates.

Forrest CarterThe Education of Little Tree

But the Cherokee did not cry. Not on the outside, for the Cherokee would not let them see his souls; as he would not ride in the wagons. And so they called it the Trail of Tears. Not because the Cherokee cried; for he did not. They called it the Trail of Tears for it sounds romantic and speaks of the sorrow of those who stood by the Trail. A death march is not romantic. You cannot write poetry about the death-stiffened baby in his mother’s arms, staring at the jolting sky with eyes that will not close, while his mother walks. You cannot sing songs of the father laying down the burden of his wife’s corpse, to lie by it through the night and to rise and carry it again in the morning – and tell his oldest son to carry the body of his youngest. And do not look … nor speak … nor cry … nor remember the mountains. It would not be a beautiful song. And so they called it the Trail of Tears

After departing Ft. Payne, Alabama, they would have continued to Gunter’s Landing and made their first crossing of the Tennessee River. They would be traveling south and west of the route taken by the detachments using what is designated “The Northern Land Route.” Their second crossing of the Tennessee River, using the Comprehensive Management and Use Plan-Map supplement of the National Park Service as a guide, was at Reynolds Ferry and through what is today the Nathan Bedford Forrest Memorial State Park. They then continued through Paris, Tennessee and Clinton, Kentucky. They then continued to what is today Columbus-Belmont State Park where they crossed the Mississippi River. John Benge had relatives in Clinton – which may be why the trail came through Hickman County, according to a local historian.


After crossing into Missouri they traveled in a northwesterly direction to just south of Cape Girardeau where they turned in a westerly direction until they intersected the “Old Spanish Road” sometimes called “The Old Southwest Trail.” This route was marked by the Spanish from St. Louis to Texas in the early 1800s. They followed this road south to the Current River where they crossed into Arkansas at a place today called “Indian Ford.” There they crossed the Fouche Dumas river at Columbia Crossing, the Eleven Point River at Blacks Ferry and the Spring River at Miller’s Ford. The Arkansas Gazette tells of them camping at Smithville in Lawrence County, December 12 and being in Batesville (Poke Bayou) for Wagon repairs, December 15, 1838.

Here they intersected “The Jacksonport Road.” President Jackson had secured funding in 1831-32 to extend this road from Jacksonport on the White River to Van Buren “to remove Indians to the west.” They would follow this road to Fayetteville where they would turn due west into Indian Territory. The writings of W.B. Flippin, who as a teenager observed their passage, document their crossing of the White River just upstream from the present day town of Cotter.

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