New Trail of Tears markers to go up in Arkansas

Little Rock, Arkansas (AP) 11-09

New signs and markers along Arkansas’ portions of the Trail of Tears should be erected by spring, officials said after President Barack Obama signed an act that expands the historic trail to more than 4,900 miles in nine states.

The Trail of Tears is the name given to the routes that more than 16,000 Cherokee Indians traveled during their forced removal from their homelands to what is now Oklahoma.

Those involved in the expansion view the new markers and designation as a boon to tourism and the state’s cultural history.

“It gives us a chance to commemorate this sad event in history,” said Carolyn Kent, a retired nurse who has spent years researching Native American history. “Even though it’s a sad event, I think people need to know about it.”

Until recently, the only recognized portions of the trail in Arkansas were a short section in northwest Arkansas and the water route that includes the Arkansas River. Much more of the state will now be marked.

“As far as we know, all of the members of those southeastern tribes ... came through the state of Arkansas somewhere,” said Daniel Littlefield, director of the Sequoyah Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “We have literally hundreds and hundreds of miles of travel routes.”

The next step is developing “interpretation,” such as roadside panels for people to stop and read, Littlefield said.

“What it is going to end up meaning in the long run is that Arkansas is going to enjoy a good bit of cultural tourism,” Littlefield told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “People should be able to get a map out and do a driving tour.”

The largest additions in Arkansas are called the Benge and Bell routes, which were left out of the original federal Trail of Tears legislation passed by Congress in 1987.

The Benge Route is named for John Benge, who led a detachment of about 1,100 to 1,200 Cherokees from Fort Payne, Ala., in early fall 1838. Scholars say the group crossed into Arkansas in Randolph County, then headed toward Batesville, crossed the White River north of Cotter and eventually made its way through Fayetteville and Prairie Grove before heading into Oklahoma.

This was the only group to follow this route, and it disbanded the following January in Indian Territory.

The Bell Route, named for detachment conductor John Bell, crosses into Arkansas in West Memphis and goes through what is now Village Creek State Park in Cross County. The 650 or so Cherokees traveling that route continued through North Little Rock and followed the Arkansas River to Van Buren.