Hundreds Died Along The Cherokee Trail Of Tears

Government Treaty Sent Tribe On Death March To Oklahoma


By Hazel Robertson - 2000

Chief Whitepath, though aging and ill, rode his pony while among his own people enroute to Oklahoma. After three days of riding, he was too sick to continue. Upon reaching Hopkinsville, he died and was buried there. A park was formed in 1989 in Hopkinsville to commemorate the Trail of Tears.


According to Cherokees Past and Present by John E. Sharp, the Cherokees migrated to North America from Asia about 10,000 years ago, and as white settlers moved inland, the Cherokees confined themselves to land lying mostly in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, with some in Kentucky and Alabama.

In 1824, the U. S. Government set up the Bureau of Indian Affairs to handle the "Indian problems." Treaties with the government recognized the rights of the Cherokees outside the jurisdiction of state laws. In 1827, they adopted their own constitution, and formed their nation with a legislature, courts, etc.

By 1830, Andrew Jackson had been elected president and had pushed through Congress the Indian Removal Act. President Jackson had an intense hatred for the Indians, even though they had fought beside him, and had saved his life in the War of 1812. The Cherokees, as well as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and other statesmen, fought the Removal Act; and even though they won in The Supreme Court, the President refused to honor the ruling. Most other tribes moved West, but the Cherokees were living peaceably and developing the ways of the white man. Some were plantation and slave owners and had nice homes.

The Cherokees had made Gideon Blackburn, a Methodist minister, Superintendent of Education; and by 1826, they had established a number of schools and were learning English and other subjects. A Cherokee named Sequoyah (Walter Gish) developed an alphabet, exclusively for the Cherokees. Many became bilingual and fairly well educated. Thomas Jefferson was highly complimentary of the Cherokee intellect.

A government agent met with a few Cherokees and persuaded a handfull of them to sign a removal treaty. This treaty, known as the New Echota Treaty of 1835, decreed that the Cherokee give up their land and remove to a 13 million-acre territory in Oklahoma. They were to be paid $5,000, which was about 62 1/2 cents per acre, and their cost of removal was to be taken from that, before a settlement was made.

Chief Whitepath, National Chief John Ross, and others tried to prevent the president's acceptance of this treaty, but failed. Gold had been discovered at Dahleoena, Georgia, and white men coveted the land. The Cherokees were helpless to defend themselves or their land. Chief Ross and his brother, Lewis, were from a wealthy Scottish family. They were one-eighth Cherokee, by way of a Cherokee great-grandmother. They loved and respected the Cherokee, and chose to live as members of the tribe. They were educated in eastern colleges, as had been many other Cherokees. Chief Whitepath wanted to retain the Indian customs.

Chief Ross returned from Washington, a year or so before the march, and found strangers in his mansion; and his wife, Quantie, and children crowded into one room, having lost their home to strangers by a Georgia state lottery. They were living at the time in New Echola, Georgia and were quite wealthy. They moved to a cabin without a floor.

When removal became emminent, Chief Ross arranged for boats to remove those who wanted to travel to Oklahoma Territory by way of the rivers (Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas), and about 3,000 departed on steamers and flatboats, but due to accidents, diseases, etc., only about 1,800 reached their destination.


One of the many stops of the Cherokees during their forced march in 1838 was at the "Big Spring" in Princeton. The spring still pours forth a huge amount of water.

Many remaining volunteered to march to Oklahoma, under leadership of Ross; but the president strenuously objected, and on May 13, 1838 sent about 7,000 troops, under command of General Winfield Scott, who fanned out through the mountains gathering Cherokees. At gun or bayonet point, they were herded into crude stockades, previously prepared at Rattlesnake Springs, near Charleston, Tennessee. They were given no time to gather clothing, families, or supplies. Often children were caught and held hostage in order to get the parents. They were subjected to starvation, heat, disease, and mistreatment all summer, while awaiting the end of the drought that had prevented the departure, due to lack of water along the way. An estimated 1,000 escaped the roundup and remained in the mountains, and some escaped along the march and returned. These are known as the Eastern Band of Cherokees. The play, "Unto These Hills," in Cherokee, North Carolina, tells the story of their survival.

Late in September 1838, the rains came. About 15,000 Cherokees were divided into 13 groups. One detachment of 1,000 or more people, some 600 horses, and possibly 40 teams of oxen, in addition to soldiers, would depart every two or three days, and all to follow the same trail. Some had a few possessions, others had nothing but clothing on their backs. Some of their land had been divided into 160-acre tracts and was taken by white men in a state lottery. Livestock and personal property had been looted and homes destroyed.

The first detachment left Rattlesnake Springs, Tennessee on October 4, 1838. The wagons and marchers, under cruel military escort, crossed the Tennessee River at Tucker's Ferry and the Cumberland Mountain Plateau to Nashville. Way stations were set up every 15 to 20 miles to provide for the Indians, soldiers, and livestock. The Indians were charged for their food, clothing, or other meager supplies. The sick, aged, and children were to ride the wagons, but there were never enough wagons. They slept in or under the wagons, without protection from the weather. Some troublesome ones were chained under wagons.

Traveling five to ten miles daily, the caravan entered Kentucky at Guthrie, where they camped near Stage Coach Inn. The next way station was near Hopkinsville, on the bank of Little River. Major John Campbell had the contract to feed and provide for them. Leaders Fly Smith and Chief Whitepath were with the second detachment; and even though Chief Whitepath was aged and ill, he insisted on riding his pony among his people, which he did for three days, but was too ill to continue. When they reached Hopkinsville, both he and Fly Smith died and were buried there. They each have a monument now. In 1989, a copper statue of each was placed nearby. The campground is now the "Trail of Tears Commemorative Park and Heritage Center," with a 160-year-old restored log cabin, featuring displays of Cherokee culture. An intertribal pow-wow is held here each September.


Traveling five to ten miles a day, the caravan of 15,000 Indians camped near Stage Coach Inn after entering Kentucky at Guthrie. The next way station was near Hopkinsville, on the bank of the Little River. Divided into 13 groups, with some 600 horses, and possibly 40 teams of oxen, parts of the caravan departed every two or three days, with each group following the same trail. A nice museum giving much detail on the tragic march, is located at the Trail of Tears Commemorative Park at Hopkinsville.

In a story for a Louisville paper, J. G. Buckley described how eagerly he awaited the arrival of Chief Whitepath's caravan in Hopkinsville, and states that "the suffering of the Cherokees was beyond description. Between Hopkinsville and the next stop, a woman was left behind in the woods to give birth to a baby, while her detachment marched ahead. She was to be picked up by the next detachment."

A recent article in the Princeton Times-Leader, by Nancy Taylor, states that when the Trail of Tears passed through Caldwell County, legend goes that a mother was dying and held her baby out, begging someone to take it. She said, "Wayona," and died. Nancy Newson Mahaffey, of Princeton, is a direct descendant of Wayona. This article also states that a young girl, too ill to travel, was left behind, reared by local people, and when age 17, married into the Childress family, on the farm where she was left; Eva Watson, of Caldwell County, is her great-great-granddaughter.

According to John Collier's "Indians of America," an eyewitness in Kentucky reported "even aged females, apparently nearly ready to drop into the grave, were traveling with heavy burdens attached to their backs, sometimes on frozen ground, and sometimes in muddy streets with no covering on their feet."

The Cherokees camped at the Big Spring, in Princeton, and also in Caldwell County. They rested on Skin Frame Creek, on Varmint Trace, near Elkhorn Tavern. Several of the people died there and were buried near the creek. The tavern, which burned a few years ago, was a good-sized log house, built around 1812, by James Blue. The Blue Cemetery, with beautiful old monuments, is nearby. According to an item by Corinne Whitehead, the name originated when an elk was killed on the creek, in the early 1800s, by a man named Maxwell, and the horns hung on the front of the tavern; thus Elkhorn.

From Elkhorn Tavern, the Cherokees traveled to Centerville, which had been the county seat of Livingston County. Nothing is left of the town, other than a marker at the Crittenden and Caldwell County line, on Highway 91.

The trail led from Centerville to Salem, by a road near Mexico, in Crittenden County. Legend goes that in Salem, the Cherokees were encamped at a spring at the brick house, just east of Salem; which is known as the Alvis House, and is still in use as a residence. I believe it was the White Inn at that time. No doubt, officers of the caravan were housed in the inn, which had hosted guests from Abraham Lincoln to the Cave-in-Rock Ford outlaw gang.

From Salem, the Cherokees took the Old Golconda Road, which leaves Salem one half mile west, at what is now Alley Lane, on which my home is located. The old road, which was the Golconda, Illinois to Dover, Tennessee Saline Trace stage coach line, is closed near my house; but Highway 133 follows it closely, through Lola and Joy to the Ohio River.

After trudging through mud and ice to Berry Ferry on the Ohio, where a man named Berry was to ferry the caravans to Illinois, the river was found to be full of ice and not safe to ferry. The unrelenting soldiers marched the people back to Mantle Rock, where a little shelter was available under the 40 foot high mantle, which is 180 feet long, forming a sort of shelter underneath. Other nearby rocks offered a little shelter also, and they were forced to camp here for several weeks, through the worst part of the winter. Some 250 or 300 people died here, in addition to the dozen or more they had buried at every stop. Many died of pneumonia from the exposure, lack of food, and insufficient clothing. Water was obtained from Mandy Falls, which is near Mantle Rock. Many were buried just under rocks, if the ground was frozen too hard.


This "Trail Of Tears" historic sign stands at Princeton, Caldwell County, marking the spot where Cherokee Indians camped along Varmin Trace Road in 1838.

Mandy Falls is a series of flat rocks, over which the water falls - a beautiful, quiet place. The falls got its name from Mandy Flanery, who legend goes, was visiting her married sister in Louisville when the round up took place, and later moved to southern Illinois and married a Mr. Flanery. They moved to a house between Mantle Rock and the falls, and reared their family.

Almost nightly, after Mandy got her work done, she would go to the falls, build a small fire, and keep vigil all night. When morning came, she would return to the house and take care of her family. The late Mrs. Elsie Wells Simpkins, of Salem, who was a very good friend of mine; and her son, Attorney Terry Wells, of Paducah, are direct descendants of Mandy Flanery.

Chief John Ross and family were with the next-to-the-last detachment, and when in this area, "Quantie," Mrs. Ross, became ill, and they left the caravan and went to Paducah and boarded the "Victoria" to continue the trip by water. She gave her only blanket to a sick child and had been riding, thinly clad, and took pneumonia. She died near Little Rock, Arkansas and is buried there.

A few of the detachments went from Centerville to Marion, then to the Ohio, and crossed further up than Berry Ferry, and apparently rejoined the trail across southern Illinois. Then the trail led through southeast Missouri and northwest Arkansas into Oklahoma. The first detachment that left Rattlesnake Springs on October 4, 1838 reached its destination January 4, 1839. The last one arrived March 25, 1839. It had been a long, hard journey, and about 4,300 had died, roughly one-fourth of the Cherokee nation. It was truly "the trail they cried on."

Slowly, the Cherokees rebuilt their nation at Tahlequah, Oklahoma. I had the pleasure, in 1989, of spending a day there. The National Capitol Building, erected in 1867, is a beautiful old red brick, and is registered as a national historic landmark, now the Chamber of Commerce. I also visited the Supreme Court Building, built in 1845, the oldest public building in the state; and the National Prison, now a library. They are all well-built and well-preserved. I visited the Ross Cemetery, in Park Hill, where the Ross family and friends are buried. The Murrell House is a pretty, old, white house, built by George Murrell, who was married to a niece of Chief Ross, then to her sister. This house was the center of all social and political activities.

In 1988, a 150-year Commemorative Trail of Tears Wagon Train made a trip from beginning to end, as near as the roads permitted, of the original route taken by the Cherokees. The manager, Ray Morris, of Golconda, Illinois, whose wife is Indian, said the purpose was to keep alive the memory of the Cherokee Nation. Wagon Master Tom Gulley, of Marion, Illinois, who is part Indian, said the reason is to keep people aware of this black chapter in our history. They departed from Red Clay, Tennessee on September 17th and camped as near as possible to the original camp sites.

There was at least one wagon representing each state involved, and all along, riders and a few wagons would join for a few days, drop out, and others would join. They stopped at schools, and Mr. Morris talked to students about the Cherokees and the removal. The wagon train encountered some very bad weather along the way, but arrived in Tahlequah on December 3rd. They were welcomed at the gazebo on the lawn of the old National Capitol by National Chief Wilma Mankiller; the first woman ever elected as Chief of the Cherokee Nation. At that time, she was managing a 52-million-dollar budget, and governing 95,000 Cherokees - a beautiful and talented lady.


Editor's Note: Hazel Robertson, 420 Alley Lane, Salem, KY 42078-9301, compiled this story from various records and sources, which she says, may not all agree. However, she is happy to share it with our readers.