Southern highways echo with tears

The U.S. Trail of Tears cuts through Mississippi and eight other states.

The U.S. Trail of Tears cuts through Mississippi and eight other states. Photo: Melani Litwack


In the 1830s, 15,000 aboriginals were herded from their homes east of the Mississippi. Sent on their forced march by U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, they crossed up to nine states on foot, by horse, wagon or steamboat to what is now Oklahoma. At least 4,000 died on this Trail of Tears.

Previous administrations had accepted the presence of “civilized tribes” and hoped to transform the nations into farmers. On paper, the removal policy—protested against by Abraham Lincoln and Davy Crockett—was voluntary. In practice, politics and threats drove the tribes from disputed territories.

In Jackson’s 1830 address to the nation, he said of the policy, “Is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian? Is it more afflicting to him to leave the graves of his fathers than it is to our brothers and children? Rightly considered, the policy of the general government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the general government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.”

The Trail of Tears is marked on highways throughout the U.S. One can feel the history on the twisting, hilly country roads of Tennessee, Mississippi and surprisingly beautiful Arkansas.

While one discovers cotton and rice fields and ranches abundant in cattle, the land is mostly forested.

Roads cut through thick trees and drop away on either side into deep gullies or wide, swampy ditches. Innumerable bridges carry drivers safely over bayous and creeks that are often brown but sometimes sharp emerald green. In the swampland and buzzing in the air are predators of many kinds.

Now, the roads are smooth and the scenery spectacular. But in the 1830s, these were but footpaths and unbroken trails.

What is amazing isn’t that 15,000 Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole came this way. It’s that 11,000 survived.

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