JONESBORO - Efforts to better document the Trail of Tears in Southern Illinois are "kind of long past due," area historian and genealogist Darrel Dexter of Jonesboro said.
Dexter, who teaches at Egyptian High School in Tamms, has no Cherokee ancestry so far as he knows, but he has spent years studying the forced removal of the Cherokee nation.
When Dexter was a graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, he "had a professor who was Cherokee, from Oklahoma. He asked me to research the Trail of Tears through Illinois," Dexter said.
Dexter has done extensive study on the Trail of Tears and has published a number of articles offering details of the journey during which some 3,000 Cherokee died. Though he hasn't played an active role in marking the trail, he said he has been supporting the effort.
"It's just in the last decade or so that there's a lot of interest in marking the trail," Dexter said. One earlier Trail of Tears marker, erected by the state in 1935 along Illinois 146 between Jonesboro and Ware, is now missing, he added.
One of Dexter's articles, "Exodus Across Egypt, the Cherokee Trail of Tears Through Southern Illinois," was published in 2000 in The Saga of Southern Illinois, the quarterly publication of the Genealogy Society of Southern Illinois.
Dexter's article says many lives might have been saved if the Cherokee had chosen to travel by water rather than over land.
A few years before the forced removal, some Cherokee had agreed to leave their homes and move west. Those who were on the Trail of Tears "were those who held out and resisted to the end," Dexter said.
"The 900-mile water route took only about 21 days," Dexter wrote.
The government had constructed a fleet of keel boats, 130 feet long and 20 feet wide, that could carry about 1,000 people on each trip.
Many of those who had signed a treaty with the government opted for the water route, which went down the Tennessee River to the Ohio, then down the Ohio to where it joins the Mississippi at Cairo. The keelboats then went down the Mississippi to the Arkan-sas River, and a trip up the latter river took them to Fort Gibson in Indian Territory.
"Those who went via water arrived more quickly and with fewer casualties," Dexter said in an interview.
But many of the traditional tribe members, who had resisted removal, believed rivers represented paths to the underworld, a place where evil spirits dwelled. Others weren't superstitious, but simply thought the land route would be safer, if they could wait until fall and the end of drought. Their reasoning seemed good - it would ensure adequate drinking water.
The Cherokee Council was given a contract to manage the removal and voted to follow the land route. Chief John Ross thought it would take about 80 days at an average of 10 miles a day.
The Cherokee were divided into 13 detachments, each about 1,000 people and each with a leader and assistant. Each detachment was to have about 50 wagons, to be used by the elderly, ill and small children. There also were teams and additional riding horses for each detachment.
They were given provisions, but it was food they weren't used to eating - including salt pork, flour, corn, sugar and coffee. Early accounts indicate the Cherokee sometimes traded their coffee for pumpkins, beans or other food. Some would hunt, bringing turkey or deer back to the camps to feed their families.
The wagons often became mired in mud as they traveled the dirt roads. The path across Southern Illinois, legends say, was carved out in 1803 by Capt. James Lusk, a Revolutionary War veteran who earlier had settled in Kentucky across the river from Golconda and operated a ferry. He moved to the Illinois side of the Ohio in 1798. Some believe Lusk built the road to lure settlers, who would then use his ferry.
Those who operated ferries used by the Cherokee apparently were paid well, Dexter said.
"The Trail of Tears dropped a lot of money into the Southern Illinois economy," he observed. "There were ferry fees, alcohol, food and other supplies that the local residents provided for the travelers. Some of the Cherokee were wealthy, too," and were able to pay for additional supplies.
Several accounts indicate that Winstead Davie, the founder of Anna, had housed some of the Cherokee at his home in Jonesboro - probably for a price. Davie was granted a hotel license on Dec. 3, 1838, about the time the Cherokee began arriving in Union County. The license was not renewed in 1839, Dexter observed.
The court set the rates he could charge: 25 cents for lodging, 50 cents for each breakfast and dinner, 37 cents for supper, 50 cents for keeping a horse overnight, and 25 cents for horse feed.
Ann Willard Goodman, who was born three years after the Cherokee passed through her hometown of Jonesboro, recalled in 1932 stories she'd been told about her father, Willis Willard, making $100 a day grinding corn meal in his steam-powered grist mill to feed the Cherokee.
Goodman also recalled hearing that Jesse Bushyhead, an ordained Baptist minister and conductor of the 3rd Detachment, and a Chief Nowatta boarded in Jonesboro with Winstead Davie and made daily trips to meet with the several thousand Cherokee camped outside on Dutch Creek.
Those looking at the Trail of Tears from a modern perspective might wonder why more Southern Illinois "settlers" didn't help the Cherokee survive, Dexter said, "but a lot of people don't realize that in some cases the Indians passing through outnumbered the black and white settlers. The numbers were overwhelming."
Contagious disease, exposure and malnutrition killed many of the Cherokee who were trapped between two rivers during the bit-ter winter.
"Those who did offer assistance were limited in what they could do, as the people of Egypt were overwhelmed and nearly outnumbered by the thousands of freezing and starving Cherokee placed in their midst," Dexter wrote.
Dexter's research has revealed fascinating facts about the trail, but genealogist finds some questions difficult if not impossible to answer.
"It's hard to trace Cherokee ancestry," he said. These days, people are proud of Native American ancestry, but in past years it was considered shameful, Dexter said.
"It was something they hid. It was illegal to marry outside your race and certainly was looked down upon. If a white man married a Cherokee, he listed her as white on any written records used by genealogists to trace family history."
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