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November 14: The Trail of Tears in Missouri


In 1830, after decades of pressure from Southern states, and at the urging of President Andrew Jackson, who had risen to power in part as an “Indian fighter,” the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which gave the chief executive the power to exchange lands beyond the Mississippi River for tribal lands held east of the river. Even though the law did not authorize the use of force, tribal resistance from the majority of the “Five Tribes”—the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole and Choctaw—led to only fragmentary removal between 1835 and 1838. They rightly pointed out that trading cultivated land with amenities for a wilderness toehold far removed from their traditional homeland was unpalatable.


Then gold was allegedly found on Cherokee land in Georgia, and state and federal officials claimed they could no longer force squatters to respect Native sovereignty. Georgia attempted to enforce laws over Cherokee territory. The Supreme Court upheld the Cherokee Nation’s objection, but President Jackson refused to enforce the decision. The pressure was on. A fraudulent treaty was signed by a fragment of the Cherokee and swiftly ratified, the US Army was sent in to round up resisters to march them westward, in chains if necessary. Those whom they did capture were forced to travel over routes that had already been emptied of supplies by previous waves of emigres. Furthermore, the departure date of November meant the detainees would be traveling through autumn rains and winter cold. Illness and disease caused thousands of deaths.


Three of the routes taken by the Cherokee during the winter of 1838-1839 traversed through land that is now in the Diocese of Missouri. The Trail crossed the Mississippi near Cape Girardeau, and diverged at Jackson. The “Northern” route headed through Farmington toward St. James and Rolla, and then roughly followed the path of what we know as Route 66. The “Hildebrand” route approaches Ironton went nearly due west before reuniting with the Northern route near Marshfield. The Benge route veers south toward Arkansas and passes just a few miles to the west of Poplar Bluff.

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