Over the last two years, I have had the opportunity to travel most of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail while documenting buildings for the Trail of Tears Historic Building Survey, a partnership project with the National Trails Intermountain Region of the National Park Service. Before I began fieldwork for the survey project, I wondered what 175 years of development and improvements would mean for the roads that the Cherokee traveled on during their forced removal to Indian Territory. What would the roads look like today? Would any of them retain their early nineteenth-century characteristics? Armed with directions, maps, a sturdy vehicle, and my hiking boots, I began my journey to find out.
It is no secret that roads have changed over the last 175 years. An increase in population and the invention of the motor vehicle resulted in the modification of existing road networks. Many of the roads that the Cherokee traveled on during the Trail of Tears were paved and expanded over time, such as the Old Nashville Highway that bisects the Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Some roads have also been diverted from their original course. When traveling on these modified, historic roads, pay attention and look to your left and right. Intact segments of the Trail of Tears can often be seen paralleling the improved roads, particularly in Illinois and Kentucky.
Even after 175 years, though, there are many portions of the Trail that have changed little and remain dirt or gravel roads. On occasion, these roads still force you to ford creeks, while other times you can follow original roadbeds to the historic ferry landings where detachments crossed rivers. Some portions of the Trail of Tears are only accessible on foot, thus offering a chance to walk the Trail as many of the Cherokee did in 1838 and 1839. Almost untouched by time, it is places like these where you can easily imagine the detachments of Cherokee making their way down the road.
Some of the most memorable, but solemn, parts of my fieldwork have taken place while I walked on these intact segments. On a sunny day in November 2013, my colleague Leigh Ann Gardner and I found ourselves retracing the footsteps of the Cherokee on a well-preserved segment of the Trail of Tears in Warren County, Tennessee. It was almost 175 years later to the day that the Taylor detachment traveled down the very same road. While there, the November 9, 1838, journal entry of the Reverend Daniel Sabin Butrick, who traveled with Taylor’s detachment, echoed in my head:
We descended the mountain. The ground was frozen and the mountain steep, and the descent very long, so that I became alarmed, fearing I could scarcely get down with our carryall, though we had no load. It seemed to me almost impossible for heavy waggons [sic] to descend without damage, yet all came down safe, and we camped on Collin’s river in Warren County, Tenn.
Oftentimes, it is hard to comprehend people’s experiences from so long ago. Journals, letters, and newspaper articles written during the removal illuminate the Cherokee’s experiences, but physically retracing the Trail of Tears today is an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the journey to Indian Territory. The portions of the landscape that have changed little over the last 175 years (and there are many) offer glimpses of what it was like to travel these roads so long ago. While some of the roads have changed over time, their meaning and significance has not.
Special thanks to Gary Clendenon for taking the time to show Leigh Ann Gardner and me sites in Warren County, Tennessee.