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Trail of Tears State Park
Cape Girardeau County, Missouri
by Denise Dowling
Looking across the river today, one can only imagine the suffering that was taking place more than 150 years ago. Disrespectfully uprooted, homeless, they were embarking on a long journey in worn-out moccasins in the unforgiving dead of winter. Enduring river crossings, ice floes and relentless winds, they had only a blanket for warmth - if they were lucky. You imagine huddling around a fire, comforting your mother while she gets weaker and weaker ... wondering, as she, when the suffering would end, and whether she would even live to see it.
Despite its scenic beauty, these are some images that come to mind while visiting Trail of Tears State Park. Located along the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau County, the park commemorates an infamous episode in American history. The Cherokee, one of the Five Civilized Tribes, were forced to relocate from their native homeland in present-day southeastern United States. The Cherokee walked 800-1,000 miles to Indian Territory, which now is the state of Oklahoma. During the winter of 1838-39, the Cherokee made this trek, crossing the Mississippi River from Willard's Landing in southern Illinois via Green's Ferry to Missouri. Another crossing was made about five miles downstream at Bainbridge, Missouri. The Cherokee moved in groups of about 1,000. The ferries had trouble crossing the river due to ice floes, and some groups were separated and stranded until everyone crossed. When a group was finally together, they would start the march again.
The road leaving the crossing was known as Greensferry Road and led into Jackson, Missouri. Today it is a major park road, although it has been renamed Moccasin Springs Road. As you travel through the park, you will pass the Otahki Memorial. This memorial is dedicated to all the Cherokee who were forced on this march - those who survived and those who did not.
The citizens of Cape Girardeau County knew about this historic route and wanted it preserved for all citizens. Options were secured and a bond issue passed to purchase the property. "The citizens of Cape Girardeau County may claim several 'firsts' - theirs will be the first Missouri county to vote bonds for purchase of land for state park purposes; the park will be the first Missouri State Park located on the Mississippi River, its title, 'Trail of Tears,' will be the first tribute to the tragic westward exodus of the Cherokee Indians," according to a newspaper article written just prior to the election.
The two-mile portion of this historic route, located within the park, is certified by the National Park Service as a part of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. A slide show and displays located in the park's visitor center provide the details about the forced removal. This is the only visitor center located along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Other displays in the visitor center discuss the unique natural history of the park, and staff are available to answer questions.
Although it commemorates a tragic piece of history, the park itself also preserves outstanding natural features. A drive through the park will reveal many steep hills and ridges with sheer drops. There are many trees typical of the Ozark Mountains of Missouri: various oaks, hickory, maples, sassafras and dogwood. However, Trail of Tears State Park also has a flavor of the Appalachian Mountains with many tall and stately beech, tulip poplar, and cucumber magnolia trees. The ground cover is rich with many ferns, and if you look carefully you may find the delicate and rare pennywort, a spring wildflower.
The park contains both a natural area and a wild area. Natural areas are biological communities in a natural or nearly undisturbed state - something that existed before the settlement of Europeans. They are permanently protected to preserve their natural qualities. Designated in 1977, the 300-acre Vancill Hollow Natural Area represents a complete watershed in extremely rugged to topography, and is a good place to see some of the trees more common to the Appalachians. Wild areas are large tracts of undeveloped land, that preserve the wild character and natural values of a wilderness setting. Wild areas require a minimum of 1,000 acres, where natural areas have no size limitations. Designated in 1978, the 1,300-acre Indian Creek Wild Area provides a wilderness setting for horseback riding, backpacking and hiking opportunities along the 12-mile Peewah Trail. Other trails in the park include the two-mile Sheppard Point Trail and Boutin Lake Trail, and the half-mile Nature Trail behind the visitor center.
There are two campgrounds at Trail of Tears State Park. The campground without electrical hookups is located on the ridge overlooking Boutin Lake. Boutin Lake is a popular swimming area during hot summer days and a favorite fishing spot for many anglers. The 20-acre, man-made lake is accessible by boat; however, gas motors are not allowed. The campground with electrical hookups is located near the Mississippi River. Campers can enjoy watching tugboats push barges along the river, and every now and then are treated to the passing of one of the big steamboats. Picnic areas are scattered throughout the park and there are two picnic shelters that can be used on a first-come, first-served basis or can be reserved for a fee.
An overlook along the bluffs offers dramatic views of the Mississippi River and the countryside. Three parking areas along the road also provide views of the river.
The park has an abundance of wildlife. Common park creatures include deer, raccoons, skunks and opossums. During certain seasons, you may see something special such as a bobcat or large flocks of turkeys in the late fall. Many people watch for American bald eagles along the Mississippi River in the winter. And a special treat is to spot Mississippi kites in the summer. The location of the park offers an excellent opportunity for birding along the Mississippi Flyway during the spring and fall migrations; ospreys are among documented sightings.
Programs about the park's natural and cultural history normally are offered on weekends from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Programs also are available to groups by appointment.
Items of interest in the immediate area include the Mississippi River Trail, a bicycling trail that passes beside the park. The Mississippi River Trail spans more than 220 miles in southeast Missouri. It enters Missouri in Ste. Genevieve County, follows back roads throughout eastern Missouri along the Mississippi River and exits the state in Mississippi County. Upon completion, the biking trail will extend 2,000 miles through seven states.
Highway 61, which runs near Trail of Tears State Park, has been designated as part of the 3,000-mile Great River Road, a scenic byway that provides access to scenic historical sites that showcase the mighty Mississippi River. Trail of Tears State Park is one of the designated sites along this byway.
A trip to the area will offer a beautiful and diverse panorama of natural surroundings. It also will provide a unique glimpse into a brief but tragic event in our nation's history. Both aspects make a visit to the park doubly rewarding.
Trail of Tears State Park is operated and maintained by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. For additional information, contact the park's staff at (573) 334-1711, or call the department toll free at 1-800-334-6946. Persons with hearing impairments can call 1-800-379-2419 with a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD).
Denise Dowling at the time of this article was the naturalist at Trail of Tears State Park within the Department of Natural Resources' Division of State Parks. She is now Park Superintendent at Big Oak Tree State Park.