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Arkansas man details Cherokee removal to Indian Territory
A recently dedicated Trail of Tears marker in Lavaca, Ark., honors members from the Five Civilized Tribes who traveled through Lavaca on their ways to Indian Territory. COURTESY PHOTO
By WILL CHAVEZ
Mon, Jul 12, 2010
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – More than 172 years ago, a group of Cherokees settled into unfamiliar territory along Sallisaw Creek, about four miles north of Sallisaw in Sequoyah County. Approximately 350 of them arrived in Indian Territory on April 30, 1838, and stopped at a place known today as McCoy Ford.
Most of them came from Cherokee towns in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia and included family names such as Choat, Rabbit, Fields, Teesey, Downing, Dirt Seller, Cochran, Dougherty and Murphy.
Dusty Helbling of Ozark, Ark., has researched this group of Cherokees and its route through Arkansas. He said the group began its journey with 250 Cherokees, plus slaves. Because group members belonged to the Treaty Party, the government moved them. Others joined along the way, Helbling said, and swelled the group to 350.
The Treaty Party had signed away what remained of Cherokee lands in the east in 1835 without the Cherokee Nation government’s consent.
“I don’t differentiate between treaty and regular folks,” Helbling said. “I say they all were moved against their will. There was no freedom of choice.”
The group left April 5 from Waterloo, Ala., traveled up the Tennessee River to the Ohio River, down the Mississippi River and up the Arkansas River until it became impassable because of low water levels near present-day Roseville, Ark.
It stopped there on April 20, states the journal of U.S. Army Lt. Edward Deas, and spent four days gathering wagons, oxen and mules to continue on land.
Helbling, 76, said he’s been interested in Native American history since the 1980s and is a charter member of the Arkansas Trail of Tears Association. He began researching Trail of Tears history through the University Arkansas at Little Rock and has mapped routes used by tribes traveling to Indian Territory through Arkansas and marked their campsites.
Click here to read the Muster Roll of Lt. Deas
The Cherokee contingent left Roseville on April 24. The next day it made it to the military road connecting Fort Smith, Ark., and Little Rock, Ark., and camped. On April 26, the Cherokees camped near Vache Grass Creek, three miles west of present-day Lavaca, Ark., and 15 miles east of Fort Smith.
This camp was a major site for groups from all of the Five Civilized Tribes – Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Seminole and Chickasaw – who were removed to Indian Territory and traveled through the area.
Earlier this year, Helbling and dignitaries from most of the five tribes dedicated a Trail of Tears maker in Lavaca. He said the reason the marker was placed in Lavaca instead of the campsite was to provide better security for the marker. It sits near the city hall, which also houses the town’s police department.
“The perfect place would have been at Vache Grass Creek, but it’s in the middle of the countryside, and we don’t know how much damage (from vandalism) would have been done at that location,” he said.
The memorial consists of a small panel marker explaining why tribes traveled through the area on the military road, now Lavaca’s main street. Around the memorial are flagpoles with flags of all five tribes whose citizens stopped at Vache Grass Creek.
Helbling and fellow researcher Jack James of Lavaca determined the Choctaws came through the area first in 1831, followed by the Seminole in 1836, the Chickasaw in 1837, the Cherokee in 1838 and the Muscogee Creek in 1839. The men convinced the Arkansas chapter of the Trail of Tears Association of their findings and received assistance in getting the marker placed.
The Cherokee group in 1838 finished crossing the Arkansas River on April 29 and traveled past Roland and Muldrow before reaching Sallisaw and turning north to McCoy Ford.
Today, there is a large McCoy Cemetery with unmarked graves. Some may belong to Cherokee Old Settlers who moved to Indian Territory before the forced removals or to members of the group that arrived in 1838. Helbling said he is not certain.