Remembering the Trail of Tears

Article excerpt

The creation of two award winning sculptures depicting "The Trail of Tears" by seventh grade art students at MacArthur Junior High School in Lawton, Oklahoma, made many Oklahomans stop and take a serious look at an event most history books have long been very reticent to describe. It seems the 1838-39 Trail of Tears is such an embarrassment to the people of the United States that the account is very brief in many books in which this tragic event in the history of our country is recounted.

Yet the story of the forcible relocation of 13,000-17,000 Cherokee Indians really did happen. Detachments from the U.S. Army were sent to every section of Cherokee country to gather up the Indians against their will and transport them to stockade enclosed U.S. concentration camps. Men, women, and children were driven out of their homes, most leaving their possessions behind. Once in the disease ridden camps, the Cherokees were looted and plundered by marauders. Their homes were often burned to the ground, leaving a pile of rubble and ashes where happy memories once reigned.

Soon after, the tortuous march began. Winter added to the people's misery as they trudged along. The Cherokees, not being used to the cold nor having adequate clothing, suffered tremendously from the freezing rains, snow, and sleet. Government contractors provided rations for the Indians on the march, but the rations were contaminated. Small pox, cholera, and measles were rampant. One-fourth of the Indians on the forced march died, and grave markers lined the rough trail the Indians walked. The trail was literally sprinkled with the tears of thousands of heartbroken, miserable people as they headed toward Oklahoma.

The Trail of Tears is certainly a heart rending saga of a ruthless uprooting of a people shoved aside to make room for land hungry settlers and farmers. It is undoubtedly one of the blackest periods in American history laden with agony, suffering, and cruelty.

When our art-loving school secretary donated several large pieces of driftwood, I looked at them for a while and noticed they resembled a trail. What trail could possibly be more meaningful to an Oklahoman than the "Trail of Tears"? I told the students the tragic story. They were amazed and angry and could not believe such a thing had ever happened in our country! We talked about how the Indians must have felt on their long journey and what it would be like to leave on a journey to a place you did not know. For a few moments, the class was silent, just thinking about the Trail of Tears. I began to explain the project and the students grew more and more drawn to the idea of a piece of artwork designed to commemorate a historical event, especially one as touching as the Trail of Tears. …