Friday, October 13, 2006

The Benge Route

From the National Park Service:
In 1838, the United States government forcibly removed more than 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia, and sent them to Indian Territory (today known as Oklahoma).
The impact to the Cherokee was devastating. Hundreds of Cherokee died during their trip west, and thousands more perished from the consequences of relocation. This tragic chapter in American and Cherokee history became known as the Trail of Tears, and culminated the implementation of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which mandated the removal of all American Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River to lands in the West.

Before 2003, I think the average black bear knew more about the Trail of Tears than I did. I thought I had a great, balanced, liberal education. I took an 8 hour course on the French Revolution, I read a lot of Marx, I somehow ended up with a minor in Art History. How did the Trail of Tears, another U.S. government-sponsored expedition in ethnic cleansing, pass my radar screen without my typical outrage? More pathetic yet is that I learned more about the Treaty of New Echota from Sarah Vowell’s book of essays,Take the Cannoli, than I learned in years of structured education. In Take the Cannoli, the author and her sister follow the official Trail of Tears to their hometown of Talequah, Oklahoma. On the way, they stop at every commemorative marker, including, naturally, the one in Chattanooga where the trail started. The Chattanooga marker sits right in front of the public aquarium so that people can ponder it while listening to advertisements for the IMAX film. She stops at all the Trail of Tears State Parks (I think there are 4), including the one north of Cape Girardeau (park staff there are really devoted to their resource. Definitely worth a visit). All the while, Vowell deftly interjects her travelogue stories into the sad and sordid history of the forced removal.

The exodus of the Cherokee was unofficially divided into two camps, the forced and the "voluntary" removals. Aside from the official route that is now commemorated, there were other routes to the Indian Territory that passed through Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas. On October 1, 1838, a detachment of over 1,000 Cherokee led by John Benge departed Ft. Payne Alabama for the Indian Territory. Their route, later named the Benge Route, crossed state lines and ended in Arkansas and Oklahoma. They used a route south and west of the Northern Land Route to cross the Tennessee River. They passed through Paris, Tennessee, through Clinton, Kentucky, and then through Belmont, Missouri, now merely a shady fishing spot 5 miles from my house on the Mississippi River. Belmont was a thriving town in the 1830s and has a rich history related to the Civil War, which I’ll get into another time. But in 1838, when the Benge party crossed the Mississippi River from Columbus, Kentucky as part of the voluntary removal, Belmont was a large enough town that the local newspaper reported the Cherokee march through town. In fact, if it weren’t for small town newspaper records, modern day researchers wouldn’t know much at all about the Benge Route. The Arkansas Gazette, for example, reports that Cherokee camped at Smithville on December 12, 1838 and then went to Pokeville for wagon repairs on December 15. Without this kind of historical record, the group in charge of getting the Benge Route added to the National Historical Trail system would be up the proverbial creek. Land surveys, depressions in the road, oral history and private journals have also helped determine the exact route, just as they did the original Trail of Tears, the Old Spanish Trail and other nationally recognized trails. The Benge detachment finally arrived in Indian Territory in January 1839 and had the lowest attrition rate of any other detachment.

I recently attended a Vaughn family reunion in western Arkansas, an area that used to be the heart of Indian Territory. I traveled 6 hours with 2 goals in mind: to acquire as much verified family history as possible, and, well, to see my family. I had heard for years that my great grandmother was Cherokee and my great aunt was Naragansett but had not really seen any evidence of it. Lined up on a wall at the community center was a collection of photos of the Cherokee relatives (Allie Mixon, pictured). The Cherokee relatives were on the Benge Route, which is why the reunion was in western Arkansas rather than Talequah. I picked up a copy of one of the transcribed journals where an ancestor recounted the route--she describes passing over Crowley’s Ridge, over the Eleven Point River (at the present day USFS portage spot, Indian Ford), and through the Poteau Mountains. In someone’s attic is a collection of 40 years of journals from one of the Cherokee relatives, but no one can tell me exactly where this attic is.

The Indian Territory was initially advertised to the Cherokee as a great place to live. Articles from 1839 collected in a local historical society booklet describe Heavener, Arkansas and Poteau, Oklahoma as though they were the Elysian Fields: beautiful rivers, tillable farmland, an established grist mill and fine schools. Lots of research and documentation exists about the Trail of Tears and I’ll bet at least one dissertation has been written about the advertisement of Indian Territory to the tribes. Many relatives still live in that part of the country and the ones who left did so to work on railroads, a story that has certainly been repeated millions of times in America.

I was handed a lot of information during the reunion: one relative was labeled a “radical” and “socialist” in local newspapers. The Civil War soldier I had heard about was actually a deserter from the Confederate Army. We have his journals where he describes not only years on the run from the Texas Cavalry but how his “sympathie was with the union.” On one branch of the family tree is a relative who bought a land claim in the 1860s right around here in the area renamed “Sunken Timbers.” The earthquake-shattered land was considered worthless and under the Swamp Act of 1850, lots were sold for 1$/acre. Thanks to all the fires that consumed various incarnations of the county courthouse, most original land grants for Mississippi and New Madrid Counties don’t exist anymore. I read in family journals that shortly after Warren Vaughn bought the land at Sunken Timbers, he headed west. I don’t know how long he stayed or his exact reason for leaving the area. It’s a difficult place to live, even when it was a pristine wilderness. While I have a few things to accomplish professionally, I think I’ll follow the lead of my ancestors. I really should be able to live down here for at least a year and I’m not sure where I’ll go next, but it won’t be within the township and it won’t be Arkansas.

Reports in the Vaughn family history reminded me of several things: 1. Everyone has an interesting story. 2. When your grandfather is visiting you in the hospital day after day when you are four, there are more interesting questions you should ask than what he thinks about Sesame Street. 3. Keep a journal. I implore you, readers, all three of you, that regardless of how mundane you think your lives may be, journals are amazing records, even if they are not well-written.


Anonymous said...

a indian ancestor recounted the john benge route on crawleys ridge and eleven point river in arkansas-that means they turned west south of cape and went down the cape-bloomfield road on crawleys ridge

Allison Vaughn said...

Very interesting. A few years ago a gentleman contacted me interested in documents regarding the Benge Route in order to make it a National Trail. Try to hook up with other Benge route folks to connect with information. It makes sense to follow Crowley's Ridge into Arkansas since it was a well established direct route. After my family reunion I unfortunately didn't do too much research about the route besides talking to folks at various state parks commemorating the Trail of Tears. The story needs to be fleshed out better for the record...

sarah hecke said...

My husbands mother used to tell her kids about going to the resvation with her grandmoter, it was cold and they would eat puppy stew. This was close to doniphan, mo. There is no record of this resvation. Dora said her grandmother told her it was where some of the Indians were left when they became sick on the trail of tears. And she was named after the town Dora which is in the next county because her mom like the sound of the name. The year of this was around 1910. There are more stories she told but the most sadest there is Dora's grandmother always told dora to never tell any one she was Indian, because then the whites would treat her as a dog.
So Dora never told her real race or what tribe she belong to or her numbers.

sarah hecke said...

I have called the court house in Donphine Mo. They said they never knew of a Reservation around there. But a fire destored all records in old court hose. Come to find out it was not a federal reservation so no real record of it but could be because on the trail of tears when they got sick or were about to die They were left by the trail. The locals would help the Indians and that is where they stayed. So the local people would name the camp by the closes town.