Trail of Tears memorializes removal of Cherokee from Alabama, Southeast

Trail of Tears memorializes removal of Cherokee from Alabama, Southeast
Cherokee Retracement at Pea Ridge National Military Park, Garfield, Arkansas. (NPS)

The National Park Service (NPS) turned 100 years old this year. Over the past century, the organization has grown from 35 national parks to more than 400 sites under the protection of the NPS today. From national seashores, monuments, heritage and historic sites, trails and military parks, the variety is as vast as the history they contain. There are nine National Park Service sites in Alabama that drew 790,000 visitors with a $31 million economic impact last year. Alabama NewsCenter is spending the rest of this centennial year highlighting each Alabama site.

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail documents and preserves the relocation routes used during the forced resettlement of the Cherokee people from their ancestral lands in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.

The trail was designated as an NPS site in 1987 to commemorate the survival of the Cherokee people and honor those who lost their lives along the routes. The trail was expanded in 2009, to over 4,900 miles, to incorporate newly documented routes and sites associated with the removal.

The NPS Trail of Tears designation memorializes the removal of the Cherokee in 1838-1839; however, the “Trail of Tears” has also been used to represent the removal of other Southeastern Indian tribes, including the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Creek.

Brief History of the Trail of Tears

The NPS estimates that during the 17th century, about 25,000 Cherokee lived between the Ohio River Valley and northern Georgia. From the beginning, the white settlers “struggled to live alongside the native people,” the NPS said. The Cherokee made efforts to accommodate the influx of settlers by “developing political and economic policies and procedures similar to those of the white settlers, including a constitution, court system, a written language and a newspaper,” but the Cherokee’s “stable and prosperous way of life was envied by their white neighbors,” the NPS said.

By 1819, greed, force and disease left the Cherokee with only 10 percent of their previous territory. Relegated to a small area of land at the corners of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina, the Cherokee would again have their lands encroached upon when gold was found in northern Georgia in 1828.

Fort Payne cabin site. A well, built from stacked stone, was discovered during an archaeological survey in 2007. “Current research indicates a strong probability that the well was associated with the time period of the Cherokee removal,” the NPS said. (Erin Harney/Alabama NewsCenter)

Thousands of miners swarmed to Georgia in what would be called the “Georgia Gold Rush” by the settlers and the “Great Intrusion” by the Cherokee, the Georgia Historical Society said. With a desire for land and gold, the miners and settlers began defying laws that had protected the land and rights of the Cherokee. These injustices were often overlooked by both the local and federal governments.

In 1830, newly elected President Andrew Jackson, a proponent of Indian removal, signed into law the Indian Removal Act. “The act established a process whereby the president could grant land west of the Mississippi River to Indian tribes that agreed to give up their homelands. As incentives, the law allowed the Indians financial and material assistance to travel to their new locations and start new lives and guaranteed that the Indians would live on their new property under the protection of the U.S. government forever,” the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian said. “With the act in place, Jackson and his followers were free to persuade, bribe and threaten tribes into signing removal treaties and leaving the Southeast.”

In 1835, after witnessing the removal of other Indian tribes, a small group of Cherokee, without the authority of the Cherokee government, signed the Treaty of New Echota. In exchange for agreement to relocate to Indian Territory, the Cherokee would be paid $5 million and given two years to relocate, the NPS said. Nearly 16,000 Cherokee petitioned against the validity of the treaty, but the U.S. Congress signed it into law in May 1836.

At the end of the two-year deadline, very few Cherokee had left voluntarily, so Gen. Winfield Scott and 7,000 troops were dispatched to forcefully remove the Cherokee in spring 1838. The removals began in Georgia, where the Cherokee were forced into “round-up camps,” before being sent to larger removal camps prior to the 800-mile journey, the NPS said.

The first group, able to travel by water, reached the Indian Territory in 13 days. However, for some of the subsequent groups that had land routes, the journey lasted up to eight months. Of the approximately 15,000 Cherokee who were forced from their homes, the Cherokee Nation estimates that about “4,000 Cherokee died [along the trail] from hunger, exposure and disease.”

“The journey became a cultural memory as the ‘trail where they cried’ for the Cherokees and other removed tribes. Today it is widely remembered by the general public as the ‘Trail of Tears.’ The Oklahoma chapter of the Trail of Tears Association has begun the task of marking the graves of trail survivors with bronze memorials,” the Cherokee Nation said.

Visiting the Historic Trail

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail spans nine states and over 4,900 miles. In Alabama, there are several routes identified and preserved, stretching east to west across the state.


Trail of Tears National Historic Trail sites in Alabama. (NPS)
Trail of Tears National Historic Trail sites in Alabama. (NPS)

Sequoyah, Cherokee silversmith who developed the Cherokee syllabary. (Library of Congress)

The NPS has developed an itinerary for traveling the trail through Alabama (, stopping at eight historic sites:

Fort Payne:

  • Andrew Ross Home: 4502 Godfrey Ave., Fort Payne, AL 35967. Portions of the original home belonging to Andrew and Susannah Lowery Ross are retained in the current home. Andrew Ross was a Cherokee businessman and judge on the Cherokee Supreme Court. This is a gated, private residence and is not open to public visitation.
  • Fort Payne Cabin Site: at the east end of Fourth Street SE (just east of Gault Avenue S), Fort Payne, AL 35967. The cabin was built about 1825 and was the home of Cherokee John Huss. When federal troops arrived in the area to begin removal of the Cherokee, the property was “seized and used as one of the over 20 removal forts (stockades) established in Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina,” the NPS said. For more information, call 256-845-6888.
  • Willstown Mission Cemetery: 38th Street NE (near the corner of Godfrey Avenue NE), Fort Payne, AL 35967. In 1823, a mission/school for Cherokee was opened in Wills Town (now Fort Payne). The school was closed prior to the removal in 1838. The only marked graves belong to the school’s teacher and white settlers, but “some of the unidentified graves could be those of the 41 Cherokee, who according to military records, died in camp at Fort Payne prior to their detachment’s departure,” the NPS said. For more information, call 256-845-6888.

Little River Canyon:

  • Little River Canyon Visitor Center: 4322 Little River Canyon Parkway, Fort Payne, AL 35967. “Over 1,100 men, women and children moved through the Little River area during the removal of the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) Indians. The Benge Detachment crossed Little River above the falls near the present-day Highway 35 bridge,” the NPS said. For more information, call 256-845-9605, x201.

Lake Guntersville State Park:

  • Lake Guntersville State Park Lodge: 1155 Lodge Drive, Guntersville, AL 35976. “Two detachment routes passed through today’s Lake Guntersville State Park. Several detachments of Cherokee that traveled via a water route used the Tennessee River, which was later dammed, and is now Lake Guntersville,” the NPS said. For more information, call 256-571-5440.

Rhodes Ferry Park, Decatur:

  • Rhodes Ferry Park: 100 Market St. NW, Decatur, AL 35601. Decatur “witnessed 2,300 Cherokee pass through in 1837 and 1838. They arrived here on steamboats and flatboats in cramped, inhospitable conditions that allowed diseases such as typhus to spread. Once docked at Decatur Landing, the Cherokee boarded cramped train cars. Their journey continued west by rail to Tuscumbia Landing,” the NPS said. For more information, call 256-341-4930.

Tuscumbia Landing, Sheffield:

  • Tuscumbia Landing, Sheffield: Park West (Blackwell Road/Fontana Street) Sheffield, AL 35660. “During the summer of 1838, Cherokee detachments attempted to travel from Ross Landing, Tennessee, to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, via the water route,” the NPS said. “Due to low water and potential difficulties navigating through Muscle Shoals, they rode on the railway west to Tuscumbia Landing and then boarded boats headed downriver. Prior to that summer, numerous other water route detachments brought Creeks, Choctaws and other tribal groups past this spot on their way to Indian Territory.” For more information, call 256-383-0250.

Waterloo Landing, Waterloo:

  • Waterloo Landing: Main Street, just south of Pine Street, Waterloo, AL 35677. “Waterloo, located on Pickwick Lake (the former Tennessee River), was the site where, in July 1838, the 700-person Cherokee detachment led by Captain Gustavus S. Drane ended its 230-mile overland migration, boarded the steamboat Smelter, and left on the water route to Indian Territory,” the NPS said. For more information, call 256-764-3237.

Related Stories