At the crossroads of the Trail of Tears, Little Rock reckons with its history

At the crossroads of the Trail of Tears, Little Rock reckons with its history

Published September 14, 2022

12 min read

The Arkansas River runs deep and wide at Little Rock. The city’s high-rises reflect water brown from sediment brought all the way from Colorado Rockies.

Aaron Boswell is taking in the view with me. This vista–minus the buildings and bridges, of course–greeted his Cherokee ancestors in the mid-1800s on a grim journey west, forcibly removed from their eastern native lands. History recalls the United States government’s ethnic cleansing crusade as the Trail of Tears. For Boswell, a park ranger with the Army Corps of Engineers, it is a dark family legacy.

On their way to the prairies of what would become Oklahoma, the majority of those displaced Native Americans passed through here, at Little Rock.

Today, the capital of Arkansas draws visitors to its historic state house, the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, and the poignant Little Rock Central High School, a National Historic Site where in 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower sent National Guard troops to escort nine African American students to class. To visit Central High School during school hours with a park ranger, surrounded by students from all races hustle between classes, is to read the evolving history of America’s complex racial history.

The North Little Rock site, where Boswell is standing, is a symbol of this country’s inhumane treatment of Native Americans.

“Something should be here; something people can see,” he says, glancing at the empty, brick-paved expanse at our feet. “I don’t know if it should have a statue or some other art. But there should be something.”

‘A trail of tears and death’

Of the 60,000 Native Americans–from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole nations–who were evicted from homelands ranging from Kentucky to Florida under President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, 40,000 passed through what is now known as North Little Rock. The exiles marched into town via Main Street and Broadway. By water, more arrived by boat, having boarded steam ships and barges up the Mississippi River–or in the case of the Seminoles from Florida, on ships that left Tampa and sailed halfway across the Gulf of Mexico.

Witnessing his fellow exiles huddled on the shores of the Arkansas River, a Choctaw chief first referred to the mass removal as a “trail of tears and death.” Here, the groups were funneled together for the final length of their tragic journey. The ordeal was both humiliating and deadly. The long walk across half of a continent saw thousands die, but the river routes proved equally deadly. The disease quickly spread among the huddled passengers. Many were kept in chains and released only to haul stranded vessels over river sandbars.

Of 407 people crammed aboard the ironically named steamer Compromise in 1836–including both Seminoles and the Black people they had enslaved–25 died on board due to sickness. By the time they reached the new Indian Territory, only 320 were still alive.

To spare his family the brutality of government transport ships–many of which were pressed back into service after having been consigned to the scrap heap–Cherokee Nation Primary Chief John Ross bought the steamer Victoria to make the trip from Florida. His effort was in vain: Ross’s wife, Quatie, died on the day Victoria landed at Little Rock in 1839. She is buried in Mount Holly Cemetery, not far from the Arkansas River’s shore.

A National Parks Service memo published in the early 2000s put it this way: “It can be safely said that [the Little Rock area] was the site of more concentrated activities related to the removal of the five large southeastern tribes than any other place.”

(What happened to the most powerful group of Native Americans? )

A monumental decision

Yet, here we stand, Aaron Boswell and I, on a patch of brickwork. The mortar is revealing grass. There are four informational signs scattered around us: one is quite new and tells the sad story of Quatie Ros–the rest chronicles other aspects of Trail of Tears in various states of decay.

One sign, which is decades old, is difficult to read. It seems to me that it would be more respectful to the memory and the thousands of people who have suffered and died here, to have no signs at any point than this sad example a steady decline.

It will get better, Boswell assures. New signs are being made. Since our meeting, one new informational panel was added to the park. Other panels are still being approved by the tribes. He hopes they will go up sometime in 2023.

(This sacred valley could become America’s next national monument. )

“I’d like to see us include a QR code on each sign,” he says. They could be used by people to access movies and current information on their phones. And that wouldn’t cost very much.”

In the meantime, Boswell meets with visitors here, painting word pictures that flesh out the story of his ancestors.

Boswell is not alone in his desire to commemorate North Little Rock’s Trail of Tears legacy more properly. Scott Sudduth’s conviction is renewed each time he looks out of his office window at North Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“That’s Main Street–the Trail of Tears went right down that street,” he says, a bit incredulously. “I look out and see the streetcars, and the people walking past, and I think to my self, ‘How many died out there?'” How many were beaten or sick?'”

I’ve met up with Sudduth in North Little Rock on board the USS Razorback, a World War II submarine on which he volunteers as a docent for the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum. We follow the riverbank west, passing on both sides the runners and bikers who come down to Arkansas’s summer heat. Soon, we are back on the brick patio, surrounded with decaying signs. But that’s not what Sudduth sees.

” “I see us creating something there,” he said. I want people to feel that they are entering a special place, a sacred place. While signs are important, there should be something more. It sounds a little trite, I guess, but we really need something that people would want to take a selfie in front of.”

He laughs at the sound of that.

” You know what I mean,” says he. “People will see photos of it and think about what it means. Then they’ll want to go see it.” And then they’ll learn what this place is all about.”

(This Native American museum explores Oklahoma through a new perspective. )

Whatever ends up growing on the north shore of the Arkansas River, Aaron Boswell wants it to tell a three-fold story.

“First,” he says, “it’s the story of injustice–of all the treaties with our people being broken and everything being taken away from them. It’s also the suffering, being forced to go that far with nothing and finding no other options. It’s also perseverance. My people never gave up. Their journey didn’t end once they reached Oklahoma. They followed a long road and did a lot of hard work to get where they are now.”

There’s one more lesson of the Trail of Tears, he adds, one that resonates with hope not only for the descendants of its victims, but also for those of us whose forebears imposed it.

” We can always do better,” says he. “We can always learn by our mistakes.” People can … and countries can, too.”

Bill Newcott, former expeditions editor for National Geographic magazine, is 2020-2022 International Regional Magazine Association Writer of the Year.

Jeremy Dennis is a contemporary fine art photographer and a tribal member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton, New York. His work explores Indigenous identity and culture as well as assimilation.

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