When you?re trying to teach young people about the Trail of Tears and what it meant for Native Americans, a map may be a useful tool, but it doesn?t tell the whole story. The United States government?s forced relocation of Indian tribes in the 1800s is perhaps best understood when we can see in-person the path they followed, or stops along the way.
Whether you?re hoping to give your children a better understanding of Native American history, or you hope to learn more yourself, consider planning your next vacation to include some sites along the Trail of Tears.
Origins and geography
As white settlers began to spread southward from the New England states, five main tribes remained in the American Southeast. Known as the ?Five Civilized Tribes? by settlers, these Native Americans lived in permanent residences on the same lands as their ancestors, spread out across what is now North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. But in the mid-1800s, these tribes were forced to move westward, many of them dying along the way due to dehydration, starvation and disease. To pay respect to those who died during this time, the National Park Service created the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which follows the path of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations.
You can find points of interest along the trail by visiting the Trail of Tears national park website. Many historical battlegrounds are located along the trail, as well.
Which trail should I choose?
Despite its name, the Trail of Tears wasn?t a singular path, so there are many routes you can follow ? some as far north as Illinois. The simplest way to choose your starting point along the Trail of Tears may be to choose which tribe?s path you would like to follow. The original home of the Cherokee was largely in western North Carolina and southern Georgia and Alabama, while the Chickasaw made their homes in southern Kentucky, western Tennessee, and northern Alabama and Mississippi. You can research a tribe?s customs and history as you follow in their footsteps.
At the end
No matter which routes you follow along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, you?ll end up in the same place, Oklahoma?s Indian Territory, where tribes resettled and rebuilt their lives. It?s interesting to see how tribes like the Chickasaw were able to make the most of a terrible situation, and establish new roots. You can visit the Chickasaw Cultural Center, about two hours north of Dallas, in Sulphur, to learn more about their heritage. Other Oklahoma destinations include the Cherokee Heritage Center, in Tahlequah, and The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, in Oklahoma City.
The Trail of Tears was not initially preserved, and U.S. settlements were built over parts of the original path. But the National Parks Service was able to trace and recreate many paths that Native Americans followed. By driving or walking this route with young people, you provide them with more than a simple history lesson. You provide them with a deeper understanding of both humanity?s cruelty and its perseverance.