The banks of the Roubidoux River offered comfort to displaced Native Americans
Since before the founding of the United States, settlers and politicians had wrestled with how to respond to native populations that lived on land desired by those who migrated from Europe, and wished to settle in the new territory.
Thomas Jefferson was the first president to support the removal of native people, and beginning in 1803, eastern tribes were forced to move west. It was just a matter of time before the desire for land and clash of cultures would result in the forced removal of most native people from the area east of the Mississippi River. One of the larger native people groups to be affected was the Cherokee.
Many customs of the Cherokee Nation were similar to white society. They developed a written language, wrote a constitution, and published a newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, which was bilingual. Many converted to Christianity. None of that mattered, however, when white settlers desired for more and more land to settle. The result relentlessly pushed the Cherokee and other native people into smaller living areas.
The removal process gained speed when Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828.
Jackson, a determined, outspoken leader, convinced Congress of the necessity of total native removal. He was happy to announce, during his second annual address to Congress that the “Indian problem,” in the eastern portion of the United States, had been, to his way of thinking, solved.
“It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the government steadily pursued for nearly 30 years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation,” Jackson said.
In May 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which forced native people to relocate to land west of the Mississippi River. While many northern tribes complied, tribes in the Southwest resisted.
In addition to Cherokee, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole people were forced to migrate west.
In 1835, 20 members of the Cherokee government signed the Treaty of New Echota. The government of the United States would give the Cherokee nation $5 million, and two years to voluntarily relocate to Oklahoma Territory. While some Cherokee had already left for western territories of their own volition, few natives either recognized the treaty or were willing to move.
In 1838, 7,000 solders, under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott, began the removal of native people. The Cherokee made the journey by wagon, by boat and on foot. Desertions were common; some people refusing to leave the only home they had known.
The banks of the Roubidoux River in Waynesville, Mo., were a resting place for groups of these displaced people in December 1837, and March 1839.
Some people who accompanied the refugees on their trek, kept written accounts, including the hardships they suffered. These accounts have survived, and make for sobering reading.
“Snowed last night. Buried Eleges wife and Chas. Timberlake’s son, (Smokes). Marched at 9 o’c a.m. halted at Mr. Dyes 3 o’c p.m. Extremely cold weather, sickness prevailing at a considerable extent. All very much fatigued. Encamped, and issued corn. Fodder and beef. 10 miles today.” Journal of B. B. Cannon.
Pvt. John G. Burnett, a soldier during the removal, wrote an account of the hardships suffered when he was 80 years old. “On the morning of November the 17th, we encountered a terrific sleet and snow storm with freezing temperatures, and from that day until we reached the end of the fateful journey on March the 26th, 1839, the sufferings of the Cherokees was awful.” Burnett wrote.
Waynesville Mayor Luge Hardman, a former school teacher, has long been familiar with the Trail of Tears. After becoming mayor, Hardman and the city council worked to have Laughlin Park, where the Cherokee stayed incorporated into part the National Historic Trail, where it draws many visitors each year.
There are seven National Park Service Cherokee Removal Interpretative panels located along the Park Trail and Roubidoux Creek that goes under the Route 66 Bridge.
“We got some grant money from the park service, as well as our own money. We have put in a walking trail, which is the Rubidoux Walking Trail. We have placed seven exhibit panels,” Hardman said. The exhibit details the story of the Cherokee, and the hardships they faced.
“It has been a labor of love for me,” Hardman said. “It has been a great honor to remember what happened to the Cherokee people. It has also been an educational thing.”
On June 13, a commemoration ceremony was held in Laughlin Park, attended by members of the Cherokee nation and representatives of the local government and the military.
The commemoration ceremony not only marked the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, but celebrated the resilience of the Cherokee. Upon reaching Oklahoma, these proud, self reliant people began to rebuild their lives.