If you walk out of the gate to our farm in north Lonoke County, Arkansas and walk one-half mile north, you come to State Highway 236. This is a minor artery running parallel to, and about 10 miles north of, Interstate 40 and U.S. Highway 70. Recently, the state placed markers on Highway 236 and others noting them as routes on the historic “Trail of Tears.”
This name describes an episode in our nation’s history during which all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River were dispossessed of their land. During Andrew Jackson’s presidency, they were forced to migrate westward under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
It wasn’t without resistance. One group of Cherokees sued the United States to keep their land in the case, Worcester v. Georgia (1832). They were victorious before the Supreme Court, under Justice John Marshall. The decision in this case prompted the story, perhaps apocryphal, that President Andrew Jackson responded with, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."
At any rate, President Jackson ignored the decision and some 60,000 individuals, Native Americans, African slaves, white spouses, and Christian missionaries traveled through Arkansas.
Having experienced the harsh winters and summers of this place, I can only imagine the misery that must have accompanied those unfortunates. Some of whom may have walked on the very land I walk on, as they traveled to their ultimate destination in Oklahoma.
No one knows exactly how many perished on the trail. Estimates are that 4,000 Cherokees alone died. Perhaps some are buried near here.
I once read of a woman in Mississippi who, in 1863, suffered a husband and two sons killed at Gettysburg. A granddaughter later noted, “When the news of this awful disaster reached home, Grandmother Clark prayed and shouted all night, and she often told us in speaking of those days that we didn’t know what sorrow was.”
In the same manner, as I walk along the highway that once saw so much suffering, I wonder whether, indeed, many of us really know what sorrow is.