Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

In 1987, Congress created the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail (TOTNHT): “a trail consisting of water routes and overland routes traveled by the Cherokee Nation during its removal from ancestral lands in the East to Oklahoma during 1838 and 1839.” The Arkansas portion of this trail originally consisted of two routes of fifty-nine and 337 miles, respfectively, but was expanded in 2009. The TOTNHT is overseen by the National Park Service (NPS), aided by other concerned groups such as the Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears Association, the latter headquartered in Little Rock (Pulaski County).

In 1987, the TOTNHT consisted of roughly 2,200 miles but only two paths: a land or northern route (826 miles) and a water route (1,226 miles). In 1990, the Commemorative Auto Tour Route was added to coincide with the land route. In Arkansas, this original TOTNHT consisted of fifty-nine miles in Benton and Washington counties—part of the overland northern route—and 337 miles of the water route on the Arkansas River. U.S. Representative John Paul Hammershmidt of Arkansas steered the legislation through the House of Representatives.

In what the NPS called an “unprecedented” move, the TOTNHT was more than doubled in size on March 30, 2009, with the signing of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act. An amendment added 2,845 miles to the trail, including the newly documented Benge (798 miles) and Bell (955 miles) routes, as well as other water, roundup, water-land, and dispersion sites. The addition of these routes in Arkansas added land from twenty-seven counties to the TOTNHT. Eighty-eight percent of the additional land is privately owned. Representative Zach Wamp of Tennessee wrote the original bill increasing the historic trail, and Arkansas representatives Marion Berry, John Boozman, and Vic Snyder co-sponsored, with the entire Arkansas congressional delegation voting in support.

The Benge route crosses into Arkansas in Randolph County, heads toward Batesville (Independence County), crosses the White River north of Cotter (Baxter County), continues west near Harrison (Boone County) and Huntsville (Madison County) and through Fayetteville (Washington County), and then traverses Prairie Grove (Washington County) and Evansville (Washington County) to enter Oklahoma. The Bell route tracks from West Memphis (Crittenden County), tracing the old Memphis-Little Rock Military Road, before passing through Village Creek State Park in Cross County; it then continues by Zent (Monroe County), Clarendon (Monroe County), North Little Rock (Pulaski County), tracking the north side of the Arkansas River to Van Buren (Crawford County), then finally to Evansville at the state line. The Bell route has the idiosyncrasy of being the only one where the group disbanded in Arkansas. Roughly one-third of the total trail mileage of the Benge and Bell routes is found in Arkansas.

In addition to the NPS federally protected Arkansas Post National Memorial, Cadron Settlement Park, and Fort Smith National Historic Site, further “certified sites” or “interpretive centers” have been identified along the trail as official locations where information spots and/or “overlooks” provide facts and figures on events at a particular locale. A certified historic site is the North Little Rock Riverfront Park, and certified interpretive centers are Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena (Phillips County), Fitzgerald Stations and Farmstead in Springdale (Washington County), Lake Dardanelle State Park in Pope County, Mount Nebo State Park in Yell County, Petit Jean State Park in Conway County, and Pinnacle Mountain State Park in Pulaski County. Although as yet not certified, Village Creek State Park is noted by the NPS “as the most dramatic remaining section of the Trail of Tears.” Lastly, the 1839 Sarah Bird Northrup Ridge House in Fayetteville, the former home of the widow of Cherokee detachment leader John Ridge, is also a noteworthy location for Trail of Tears history.

For additional information:
Cordes, Kathleen. America’s Natural Historic Trails. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Sequoyah Research Center. University of Arkansas at Little Rock. (accessed April 11, 2022).

Trail of Tears Association. (accessed April 11, 2022).

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. (accessed April 11, 2022).

John Spurgeon
Bella Vista, Arkansas


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