Paying Homage to a Brutalized People, a Wagon Train Follows the Infamous Trail of Tears

updated 12/12/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Three days before Thanksgiving, near twilight, a train of horse-drawn covered wagons halted on a mountain road in the Ozarks, unable to negotiate the icy hill. Cold, hungry and awaiting help from strangers, the band of stalled adventurers looked at what they had for protection and comfort—long underwear, insulated shirts, down vests, even a wagon-borne mobile sanitary facility—and gave thanks.

In 1838 nearly 15,000 Cherokees walked this same path, wearing thin homespun clothing, eating weevil-infested grain and enduring disease, malnutrition and intense cold. The dreadful 1000-mile journey through six states and territories took six months and 4,000 lives and came to be known as the Trail of Tears. Exactly 150 years later, a commemorative wagon train made up of 32 horse-drawn covered wagons, one buggy, several mules and more than 100 men, women and children set out to reenact the trek, although the discomforts of this latter-day journey could never approach the wretchedness of the original. "When I get cold and miserable, I get to thinking about what them people went through," said Ray Edgar, 54, a retired painter from Arkansas. "And I don't feel so bad no more."

In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, a law that lived brutally up to its name. Starting in 1836 Cherokees living in the southeast were rounded up, placed in stockades and taken to departure points for transportation to Indian Territory—later to become Oklahoma. The white man wanted their lands. Indians who resisted were forcibly removed or shot.

Reenacting the Trail of Tears was the idea of Ray Morris, 43, an agriculture specialist at the University of Illinois who formerly worked on an Indian reservation in Washington State. Morris wanted "a chance to educate people" on a dark chapter in American history. After discussing his plan with friends and colleagues, who spread the word, he was amazed at the response from people willing to leave their jobs and use their savings in order to participate. Most who volunteered lived along the route and had heard stories of the Trail of Tears since childhood. Some had Indian forebears.

Morris asked Tom Gulley, 41, a Marion, Ill., horse farmer with Cherokee ancestors, to serve as wagon master. Gulley fretted over postponing marriage plans, then decided, "Aw, hell, we can get married anytime." (Proving his point, he and his wife, Cheryl, 34, were wed in a barn during the trip, and she called her highway honeymoon "real romantic") Jesse Aldridge, 53, a Greenbrier, Tenn., farmer and factory worker, took an unpaid leave to join the trek after his teenage daughter said to him, "Daddy, you do it." Ray Edgar said he came to "apologize for what our forefathers did."

The wagon train that left Red Clay Historical State Park in Tennessee was an anachronism—some of the wagons were equipped with disc brakes, some with television sets—but the symbolism was potent nevertheless. Although the horses pulling the wagons were occasionally spooked by speeding trucks and horn blasts from thoughtless motorists, the travelers were usually treated with kindness. They were fed often, sheltered sometimes, even serenaded by Girl Scouts. Most moving were the greetings from descendants of Cherokees who had made the original march—they stood by the roadside with tears in their eyes.

Archie Mouse, 36, whose great-great-great grandfathers survived the Trail of Tears, took a vacation from his job at a paper-reprocessing plant in Smyrna, Tenn., to travel two weeks with the caravan. After joining up, he took a leave of absence and stayed on. "I sometimes get bitter at what the government did and still does to Indian people," he said. "But mostly I'm sad because I imagine what it was like for my ancestors to watch their friends and family die. I imagine the long trail of blood in the snow. It was a death march."

Last week, after 2½ months on the road, the wagon train approached its destination, the Cherokee Nation capital at Tahlequah, Okla. To commemorate the pilgrimage, the travelers plan to present the Cherokees with a granite plaque symbolizing their concern. Says Morris: "We want the Indian people to know that we care."

—Bill Shaw on the trail in Missouri

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