Little history remains of Illinois’ involvement in the one of the darkest episodes of American history—the Trail of Tears or as the Cherokee call it “Nunna dual Tsuny” or “Trail where they cried.” The fact that Illinois was part of the Trail of Tears story comes as a surprise to many, myself included. Like many of the forgotten or little known historical events that The Lost Artist unearths, this one held surprises I wasn’t expecting.
In writing The Lost Artist, whose nineteenth-century southern Illinois farmhouse is directly connected to the Trail of Tears, I relied on diaries, newspaper accounts, family lore and interviews for historical facts about the trail.
As far as the actual trail that the Cherokee walked in Illinois, much of it has disappeared, covered by Illinois Highway 146. Even the graves of the Cherokee who died in Illinois can’t be located with any certainty. Only the faint traces of ruts worn by the wheels of the wagons and ox carts found in farm fields bear witness to that horrific march across Illinois. Like a fading memory eventually they too will be gone.
In the spring of 1838, the Cherokee was forced out of their homes near the Great Smoky Mountains with only the clothes on their backs, most without shoes. Lacking food, shelter, blankets and warm clothing, they were ill prepared for the harsh condition they would encounter in Illinois. Though some had wagons and ox carts, most didn’t and had to walk.
Before embarking on the trail in late fall, they’d spent an especially hot and dry summer in military stockades, where disease was rampant. By the time they neared Illinois many were already sick and it was winter. In a terrible twist of fate for the Cherokee, the summer had been one of the hottest and was followed by one of the coldest, miserable winters of that century.
The first detachment arrived on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River around December 3, 1838. To be ferried from Kentucky to Illinois, they were charged a toll of $1 a head. This was an outrageous fee for the time. The usual ferry passage for a wagon was about 12 cents. “Berry’s Ferry,” which was operated out of Golconda, Illinois, made over $10,000 that winter. This would be the first of many mistreatments the Cherokee would have to endure in Illinois.
Reverend Butrick, who accompanied the Cherokee on the trail and kept a diary, recounted their reception in Golconda after the ferry crossing. “But we had scarcely landed when we were met with volleys of oaths from every quarter . . .. On going up from the boats into the village, called Golconda, it seemed to be made up chiefly of groceries [taverns], and little boys in the streets had already learned to lisp the infernal language.”
A day later he wrote about a number of whites who came to their tent and how they listened as he explained to them the suffering of the Cherokee. Weeks later he thanked God for the kindness of a good wagon maker and his family.
But most of his entries were negative. “Thus far the citizens of Illinois appear more and more pitiful. They seem not only low in all their manners, but ignorant, poor, and ill humored.”
In contrast to Butrick’s description of the Cherokee’s reception in Golconda, the Buel family passed down a legend about their ancestor Sarah (Jones) Buel whose house was near the ferry landing. According to family lore, Sarah shared the pumpkins she was cooking with some of the weary travelers. The account ends with Sarah’s ancestor commenting that Sarah Buel was probably “thankful when they left (Musgrave).” Whether this was a true act of kindness or came from fear, who knows. But the legend persists.
A verifiable act of generosity came from George Hileman who allowed the Cherokee to camp on his land, cut wood, and bury their dead. Hileman’s daughter and son who’d died in 1836 were buried in an adjacent field to the one where he let the Cherokee bury their dead. I can’t help but believe he had great sympathy for the Cherokee, maybe due in part to the loss of his own children.
During that severe winter approximately 3,000 Cherokee encamped on Hileman’s land. In 1850 Hileman dedicate a portion of his land as a permanent home for a church that eventually became known as the Camp Ground Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Today a stone marker on the church grounds commemorates the site of the cemetery and its association with the Trail of Tears.
The Camp Ground Cemetery is thought to be the site where many Cherokee were buried. Sandra Boaz, a longtime member of the Camp Ground Church and a board member of the Trail of Tears Association, told me that the church is the only place on the trail that still has bona fide graveyards. “All along the way they died,” she said, “but this is the only actual graveyard.”
Harvey Henson, a geologist with the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Geology Department, has done noninvasive ground penetrating searches at the Camp Ground Cemetery and has found several unmarked graves. But whether they’re Cherokee graves can’t be determined with any certainty.
Trapped between two rivers
Once in Illinois the Cherokee became trapped waiting for the ice floes on the Mississippi River to thaw. It’s estimated that 9,000 Cherokee were stalled there between December 1838 and January 1839.
No one is quite sure how many died in Illinois. But it’s anywhere from 400 to 4,000. And 4,000 is not an unrealistic number, since nine of the thirteen detachments came through Illinois on the northern route. Plus around 17,000 Cherokee began the march. They perished from exposure, hunger, exhaustion and disease.
Martin Davis, Commissary Agent for one of the detachments described conditions on December 26 as “the coldest weather in Illinois I ever experienced anywhere.”
On December 27, Reverend Butrick wrote: “We proceeded with the detachment about 6 miles, where we camped for the week. Here the snow increased to three to four inches, and the weather was excessively cold.”
With so much suffering and death, the Cherokee showed amazing fortitude. According to Gary Hacker, Trail of Tears Association board member, the Cherokee sang Christian hymns as they walked. Known as one of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee had assimilated to American society, were educated, with their own written language and newspaper. Hacker stated that they were better educated than the townspeople who jeered them.
To save their children some Cherokee made difficult choices. Hacker explained that there were reports of some Cherokee who made arrangements with local families to take one or two of their children rather than see them die on the trail. Other Cherokee offered their daughters in marriage.
Reverend Butrick’s dire description of conditions sheds light on why some Cherokee chose to place their children with local families. On December 28, 1838 Reverend Butrick described the state of the nine detachments. “In all these detachments . . . there is now a vast amount of sickness, and many deaths. . . [T]here are more of less affected with sickness in almost every tent and yet all are houseless and homeless in a strange land and in a cold region exposed to weather almost unknown in their native country. But they are prisoners.”
A first person Cherokee account
The most heart wrenching account I came across in my research was from a survivor of the trail, Samuel Cloud who turned nine on the trail where he lost both his parents. He described waking to his mother’s cold body beside him and then her burial. “We bury her in a shallow grave by the road. I will never forget that lonesome hill of stone that is her final bed. I tread softly by my uncle, my hand in his. I walk with my head turned, watching that small hill as it fades from my sight. The soldiers make us continue walking. My uncle talks to me, trying to comfort me. I walk in loneliness.”
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In The Lost Artist, the impact of this bleak page of Illinois history echoes into the twenty-first century with deathly consequences. It’s a story that must not be forgotten.
The Journal of Reverend Daniel S. Butrick, May 19, 1838 – April 1, 1839
American Weekend, “Southern Illinois history lost on Cherokee Trail of Tears,” Jon Musgrave, January 3, 1999.
“Forgiveness in the Age of Forgetfulness,” Michael Rutledge,