Trail of Tears

Illinois, Pope County, Golconda

river mile 902.5

1842 Charles Byrd King John Ross a Cherokee Chief Hist Indian Tribes North America
John Ross, a Cherokee Chief. 1842. Charles Byrd, History of Indian Tribes of North America. Source: Library of Congress via wikipedia

Golconda, like other riverfront towns established in the late 18th century, had a gridded town plan, a ferry, a dock for shipping grain and hogs to New Orleans, several storefronts, some churches, probably a hotel and some bars, and some housing for the craftsmen of the period. As the county seat it also had offices for lawyers and other functionaries. By the end of the 19th century it also had one, or several, distinguished Victorian houses built by whoever made the money there. What Golconda has that other similar riverfront towns lack is a place in a distinctive history. It is one of the locations on one of our important national trails: the Trail of Tears.

The Trail of Tears should be a cautionary tale for all of us. The Cherokee who were removed from their farms and homesteads in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama in the late 1830’s were not incomprehensible aliens in inexplicable costumes. They farmed and tended orchards, wore topcoats and hats, wrote laws in their own written language, adopted Christianity, the polity of the age, and negotiated eloquently with the Federal government, all the way to the U.S Supreme Court. Some even owned slaves. As is usually the case when a new powerful culture overruns an existing one, many of the fathers of Cherokee children were men from the newly dominant Euro-American culture.

In the late 1830’s though, pushed by the demands for more land by the whites who were arriving on the shores of the southeast, by their inherent racism, and by abrogation of carefully negotiated and longstanding legal agreements between the States of the United States and the Cherokee polities, these people were suddenly uprooted from their long-tended homesteads and forced by American soldiers to move to strange lands on the other side of the Mississippi River.

Beginning in 1837, and concentrated in the harsh wintry conditions of late 1838 and early 1839, eleven of the 17 detachments of Cherokee refugees — about 1000 people each — took the northern route from Tennessee to Oklahoma. It passed through Kentucky, crossed the Ohio River into Illinois at Golconda, followed a dirt road across the southern portion of the state (now SR 146), then crossed the Mississippi to Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma via several ferries located in Union County. This population of migrants included people of all ages — old ones and infants and people with disabilities as well as able-bodied women and men. Some were richer, but most, having been suddenly uprooted and their possessions stolen or burned by the marauders, were suddenly poor. Many died on the trek. As evidenced by land records from near the Mississippi river ferries, unscrupulous merchants built new taverns and created new ferry services specifically to take advantage of them. Many died on the trek.

Thus, as evidenced by both historical and archaeological research, southern Illinois is a rich source for learning about one of our great country’s great transgressions. Thus it is unfortunate that Golconda includes no monument or historic marker about it. As the saying goes, if we know nothing about history, we are bound to repeat it.


Next park: Lock 51 Park

Field research July 2018