January 29, 2004

SIUC Country Column SIUC team helping preserve Illinois leg of Trail of Tears

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- They called it the Trail of Tears because of the losses suffered by the exiles whose weary feet created it. Then it, too, was lost.

"If you know what you're looking for, you can see it -- it's just so obvious -- but unfortunately, most people don't know what it is," says John H. Burde, a forestry professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Burde and graduate students Karen J. Frailey and Kevin N. Schraer have spent the last few months tracking down the Illinois leg of the Trail at the behest of the National Park Service, which is working to preserve and develop the paths that 19th-century soldiers once used to herd Cherokee Indians off their land.

The Trail of Tears -- actually three overland routes and a waterway -- begins near Chattanooga, Tenn., and ends in Oklahoma. Rounded up like cattle and stripped of their property under the federal Indian Removal Act of 1830, thousands of Native Americans were forced to march west on the Trail through winter storms. Many died. Congress made the Trail a national historic area in 1987 to honor them.

Only a small piece of the Trail's northern route runs through Illinois, from Golconda to a point just north of Cape Girardeau.

"Unfortunately, a lot of it is right under the existing highway -- those parts are gone," Burde said, referring to Illinois Highway 146. "A lot of it has been plowed under for agriculture, too.

"But there are numerous places not far from 146 where the original road is quite obvious. We've pretty much identified the Trail except for a piece west of Jonesboro."

Between now and the time the trees leaf out, Burde and his team are retracing their steps, this time using hand-held global positioning equipment as a sort of high-tech "trail blazer." The equipment -- basically a high-powered, wallet-sized computer -- translates radio signals from satellites to produce geographic maps of pinpoint accuracy.

"You hold it in the palm of your hand, and every five seconds, it takes a measurement," said Burde, who used the system a few years back to map trails in 27,000 acres of Shawnee Forest wilderness.

"We have to do this in the winter because in a very thick forest, the satellite images get distorted by the leaves."

In addition to walking the woods, Burde and his students will dig through archives and libraries, hoping to root out old maps, newspapers articles, letters, diary references and a host of other printed materials on the Cherokee Trail. Whatever they turn up will go into an annotated bibliography, something that could be used not just by researchers but by regular folks who want to learn more about the Trail.

"There's a lot of interest down here, a lot of community lore, and a lot of people claim kinship to the Cherokees because they stayed some time in certain areas -- they didn't just pass through," Burde said.

"We've already found some articles from the '20s and '30s. For someone interested in looking deeper, this would be a good point to start."

The Park Service could also use the material as the foundation to build what Burde calls a tourist "interpretive route" -- a means for following the trail and understanding what happened there.

"We're behind other states in this, probably because we have the shortest number of miles -- of all the states that the Trail goes through, Illinois is the only one without a museum or a cooperating visitors' center where people could go to find out about it," Burde said. "There's no place to even put out brochures.

"But that doesn't make Illinois less important. Serious winter events occurred here. When the Cherokee got over toward the river -- in November or December -- the Mississippi was iced over and they couldn't get across, so they had to set up camps. A lot of people died. There's a fairly large church cemetery east of Anna that has no headstones. The common lore is that those are Cherokee graves, but nobody knows. Even with history, some things get lost. That's why the Park Service has started this project."