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The story of the Trail of Tears is a tragic epic in United States history, and carries great meaning for both the descendants of those who made the journey, and the descendants of the Anglo-American culture that forced them to make that journey. But there is another story that needs to be told as well. There are tragic elements here, too, but there are also elements that point toward another epic of U.S. history, the voluntary westward migration of tens of thousands of families who staked their hopes and dreams for a better life elsewhere. The pain of leaving one's native soil and friends and relatives, the struggle of the journey, the immense hard work of starting a new life, the pride of achievement in new homes and cleared fields. We think of this as the story of Anglo-American pioneers.
This is also the story of the emigrant Native Americans, one beginning to draw more interest. This story concerns the thousands of Cherokee, Shawnee, Delaware, and other groups, who chose to become voluntary emigrants in the decades after the American Revolution, who left their Homelands and headed west as much as half a century before the Trail of Tears. The goal for many was the area now known as Arkansas.
The Cherokee were probably the most numerous of the emigrant Indians, and even managed to claim official space for their new nation (see figure 1.). After generations of pressure by Anglo-American pioneers, Cherokee families began migrating to a new home in Arkansas by the 1790's. Here they found a familiar setting in the rolling hills and valleys of Crowley's Ridge in eastern Arkansas and in the Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains along the Arkansas River. These were landscapes similar to their old homeland in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
In 1817, much of northwestern Arkansas was given to the Cherokee as a new and protected homeland. As many as 4000 came. Unfortunately, after 1828 they were eventually forced to move on to Oklahoma, where they became known as the "Old Settlers". Within a decade they were overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of refugees who passed through Arkansas on the tragic Trail of Tears on the way to Oklahoma. Much of the Arkansas sojourn was forgotten.
While these Western Cherokee knew Arkansas as home, they established farms, built mills and roads, and set up their towns with meeting centers and stickball courts. Some even sent their children to the school at Dwight Mission (3PP58). To some extent they seemed to look like the Anglo-Americans who had displaced them. The Cherokee found much of the "modern" ways of life to be a pleasant benefit, including guns, glass bottles, and decorated table dishes made in England. But they were still Cherokee.
The search for the Arkansas Cherokee is recent and has only just begun. For example, Claude McCrocklin identified a site probably associated with Cherokee leader Duwali (or The Bowl) on Red River in southwestern Arkansas, 3MI292 (McCrocklin 1992). Myers has approximately located a number of likely Cherokee sites on the St. Francis River in eastern Arkansas (Myers 1997).
Part of the effort is the Arkansas River Valley General Land Office Project, or ARV-GLOP. This utilizes the plats and field notes created by the surveyors who laid out the township and range system in the Valley from the 1830s to 1840s. Various cultural features noted such as fields and dwellings are being recorded as sites by ARV Chapter members. Because many of these features were in fact created by the Cherokee in the 1810s and '20s, and were then re-occupied and expanded by later Anglo-American pioneers, recording the GLO sites is to some extent also pinpointing possible sites for excavation to understand the Cherokee presence.
One place that has
been identified, although on the basis of occupation dates rather than
GLO plats, is the site of a farmstead near Russellville in Pope County,
probably occupied by the Cherokee. In 1996 archeology was conducted at
the site by the Arkansas River Valley Chapter of the Arkansas Archeological
Society. The location is a soy bean field that includes a terrace edge
occupied for thousands of years by Native Americans, from the Archaic
into the Mississippian. The fieldwork included controlled surface collection
to pinpoint the portion of the site most densely occupied in the target
period, extensive use of soil coring looking for the dark stain of pit
features, and test excavations to explore the dark midden stratum identified
by the soil coring.
Although the site has been damaged by erosion, much remains to document presence from about 1810 to about 1830, the precise period of exclusively Cherokee presence in this part of the Arkansas River Valley. We may even have found a sherd of traditional Cherokee-made ceramics, although the previous occupation of the site by Mississippian Indians makes the attribution problematic since the prehistoric Cherokee assemblage is also Mississippian.
Information about the rediscovery of the Arkansas Cherokee is being disseminated in various ways, including publication (Davis 1987; Myers 1997; Stewart-Abernathy 1998; Key 2000) and exhibitry. The ATU Station put together an exhibit for the Arkansas Arts Registry, May-June, 2000, as part of Arkansas Heritage Month. The theme for the month was "Homeward Bound: A Migration Story", and the Cherokee exhibit was "Coming Home to Arkansas: The Cherokee, 1790 - 1830". The exhibit included artifacts found at 3PP449, illustrations of intact specimens represented by the bits and pieces from the site, and images of important Cherokee leaders. This exhibit will be reinstalled at the Arkansas Tech University Museum of Prehistory and History.
Figure 1. Cherokee settlement areas in Arkansas.
Figure 2. For thousands of years, Native Americans made ritual objects from copper for public and individual use. They were delighted to convert European brass items such as kettles into objects such as tinkling cones, medallions, beads, and related items that were both beautiful and sacred at the same time. The brass scrap they threw away. Finding cut brass scrap may be one of the best markers to identify an Historic Native American site.
Figure 3. Some of the non-Cherokee made ceramics found at 3PP449. The Cherokee selected many elements from the invading Anglo-European culture, including the use of inexpensive but sturdy dishes of improved earthenware for use on the table. These dishes were made in factories, particularly in Staffordshire, England, and were shipped around the world. The primary ceramic material for food preparation and serving for Cherokee and just about everyone else was ordinary redware, produced often in local potteries that kept up with the frontier. This ware was usually decorated simply with a glaze, a technique unavailable in traditional Native American pottery. It was also sometimes decorated by curving strips of colored slip, producing patterns very familiar to Cherokee potters and basket makers.
Figure 4. Many of the finds from 3PP449 reflect the ordinary objects of pioneer life, including items associated with hunting and defense, clothing, and housing. This is the working end of a scissors-type bullet mold designed to cast lead balls one at a time.
Figure 5. One of the stories about Sequoyah is that he used this enormous iron kettle to make salt from a salt spring in northeastern Pope County. The gentleman is the prominent late River Valley historian Guy Murphy.
Davis, Hester A.
Dickens, Roy S.
1979 "The Origins and Development of Cherokee Culture". in Duane H. King, editor, The Cherokee Nation. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN. pp.3-30.
Harmon, Michael Anthony
Higgins, Billy D.
Lankford, George E.
Key, Joseph Patrick
Markman, Robert Paul
Myers, Robert A.
©2001, Arkansas Archeological Survey, Revised - Summer 2007