Trail of Tears Markers in Greene County Offer A Place to Learn, Never Forget
From the street, it doesn’t look like much. On one side, a privacy fence contains overgrown weeds that resemble mounds of green and yellow spaghetti. On the other side, rows of white and grey houses. Cars whoosh by.
"There’s an old railroad bed that runs through there.”
That’s Terry Waley, executive director of Ozark Greenways. He says the organization first acquired this land years ago, and figured:
“Someday we’ll turn it into a trail.”
But they soon discovered that turning it into a trail wouldn’t be necessary. The land was already a trail - and one with incredible historical significance.
“That property was right in alignment with the Cherokee Trail of Tears, as it was routed through Springfield. So this has become our Trail of Tears project,” explains Waley.
In all, nine states sit along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, part of the National Park Service; which turns 100 this year. The Trail itself dates farther back.
Following President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act in 1830, Native Americans were forced to leave their homes in the east and complete a grueling trip west to present day Indian Territory. Roughly 4,000 died during the trip, and their long and hard journey is now remembered as the Trail of Tears.
Cherokee traversed through parts of what is now Greene County by way Strafford, and then continued southwest across present day Highway 65 and toward what would later become Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.
“They were through here in 1838, In December.”
Waley, along with Jackie Warfel, chairman of the Greene County Historic Sights Board, showed me around two of the trailbeds in Springfield. Both are owned by Ozark Greenways. The previously mentioned trail, off of Marcella and Golden, has been designated by the National Park Service as the first National Historic Trail to come across Greene County.
As the three of us begin walking the Trail, our feet sink slightly into the natural, wood-chip covered turf.
“We never planned from the beginning that we would come in here and put down concrete or asphalt- it’s not going to be a bicycle path or anything like that. The idea is to interpret the native experience as closely as possible,” says Waley.
Warfel explained that, preceding the Trail of Tears journey, the government separated Native Americans into 13 groups, called detachments.
“When you look at the detachments themselves, there were about a thousand people on each one. There were 13 detachments—roughly seven or eight went through here,” says Warfel.
Each detachment had a conductor, a doctor, a burial committee, and those who traveled ahead of the group to build warming fires. Warfel estimates that natives traveled about 10-12 miles a day, their route determined by water availability.
As we stand on the trail, I’m suddenly startled back into present day by the sound of a dog. (sound of dog barking). A man walks by; his dog eagerly pulling its lead, and the two pass before continuing along the trail. Warfel smiles.
“We find that once these get open, the people in the neighborhoods like them."
She adds that there was some resistance at first. Since the trail cuts through and behind neighborhoods, people who lived close by worried about trespassing, or that the trail will be a liability.
“But they found that it was a real asset. There’s a great deal of pride of ownership,” Warfel says.
Pride of ownership may also results from community involvement, Waley adds.
“The trail we’re walking on was an Eagle Scout project- we had them cut in the grade, put down the wood chips, they planted the trees and shrubs here and installed the fence,” says Waley.
As we walk to where the fence ends, the sound of our footsteps change—it’s the only concrete portion of the trail.
Here, right off of the edge of the road, a local artist named Christine Shilling created a mosaic on the concrete- the Trail of Tears emblem surrounded by footprints.
“There are two adult footprints—a parent, a mother and a father—and then a baby or child following—then the baby’s disappear. So the mother’s picked it up, went a few feet, then set it back down.”
Waley says the art helps tell the Trail’s story. And telling that story as accurately as possible is one of the main goals of Ozark Greenways.
“We’re threading today’s route as close as we can to the original route, in a built, urban environment. So there’s challenges with road crossings- going over, going under, going through.”
This also means leaving room for re-interpretation, as research continues. In order to communicate the historical significance of the trail, informational signs and kiosks are placed at the trail entrances.
“It’s meant to be a place to reflect, to think about what happened here.”
The information includes historical context, as well as a map of the trail route through Greene County. Warfel adds that, due to new findings by the Center for Archeological Research, the alignment of the map shown will need to be altered slightly.
Neither Warfel nor Waley appear upset about the change. In fact, they seem excited.
“History is constantly changing, and being re-interpreted, hopefully for more accuracy,” Waley explains.
But even if the Trail alignment will change slightly, both agree that there is one thing that won’t change- the emotional experience of walking it.
“When you walk it, you will feel it. I guarantee you this. I’ve never had anybody on this trail or that trail that didn’t feel it,” says Warfel.
Warfel looks at the ground. The tragedy, she says, is to forget that the Indians were just people, like you and me.
The “Remember the Removal” annual 950 mile bike ride along the Trail aims to avoid that.
The story of the trail is also commemorated in historical interviews, such as those submitted to NPR's StoryCorps.
Warfel explains that as grueling and sad as the Trail of Tears story is, each trail marker, like those in Greene County, exists so that we will never forget and to prevent a repeat of history.
For KSMU's Sense of Community Series, I’m Kathryn Eutsler.