Traveling the Trail of Tears in Alabama

The Trail of Tears crosses rugged, mountainous terrain near Fort Payne.
The Trail of Tears crosses rugged, mountainous terrain near Fort Payne. Chuck Clark
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It’s one of the most tragic episodes in American history. While historians referred to it as the "Journey of Injustice," the Cherokee people called it the “Trail of Tears.” In 1831, the U.S. government forced Native Americans to leave their homes in Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama and relocate to Oklahoma. During the journey, thousands of Native Americans died.

If you cross the country today, you’ll find relatively few reminders of the Trail of Tears. But, there are several spots in Alabama where you can trace this tragic event. As the 24th Annual Trail of Tears Commemorative Motorcycle Ride prepares to have "kick stands up" on September 16 to ride from Bridgeport, Alabama, to Waterloo, it’s a good time to explore the trail and reflect on the lives that were lost.

The History

Ever since Europeans first landed in the New World, many of them viewed Native Americans as savages. In the 16th Century, explorer Hernando DeSoto captured Indians and used them as slaves, and many of our founding fathers believed Native Americans were uncivilized.

Even though the Cherokee Nation had signed several treaties with the U.S. government, including one that recognized them as a sovereign nation, separate treaties began to undercut those agreements. By 1803, the U.S. government had a national policy of relocating Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi River.

Things came to a head during the War of 1812, when General Andrew Jackson fought not only the British, but also Native Americans who were, for the most part, allies of the British. In 1814, Jackson was already an advocate of "Indian removal," when the U.S. defeated the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend near Alexander City, Alabama. After the battle, Jackson had the Native Americans sign a treaty that required the tribes to relinquish 23 million acres of land mostly in Alabama and northern Georgia.

When Jackson became president, he signed into law the "Indian Removal Act," which called for the exchange of Indian land on the east side of the Mississippi for land on the west side. But, in 1831, the government ignored the law and began forcibly removing Native Americans from their homeland, requiring them to travel by foot, rail or boat to what is now Oklahoma. During the journey, many Native Americans were shackled, and thousands died due to a lack of adequate food and water. A leader of the Choctaws was quoted in an Alabama newspaper as saying that the event was a “trail of tears and death.” Since then, it has been known as the Trail of Tears.

The removal continued and worsened under President Martin Van Buren, who authorized federal troops to round up Cherokees and place them in internment camps in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Florida, where they stayed until they, too, were sent west.

The Trail

The Smokerise Trail on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Blevins Gap Preserve was once a section of the Trail of Tears. It’s a beautiful walk in the woods where you can walk in quiet solitude to reflect.                               
    Joe Cuhaj
The Smokerise Trail on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Blevins Gap Preserve was once a section of the Trail of Tears. It’s a beautiful walk in the woods where you can walk in quiet solitude to reflect. Joe Cuhaj

Today, organizations like the National Trail of Tears Association, which has a chapter in Alabama, are trying to educate the public by preserving removal sites and routes and making them part of the National Park Service’s National Historic Trail System.

Here are a few of the sites that you can visit in Alabama to explore the Trail of Tears:

Waterloo Landing

During the time of the Trail of Tears, Waterloo Landing, which is located in the town of Waterloo in the extreme northwest corner of Alabama, was situated on the banks of the Tennessee River. Since that time, the river was dammed to form Pickwick Lake, and the landing was flooded over. Because it was a final departure point for Indians from the South, Waterloo Landing was known as the "End of the Trail." Now, a historical marker denotes the location, and in September of each year a commemorative Pow-Wow is held here with traditional music and more.

Tuscumbia Landing

Another Trail of Tears departure location was the beautiful Tuscumbia Landing in the town of Sheffield. Many Native Americans were brought here by rail, because the water at Muscle Shoals was too low for even flat boats. In 2016, the city signed the landing over to a coalition of eight tribes with intentions to build a memorial. Now, archaeologists are studying the area, and they must complete their work before construction can begin.

Little River Canyon Center

The trail also came north from Fort Payne, crossing Little River just north of its famous waterfall.
The trail also came north from Fort Payne, crossing Little River just north of its famous waterfall. Chuck Clark

At the Little River Canyon Center in Fort Payne, you can learn more about the Trail of Tears’ Benge Route, which is named after a detachment of soldiers led by John Benge. During the removal of Native Americans, soldiers gathered up more than 1,100 men, women, and children in the area of the Little River and marched them along a route just north of Little River Falls.

Lake Guntersville State Park

During the Trail of Tears, several groups of Native Americans passed through the area that is now Lake Guntersville State Park. Each September, the park commemorates the Trail of Tears with a day of historic walks, displays of Native-American artifacts, ritual dances, and stories.

Smokerise Trail

At the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Blevins Gap Preserve, you can follow the Trail of Tears route on the 1.3-mile Smokerise Trail. During the fall, when the leaves are at their peak autumnal colors, it’s a perfect time to walk and think about the tragedy and lives lost along the Trail of Tears. On the Land Trust website, you’ll find the schedule for special, guided Trail of Tears hikes.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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