By Gloria Young
Heritage Trail Partners Board of Directors
The Indian Removal Act was signed by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830. This act put in motion the systematic removal of the Cherokees, Choctaws, Muskogee Creeks, Chickasaws, and Seminoles from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast to Indian Territory in what is today Oklahoma.
By June 1838 there were still about 15,000 Cherokees in the southern Appalachians who had not removed. They were rounded up into detainment camps and then forced to move west in seventeen traveling groups called detachments. Thirteen of these detachments traveled through Northwest Arkansas by several different routes, mostly overland, but at least one by river.
The first four detachments traveled with military escorts, but the thirteen subsequent detachments were allowed to complete the removal under the leadership of Chief John Ross. Each detachment was led by a Cherokee leader called a conductor. John Benge was the conductor for a detachment that traveled a different route from any of the other detachments—one that led them across southeast Missouri and northern Arkansas.
On September 28, 1838, some 1200 men, women, and children started west from Wills Valley, Alabama, just south of Fort Payne. Many were related by blood, marriage, and/or religious affiliation. (There were many Methodists as well as a number of Baptists.) Though some in the group were poor, others were wealthy enough to own slaves. More people—including some Creeks and 114 enslaved people—departed each day until the final group moved out on October 1. Some additional families joined the detachment as it traveled up the Tennessee River. There were thirty-three deaths along the way; most were likely from measles and whooping cough. Three births were recorded. A final tally upon arrival in Indian Territory numbered 1132 people in the detachment.
The U.S. government allotted $66.24 for each Cherokee person for eighty days of travel. Even though the Benge detachment averaged ten miles per day, a fast pace among the groups traveling overland, the eighty-day monetary allotment was not enough. Their 768-mile trip took 106 days to complete.
Members of the detachment rode in sixty wagons and on horseback, some astride what were reported to be “fine riding horses.” Some 600 horses had to be fed along 1,200 people, so provisions had to be purchased along the way. Because there is no existing diary or description of the day-to-day travel or route taken, some information about this detachment must be gleaned from the records of food and fodder purchased on the trail. Newspaper reports from towns along the way also provide insight.
The detachment crossed the Mississippi River into present-day Missouri at Iron Banks, now Columbia, Kentucky, in mid-November 1838. They turned southwest and crossed into Arkansas at Indian Ford on the Current River around December 8. Following the route known as the Southwest Trail or the Old Spanish Road, they passed through Smithville and near Batesville, where some of the party halted for wagon repairs. Turning westward, they crossed the White River near Talbert’s Ferry. Rivers were low, so instead of taking the time to use the ferries at any of the river crossings, they drove, rode, or waded through the icy water.
The detachment passed through or near Carrollton and Osage (Carroll County) and Huntsville (Madison County), arriving at a place described as Stone’s Farm or Johnson’s Switch near Fayetteville on January 13, 1839.They camped along a creek and up the hill from what is today the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Stadium Drive. (In 1998, a small park was created and a historical marker erected on the northwest corner of MLK Boulevard and Stadium Drive.)
On January 14, 1839, the detachment was on the road to Cane Hill (Washington County). The Benge detachment ended their journey at Mrs. Webber’s farm near present-day Stilwell, Oklahoma, on January 17, 1839.
The above information is taken from a report to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program (2002) written by Duane King and from papers presented at the Benge Detachment Symposium sponsored by the Arkansas Chapter, Trail of Tears Association, in Pocahontas, Arkansas, March 29, 2014.