by David Webb
[In western Tennessee], the Trail of Tears came through what is now the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park. From there the Benge Route passed through Henry County along Reynoldsburg Road, to Market Street, turning west onto Rison Street, and then westward on Jones Bend Road to Palmersville [and then on to cross the Mississippi River at Columbus-Belmont State Park].
The Trail of Tears was actually four main routes from Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). One of these was a water route that passed Henry County along the Tennessee River and a land route came across the county and through downtown Paris [and then on through Palmersville].
The Benge Route is named for the Cherokee conductor of a 60-wagon train of 1,132 Cherokee and their African-American slaves who departed Fort Payne, Alabama, on September 28, 1838, and who arrived in Indian Territory by January 17, 1839. There were 33 deaths and 3 births along this trail.
Andrew Jackson called for the relocation of all Native Americans east of the Mississippi River in his inaugural address in 1829. His message became federal law with the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830.
After gold was discovered in Dahlonega, Georgia, the governor allowed a minority group of Cherokee led by Major John Ridge and Elias Boudinol to gather at New Echota. On December 29, 1835, the Treaty of New Echota ceded Cherokee territory in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to the federal government for $5 million and joint interest in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of New Echota on May 23, 1836, by a single vote.
In 1838, the Cherokee and other Native American tribes exhausted all legal challenges to the Indian Removal Act.
Principal Chief John Ross failed to persuade President Martin Van Buren to change the removal policy instigated by Andrew Jackson. Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott was placed in charge of removal of the Cherokee in 1838. Approximately 17,000 Cherokee resisted, and Gen. Scott ordered their forced relocation.
Under Gen. Scott’s command, 7,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army and the state militia spread throughout the Cherokee Nation and drove men, women, and children out of their houses at gunpoint and placed in disease-ridden camps with limited food and supplies. Private John Burnett recalled: “I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet into the stockades.”
Gen. Scott ordered soldiers to build stockade forts to confine Native Americans in preparation for their journey westward. One of these internment camps, Fort Payne, Alabama, was built by Captain John Payne and 22 of his soldiers and completed by April, 1838. By July, there were over 800 Cherokee confined at the fort.
Chief Ross appealed to President Van Buren to let him and other Cherokee sub chiefs oversee their removal. John Ross became superintendent of the removal in August, 1838. The remaining Cherokee were divided into 16 detachments of about 1,000 each. The first group of Native Americans with their African-American slaves left on August 28, 1838. Some traveled by water down the Tennessee River on flat boats and steamboats from Ross’ Landing (now Chattanooga). Others, such as Benge’s group, traveled overland.
In September, 1838, Chief Ross signed a contract with Gen. Scott, in which Ross took over complete control of removal of the remaining Cherokees without an armed military escort, while the Army agreed to pay his expenses. By this time, there were 959 Native Americans and their 144 black slaves from DeKalb County, Alabama, which was part of the Cherokee Nation, held at Fort Payne.
Ross organized 12 wagon trains, each conducted by a Cherokee leader. Captain John Benge was a Cherokee sub-chief who was selected to organize and lead a group from Fort Payne to Indian Territory. Benge was the son of warrior Bob Benge, and his father-in-law and assistant was George C. Lowery who was known as “the George Washington of his people”.
Benge was allotted 60 wagons and teams and 480 riding horses, and his detachment was the first to emigrate under their own officers.
The leadership of the group were Conductor John Benge, Assistant Conductor George C. Lowery, Physician William P. Rowles, Interpreter A.P. Lowery, Commissary James H. Rogers, Assistant Commissary George W. Lovett, Manager, John F. Boot, Assistant Managers Archibald Campbell, Jesse Lovett, and Cryer Money, Wagon Master Robert Benge, Assistant Wagon Master George W. Campbell, and Subcontractor Col. J.L. Colborn. Among the group were two Cherokee who served as gravediggers: Otterlifter Hughes and Two Thousand. Colborn was the subcontractor for Lewis Ross.
The wagon train left Fort Payne, Alabama, on September 28, 1838, and made their first crossing of the Tennessee River at Gunter’s Landing. The second crossing of the river was at Reynold’s Ferry and through what is now the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park. From there the trail came through Henry County along Reynoldsburg Road, to Market Street, turning west onto Rison Street, and then westward on Jones Bend Road.
The Benge Route continued through Palmersville, Clinton, Kentucky, the current Columbus-Belmont State Park, and crossed the Mississippi River. John Benge had relatives in Clinton which may explain why the trail came through there. The group continued across southeastern Missouri and reached the Arkansas border by December.
W.B. Flippin, a witness to Benge’s detachment in Marion County, Arkansas, wrote in 1899: “… a large detachment of Indians came through … men, women, and children moving west…. Many of the Cherokees were well-dressed and riding good horses; fine-looking men. From their appearance I judged them to be half-breeds, while the majority—many of them—were poorly clad. some of the women only having blankets wrapped around them, several carrying papooses wrapped in a blanket or some kind of cloth and fastened to the back of their mothers. Seeing so many, I wondered that I did not hear a scream from a single papoose.”
The group eventually arrived in Talaquah, Oklahoma, by January 17, 1839. Benge reported 33 deaths and 3 births along his Trail of Tears.