May 01 2006
A measure in Congress could expand the routes taken from the Southeast
CLAREMORE - Curtis Rohr fears future Americans will forget the trip his two great-grandfathers and 16,000 other Cherokee Nation Indians were forced to take in 1838.
"To the older folks, we've been pretty much aware of it," said Rohr, 70, of Claremore, who's also president of the Oklahoma chapter of the Trail of Tears Association. "Younger generations need to be aware of it, too. It was a real happening in our history.
"It wasn't just a story."
To Rohr and many others, the Trail of Tears journey into Oklahoma was one of the darkest periods in American history. That's why expanding the trail, a move Congress is considering, is important, Rohr said.
Under a bill before the House National Parks subcommittee, about 2,000 miles would be studied and possibly added to the trail. Advocates and historians said many water and land components are not federally recognized.
Most of the added area would be in Georgia and North Carolina, where many American Indians were rounded up, Rohr said.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, said the bill won't threaten private property rights.
"I believe the purpose of this bill is noble and true, and it is a further step in reconciliation and healing in America," Coburn said in a February Senate hearing. "The new designations of routes of the Trail of Tears are important, so that we as a people always remember the grave mistakes of our past, so that they may never be repeated."
Susan Garland, legislative specialist with the intermountain region for the National Parks Service, said the study would cost $175,000. Operating the trail's new land also would cost an additional $295,000 annually.
Cherokees from Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia were sent to what is now Oklahoma, according to the National Park Service's Web site. They traveled by boat, horse, wagon and foot.
About 4,000 died. Today the trail encompasses 2,200 miles of land and water routes in nine states.
Jack Baker, the national president of the Trail of Tears Association and an Oklahoma City resident, said he supports the expansion but said it still leaves out a water route the Seminoles, Choctaws and Creeks followed in New Orleans and a water route the Choctaws took from Mississippi to Memphis, Tenn.
About 75,000 Indians from the Five Civilized Tribes were removed from the Southeast, Baker said.
In a statement, Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith said the bill acknowledges the Trail of Tears should never be forgotten.
"The recognition of the suffering on the Trail also provides a sharp contrast with what the Cherokees have become since then: a people with a great legacy," Smith said.
For Rohr, the additional miles will tell the complete story of his ancestors.
"The trail didn't just start when they put them on the boats," he said. "The trail started when they rounded them from their cabins and their homes and took them to the concentration camps, so to speak."