Greene County begins tracing Trail of Tears

By Kathryn Wall
Springfield, Missouri (AP) October 2010

It’s been more than 170 years since the Trail of Tears weaved its way through Greene County, but historians and scholars have only recently begun to retrace those steps.

This week the Greene County Commission and Greene County Historic Sites board will dedicate a portion of the Trail of Tears as the next step in a four-year effort to rediscover where the trail passed through the county.

Jackie Warfel, a member of the board and one of the driving forces behind the project, said the trail was the first major historical event to take place in the county.

Greene County was organized in 1833. The first groups of Cherokee forced from their lands east of the Mississippi River would make the trek in 1838.

Historians estimate more than 13,000 Cherokee passed through the Ozarks from their lands in the Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia mountains to the designated Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.

“It’s an ugly part of American history, but it’s a part of history we should never forget, so it never gets repeated,” said Battlefield City Administrator Rick Hess, who’s also been part of the project.

Until recently, the exact trail that cut through the county was not known. Warfel said a call to the National Parks Service didn’t yield many answers.

“They said, ‘We don’t know, but if you find out we’d really like your research,”’ she said.

Dr. A. Holly Jones of the Center for Archaeological Research of Missouri State University began the project in 2006 to determine where the trail had been cut through Greene County.

Using a combination of surveyor’s notes, journals and other historical documents, Jones was able to pinpoint certain locations in the Ozarks where Cherokee and their soldier escorts once walked.

Now Ryan Zweerink and Steven Bodenhamer will have the job of connecting those dots.

Using a combination of historical documents and modern technology, Zweerink and Bodenhamer hope to have the path retraced within a year.

The event this week will mark the dedication of a portion of the trail that will become part of the Greenways Trail system. A trail running the entire route of the historic trail is unlikely, since some portions have now become subdivisions and others private property.

“If it was a major metro area like Chicago, it’d all be gone,” Zweerink said, adding that they’re lucky that much of the trail areas in the Ozarks have remained largely untouched.

A portion of the trail in Battlefield happens to be city-owned because a gas line runs beneath it, but it’s surrounded by neighborhoods.

Hess said they hope to make that portion of the trail open to the public after road improvements in the area within the next year.

Warfel said people from across the country are expected to attend this weekend's event, including people with ancestors who were forced to travel the trail.

But she also hopes locals will attend.

“We expect all the people to come out of the woodwork -- so to say -- who have Cherokee ancestry,” she said. “I think there will be a lot of stories.”