stone statue of native american next to the Arkansas River

At the crossroads of the Trail of Tears, Little Rock reckons with its history

Native Americans’ forced march in the 1800s ran through the Arkansas capital. The city is now grappling with how to memorialize this tragic past.

Artist Peter Wolf Toth’s monumental wood sculpture, dedicated in 1975, occupies a position of authority over the waterfront of Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s directly across the Arkansas River from North Little Rock, where the land and water routes of the Trail of Tears merged. 

The Arkansas River runs deep and wide at Little Rock. The city’s high-rises reflect on water brown with sediment carried all the way from the Colorado Rockies.

Aaron Boswell is taking in the view with me. This vista—minus the buildings and bridges, of course—greeted his Cherokee ancestors in the mid-1800s on a grim journey west, forcibly removed from their eastern native lands. History recalls the United States government’s ethnic cleansing crusade as the Trail of Tears. For Boswell, a park ranger with the Army Corps of Engineers, it is a dark family legacy.

On their way to the prairies of what would become Oklahoma, the majority of those displaced Native Americans passed through here, at Little Rock.

Today, the capital of Arkansas draws visitors to its historic state house, the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, and the poignant Little Rock Central High School, a National Historic Site where in 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower sent National Guard troops to escort nine African American students to class.

To visit Central High School during class hours with a park ranger—surrounded by students of all races hustling between classes—is to wade through the evolving history of America’s complicated racial history.

But as a landmark in this country’s sad history of indignities toward Native Americans, the North Little Rock site where Boswell and I are standing cries out for more emphatic commemoration.

“Something should be here; something people can see,” he says, glancing at the empty, brick-paved expanse at our feet. “I don’t know if it should be a statue, or some other kind of artwork. But there should be something.”

‘A trail of tears and death’

Of the 60,000 Native Americans—from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole nations—who were evicted from homelands ranging from Kentucky to Florida under President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, 40,000 passed through what is now known as North Little Rock.

By land, the exiles trudged into town along today’s Broadway and Main Street. By water, more arrived by boat, having boarded steam ships and barges up the Mississippi River—or in the case of the Seminoles from Florida, on ships that left Tampa and sailed halfway across the Gulf of Mexico.

Witnessing his fellow exiles huddled on the shores of the Arkansas River, a Choctaw chief first referred to the mass removal as a “trail of tears and death.” Here, the groups were funneled together for the final length of their tragic journey.

The ordeal was humiliating—and deadly. Thousands died on the long walk across half a continent, but the river routes were equally fatal. Disease spread rapidly among the huddled passengers, many of whom were kept in chains—released only long enough to help haul stranded ships over river sandbars.

Of 407 people crammed aboard the ironically named steamer Compromise in 1836—including both Seminoles and the Black people they had enslaved—25 died on board due to sickness. By the time they reached the new Indian Territory, only 320 were still alive.

To spare his family the brutality of government transport ships—many of which were pressed back into service after having been consigned to the scrap heap—Cherokee Nation Primary Chief John Ross bought the steamer Victoria to make the trip from Florida. His effort was in vain: Ross’s wife, Quatie, died on the day Victoria landed at Little Rock in 1839. She is buried in Mount Holly Cemetery, not far from the Arkansas River’s shore.

A National Parks Service memo published in the early 2000s put it this way: “It can be safely said that [the Little Rock area] was the site of more concentrated activities related to the removal of the five large southeastern tribes than any other place.”

(What happened to the most powerful group of Native Americans?)

A monumental decision

Yet, here we stand, Aaron Boswell and I, on a patch of brickwork. Grass is popping up from the mortar. Scattered around us are four informational signs: one quite new, relating the sad story of Quatie Ross—the rest, chronicling other aspects of the Trail of Tears, in various states of decay.

One sign, decades old, is barely legible. It occurs to me it would be kinder to the memory of the thousands who suffered and died here to have no signs at all, rather than this sad example of steady decrepitude.

It’s going to get better, Boswell assures me. New signs are being created. One new informational panel has been added since we met up at the park, and others are awaiting approval of the individual tribes. He hopes they will go up sometime in 2023. 

(This sacred valley could become America’s next national monument.)

“I’d like to see us include a QR code on each sign,” he says. “People could use them to bring up movies and updated information on their phones. And that wouldn’t cost very much.”

In the meantime, Boswell meets with visitors here, painting word pictures that flesh out the story of his ancestors.

Boswell is not alone in his desire to commemorate North Little Rock’s Trail of Tears legacy more properly. For Scott Sudduth, the conviction is renewed every time he looks out his office window at the North Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“That’s Main Street—the Trail of Tears went right down that street,” he says, a bit incredulously. “I look out there and I see the streetcars and the people walking by and I think to myself, ‘How many people died out there? How many were beaten or sick?’”

I’ve met up with Sudduth in North Little Rock on board the USS Razorback, a World War II submarine on which he volunteers as a docent for the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum. We walk west along the riverbank, passed on both sides by the bikers and runners who head down here to find respite from Arkansas’s summer heat. Soon we find ourselves back on that brick patio, surrounded by decaying signs—but that’s not what Sudduth sees.

“I see us creating something here,” he says. “I want people who visit to get the sense they are entering a very special place; a solemn place. The signs are important, but there should also be something more monumental. It sounds a little trite, I guess, but we really need something that people would want to take a selfie in front of.”

He laughs at the sound of that.

“You know what I mean,” he says. “People will see photos of it, and they’ll think about what it means, and they’ll hopefully want to come see it. And then they’ll learn what this place is all about.”

(This Native American museum explores Oklahoma through a new perspective.)

Whatever ends up growing on the north shore of the Arkansas River, Aaron Boswell wants it to tell a three-fold story.

“First,” he says, “it’s the story of injustice—of all the treaties with our people being broken and everything being taken away from them. Second, it’s the suffering—being forced to go all that way with nothing and finding nothing waiting for them. Third, it’s the perseverance—my people didn’t give up. Their story didn’t end when they got to Oklahoma. They followed a long road and did a lot of hard work to get where they are now.”

There’s one more lesson of the Trail of Tears, he adds, one that resonates with hope not only for the descendants of its victims, but also for those of us whose forebears imposed it.

“We can always do better,” he says. “We can always learn from our mistakes. People can … and countries can, too.”

Bill Newcott, former expeditions editor for National Geographic magazine, is 2020-2022 International Regional Magazine Association Writer of the Year.

Jeremy Dennis is a contemporary fine art photographer and a tribal member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton, New York. In his work, he explores Indigenous identity, culture, and assimilation.

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