They traveled through Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana and even Kentucky. But nearly all of the paths taken by the five American Indian tribes that trekked from the Deep South to Oklahoma — a migration that later became known as the Trail of Tears — crossed through Arkansas, with many of their paths converging on a trail that passed through Fort Smith.
Dusty Helbling, a local historian on Indian removal, followed portions of the trails taken by the tribes and will present his research at 1:30 and 3:00 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Drennen-Scott Historic Site as part of the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith’s Crawford County Chronicles program.
In 2006, Helbling began following different paths taken by the tribes, including a local trail taken by Choctaw, Cherokee and Seminole Indians. He used as a guide the journals of American officers who oversaw the Native Americans’ removal from American territory, which were provided to him by the Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Most of the Native Americans traveled through the state via the Arkansas River, but they were forced to continue on foot after the summer weather lowered the river’s water level.
"The Arkansas River route was one of the major ways that the tribes used to move towards Oklahoma. The problem was the river would get low during the summer months, so they could only get so far," he said. "One group made it to Little Rock and couldn’t get any farther by boat, so they had to purchase wagons, oxen and horses and proceed on land."
Another group made it all the way to Titsworth Landing — located at what is now Roseville, a small town south of Ozark. Here, the Native Americans purchased supplies and wagons before continuing on a nearly 80-mile trek towards Sallisaw. Helbling followed this trail, tracking the distance the tribes traveled each day and locating their campsites, extensively documenting them with photos and maps.
Helbling said Fort Smith and Crawford County’s role in the Trail of Tears is a little-known fact amongst local residents, even though American Indians relied on the region for sustenance both before and after settling in Indian Territory.
"Fort Smith was the last supply place before they reached the Indian Territory. After the Indians were settled in Oklahoma, many of them went back to Fort Smith to get supplies," he said, citing Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee syllabary, as a Native American who frequented the town.
His research took him two years, but he said the experience, and the opportunity to present his findings to local residents, made it more than worth it.
"I was just really interested in doing this because I think the people of Van Buren have been left out and don’t have a lot of information on this," Helbling said. "That’s one of the things that happened at Lavaca and Evansville. They weren’t aware of how important a role their communities played in the trail."
DSHS Director Tom Wing agreed, saying Helbling’s presentation will be eye-opening for local residents.
"Indian Removal greatly affected the development of Western Arkansas, including the rise of the towns of Van Buren and Fort Smith," Wing said. "Dusty will shine some important light on this tragic chapter in history and its connections to Crawford County."
UAFS acquired the Drennen home, which dates back to the 1800s, and additional acreage in 2005. The Drennen-Scott Historic Site, which opened to the public in May 2011, serves as a museum and educational facility for UAFS.
John Drennen was a founder of Van Buren, politician, Indian agent, landowner and businessman. Charles Scott was Drennen’s business partner who married Drennen’s eldest daughter. Charles and Caroline Scott inherited control of the estate after Drennen’s death in 1855.
The DSHS is located at 221 N. 3rd St. in Van Buren. Limited parking is available at the Visitor Center located on the DSHS property. Those attending may also park at the Crawford County Courthouse, which is two blocks from the Drennen-Scott Historic Site.
The Crawford County Chronicles series provides monthly speakers on a variety of topics. To make reservations for the August program, call 479-262-2750 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and specify which time.