Southern Illinois History Page

Southern Illinois history lost on Cherokee Trail of Tears

American Weekend

    GOLCONDA, Ill. — Nearly 9,000 Cherokees passed through Southern Illinois between November, 1838, and January, 1839, on their fateful Trail of Tears as the government forced them to abandoned their homes in the Great Smokies to go west to Oklahoma.
    Very little of the history of the Cherokee's time in Southern Illinois remains. The one set of notes compiled by researchers in the 1930s known to have existed disappeared from the Marion Carnegie Library years ago when the basement flooded and materials were quickly being moved from the water.
    The Illinois chapter of the Trail of Tears Association wants to change that as it organizes here in Southern Illinois. Debra Charles of Jonesboro has been the state contact person for the group. She encourages anybody with any information about the Cherokees or the trail to come to their next semi-annual meeting at 5 p.m. Nov. 25, at the Trail of Tears Sportsman Lodge south of Jonesboro.
    "Anybody that has anything, please bring this stuff to the meeting, or have it photocopied and sent to us," Charles said.
    The Cherokees crossed the Ohio River into Illinois at Golconda. Their trek took them westward on the 19th Century version of what's now Route 146. They went through Vienna and Jonesboro and crossed the Mississippi at two different ferries. One was immediately west of Jonesboro at Willard Landing and the other was to the southwest opposite Bainbridge, Mo.
    Today the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail auto route enters Southern Illinois on the ferry at Cave-in-Rock, turns west onto Route 146 north of the city and continues westward until it crosses the Mississippi at Cape Girardeau.
    There is generally two types of sources for information about the trail. One came from contemporary sources when the trail occurred. Probably the best source for information about Southern Illinois was the diary of Rev. John S. Butrick, a missionary who traveled with the Cherokees. The other general source is local family histories. From these we get the story of the Buel House in Golconda and the pumpkin pies, the Cherokees at Bridges Tavern and Wayside Store in Pleasant Grove and the story of Priscilla and the hollyhocks.
    The notes missing from the Marion Carnegie Library were not the only copies of the notes that were originally made. They were just the only copy where anybody knew what happened to them. The notes were made by a husband and wife team with the last name Mulcaster. In the early 1930s they traveled along the Trail of Tears and interviewed survivors and people along the trail who might remember stories about the Cherokees passing through.
    Historians know the Mulcasters picked up stories in Southern Illinois, because correspondence between them and Southern Illinois Normal University Professor George W. Smith can still be found in special collections at Morris Library. The only problem is that the postcards that refer to Bridges Tavern and the local traditions recorded there, don't include the typed notes the Mulcasters promised to send to Smith.
    In the case of Bridges Tavern which was located along Route 146 in Pleasant Grove between West Vienna and Mount Pleasant, at least one of the stories was printed in the Vienna Times later in 1933 or early 1934.
    The Cherokees' trek across Southern Illinois was not a pleasant one. They were treated badly and they were stuck here waiting for the ice flows to stop down the Mississippi. The Cherokees traveled in 13 contingents to Oklahoma. One went by river, three took a southern route and nine traveled across Illinois. Each contingents was set up to take 1,000 people, all except the 13th, which was smaller.
    Butrick crossed the Ohio on Dec. 15, 1838, he didn't see the Mississippi River until Jan. 25. Even then, it took three more weeks to get all the people in his contingent crossed. From the time the first contingent crossed the Ohio in November to the last part of Butrick's group in February, The Cherokees spent three months in Southern Illinois.
    According to Butrick's diary, by Dec. 29, 1838, the detachments were spread out across the region.
    "One detachment stopped at the Ohio River, two at the Mississippi, one four miles this side, one 16 miles this side, one 18 miles, and one 13 miles behind us. In all these detachments, comprising about 8,000 souls, there is now a vast amount of sickness, and many deaths," wrote Butrick who himself was suffering from fever and a cough.

Golconda legends
    Two stories about the Cherokees in Golconda have filtered down to the present. An unfavorable view of Golconda comes from Butrick. A nicer story is told through family tradition.
    The Buel Family told the story of their ancestor Sarah (Jones) Buel who moved to Golconda on Sept. 2, 1836. Two years later the Cherokees passed through Golconda.
    "My great-great-grandmother was acookin' pumpkin an' keepin' an eye on her baby when she heard a strange noise outside. Before she knew it, the front door popped open and there stood two Cherokee Indian braves just alookin' at her. Those poor Indians couldn't tell her that they were hungry because they didn't speak English," recalled In Buel Richards in the 1980s.
    "They had smelled the pumpkin cookin' as they passed by, but my grandmother had no way of knowin' that. Finally, she understood what they wanted, and those Indians were mighty thankful when she gave them some of the cooked pumpkin. I 'spect she was just as thankful when they left," she added.
    Butrick's account was more negative. He started his account with the crossing of the Ohio River at about 10 a.m. under pleasant weather and still winds.
    "As we were now passing out of a slave state into a free, we reflected on the pleasure of landing where all were in a measure equal and free. But we had scarcely landed when we were met with volleys of oaths from every quarter," Butrick wrote.
    "On going up from the boats into the village, called Golconda, it seemed to be made up chiefly of groceries, and little boys in the streets had already learned to lisp the infernal language. I almost longed to be back in the still, quiet towns of Kentucky," he added.
    Prior to the Great Awakening of religious revivals in the 1840s, Southern Illinois was like most areas on the frontier with groceries (what taverns today were called) far outnumbering churches.
    Although no major calamity affected Butrick's detachment, he mentioned in his diary problems other detachments had including two murders of Cherokees by local residents and extortion attempts.
    While his entries were mostly negative, either because of local reactions to the Cherokees or his own failing health, Butrick did have a few good things to write about.
    The day after arriving in Illinois, he wrote that he had the opportunity to explain the Cherokee's plight to a group of Golconda residents who had come out to the camps. A few weeks later he asked God's blessing for a kind wagon maker and his family.

Johnson-Union county line
    With the exception of taking three weeks to cross the Mississippi, Butrick's group's longest stay was in an area about 25 miles east of the Mississippi which would put it in the Pleasant Grove to Mount Pleasant area.
    At Pleasant Grove was John Bridges' Tavern and Wayside Store. The tavern was a large two-story dog-trot log cabin which stood until the 1940s when it burned. The store was a separate log cabin located behind the tavern or inn. The store had a thick door with a number of nails driven into to prevent Indians, or local thieves, from breaking in and stealing the whiskey. The door still survives to this day in a private collection.
    According to the grand-nephew of John Bridges, Lewis Stanley Beggs, who died in 1934, his mother who lived with Bridges recalled the hundreds of Indians walk past the house and how eager they were to buy "fire water" at the tavern.
    Other stories that the Mulcasters collected implied that the Cherokees are also bought and traded for foodstuffs at the tavern and store. In the Vienna Times article that quoted Beggs, it also told one way young Cherokees would earn money along the trail.
    "A favorite scheme to raise money... was in his craftiness in the use of the bow and arrow. He would approach the white emigrants and place a coin in the split end of a pole, step back so many paces and offer the coin if he did not hit it in the first show, otherwise he was to receive a coin from the emigrant," read the article.
    If Golconda was a disappointment for Butrick, he had better things to write about Jonesboro. He was still disappointed to see so many groceries (modern taverns), but he was impressed by the neatness of the village.

Priscilla and the hollyhocks
    Besides Butrick's favorable impression of Jonesboro, at least one other positive story has been remembered from the Cherokees passing through the village and camping two miles to the west on Dutch Creek. That was the legend of the slave Priscilla and the hollyhocks.
    The late SIU professor and historian John W. Allen wrote the most complete story of Basil Silkwood and Priscilla. Silkwood was an innkeeper on the old Shawneetown to Kaskaskia Trail where it went through Mulkeytown in Franklin County.
    Allen wrote that Silkwood and his wife were "evidentially a kindly people. That is evidenced by the fact that, having no children of their own, they, over a period of years, furnished homes to 16 orphaned children.
    In 1837, Silkwood traveled in the South and at one point visited a plantation in North Carolina near the Great Smokies. During that extended stay, he got to know some of the plantation slaves particularly the young house servants. One of which was a 11- or 12-year-old girl named Priscilla who was a quadroon, or one-fourth Black.
    According to Allen, Priscilla's "beauty and cheerfulness" attracted Silkwood's attention.
    "He particularly enjoyed seeing her and the other slave children as they played on the flower-decked grounds about the plantation home and its slave cabins. The little slave girl also came to know 'Marse' Silkwood'," Allen wrote.
    Shortly after Silkwood returned to Illinois, the plantation owner died and his property, including Priscilla and the other slaves, were sold at auction. A Cherokee chief purchased Priscilla.
    "Before leaving the plantation, where she had played with the other slave children and been happy, Priscilla gathered a quantity of hollyhock seeds and carried them along with her to the strange new home," Allen wrote.
    There she planted the seeds. When her new Cherokee owner was forced to move the following year, she gathered hollyhock seeds again and took them with her.
    Priscilla followed the Cherokees on their long trek. While passing through Jonesboro, fate intervened.
    "It is at this place that Basil Silkwood again enters the story. Having business in the town of Jonesboro, Illinois he had gone there on a December day in 1838. Standing in front of the Willard Hotel, he noted a passing child about 12 or 13 years old. She appeared strangely familiar. The child likewise appeared to recognize him," Allen wrote.
    While the wagon train continued their passing through Jonesboro, Priscilla backtracked and passed Silkwood again.
    "Are you 'Marse' Silkwood?" Allen wrote she said.
    After realizing who it was Silkwood talked to her and found out her story.
    "Full of sympathy for the child in her plight, he secured a conveyance and drove at once to the tent o the Cherokee Chief on Dutch Creek. Silkwood was not long in coming to terms with the Indian and paid for Priscilla, it is said, a $1,000 in gold," Allen wrote
    Silkwood then took Priscilla to his inn at Mulkeytown and freed and adopted her into his family. She outlived both Silkwood and his wife. A member of the Mulkeytown Christian Church for many years she was buried in the Silkwood family plot beside Silkwood and his wife.
    Today throughout Southern Illinois are small hollyhocks of an unusual red color that came from the Silkwood Inn. known as Priscilla Hollyhocks, these are the from the seeds Priscilla carried with her on the Trail of Tears.

For more information
Persons interested in joining the Trail of Tears Association can contact Debra Charles at Trail of Tears Lodge at (618) 833-8697 or the national office in Little Rock at (501) 666-9032.
    Published in the American Weekend, a product of the following Southern Illinois newspapers: Benton Evening News, (West Frankfort) Daily American, The (Harrisburg) Daily Register, DuQuoin Evening Call, Eldorado Daily Journal, and the Marion Daily Republican.

Created January 3, 1999 by Jon Musgrave