OKMULGEE, Okla. — Sometime near the end of 1837, a Creek Indian named Samuel Carr put out his fire, packed his belongings and set out on an 1,800-mile journey across central Alabama and into one of the darkest chapters of American history.
This summer, my sister Lilla and I tried to follow his footsteps, chugging in a dusty blue Chevy from the streets of Montgomery, Ala., to the plains of central Oklahoma.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 17, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction; Wire
Trail of Tears--A Washington Post story about the forced evacuation of Native Americans to the West in the late 1830s ("Following the Trail of Tears," Sept. 5) incorrectly referred to a photo of the journey published in the Montgomery Advertiser in 1837. The illustration was an artistic reproduction of the event printed by the newspaper at a later date.
Our sojourn was not quite the same one Carr endured. By most accounts, he and a contingent of Creek tribesmen traveled by foot about 12 miles a day, taking five or six months to reach their goal. By car, we tackled the distance in a week. Veritable captives as they moved west, the Indians had to sleep in crowded canvas tents and subsist on cornmeal and other meager rations. We dined in restaurants and overnighted in roadside motels.
Twice I found myself lurching up in one of those motel room beds from startling dreams about Carr's trek. Here he was shivering under a blanket in a barge crossing the Mississippi. There he was standing on the banks of the Arkansas River, looking into the barren plain that would become his home. The more I traveled, the more absorbed I became with his saga. And no wonder: Samuel Carr was my great-great-great-grandfather.
Carr's cross-country trek came about as the result of a White House policy to uproot the Creek and four other tribes occupying vast expanses of the South and force them into the rough territory beyond the Mississippi. The plan, enforced without mercy in the late 1830s, resulted in the eviction of about 60,000 Indians. One in six would perish en route. A Choctaw tribesman, asked by a newspaper reporter to describe the historic crossing, gave it a name that resonates today. He said it was nothing but "a trail of tears."
By following his path, I hoped to explore my Native American roots. A fifth-generation Oklahoman born of an African American mother and a father of mixed Creek and black blood, I remembered childhood tales from relatives of ancestors who followed the trail to Oklahoma. My father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, has lost almost all memory of his family's past. My Creek grandmother Reanna died when I was 5, leaving only the recipe for sofkie, a hominy dish beloved among Creeks. My grandfather Robert, who was a Creek freedman--a descendant of blacks who had been enslaved to Creeks and made a member of the tribe after emancipation--has also long since passed. A portrait sitting on my father's mantel is the only picture I have left of them.
Whenever I look at the image of my grandmother in that picture, with her black tresses and high cheekbones, I pause to reflect on what it means to be descended from American Indians. More than 2 million Americans claim Indian ancestors, according to official census estimates. And yet many of us so-called mixed bloods have no sense of how our Native American heritage shaped us, what mark it left on our characters, what mannerisms it bequeathed us.
And so I took to the road, with a partially completed family tree in hand, hoping to find some answers. After the first couple of days, Lilla peeled off, rejoining me again in Oklahoma. The trip delivered me headfirst into Native America, both past and present. One day would find me in a carload of Cherokees on a Tennessee highway, searching for a cedar tree they needed to ward off evil spirits. A few days later I was in the home of a Cherokee woman in Missouri, hunched over a plate of kanachi, the dish of ground hickory nuts that is one of her tribe's passions. And then there was the night I spent in a lonely corner of Oklahoma at a Creek stomp dance, a tribal religious ritual, chanting all night around a blazing fire.
My first stop on the Trail of Tears was Alabama, a former stronghold of the Creek, where I began looking through old census records and the archives of the Montgomery Advertiser. There I stumbled across a faded, lifelike reproduction the newspaper had published on the front page in July 1837. It featured several hundred Creek warriors, shackled at the feet and chained hand to hand, being prodded by bayonet-wielding soldiers down a street in Montgomery.