The Benge Route of the Trail of Tears took four main routes from Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The route that passed through Randolph County is known as the Benge Route, named for Captain John Benge, a Cherokee leader who organized and led the trek.
In 1838, all legal challenges had cleared regarding legislation passed earlier by Congress requiring the Cherokees living in the southern Appalachian Mountains to relocate to Indian Territory. In the fall of that year, 1,200 Cherokee and their slaves began to travel with all their possessions in a wagon train from north Alabama following the Benge Route. The route crossed Tennessee in a northwesterly direction, passed through western Kentucky, crossed the Mississippi River, then proceeded across southeastern Missouri. By December, 1838, the travelers reached the Arkansas-Missouri border in extreme northeastern Randolph County.
On December 9, 1838, the Benge Route entered Arkansas at Pitman’s Ferry on the Current River in northeastern Randolph County. This is the site of the state’s first ferry, begun in 1803 by William Hix and known as the Gateway Into Arkansas. The group’s leader refused to pay the 5 cents per head and per wagon for crossing on the ferry.
Moving a couple hundred yards up the river to a shallow place in the river still known today as Indian Ford, the group crossed the Current River. There is some dispute as to just where this ford is located. Some say it was 500 or more yards upstream while others claim it was well up the river in Ripley County, Missouri.
The group soon rejoined the Southwest Tral after fording the Current River and proceeded to the site of Supply. At this spot, four of the county’s earliest roads intersected with the Southwest Trail. A large well was in the center of this intersection, and proximate to the intersection was a supply store that gave the community its name (a store exists in the same spot today). The Cherokee re-supplied with water and goods at this point, as did most early travelers who entered Arkansas in those days.
The group traveled on from Supply through Maynard on what is now Hwy 328 and into the old Columbia community. Near sundown, they arrived at Foster Ford on the Fourche River (where the Hwy 328 bridge stands today) and camped for the night. They forded the Fourche the next morning, December 10, 1838.
They continued on the Southwest Trail further into the Ozark foothills, eventually arriving at Black’s Ferry on the Eleven Point River. Again refusing to pay the ferry toll, the group crossed the Eleven Point at a ford just south of the ferry site.
From the west bank of the Eleven Point, the Benge Route continued on the Southwest Trail across western Randolph County. The Trail’s route in that area ran where present day roads don’t exist, for the most part. The Trail joined the present Old Jackson Road just north of the abandoned town of Jackson and proceeded through that community. Jackson had been the second county seat of Lawrence County (after Davidsonville), but it lost that status in 1837 when Pocahontas became the seat of government for the new county of Randolph.
Crossing what is now Hwy 62 after leaving Old Jackson, the route continued down what is today Muddy Lane just east of what is now Imboden and forded the Spring River just south of Imboden at a spot called Miller’s Ford. The sunken road that was the Southwest Trail and Trail of Tears is still well preserved in this place today.
After crossing the Spring River into Lawrence County, the Trail continued on to Smithville and crossed what is now Sharp County north of Batesville. From there, the group continued across the Ozark Mountains to near Fayetteville before ending their trek in Indian Territory near what is now Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
The group experienced great hardships in making the trek. By the time they reached Oklahoma, thirty three of their number had died in route. Several others escaped from the group and made their homes in the Ozarks. This includes documented cases where Cherokee who escaped lived out their remaining lives here in Randolph County.
The National Park Service is now considering adding the Benge Route of the Trail of Tears to their system of National Historic Trails.
This photo shows what’s believed to be the crossing site of Pitman’s Ferry (earlier called Hix or Hicks Ferry) in Randolph County. The Trail of Tears didn’t cross here, though. According to tradition, the ferry toll was greatly increased for the Trail of Tears crossing, so another place was found another place to ford the river, some distance upstream from Pitman’s Ferry. The actual crossing site was thereafter named “Indian Ford”.
This photo was taken north of Attica near the old Thomas Cemetery in Randolph County. It is believed to be the old Southwest Trail and therefore the Trail of Tears’ Benge Route.
The trail from Muddy Lane at the far west edge of the county just south of Imboden and looking west toward the Miller Ford on Spring River.