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Pursuing a Trail of Tears mystery

Ill. graves may hold Cherokees' remains

ANNA, Ill. -- The tiny Camp Ground church cemetery includes among its dead some of the earliest settlers from this part of southern Illinois -- Germans whose weathered sandstone grave markers date to the 1800s.

Still, a mystery lingers about others who might be buried on this solemn ground: Is the graveyard the final resting place of Cherokee Indians who died here during the winter of 1838-39 as they were forced westward on the infamous Trail of Tears to what now is Oklahoma?

Local legend has it that the graves are here, but Harvey Henson wants to know for sure. And the geophysicist at Southern Illinois University in nearby Carbondale has rolled out high-tech gadgets including ground-penetrating radar to try to get to the truth.

''We've definitely got unmarked graves, no doubt," he said. ''But are they Europeans or settlers or Native Americans? No one quite knows that, and that's a nice problem to solve."

Henson calls his evidence ''pretty circumstantial" and, barring a court order to dig up the property, the answer may forever elude him.

But he thinks he has pinpointed at least two single, unmarked graves. Results of new data could reveal more, perhaps a dozen, he said. ''We're dealing with so many unknowns," he said. ''We're out to find where the Cherokee are buried, and how many are there. You just have to take it systematically and line up the evidence."

Henson has been trying to build his case since 1999. That's when Sandy Boaz, whose ancestors are buried in the Camp Ground graveyard, sought his help to scientifically prove whether the cemetery included any Cherokees who succumbed during their relocation journey.

The cemetery is part of the National Park Service's Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, designated by Congress in 1987 and stretching roughly 2,200 miles across nine states. The graveyard is along the trail's northern route, one of three key pathways used by about 16,000 Cherokees when they were ordered out of the Southeast. By most accounts, those who made the move often lacked shoes, food, shelter, blankets, and warm clothing, and many died.

In southern Illinois, Cherokees who made the trip on foot, by horse, or by oxen-pulled carts became trapped between the frozen Ohio River to the east and the icy Mississippi River to the west.

The death toll along the Trail of Tears isn't clear. The official government account was about 400 deaths, though most accounts suggest that some 4,000 Cherokees perished.

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