Andy Ostmeyer: A historic road, a heroic bronze and some hard truth

AP Photo/Andrew HarnikA presidential helicopter, the Washington Monument, and the White House are visible behind a statue of President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park, Tuesday, June 23, 2020, in Washington, with the word "Killer" spray painted on its base. Protesters tried to topple the statue Monday night. President Tump had tweeted late Monday that those who tried to topple the statue of President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House faced 10 years in prison under the Veteran's Memorial Preservation Act.

Not many days before those protesters tried to tear down a statue of Andrew Jackson near the White House, I had been cycling in Northwest Arkansas and hopped off the bike to wander a short trail near the Missouri-Arkansas line.

It is a remnant of what began 200 years ago as a military road, and over the years, it was known by different names, including the Butterfield Overland Stage Route, the Old Wire Road and one other name that we'll get to in a second.

Today, it is a peaceful forest hike, shaded in a canopy of oaks and walnuts.

It was not always so benign. This was the road trod by Civil War armies and before that by more than 10,000 Cherokees forced from their ancestral homelands and driven west to make room for land-crazed white settlers back east.

I couldn't help but think about that last week when those protesters attacked Jackson's statue, and I wondered about the contrast between the heroic bronze of Jackson and the hard truth of what happened on that historic road.

Police stopped the Washington protesters — as they should have — but my unwillingness to surrender the fate of that statue to the mob is no defense of the man.

President Donald Trump has vowed to crack down on anyone who vandalizes or attempts to tear down one of the nation's many monuments or statues. I think that is the right step. But it is only a first step. The next step is having conversations about the people who have been memorialized and the proper way to do that. How do we acknowledge our Founding Fathers and military and political leaders, who, for all their genius, owned slaves, enshrined slavery in the Constitution and fought to perpetuate it, culminating in those armies slogging up and down the Old Wire Road?

You won't find me mourning the loss of Confederate monuments and statues — I say let them crumble — but what to do with statues of other Americans, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Jackson? That solution is not so slick.

Like most Americans, the Jackson I learned about growing up was one-dimensional: Jackson the hero boy of the American Revolution, Jackson the hero general of New Orleans, Jackson the hero champion of the common man. In short, Jackson, the hero in bronze. Of course, like today, politics back then was not so simplistic and one-dimensional.

I learned nothing of Jackson the slave owner who brought his slaves to the White House, the man who ran an ad in 1804 in the Tennessee Gazette asking for help locating a runaway slave. It included his offer of "ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.”

Nor was I taught about Jackson's role in the deaths of thousands of Native Americans, including Cherokees, who were rounded up and put in cattle pens — concentration camps, before they were called that — and driven at the point of bayonet and the barrel of a gun from the only homes they had ever known. They were forced down that Old Wire Road, and today, it also goes by the name Trail of Tears.

Will Chavez, assistant editor for the Cherokee Phoenix, told me a few weeks back that his tribe has a different name for that episode from their history, remembering it as "the time when they were driven," which forces the question:

Driven by whom?

The man in bronze.

You can find that remnant trail at Pea Ridge National Military Park, and from Elkhorn Tavern, you can imagine the more than 10,000 Cherokees passing by, many of them sick, starving and freezing, many of them having buried loved ones and family along the way.

This is from one diarist with the first of several contingents of Cherokees who came through the area, written as the group slogged on between Springfield and Fayetteville, Arkansas:

• Dec. 17, 1837: "Snowed last night, Buried Eleges wife and Chas. Timberlakes son (Smoker) ... extremely cold weather, sickness prevailing to a considerable extent, all very much fatigued ..."

• Dec. 18, 1837: "Detained on account of sickness, Doct. Townsend sent back to Springfield for medicines, buried Dreadful Waters this evening ..."

• Dec. 22, 1837: "Buried Goddards Grand child, Marched at 8 o’c. A. M., halted at McMurtrees ..."

That is a reference to McMurtry Spring, in Barry County, Missouri, visible today along Missouri Highway 37 south of Cassville.

• Dec. 23, 1837: "Buried Rainfrogs daughter (Lucy Redstick’s child). Marched at 8 o’c. A. M. halted at Reddix ..."

"Reddix" is a reference to William Ruddick's (sometimes spelled Reddick's) farm at Pea Ridge, which stood where Elkhorn Tavern stands today.

Graves of Jackson's victims are scattered across Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas. There are no monuments to them.

How do we square the bronze Jackson, raring back on his steed, with children and grandchildren buried a thousand miles from their home in what are today unmarked and unremembered graves in Southwest Missouri? How do we square the heroic Jackson with the one of the hundred lashes?

How do we honor a person for his contributions without dishonoring the victims of his crimes?

We've already seen the Jefferson-Jackson dinners of the Democratic Party renamed, including those in Missouri. And the plan is to replace Jackson's image on the $20 bill with that of escaped slave Harriet Tubman. I'll let that irony speak for itself.

We must continue the conversation about what messages statues like these send our children and grandchildren and whether we want that to continue.

It is not right for a mob to tear down Jackson's statue.

It would be right if the country took it down.

Andy Ostmeyer is the editor of The Joplin Globe. His email address is aostmeyer@joplinglobe.com.

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