TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) -- A cross-country trail on which more than 4,000 Cherokee Indians perished more than 160 years ago soon may be memorialized with additional historic sites.
Legislation passed last month in a U.S. House Committee that would expand the historic trail to include areas in Oklahoma, Georgia and North Carolina.
The original Trail of Tears Historic Trail, designated in 1987 by Congress, commemorates the removal of the Cherokee and the paths that 17 Cherokee detachments followed westward. Today the trail includes 2,220 miles of land and water routes through portions of nine states, according to the National Park Service.
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who is part Cherokee, proposed the legislation and said he expects the bill to clear the Senate and be on the president's desk by September.
"This will make (the Trail of Tears) an integral part of American history," Wamp said. "It's not just an Arkansas and Oklahoma story -- it started in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama."
Wamp said the addition of the new trails would inform people of the character of the Cherokee Nation.
"They are one of the most advanced tribes," Wamp said. "They had created their alphabet and newspaper. Through this adversity they grew in their character. The trail was a tragic story that furthered the collective character of the Cherokee nation."
The Cherokee Nation now has 264,646 citizens, according to the tribe.
The Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah has a walkthrough exhibit that's dedicated to the Trail of Tears. Life-sized statues depict the thousands of men, women, children and elders who made the journey. The exhibit includes actual accounts from survivors of the Trail of Tears.
"The people got so tired of eating salt pork on the journey that my father would walk through the woods as we traveled, hunting for turkeys and deer which he brought into camp to feed us," survivor Rebecca Neugin wrote in 1932 in documents kept at the center. "There was much sickness among (us) and a great many little children died of whooping cough."
According to the National Park Service, the U.S. government used the Treaty of New Echota to justify the removal of the southeastern Indian tribes. Under the treaty, the Cherokees relinquished all lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in Indian Territory.
The move to memorialize the trail is a giant step forward for the Cherokee Nation, Cherokee citizen and Trail of Tears Association president Jack Baker said.
"It would show that the federal government does recognize the various aspects of our removal," Baker said. "It also gives our Cherokee people a more thorough understanding of our removal. While we were forcibly removed, we did adapt to our new surroundings -- we've survived and have prospered. We are now a nation of over 250,000 citizens."
About one-quarter of the 16,000 Cherokees who made the trek died of hunger, illness and exhaustion on the 800-mile journey from various portions of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee to Indian Territory -- now Oklahoma. Cherokee elderly and children were the ones to suffer the most, as their frail bodies couldn't take the unrelenting blizzards and disease.
The Cherokee trail is made up of several different trails, over both land and water, that originated in northern Alabama, northern Georgia, west North Carolina and southeastern Tennessee. The conditions along the trails were so extreme that the waterways would freeze over during the winter.
The Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw, Chickasaw and the Seminole Nations of Oklahoma also were removed from their original homelands in southeastern United States after the initiation of the removal act.
The legislation could result in the expansion of national historical trail to include sites in Oklahoma, Georgia and North Carolina, if found suitable by the Secretary of Interior.
Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith said the Cherokee Nation has since demonstrated its "great legacy" as a tribal people who "face adversity, survive, adapt, prosper and excel."