CRANE, Mo. -

Thousands of Native Americans died during a forced relocation in 1839 that came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

Each year many people re-trace that route, which passes through the Ozarks, in hopes to gain insight into their plight.

"I've been through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and I'm currently in Missouri, said Emma Swendsen, a 17-year old from Kentucky who is riding the Trail of Tears on horseback.

It's a heck of a summer road trip, but imagine seeing it all up close and personal from horseback.

"I have yet to go through Arkansas and Oklahoma. When I finish its 813 miles and I am 130 miles from finishing," Swendsen explained.

This recent high school graduate is not taking the journey for fun, but  rather to learn about an important and tragic period in American History.

"We were learning about the Violence Against Women and Children's Act and it was being argued weather or not to close a loophole that excluded native American and Hispanic women.," said Swendsen.

"A few lawmakers didn't want to close the loophole and extend the same protections and in my mind it was just repeating history. I feel like we have done this before so why are we doing it again," she added.

So the teen felt compelled to hit the road and see for herself how far we've come. But the journey has not been easy.

"I try to stay off the roads as much as possible because of the cars and then at night I try to get with private homes. If I have to camp at a park or something we try to tuck ourselves away so people can't see us. It's really just a matter of crossing my fingers and praying," Swendsen explained.

Swendsen has been sleeping in public parks or asking for permission to camp on private property. About halfway through her trip Cherokee Nation officials helped her get connected with a volunteer who is now driving along-side Swendsen, and helping carry her camping gear and supplies in the trunk.

Even with the extra help this trip has not been cheap.

"I've probably burned about $3,000 on  food, supplies, and then transportation supplies. My family was coming out and having to re-supply my stuff before I got connected with the volunteer," Swendsen said.

And that amount would easily be more if it weren't for help from strangers.

"Many people donate food for my dog and horse, and money. I still have to figure out my tuition for next year but it's well worth it because it's not an experience you can buy," said Swendsen.

It's an experience she's surprised more teens don't know about.

"My generation will eventually have to grow up and take over this country and if we don't remember our own history and we are so focused on other countries then how are we supposed to take over our own country," said Swendsen.

"It's definitely something that a lot more teenagers and younger generation needs to do is going out and traveling America. You don’t have to do it by horseback, but even a car is better than nothing," she added.

Swendsen says through her travels she's been met with mixed reactions. Some people are in awe of her dedications and effort while others say "go home, its too dangerous, and you're too young."

Later this week a group of 19 Cherokee Native Americans will be passing through the Ozarks for the 30th annual "Remember the Removal Bike Ride". You can keep up with their journey on the  groups Facebook page.


Under orders from President Jackson the U.S. Army began enforcement of the Removal Act. The Cherokee were rounded up during the summer of 1838 and loaded onto boats that traveled the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers into Indian Territory. Many were held in prison camps awaiting their fate.

An estimated 4,000 died from hunger, exposure and disease. The journey became a cultural memory as the "trail where they cried" for the Cherokees and other removed tribes. Today it is widely remembered by the general public as the "Trail of Tears". The Oklahoma chapter of the Trail of Tears Association has begun the task of marking the graves of Trail survivors with bronze memorials.

For more history and information about the Trail of Tears visit the Cherokee Nation website.