3D Diorama Along the Trail of Tears (Monograph 41)

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

By Dr. Bill Ambrose

On the western side of the state of Missouri, the Trail of Tears is generally the Springfield to St. Louis Road.  The General Land Office (GLO) surveyors, those earliest government surveyors who surveyed the unsettled frontier lands ahead of any land sales, were required to draw the existing roads on the township plats beginning at about the time they surveyed the western half of Missouri.  The Springfield to St. Louis Road was pre-historic – it was a trace on the ground from Springfield to St. Louis used by Native Americans for travel for trade and hunting long before Americans arrived in the state.  The GLOs were the building blocks of President Jefferson’s rectilinear survey system, known as the Public Land Survey System, created by the Land Ordinance of 1785, a federal law. The system was laid out in 6-mile-by-6-mile squares, each square being known by its north-south “Township” number and its east-west “Range” number. 

Seen here is Township 31 North, Range 17 West.  Look closely to see some of the detail presented on it.  The Springfield to St. Louis Road is labeled at the red arrow; note that it runs east-west across the entire township.  The Osage Fork of the Gasconade River is indicated at the blue arrow as it flows south-to-north across the township.  At the crossing of the Springfield to St. Louis Road with the Osage Fork, note in fine print “Burnett’s house” and “Burnett’s field.”

Insert 31N 17W here

From Cannon’s invoice records we know he bought corn and fodder for his detachment’s horses and nearly 300 pounds of fresh pork for the detachment’s Cherokees from Lydia Burnett at “Burnett’s” on December 14, 1837.  Close examination of this GLO along the road shows only 2 farms along its 6-mile course across the township.  Food and fodder were becoming harder to find because of the very small number of settler-farmers, so Cannon had to pay Lydia twice as much for the food and fodder as he had previously paid earlier on the trail for the same products.  This next Image is a snippet from the GLO.  Note that Burnett’s house is directly adjacent to the road, with cultivated fields across the road and across the Osage Fork.  This GLO is dated 1845, 6 years after the Trail of Tears in which 12,000 Cherokees passed this very spot over a 2-year period.  It is very likely that these fields either didn’t exist or were certainly much smaller in 1839-40.  There had to have been serious issues providing enough food across this reach of the Trail of Tears in Missouri!

Insert 31N 17W Snippet here

These GLO’s are 2-dimensional images of a very 3-dimensional Missouri landscape.  The GLO gives no hint as to the topography, no hint about the difficulty of travel across this region, no hint about the height of the hills or the steepness of the grade.  This website was initiated after finding several very accurate early road surveys fortuitously in alignment with the Trail of Tears.  Those road surveys have been key to more accurately finding and marking the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail in Missouri.  Because of the accuracy and detail of the original survey data associated with those 1837 road surveys, the Trail of Tears across Missouri has been digitally georeferenced.  That means the Trail location is not just known in 2-space, like on a GLO, but that the Trail can be related, drawn, or laid on any georeferenced map or layer like a topographic map, Forest Service map, highway map, or perhaps a county township plat map showing property owners.  We have used this technology across multiple georeferenced base maps to help us find the Trail and interpret its facts and stories to the interested public.

We now have the ability to utilize the georeferenced Trail in a 3-dimensional format.  This next image is a 3-D terrain diorama of the Trail of Tears across this same township plat, T31N R17W.  The base layer is an ESRI data layer topo.  A 3-D algorithm was used to assign colors corresponding to elevation data from the topographic base map.  A “hill-shade” algorithm was used to add a depth rendition to the image.  The georeferenced GLO was then cast on the topo.  Finally, the georeferenced NPS Trail of Tears route was added in red and the MoTrailofTears route from our latest research was added in green. Now you can gain an appreciation of the challenges the Missouri Ozark topography presented to travelers on the Trail of Tears.

Place 3D diorama here

This technology is from the Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc., ESRI.  The company was initially focused on performing environmental studies for land-use planning projects.  ESRI is the global market leader in geographic information systems software, location intelligence, and mapping.  ArcGIS products are its best-known product.  Software packages for ArcGIS are available for various need and skill levels.  Chris Dunn, our GIS expert, uses the Professional level software package.  On their website ESRI writes that ArcGIS can be used to “Build interactive web maps with ArcGIS Online, ESRI’s web-based mapping software.  Gain new perspectives and enhanced details as you interact with data, zoom in, and search on the map.  Use smart, data-driven mapping styles and intuitive analysis tools to gain location intelligence.  Share your insights with specific groups or the entire world.”  

So what does this 3-D georeferenced diorama show that the GLO doesn’t – dramatic changes in the topography occur in this township as you move westward, potentially presenting the onset of significantly more difficult travel.  In fact, this township contains the last crossing of live water, the Osage Fork of the Gasconade River, for the next 20 miles.  And more to the point, the Springfield to St. Louis Road here is, as it rises from the water crossing, going to climb to the top of a long ridge which is part of the highest elevation in Missouri other than the St. Francois Mountains, located 300 miles away near the eastern border of Missouri.  The future location of Marshfield, Webster County, Missouri is just 7 miles further along the road westward of this township, it now being the highest elevation of all the county seats in Missouri at almost 1500 feet above sea level.

Now look closely again at the previous image.  Can you find Burnett’s house or fields?  Not easily, even though you know where they are, right?  Now look at the next image.  It is an enlarged snippet from the diorama.  The 3-D image correctly hides Burnett’s below the first hill west of the river valley. 

Put 3D snippet here

This software technology is powerful enough that if we desired, we could reverse the perspective and generate a 3-D rendition viewed from the east instead of the west.  And instead of looking back down-hill along the Trail at its highest elevation, we would be looking up-hill toward the crest of the ridge, perhaps giving us an image that better shows the Trail of Tears followed a route that was the long divide between the north-flowing watersheds to the Missouri River and the south-flowing watersheds to the Arkansas River.  And that basic route continues to be used today as a road of commerce – an interstate highway, I-44.

Without the examples and explanations given in this monograph, would you believe it is important to apply 2024 technology to 1838 history and 800 million years-old mountains?    

If you have any suggestions, comments, or critiques please email Chris.Dunn@GeoVelo.com