Cannon Detachment Across the Ozark Highlands (Monograph 38)

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Lt. B. B. Cannon Crossing Ozarks Highlands

Lt. B.B. Cannon successfully led his detachment of 366 Cherokees out of their homeland in the East to the Mississippi River crossing near Jackson, Missouri, during the fall of 1837.  Then he masterly conquered the most difficult terrain by finding the 4 oasis in the Meramec River Hills Region from Hazel Creek to the Massey Iron Works at the Meramec Spring.  Upon achieving the intersection of the Road to Massey Iron Works with the Springfield to St. Louis Road on Big Prairie in present-day Phelps County, a cumulative sigh of relief from the detachment would have been felt.  As B.F. Shumard, in his 1855 – 1871 Geological Survey of the State of Missouri, wrote, “…in Phelps (County) we find either moderately undulating woodland or beautiful level prairie, which, under proper cultivation, yields abundant and profitable crops.  No one who has traveled in this country can have failed to admire its broad and fertile prairies, or the well-cultivated farms that stretch for miles along the Springfield Road.” 

Monogrpaph Guide Map: Areas and sites described in this monograph are marked on map below and highlighted with bold text and a blue background in the body of the monograph. On the map they marked with green circles. Click on the map and it will expand in size.
A map showing the sites mentioned in this monograph.

For more Missouri Trail of Tears maps go to our Interactive Maps.

We might today think the rest of the route to Indian Territory was a level stroll across the Ozark Highlands with plenty of food?  But Carl Sauer, in his 1920 “The Geography of the Ozark Highland in Missouri,” better describes that road in 1837 as an “…early route into this region (which) followed the even crest of several long divides across the Ozarks.  This formed a continuous upland trail, except at the crossing of the Gasconade.  Later it became an important highway from St. Louis to Rolla, Lebanon, Marshfield, Mount Vernon, and Neosho…”  What are “long divides?”  In this description Sauer is pointing out that the road followed the highland crests which separated watersheds who’s waters flowed north from those who’s waters flowed south.  The main portion of the Gasconade River arises from tributaries which “divide” the watersheds of two of those southern flowing streams, cutting north-south across the principal crest.  Hence, the Springfield to St. Louis Road had to cross the Gasconade River somewhere. 

Small Missouri Towns Began Forming Shortly After the Time of the Trail of Tears

How much later were those towns established?  How much later was there enough settlement by farmers to supply the food and forage needs of the Cannon Detachment and the next 13,000 Cherokees coming over the next two years?  Here’s a hint.  None of those towns in Sauer’s list was established until 1850 except St. Louis.  They didn’t exist in 1837-1839. 

Why was the Ozark Highland slow to settle compared to its eastern and northern borders along major rivers?  The answer is multifold. The region was: 200 miles from the Mississippi River, not accessible by navigable streams, west of the difficult topography of the Meramec River Hills, well-resourced mineral wealth was not discovered until 1850, and mostly prairie not able to be cultivated until after 1850.  The simple explanation for the agricultural inability to cultivate the fertile prairie lands is that the technology of the metal plow had not been invented.  It was absolutely required to cut the dense growth of deeply- rooted native prairie grasses.

So if towns were not along the road, what and where were the food and forage resources?  Carl Sauer provides the answer:

“The earlier settlements, (not towns, just small farming communities, at that time usually a single farm) as in most other prairie regions, were located in valleys at the edge of timber.  One of the early settlers thus expressed the condition which determined the choice of location: ‘No man in those days would settle in this country unless he had a spring of running water.  The next thing of importance to him and for which he sought was timber, and coming from a woodland country in Tennessee and North Carolina, where they didn’t know how to make a field unless they hewed it out of the forest, they would go down on a spring branch and clear three or four acres for a field, which would cost them more labor that it would have to build a forty-acre field in a prairie.’  As late as 1839 the following opinion was expressed by an intelligent traveler: ‘The land is cultivable only along the water courses.  The farther one penetrates westward, the more arid the soil becomes, and soon the lands which produce trees,…alone are suited to agriculture: the finer the forests are, the richer is the ground; but in the prairie, cultivation is no longer possible.’”

Carl Sauer

Early Missouri Pioneer Farmers

Sauer continues his explanation of early agricultural practices in this region:

“The Pioneers were for the most part farmers, who distinguished themselves from their contemporaries of the Missouri and Mississippi borders by greater attention to stock raising.  An emigrant’s guide of 1849 recommended the region only to those who wish to raise cattle on a large scale…..The grass-growing clay soils were not immediately available for cultivation, because the first settlers did not possess the necessary equipment for cultivating them.”  Clearly, during the years of the Cherokee removal through Missouri, finding food and forage for thousands of people and horses traversing that narrow corridor along the Springfield to St. Louis Road with limited re-supply opportunities because of sparse settlement and limited cultivable land was problematic. 

Carl Sauer

In 1833 Surveyors Started Adding More Detail to the GLOs

10 Days Recovering on the Huzzah

An example from the Eastern side of the state of Missouri, on Dec. 4, 1837, in which Cannon led the detachment from the 10-day sickness camp on the Huzzah Creek onto their next campsite where they “…halted at Mr. Davis, ½ past 4 o.c P.M., had to move down the creek a mile off the road, to get wood, issued corn & fodder and corn meal, 11 miles to day.”  The rest of the story at Davis’s is that he had arranged for his neighbor, J.H.King, to bring 30 bushels of corn for forage for the detachment’s horses and 55 bushels of cornmeal for the Cherokees. 

The H.E. Davis NPS Certified Site

Perhaps most importantly, Davis allowed the detachment to move a mile further into his property to find enough wood for warmth and cooking.  The furnaces at Massey Iron Works had made the easy harvest of wood along the road to convenient to not steal; likely there was no place along the road to camp with any wood source available.  Davis gave them a safe campsite with water, wood for warmth in December in Missouri, and made sure the Cherokees had food for themselves and their horses.  Without the Cannon journal and invoices, perhaps all we would know now is the detachment camped along the road at Steeleville.  But with this important detail, the H. E. Davis Farm is now a “Certified Site” on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail in Missouri.

Details on Contemporaneous GLOs Reveal Parts of the Story

Looking at the western side of Missouri where the Springfield to St. Louis Road drawn on a GLO has been the guide for the Trail of Tears, here is the northwest quarter of T32N R15W, this township now being about 15 miles south of Lebanon.

Cannon Detachment Across the Ozarks to Parkes By Way of Grigsby's
Cannon Detachment Across the Ozarks to Parkes By Way of Grigsby’s

“Marched at 9 o’c. A.M., halted one mile in advance of Mr. Parkes at a branch, 4 o’c. P.M., encamped and issued corn & fodder, corn meal, beef and a small quantity of bacon.  14 miles to day.”

From Cannon’s journal, Dec. 12, 1837,

From the Cannon invoices, Parkes sold Cannon 412 bundles of fodder for forage and for hauling it to the camp location.  Parkes was located at “Cave Spring,” as written on the invoice record. 

On the GLO the Springfield to St. Louis Road is clearly labeled.  The road is seen continuing southwest in the NW ¼ of Section 16, angling through and leaving Section 17 at its southwest corner and approaching Cave Spring from the east in a hollow in the SE ¼ of Section 18.  The cave is not shown on the GLO, but its location has been verified.  Cave Spring was the first Post Office available to Wrighte[sic. ]County.  Abial Parks was the postmaster, having been appointed in 1836.  Local folklore holds that the post office and trading post were operated out of the cave.

Meet The Grigsby’s

So where did the detachment camp?  “One mile in advance of Mr. Parkes” according to the journal.  But the topography is not compliant with a campsite high in the landscape -not on water.  The answer comes from the invoices.  Cannon bought the beef he distributed to the detachment from Samuel Grigsby on the Osage Fork of the Gasconade, 332 pounds for 4 cents per pound.  Look closely at the GLO and see Grigsby is located one mile north of Parkes, just as the journal recorded!  Land patents confirm Grigsby’s location. 

Was The Distillery Operating?

This GLO is dated 1845; the distillery was not mentioned by Cannon, and likely was not established at the time the detachment camped there (1837).  Being on the Osage Fork of the Gasconade River, Grigsby would have cleared some of the forest from the fertile alluvial bottom and had a large cornfield, just as Carl Sauer had written.  The distillery would have been built later to add value to the corn production.

A considerable number drunk last night obtained the liquor at Farmington yesterday, had to get out of bed about midnight to quell the disorder, a refusal by several to march this morning, alledging [sic] that they would wait for Starr & Reese to come up at that place, Marched at 8 o’c., A. M. in defiance of threats and attempts to intimidate, none remained behind, passed through Caledonia, halted at Mr. Jacksons, encamped and issued corn & fodder, beef and Bacon, mostly bacon, 14 miles to day.

Cannon Journal Entry: Nov. 21st, 1837

Buried Nancy Bigbears Grand Child, marched at 9 o’c. A.M., halted at Piney a small river, ½ past 3 o’c. P.M., rained all day, encamped and issued corn only, no fodder to be had, several drunk, 11 miles to day.

Cannon Journal Entry: Decr. 8th, 1837

Mark Spangler, MOTOTA Board member and researcher, speculates that the Cannon Detachment had been in contact with Samuel Grigsby’s sons during that day’s travel, and that Cannon had been advised that Samuel Grigsby would have abundant food supplies.  Spangler even speculates in his research that, “It is in fact possible that he enlisted a guide to take them directly to Samuel Grigsby’s near Cave Spring, where they knew resources would be available for the encampment that evening.”  Cannon had found that securing food and forage was becoming challenging, so he willingly left the established road in the upland to head for known resources along the Osage Fork of the Gasconade River.

The Grigsby Detour

Without the additional research adding the Cannon Journal and Invoice data, the credit to the Grigsby’s for the food and campsite and to Parkes for the fodder would not exist, nor would the knowledge that Cannon turned off the Springfield to St. Louis Road onto another lane which led to Grigsby’s – another important reach of the Trail of Tears.  Today that reach is a portion of Laclede County Highway J, as shown here on Mark Spangler’s map of the area.  No previous Trail of Tears research has resulted in these important findings.  The GLO doesn’t tell the whole story!  “Where’s the beef?” without Grigsby? 

Cannon Detachment Across the Ozarks Taking the Cut Off to the Grigsby Farm on the Osage Fork

Cannon’s Journal, Dec. 13, 1837: “Marched at 8 ½ o’c. A.M., halted at a branch near Mr. Eddington’s, 4 o’c P.M., encamped and issued corn & fodder, Reese & Mayfield came up, 13 ½ miles today.

Crossing the Gasconade

The detachment had crossed the Osage Fork of the Gasconade for the last time that day.  Cannon apparently called that crossing the “Three Forks Osage River,” as the Osage Fork of the Gasconade, Cantrell Creek, and Bowen Creek meet there at that reach.  Cannon paid Lydia Burnett for 27 bushels of corn and 517 bundles of fodder for the horses and 279 pounds of fresh pork “for the subsistence of a detachment of Cherokees,” his detachment.  It is a fair assumption that the pork was distributed to the detachment for the previous evening meal, as nothing was stated in his journal about food for the detachment. 

Camping on the Springfield to St. Louis Road

The detachment did not camp at Burnett’s, but traveled on three more miles further, camping on a branch of Bowen Creek.  Cannon did not write in his journal the landowner’s name of the property upon which the detachment camped.  That day’s travel appears to have been entirely on the Springfield to St. Louis Road.

Cannon Across the Ozarks to Burnette's Farm
Cannon Detachment’s Route Across the Ozarks to Burnette’s Farm on the Osage Fork of the Gasconade River

Burnett’s at Three Forks

This GLO shows Burnett’s on the west side of the Osage Fork on the Springfield to St. Louis Road.  This image is from Mark Spangler’s work. It shows Burnett’s at Three Forks, the detachment campsite on Bowen Creek, and the location of the town of Niangua, which did not exist at that time.

Cannon Detachment Route From Burnette's Farm to the Niangua Plateau
Cannon Detachment Route Across the Ozarks Near Burnette’s Farm on Osage Fork of the Gasconade

Tiffany Patterson wrote in her 2014 “Cherokee Trail of Tears in Missouri, 1837-1839 National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Nomination:” “At the time of the Cherokee Removal, Laclede and Webster counties had yet to be organized and were part of Pulaski County.  Other than scattered post offices such as the one at Bean’s/Onyx (and Parkes/Cave Spring), there were no towns between Waynesville and Springfield.  Marshfield would not be established until the late 1840’s, though there was at least one settler on the future site of the Webster County seat in c. 1830.  Farms…were often separated by unclaimed and untended land, which may be why no settler’s name is associated with Cannon’s December 14, 1837 encampment.”  See the next image for that detail.  

“Marched at 8 o’c. A.M., halted at James Fork of White River, near the road but which does not cross the road, 3 o’c. P.M., Mr. Wells taken sick, issued corn meal, corn & fodder, 15 ½ miles to day.

Cannon Journal Entry, Dec. 14, 1837:

The detachment began their march that day marching up a slight increase in elevation toward a plateau, which is today the site of the town of Niangua, elevation 1450 feet.  They had just crossed into the Niangua River watershed, which extends northward toward the Osage Plain and river.  Following the road further, they approached the present location of Marshfield as they passed Shackleford Spring, and then ½ mile further, Burford Spring, both headwater sources of the Niangua River.  The GLO for T30N R18W, shown below depicts Burford’s house along the Springfield to St. Louis Road.  This is on an upland prairie; those crop fields shown on the GLO were not there at the time of the Cannon Detachment’s travels.  The GLO is dated 1847.

Burford House Springfield St Louis Road
Burford House in GLO T30N, R18W Springfield St Louis Road

Arriving at Pleasant Prairie

“Marched at 8 o’c. A.M., halted at James fork of White river, near the road but which does not cross the road, 3 o’c P.M., Mr. Wells taken sick, issued corn and fodder, 15 ½ miles to day.

Cannon Journal Entry Dec. 14, 1837

The White River watershed had been used for thousands of years by various Native American tribes as their homelands.  With its distant connection to the Mississippi River, and being navigable at certain times of the year, the White River was used by the earliest American settlers to access the Springfield Plain.  This image is a composite of T30N R19W and T29N R19W, showing the campsite adjacent to the James Fork of the White River. 

Quoting Mark Spangler

“There is only one very specific stretch of the Springfield Road where the trail is close to James Fork but doesn’t cross, in the S ½ of Section 35 T30N R19W or near the extreme northwest corner of S3 T29N R19W.  West of that point the river turns sharply south, moving away from the road which continues westward.”  Note that the GLO’s do not show a continuous road, possibly suggesting a braided pattern through this reach of difficult topography.

Springfield to St. Louis Road
The Springfield to St. Louis Road near the James Fork of the White River

Going back to Grigsby’s

Cannon’s Invoices indicate he paid Randolph Hide, an area farmer, for 30 bushels of corn and 536 bundles of fodder for the detachment’s horses.  Apparently, there was sufficient food for the Cherokees with the detachment on this high prairie, likely carried with them, but the horses had been working hard gaining that elevation.  Cannon sent riders back up the trail 29 miles to Samuel Grigsby’s, where he knew there were supplies, for 28 bushels of corn and 20 bundles of fodder for forage for the horses.  Cannon was unable to resource the needed forage on the prairie plain, just as Carl Sauer described in his book.

Additionally, corn meal had been a consistently large fraction of the food Cannon had purchased for the Cherokees in the detachment during the previous weeks on the trail, it being preferred by them.  Cornmeal, being a processed product requiring the grinding of corn in a mill, became increasingly scarce as the detachment moved westward on the Springfield Plain, as fresh meat, pork and beef, became more commonly purchased.  Cornmeal was a convenient food which could last for many days because it would not spoil like fresh meat. 

The Metal Plow

But it became difficult to procure on the 1830’s Springfield Plain because the settler population and minimal corn crops did not support a mill through this reach except at the Osage Fork of the Gasconade at Grigsby’s, where Cannon purchased 32 bushels of corn meal from Robert Faires on Dec. 12, 1837.  Just as Carl Sauer wrote, stock raising was the 1830’s farming model on the prairie, not cultivated fields.  That came later with the metal plow that could break the tough prairie sod.   

Cannon did not know he was just a day away from an abundance of food and forage supplies available at Josiah Danforth’s “Walnut Forest,” the next campsite.

The Taylor Detachment

16 months after the Canon Detachment passed this reach of the trail, the Richard Taylor Detachment with 1,029 Cherokees found a similar situation.  Rev. Daniel Butrick, a missionary to the Cherokees from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, kept a daily diary, a journal of the events, as he traversed the trail with the detachment.  He recorded the following on Saturday, March 16, 1839: “We travelled 18 miles to a Mr. Burnett’s, where we put up for the sabbath.  We are still on the Osage branch of the Gasconade.  In travelling 18 miles we passed but one house.  The detachment came today ten miles, and expect to come to this place tomorrow.  They have to fetch corn for their teams tonight from the place we stayed last night, as they cannot obtain it on the ground.  They could not come through 18 miles today, nor fetch provender for their teams two days and therefore find it necessary to travel 8 miles tomorrow.”

The Right Reverend Butrick

Admittedly, a very confusing journal entry.  Rev. Butrick stayed with the detachment on Friday night. On Saturday he travelled 18 miles to Burnett’s on the Osage Forck, the same Burnett that Cannon bought supplies from in 1837.  But Butrick’s detachment only travelled 10 miles, instead of 18 like Butrick, perhaps because of wagon trouble or illness in the detachment.  In any event it was determined by the detachment leadership during the day Friday that they did not have sufficient forage for the horses and were not confident that it could be found ahead on the trail.  The solution chosen was to send some of the detachment back to where they had camped Friday night where they knew they could buy “provender,” forage for the horses, sufficient to be comfortable moving forward along the trail.

Conclusion: Despite the Lack of Settlers at the Time, There was Sufficient Food

Not much had changed in this reach of the trail in 16 months.  There was still little settlement and little cultivation.  Note that both the Taylor Detachment and Cannon Detachment were not deficient in human food because fresh meat was available on the stock raising prairie.  Both detachments had to send for forage for their horses.  That forage is plant leaves and stems, the residual part of the plant that produced a grain, usually for human consumption.  Corn stalks or the stems and leaves of cereal grain crops like wheat or oats are used as “fodder” or forage.  Horses have to have that material in their diet as ruffage or bulk to maintain their digestive functions.  One has wonder if the detachments allowed their horses to graze the nutritious native, early-successional, perennial, fire-tolerant prairie grasses that were omnipresent on that plain? Or, if not, why not?

It must have been increasingly challenging on the Trail of Tears in Missouri for the following later detachments to find the resources they needed to cross this reach of the Trail of Tears!  Today the soil of the Springfield Plain is considered excellent, second only in fertility to Missouri’s alluvial river bottom soils. 

3D Diorama Along the Trail of Tears

By William 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. 


By William Ambrose

From 1837 to 1839, the Federal Government forcibly removed 17,000 Cherokees from their centuries-old homelands in Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Alabama.  The Cherokee families were rounded up at gunpoint by Federal troops, held prisoner in detention camps, divided up into detachments of about 1000 people, and then forced to walk the 1000 miles to “Indian Territory,” now Oklahoma. Approximately 4000 died during that process. 

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