Cave Spring on a State Road Survey (Monograph 1)

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

By Dr. William “Bill” Ambrose

Following an Ancient Path

The new road followed an ancient path, first used first by Native Americans before European settlement, then by Indian traders and fur trappers, in very early frontier history, and then by this earliest commercial and post road. Today, an Interstate highway takes its course across the Ozarks. This ancient path remained lost to history for over a 100 years. And with it, a place called “Cave Spring” in Laclede County, Missouri.  “Cave Spring” is found on David Burr’s 1839 map. Entitled a “Map of Illinois & Missouri Exhibiting the Post Offices, Post Roads, Canals, Rail Roads &….,”(1) Because it was a post office on the Missouri frontier at that time.  Cave Spring was on the St. Louis to Springfield Road – which was the major road from the St. Louis area to the Springfield area, both major trading and commercial locations in frontier Missouri.    

Cave Spring Site
The Cave Spring Site

A Citizen Scholar

Mark Spangler — a Laclede County librarian, history professor, and researcher — found Cave Spring. He did this with the help of residents of the county who lived near its location.  Mark knew that the Cherokee Trail of Tears followed the St. Louis to Springfield Road during the 1830’s. He contacted the Missouri Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association, seeking interests on their part and information about Cave Spring on his part. 

Mark Spangler
Mark Spangler – Researcher & Volunteer

Lost State Road Maps

Another member of the association contacted the Missouri State Archives Division of the Secretary of State’s Office in Jefferson City. He was looking to see if there were any historic documents in the archives related to Cave Spring. He was also searching for other documents in the archives related to Cave Spring, or other ancient paths. Surveyors were required by early Missouri law to file “State Road Surveys,” and their field notes, at the Office of Secretary of State. The State Legislature created the Land Office in the late 1800’s.

The Capitol Fire

The Highway Department was created in 1913.  The Secretary of State’s Office was in the Capitol building, which burned in 1837.  The Chief Clerk of the Office of Secretary of State had the responsibility to receive and maintain all road surveys.  All the records stored in that building burned. There are no State Road Surveys held by the Secretary of State which date before that fire.  There was another Capitol fire in 1911, but the fire-proof vault saved the records, including this survey. These old surveys have been in the Missouri State Archives since 1965.   

Ancient path
Locating an ancient path in the field

Discovered Maps

The Archive’s staff found in their “State Road Survey” collection a road survey for a new road to parallel and replace the old St. Louis to Springfield Road on the western side of Missouri.  The survey map is titled (WARNING: Huge Files) “A Survey of a Road from Pulaski County to Springfield.” Dated 1837.  Part of the new survey, and significantly the old St. Louis to Springfield Road, is drawn on the map. Landowners’ names were important components of the survey because participation in the new road meant that the landowners allowed the new road to cross their land with no compensation.  Click on the image below for the entire GLO featuring the Burfford House in GLO T30N, R18W on the Springfield to St Louis Road

Burford Farm
The Burfford Family Farmstead on the St. Luis to Springfield Road

Farms as Landmarks

Landowner names appear on the survey maps at many homestead locations.  This road survey informed researchers about the Trail of Tears on the western side of the State of Missouri, as the Trail of Tears joins this road at St. James, Missouri, near the middle of the state, and follows it to Springfield. 

Early Landowners

We quickly realized from extant Trail of Tears diaries that several of the landowners listed on the survey were folks who had helped the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears by selling them food, fodder, medicine, and other essentials.  In some cases, these landowners had allowed the detachments of Cherokees to camp on their properties, use the water resources, and, for the sick, take shelter in area structures.  Hence, these survey maps assembled key information never previously available to Trail of Tears researchers in their pursuit of the congressional goals of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail –to find the Trail and its assets, including facts and stories, and to interpret that information to engender stewardship of this significant cultural resource.   

New Insights

Consequently, he “State Road Survey” collection has been the source over the last two years of many more maps that have “put us on the Trail” toward achieving the goals for the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail here in Missouri.  One of those new finds was the subject of this current, large study, a survey map titled “St. Genevieve to Caledonia, and from Caledonia to Courtois Mines,” dated 1837.  The collection containing these “State Road Surveys” is indexed by title only. In the index this map is titled “St. Genevieve to Courtois Mines.”  Neither of those locations is a known Cherokee or Trail of Tears name of significance. 

Archaeology at Cave Spring
Archaeology at Cave Spring

Identified by Site

The map was found only by viewing the collection’s many surveys individually and by being able to recognize Trail of Tears-relevant names and places.  As this map details an extensive length of the Trail on the eastern side of the state, it has become a very significant resource for “putting us on the Trail.”  The Missouri Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association thanks the State Archives for this profound resource that the Archives has maintained!  Further, as the Trail of Tears began in 1837, that road surveys were done during that time, that the roads the Cherokees traveled were some of the same roads newly surveyed, and that these surveys exist today, as all the older surveys were lost to a Capitol fire.  

Deloris Gray Wood
Researcher, Officer, & Volunteer Deloris Gray Wood (L)

Staying on Mission

These survey maps, these ancient paths, have allowed today’s Trail of Tears researchers to pierce the veil of history that time has obscured.  With GIS maps the researcher can vicariously walk the dirt footpaths and follow the same wagon ruts as the Cherokee did as they crossed Missouri.  As we georeference surveys onto topographic maps in our GIS, the weight of the Trail’s tragedy becomes visibly heavy. Steep mountains are climbed during winter and the death toll rises. 

The Cherokee Triumph

Above all, the Cherokee triumph was only gained by following an ancient path and then by reaching the end of the 1000-mile trek. Today, 180 years later, by seeing the modern-day success of a nation of 400,000 proud Cherokees.  Our job, as the congressionally authorized partner to the National Park Service is to engender stewardship of this cultural resource. The Trail of Tears is only preserved and the story can only be told by accurately finding the Trail. Then, interpreting the facts and stories of the Tribe, the Trail become available to everyone equally. Our survey maps are an attempt at our stewardship mission. We hope these maps will help us tell the truths of the Trail.

(1) Burr, David H., 1803-1875. Map of Illinois & Missouri : Exhibiting the post offices, post roads, canals, rail roads &c., map, 1839; [Washington, D.C.?]. ( accessed November 2, 2022), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting University of Texas at Arlington Library.

(2) Here is a link to the holder of the original General Land Office plats

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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