Cherokee Ozarks at the Snelson-Brinker Cabin (Monograph 2)

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

By Dr. William “Bill” Ambrose

The Snelson-Brinker Cabin Backstory

The first human occupation on the North American Continent was by distant ancestors of today’s Native Americans, including the Cherokee Indians. Lifeways included being hunter-gatherers. The first human occupation of the Midwest occurred at the end of the Pleistocene. As the ice sheets receded northward and the boreal forests replaced them, distant ancestors of today’s Native Americans arrived. As global temperatures increased those boreal forests receded northward following the ice sheets.

As the boreal forests are now far north, man, in the form of early Native Americans, has been involved in the development of every natural system extant in the mid-continent region. For the past 20,000 years, these people have found ways to use their acute knowledge and skills of the natural world around them to not just survive in the untamed wilds but to thrive. Population estimates are in the multi-millions for Native Americans at the peak of their success.

Note: See the Cahokia Mounds for an insight in to Native America’s largest settlement in North America.

Burning the Ozarks

The use of fire on the landscape was necessitated by their hunter-gatherer survival patterns. They used fire across broad swaths of landscapes for many reasons — concentrating game; clearing dense vegetation to allow for gathering roots, nuts, berries; and as a weapon against their enemies, as examples.

Fire became an annual event across many landscapes as the tribes changed location at specific seasons on regular rotations. Fire was so consistently used for those thousands of years across the Ozarks that whatever plant assemblage that was here before these people arrived is long extinct and has been replaced by fire-tolerant plants. Coupled with the energy of the sun, today these plants freely provide many essential ecological services for the entire human race.

Ancient Biodiversity

Characteristics of these plants are that they are deep-rooted so they absorb rain water and help create soil, perennial so they persist not just one season but all year and into the next functioning throughout the year, and they compete fairly with the broadest diversity of plants not using special traits to overwhelm their neighbors and become monocultures. These plants are what we current residents consider to be our native plants.

These very diverse plant communities that existed at the time of European settlement of the Ozarks are responsible for the diverse animal life and for the rich soils and clean rivers and streams our ancestors and the Cherokees on the removal trail found upon arrival here in Missouri. Like their ancient ancestors, the very language the Cherokees spoke, with its origin and development based in the natural world around them, carried deep cultural knowledge and insights. Embedded in their language is knowledge about ecosystems, conservation methods, plant life, animal behavior, and many aspects of the natural world.

Topography Foreshadows Occupation

The most diverse plant communities and best soils are found on the landscape where the fires were most effective, high up in the topography – on prairies and upland plains. The higher up in the landscape the more the wind created hotter fires helping the fire to do its work. The Cherokees on their removal trek crossed almost every conceivable terrestrial element from floodplain to upland prairie.

The Snelson-Brinker Cabin after the July 4, 2017 fire.

As they approached the Snelson-Brinker Cabin, they were emerging from the Courtois Hills region of the Ozark Mountains, with dissections of land of 300-400 feet, narrow cove forest, barren knobs, and a land dug up by surface mining activity.

The Courtois Hills region was both the most isolated and poorest soil region of the Ozarks. The land at the cabin and then the iron works completed that topography. Upon attaining the height of land west of the Meremac Spring, a new landscape came into view which lasted for more than one-hundred miles to Springfield – broken upland plains and prairies – the prized land of the Ozarks.

Mr. Snelson sold his land and the cabin in the rocky hills in 1834 and moved his family to Little Prairie, the second upland plain westward of Massey Iron Works, in hopes of better crops and a better life. Several detachments on the removal trail across Missouri camped at Little Prairie.

The View From On High

On the upland the Cherokees would have been so impressed with the bounty before them –diverse plants, abundant animals, clean water, and rich soil — all elements of the natural world they were exquisitely attuned to. Land survey records indicate that many of these prairies already had large corn fields growing on them at that time, evidence that early settlers also recognized the rich soil. This was all due directly to the fire paradigm of their Native American ancestors.

The consilience is confirmed; all concinnity on the landscape since the Ozarks was a boreal forest had the hand of a single race of humans, ancient or contemporary Native Americans, to credit. The Cherokees would have gotten a great sense of the abundance of these uplands as they easily moved across the much more level upland plains and prairie landscapes in the western half of Missouri, knowing full well that the abundance around them was not to be theirs. They knew their trail ended in a desert.

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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