H.E. Davis Avoids the Trail of Death, Pt. 1 (Monograph 5)

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

By Dr. William “Bill” Ambrose

Arrival in the New State of Missouri

Henry Erwin Davis and his wife Mary moved to Crawford County in about 1830. He was born in Virginia in 1793; she in Kentucky in 1814. They were staunch Presbyterians, likely of Scot-Irish ancestry. Their fortuitous heritage was useful to both match wits with the northern border edge of the Ozarks and meld with similarly tough-spined neighbors. Crawford County was formed in 1829, carved out of Wayne County, one of two huge counties indefinitely encompassing all of the southwestern one-third of the state of Missouri. The Davises settled on a topographically diverse plat with high prairie on the east side and spring-fed Mill Creek bottom on the west, a lush meadow interrupting the transition. The mid-morning sun dissected the forest on the west-rising hillside just beyond the creek and disclosed the mouth of a significant cave. Before high noon the dark shadows in the oak-pine forest cloaked the orifice. The Davises had it all: cleared, fertile bottom ground for corn; hillside and ridge-top ground for wheat; wooded forest for fence, lumber, and heat; as well as cool, dry storage in the cave for perishables.

View an interactive map of Missouri’s historical county boundary evolution.

1818 Missouri Map
1818 Missouri Map

Whiskey and Gunpowder

There was a tiny settlement nearby, just west about a mile, where a trading house was set not too far from its water supply, a fresh water spring. East and a little south, on Yadkin Creek (undoubtedly named for that Carolina stream) was the area grist mill. An ancient dirt road connected all of this together. That piece of road was like the replication of the many sections of the unadorned portions of a bracelet, the beads of which were the tiny hamlets. Like the charms on a bracelet, the hamlet gave a little sparkle to folks’ lives with a conversation between old friends, a place to buy pretty fabric for a new dress, or a piece of candy from the trading post for each child. The road led everywhere and nowhere, from hamlet to hamlet in every direction it needed to go – without regular signage. The facts were that the road had to go to where needed supplies could be had and to where surplus farming products could be sold. It went all the way east to the Mississippi River for the best price, if you converted your excess corn to whiskey; it went west to the western limit of the purchase, if you made gunpowder from saltpeter in your cave.

The Historic Snelson-Brinker Cabin

That tiny settlement was named on December 18, 1835, “Steelville,” after a local merchant, James Steel. Within the same breath, it became the County Seat of Crawford County, replacing the Snelson-Brinker Cabin eleven miles further west. By then the Davis family’s boys had grown up enough to do most of the farming on the family farm, allowing their father time for public service as circuit court clerk with the added benefit of a regular paycheck, much appreciated during the economic decline of the 1830’s. From 1837 through 1839, Mr. Davis effectively handled the judicial paperwork for the now famous “Mary a Slave” murder trials, secondary to the death of John Brinker’s three-year-old daughter. And with the Massey Iron Works less than fifteen miles away with four hundred employees, there was constant foot, horseback, and wagon commercial traffic through the town. The courthouse was a busy place, and the circuit clerk was likely the busiest!

Snelson-Brinker Cabin
The Historic Snelson-Brinker Cabin after the tragic July 4, 2017 arson.

400 Cherokee on Their Way to Steelville

The residents of the community would have known in the winter of 1837 that a detachment of almost four hundred Cherokee Indians were in Missouri and heading toward Steeleville. The Southern Advocate, a newspaper published in Jackson, Missouri, had been covering the “Cherokee removal” since before the first detachment left the East. The Cherokees would walk the dirt roads connecting the east side of the state to the Steelville/St. James area that had been “T”ed into the old St. Louis-to-Springfield Road somewhat formally by road surveys enacted by the Missouri General Assembly in 1837. Further connectivity was facilitated by the Post Road system established by the United States Postal Department. David Burr’s 1839 map for the Postal Department clearly shows these roads served to carry the mail. Newspapers at that time moved by mail delivery. Steeleville knew the Cherokee were coming. What Steelville and its residents didn’t know was what a horrific condition the Cherokees would be in when they arrived.

The Brickey Farm

Malnutrition, exhaustion, weather, and disease had stopped the entire detachment for more than a week at Brickey’s Ford on the Huzzah Creek. They had halted their forward progress on doctor’s orders – and because they were too sick to move. The valley had abundant clean water, cover from the fierce winter wind, and access to supplies, as the Brickey family was extensive and productive over their hundreds of acres of valley farmland and their slave chattel. Area farmers with no recorded land holdings including Wm. Lunsford and Samuel Allred, delivered nearly a thousand pounds of fresh beef to the campsite. Lt. Cannon, as a military officer, would have known that fresh beef would be nutritionally beneficial under the severe conditions on the Trail at Huzzah Crossing. He would not have known the science of beef nutrition: beef has one-third more calories than pork to increase the Cherokees’ caloric intake and beef has a higher protein content to increase metabolic rate, both nutritional effects to help deal with the severe cold temperatures, illness, and physical challenges on the Trail. 

A Missouri Humanities Council sponsored archaeology survey team near the Brickey site.

The detachment stayed at the creek-side camp for four nights. Then the detachment moved two miles to a fresh campsite that included a spring and school house, which was used to protect and comfort the sickest of the Cherokees. On the sixth day in the second camp, with a break in the weather and improved health, the detachment headed for Steelville. The logical stop after going eleven miles that day, December 4, 1837, was Mr. Davis’s farm. The detachment had buried two people already that day, and there was “scarcely room on the wagons for the sick. Halted at Mr. Davis, at half past 4 O’C P.M. had to move down the creek a mile off the road, to get wood” for the fires, to cook and for heat, according to the diary of LT. B.B. Cannon. Mr. Davis willingly allowed them to camp on his land, use his clean water from Mill Creek, and cut firewood from his forest. The firewood along the main road had long ago been harvested to fire the forges at the Iron Works. Without Mr. Davis’s kindness, more Cherokees would have undoubtedly died that night.

On December 5, 1837, Mr. Davis, from he and his family’s hard work and resulting abundance, sold over thirty bushels of corn, six-hundred and thirty-five bundles of fodder, fifty-three pounds of beef, and one and one-quarter bushels of corn meal to the detachment. Without these supplies the detachment would have undoubtedly lost more souls. Davis’s neighbor from several miles to the northwest, J. H. King, brought in nearly sixty bushels of corn. That was more than three-thousand pounds of grain, roughly five or six wagon loads! Upon departure the next morning, Lt. Cannon makes no mention of Steelville; likely, to avoid retrograde travel and multiple water crossings in the Steelville valley to the south, some of the Davis boys led the four-hundred-person caravan due west across several farms on gap roads through the hills toward the Meramac River, their next camp. Two young black wagoners with the detachment were too sick to travel, and so were left with the Davises to be nursed back to health.

Abundance of the Ozarks

The story of the Trail of Tears in Missouri is a very human one. What would today be considered an oxymoronic expression – “the abundance of the Ozarks” – with hard work sustained not just those who lived there but also those who cried out to be saved while being forcefully driven through the region. But without those earliest Missouri Ozark settlers and the natural resources of the Ozarks, the Trail of Tears epic would have most certainly been much more a Trail of Death epic!

Today, the Henry Erwin Davis homestead is a city park for Steelville, Missouri. This last summer on June 2, 2018, the site became a National Park Service Certified Site on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. That date was quite significant. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the enactment of the National Trails Act and the State of Missouri’s recognition of that enactment. These actions are the direct result of a research grant from the Missouri Humanities Council to the Missouri Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association.

When the strangers came to him in need of shelter – hungry, cold, and sick, Mr. Davis provided them food, a means for warmth, and a sheltered valley. Throughout his life he was of great service to his church as an elder and his community as a circuit clerk, representative to the Missouri General Assembly in 1840, and as the first and long-time Commissioner of Education for Crawford County. He died in 1880; however, no record of his burial location exists. Perhaps he is resting in peace at his favorite spot on the very land he entered for patent title in 1837, and he and his family are finally now seeing his farm being recognized as a place where the Cherokees walked on their forced removal. But now we know he did so much more than that for them!

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. 

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

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