How to Build a Trail of Tears Vignette (Monograph 10)

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

By Dr. William “Bill” Ambrose

The Trail of Tears epic trek by the Cherokee Nation across the 24 counties of the Missouri Ozarks has been largely ignored by Trail of Tears researchers and writers. The truth of the Trail in Missouri is hard to find, buried under early-settlement political economics–national and local, social-cultural settlement patterns, and exploitative resource development schemes. Simply put, there was so much happening in the path of the trail that it was hardly noticed or recorded. The omission of Trail facts and interpretation, then and now, unfortunately speaks directly to the public discount applied to the tragedy. 180 years after the fact is a challenging time to assemble a meaningful, much less endearing, narrative. Like the “witness structures” that seem to be evaporating in front of us, the time to have saved them and the detailed story of the Trail of Tears should have begun 180 years ago.

The Roman numeral portion of an outline of the Trail of Tears story in Missouri can be organized through the use of extant diaries. These diaries are extremely valuable to the framework of any Trail narrative. So much of the Trail story is about connections and interactions on a fairly large scale—across a watershed or within a “community.” There are a few alphabetic capital letter level outline entries that can be teased out of the diaries and receipts from the Trail. Beyond this gross level of topic, timing, and location, secondary sources are required for story advancement and embellishment and color. Those sources are local and state libraries; county court house records including probate and circuit court, and especially recorder of deeds; the Missouri State Archives; the State Historical Society of Missouri; and county historic societies. These repositories hold the primary records, the detail and specifics of the story, that can illuminate the Trail nearly two centuries later.

The vignette development algorithm seems to always follow a convoluted path. First, a Trail event or participant attracts attention or stands out in some unusual way. Often this is noticed when correlating extant Trail records with a secondary record like a marriage or land record. Then the search is on to see what other facts can be found about the person, place, or thing. Historical research is academic hard work with lots of dead ends. Most court houses across the reach of the trail have burned, many twice! Usually that problem can be worked around by accessing other archive centers. At this late date from the Trail of Tears, it is essential to have a robust understanding of Missouri history, geology, geography, land use, settlement patterns, and resources to create a colorful and charismatic vignette because the story discoverable is truly the Missouri story of the Trail epic! The Cherokee people were here only long enough to walk across the state on the Trail of Tears. Looking to the stories of the times as recorded in residents’ diaries continues to be an important source of Trail of Tears facts. Looking at the lives of Missouri residents who had, in many various ways, interacted with the travelers illuminates details and glimpses of the Cherokees on the trek. There is no college degree in “Missouri,” which is why this story can’t be found at academia or bought off the shelf. It is for us to find, to “dig up,” and to interpret!

These vignettes were never meant to be academic work; they are not footnoted, though telling the “Truth of the Trail” is paramount. They are meant to be substantive, insightful, and entertaining. The goal for these vignettes is to give the reader a sense of what the Missouri Ozarks meant to the Cherokees and how the mountains affected the fourteen thousand who made the trek. Similarly, these vignettes investigate the reactions by Missourians to the Cherokees and the forced removal. These vignettes attempt to interpret the Tribe, the Trail, the Tragedy, and the Triumph of the Cherokee Trail of Tears across Missouri by telling the story through sequential episodes across the state. 

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