The Trail of Tears Followed a New Missouri Road (Monograph 13)

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

By Dr. William “Bill” Ambrose

On February 3, 1837, in the first session of the Ninth General Assembly of the State of Missouri, an act was passed to create a new state road. The title of the law was, “An Act to establish a State Road from Ste. Genevieve to Caledonia, and from Caledonia to Courtois Mines.” The laws under which the process of establishing a new state road that should have been followed were the most recent Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri, which would have been the Roads and Highways Statutes approved on March 18, 1835, contained in the 1835 Statutes, duly enacted by Missouri’s Eighth General Assembly. Those statutes contained very few specific requirements. The roads were to be laid out by commissioners appointed by the county courts through which the road was to cross. No surveys or plats or landowner information was required. The county courts were empowered by this statute with the authority to establish, fund, and maintain the “state roads” that ran through their counties. The county courts were to appoint overseers to supervise maintenance of the roads, which was to be done by “all able-bodied male inhabitants over the age of eighteen and under fifty-five… least two days in each year.” Road maintenance was thought to be compulsory public service. There are several “road surveys” in the State Archives from this period which are very simple sketches, line drawings with very little information, from which state roads were laid out and “built.” Luckily, that was not the case with this new state road and several others that the Trail of Tears followed in Missouri.

Shortening the name to the State Road from Ste. Genevieve to Caledonia, and from Caledonia to Courtois Mines to the Road will simplify this story. The 1820’s and 1830’s were times of rapid and exciting scientific innovation. Thomas Jefferson had encouraged the development of a more orderly and logical way of creating a legal description of land, hence property lines of land ownership, to avoid the problematic metes and bounds system. He had proposed a rectilinear system based on six-mile by six-mile square units of land called townships. The system required the use of sophisticated instruments and mathematical computations. This system was being used actively at that time as settlement advanced across Missouri to plat the state into township, range, and sections for public sale and private land transfers. Fortuitously, the surveyor who created the plat for the Road being discussed used this “modern” technology. The plat he created for the Road has all of the survey information, distances and compass headings, recorded on the face of the map for each survey point along the road. With that information, it has been possible to accurately draw the Road today and therefore, the Trail of Tears, across the counties through which it passed on that Road. With innovated computer applications, the Road has now been geo-referenced so that it can now be cast on any geo-referenced map base. In many areas across various terrain, along a current road, or through the forests, today’s Trail of Tears researchers and history-seekers can walk the Trail with the use of a cell phone or iPad. The survey has informed Trail of Tears researchers with a great amount of specific information about exactly where the Trail was on the eastern side of the state. The first goal for the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is to find the Trail.

As settlement and the science of surveying advanced, so did the statutes that governed state roads in Missouri. The political leaders obviously saw the potential to advance frontier settlement and economic development by improving the road system. During the First Session of the Tenth General Assembly, six pages of new statutes under the heading of “ROADS” became law on February 12, 1839. Among the important changes to the statute was the addition of state appointed commissioners to lay out the road across multiple counties, the establishment of pay schedules for the various work to be done, and the enforcing of the requirement that relinquishments be signed by the landowners across whose land the road passed. This Road was enacted in 1837; the road survey was completed on January 23, 1838; and although the requirement for relinquishments did not become law until 1839, the surveyor obtained relinquishments anyway. Relinquishments are signed and witnessed documents from each landowner that gives the land to be used for the road to the state. Section 16 of the statute required the commissioners “to take relinquishments in writing from every owner of land through whose property the route of the road may be located.” The state would then take legal title to the relinquished land just like it had been purchased. Generally, no payment was received, as there was significant value added to the landowner’s remaining property as a result of the new state road. Many of the state road surveys from this period simply grouped all the landowners’ names on one sheet included with the plat with a note stating that they had agreed to the relinquishments. Luckily for us, the surveyor located each landowner at the location of his land along the surveyed road. Land ownership records are public documents. Trail of Tears researchers have used these land records to try to better locate the Trail. Previously, this has been accomplished by identifying all the land owned by a person who is mentioned in Trail of Tears diaries and receipts and then plotting that land’s location on a land plat by township, range, and section. Unfortunately, in frontier Missouri many landowners had many properties scattered over several townships. With this road survey locating the landowner on the Road, confirmation of the Trail of Tears route is determined precisely.

Only about one-quarter of the names on the Road survey appear as landowners in public records. Many names located on the Road plat cannot be found in public land records at all. How could this be? There is a very simple explanation: land tenancy in frontier Missouri existed in many different ways. In fact, fee-simple land ownership of the land a person occupied was not all that common. There were squatters just living on the land with no legal rights. There were people living on land contracted to a land speculator. There were people who were pre-empting their land, living on it with improvements, hoping to be able to eventually buy it. There were probably several other common ways of frontier land tenancy. For Trail of Tears researchers, these folks’ names being on the Road survey has added tremendously to the understanding of the Trail. Many of these names appear in Trail of Tears diaries and receipts. Prior to finding this Road survey, there was no way to understand where they lived along the Trail. This knowledge helps researchers understand more about the people, assets, and stories of the Trail in Missouri. Remember that the surveyor was supposed to get relinquishments from “every owner of land.” In this situation the surveyor’s liberal application of the law by listing “land occupiers,” not just landowners, has added greatly to our understanding of the Trail of Tears in Missouri. Likely It became problematic for the state to get title to this land “relinquished” by the “land occupiers” instead of the landowners.

Here in Missouri there are very few remaining structures like houses or businesses from the Trail of Tears period compared to those that exist back East in the Cherokee homeland. Those structures offer multiple opportunities to interpret the Trail related to those buildings and the people who owned them. But there are no diaries or receipt records for the Trail back East like we have here in Missouri. These written records directly from the Trail experience here in Missouri yield real time personal commentary about life on the Trail as it was lived. With land holders and their locations recorded on this Road survey, who and where the Cherokees interacted with the residents as recorded in the diaries and receipts has become known. Now the human interactions that occurred along the Trail here in Missouri can be told. In many cases it is a very endearing story of care extended to weary travelers.

Lt. B. B. Cannon mapped out and led the first detachment of Cherokees on what became known as the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears in Missouri, beginning in the early fall of 1837. The B. B. Cannon Detachment, a voluntary removal group of three hundred and fifty Cherokees, encamped at the Huzzah Crossing, from November 29 to December 4 of 1837. This Road survey was done in the fall of 1837 through January of 1838. At that exact Huzzah Crossing location on the survey map, instead of a land-owner’s name, the location is labeled “Indian Camps.” It is likely that the surveyor, Tom P. Masterson, and his chain crew visited that Cherokee detachment while they camped there. Indeed, the road survey was done coincidentally to the Cherokee removal! His certification follows:

“I, Tom P. Masterson, having been duly appointed and qualified, as Surveyor, by the board of Commissioners appointed by virtue of an act of the General Assembly of the State of Missouri, entitled ‘An Act to establish a State Road from St. Genevieve to Caledonia and from Caledonia to Courtois Mines’ approved February the 3rd 1837, do Certify that the foregoing plat is a Complete Plat of the road, viewed and marked out by said board of Commissioners in accordance with the provisions of said act:

In testimony where of I have herewith set my hand this 23rd day of Jan’y 1838.”

(signed) Tom P. Masterson: Surveyor

This Road survey has become the master key to unlock the very human story of the Trail of Tears on the eastern half of Missouri!

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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