The Trail of Tears from Farmington to Caledonia (Monograph 14)

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

By Dr. William “Bill” Ambrose

The Trail of Tears Association is the congressionally mandated civilian partner to the National Park Service to pursue the goals and purposes of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which was added to the National Trails System in 1987. 

Several years of funded study which had begun at that time culminated in the National Map of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail being published in 1993. Many changes and refinements of that initial map have been made since 1993 across the reach of the map which have added accuracy to the location of the actual trail in other states. 

The first goal of the congressional act is to find the trail. Missouri’s portion of the trail is extensive, at least 600 miles. 

(Caption) The map’s blue lines indicate accepted National Park Service’s 2018 Trail of Tears routes.

Recently, the Missouri Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association (MOTOTA) members have been actively pursuing a more complete understanding of the Trail of Tears in Missouri, and especially the exact location of the trail the Cherokees walked on their removal treks across the state. 

The other goals, finding the assets and stories of the trail and interpreting those to an interested public to engender stewardship of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail are dependent upon the accurate location of the trail.

One area of particular interests here in Missouri has been the path of the trail between Farmington and Caledonia. Both Lt. B.B. Cannon and Dr. Wm. I. I. Morrow recorded in their diaries both Farmington and Caledonia as places the Cherokees in their respective detachments passed through on the Trail of Tears as follows:

Which Route Did They Take, The Red or the Blue?

Both Lt. B.B. Cannon and Dr. Wm. I. I. Morrow recorded in their diaries both Farmington and Caledonia as places the Cherokees in their respective detachments passed through on the Trail of Tears as follows:

Lt. Cannon Diary, Nov. 19, 1837: 

“Marched at 8 o’c. A.M. halted and encamped ½ past 4 o’c. P.M. at Wolf Creek, issued corn and fodder, 14 miles to day.”

Lt. Cannon Diary, Nov. 20, 1837: 

“Marched at 8 o’c. A.M., passed thru Farmington, Mo., halted at St. Francis river, 4 o’c. P.M., encamped and issued corn & fodder, Flour & beef, 15 miles to day.”

Lt. Cannon Diary, Nov. 21, 1837: 

“….passed through Caledonia, halted at Mr. Jacksons, encamped and issued corn & fodder, beef and Bacon, mostly bacon, 14 miles to day.”

Dr. Morrow Diary, Feb. 22, 1839: 

“….put off for Caledonia – 12 miles south, passed through a poor pine Country for six miles – Bellview settlement a good country of land – Caledonia 22 miles NW of Farmington overtook the Detachment @ Caledonia.”

 Read the entire journal of B.B. Cannon. 

The current National Map in that area places the trail on a nearly straight line between Farmington and Caledonia, which today places the trail over a significant portion of that reach on Highway 32.

 Explore the US National Park Service Trail of Tears Map Here 

The MOTOTA disagrees with this and bases that decision on many factors. Please note that none of the following maps of early Missouri show any roads running directly between Farmington and Caledonia:

Augustus Mitchell, 1846; Insert Map Here

J. H. Colton, 1838; Insert Map Here

H. S. Tanner, 1841; Insert Map Here

Jeremiah Greenleaf, 1840. Insert Map Here

That would indicate that there was no significant established road between those two towns at that time. Clearly Lt. Cannon had to make some important decisions as he led that first voluntary detachment across this reach of Missouri, which was followed the next year by 10 detachments during the forced removal. 

Fortunately, several old U.S.G.S. topographic maps are available for reference for us today. Especially helpful is a 1945 Ironton Quadrangle topo.

The Ironton quad map is the background image for this section

The Morrow and Cannon diaries are essential resources for trying to find the real trail. Dr. Morrow’s diary records that it was 22 miles from Farmington to Caledonia. On the right margin of the Ironton topo is the note “Farmington 6 miles.” On the left margin is written the note “Caledonia 3.2 miles.” These notes were printed in ink at the time of the printing – not added later. 

 It is easy then to count the number of mile-wide sections of land that must be crossed to go from the east side of the topo to the west along the obvious path of a trail or road shown on the topo. The section count totals 12.5 miles. From this one old topographic map, Dr. Morrow’s distance estimate of 22 miles can be confirmed and a possible trail route found, as 6+3.2+12.5= 21.7 miles. There is an obvious main route from Farmington to Caledonia on the 1945 topo that may represent Morrow’s path, so the 22-mile Morrow measure is well confirmed. 

 Additionally, staying with Dr. Morrow’s diary and the Ironton topo, at “12 miles south (from Farmington), passed through a poor pine Country for six miles” places Morrow just east of “Pine Mountain,” (see topo map) serendipitous for sure. The path he was following then progressed westward “for six miles” (as Morrow recorded) along the southern foot of Pine, Iron, and Buford Mountains before it opened onto the Belleview Valley. The southern slopes of those mountains were likely covered in “poor pine,” certainly more evidence that the trail’s route was through the mountains. 

Now looking at Lt. Cannon’s diary, he recorded that the detachment encamped at Wolf Creek the night of Nov. 19, 1837. The Wolf Creek camp would have been on the “Old Jackson Road,” coming from the direction the detachment had been, in Jackson, Mo. Using the 1904 Farmington Quad topo, that road crosses Wolf Creek about 2 and ½ miles southeast of Farmington. The distance from Farmington to the canyon road crossing of the first St. Francis River tributary to the west is about 12 and ½ miles. That mileage totals 15 miles (2 ½ +12 ½). 

 Cannon recorded that the next day, Nov. 20, 1837, the detachment encamped on the St. Francis River, having traveled 15 miles that day. That again confirms the detachment followed the trail that passed Iron Mountain, like Morrow’s. That tributary was at the eastern foot of Pine Mountain, flowing northward. From that campsite the detachment marched 14 miles the next day to encamp just west of Caledonia at Jackson’s. That mileage confirms the first campsite location of what is today named “Indian Creek,” and further confirms the route.

Staying with the 1945 Ironton Quad and looking at railroad beds, one finds that by 1945, there were many railroad beds in the Iron Mountain, Pilot Knob, and Farmington areas including the MoPac line. In addition, there were several well marked “roads” leading from Farmington through several valleys and canyons toward Caledonia. 

 A much older topo map is available for the quadrangle due north of the Ironton Quad, the topo quad that would show roads or railroads through the region that NPS now says the trail runs. It is the 1903 Bonne Terre Quad. On that topo the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad had railbeds in the Iron Mountain area running north to Mineral Point on a latitude fully 10 miles north of Caledonia before the line turned west toward Potosi. 

No lines had been built near the north side of Buford Mountain as late as 1903. In addition, this 1903 topo shows only scattered, discontinuous roads across the region north of Buford Mountain running east and west, which is today’s Highway 32 route. For the Cherokees to have gone on a route north of Buford Mountain, they would have had to have gone several miles out of their way to Potosi, not Caledonia.

There are good reasons for this history. Most importantly, the region on the northern margin of Buford Mountain developed as a plain near sea level. The area had a very “difficult” geography. Big River’s course, the major drainage of the area, developed in a natural meandering way. Subsequently, the region was uplifted tectonically, causing entrenchment of the river bed to depths of 150 to 400 feet. Other creeks including Cedar, Wallen, and Mill Creek developed across the valley plain adding to the difficult topography. 

Myriad deep, circumscribed, primary and secondary watercourses spread widely across the north-to-south seven-to-eight-mile-wide floodplain mountain margin measuring five or six miles east-to-west would have been extremely difficult to get across under any circumstances. It would have been nearly impossible to cross the labyrinth with horse-drawn wagons that were used by the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears. 

Given these topographic facts, it is easy to understand why the Cherokee Trail of Tears did not go that way — and why they walked from Farmington to Caledonia by way of Iron and Buford Mountain down those gorgeous mountain gorges into Belleview Valley. It was a short portion, a dramatically beautiful canyon, of a long, horrifically tragic trek — the Trail of Tears. 

Lt. B.B. Cannon did a remarkable job as pathfinder for that first detachment!

With this proposed relocation of the Trail of Tears, the MOTOTA can tell the truth of the trail location and describe what the Cherokees saw and experienced as they penetrated the St. Francois Mountains – Missouri’s most dramatic topography, Missouri’s ancient geology, and Missouri’s first industry – mining.

Please correct the National Map of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail from Farmington to Caledonia, Missouri so that the MOTOTA can achieve the goals of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail in that reach of the trail!

The correct trail route on modern maps should follow the following named roads heading west from Farmington: Hwy 221, NN, N, Trap Rock Road, U, Hwy 21 to Caledonia.



Frank Norris, Historian

National Trails Intermountain Region

National Park Service

P.O. Box 728

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Hello MOTOTA members,

I like what you said about a suggested route realignment between Farmington and Caledonia. It makes historical and logical sense. I’ll proceed with making your suggestion official.


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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