Intersecting History: The Trail of Tears and Route 66 in Missouri

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Snelson-Brinker House, Crawford County, MO

Earlier this year, I packed my bags and headed West to Missouri with my colleagues Dr. Carroll Van West and Ashley Brown on what would become one of my most memorable fieldwork trips to date. Our primary purpose for traveling to Missouri was to visit the Snelson-Brinker House for a Historic Structure Report that we were preparing for the site in partnership with the National Trails Intermountain Region of the National Park Service. The Snelson-Brinker House, originally built in 1834 and extensively remodeled and rebuilt around 1988, is a certified site on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Cherokee traveling on the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears passed by the house and some detachments camped in the vicinity. The property is believed to be the final resting place for at least four Cherokee who perished while encamped in the area.

After taking all of the necessary photographs, measurements, and notes for the report, we headed twenty minutes northeast to the city of Cuba to spend some time on another nationally significant route established approximately 90 years after the Cherokee traveled to Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears: Route 66. Cuba is officially designated as the “Route 66 Mural City” for the numerous vivid paintings that adorn the city’s buildings, depicting the area’s rich history.

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This mural in Cuba, MO depicts the city’s local servicemen who died fighting in World War II.

After indulging in copious amounts of BBQ (standard Center for Historic Preservation fare on road trips), we slept off our food comas at the oldest, continuously operated motel on Route 66: The Wagon Wheel, built in 1932. The next morning, we began our trek back to Tennessee by traveling on the “Mother Road” from Cuba to Eureka, taking in its architectural and roadside wonders.

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Clockwise from top left: Phillips 66 Station, Cuba, MO, built in 1932; Wagon Wheel Motel & Station, Cuba, MO, built in 1935; Skylark Motel, St. Claire, MO, built in 1952; Gardenway Motel, Villa Ridge, MO, built in 1945.

Many of today’s highways incorporated and modified already existing road networks into their design. Route 66 is no exception. Some of its segments were originally wagon roads. Thus, the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail and Route 66 have an important, often overlooked link in Missouri. The two not only intersect a number of times between Rolla and Springfield, they also have the same alignment in certain areas. Meaning, when you are traveling on Route 66 in Missouri, in some locations you are also directly retracing the footsteps of thousands of Cherokee who were forcibly removed from their homes in 1838-1839.

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Map of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail and Route 66 from Rolla to Springfield, MO. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

A man named Larry Baggett paid homage to the Cherokee removal by building an elaborate memorial on his property, located at the crossroads of Route 66 and the Trail of Tears near the border of Phelps and Pulaski counties in Missouri. His memorial, constructed primarily of concrete and stone, became one of Route 66’s roadside curiosities, and its origins became a local legend. The story goes that Baggett built a retaining wall on the property near his house. After the wall was complete, he repeatedly heard knocks on his door, but no one was there. Baggett was later informed by a visitor that the wall was built directly across the Trail of Tears and that the Cherokee spirits walking the trail could not get over it. To resolve the issue, Baggett built stairs into the wall and continued to construct an archway and sculptures to memorialize the Cherokee removal. Whether you believe the tale or not, Baggett’s now crumbling masterpiece remains a haunting reminder of Route 66’s intersecting history with the Trail of Tears.

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Larry Baggett, who passed away in 2003, built this memorial to the Trail of Tears on Route 66. Unfortunately, it is now in ruins.

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