Roots & Routes: An Update on the Trail of Tears in Missouri

Written by Christopher W. Dunn, Esq.

Introduction: In the late 1830s five Native American tribes, possibly over 100,000 people, were forcibly removed from the Southeastern United States, and required to live in “Indian Territory” (known today as Oklahoma) The Cherokee Tribe was among those forced to walk through Missouri to get there.

Background: In harmony with Missouri Humanities’ 2023 Roots and Routes celebration, we would like to update you on how the Missouri Trail of Tears Association (MOTOTA) is applying high tech mapping and geophysical technology to precisely map the Trail of Tears in Missouri. We began by focusing on the Cherokee’s path along the “Northern Route”[1]

The Mapping Problem: While the general routes these parties took, specifically the Cherokee Tribe, are known, most of the stopping sites and some sections of the route have been lost to time.  We are working to change that! By applying precise mapping techniques to these routes and sites we believe our efforts will greatly benefit researchers and archaeologists as they explore and interpret those events.

Project Origins: Missouri Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association volunteers have been working for at least 25 to 30 years before I was brought on. Please see the graphic below. [DSCN0441.JPG] Five years ago, I was asked to help Missouri Humanities and volunteers from the MOToTA map a site along the Trail. That initial mapping project has grown tremendously in scope. We now have mapped thousands of points along the Trail and by using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), we have developed thousands of layers of information which will soon be available to scholars and many highly regarded volunteers working on this topic.

Our Partners: Over the past five years Missouri Humanities has provided over $100,000 in various funding streams to advance this and other Missouri mapping projects. The National Park Service (NPS) is the federal agency tasked with designating, documenting, and mapping our nation’s historic trails. Working with the National Trail of Tears Association (NToTA), NPS reviews and incorporates discoveries and submissions made by scholars, scientists, volunteers, and others to further document sites and events along the Trail.

GIS: The GIS allows the project team to blend geographic information from a wide variety of sources. Please see the graphic below. [38N6W_Busy_map.jpg] It shows 12 layers visibly, out of over a 1000 potential layers. Now, we have thousands of maps (layers) all viewable withing in a single portal. Where we can turn layers on and off as needed. We are using LiDAR[1] imagery which yields exceptionally accurate terrain models with maps that were created in the 1830s or earlier. Please see the graphic below. [20191203_3D_Topo_Capture.JPG] Blending modern and historic data sources is often more an art than a science. For example, we have georectified[2] early General Land Office[3] plats, which are the founding land grant maps for all property rights in much of the United States. With very high precision LiDAR, surveys, ground penetrating radar, and archaeological digs we are regularly gaining new insights into what actually happened at a particular site along the Trail.

Website: We have developed nearly a terabyte of GIS layers, thousands of graphics, articles, and papers. But they won’t do anyone any good unless they are made accessible. Thus, a year ago the Missouri Trail of Tears Association applied to the Missouri Humanities for a technology demonstrator grant which would enable us to digitize a well-respected volunteer researcher’s personal Trail of Tears archive, as well as push a number of already developed digital maps, monographs, and other resources out to the public at Along with the website we have set up a shared Google Drive[4], where we will host documents that have been approved for public access. The most recent Missouri Humanities grant was essential to creating this technology demonstrator. We believe the website has clearly demonstrated our team’s ability to present reliable research with online interactive maps[5], articles, and as well as launching a secure document archive.

Site Security: Unfortunately,, we live in a world where some peoples will use the information we are discovering and sharing to desecrate or rob the sites we identify. One just has to go any online market to see how large the illegal artifact market has become. That is why we take the process of posting information on our website extremely seriously. The reality is we have one set of GIS maps which we share only with professional archaeologists and academics who are pre-approved by the Missouri State Historical Preservation Office (MOSHPO)[6]. Archaeologists must also hold at least the US Secretary of the Interiors’ archaeology qualifications as well as be preapproved by the Missouri Humanities’ Archaeologist.

[1] &


[3] LiDAR: Think of a harmless and high accuracy laser shooing out of the bottom of a business jet and hitting the surface of the Earth every square centimeter. The software is able to calculate exactly how far it was from the jet laser to the surface of the earth. This is essentially current land surveying technology deployed on a grand scale. Then GIS techs can use the laser measurements (the dot cloud) to make a very accurate 3D model of the area of the Earth’s surface which was scanned.

[4] Georeferencing: The process of aligning a raster Image with known ground features. You can think of it as gently stretching a photograph so that the points on the photograph align with the actual geospatial location of that feature on the ground.





This GIS graphic blends the modern GIS data layers with a GLO from the 1820s. Once the GLO was georeferenced more precise site data could be extracted from the surveyor’s notes and features noted on the GLO document.

Volunteers doing field work on the Trail of Tears in Crawford County, 2020.

A 3D GIS rendering of a portion of Crawford County developed using LiDAR.

Author’s Contact Information:

Christopher W. Dunn, Esq.

Biography: Chris Dunn is a licensed Missouri attorney, geospatial business owner, expert witness, and geo-historical researcher. Through GeoVelo, LLC ( geospatial forensic investigations are conducted, demonstrative exhibits are produced, and geospatial services are provided. This work involves investigating, mapping, and modeling incidents, accidents, and crimes, which requires applying well-established geospatial techniques to the facts of the case using GIS, 3-D modeling software, and field confirmation procedures. Chris lives in Columbia, Missouri with his dog Loki.