Jerome, Missouri – A Tribute to the Trail of Tears

 

Trail of Tears painting by Robert Lindneux

Trail of Tears painting by Robert Lindneux

Long time we travel on way to new land. People feel bad when they leave old nation. Women cry and make sad wails. Children cry and many men cry, and all look sad like when friends die, but they say nothing and just put heads down and keep on go towards West. Many days pass and people die very much. We bury close by Trail.

— Survivor of the Trail of Tears

 

Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, tens of thousands of Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Indians were forced from their homelands in the southeast United States to reservations in Oklahoma. Suffering from exposure, disease and starvation, thousands died, giving the name to their path — the “Trail of Tears.” For one man who lived near Jerome, Missouri, their suffering was not forgotten, as he spent years building them a tribute along Route 66.

As settlers began to push west from the eastern seaboard during the early nineteenth century, the government forced thousands of American Indians from their ancestral lands. Though there were numerous treaties with the Five Civilized Tribes of the southeastern United States, the pioneers demanded more land. In response, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which forced the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole to evacuate their lands and move to Indian Territory, which would later become Oklahoma. Jackson supported this act by stating, “No state could achieve proper culture, civilization, and progress, as long as Indians remained within its boundaries.”

The Cherokee, the largest tribe in the Southeast, fought exile with a combination of passive resistance, national publicity and lawsuits. The Cherokee were not nomads like some of the other tribes; but, rather, had established homes and communities where they had cultivated the land. A treaty with the United States preserved their rights in parts of Tennessee and Georgia, but when gold was discovered in Georgia, the state proclaimed that “all laws, orders, and regulations of any kind made with the Cherokee Indians are declared null and void.”  This resulted in a frenzied land-grab and the forced evacuation of the Cherokee from their homeland. President Andrew Jackson further backed this up by saying, “Humanity weeps over the fate of the Indians, but, true philanthropy reconciles the mind to the extinction of one generation for another.”

Trail of Tears Map

Trail of Tears Map

Because they had successfully resisted the government’s efforts to move them from their homeland for several years, their removal was particularly brutal when it finally came. In the spring and summer of 1838, more than 15,000 Cherokee Indians were forcibly removed by the U.S. Army from their ancestral lands in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Held in concentration-like camps through the summer, they were then placed on a death march to Oklahoma, where almost one fourth of their members would perish along the way from cold, hunger and illness. The Cherokee came to call the march Nunahi-Duna-Dlo-Hilu-I or Trail Where They Cried.

Once in Oklahoma, the tribes were solemnly sworn a “permanent treaty” that this would be their Promised Land “for as long as grass grows and water flows.” That promise, too, would later be broken, when again, westward expansion demanded more land.

But, for one man in Jerome, Missouri, the Trail of Tears has not been forgotten. Or, better yet, by his own testimony, the ghosts of the Cherokee who once traveled the old trail, would not let him forget. According to Larry Baggett, an eccentric elderly gentleman who lived just outside of Jerome along old Route 66, he would often be awakened in the middle of the night with a knock on his door. However, when he would get up to answer, no one would be there. Even the sleeping dogs just next to the door were not disturbed.

Sometime later, Larry was visited by an old Cherokee Indian who Larry said looked to be about 150 years old. The old Indian told Baggett that his house was built on the Trail of Tears and it was blocking the path.

The Indian further conveyed how they were made to walk hundreds of miles and how the Cherokee had camped right near Larry’s home.

Before meeting the elderly Cherokee man, Larry had built a stone wall adjacent to his house and the Indian told him to put stairs there because the spirits were unable to get over the wall. Well, Larry did just that. He built those stairs to nowhere and when they were complete, the knocking stopped.

Larry Baggett courtesy Two Wheel Adventures

Larry Baggett courtesy Two Wheel Adventures

Baggett originally acquired the property with the intention of building a campground, but these plans were changed when his wife died. Instead he built a tribute to the Trail of Tears.

At the entrance of the property is a stone archway labeled “Trail of Tears” that sits between a statue of himself on one side, and another pouring water out of a bucket on the other side. On the property is a number of stone walls, more statues, a wishing well, several rock gardens, and a sign that describes the plight of the American Indians who suffered along the Trail of Tears. His big stone house was constructed around three living trees.

Larry himself, was as interesting as the place that he has built. Though born in 1925, he claimed to have been only about 30 years old, because that’s when he started living. Only after a doctor gave him 18 months to live, because of two heart attacks and a severe case of diabetes, did his life begin. Larry had a unique perspective on life and death and everything else in between, as he would tell stories about his astral travels, views on religion, astrology, and all manner of other topics.

Baggett’s memorial immediately attracted all kinds of attention and made him into a local legend when the as the media focused on “local curiosities” and tourists sought out cultural oddities on old Route 66. He was featured on several local stations as well as in a documentary televised in Great Britain.

Trail of Tears Monument at Jerome, Missouri in 2012

Trail of Tears Monument at Jerome, Missouri in 2012

Mr. Baggett passed away in 2003 and two years later his “shrine” was sold. Since that time, it has stood empty, the structures are deteriorating, and unfortunately, the head of his “self-portrait” sculpture is missing.

The monument is located on an abandoned stretch of Route 66 near Jerome, Missouri about a quarter-mile from the remains of the former Stonydell Resort. To see this monument take the Jerome exit off of I-44 in Missouri. Take a right at the T intersection and head toward Jerome. Baggett’s place is a few hundred yards from the intersection, on your left as you head east.

 

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November, 2017.

Also See:

The Cherokee Trail of Tears

The Cherokee Tribe

 

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