Memories of the Old Cannon Trail: A Civil War Battle in the Ozarks
Dr. Jim Vandergriff
Delivered at the Missouri Folklore Society Conference
October 11, 2019
One of the things I wonder about fairly often is how I have come to know or believe this and that. So, this article is mostly musings about the source of some of my memories and about how we gather information. But it is also about some Missouri Civil War history that most people probably don’t know. My central assertion is that we don’t always know where our beliefs and knowledge come from, so the list of ways that knowledge—and folklore—is created and/or transmitted perhaps needs to be expanded. I just call this knowledge source “congealed from thin air.” It is information or ideas learned indirectly, perhaps by way of unknown or unrecognized or unremembered sources.
When I was between the ages of nine and twelve, our farm in eastern Laclede County, Missouri, had a double fence all along its east side. The fences were roughly twenty feet apart and constructed of barbed wire and woven wire. This was unusual, and thus always something my brothers and I wondered about. I don’t know if the double fencing extended beyond our property to the north. It never dawned on me to check. Sadly, the fence is gone now. I wish I’d had the insight 65 years ago to photograph it (though I didn’t have a camera in the 1950s). I never knew, and still don’t know, to whom the property between the fences belonged. I suspect it was ours, because now that the westernmost fence has been removed, and that piece of land that was between the two fences is now part of what was then our property. The westernmost fence was ours; the easternmost belonged to “Doc Oliver” (Dr. Francis Oliver), a medical doctor in nearby Richland, who owned the next property to the east, as well as the one to the south, of our farms.
About an eighth of a mile north of our house was a wet weather creek and just east of the fence on Doc Oliver’s was the remnants of a small, clapboard house. There was a trash midden just a couple of paces to the northwest of the house. My brothers and I would dig in the midden once in a while, but seldom found anything of interest, except that once we found a ceramic dish with a reclining, semi-nude woman on one side of it. It was one of those very Victorian geegaws. Here’s a photo of it:
My brothers and I often played in that area during the three or four years we lived on that farm, though not often on Doc Oliver’s side of the fence—except when we wanted to dig in the midden, swim in his pond, or hunt frogs at the pond. On our side of the double fence was a steep-banked valley with a little usually dry creek at the bottom. Up the creek bed to the west was a large, flat limestone slab, under which the water source had been—a wet weather spring, of which there were several in the area. Downstream a bit was a stand of ancient hickory trees strung with huge grapevines. My brothers and I had cut a number of the grapevines at ground level so we could swing on them Tarzan-like to the north bank of the stream, some 30 or 40 feet away.
Now, here is the central idea of my article. We believed at the time that somewhere in the vicinity I’ve just described was a buried Confederate treasure, which included gold and weaponry, so, occasionally, we dug awhile in spots we deemed “likely,” such as in natural depressions in the soil, hoping to find swords and muskets, and maybe some gold! Of course, we never had any such luck; we were young, so we couldn’t dig very effectively. We moved away in 1954, so I guess the loot is still there, if it ever was.
I have no idea why we believed in this treasure or where or from whom we got the idea that there had been Confederate military activity in the area. Keep in mind that the area I’m talking about was in a fairly dense forest that covered hundreds of acres to the north, east, and west. As I mull it over, I can’t imagine who or what our source might have been. I suspect that the idea was “congealed from thin air,” that is, learned indirectly, perhaps via unknown or unremembered sources.
The people we knew didn’t talk about the Civil War—or any other kind of history—except occasionally to mention that so-and-so’s family were Cherokees who had dropped off of the Trail of Tears, the northern branch of which ran just six or so miles south of our farm, pretty much where Interstate 44 now runs, or to mention the German POWs who had been interned at Ft. Leonard Wood during WWII, or to mention that Ed and Sarah, a black couple, who came to town in their buggy once a month or so, had been slaves.
We also knew that our maternal great, great grandfather, a couple of his brothers, and two of our maternal great, great, great grandfathers had fought in General Price’s army during the Civil War. The only battle I remember hearing about, though, was the Battle of Helena, Arkansas, where great, great grandfather John Armstrong was wounded while charging a cannon emplacement on Graveyard Hill (he was one of the 687 wounded Confederates in that battle) on the same day Gettysburg was being fought. But, otherwise we didn’t hear much about history.
I have no clue where we got our belief about the Confederate activity in our particular area. I learned some 45 or 50 years later that those parallel fences bordered an old Civil War era military road called the Cannon Trail. During that war, a military supply road ran from Linn Creek, Missouri, to the Union fort at Waynesville. Linn Creek was at that time a steamboat port on the Osage River, though that particular town is now at the bottom of the Lake of the Ozarks. Because of stories about the road during the California Gold Rush, I believe that the Linn Creek Road was there considerably before the war, as was the Cannon Trail, as there had been at least two houses along the Cannon Trail, one just across the double fences to the east, and one some 100 yards to the north and west of it, and a small town, Henrytown, some five or six miles north of our farm.
During the war, just a few miles west-northwest in Camden County where Richland now sits, a road cut off from the Linn Creek Road to the southwest along Murphy Creek, through Monday Hollow, then due south for a few miles, and then meandered to Lebanon. That road—called The Cannon Trail—went along the eastern edge of our farm, crossed Bear Creek about a half mile southwest, and then turned still more southwesterly toward Lebanon. Here’s a map of the area:
The red line near the center of the map is the Cannon Trail, in part. The green circle is where our house, which we called the Jennings house, sat. The yellow line is the old Linn Creek Road; and the blue circle is my birthplace. The Trail of Tears ran about where the red line is at the bottom of the image.
The next picture is a Google image of the current day tree line by our house:
The house sat where you see the red X on the left. The tree line is the red marking to the right. The red X to the right is where the remnants of the old Burhans house sat.
The image above is a map of the area north of our house. The red line follows the tree line where the road used to be. Where the red line curves is where the current Missouri highway H uses an eighth of a mile or so of the Old Cannon Trail. The red half circle and the red X in the center near the bottom show where our house was. The blue line is Kennedy Road as it runs from Stoutland to Richland.
On October 13, 1861, Confederate troops set up an ambush near the intersection of the Cannon Trail and the Linn Creek Road, the first of several battles along the Linn Creek Road during the next few days. Below is a picture of part of the battlefield, taken about 1985:
Union scouts had spotted the ambush prior to the engagement, which put the Rebels at a serious, and costly, disadvantage. The battle was fierce and, according to official reports, cost the Confederates at least 27 dead. (The numbers vary greatly in the reports. One says 66 dead Rebels.) The Confederate dead were buried by the Union Army in a mass grave near a small town then called Henrytown. Here’s an image of the grave:
The town no longer exists, though a few foundations remain. The following is a photograph of one of the last remnants of Henrytown:
Below is a map showing of the general vicinity of the town:
The larger red circle on the upper left is the approximate location of Henrytown; the smaller circle center left is the location of the Henry graveyard.
The remainder of the Rebel troops reportedly retreated along the Cannon Trail toward Lebanon, and thus would have passed within just a few feet of where our house later stood.
In the official reports, the battle was variously called the Battle of Wet Glaize, the Battle of Henrytown, the Battle of Dutch Hollow, the Battle of Monday Hollow, the First Battle of Linn Creek, and the Battle of Shanghai. Though the first five names for the battle reflect local places, I have no idea where “Shanghai” comes from.
I knew nothing about the roads or the fight until sometime in the mid 1980s, though I have since acquired and read all of the surviving official reports about it and visited the site a couple of times. The site is on private property and pretty difficult to get to; one has to walk about a mile through various fields to get to it. A mile or so south of the site of Henrytown is an old graveyard called the Henry Graveyard. Below is a photograph of this small cemetery:
I used to ask people why it was called the Henry Graveyard, but I gave up asking because nobody I asked had an answer. There are some Henry families in and around Richland, but they deny any connection to the graveyard or to Henrytown. My assumption is that the cemetery was the graveyard for Henrytown. I’ve never been inside the graveyard, but I’ve been told that there are only three gravestones, one of which I have recently learned is perhaps a relative of Doc Oliver, whom I mentioned earlier—one Corporal S. B. Oliver, probably Shadrack Oliver. No date of death is given. My guess (because the gravestone seems to suggest it) is that he was a Union soldier in the Cannon Trail fight. If I ever get to where I can walk again, I will go into the cemetery and read the stones for myself.
According to James King in The Tilley Treasure, there were additional battles in the Linn Creek area on the three days following the initial battle, October 14-16, 1861, but I have not attempted to find out more about them. There are remnants of an old corral a bit to the west on the Linn Creek Road, ostensibly a Union Army site.
But is it mere coincidence that my brothers and I associated the road with Confederates? I remember having, at that time, only two pieces of information about the road: one, it had gone past the old Burhans house, which was across the gravel road in front of our house, and, two, the road then angled south-southwest to where an old home place still existed (but no house) on the south side of Bear Creek. The old road bed was still visible south of Bear Creek in the 1950s. I vaguely remember being told that it had been an old stagecoach road. As the following map shows, the road crossed Missouri Highway T and then ambled toward Lebanon:
We used to go to the old house place to pick tame blackberries – both black ones and white ones. At the time, we had no idea the road remnant that ran by there was part of the old Cannon Trail.
Not that it really has much of anything to do with this article, I was born about one-fourth of a mile west of the Cannon Trail.
The house sat approximately where you can see the big red X. It is completely gone now; here’s how it looked in the 1990s:
The road in front of my birthplace and the Jennings house is now called Kennedy Road, though it had no name when I lived there. Such naming of the road is a result of the 911 service expansion some years ago. The Vandergriff house was approximately 50 feet south of Kennedy Road.
As I said, I can’t think of anyone who might have told us the double fence had been a military road or that it had been used by Confederate troops. My great-grandmother, from whom I heard so many of the stories I’ve shared with the Missouri Folklore Society in person and in print, never mentioned the fight, to my recollection – even though it occurred very near her husband’s uncle’s farm, which was on the Linn Creek Road. Right across from that farm was a site where a notorious Rebel officer named Laughlin was captured and killed while visiting his own home, and she told me about that. (He is mentioned in the report of Col. John B. Wyman, Thirteenth Illinois Infantry as having been captured). There is a Laughlin Cemetery there where he is buried but I couldn’t find it on Findagrave.com or on Google (a challenge exacerbated by the fact that there is another cemetery with the same name and also in Camden County some 15 or so miles west near where the Osage River ran prior to the Lake of the Ozarks being created). So, Grandma would surely have known of the Cannon Trail Road itself, though perhaps by a different name, since the road continued northwest to where the Ozarks Fishery now stands. And, according to my mother, the family used it to get to Richland when she was a child living with her grandparents in the 1930s, though I don’t recall her ever naming the road, nor the creek that ran by it and by Henrytown. I’m sure my parents and aunts and uncles didn’t know about the battle. And I’m sure it wasn’t mentioned in school. Maybe it was just coincidence that we imagined it. I just don’t know what put the idea of Confederate activity in our heads.
I believe there is a larger point to be made, though. That is, as I mentioned earlier, perhaps our definition of the knowledge transmission process is a bit too limited. Folklore theorists, such as Jan Brunvand, suggest that the process is fairly direct, that one learns from another—a parent, a sibling, a friend, a co-worker, and so on. In fact, he said, in the 1958 edition of his book, The Study of American Folklore, that “Folklore is oral; that is, it is passed by word of mouth from one person to another and from one generation to the next” (4). In the fourth edition (1998) of The Study of American Folklore, he says that “Folklore is the material that is handed on by tradition, either by word of mouth or by custom and practice” (5). Again, essentially person to person. He later elaborates a bit, writing that “Folklore is the traditional, unofficial, uninstitutional part of culture. It encompasses all knowledge, understandings, values, attitudes, assumptions, feelings, and beliefs transmitted in traditional forms by word of mouth or by customary examples” (8-9). Still essentially person to person. He goes on to say that “Folklore is never transmitted entirely in a formal manner through printed books, phonograph records, school classes, church sermons, or by any other learned, sophisticated, and commercial means” (12). He adds, “A story, proverb, or other text is living folklore only as long as it continues to circulate orally [my italics] in different traditional variations” (16). Much of what I know and think about folklore comes from Brunvand’s books, but I am not in complete agreement with his definition. I’m more inclined to Toelken’s view, which is that “the materials of folklore” are “tradition-based communicative units informally exchanged in dynamic variation through space and time” (Quoted in Brunvand, 16). I particularly like the idea of “informal” exchange. In my view that also encompasses something like my “congealed from thin air.”
For instance, the lyrics of the song I wrote about that my mother sang to my daughter was modified by my mother. (See my article in the Missouri Folklore Society Journal) She didn’t want to say “pickaninny” or “colored girl” within my daughter’s hearing, and the song was modified in other ways by other musicians. For example, Jack Armstrong and Peg Jennings of the Northumbrian Pipers in the UK moved it from a fiddle song to a small pipes song. Such modification is part and parcel of folklore transmission. The truth is that the song they were modifying and handing down orally seems to have had a commercial origin. I say “seems” because I think there is some pretty good evidence the commercial versions of the song began as a folk song. However, I have been unable to get a copy of the evidence, which is in a library in Long Island. I don’t go there very often. Like never! So, I think its life was folk, then commercial, then folk again.
I think something similar applies to other kinds of knowledge, and that how we learn other things is much the same as how we learn folklore. We are not always aware of from whom or from what we have learned something. Perhaps we remember a specific book or person, but sometimes it’s just “I read it somewhere” or “I heard it somewhere.” We don’t always recall our sources, sometimes just because our memories fail us, or sometimes because we just weren’t paying attention to the source. My doctoral dissertation was a study of how English teachers learn how to teach English. What I found was that, for most of them, they did not learn teaching techniques from their teacher education courses so much as from watching and imitating their teachers in high school and college. Some, though, said that they have no idea where they learned some of the things or that they just thought them up themselves. I think I learned how to teach from reading journal articles. I wasn’t paying enough attention in high school to notice how my teachers taught, and when I started teaching college classes, I mimicked my professors as much as I could, but I depended, to a very large extent, on articles in professional journals. That alternative learning is pretty much the same as the “congealed from thin air” category I’ve been talking about: it just came, we don’t know from where or from whom!
What I’ve been trying to describe in this article is a much less direct process such as that. My brothers and I didn’t learn about the Confederate activity directly from anyone, nor did we learn it from school books. I’m convinced that our initial beliefs about the Cannon Trail buried treasure were, at best, constructed out of snippets of information picked almost out of the thin air and that we expanded that into something else. I will concede that there are numerous stories about Confederate treasure in that part of Missouri, though I don’t have any memory of hearing about them when I was a child; I have subsequently learned about them from books.
When my great grandmother told me the story of herself, as a 17-year-old, sitting up all night with a shotgun in her lap guarding a prisoner (whom she always called Black Pete) while her deputy U. S. marshal husband slept, in my mind’s-eye the linoleum in that room was the same color and pattern as that in the house she lived in when she told me the story some 50 years later. Why had I even noticed her linoleum when I was nine or ten? It had to have been a completely unconscious noticing. But, when my mental picture of that little house in “The Nations,” as she always called Oklahoma, required linoleum, the design from her house in the 1950s came into my mental picture. Even now, some 65 years later, when I visualize that incident, that linoleum is on the floor! So perhaps I, or one of my brothers, heard someone talk about the war and mentally and unconsciously switched it over to the Cannon Trail.
There was, during my youth, the discovery of some stolen money near Waynesville. It was purportedly hidden by a fleeing Rebel (Wilson Tilley) and plowed up in 1962 by a contractor who was delivering topsoil to Fort Leonard Wood to create lawns for an officers’ housing development. The event is the subject of the first chapter of James King’s 1984 book, The Tilley Treasure. In any event, that could not have been the source of our belief. That discovery happened several years after our playing on the Cannon Trail. We were children there in the early- to mid-1950s. The money was found in 1962.
Since my older brother would have been in upper-elementary by the time we were playing on the Cannon Trail and may have perhaps been studying a bit of Missouri history, we might have had some smattering of Civil War knowledge for all this to congeal around. I reiterate, though, that we had no factual knowledge about the military road at that time, or even an understanding that it had been a road. Our entire belief was simply made up, very likely cobbled together from random snippets of information from unknown sources. Perhaps, as with Grandma’s Oklahoma linoleum, data from one place was transferred to another place.
I must stress at this point that I don’t consider our fantasy to be folklore. My point is about how knowledge and beliefs (folklore included) may be created and transmitted—that is, via overheard or even misunderstood information reinterpreted to meet one’s own perceptions, and even misconceptions. My brothers and I were in a place that had some real mysteries associated with it—the double fence, the foundation remnant to the north, and the abandoned house to the East—and we perhaps had some pieces of overheard information that we kneaded into what was for us a rational explanation for how those things fit together.
I didn’t continue to believe the whole thing about buried treasure in my adult years, but when I finally learned about the battle and the Cannon Trail, and realized exactly where the Cannon Trail ran, I was astonished. So that’s why there was a double fence and that’s what the road was that ran past the other old house place where we picked blackberries! It made me really want to go travel that road again, which I did not do because I had no clue to whom either of the properties then belonged. However, on November 5, 2014, with the permission of a caretaker who lives nearby, I went into the woods where the old house sat. No sign is left of the house and no remnant of the double fence remains on what was once our property. However, on Google Earth, one can see the tree line where the road used to be.
Our house sat about where you can see the red X on the left; the old Burhans house sat across the road and just to the right of the red line.
Perhaps it’s also just coincidence that the “California House” near Buckhorn, some six or seven miles west of Waynesville, was also on the old Linn Creek Road and had stories of hidden gold from the California Gold Rush associated with it. Perhaps we appropriated some of those stories into our Cannon Trail story. Of course, I don’t know if we had heard those tales when we were that young. I remember learning the stories when I was much older. I went to high school with a boy who was raised in the California House, so I may have heard some of them from him, but that, too, would have been much later than when we were playing in the woods. I’m sure I learned some of the tales from the Old Settlers Gazette in the 1980s or 90s, a paper printed once a year commemorating the history of the Waynesville area.
The California House, which was some six or seven miles west of Waynesville, began its existence as a private home in 1840 and later became a roadhouse along the trail used by those going to and from the California gold fields, thus its name. It was a private residence in later years.
This photo is not of the original California House, which was torn down after the Civil War. This new house, though, built on the same site, was supposedly built to look like the original house. The one in the photo burned a few years ago and was not rebuilt.
That trail, that is, the Linn Creek Road, later became the military road during the Civil War. In fact, across the road from the California house is the remnants of a Union Army cemetery, shown in the following photograph.
By the time I saw the cemetery in the 1980s, it had essentially been destroyed, but it was still fenced off and some of the military headstones were still stacked along a fence. The Union Army had a fort, called Camp Waynesville, at Waynesville during the Civil War, located just a block from the city square. Many of the union soldiers in the battle of Henrytown came from Camp Waynesville.
So, let me restate my primary point: knowledge and/or belief doesn’t always have a definitive and knowable direct source, so let’s widen our definition of the knowledge transmission process to include this “congealed from thin air” source. Sometimes we know where our ideas and beliefs come from, and sometimes we pull them out of thin air. For instance, I remember hearing about razor blades in Halloween candy, but I don’t remember where or from whom I heard it. But I do remember from whom I learned about Joe’s Cave and about the hog’s-headed snake. The sources of some ideas I know, some I don’t.