‘A Continuity Of Place And Blood”

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American farmer-frontiersmen had entered the land in the eighteenth century, and their numbers grew after the 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Theirs were the isolated valley cabins Schoolcraft stumbled upon during his trek. Ambition, restless romanticism, and the pressure of expanding population were propelling Americans west. The two decades from the mid-1820’s to the mid-1840’s were the main period of initial Ozark settlement.

 
 

The natives of the highlands soon gave way before the thrust of white occupation. The Osage surrendered claim to most of their lands by treaty in 1825, and during that same period, a few years either side of 1830, the region’s other tribes also were being relocated. Finally, the Cherokee crossed the highlands on their “Trail of Tears” from the Southeast in the winter of 1838-39. Some strayed from that sad march and were assimilated into the hill population. But by 1840, at the latest, the Ozarks had been emptied of all but scattered handfuls of their original inhabitants-and these, too, were gone by 1875.

Just as the interior of the region had forbidden heavy Indian occupation, so it would support only a thin salting of white settlers, and to travel the area even now is to understand why. Civilization moved principally by water, and many of the rivers of the Ozarks were only seasonably, if ever, navigable. Generous valleys were rare, and tillable land in the narrow stream bottoms limited. Steep hillsides were densely timbered, often shallowly underlain by rock. Through the rest of the nineteenth century the main body of western settlement would push through and around the highlands. And in relative numbers, it would leave the Ozarks but lightly touched.

The Indian trails, usually following uplands and ridgetops, became wagon roads, the lines of early white commerce. Later those would become military routes and much after that, in some cases, macadam motor road or even Interstate highway.

Commercial water transport was feasible only on the major rivers of the northern, eastern, and southern Ozark borders—the Missouri, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Economic and cultural isolation prevailed over much of the interior. The creek-bottom farmers coaxed a subsistence from their cultivated plots and from lean hogs, ear-notched and loosed to root for survival in the forest.

In the 1850’s, the first railroad lines came probing into the country from the east, drawn by the rich lead mines of the northeastern Ozarks and the early timber exploitation. That civilizing intrusion was interrupted, however, by the outbreak of the Civil War. The major battles in the Ozarks—at Wilson’s Creek and Pilot Knob in Missouri and Pea Ridge in Arkansas-left the Union in nominal control but neither side in physical occupation of the region.

The armies concluded their set-piece engagements and moved on to fight elsewhere, abandoning the hills and their people to the prédations of the Southern sympathizers called bushwhackers. In the regime of terror that ensued, great areas of the Ozarks were unpeopled and quickly returned to wilderness, the residents fleeing for sanctuary to the nearest fortified towns.

Not all of the Ozarkers deserted their stream bottoms and hollows. Many stayed to defend their holdings and many of those were murdered for their trouble. Today’s painful memory of the Civil War—passed down in the oral tradition of family history-is not of identification as Yank or Reb, but rather of a long, lonely ordeal of capricious, purposeless, and unasked-for pain.

The forest, when first man saw it, was an oak and hickory climax, with the native shortleaf pine interspersed in pockets-sometimes very large ones-on the favorable south and southwest slopes. As late as 1880, except for cabin building and the occasional cleared field, much of the highlands’ interior had never felt a blade.

The look of such a hardwood forest can only be imagined now. The great leaf crowns interlaced above in a canopy that blocked the sun, retarding undergrowth. The forest floor was spongy with the duff of all the rotting leaf-falls from time immemorial. Elk, bear, turkey, and smaller game harbored there in profusion. I know of just one place remaining where such trees grow as must have then. It is on a narrow shelf beside one of the major Ozark streams, and why loggers bypassed the spot so long ago cannot be said, unless perhaps even they were humbled by the majesty they saw.

The trees in that grove are white oaks, as grand as the pillars of any cathedral-so large that it would take four or five long-armed men together to reach around one; forty feet to the first branch; each tree containing enough sawable lumber to build several good-sized houses. Someday, when the largest of these oaks dies and is felled to prevent its damaging the others, I would very much like to be there and count the rings to know how many hundred springs ago it burst its acorn and became a switch.

The big timber companies of the East, having cut out the best of the white pine in the northern lake states, turned their eye on the interior highlands. And with the Civil War’s end, the railroads took up their unfinished task of driving a network of commerce into the region. In the brief timber boom that was to follow, from about 1880 to 1920, the physical character of the Ozarks would be changed for generations and, at least arguably, forever.