Ozark County History
MOGenWeb Site, Johnna Quick -- Coordinator
When the Territory of Orleans became the state of Louisiana in 1812, the Louisiana Territory was renamed Missouri Territory. Approximately 20,000 whites and a large number of Negro slaves, located primarily on the Missouri, Mississippi, and Arkansas rivers, were then residents of the area. The American frontier had moved about sixty miles west of the Mississippi. The flanks of the Ozark Highlands were preferred to all other territory in upper Louisiana when settlement west of the Mississippi began, because the earliest settlers were looking for a variety and balance of local resources rather than a larger amount of any one resource. On the fringes of the Ozarks they found self-sufficiency; and as the pioneers penetrated deeper and deeper into the interior, they were not conscious of any deterioration of their environment because it was not their intent to produce a surplus of crops for sale. The eastern, northern, and southern fringes of the Ozarks were settled first. The hills to the east were a barrier to the settlement of the western flank; and, therefore, that area was settled later. Such rivers as the Osage, White, and Neosho were navigable but did not provide direct connections with the Mississippi River.
The Missouri counties of the Arkansas border were among the last to be settled, not primarily because of their poverty, by principally because they, being in the heart of the Ozarks, were the most isolated. These counties were cut off from markets by a large stretch of difficult wild country and the swampy lands of Southeast Missouri and Northeast Arkansas. Few large tracts of first class soil were present to attract the agriculturist. Thus, frontiersmen (hunters and trappers) rather than farmers were, primarily, the first settlers. According to the geographer Carl Sauer, the central Ozarks became a sort of refuge for men who clung to the frontier way of life. They gradually accepted agricultural traits.
Certain features of the central Ozarks were attractive to the frontiersmen. The winters were milder than those of central and northern Missouri, and the summers were pleasant. Wild game was plentiful, abundant forests, fertile valleys, numerous springs, and navigable rivers and streams, which provided good mill sites, were present. The vast supply of timber provided cheap fuel as well as lumber for fencing, barns, and houses. Although roads were not built easily, the rocky soil made possible the construction of roads that could be traveled, except in times of flood, during all seasons of the year.
Rumors of hidden Spanish silver and gold mines, supposedly located somewhere in the upper White River Valley, also attracted attention to the area. Edwin James, while accompanying Stephen R. Long on his expedition to the Great Plains, wrote in 1817:
“At several parts of the Arkansas Territory we were shown dollars, which were believed to have been coined by someone of the upper settlements of White River; and it has been currently reported that mines of silver exist, and are thought to be there. It appears, however, upon examination, that much spurious coin is here in circulation; and it is probable that the White River country owes its present reputation for minerals to the successful labors of some manufacturer of imitation dollars. Since the time of De Soto it has been asserted that mines of gold and silver exist in that part of the country of which we are speaking.”
On his journey down the Arkansas in 1819, Thomas Nuttall, botanist, ornithologist, and English immigrant, wrote:
“In the course of my inquiry concerning miners, I was told of the existence of a silver mine, somewhere along the banks of the White River, but though the report is a very prevalent one, it is necessary to receive it with caution.”
The White River Valley was ranked first of the sections of the central Ozarks by the frontiersman who lived by his guns and traps. It was looked upon with favor by agriculturists as well because it provided splendid sites for homesteads.
The White River and the country through which it flowed were described in some detail by early travelers and explorers. Edwin James, a member of Long’s expedition which passed through the region of the White River, visited the river at Harding’s Ferry (Newport, Arkansas) at the mouth of the Black River. Here the river was said to be about three hundred yards wide, remarkably clear, and flowing with a “moderate current” over a gravelly bead. At this point and even as far as a hundred miles above Harding’s Ferry, the river was considered to be little inferior to the Arkansas River at the same meridian. It was noted, however, that the White River and its tributaries were subject to freshets. Floods had been known to inundate plantations situated in the valleys, to the depth of eight or ten feet. James wrote:
“The floods are generally very sudden, as well as excessive, to such a degree that on some occasions the water has risen, in the course of one night, more than twenty feet. By these sudden rises of the water, the planter that in the evening thought his family and possessions secure from harm, has been compelled the next morning to embark with his family in a canoe, to save themselves from impending destruction, while his habitation, fields, cattle, and all his effects are abandoned to the fury of the torrent.”
Schoolcraft visited the upper White River Valley in 1819. Here the surrounding lands were found to be sterile and rough. Rich alluvial soil, however, formed the immediate margins of the river. A chain of hills sometimes closed in upon the river’s banks in perpendicular cliffs, but the valley averaged from a quarter of a mile to a mile and a half in width, providing “one of the best locations for the pursuit of agriculture.” Corn, cotton, wheat, rye, oats, flax hemp, and potatoes grew well on the bottom lands. Cane, an evergreen plant, was being used by the hunters and Indians for feed in winter as well as in other seasons.
Schoolcraft stated that “the largest keel-boats, barges, and even steam-boats may in safety ascend the White River and many of its tributaries, particularly up the Big North Fork.” He noted, however, that the Crooked Creek Shoals at the mouth of Crooked Creek and the Buffalo Shoals at the mouth of the Buffalo River (located on the White River below the mouth of Big North Fork) were “effectual interruptions to navigation” of all boats over eight tons in dry seasons. Keelboats were ascending the river as far as Beaver Creek at that time. Edwin James noted that the White River was navigable for keelboats to Harding’s Ferry, and one hundred miles farther up during a greater part of the year.
According to one account, the White River was called the Six Bulls River by Ozark frontiersmen. Walter B. Stevens (1848-1939) wrote a book, published in 1900, called The Ozark Uplift in which he described the lead and zinc mining areas adjacent to the Kansas City-Memphis branch of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad. In describing the area he told the story of the frontiersman Edmund Jennings.
Supposedly Edmund Jennings came to the White River country around 1790 and lived among the Indians for fifteen years. Returning to Tennessee, he told the people there of the forests, caves, springs, rivers, and wild game to be found in the “Country of the Six Boils”. According to the story, the “Six Boils” Jennings was referring to were the Indian, Shoal, Center, James, Spring, and North Fork rivers, upper tributaries of the White River. “Six Boils” sounded like “Six Bulls” when pronounced by the people, and in a short time, the name “Six Bulls” was adopted.
One of the earliest references to the Six Bulls River was made by the American explorer, Jonathan B. Treat, in November, 1805, in the eleven page “Arkansas Factory Letter Book, 1805-1810”. Treat simply referred to a Six Bulls River flowing into the Arkansas from the north.
The Reverend Timothy Flint, in a letter to his brother in May, 1819, described the White River and the Six Bulls River as two distinct rivers. Of the Six Bulls he wrote:
“On a stream denominated the Six Bull, which comes in from the north side of the Arkansas, is situated the missionary family; of the situation and prospects of which, the public is sufficiently informed. Not very far from this station--which is in a measure connected by the Six Bull and the Osage River with an establishment of the same kind on the Missouri--is the military station on the main river [the Arkansas], and about six hundred miles from its mouth. In the vicinity of that station is the settlement called Mulberry. It is understood that the boatable waters of the Osage approach within an hours walk of those of the Six Bull; and thus the rivers Missouri and Arkansas might easily interlock. Indeed, the facility with which all the western rivers, that are not in this way actually connected, might be united is a circumstance of astonishment to a person acquainted only with the Atlantic rivers.”
On his journey down the Arkansas River, Thomas Nuttall remarked on July 14, 1819, that his party “saw the outlet of the Grand River, (or the Six Bulls as it is called by the French hunters)”. Edwin James, who accompanied Stephen H. Long through the Arkansas country, also referred to “the Grand River or Six Bulls”.
Both the White and Grand (Neosho) river valleys developed good reputations rapidly; and by 1820, one year after the formation of Arkansas Territory and one year before Missouri became a state, the region of the two rivers had become known in Tennessee as a famous hunting country.
Americans were settling on the White River when the Louisiana Purchase was being made. Fortescue Cuming, traveler and writer, noted, on his journey through the Arkansas country in 1807-1809, that several settlers had located earlier on the White River, one of whom had thirty Negroes. They had been forced to leave, however, because they had not obtained land titles from the United States. He wrote that “This was bad policy, as the White River lands were in such repute, that a great settlement would have been formed ere now.” Edwin James noted in 1817 that there were numerous settlements on the White River, several of which were located above the Chattacoochee Mountains. While traveling down the Mississippi River on January 11, 1819, Thomas Nuttall’s boat was forced to land because of fog and rain. On shore his party met two hunters who informed them “of the existence of a considerable settlement on the banks of the White River.”
Although cabins were less frequent above Little North Fork, there was by 1819 a chain of pioneer log huts which extended three hundred miles along the White River from Batesville, Arkansas, to Forsyth (Taney County), Missouri. A few of these were in Ozark County.
Although Ozark County was settled more rapidly than some of the neighboring counties, due to the fact that Little North Fork and Big North Fork allowed easy access to it, the earliest date of settlement corresponds closely with those of neighboring counties. One of the first settlements, if not the first, was made by the Thomas Alsup family in 1812. Coming up the White River, Thomas Alsup landed at the mouth of Big North Fork and later traveled up that river to the junction of Bryant Fork. Rippee Creek, a tributary of Bryant Fork, located in that area of present-day Douglas County which was originally made a part of Ozark County, became the heart of the Alsup family territory. The Fleetwood family soon followed the Alsups, settling nearby. Another early settlement was made by Peter Graham, a Kentuckian, on the White River, sometime before 1816. His daughter Nancy married Paton Keesee, the Daniel Boone of Ozark County.
The first settlement in neighboring Baxter County was made in 1809 by Major Jacob Wolfe, Cherokee Indian agent, at the mouth of the Big North Fork. This settlement was named Liberty (Norfork). In 1818 a colony of five families, led by William Carr, a Baptist minister, moved to Howell County. The first thing this small group did was to build a little log church. It was named Richwood Baptist Church.
Settlements in more distant counties occurred at about the same time. In 1819, the first permanent settlement was made on the Current River in Ripley County, and in the same year, there were settlements on the Eleven Point River in Oregon County. A family by the name of Pettijon, together with twenty-four neighbors, came into the territory known as Kickapoo Prairie in 1818 and made settlements about fifteen or twenty miles southwest of Springfield.
Turnbo’s Fireside Stories, which are mainly reminiscences and information based on hearsay evidence, reveal that some of the earliest settlers of Ozark County came from Tennessee. The Ozark historian, A. M. Haswell, stated that the original settlers of Ozark County and the Ozark Highland center were nearly all natives of the mountains of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, or adjacent parts of Kentucky. They were Protestants of Anglo-Saxon, Scotch-Irish or Black-Irish stock who kept their strain pure through inter-marriage. They migrated from the highlands to the east, where they had lived for some time in isolation, and reached the Ozark center sometime during the period from 1810 to 1840. Having few Negroes or foreign-born among them, they remained a somewhat homogeneous group. Less than five per cent of the original settlers of Ozark County were of foreign birth or parentage.
EARLY SETTLERS OF OZARK COUNTY
Name Year Settled Where Settled From
Just what personal characteristics these frontiersmen and other settlers in the area possessed it is difficult for the historian to say. Schoolcraft made several passing observations as to their character. He noted that most of the earliest settlers of the area could not read or write and were, by nature, superstitious. The children were generally ignorant of the knowledge of books, and did not know how to speak their own language properly. Schoolcraft wrote that the settlers he met “could only talk of bears, hunting, and the like,” and “the rude pursuits, and the coarse enjoyments of the hunter state, were all they knew.” Most of the frontiersmen had “either embraced hunting from the love of ease or singularity” or had “fled from society to escape the severity of the laws, and to indulge in unrestrained passion.” Women in the area had few children, and there was a high infant mortality rate. Edwin James noted that “the inhabitants have, almost without exception, a sickly appearance.”
Later writers have been more complimentary to the early settlers. The frontiersmen have been described as “rugged individualists, cautious, cool, and uncommunicative with strangers; but with…neighbors…friendly, congenial, generous, and exceedingly cooperative.” Their nature was such that they joined in clearing land, rolling and burning logs, and in building houses, churches, schools, and roads. The settlers thought nothing of “neighboring” and assisting each other as neighbors for the distance of fifteen miles.
Their means of livelihood no doubt demanded ruggedness. The only inhabitants who had penetrated the wilderness of the White River country by 1819 were hunters and trappers who supported themselves by taking the bear, deer, buffalo, elk, beaver, raccoon, and other animals “which were found in great plenty in the region.” Animal skins were carefully collected and preserved during the summer and fall and taken down the White River, along with bear’s bacon, pork, beef, venison, bees-wax, honey, and buffalo meat, to Liberty (Norfork) at the mouth of the Big North Fork where they might be met by traders with large boats; or they were sometimes taken all the way down to Newport at the mouth of the Black River, where traders regularly came up to receive them. The products of the upper White River were then taken by the traders on down to Memphis, New Orleans, or other Mississippi Valley cities. The hunters received the following prices for their goods in 1819:
Product Quantity Price
Trade was primarily on a barter basis at the time, however, and the hunters returned home with salt (valued at approximately five dollars per bushel), flour, whisky, some coffee, calico, iron-pots, axes, blankets, knives, rifles, hatchets, powder, lead, iron for horse shoes, and other articles. Little clothing and few food stuffs were imported.
These frontiersmen seldom cultivated more than an acre or two of land, subsisting chiefly on animal food (mainly bear meat), corn, and wild honey. Most of the hunters grew cabbage for domestic uses and raised corn for bread and for feed for their horses.
These frontiersmen (hunters and trappers) who relied so heavily upon trade for a livelihood were one of four classes of settlers which entered Ozark County before the Civil War. Besides the frontiersmen, permanent farmers, townspeople with some capital, and lumbermen entered the county, arriving in that order but tending to overlap one another. The hunting-trapping ways of the frontiersmen were gradually replaced by those of the lumberman, cattleman, businessman, and/or tiller of the soil. Although the settlers of the 1820s and 1830s were still mostly frontiersmen, some agricultural people from the St. Francis and Mississippi river counties and states to the east entered overland, ascending the larger river valleys. Others, like the frontiersmen earlier, entered by way of the White River northward and up Little North Fork, Big North Fork, Bryant Fork, and their tributaries; some followed the Osage Valley from the North southward. The settlements made during the 1820s and 1830s were confined to the creeks and rivers, where were found plenty of water and springs; and the hills and uplands were left to be settled later.
Milling was the first industry to enter the county, and this occurred during the decade of the 1830s. The water mill, which ground the grain for the pioneer’s staff of life, often formed the nucleus of the pioneer community. One of the earliest millers to enter the county was James Forest, a native of the Lake Erie region of Pennsylvania. Forest settled on Little North Fork in the autumn of 1833; and it was there, about one mile above the mouth of Barren Fork, in 1837 that he established one of the first grain mills, if not the first, in the county. He was a livestock man, also, and each spring usually found him with approximately four hundred head of cattle on hand.
The stream and river valleys filled up slowly during the 1830s; and by 1840 there were approximately two hundred families that had established their new homes in Ozark County, still a very sparse settlement. These early settlers found that there was virtually no local or county government, and as time passed they found that the seat of their county administration, which was usually many miles away, switched locations frequently. As no roads had yet been built (there were only foot trails), travel was slow and difficult. The slowness of transportation, coupled with the fact that the Ozark Highland center was a vast, remote region, made administrative processes slow and inefficient. Tax assessments and collections were virtually impossible to make.
The area of Ozark County was once a part of six Missouri (parent) counties before it was organized, the last being Taney County. These parent counties are listed below:
Name of county Date Organized Year of First Available Census
Two years before Taney County was organized, the Missouri legislature defined the boundaries of a county running along the southern border of the state from the southeast corner of present-day Taney County to the western boundary of Ripley County. This county, which was to have been named in honor of Hugh L. White of Tennessee, was never organized.
By 1840 the state legislature had become aware of the increased population of the region of the two North Forks of White River and its need for a more localized government and the next year created a new county to encompass the area. The county was given, perhaps unknowingly, a bewildering name.
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