One of the most ambitious projects in Arkansas history was recently launched when the University of Illinois Press announced that Brooks Blevins has completed the first volume in a projected three-volume history of the Ozarks. The Ozark highlands make up a large percentage of both Arkansas and Missouri, and while much has been written on the area, a unified and comprehensive history of the region has long been needed.
From the very first page, Blevins makes it clear that the Ozarks are diverse: "Welcome to the Ozarks, an American region with no single story to tell, a place more complex than you imagined but maybe just as colorful as you hoped."
He acknowledges that observers of the Ozarks have traditionally concentrated on "exceptional and exotic qualities," but "focusing exclusively on a region's perceived peculiarities or special qualities distorts the historical record by obscuring the economic, social and cultural strands that entwine regional histories within a nation's story." Blevins will have none of that.
It was salt and lead that lured the first Europeans to the Ozarks. Indians had mined lead in the Ozarks years before the French arrived. These lead mines were in what is today the Missouri Ozarks. The French took over the lead mining efforts, but when local labor proved inadequate, they brought in enslaved Africans. Complicating this early economic activity were the Osage Indians, who claimed the Ozarks as their hunting range.
The Osage were still a powerful presence in the Ozarks -- and sometimes they sent hunting parties out of the Ozarks into the Ouachita Mountains and points south -- when the Ozarks became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
Osage hegemony was threatened with the migration of eastern Indian tribes to what is today Arkansas and Oklahoma. Blevins includes a detailed look at "the Ozarks as Indian Territory." In addition to the Cherokees -- who were given a huge but temporary reservation in the Arkansas Ozarks -- smaller bands of Shawnees and Delawares could also be found. Shawnee Town was an early name for the city today known as Yellville in Marion County. By 1838, U.S. authorities had succeeded in removing almost all Indians from the Ozarks.
Blevins devotes a long chapter to "Americanizing the Ozarks." He debunks much of the credit traditionally given to Scottish-Irish immigrants in Ozarks history, though he acknowledges that they settled in the uplands in high numbers. Most were second- or third-generation Americans, Blevins notes. Often overlooked are the roles played by other ethnicities found in Ozarks history, such as Germans.
Many early observers of the Ozarks condemned the slothfulness of early settlers. British-born geologist George W. Featherstonhaugh complained that when visiting a backwoods cabin the settler was often "not at home, and in his place you find six or seven ragged wild-looking imps, and a skinny, burnt up, dirty female, who tells you that her husband 'is gone to help a neighbor to hunt up an old painter [panther] that's been arter [after] all the pigs.'"
Not all the people who settled in the Ozarks were poor and shiftless as they are often portrayed. Even Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who found much to condemn during his 1818-19 foray through the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks, acknowledged that the McGarrah family of present-day Marion County owned considerable property and "appeared to live in great ease and independence ..."
Among the early American immigrants who settled in the northern Ozarks was Moses Austin, whose son Stephen F. Austin would later prove crucial in the early history of Texas. Austin mined for almost 20 years starting in 1798, producing more than 4,500 tons of smelted lead -- a large percentage of the total amount then produced in America.
Abraham Ruddell, a Virginia-born immigrant and early settler at Poke Bayou (later known as Batesville), had been captured as a boy by the Shawnee and adopted into the tribe. As an adult, Ruddell and a brother settled first at New Madrid, but the powerful earthquakes of 1811-12 caused them to move inland and settle in what is today Independence County. Batesville writer and lawyer C.F.M. Noland described the Shawnee-raised pioneer as "a living, breathing likeness of Cooper's Leatherstocking."
While Blevins refuses to accept the stereotypes of Ozarkers as unusually violent, he gladly allows that the highlands were the scenes of many outrageous crimes and violent encounters. Polk and Benton counties in Missouri were the locations of the Slicker War of the early 1840s, which involved family vendettas. At about the same time in Arkansas' Marion County, the bloody Tutt and Everett Feud was to a substantial degree a political contest between Whigs and Democrats.
As you might expect from a region that produced America's largest retail empire, the Ozarks had its fair share of entrepreneurs. The Missouri Ozarks were home to an ironworks by 1823. The 1840 U.S. census recorded the presence of 286 gristmills in the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks. Tanneries were found all over, often lending their names to places such as Tanyard Spring in Carroll County. Also in 1840, some 152 distilleries in the Ozarks produced 73,000 gallons of spirits.
Brooks Blevins is an expert in weaving many diverse strands into a seamless tapestry. His writing is always grounded in deep research, but it can be sweeping -- even magisterial -- at times. He described early Ozarkers as "in many respects a peripheral people, living on the nation's periphery, crafting a story peripheral to the national narrative. But like the inhabitants of many peripheries, these proto-Ozarkers were never as far removed from the American economic, social and political core as their observers and the chroniclers of their descendants would have us believe."
Blevins' 297-page hardbound book ($34.95) is nicely illustrated and thoroughly indexed. Blevins, an Arkansan, is the Noel Boyd Professor of Ozark Studies at Missouri State University in Springfield and author of numerous books on Arkansas and Ozark topics.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.email@example.com.
NAN Profiles on 09/16/2018
Print Headline: A distinctly American region