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Early Settlement Rural Community on the Ozark Frontier, 1815-1850

The early white American settlers in the southern Courtois Hills of the Ozarks, for the most part, were native-born Americans of Scotch-Irish ancestry. Part of the westward movement of the upland Southerners, they adapted their "stockman-farmer-hunter" economy to the wooded hills of the Current River basin. [1] Before the invasion of land speculators, the Civil War, the railroads and large-scale corporate lumber, the southern uplanders planted their hill and riverine communities with little contact from the outside society. Although far from shut off completely from the "civilized world," they largely defined the nature of their isolation before 1850. The difficult, dissected Ozark terrain made movement in and out of the region arduous, and the early permanent settlers built communities with close kinship ties that reflected their uplander heritage adapted to the Current River environment. The homeland developed a frontier culture on the Current that resembled but very much differed from the highlander societies of Appalachia. Even along the Current itself, the nature of the dispersed open frontier communities varied. The frontier quality of the Current reflected the isolation of this rugged hill country and the character of the people that it attracted. The area was largely bypassed during the early populating of Missouri and the Middle West.

Ever increasing numbers of white American settlers pushed into Missouri after the War of 1812. From 1814 to 1820, one year before Missouri gained statehood, the population swelled from 26,000 to 70,000 people, and by 1850 the state boasted a total population of 682,044. [2] Geography and the imprint of previous cultures and pioneers shaped a disjointed pattern of settlement across the state. Americans first congregated in Missouri's two principal river valleys, first the Mississippi and then the Missouri. Next, they moved into the Springfield prairie. This westward movement resettled a land previously occupied by a succession of prehistoric and historic Native American Indians, the French, and other Europeans. It formed an arc around Missouri's rugged Ozark hills where only a few equally rugged individuals and families filtered into these secondary river valleys on the upland fringes of Missouri's booming population centers.

The first American settlements developed in a well known area of the Mississippi valley settled earlier by the French. This stretch of the Mississippi stood out as a transportation crossroads, providing riverine access to the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, the Old Northwest (Ohio valley), and the Rocky Mountains and western plains. The French were also attracted by the native Indian population whom they befriended to expand their vast fur trade. In the early decades of the eighteenth century, they began establishing permanent settlements, such as Kaskaskia (1700) on the east side of the Mississippi and later Ste. Genevieve (1735) on the west side. The later town primarily grew as a distribution center for lead and salt from the Ozarks. Lead and salt mining made up the major economic activity, for few farmers accompanied the French pioneers. Ste. Genevieve also developed as the center for a regional fur trade although St. Louis soon rose to dominate the trade because of its position at the confluence of the great Missouri and Mississippi river highways. The mining activity concentrated in the upper St. Francis river region of the Ozarks, and the French transported the lead overland to Ste. Genevieve. [3]

As with the late eighteenth century Lorimer and Morgan ventures, American settlement in the western Mississippi valley began under the Spanish regime. Those first American settlers were attracted by the Indian trade, on which Lorimer's migration especially focused. Settlers arriving after the Louisiana Purchase flocked to the Mississippi valley and the mining region of the interior. The Americans knew of the French lead works and, as they moved into the St. Francis and Washington county areas, introduced improved mining techniques that out produced the more primitive surface mining of the French. Two new towns, Cape Girardeau on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi just up from the mouth of the Ohio River and Jackson in a rich farming region inland from the Mississippi, became the basic distribution centers for the American settlers in southeast Missouri. [4]

The next line of settlement followed the Missouri River along the northern border of the Ozark uplands. These settlements first developed around the early French and Spanish communities near the mouth of the Missouri. Many Americans, however, followed the lead of Daniel Boone and his family who settled a little west of the present city of Columbia. Boone received a Spanish grant at the end of the eighteenth century, and Americans soon began to fill the countryside around Boonslick and Boonville, where salt springs and fertile prairie and timber lands provided the necessities of pioneer farming. Large slave-owning planters also moved into the fertile valley. In 1811, sixty families occupied the Boonslick area and, by 1820, the number had grown to eight hundred. [5]

The third major direction of Missouri settlement focused on the Springfield plain of the western Ozark plateau. The town of Springfield, settled by white Americans in 1822, developed into the center of trade in this rich agricultural region. It was situated around a number of springs and other sources of water power. Prior to the arrival of white settlers, Indians hunted and farmed in this district, and the Delaware continued to live here until the end of the decade. The farming focused on raising cattle and corn and, by 1850, the county ranked first among the Ozark counties in the production of foodstuffs. In addition, at mid-century, the discovery of rich lead deposits stimulated further migration to the area. [6]

The largest surge of the early nineteenth-century settlement of Missouri, then, passed around the steep Courtois Hills. Yet groups of Americans did move into this rough Ozark land and laid down rural communities along the rivers and streams and mining towns in the hills. The lead mines, of course, inspired American entrepreneurs and laborers to travel overland into the St. Francis Mountains of the eastern Ozarks. [7] One of the most enterprising of the Americans, Moses Austin, came to Mine-a-Breton in 1798 when the Spanish still controlled the territory. This mining community, founded in the 1780s about forty miles due east of Ste. Genevieve, was the earliest white settlement this far into the Ozark interior. Austin laid out an operation above Breton and introduced more productive lead smelting and mining techniques. The town of Potosi developed around the mines and grew into a leading community that, in 1813, stimulated the creation of the first county of the Missouri Ozark interior. A number of high-cultured Scotch-Irish families from western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee also established farms in the nearby fertile Bellevue valley, where the prosperous rural town of Caledonia was platted in 1818. [8]

Farther south, in the vicinity of the established trade route of the Natchitoches trace, pockets of rural settlements grew as former residents of New Madrid and then migrants from the border states and the upland south carved out farmsteads. Small rural villages, such as Greenville near a ford on the St. Francis River, sprung up along the waterways. During the second and third decades of the nineteenth century, these settlements took hold in the southern Missouri where the river valleys widened near the edge of the Ozark escarpment. [9]

While the populations of the lead mining district and the southern St. Francis River valley grew between 1815 and 1850, a few individuals and families ventured farther into the Ozark interior and established farms and rural communities along the waters of the Black, Current, and Eleven Point rivers. The size of the riverine populations, however, diminished north and west of the lower St. Francis River. In 1840, the population of Wayne County, including the lower Black River, totaled 3,403, while the larger area of the upper Black, the Current, and the Eleven Point rivers, as well as the rest of the recently formed Ripley County, numbered 2,856 people. [10]

Up to 1850, 98 percent of the people who moved into the southern Courtois Hills followed three basic migration paths: a central route from Kentucky and Tennessee, a northern one from Illinois and Indiana, and a southern one from Alabama and Arkansas. Most of the settlers traveling from the northern or southern routes, however, originated elsewhere. For example, about one-third of the people came from Indiana and Illinois, but only about 16 percent of the 1850 population identified these as their states of birth. Even fewer originated in Alabama and Arkansas. Three-fourths of the adult settlers migrating to the southern Courtois Hills during the 1840s were born in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. Only the Tennessee and Kentucky migrants, composing about two-thirds of the 1850 population, traveled predominately from their native states. This was especially true of the individuals and families from Tennessee who largely originated in the territory between the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. [11]

A large German population of about 95,000 also resided in Missouri by 1860. An early German or "Whitewater Dutch" colony developed at Whitewater Creek at Cape Girardeau at the end of the eighteenth century. Between 1830 and 1850, many more Germans entered the state but settled mainly in the Missouri River valley and plains north of the Ozark hills. [12]

Records of the pre-1820 size of the population on the Current River are sparse. During his 1818-1819 excursion through the Ozarks, Henry R. Schoolcraft generally commented that "many plantations and farms" occupied the banks of the Little Black, Current, Eleven Point, and other rivers of the area. [13] Only a handful of settlers, hunters, and prospectors apparently lived in the region now known as the Ozark National Scenic Riverway. Yet the dual homeland and hinterland dynamics underlying the settlement and development of the Current were already visible. These first "pioneers" included Isaac Kelley, Zimri Carter, and Thomas Boggs Chilton, whose families became long established and prominent along the riverway. Local histories suggest that Kelley was the first American settler on the Current and that he entered the region during the first decade of the nineteenth century. He established a trade with Indians in the area. By the mid-1820s, he planted a farm on a wide alluvial terrace at a large bend in the lower Current midway between Gooseneck and Van Buren. Up and across river from Kelley, Zimri Carter located his farm just below the present site of Van Buren. Carter County, organized just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, was named after him. In 1818, Thomas Boggs Chilton arrived at the Current River and eventually developed a farm on Owls Bend approximately eight miles below the mouth of Jacks Fork. [14] These early settlers occupied some of the best farmland along the riverway and developed into commercial and political leaders of the area.

Another prominent, though less durable, inhabitant was William H. Ashley. A entrepreneur/explorer from St. Louis, Ashley discovered an abundance of saltpeter in caves near the headwaters of the Current. By 1814, he developed a lucrative gunpowder industry from the saltpeter mined in the largest of these caverns, Ashley Cave, located about five miles from the mouth of Cave Creek (now North Ashley Creek). Henry Schoolcraft camped at Ashley Cave and called the operation "very extensive." This early mining activity illustrated the hinterland character of the Current River hill country whereby raw goods were removed to facilitate developments and the accumulation of wealth elsewhere. Years later, in the early 1820s, William Ashley increased his wealth and prominence by organizing a new method of fur trapping. Fur trading, as mention in the previous chapter, ranked with mining as a leading extract industry early on in the Ozark hinterland. [15]

Between 1820 and 1840, more settlers moved into the Current River valley as the Ripley County population crept towards 3,000. Several concentrations of settlements are discernable from surveyor and land office records. On the lower Current below present day Van Buren, Zimri Carter's son, Benjamin, developed a farm on the west side of the Current a few miles south of Big Spring. A Chilton family member settled roughly four miles south of Isaac Kelley's property. Above Van Buren, four or five families, including another member of the Chilton clan, clustered on both sides of the river bend near the mouth of Chilton Creek. Woods Mill was located about two miles below these families, and another mill probably existed farther north and up Rocky Creek. [16]

In 1833, the village of Van Buren was founded as the seat of Ripley County. The little community developed around an old Indian trails crossroads and, during the late thirties and early forties, it contained a store, a grist mill, a log courthouse, and little more than a handful of residents. West of Van Buren, a group of seven or more families built homes along Pike Creek. [17]

On the upper Current River, settlements became more concentrated between Owls Bend and Round Spring and west along Jacks Fork River. A few settlers built homes several miles up Blair Creek just north of Owls Bend. Between the confluence of the Jacks Fork and Current rivers and Owls Bend, Thomas Coot Chilton, a cousin to Thomas Boggs Chilton, settled a spread near Coot Hollow. [18] Northward on the Current between the mouth of Jacks Fork and the first site of Eminence, by 1840, ten families had selected homesites averaging one to two miles apart. About two miles upstream from the mouth of Big Creek, one of these early residents, Alfred Deatherage, settled around 1830, and a Deatherage store stood a little north of his cabin by the 1850s. Yet another Thomas Chilton purchased a farmsite on the upper Current. Thomas T. Chilton bought a farm from William Green on the east side of the river about a mile south of Round Spring. He became a postmaster and his home served as a post office for the surrounding countryside. In 1841, the first site of Eminence, the seat of Shannon County, was founded about a half mile above Chilton's place. Settlers also located around Round Spring, a large spring across the river from Eminence, and another group positioned itself several miles up Spring Valley west of the spring. [19]

Farther up the Current, another rural community developed around the site of present Akers ferry. During the 1830s and 1840s, several settlers congregated near the mouth of Gladden Creek, and a dozen or more developed homesites up the creek. Small plots also were settled, about seven miles north of Gladden, along Big Creek. A few even more isolated families or individuals lived along the creeks and hollows, such as Ashley Creek and Parker and Inman Hollows, north of Big Creek. By sometime in the 1850s, a hamlet or small trading center across from Welch Cave and near Akers reportedly included a store and a molasses mill. [20]

An additional concentration of settlers extended west along Jacks Fork. In 1840, a few settlers lived at the mouth of Jacks Fork River and, in the 1850s, someone built a small store here. Upstream from the mouth of Jacks Fork, two more pockets of small farms were distinguishable. The first extended from Shawnee and Little Shawnee creeks to the present site of Eminence. The relatively wide alluvial terraces near the mouths of Shawnee and Little Shawnee creeks were especially popular. A Col. Thomas Chilton established a farm at the mouth of Shawnee; Fursman Spring Mill stood on Little Shawnee; and other settlers, such as the Thomases and Wests, settled between the creeks and along the opposite bank of the Jacks Fork. Other homesites dotted the landscape on both sides of the river near the future location of Eminence. One of the earliest white American settlers on Jacks Fork, James McCormack, probably arrived in the 1820s and located near Alley Spring. A second pocket of settlers developed near the spring. [21]

A variety of important factors, chiefly geographic constraints, the self-sufficiency nature of the economy and social ties, influenced the selection of homesites. The topography of the Current River country, and much of the southern Courtois Hills in general, deterred the settlement of the upland areas. Here, the chert covered soils and steep hill grades were inhospitable to cultivation, and the inaccessibility of water, except for a few locations with springs and sinkhole ponds, detracted people from these higher elevations. Along the Current, the American settlers judged the terraces above the flood plain as more attractive locations. Identifying this pattern in his doctoral dissertation, Harbert Clendenen noted that these sites had "easy access to water, immunity from flooding, gently inclined, tillable slopes, and an unlimited upland for grazing and foraging stock." [22]

This preference for terrace lands was evident up and down the river, and it duplicated the known occupation patterns of prehistoric and Amerindian cultures. Early settlers, such as Isaac Kelley and Thomas Boggs Chilton, developed relatively large farms or plantations on such terraces, where these slipoff slopes broadened near wide river bends. Both the Kelley site on the lower Current and the Chilton site farther north on Owls Bend bear evidence of a series of habitations dating to the Archaic period. The Akers and Round Spring areas, between 1820 and 1850 the most populated regions of the Current River above Jacks Fork, also were places where sedimentation accumulated and created relatively wide terraces. The immediate and surrounding geography of Akers and Round Spring, however, was more diverse. These two sites had a scattering of smaller farm and house sites around the large floodplains, terraces, hillsides, and nearby creeks and hollows. They too were occupied by prehistoric groups over several thousands of years. [23]

Between 1820 and 1840, the preponderance of homesites were scattered in an area bordering to the north and south by Round Spring and Owls Bend on the Current and to the west by Alley Spring on the Jacks Fork. The concentration of settlements here not only reflected the area's favorable geographic features but also centered in the region recently vacated by the Delaware and Shawnee. The early white American settlers probably had some prior knowledge of the resources of the Jacks Fork region through the trade between whites and the Indians. In addition, they certainly would have found the area attractive because of the improvements left by the latter. The Delaware and Shawnee, along with a few Creek, farmed, raised livestock, and hunted here. Their lifeway, in short, resembled that of the white Ozark frontier settlers and, as historian Lynn Morrow stated generally, squatters tailed the migrating eastern tribes and benefited from the land and building improvements abandoned by them along the trek westward. [24]

The settlement pattern also reflected a basic difference in the economic pursuits between the upper and lower Current inhabitants. Along the upper Current, above Van Buren, a frontier self-sufficiency prevailed whereby the backcountry plain folk typically got a living by herding, hunting, farming, and trading. In short, they were economic "generalists." They most often occupied small forty- to eighty-acre farmsteads with several acres fenced off for crops. In 1820, the cultivated fields averaged about ten acres and, over the next two decades, the average rose to almost twenty acres. Within the fences, they raised mostly Indian corn for the family's consumption. [25] Their horticulture strategy involved planting two or more fields of corn at different elevations to guard against the total destruction of a crop in the event of extremes in weather. For example, they reasoned that in a wet year crops on the hill might survive whereas in a dry year the hill crop would tend to burn up but the field in the valley could still produce. They would plant the upland crops in the early spring and the lowland crops in the late spring. [26] The Ozark uplanders fenced in their fields to keep out the livestock, for the southern hillmen migrating here fervently believed in the open range.

These economic generalists relied on meat from domestic livestock and to a lesser degree from wild game. They raised both hogs and cattle, but hogs were the staple foodstuff. In 1835, a relatively genteel traveler in the southeast Missouri Ozarks, George Featherstonhaugh (pronounced "Fanshaw"), noted in condescending terms the backwoods appetite for pork:

With them the ceremony of eating is an affair of a few moments; the grand object is to fill the stomach as quick as possible with the usual food . . . the same disgusting coffee, pork, bread, and butter three times a day, as long as they live.

As Featherstonhaugh also observed they lacked meadows of hay and other cultivable resources for fodder, except for the leaves of the cornstalks, and depended on the forest mast (nuts that accumulate on the forest floor) to feed the stock. [27] In the tradition of upland southern plain folk, the Ozark settlers practiced a rather leisurely method of woodland herdsmanship that left the hogs and cattle alone to forage for food in the woods. It proved an effective inexpensive means of herding and provided the foundation for backwoods self-sufficiency; it also allowed considerable free time for hunting and domestic crafts. [28]

In general, these Ozark hillmen did more hunting than cultivating. The Current River basin and much of the more isolated Ozark hill country bounded with deer, bear, panthers, and other game; however, if they ate wild game at all, the uplanders only supplemented their diet with it. They principally hunted for hides and other animal by-products and to protect the livestock from predators. [29] On the upper Current for example, bear oil, animal hides, pelts, feathers, ginseng, and other herbs served as a currency in a backwoods barter network and as an extractive industry bringing a little cash into this money poor region. At trading posts, such as the Deatherage store south of Round Spring, the settlers often traded this wild truck for coffee, sugar, tobacco, dye stuff, and whiskey. [30]

The nature of the upland southern self-sufficiency was well suited to the resources and terrain of the upper Current Ozark wilderness. The ruggedness of the Courtois Hills, its inaccessibility, and distance from the main transportation routes and centers of population made this isolated area a haven for independent minded squatters and others of few material means or desires. For the most part, the uplanders probably gave the scarcity of fertile or even level tillable land little thought since they could support their Arcadian lifeway with just a few acres of corn and the livestock foraging on the open range. Along the upper Current, the different clusters of dispersed small farmsteads created rural settlements that afforded a degree of sociability, for those wanting the contact, as well as the space between homesites and in the near boundless hills for the men to hunt and the livestock to feed.

In the lower Current River valley, below Van Buren, the presence of larger commercial farms and some farms considered plantations marked a contrast from the upper Current self-sufficiency. The economic difference reflects a change in geography, for the Current River widened in the south and created wider more fertile alluvial valleys. Early settlers such as Zimri Carter and Isaac Kelley selected this choice land for their relatively large plantations during the first decades of the nineteenth century. The river south of Van Buren also differed from its upper reaches because of the year-round transportation potential. Unlike its northern sections, where the river becomes shallow during the summer, the lower Current was navigable for small boats and barges throughout the year. It provided access to outside markets for the crops of the larger commercial farms. [31]

Two factors, slaves and the local barter goods, underscored the difference between the larger commercial farmers of the south from the frontier generalists. First, local histories suggest that both Carter and Kelley used slave labor on their plantations; however, the archeological evidence uncovered at the Kelley site has not yet confirmed the presence of slaves. A local history of Carter County refers to a cemetery of freed slaves near the old Carter plantation south of Van Buren, and the 1850 census lists eighty-six slaves in Ripley County, which at the time included Carter County and the southern Current River valley, and only nine slaves in Shannon County. [32] Second, in contrast to the common use of pelts and other products of the hunt farther north, the settlers of the lower Current tended to trade agricultural products, such as pork and bacon, for store goods. [33]

The definition of two regional types of economic subsistence, the generalist farmer-herder-hunter of the upper Current and the commercial farmer of the lower Current, represents a simplified characterization or model of the settlement pattern along the Current. Of course, on the lower Current, there were settlers who took up small plots and lived a similar self-sufficient lifestyle as described for the upper Current. Moreover, the more wealthy settlers such as Isaac Kelley also spent leisure time hunting and at times supplemented their food supply with wild game. Their agricultural pursuits also combined crop cultivation and livestock raising, and only their commercial nature really separated these operations from those of the self-sufficient generalists who were more common in the more rugged northern Current. On the other hand, relatively large commercial farms also existed above Van Buren, most notably the Thomas Boggs Chilton spread at Owls Bend. Other members of the Chilton family, living on the relatively wide terraces near the present site of Eminence on the Jacks Fork, also occupied large commercial spreads and supplemented their commercial activities with copper mining. [34] Nevertheless, the distinction between the settlement types on the upper and lower Current reflects a predominant characteristic in the pattern of occupation apparent during this early period. It also illustrated the adaptation of the settlers to the geographic differences, the more rugged hills and the narrow valley floors with limited tillable land in the north and the wider alluvial valley in the south, in the Current basin.

Social relations along the Current River valley centered around the family, the hamlet and mill sites, and the open rural community. These social links also played an important role in the pattern of settlement. Above all, kinship supplied a fundamental cohesive ingredient in this frontier Ozarkian society and an important element in defining the Ozark homeland for families that persisted in the area. The "magnetic role [of family] in attracting" people to the river valley reflected this significance. A description of the influx of the many Chiltons to the Current River valley, taken from Clendenen's "Settlement Morphology," displays an extreme example of an extended family migration:

Thomas Boggs Chilton, the son of a Welsh immigrant, was born in Maryland in 1782. After unknown premigrations . . . [he] removed in 1816 with his family from Rhea County, Tennessee, to New Madrid, southeast Missouri Territory. Two years later, the Chiltons moved to the mouth of Henpeck Creek on the Current River, in what later became Carter County. Thomas Coot Chilton, born of Welsh parentage in Jefferson County, Tennessee, in 1790, moved to Shannon County from Knox County, Tennessee. Like his cousin T. B. Chilton, he settled on Current River, locating two miles below the mouth of Jack Forks. A year later in 1837, his brother, Truman Chilton, joined him, having migrated from Roane County, Tennessee. From the latter county, Thomas T. Chilton, son of Truman Chilton, also migrated; in 1841 he settled on Current River near the original site of Eminence. Many other Chiltons came to the southern Courtois Hills by the early 1840s, including "Yellow Tom" and "Tennessee Tom" Chilton; the later and his family, however, "soon became dissatisfied and moved back to Tennessee." In all, nearly two dozen Chiltons were entrained to the southern Courtois Hills, principally from counties on the upper Tennessee River. [35]

A number of the Chiltons became active in local politics and, overall, many family members, succeeding in commercial agriculture and other entrepreneurial enterprises, rose to the upper crust of this riverine society. The significance of kinship ties in the early settlement of the Current River region, however, prevailed throughout the area and cut across class lines.

A simple listing of a sequence of surnames recorded in the 1850 U.S. Census manuscripts for several locations in Shannon County and in the area that became Carter County demonstrated that families tended to settle in clusters within the riverway. Two series of surname sequences from each county, Shannon and Carter, revealed this kinship bond. For Shannon County, the two sequential lists of surnames of heads of households were: Crabtree, Crabtree, Lewis, Summers, Summers, Summers, Lewis, McDonald, and Lewis; and Suggs, Rogers, Thomas, Suggs, Chilton, Thomas, Chilton, Thompson, Chilton, Conway, and Conway. The example from Carter County read: McKerney, McKerney, Epler, Webb, Hooper, Hickson, Hooper, and Webb; and Snider, Hurley, "unoccupied," Snider, Lewis, and Snider. [36]

In addition, family ties endured from this early settlement period into modern times and, therefore, continued as an important cultural feature in the Current River homeland. A 1977 study of settlement patterns on the lower Current noted, for example, that decedents of the Harris and Kelley pioneer families, both families of rather high economic status since the early nineteenth century, continued to live near the original farmsites and also spread along the river valley and creeks. A strong social connection also persisted among kin members. [37]

Small rural hamlets and mill sites, while important to the local economy, also served as meeting places vital to the sense of community in the isolated Ozark frontier. They varied little in make-up and often consisted of a store, a grist mill, possibly a distillery, and seldom more than eight log dwellings. In rare instances, they also included a blacksmith shop. Because of the basic self-sufficient nature of the Ozark settlers, these hamlets served only a secondary economic function of providing them with basic staples, such as coffee, sugar, and whiskey. Therefore, the village inhabitants generally farmed and kept livestock, in addition to maintaining a store or other service, to turn a profit. [38]

There were few hamlets in the Current River valley and, for that matter, few in the entire southern Courtois Hills. By 1855, one source identified six hamlets in the southern Courtois Hills: the two earliest hamlets were located on the upper and lower Current River, three others were founded in the mid-forties on the upper Black River and its tributaries, and one, Birch Tree, was located in the uplands of southern Shannon County. The upland location of the latter community distinguished it from the more common river and creek valley locations of the other hamlets. The water source provided by a number of sinkhole ponds at Birch Tree attracted settlers to that site. [39]

The founding of the two frontier hamlets, Van Buren in 1833 and Eminence in 1841, directly followed the organization of Ripley and Shannon counties. Across the western frontier, early settlers were quick to organize a government with the power to collect taxes, to administer justice, and to make public improvements. This held true along the Current where a local committee appointed by the state selected a small settlement on the west bank of the Current south of Pike Creek as the Ripley County seat and the first frontier town on the river. They named the village Van Buren after President Martin Van Buren. Based on similar political motivation, Eminence was founded as the seat of Shannon County on a site overlooking the Current across river and just south of Round Spring. In contrast to these examples, farther north up the Current, a third hamlet at Akers developed strictly as a trading and social center. [40]

The gristmill sites, where settlers frequently visited to have their corn ground, were fundamental to local self-sufficiency. Three basic mill technologies—hand-, animal-, and water-powered mills—existed in the Current Valley. In the isolated individual Ozark homesites, early settlers frequently relied on hand-mills. During his travel through the Missouri Ozarks in 1834, Featherstonhaugh encountered hand-operated sweep-mills and, in one instance, described the operation of this type:

They had no mill of any sort to go to, but had scooped out a cavity in the stump of a large tree, over which was a wooden pestle, eight feet long, suspended from a curved pole 16 feet in length, with a heavy weight at the end of it. A cross stick was fixed in the pestle, about two feet from its base; so putting the grains of maize into the cavity, and laying hold of the cross stick, we pounded away. . . . [41]

The water and many of the animal-powered mills were often commercial enterprises where the miller ground corn or grains for a fee or a percentage of the meal or flour. Clendenen suggested that the gristmills of this Ozark region probably were "Norse" mills, a type common to hilly and mountainous areas. In the more fertile agriculture areas, outside the most impassable Ozark hills and closer to improved transportation networks, farmers often sold their surplus grains to a miller for cash, and prospering millers marketed their flour over an extended multi-county area. In the Courtois Hills and along the Current River valley, however, the prevailing self-sufficiency relegated the mills to the service of a local and mostly noncash community market. Most families used all their corn for home consumption and, if they had access to a mill, regularly visited the miller to grind corn into meal and to hear the latest local news. [42]

These community mill sites occasionally developed into small hamlets but, in this early settlement period, they frequently stood alone. The mills were powered by a spring branch or creek off the Current River. Available knowledge of the location and dates of mills probably reflects a conservative estimate of their number in the valley. Before 1860, at least ten gristmills and six sawmills operated in the Current River valley. Ascending the river from the present southern border of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, midway between the Isaac Kelley and Zimri Carter plantations, a Chilton operated a grist- and sawmill on Benjamin Carter's former farm. Isaac Kelley might also have had a mill on his land. Another gristmill stood in Van Buren, and Woods Mill, a grist- and sawmill, could be found near the Current just a few miles above the mouth of Pine Creek. A combination grist-sawmill, the Laughlin and Whaley Mill, was twenty miles north of Van Buren. The swift waters of Rocky Creek powered the Rocky Falls Mill several miles above the creek's confluence with the Current. Thomas Boggs Chilton had a sawmill at Owls Bend. At least three more mills operated along Jacks Fork: the Fursman Spring Mill east of Eminence, and the McCubbin Mill and Stoops grist-sawmill farther west near the headwaters (see Base Map 2).

Base Map 2. The Homeland, Early Settlement 1812-1860, Ozark National Scenic Riverways. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The water-powered sawmills supplied mostly pine lumber to a local and in some cases a regional market. The Woods Mill and a Kelley and Dearing Mill (Phillips Bay Mill) were examples of early commercial mills that sold to region wide markets. The Kelley family and James Dearing operated the latter mill from sometime in the 1830s until the 1860s and usually employed three workers. The laborers might have been slaves since both Dearing and Kelley owned slaves and preliminary archeological evidence suggested that slaves might have lived near the site. In 1850 the mill sawed 100,000 board feet of pine lumber and in 1860 produced 50,000 feet. They sold the lumber to customers in the surrounding community and floated some down stream to Arkansas. Like many mill owners, Kelley and Dearing did not specialize in lumber but operated the mill along with a variety of other agricultural and commercial enterprises. [43]

In the more rugged terrain above Jacks Fork, even less is known of the mill sites of the early settlement period. Aside from the Welch gristmill near Akers and the Pulltite sawmill, few other pre-1860 sites have been dated. A number of other mills, such as a gristmill at Round Spring, another on Sinking Creek, the Richardson saw- and gristmill between Sinking Creek and Pulltite, and the Heiny gristmill on the Current above Pulltite, operated during unknown time frames. Farther north, a molasses mill reportedly existed around Akers community. This mill type, however, was frequently mobile. Two more gristmills, one near Cedar Grove and another, the Baum Mill above Ashley Cave, also served this remote region at one time or another. These mill sites, whether in a hamlet or on an isolated plot, functioned as meeting places of open country communities where the settlers gathered for social exchange and to trade economic goods.

The term "open community" described the "loosely organized" social, economic, and political relations that created a sense of community in dispersed frontier settlements in the Ozarks and in other rural settlements on the edges of the frontier. These frontier communities emanated from families that persisted in an area and not from the mobile individual hunter or transient squatters. [44] They displayed a layer of social relationships, progressing from the family to the rural neighborhood up to the local county unit, the most important level of government in nineteenth century southern upland culture. Illustrating the nature of frontier rural neighborhood, a woman pioneering on the Illinois prairie remembered that "although the people were sparsely settled we would visit ten or fifteen miles distant and call them neighbors," but the visits were infrequent. [45] In the upland Ozarks, in the most populated sections along the rivers and creeks of the Current valley, the single family settlements were spaced, on average, about a mile apart, and the potential for visitations was high given the relatively unstructured workload of the adult males and the pressures that women must have felt to break with their heavier daily work routine. [46]

Central Shannon County Settlement Pattern, 1840 (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

A network of trails and roads facilitated social contact in the Current valley. In central Shannon County, the field notes of government surveyors outlined a "dispersed settlement" of homesteads scattered along the river and creek valleys. The individual settlements were interconnected by a system of trails that generally followed the creeks and rivers. The well defined routes suggested frequent social contact among the settlers. [47]

The physical layout of the community around Eminence before the end of the Civil War demonstrated aspects of the dispersed settlement and community formation on the upper Current. As archeologist Cynthia Price explained in her work on "Old Eminence," the site of the original Shannon County seat, featuring a jail and courthouse, was an "isolated political center" not a frontier town. [48] Yet a mill, store, and post office all existed within a four-mile radius of the courthouse/jail site and represented a more extreme example of an open community than existed down river in Carter County. Sometime in the three decades before the Civil War, a mill and at least one residence was built at Round Spring a quarter-or a half-mile upstream and across the river from the courthouse. The post office was in the postmaster's home about a quarter of a mile down from the courthouse. In the 1850s, the Deatherage store, roughly four miles below the courthouse on the opposite bank, served families as far as fifteen miles away. Its customers traded at the store on a regular basis; some came daily whereas some others returned every week or two, A fur press, possibly an ancient oak tree still present at the site, illustrated the barter nature of the trade at the store. [49] Van Buren, of Carter County, contained more of the trappings of a true frontier town with a mill, store, courthouse and several residences tightly clustered in a village setting.

A complicated set of dynamics contributed to the early American settlement of the Current and Jacks Fork riverways before 1850; however, a homeland with discernable cultural traits was taking shape. Scotch-Irish settlers, old-stock Americans from the upland South, dominated the early development of the region. They migrated to the southern Courtois Hills of the Ozarks in kinship groups and established open rural communities of dispersed individual homesteads. Their stockman-farmer-hunter way of life demonstrated a preference for a pre-modern or frontier existence rooted in the forests of the upland South. They were economic generalists and practiced a form of self-sufficiency that resisted the trend toward economic specialization and surplus production. [50] Like most of America, men dominated society in the Current homeland. The Ozark uplanders displayed a strong leisure ethic. They survived, for the most part, on small patches of corn and hogs that foraged in the open range, and they preferred hunting and fishing to farming. In the Current River basin, deep in the rugged southern Courtois Hills, the Scotch-Irish discovered an environment suited to these uplander traditions.

The nature of the settlers self-sufficiency, however, was not uniform throughout the Current valley, nor were the settlers completely isolated. Below the confluence of the Jacks Fork and the Current and especially below Van Buren, the river widened and created broader and more fertile valleys. Here, the land supported greater commercial activities, and early settlers established relatively large commercial farms and plantations. Moreover, a barter trade existed up and down the river, and most everyone traded furs, livestock, and homemade goods. They traded for staples, such as salt, coffee, flour, and whiskey, brought in from other areas. Yet before 1850, these fiercely independent settlers of the Current River region mostly defined the nature of their isolation.

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Last Updated: 02-Mar-2005