Economics in the Ozarks

The economy of the mid nineteenth century Ozarks resembled modern day Ozark livelihood in a lot of ways. The steady stream of people heading west found their fortunes, hardships, and legacies in the frontier of the rocky, river fed Missouri hills. Missouri’s population nearly doubled in every decade preceding the Civil War. As the last slave state and with Southern-loyal, slave holding Arkansas to the south and the loud, emancipation-minded Kansas to the west, Missouri would create for herself an integral role in the emerging sectional crisis.

St. Louis was an important hub city on the eve of the Civil War, with river traffic and rail travel converging on its metropolis. The rail line heading westward into the Ozarks had stopped, at the beginning of the War, at the emerging town of Rolla, in Phelps County. The next two tumultuous years of warfare stopped the railroad’s progress, but by 1864 the route was again being graded and cut towards the city of Springfield. Telegraph lines, and the rutted, rocky roads they marked, went south into Arkansas, eventually west into Kansas, and linked the vast rural Ozarks to modern America, circa 1860. With the coming of the railroads, the Ozarks proved her importance to the Nation with her contributions in agriculture, mills, and mining.1

The Ozarks were home to a great many agricultural endeavors, primarily small, self sufficient farms clustered amid nascent travel ways. Feeding the family, and later the villages and cities that sprung up around the developing Wire Road and impending rail lines, was of utmost importance. The combination of the westward migration by the citizenry and the developing cattle trails running through the western Ozarks, from Sedalia to Texas, made Missouri and the Ozarks a prominent player in the economy of the 1850s. The American people were looking west, and they saw Missouri: her crops, her people, her potential.

Ozark farmers grew a little bit of everything, proving their mettle in numerous agricultural forays before settling on a winner. Often, crops were brought (along with their particular growing methods) from the region in the East that the farming settlers had come from. Thus, cotton, tobacco and hemp were early ventures in the economy; however the rocky soil, heavy with greasy red clay, found throughout the Ozarks proved unsuitable for large plantation crops. Then as now, the weather was a difficulty. Mercilessly hot in the summer, and seemingly either rain soaked or utterly parched, raising commodity crops through a capricious growing season was not a pursuit for the faint of heart. Winters could be brutal; ice and snow and perilous temperatures kept many farmers from either getting crops adequately stored or sufficiently marketed.

It proved worth the trouble, of course, as those crops were valuable to the industrializing, increasingly populated North. Cotton, hemp and tobacco were grown along the edges of the Ozarks, fashioned after the chief crops of the Deep South and worked by Southern families and their slaves. The 1860 economy of the greater Ozarks, however, proved not to be similar to either Little Dixie, the rich agricultural belt along the Missouri River in northern Missouri, or to that of the Deep South, from which so many slaves were obtained and a slave economy solidly formed. In the Ozarks, what slaves were owned worked in small numbers across a large number of families, as opposed to the plantation-esque economy of Little Dixie.2 1860 census data shows that larger groups of slaves were held by fewer families, and indicates that the economy of the region was not driven by slave labor.3 Slaves helped to produce some crops, though data suggests that many slaves in the Ozarks were utilized more as “domestic help” rather than as traditionally associated “field hands.”

Fields of ripening wheat, corn, and oats do not at first appear to possess much importance to an army, but in fact during the War they were of great military value. The lack of adequate mechanized transport (like riverboats or trains) in the Ozarks region meant all military supplies had to be hauled by wagon, drawn by draft animals. These animals, and all the animals that hauled cannons or carried soldiers, and the soldiers themselves, had to be fed and fed regularly. It was not efficient to have the animals haul in all the food they required; the law of diminishing returns shows it unwise to have the animals eating larger quantities of their loads just to be able to move their loads at all. It makes much greater sense to have their foodstuff grown, harvested, and stored close to their areas of operation.

Thus it was imperative for both armies to draw upon the crops of the Ozarks in support of their military operations. In 1863 a Union advance was launched into the Indian Territory (now present day eastern Oklahoma) in order to push Confederate forces back into Texas, better defending Missouri and Kansas from attack.

One object of Gen. Blunt’s journey south is to make arrangements by which the able-bodied Indian refugees, now at Neosho, Missouri, will be able to return to the Territory and put in a crop during the coming season. It will be absolutely necessary…in order that there will be subsistence for these people, as well as corn for the large cavalry force which for the next twelve months will have to be maintained.4

If, during a retreat, an army passed fields of corn, wheat, oats, or hay grasses that it knew would not benefit its own military operations, but that of the enemy, it might very well be put to the torch. It might have been private property, a family’s livelihood, but it was also war.

Subsistence farming was much more common across the breadth of the Ozarks, with the hearty livestock that was also raised a valuable asset to the independent farmer. The beef cattle of Kansas and the poultry of Arkansas were matched in popularity and value by the Missouri mule, a well regarded Ozark commodity. Bred by farmers working the notorious clay soil with a plow, the mule is the dependable result of a male donkey and a female horse. Possessing the patience and sturdiness of a donkey and the vigor and courage of a horse, mules became, by the War, a precious resource of the Ozarks. The limestone outcropping of the Ozark Plateau supported a variety of oak trees, which produced enough mast for large numbers of hogs. The value of livestock, to include horses, mules, sheep and hogs, in the Ozarks alone in the year before the War approached an astounding $12 million dollars.5

Supported by hardy crops, mills emerged in what would become “commercial” centers around the Ozarks. Mills were important centers of commerce and culture, often thriving within miles of one another, and during the war took on great military importance. Due to the abundant waterways and hardwood forests, mills were successful endeavors for the pioneer entrepreneur.

As with the crops they processed, mills were important to military operations, turning wheat, corn and oat into flour and meal for soldier’s rations. Captain Oliver Barber, Commissary of the Kansas Division operating around Cane Hill, Arkansas, in 1863, commandeered a large mill where he produced an average of 75 large barrels of flour every day for a full month. Because of the many rebel farms in the area, ripe for the picking, he only paid for roughly a third of the grain he used; the rest was spoils of war. Likewise, if a mill was beneficial to the enemy it was a fitting target for the torch.6

Water-powered grist mills and timber mills, and later textile mills, would place the Ozarks on the map. Interestingly, the Arkansas Ozarks possessed, in 1860, a far greater manufacturing output than that of the Missouri Ozarks, with over seven times the output.7 The remaining grist mills of the southern Ozarks persist in function and lore as a center of local history and tourism.

The mines of southwest Missouri, extracting and smelting primarily lead, iron, zinc and barite, were instrumental in securing for Missouri the favor of the North, when the issue of armed neutrality became moot. In 1860 Missouri led the nation in lead mining. Within a year much of Missouri’s lead would be found in minie bullets and case shot balls. The lead mines in Newton County, in and around Neosho, would be much desired by both Union and Confederate forces in Southwest Missouri. Meramec Iron Works, near St. James in Phelps County, was but one example of the Ozark contribution to the North in the years of the War.8 Securing the metals needed not only for ammunition but transport became critical in the early years of the war, and it was in the Union’s best interest to secure for the war effort Missouri’s many contributions. Despite a brief Confederate incursion into the state, Ozark goods, and the people that produced them, were firmly behind the Union effort within a year of the War’s tumultuous beginning.

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  1. A transcontinental railroad, and the linking of the East and the West, had been a goal for Lincoln, and others. Disputes over the routes, and other issues prevent its completion during Lincoln’s lifetime. Despite struggles with politicians and the Native Americans, the transcontinental railroad was eventually completed across the northern tier of the country (approximately along modern day Interstate 80) by two competing railroad companies, in 1869.
  2. This was certainty specific to the crop. In the Ozarks, where the labor intensive crops of cotton and tobacco were not planted on a large scale, slave labor simply wasn’t as utilized. The inaccessibility of markets for crops grown in the less populated and mountainous areas of the Ozarks also contributed to a more self sufficient mode of farming.
  3. 1860 census data was utilized for the primary reason that the Ozark counties in question were all formed, at least in Missouri, by the 1860 census. Further, the territory of Kansas was not submitting census data prior to 1860. In reviewing slave data, whereas 45.5% of Arkansas Ozark citizens owned slaves, just over 35% owned only one slave, suggesting that domestic help or a field hand for a self sustaining operation was at work. The same could be said of Missouri, with nearly fifty percent (48.4%) of Ozark families owning less than 30. Over a third (35.7%) only owned one slave. Two slaves were reported on the Kansas census, but specific county residence is not noted., last visited 29 January 2009.
  4. “From the Far West.” New York Times, March 2, 1863, page 1 column 6.
  5., last visited 29 January 2009. In 2007 dollars, that represents a $309 million value in marketable beef cattle, dairy cows, poultry, mules, hogs and the like., last visited 29 January 2009.
  6. “From the Far West.” New York Times, March 2, 1863, page 1 column 6.
  7. 21.5% of statewide manufacturing value, vs. 3% in the Missouri Ozarks. 63% of Arkansas Ozark manufacturing dollars came from one county: Washington. Washington County was also by far the largest slave owning county of the Arkansas Ozarks., last visited 29 January 2009.
  8. “Place for an Armory,” Rolla Daily Express, 13 May 1861, page 2. Meramec Iron Works operated 1826-1876, and exists now as Maramec Spring Park.