Minorities in the Ozarks

1st Sgt. William A. Messley
Image courtesy of the History Museum for Springfield-Greene County.

Southwestern Missouri had been attracting U.S. born immigrants for decades before the Civil War began. The Indian Removal Acts had opened the region to settlement. Lured by the fertile soil and river-fed valleys of the Ozark Mountains, the population in the Ozarks grew roughly eighty percent in the 1850s.1 These numbers represent mostly white settlers moving west, but living among them were several minorities.

By the 1850s, approximately 75 percent of Missourians claimed Southern ancestry, hailing primarily from Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. By 1860, Greene County, the focal point of Southwest Missouri, had an overwhelming majority of its residents emigrate from the Upper South.2

Immigrants of foreign birth were not so quick move to Southwest Missouri. Perceived competition with slave labor may have been part of the reason why so many
immigrants of foreign birth settled in St. Louis. In that time period, St. Louis experienced a massive growth. Her invaluable waterways allowed for transportation of goods from across Missouri to be distributed throughout the United States. From 1832 to the 1850s the number of steamboats in St. Louis increased from 532 to more than three thousand.3 St. Louis also saw a large boom of German immigrants and by 1850 one in three residents of St. Louis was of German origin, compared to the 7.2 percent of the entire state outside of St. Louis.4

As St. Louis expanded and became more diverse with Irish and German immigrants, the entire city became increasingly different from rural Missouri. The common man of rural Missouri, in particular central Missouri, however, still saw their economic wealth come from hard work on the land rather than the industrialized North.

Over twenty thousand Native Americans served in the Civil War, mostly from the Indian Territories in Kansas and modern day Oklahoma.5 Their loyalties varied, and many nations fractured and fought for both the Union and Confederacy. In some cases the war pitted tribes against one another. Wavering support among the Five Civilized Tribes of Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma) caused the federal government to begin withholding annuity payments for fears the funds would fall into Rebel hands.6 Leaders such as Albert Pike, Stand Watie, and John Ross acted as intermediaries with the Union and Confederate Governments.

Kansas witnessed a massive influx of refugees from modern day Oklahoma. Both the Confederate and Federal Governments failed to provide relief supplies for the Native American Tribes. Finally in the spring of 1864, the Native Americans were able to return to their lands in Indian Territory.

The majority of the Ozarks’ African American population was brought to the region against their will. Slavery in the Ozarks was not as prevalent as the river valley regions of central Missouri and southeast Arkansas, but did exist. Most slave owners worked along side their slaves, forging a life for themselves out of the land. As the war progressed more and more African Americans earned their freedom, either legally or illegally. Some had the opportunity to join the Union Army. Views of African American soldiers varied from regiment to regiment, but many white soldiers were eager to have help fighting the Rebels, especially if it ended the war quicker.

African Americans were part of the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks slave communities before the War. The overall slave population was not great, however, in the Ozarks, compared to other parts of the states where the economy depended more greatly on slave labor. Missouri, for example, had the highest slave populations in her northern tier, along the Missouri River, in what has been called the “Black Belt.” It was in this region that the slave-dependent crops of tobacco, hemp and cotton were established. In Arkansas, only Washington County, in the northwest Ozarks, had a proportionately high population of slaves. The Ozarks of Missouri had the highest slave population in Greene County, which also boasted the largest overall county population in the 1860 census.7 Most Ozarks counties had a low percentage of slaves, considering that Missouri was a slave state, and this could be a reflection of how the State came to find support from the Union, and not the Confederacy, in the Civil War.

As the War came to its bloody conclusion in mid 1865, the freed slaves of the Ozarks were faced with a choice of where to go, what to do, and how to do it. 1870 census data shows an overall drop in the number of African Americans that lived in each county, with only a few, among them Greene county, showing population gains.8 This would suggest that a great number of freedmen relocated outside of the Ozarks to cities of industry, in order to seek employment and the benefits of urbanization.9

Minorities in the Ozarks were largely distinguished by their accents, and by the color of their skin. In the post-war, they did their best to blend in with the Ozarks region’s culture.

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  1. Only two counties, Pulaski and Taney in Missouri, reported negative growth. The per capita change in slave population from 1840-1860 in the Ozarks was a 17% drop overall. See detailed census data at http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/collections/stats/histcensus/, last visited 13 March 2009.
  2. James Denny and John Bradbury Jr, The Civil War’s First Blood: Missouri, 1854-1861 (Boonville: Missouri Live, 2007), 3.
  3. Christopher Phillips, Missouri’s Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West (Columbia: University of Missouri, 2000), 116.
  4. Phillips, Missouri’s Confederate, 118.
  5. Williams, David. A People’s History of the Civil War. (New York: The New Press, 2005), page 391-2.
  6. Williams, page 395.
  7. Greene County boasted an 1860 population of 13,186, of which 1668 were slaves. This represented 12.6% of the population, a high average for the Ozarks, but one that was waning from previous census data. http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/collections/stats/histcensus/, last visited 13 March 2009.
  8. http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/collections/stats/histcensus/, last visited 13 March 2009.
  9. http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/collections/stats/histcensus/, last visited 13 March 2009.