Urbanization in the Ozarks

The life that many Missourians and Arkansans found in the Ozarks must have seemed enough. Enough people, certainly, as more and more moved west in true Manifest Destiny form. Enough land, enough plenty and enough hardship. Enough political intervention in their upstart communities to establish well enough independence from the ties of the communities left behind. Enough of the past, brought along in wagons and traditions, to make just enough of a future for themselves and their families. It was enough for the thousands of citizens of the Ozarks to have moved the Ozark hills and plateaus, and with their migration came more than enough change.

The growth of cities in the Ozarks was reflective of the terrain, the economy and the people who populated the region. White settlers from the middle South, some bringing their slaves, as well as Scots-Irish immigrants by way of the Appalachian foothills, Germans from St. Louis, and sundry frontiersmen and missionaries alike sought their new American life in the Ozarks. Town centers were built in areas naturally conducive to the movements of people and commodities. The abundant timber and grist mills, as an example, operated near springs and waterways, and allowed commercial traffic and goods to be transported in and out. Such commercial endeavors were often multi-generational operations that flourished alongside the blacksmiths, dry goods salesmen, liveries, and the like that comprised a frontier town of the mid nineteenth century.

Springfield, the largest city of the Ozarks in 1860, grew up around a series of springs among an old Kickapoo Indian campsite. She was called “the most extensive, rich, and beautiful” country west of the Mississippi River by explorer Henry Schoolcraft.1 In the first year of the war it was occupied, lost, reoccupied, and again lost by the Union forces in southwest Missouri.

Tents, like huge flocks of swans, had settled all over the prairie- long columns of infantry filed through the streets. Squads of cavalry, in gay equipments, went dashing hither and thither- the music of brass bands enlivened the air.2

In February 1862 the Federal forces wrested Springfield from the hands of Major General Sterling Price’s joint Confederate and Missouri State Guard armies, this time holding it for the duration of the war.

Springfield, surrounded by the broken chimneys and ashy ruins of Price’s vast cantonments, shows everywhere the effects of war. Sutler’s shops have replaced the great stores that made it the great trading city of the southwest. The courthouse is used for a military building, and reviving civic authority must emenate [sic] from a little Methodist church. The Baptist church has been a hospital, and the crack hotel of the city is a hospital now. The beautiful new Presbyterian church, to cost, when complete, $30,000 is a commissary storehouse, and splendid residences are barracks. Zagoni’s [sic] charge was made in a luxuriant orchard of apple and peach trees, but the trees are debarked by horses, and the great, splendid farm with all the out-buildings, and negro quarters, fences, &c., are destroyed.3

The presence of the Union army did three things: it made the city a destination for Unionist refugees fleeing Confederate-held territory; it caused the departure from the city, both voluntary and involuntary, of southern sympathizers; and it encouraged the post-war movement of ex-soldiers (who had been posted there during the conflict) with their families back to the area. In July 1865 a soldier in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry wrote back to his home to laud the attributes of Springfield and encourage his fellow Buckeyes to look west to their future.

Springfield is ‘large for its growth’ and almost bursting with its fruitfulness. The time is not far distant when it will be the great commercial depot of all the vast South-West… The city is built with considerable regularity, being composed of several squares with wide streets. Portions of it will compare with the best regulated towns [of the] North for fine residences, beautiful groves and shady avenues. The citizens are of an industrious class, and each one is building up a fortune which will soon make Springfield a solid town. Here pretty girls are the rule and not the exception.4

Perhaps this entreaty led one newcomer to Missouri, Mr. Stacy Smith from Chillicothe, Ohio. In July 1866 he also wrote back home about the area, but in not so glowing terms.

Money is hard to get here. The people lost a great deal of property during the war, even to furniture and clothing, which were taken off to other States and sold. A great many rebels are being sued now for damages done during the war. Men got so used to stealing here while the war was going on that they hate to give it up… New comers are not so apt to have their property stolen as the old settlers- stealing being resorted to as a kind of revenge for wrongs done during the war…

The people of Missouri suffered more during the war than any other of the border states… the country was first held by one army and them by the other, so much of the time, that it gave almost every man an opportunity to take vengeance on his political enemies.

A great many rebels are leaving the country… most of them had their property destroyed by the state militia, and as they were principally the wealthiest part of the community, we find many of the largest farms… stripped of all their improvements- a few shade trees around the yard, and now and then an orchard lying waste, all that is left to designate the once improved plantation from the surrounding uncultivated prairie.

In south-west Missouri timber is of a much poorer quality than in any State I have ever been in. I do not see what is causing so many people to come here, for certainly there was never a country more overrated than Missouri.5

Smaller urban centers such as Carthage, in the western Missouri county of Jasper, and Rolla, in the northern Ozarks county of Phelps, emerged alongside an itinerant population travelling what would become permanent roads. Rolla, by 1860, was the railroad terminus of the northern Ozarks, and would become an integral part of the Civil War effort for the Union, not only for its proximity to the vast Ozark network of wagon trails, but as a rail hub connecting it to St. Louis.

Fort Scott, Kansas and Fort Smith, Arkansas were both early century military encampments that grew up with the urban Ozarks. The presence of soldiers on the frontier proved helpful as well as heartening to families facing the possibility of Indian attacks and the presence of partisan violence in the years before the War. The martial organization, permanence of physical structure and vital commercial role of military forts west of the Mississippi created markets for Ozark goods, established secure populations, and opened up possibilities for stable growth.

Mid-Nineteenth century emigrants may have sought self sufficiency in the expansive green lands of the Ozarks, but they gathered in masses in upstart communities that were more resistant to economic downfalls. For an emerging community centered amid scattered farms and settlements, sustained growth amid political turmoil, droughts or disease outbreaks made the difference in the future of the community. Certainly, with the border war between Kansas and Missouri raging on, Carthage and other fledgling border towns were affected not only in population but in the enduring welfare of the citizenry.

The urbanization of the nineteenth century Ozarks can also be interpreted by the abundance of newspapers and media coverage, if you will, afforded the region in the upcoming sectional crisis. The East Coast dailies regularly afforded their metropolitan readers updates on guerrilla activity, future crop forecasts, and political maneuvering West of the Mississippi. The volatile politics of the 1850s – the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the Dred Scott decision of 1857, Bleeding Kansas and the tumultuous ideological wrangling that led up to the 1860 presidential election – put Missouri and the Ozarks on the map of a great many minds in the deep-pocketed East. This interest created opportunities for urban growth before unseen in what had been a wooded, sparsely populated frontier.

The average family relocating to the Ozarks of the 1840s and 1850s very well found adversity at every turn. Disease, social isolation, economic want, political divisiveness, familial dissent, weather, cultural challenges, homesickness and unfulfilled self-determination all conspired to break down the ties families and communities held. The emergence of urban centers in the decade before the Civil war created commerce, a spiritual community, and educational opportunities for the scattered families, and provided a natural draw for modern life, as it were, with a tangible possibility for the future Ozarks.

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  1. “Springfield Greene County History,” History Department Missouri State University, http://history.missouristate.edu/ftmiller/LocalHistory/spfd-grco.htm, last visited 5 February 2009
  2. “The Army at Springfield.” New York Times, November 11, 1861.
  3. “From Cassville to Rolla.” Chicago Tribune, June 30, 1862.
  4. “Letter from Missouri.” Scioto Gazette, Chillicothe, Ohio, July 20, 1865.
  5. “Letter from Missouri.” Scioto Gazette, Chillicothe, Ohio, July 10, 1866.