Insights from “A History of the Ozarks” by Brooks Blevins

When researching your ancestors, have you considered a deep dive into the locality through reading a book? Although articles on Wikipedia or other websites can give us an overview of an area, we might be missing the deeper nuances that can be found in an in-depth scholarly treatment of our research locale.

I recently read A History of the Ozarks, Volume 1: The Old Ozarks by Brooks Blevins. With several ancestral lines settling in the portion of Southern Missouri and northern Arkansas that makes up the Ozark region, I was hoping to gain insight into my ancestor’s actions. The book lived up to my expectations and in this article, I’ll share some of my favorite insights.

The author, Dr. Brooks R. Blevins, teaches several courses on the Ozarks at Missouri State University. His publications – essays and books –  have received numerous awards and after reading A History of the Ozarks, I can see why. Dr. Blevins bases his discussion on the region on a multitude of first-hand accounts, distilling the information into easily digestible chapters. The endnotes provide sources and opportunities for further reading. Fully indexed by place, subject, and name, an ancestor could even be mentioned in the book. Blevins acknowledges research conducted by hundreds of people at various repositories such as university special collections, libraries, museums, archives, and historical societies. If you’ve wondered what types of materials are available in manuscript collections, A History of the Ozarks provides some insight: quotes from diaries, letters, and interviews abound.

What topics are covered in A History of the Ozarks? I am only discussing Volume 1 The Old Ozarks, the beginning of the Ozark trilogy. It treats the Ozarks beginning with the geography, native Osage, French and Spanish colonial eras, and antebellum settlers. Volume 2, The Conflicted Ozarks centers on the era during the Civil War and Volume 3 covers the Ozarks in the 20th and 21st centuries.

With 239 pages of text and 43 pages of endnotes, A History of the Ozarks might seem daunting, but I read the book in a few months by digesting 2-3 pages a day. This approach gave me time to highlight in red the main points that will aid my research. Blevins illustrates these main points with fascinating examples, but when reviewing the book or looking for a bit of information, I wanted to easily locate the nub of the paragraph. For example, in the chapter, “Americanizing the Ozarks,” I highlighted the following sentence.

Upland southerners generally sought land that resembled the places they left behind . . .Their preference for well-drained, forested, hilly and rolling terrain located them on less fertile soil but allowed for a seamless transmission of the agricultural practices and lifestyled developed in the Upland South.” (p. 86)

In researching my ancestor, John D. Isenhour, I found this to be true. He migrated west from Lincoln County, North Carolina, to Greene County, Tennessee, then to Cape Girardeau County, Missouri. His land fell on the edge of the Ozark uplift and reflected his previous locations.

As I read each section, I compared the text to my ancestors’ actions in the Ozarks. They resided in the area from about 1820 for the earliest group to about 1875 for the latest group. Eventually, each family line made its way to Texas and then north to Indian Territory by 1890. Reading The Old Ozarks also shed light on the settlement of other areas as the author compared and contrasted the Ozarks with other points west.

My take-aways from the book in relation to my ancestors follow.

Chapter 1: The Primitive Ozarks

The discussion on the landforms, geography, and very early inhabitants proved fascinating. Blevins referenced chert, a type of sedimentary rock that prevails throughout the region. My farmer ancestors likely encountered plenty of chert as they plowed the land, seeking to plant their crops.

Archaeologists have discovered remnants of an early group who lived in what is known as the Woodland period. Named the Ozark Bluff-Dwellers, these people depended on hunting and gathering more than on farming. By the time the first French explorers arrived in the late 1600s, few humans lived in the Ozarks.

During this time period, my ancestors for the most part still resided in Europe.

The following map depicts the various regions that make up the Ozarks in Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:OzarkOverview.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, (accessed June 13, 2021).

Chapter 2: Natives and Newcomers

Although few indigenous people lived in the Ozark uplift, the Osage tribe had long controlled the region as part of their trans-Mississippi domain. The French explorers traded with the Osage and mined lead from the Ozark hills throughout the 1700s. However, after losing the Seven Year’s War (also known as the French and Indian War) to the British, France turned control over the lands west of the Mississippi to Spain. Not much changed under Spanish rule as far as the mining, but the Spanish outlawed the enslavement of natives who had been forced to work the mines. Nothing was down though for the slaves of African origin.

Additional native tribes moved into the area west of the Mississippi during this time, having been pushed west by white settlements. This threatened the Osage power in the region and Pinkney’s Treaty of 1795 opened the area to free American trade. The flood of Americans into the region began in 1796 and Spanish and Osage influence in the region steadily declined, being overwhelmingly outnumbered.

The American settlers came largely from Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and created communities similar to what they had left behind.  My ancestor, John D. Isenhour, fit in this group, having migrated west from Lincoln County, North Carolina (1818), to Greene County, Tennessee, eventually arriving in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri by the early 1820s. John D. Isenhour belonged to the group named “Whitewater Dutch” who settled on the banks of the Whitewater River in present-day Bollinger County, Missouri.

Chapter 3: Americanizing the Ozarks

Before the first railroad arrived in the region, settlers traveled old Indian trails that became wagon trails, then roads. The earliest settlers understandably claimed the best lands, generally near the rivers or along the roads. Up until the War of 1812, the Ozark region had been sparsely settled, but from 1812 to the Civil War, the region experienced growth in huge numbers. Thousands of people left their homes in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and other states and moved into this region of fresh soil and opportunity. Seeking land similar to what they had left behind, they viewed the Ozark uplift as a familiar territory with its well-drained, hilly, forested land.

My 3rd great-grandfather, James Jackson Frazier, fit the mold for an early Ozark settler. Born in Surry County, North Carolina, his family first moved to Warren County, Tennessee, then to Benton County, located in the northwest corner of Arkansas. Likely of Scots-Irish descent, the Fraziers joined thousands of other settlers whose ancestors had also fled the British Isles in the 1600s and 1700s.

Chapter 4 Domesticating the Ozarks

Early adventurers in the Ozarks relied on their hunting skills for survival. As more and more settlers arrived, they brought with them their subsistence farming techniques and found the land perfect for grazing cattle, sheep, and hogs. Farmers marked their pig’s ears as the animals had no sense of boundaries – just wandering where their noses took them. Cattle provided dairy products and sheep provided wool for the settlers but were not raised in abundance like the hogs. A variety of crops fed the settlers, but corn was the staple. Easier to grow than other grains, corn was also well-suited to the climate and the soil.

My ancestor, John D. Isenhour, left a will that reveals not only his heirs but also his lifestyle. (1) From the time of his arrival in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, in the early 1820s, until he died in 1844, he had amassed a large number of livestock – especially hogs which were well-suited to the hilly terrain of the Ozarks. Corn was an easy crop to grow and fed the hogs as well as the people. Sheep provided wool, and cattle provided dairy products. His property included the basics for running a self-contained plantation, such as axes, handsaw, plow, wagon, and windmill. Settlers used the mattock for cutting through roots and keeping the land cleared. He also valued his rifle, which would have served him hunting wild game and defending his family and home against any intruders. His orchard likely grew a variety of fruit, and he would have raised grain to feed his stock.

Ozarks, photo by jeannetteyvonne, flicker, ( : accessed 15 June 2021).

Chapter 5: Markets, Merchants, and Manufacturers

Merchants followed the settlers into the Ozarks and set up stores  – selling or most likely trading for manufactured items such as cloth, shoes, and sugar. The mainstays of a settlement – doctors, lawyers, teachers, and blacksmiths provided needed services for the settlers. Better roads, steamships, and railroads continued to mark progress in the region and provide ways for the farmers to get their produce to eastern markets. Mining and manufacturing gave additional opportunities for work and produced goods to sell and improve the economy.

My Ozark-residing ancestors farmed and likely traded for anything they couldn’t produce on their own. I viewed the Sugar Creek, Benton County, Arkansas, 1850 census to learn more about the community of John Briscoe, another 3rd great-grandfather. I saw the following occupations, one of each except where noted: wheelwright, cooper, stonemason, wagon maker, teacher, printer, blacksmith (4), carpenter (3), furrier, clergyman (2). The remaining 44 households farmed.

Chapter 6: American Society in the Old Ozarks

Churches sprang up across the Ozarks with many Baptist and Methodist congregations. Disciples of Christ and Presbyterian churches numbered fewer. Lutherns and Catholics had little presence in this part of Missouri and Arkansas. Most children who attended school did so at a subscription school, taught by anyone who claimed to be a teacher. For $1 a month, a child could learn the basics. A few academies gave opportunities for wealthier families to educate their children past this rudimentary stage.

Viewing the 1850 census for Sugar Creek, Benton County, Arkansas, some families seemed to value or be able to afford school and others didn’t. Twenty-six families out of ninety-four had some children marked as having attended school with the year, including my Briscoe family. Meekly Henry, age 32, likely moved into the community with his wife Elizabeth and opened up a school. He was the only teacher listed in the community. Two clergymen listed as “Clergyman M.B.” were probably Missionary Baptists, a group described in The Old Ozarks. Did my ancestors attend this church? Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing, but I can entertain the possibility.

Reading The Old Ozarks opened my eyes to the region several of my ancestors settled before moving on to Texas. Because western settlement generally followed a similar pattern, I can transfer my insights to other localities.

What’s next? I’ll be reading The Conflicted Ozarks and discovering what my ancestors experienced during the Civil War. I have a feeling it won’t be pretty, but I owe it to them to learn about the time they lived through.

Seeking out a detailed book on the history of your ancestor’s locality provides depth and understanding to their lives in a way few other sources can.

Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!

(1) “Missouri Probate Records, 1750-1998,” Cape Girardeau > Letters testamentary, wills, 1807-1867, vol A-C, image 392 of 786, John D. Isenhour, 1844.

Source: Family Locket

Posted On: June 17, 2021 at 02:24PM