Let The River Be:
A History of the Ozark's Buffalo River
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The Presidential election of 1860 proved to be the most portentous of any national referendum either before or since. After a decade of sectional bickering over the institution of slavery, the American people were clearly divided among the four candidates. The Republican Party presented as its candidate the lawyer from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, while the Democratic Party, which had foundered on the rocks of the sectional debate, split into northern and southern factions and nominated Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge respectively. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Union Party attempted to offer a compromise between the extreme northern and southern positions and nominated John Bell. Because of the political divisiveness which characterized the nation by 1860, Lincoln received only a minority of the popular votes but managed to obtain a clear majority of the ballots cast in the Electoral College. Thus Abraham Lincoln became the nation's sixteenth President and was fated to preside over its greatest crisis.

Arkansas, being a slave state and basically Democratic, voted for the southern Democratic candidate, John C. Breckinridge. But the state was far from unanimous in its decision. Northwest Arkansas and scattered counties in the northeastern and southwestern portions of the state voted for John Bell. [1] That division of political sentiment was typical of the states of the upper South. Arkansas, along with Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, was never a zealous adherent of the extreme Southern secessionist position. Although the tumultuous events of the 1850s aided those radicals who believed only secession would cure the vexatious problems besetting the South, the majority of Arkansans continued to favor the preservation of the Union. Even during the highly emotional period immediately following the election of Lincoln, no appreciable increase in enthusiasm for secession may be detected. [2] Arkansas seemed content to observe patiently the quickly developing situation and not be rushed into any action which it might later regret.

Shortly after news of the Lincoln victory became known, the South Carolina legislature called a convention to discuss the question of secession. On December 20, 1860, that body overwhelmingly adopted a resolution which dissolved "the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States under the name of the United States of America...." [3] The convention cited as causes the failure of northern states to return fugitive slaves, the general subversion of the constitution by the non-slaveholding states, and lastly, the election of a President "whose opinions and purposes are hostile to Slavery." [4]

There were those in many of the other southern states who harbored similar beliefs. Governor Henry Rector of Arkansas was one. Believing that the election of Lincoln made impossible the continued participation of Arkansas within the Union, Rector was joined by Senator Robert W. Johnson and Representative Thomas C. Hindman in calling for a convention to determine the future course of the state. On January 12, the state legislature approved a bill allowing the people of Arkansas to vote either for or against the calling of the convention. The act also contained a provision allowing for the simultaneous election of delegates if the people voted in the affirmative. By a margin of 11,586 out of a total of 43,238 votes cast, the call for the convention was approved. On March 4, 1861, the Arkansas congress met at Little Rock, but after two and a half weeks could only agree to hold an election the following August to feel the pulse of the people and then abide by their wishes. [5]

National events, however, would not wait for the Arkansas state plebiscite. While the entire federal military establishment in Texas peaceably surrendered to the Texas Secession Convention as early as February 18, the event which sparked the American Civil War occurred two months later with the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Three days later President Lincoln issued the call for volunteers. Governor Rector considered the President's request an insult and the Arkansas populace seemed to agree. The secession congress was called back into session and on May 6 the convocation passed the ordinance of secession by a vote of sixty-five to five. Seeking a display of unanimity, the president of the convention, David Walker, asked the five dissenters to reverse their position and four complied, with John Campbell of Searcy County being among them. But Isaac Murphy, a future governor from mountainous Madison County, stood firm. [6] The step, nevertheless, had been taken and Arkansas joined eight other seceded states. The entrance of the state into the Civil War marked the beginning of a tragic period for the northern part of Arkansas. The ensuing conflict would change not only the complexion of the land, but also the established relationship among the highland people.

At the time of the first census after Arkansas attained statehood in 1836, the number of slaves residing in the highland portion of the state roughly equalled those living in the counties bordering the Mississippi River. But as time progressed, the greater concentration of them tended toward the cotton producing lowlands and away from the Ozarks. Between 1850 and 1860 the number of slaves increased in every county except one, Newton, and the rate of growth was much greater in the southeastern portion of the state.

In the six heaviest slave counties, the average size of the slaveholding was about seventeen. But in six northwestern counties where slaves were not numerous, the average holding was about four. Thus while the average sized slave holding along the Mississippi included from two to six families, a typical holding in the highlands was limited to two to three Negroes. More important, only 1.6 percent of the whites in northwest Arkansas owned any slaves at all. And in the three counties of the Buffalo Drainage a mere .7 percent of the free population were slave owners. [7] That factor combined with the geography of the northwest, which was not conducive to the large-scale growing of cotton, resulted in that area maintaining a political indifference common to the mountainous regions of the South. The people of Northwest Arkansas could not readily identify with the problems encountered, whether real or imagined, by the radical South. Many, of course, did consider themselves Southerners and favored secession after Lincoln's call for volunteers. But a large number of Arkansas hillfolk either were undecided in sentiment or favored the Union cause. Those individuals began seeking others who maintained similar sentiments.

As early as the autumn of 1861 certain mountain residents began to join secret organizations named in different counties the Peace Society, the Peace Organization Society, the Home Protection Society, the Home Guard, and in one case, the Pro Bono Publico Society. [8] The exact nature of the various organizations which sprang up in Searcy, Van Buren, Izard, Carroll, Fulton, and Marion counties is still largely unclear. According to the constitution of one of the societies, the members' sole purpose was to "combine together for the mutual protection of themselves their families and their property." [9] And if the depositions of numerous former members are to be believed, most considered it just such a protective agency and after being discovered were willing either to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy or to volunteer to serve in the southern army. [10] It would appear that the organizations posed little threat to the Little Rock government, much less to the one in Richmond and had little to offer the Union. It is extremely possible that the individuals concerned merely desired to remain detached from either side and continue their existence much as they were accustomed. [11] Yet to the mid-nineteenth century South, a secret organization surely signaled pernicious political intrigue.

Accordingly, in the latter part of November, 1861, a distraught Governor Henry Rector wrote Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, that "a conspiracy had been discovered in the northern part of the State against the Confederate Government." [12] The governor further remarked that the members intended to join the Union Army when, and if, it entered Arkansas, and that the membership was estimated as high as 1,700. [13] Although two companies of infantry were quickly dispatched to the threatened area, local citizens loyal to the southern cause had "suppressed" the movement by the time of their arrival. Dozens of questionable residents were rounded up and confined to the jails of the various counties, even though they had not "engaged in any act of open disloyalty to our Government." [14] In Searcy County, considered to be one of the centers of the dissent, Colonel Samuel Leslie, commandant of the county militia, mobilized his men and began conducting widespread arrests of suspicious members. As the number of suspects began to mount and the county jail at Burrowsville reached capacity, Colonel Leslie received orders from Governor Rector, commanding him to march his captives to Little Rock for legal disposition. Convinced that the threat to the Confederacy was genuine and serious, Rector swore to "arrest and imprison them or to execute them for treason...as enemies of their country—whose peace and safety is being endangered by their disloyalty and treasonable acts." [15]


Number of
Number of Slaveholders

10 to 145---1
15 to 19------1
20 to 29---------
30 to 391------

SOURCE: United States, Census Bureau, [1860 Census], Agriculture of the United States in 1860: Compiled From the Original Returns of the Eighth Census, Under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864), p. 224.

In compliance with his orders, Leslie restrained the seventy-eight prisoners with logging chains, linked them in pairs, and marched them to Little Rock in six days, a distance of approximately 100 miles. [16] There, along with other prisoners, they were addressed by Rector himself who offered them the choice of "volunteering for service in the Confederate army or going to jail." He assured them that if they chose the latter, months might elapse before a trial could be held and if they persisted in their request for a trial, he was confident they would be found guilty and be hanged. [17] Of the 117 recipients of Rector's ultimatum, all but fifteen chose military service. [18] A grand jury two months later listened to the plight of the fifteen who preferred a trial. The panel found that no treasonable acts had been committed, that their offense "consisted more of words and threats than overt acts," and fully exonerated all fifteen. [19]

Those who joined the Confederate army were quickly organized into companies and sent to the theater of war on the eastern side of the Mississippi where they participated in the battle at Shiloh and other engagements. But those reluctant volunteers were less than enthusiastic about their fate, and numerous Arkansans deserted. In many instances the troops were later dismissed or furloughed subject to recall. Most returned to their homes and after a short visit with their families joined Federal forces operating out of Missouri. [20] Peace Society member David Barnett was probably typical of many who were forced into Confederate military service. "The first chance Father got he ran away—came back home a few days—then west to the Federal army and Joined them. Father Joined the 3rd Arkansas Cavilry—served through the war—after the war was over—and he Past a way—the Government—Place a tomb stone on his grave." [21]

The precipitate action of the Arkansas Confederate government had an unsettling effect on the northwestern part of the state. Initially hoping they could remain reasonably isolated from the conflict by their rough surroundings, the highland dwellers quickly realized that strict nonpartisanship would be impossible. Although the region was predominantly Union in sentiment, there remained a large number of inhabitants with southern sympathies. Indeed, the Confederacy retained possession of the area for the first year and a half of the war.

Following the vigorous suppression of the various peace societies, the northwest portion of the state was slow to become directly involved in the conflict. Arkansas, like Missouri, was of secondary importance to the Union, although both were significant to the war in the West because of their geographic location. A major objective of the Lincoln administration was to exert northern control over the Mississippi River thereby cutting the Confederacy in half and reducing its military effectiveness. [22] Because both states are bordered on the east by the river, it was imperative that they be brought under Union domination. Early northern attempts to secure Missouri had proved ineffective, but in December, 1861, Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis was appointed commander of the state's Southwestern District. Acting with resolution, the general began slowly pushing Confederate troops out of that portion of Missouri. By February, 1862, the southerners had withdrawn well into Arkansas and were regrouping for a confrontation. Curtis followed and on March 7 the two armies met in one of the most decisive Civil War battles west of the Mississippi. After two days of hard fighting in area dominated by a rise called Pea Ridge, after which the battle took its name, the Confederate force, led by Major General Earl Van Dorn, withdrew from the fray and headed for the Arkansas River to the south. The victory of Curtis at Pea Ridge ensured the security of Missouri, and if it did not establish Union control over northern Arkansas, it at least prevented the Confederacy from using it as a staging area. [23] Two months later General Curtis extended his influence in northern Arkansas by marching down the White River and on May 4 occupying Batesville. [24]

The loss at Pea Ridge and the occupation of Batesville did not, however, mean the forfeiture of the Buffalo River country to the North. Both before and after the battle, individuals within the valley formed Confederate units and enlisted at Yellville. Indeed, Yellville was quickly becoming the principal Southern arsenal in northern Arkansas. Concentrated there were perhaps 1,000 men guarding a large store of munitions, warehouses, and a nearby saltpeter works. [25]

The Confederate loss in extreme northwest Arkansas did announce to many loyalists that Missouri was solidly in Union hands and furthermore served as a subtle invitation to join the northern cause. Thus began a mass exodus of northern sympathizers into southern Missouri. Hundreds of individuals, some with their families, crossed over and encamped at Cassville and Springfield. [26] Many of the refugees promptly enlisted in the Federal army, while others merely sought a safe haven where they could remain for the duration of the war. The large number of Arkansans who moved north provoked significant logistical problems. The feeding of such a concentration of emigrants was undertaken by the Western Sanitary Commission, a civilian organization established to relieve the suffering of the sick and wounded in the Union army. The Commission provided the newcomers with a modicum of foodstuffs and medicine when necessary, but was unable to lend any further assistance. [27]

Meanwhile in Arkansas, which was still occupied by Confederate troops and sympathizers, a major change was in the offing. In November, 1862, the Federal commander in Missouri decided to confront the Confederate arsenal and troop assemblage at Yellville. It is alleged that the raid was inspired in part through information brought to General Curtis by James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, then acting as a Union spy and later to become the legendary gunfighter of Dodge City, Kansas. During the subsequent attack on Yellville, the entire supply establishment along with its munitions and the nearby saltpeter works was destroyed. The incursion was an overwhelming success and effectively cleared north central Arkansas of southern troop concentrations. [28] But more important to the Buffalo River valley and surrounding area was the fact that the fall of Yellville meant the beginning of an extended period of lawlessness during which neither side exerted either political or military control. Into the resulting vacuum rushed criminal bands variously called Jayhawkers, Bushwhackers, and Boomers who maintained a common interest in murder, pillage, and the creation of general mayhem. Protected by the terrain in which they operated, the outlaws indiscriminately attacked isolated famsteads in search of what meager valuables they could uncover. [29]

From the latter months of 1862 until the end of the war, northwest Arkansas became the domain of lawless gangs. Comprised of loosely organized bands of brigands of both northern and southern persuasion, the motley groups terrorized the countryside seeking plunder and wrecking havoc among both those who cooperated with them and those who did not. The Jayhawkers were either local men who decided to capitalize on the confused and convulsed nature of the times or outlaws from Missouri and surrounding counties who found the area conducive to their type of banditry. [30] Jayhawker tales within the Arkansas Ozarks are myriad, and most illustrate the ruthless nature of the acts that spawned them. The motivation of many of the freebooters seems to have been either revenge or simply the acquisition of easy money. The bitterness engendered by the action of the state government to dispel the peace societies compelled those who were injured, physically or mentally, to seek retribution. And for loyal Southerners it was a chance to continue the work of ridding the country of the Union element. Whatever the intent, the results were usually the same.

The amount of damage to lives and property which occurred during the course of the war cannot be estimated, but the cumulative effect was to create an area in which fear, apprehension, and anxiety governed the daily existence of the remaining inhabitants. With most of the able-bodied adult men participating in the conflict on both sides, the women, children, and older citizens made prime targets for the outlaws. [31] By the middle of 1864, the once peaceful valleys bore the scars of relentless marauding.

The condition of this country is and has been pitiable in the extreme; Confederate soldiers in nothing save the name, robbers and jayhawkers have vied with the Federals in plundering, devouring, and wasting the substance of loyal Southerners, and new cruelties have been devised to torture from unwilling lips the secret of some hidden treasure. The entire valley is swept bare of forage and subsistence, and there are hundreds of families that must suffer for bread. [32]

Lawless bands continued their activities throughout the war and for several years after. Violence breeds violence, and as the number of victims increased, so too did the number of those who would eventually seek retribution. Isolated individual killings continued well into the 1870s before memories faded and time healed old wounds. [33]

Although the Jayhawkers dominated the region of the Buffalo River during the later years of the Civil War, they shared the area with other independent units. Also operating in the Boston Mountains were irregular military forces composed of men who had served earlier in the war with a commissioned company and had either been furloughed, had their former unit disbanded, or had deserted and had returned to their home county retaining a desire to assist in the war effort. Southern groups, authorized by the Confederate general in charge of Arkansas, Thomas C. Hindman, shortly after the battle of Pea Ridge, operated as semi-official companies harassing regular forces of the Union army, attacking when they possessed superior numbers, and in general functioning much as guerrilla bands. [34]

James Harrison Love, from Searcy County, commanded one of those independent companies. A Mexican War veteran, Love recruited two regular companies in his county for service in the Confederate army. He returned to the Buffalo River country in August, 1863, because of illness and was joined there by other men from the area, some of whom had served with him previously. Love and his men operated in the northwestern portion of the county and constituted a constant and serious threat to Union forces. Although usually numbering only a few dozen, Love's band provided no little consternation to the opposition. [35] In May, 1864, Love and his followers joined General Sterling Price in Batesville and participated in the latter's unsuccessful raid into Missouri in the fall. As Price retreated back through Arkansas, his army melted away and the effectiveness of Love's group vanished as well as he no longer posed a threat after the autumn of that year. [36]

Some of the independent companies that operated along the Buffalo River fought for the Union side. As early as 1862 in parts of northwestern Arkansas bands of Union sympathizers, forced to leave their homes, fled to the hills and succeeded in restricting the activities of Confederate units. Those "Mountain Feds," also functioned as guerrilla forces and were especially strong in Newton County. [37] Led by James R. Vanderpool and using Jasper as their headquarters, they attempted to suppress Southern recruiting efforts in the county and often provided valuable information to organized Northern forces who scouted through the area. Vanderpool and his men proved to be such an irritant that in May, 1863, a Confederate force, led by a former sheriff of Newton County, John Cecil, launched a surprise raid on Jasper hoping to capture the guerrilla leader and eliminate a source of marked annoyance. Although some of the guerrillas were captured in the attack, Vanderpool, having been forewarned, escaped and continue his clandestine movements throughout the remainder of the war. [38]

Official military activity within the Buffalo River valley consisted largely of reconnaissance expeditions and small inconsequential skirmishes, neither of which had any substantial effect upon the final outcome of the conflict. During the initial two years of the war, fighting in northwest Arkansas was relatively light. The battle of Pea Ridge was the major encounter not only in the highland region, but also in the state, and the Union victory there was followed by the occupation of Batesville and later movements into the central and southern parts of the state. Both sides tended to ignore the northwest highlands, and although there occurred limited activity during 1863, [39] the following year witnessed a marked increase in fighting along the Buffalo River.

Because the southern forces had retreated southward, Federal expeditions that moved through the valley confronted either the small bands of Jayhawkers or the more serious independent companies such as the one commanded by Captain Love. As previously noted, scattered skirmishes characterized clashes between the two opposing groups. The encounters, while of short duration involving a relatively small number of combatants, occasionally resulted in rather serious losses. During May, 1864, for example, a Confederate independent company captured a Federal supply train near the mouth of Richland Creek. Out of the 101 men guarding the wagons, thirty-seven were killed and eleven wounded: a casualty rate of 48 percent. [40] Most of the engagements, however, resulted in many fewer losses.

An interesting facet of the war along the Buffalo was the mining among the numerous caves for potassium nitrate or saltpeter used in the making of gunpowder. From probably early 1862 perhaps a dozen different operations were conducted throughout the basin. Operated under the authority of the Confederate Niter and Mining Bureau established in April, 1862, the niter-works throughout Arkansas produced 17,000 pounds of niter prior to May of that year. [41] It is unknown what percentage of the total was contributed by caves in northwest Arkansas, but it is unlikely that they produced a sizeable amount due to the comparatively small nature of their operation. Furthermore, after the fall of Yellville in November, 1862, the transportation risks greatly increased. Nevertheless, a number of the niter-works continued to operate after that date, and at least produced niter until March of 1864. [42] Federal troops destroyed the mining facilities when they were discovered, but due to the nature of the terrain, detection was difficult.

The largest of the works was located on the upper Buffalo about a mile south of the present town of Boxley. The operation there consisted of fourteen permanent buildings, two steam engines, three boilers, a large iron safe, and other assorted mining paraphernalia. [43] Less extensive operations were conducted in different parts of the watershed, including one a few miles downstream from the Boxley works, one on lower Cave Creek also in Newton County, and others along Tomahawk and Big creeks in Searcy County. [44]

By the end of the war the Buffalo River valley had become a desolate, ravaged, and forlorn area abandoned by many of its former inhabitants. Homes had been destroyed, livestock run off or stolen, fields neglected, and sizeable numbers of its residents killed. Because of the quantity of marauders, independent companies, and regular units that operated along the Buffalo, forage there was nonexistent. As early as March, 1864, the commander of a Federal force encamped at Yellville reported that there was no forage available within twenty miles of the town. [45] Jasper, Yellville, and Buffalo City had been either totally or partially destroyed by fire, and a large number of survivors were living in caves or other temporary shelters. [46] In late February, 1865, several hundred families from the Buffalo River area who had fled to southern Missouri sought permission to raise four companies of temporary troops for protection when they returned to the valley. Whether or not the request was granted is not known, but the tone of the appeal reflected the helplessness of the former inhabitants. [47] Those displaced settlers did not return to their homes and fields until after the war had officially ended in May, 1865, with the surrender of the Confederate commander of northern Arkansas, Brigadier General Jefferson Thompson. [48]

After that date the valley began to show signs of recovery. Homes were rebuilt, fields, long since overgrown with weeds, were cultivated anew, and fences, both physical and mental, were mended. Being an agricultural area, the Buffalo River region was not burdened with many of the problems encountered by more urban centers. But while the physical aspects of reconstruction were quickly dispensed with, the bitterness produced during the conflict was longer in dissipating. Nevertheless, within a few years the area had largely recovered from the four years of turmoil and had regained its former tranquility. The battle became then one with the earth rather than one with old animosities. Yet the region had changed.

The most significant difference which came over the river valley was a profound political shift. Prior to 1860 the three county region had voted nationally for the Democratic nominee. After the war two of the three counties became Republican strongholds. Beginning in 1876, if not earlier (the returns from Newton and Searcy counties for 1864, 1868, and 1872 are missing), both Searcy and Newton consistently returned a Republican ballot and at times were the only counties in the state to do so. During the period 1876 to 1944, those two counties voted for a Democratic president only twice: 1892 and 1932 for Newton, and 1884 and 1932 for Searcy. In 1912 both counties split their vote between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt to the extent that the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, won both by a plurality. Marion County, meanwhile, constituted a surprising political aberration. Although the home of a large percentage of Arkansas' free blacks prior to the 1860 and seriously affected by the rigors of the war, Marion remained a Democratic stronghold, and between 1868 and 1944 voted for a Republican candidate only once: 1892. [49]

Northwest Arkansas suffered during the Civil War as did the rest of the nation but with a marked difference: destruction was wrought not by invading armies but by numerous and autonomous bands of freebooters who swore allegiance to neither side—or to both depending on the situation. The effectiveness of those groups was heightened by the surrounding terrain. Because of the rugged character of the land, it was difficult to search for or punish the outlaws. But just as the character of the land dictated that the Buffalo region would develop a subsistence economy and that that same country would harbor numerous fugitives and outlaws, so too would the land allow the inhabitants of the valley to recover quickly from the devastation and assume their former manner of existence. The Civil War marked a hiatus in the development of the Buffalo River valley, but following that disruption, began a period of expansion and increased population which would find its peak a half-century later during a mining boom which accompanied World War I.

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Last Updated: 14-Jan-2008