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Forces of Change and the Enduring Ozark Frontier: Land Policies and Internal Improvements

During a period of widespread prosperity, from the late 1840s to the mid-1850s, a complicated mix of national forces laid the foundation for opening the Current River valley to large-scale commercial exploitation. In particular, changes in federal land policy and the spread of internal improvements, such as the coming of the railroads, encouraged land speculation and the extraction of natural resources from the developing Ozark hinterland. A rush to build railroads came relatively late to Missouri. At the end of the 1850s, trains first entered the Missouri Ozarks in the old mining region on the northern periphery of the southern Courtois Hills. The new land policies introduced in the Graduation Act of 1854, however, most changed the nature of this Ozark homeland by stimulating a speculative buying boom of large tracts of land along the Current. The changes brought a somewhat more diverse ethnic makeup to the Ozark population and a series of county reorganizations that defined the lasting county jurisdictions in the Current River valley.

The means of disposing of the public lands underwent a series of major revisions in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the fifty years following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, federal land holdings rose to more than 1.4 billion acres. Selling off the vast domain to private individuals and groups provided a major source of revenue for the federal government and became intertwined with growing sectional rivalries between the North, the South, and the West. On a more personal level, the disposition of the public domain involved a conflict between squatters and speculators, or as Roy Robbins, a leading historian on federal land policies points out, "between the poor man and the man of wealth," [1]

The Land Ordinance of 1785 set the original terms for the sale of the public domain. The law required the surveying of land before sale and the laying out of townships and sections in uniform squares. It called for public auctions to sell the land and set standards for recording titles. It also stipulated a minimum per acre sale price of one dollar and set a 640-acre minimum on the size of the tract that the government could sell. [2]

During the first half of the nineteenth century, federal land policies shifted from favoring the speculator to favoring the settler. For the average yeoman, the original land acts placed stiff terms on purchasing public lands. The minimum 640-acre tract was more land than a single family could farm efficiently, and the price was too high. Furthermore, the government required buyers to pay for the land in specie. [3] Near the turn of the eighteenth century more liberal terms were introduced. In 1800, western legislators pushed a land act through Congress that decreased the minimum sales plot from 640 to 320 acres and also created a system of four-year installment payments. Yet it maintained a high minimum cost of two dollars an acre, a price established in 1796, and private speculators often provided credit at better terms. In 1820, a more substantial liberalization reduced the minimum price to $1.25 per acre and the minimum tract from 320 to 80 acres. [4]

Later revisions of the land policies in the 1840s and 1850s focused on two interests of the West: "pre-emption" and "graduation." Pre-emption referred to giving squatters the privilege to purchase land at the minimum price before the holding of a public auction. Congress passed a permanent pre-emption law in 1841; it allowed such sales, however, only after the survey. Proponents of graduation, who Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri led in Congress, wanted to reduce the price of land left on the market after the auctions (the established policy allowed the purchase of land not sold at the auction for the minimum price). The Graduation Act of 1854 authorized the federal government to sell public land at a reduced price based on its length of time on the market. For example, it lowered the price of land unsold after ten to fifteen years to $1 per acre; land unsold after fifteen to twenty years to 75 cents an acre; after twenty to twenty-five years to 50 cents an acre; after twenty-five to thirty years to 25 cents an acre; and if unsold after thirty years on the market the rate dropped to 12-1/2 cents an acre, [5]

Paralleling the boom and bust cycle of the nations economy, three peaks in the disposition of public lands occurred between 1800 and 1860. In 1817-1818, sales reached an annual high of 6 million acres before the economic panic of 1819. In 1836, following the 1820 land liberalization measures, annual sales rose to a record 20 million acres only one year before the 1837 panic. The third peak climaxed at 18 million acres sold in 1856; this reflected the easing of terms by the pre-emption and graduation acts and also the passage of two military bounty acts granting land to American war veterans, [6]

The number of sales especially jumped after the passage of the Graduation Act and, during the eight-year life of the statute, approximately 25.7 million acres sold at the reduced rates, Most of the purchases occurred in the southwest where sales in three states (Missouri, Alabama, and Arkansas) alone involved 18.3 million acres. The Graduation Act, in contrast to the settler bias of land policies of the previous five decades, was a boon to speculators. Despite sections limiting maximum purchases to 320 acres and requiring the buyers to swear an intent to settle and cultivate the land, speculators took advantage of the vague wording of the legislation and bought large tracts at the low prices. [7]

Table 2
Average Size and Number of Land Entries
In the Southern Courtois Hills, 1821-1860

County 1821-18301831-1840 1841-18501851-1860
Average size of land entries

Southern Courtois Hills5978203

Number of land entries
Southern Courtois Hills29423,346

Source: Clendenen, "Settlement Morphology," 60.
*The table excludes a single 320 acre land entry from territory of Carter County, 1820.

The 1854 act precipitated a land boom across the state of Missouri, including the southeast Ozarks, as squatters, new settlers, and speculators rushed to buy and record land claims.

In the eastern section of the state, where public land had been on the market since the early 1820s, buyers crowded into the land offices of St. Louis and Jackson to take up land at 12-1/2 cents an acre. [8] The dramatic increase of the number of land entries recorded for the southern Courtois Hills demonstrated the impact of the graduated prices in the Ozark uplands. In Carter County, the number of land titles filed soared from a total of 30 during the first three decades of settlement to 1,021 in the 1850s alone. Shannon County reflected a similar pattern, as number of entries rose from 21 to 1,170 (see Table 2).

The land records also indicated a sharp rise, over a 100 percent increase, in the average size of tracts sold. As settlers moved into the valley in increasing numbers during the 1830s and 1840s, the average amount of land purchased climbed about one-third from 59 to 78 acres. Following the Graduation Act, during the decade of the fifties, the average size of a purchased plot increased to more than 200 acres. Settlers already present commonly added land to their holdings or, in the case of squatters, bought their sites at the reduced prices. Dr. Thomas Reed and his family, who settled on the Current River sometime in the 1830s, entered 700 to 800 acres of land under the Graduation Act by 1856. Reed was the first doctor of Shannon County, and he settled on the east side of the Current between Owls Bend and Logyard. He and his family migrated from Tennessee with his brother-in-law Thomas Chilton. In 1857, he purchased another 114 acres of land just north of their original parcels. An Ohioan, Henry B. Flanner, looking in 1856 for land to purchase in Dent County (adjacent and north of Shannon County), commented on the rush to register land. "Everyone seems anxious to enter all he can at the graduation, and that out, they lay warrants and buy at $1.25." More hill country, in contrast to the valley focus of the earlier entries, were registered during this period. Speculators took up much of the uncultivable hills, but the individual settlements continued to concentrate in the area's valleys and hollows. [9]

Comparisons of census records and the land titles revealed widespread speculation. In a single Reynolds County township, a county just east of Shannon County, the 1860 and 1870 census indicated that more than 90 percent of the land buyers between 1854 and 1859 were absentee owners. Next-door in Shannon County, land titles demonstrated that many people buying 320-acre tracts in 1859 and 1860 came from Massachusetts, New York, and other northern and eastern states. The buyers included agents of lumber and railroad companies. For example historian James Murphy noted that railroad companies used the laborers on the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railway, stretching south to Pilot Knob, as agents to assemble large tracts beyond the 320 acres limited by law. Many Irish immigrants worked on the Iron Mountain line and, in Reynolds County, an unusually high number of Irish immigrants holding land titles suggested that railroad capitalists used them to purchase large tracts. [10]

Reed Log House
Figure 1. Reed Log House; Single pen log house, c. 1857-1870. Rear frame addition, c. 1887. Front porch addition c. 1905-1910. Photograph taken in 1987. Donald L. Stevens, Jr. Midwest Region.

Some Irish immigrants, however, did settle in the Ozarks and added to the growing ethnic diversity of the region. In one case, the Catholic Church established a colony of Irish settlers in Ripley and Oregon counties. A Catholic missionary, Father John J. Hogan, conceived the idea of developing an agricultural settlement to improve the family life of impoverished Irish railroad workers and domestic servants in and around St. Louis. Beginning in 1857, Father Hogan made several trips into the southeastern Ozarks. He traveled down the old St. Louis Road along Blair Creek to the Current River and then south into Oregon and Ripley counties. With the help of the Reverend James Fox, the priest at Old Mines, Missouri, Father Hogan founded an Irish Catholic settlement along creeks of the Current and Eleven Point rivers. The territory, which became known as the Irish Wilderness, straddled the border of Oregon and Ripley counties about twenty miles from the Arkansas line. [11]

For several years the settlement grew despite the marginal fertility of this hill country. By the spring of 1859, forty families settled along both sides of the Current, with most clustering near where the priests built a small, single-story log chapel. The Irish settlement, however, lasted for less than a decade. [12]

Some prejudice against the Catholics existed in the nearby population. Father Hogan periodically visited the settlement and described the early settlers in the surrounding area as mostly friendly and morally righteous with few vices besides a taste for tobacco and backwoods whiskey. Nevertheless, several Protestant preachers near the Irish colony tried to incite anti-Catholic sentiment. The priest recalled an incident on a trip to the Irish Wilderness where a "gigantic" young farmhand hailed him to stop and then attacked him. The assault occurred on the property of a local judge, who intervened before the priest suffered serious harm. After only a few years of existence, the feuds and general unrest prevailing throughout the Ozarks during the Civil War, dispersed the Irish settlement. [13]

The railroad work that attracted the Irish workers into southern Missouri was part of the massive nationwide construction of internal improvements: the building of improved highways, canals, and railroads for the movement of people and commodities. These construction activities, in the years 1820-1860, reflected a national policy to bolster the self sufficiency of the United States and to support the rapid westward population movement. The trade within the United States between the interior and Atlantic seaboard rose to exceed the country's total foreign trade. In practice, however, the unprecedented increase in internal commerce was played out between private and public leaders in rival cities and regions in competition for expanding markets. [14]

The scramble to build canals and railroads revolutionized the system of transportation; it enriched some cities, states, and regions while leaving others mired in debt or rushing to catch up. The North promoted, built, and benefited most from the internal improvements. In alliance with western interests, businessmen from the northeast and Europe, along with the federal and state governments, negotiated public-private partnerships to finance and build expensive canal and railroad projects. Between 1817 and 1825, the construction and the immediate success of the Erie Canal largely sparked the rush to build canals and eventually railroads. For example, in 1824, work began on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; the latter, connecting Baltimore with the Ohio River, reached Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1853. The Illinois and Michigan Canal, built between 1836 and 1848, linked Chicago (and Lake Michigan) to La Salle on the Illinois River. In 1853, railroads connected Chicago to New York and then quickly reached the Mississippi. The national investment in railroad construction totaled almost $100 million a year by the 1850s. [15]

The internal improvements diverted much of the trade of the Northwest from the natural north-south river courses to an east-west manmade transportation system. Unlike the middle Atlantic states where streams and rivers cut openings through the Appalachians, the southern mountain range imposed a greater obstacle to an east-west transportation system. In the south, commerce continued to travel by river transit. As a result, the economy of the South suffered relative to the growth of the economy of the North, and the inequity, complicated by the controversy over slavery, contributed to the growing sectional divisions between the regions. [16]

Before the 1850s, Missouri's leading political and business interests, continued to rely on the major rivers for transporting commerce to wider markets and entered the competition in railway travel late. Missouri railroad promoters failed to attract funds until the profits derived from new transportation facilities in the northern midwest—especially the Illinois and Michigan Canal, the Michigan Central, and the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad—awakened regional leaders to the importance of canals and railroads to the competitive development of the state. In 1851, Missouri's first railroad corporation, the Pacific Railroad Company, began building a line from St. Louis to the western Missouri border and reached Jefferson City five years later. By this time, a number of other railways were under construction, including a competing east-west line that would connect Hannibal and St. Joseph before the Pacific Railroad reached Kansas City. [17]

A railway, the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad, first entered the Ozarks in the years 1856-1858. It stretched southwest from St. Louis through the lead mining region of Potosi to the iron mines of Pilot Knob. This line, approximately forty-five miles northeast of the Current River, did little to disrupt life in the southern Courtois Hills. Before the Civil War, railroads had very little impact throughout southern Ozarks. [18]

Overland roads continued to provide the dominant means of travel in and out of the southern Courtois Hills, including the Current River valley. Most of the intercounty roads traversing the Current basin passed through the hamlets or villages. In the southern Current valley, the community of Doniphan, founded in 1845, developed where the "Military Road" intersected the Current. The Military Road, following the old St. Louis-Natchitoches Indian Trail, was a major trade and transportation route in the southeast Ozarks, [19]

Farther north, somewhat less traveled roads crossed the river at the communities of Van Buren and Eminence. By 1860, at least three roads from the east, which again often followed old Indian trails, converged at Van Buren from Irontown to the northeast, Greenville to the east, and Poplar Bluff from the southeast. These wagon roads connected Van Buren to the St. Louis market as well as the more populated Black and St. Francis valleys. Another route, largely parallel to the Current, linked Van Buren to Eminence on the upper Current and to Doniphan on the lower Current. A road out of Van Buren followed westward along Pike Creek and then turned southwest towards the Eleven Point River. Before reaching the river, it divided and one branch went west through Thomasville and the other stretched southwest into Arkansas. [20]

At least two other roads, in addition to the route to Van Buren, crossed at Eminence. A north-south road from Dent County went through Eminence and from there through Thomasville on the Eleven Point River and on into Arkansas. An east-west route came through Eminence from Irontown and Centerville to the east and on to Houston and other points west. [21]

One road, a north-south route noted by government land surveyors in 1840, did not cross through any of the hamlets of the riverway. Identified on present-day maps as the Ozark trail, it was an early link to St. Louis that ran south through Potosi, a mining center, then down Blair Creek, and across the Current at Owls Bend near the Chilton settlement. The road meandered south into Arkansas. [22]

These roads, intersecting the Current River valley, connected with a circuit of more heavily traveled routes, outlining the periphery of the rough southern Courtois Hills terrain. For the most part, the peripheral routes all followed earlier Indian trails worn along the more passable uplands and only cut across the less rugged sections of the hill country. The Military Road, which met the Current near Doniphan, was part of the peripheral circuit of rodes and was the most traveled highway in and out of the southeast Ozarks. [23]

The local and regional roads crossed numerous rivers and creeks of the Current valley. The settlers and travelers forded or ferried across the waterways, as bridges were nonexistent except for those on the Military Road. There were few ferryboat crossings. Early travelers such as Schoolcraft and Featherstonhaugh mentioned traversing the lower Current by "ferry-flat, or scow." Little evidence, however, exists on the operation of ferries, either commercial or private, before the Civil War. By the time of the war, Van Buren occupied the principal commercial crossroads along the Current above Doniphan, but whether or not a ferry operated here is a matter of speculation. During the 1860s, a ferry, possibly the Coleman Ferry, carried people and freight across the river about three miles above Van Buren near Pine Valley and Mill creeks. [24] A similar dearth of information obscures the possible use of ferryboats at the other commercial crossroads on the upper Current, Eminence and Owls Bend. The fact that Union troops forded the river in wagons near Eminence suggests the absence of any ferry there during the war; however, the persistent partisan raiding in the area might have rendered operating a ferry a hazardous enterprise during this period. In addition, although the Powder Mill ferry operated at Owls Bend in later decades, the existence of an earlier ferry is uncertain. [25]

Fording the rivers and creeks on horseback or in a horse-drawn wagon were the most common methods of crossing. On the Current above Van Buren, where the river ran shallow and built up shoals as it meandered around wide bends, the water could be forded at a number of places above the shoals. The settlers, however, had to be weary of freshets during the rainy seasons. Spring and autumn rains quickly turned the lazy streams into small raging rivers. The persistent flash flooding added a sense of danger to moving back and forth across the streams and made the construction of bridges difficult. In some instances, the settlers laid "low-water pole bridges" across creek beds to improve the footing at a ford. [26]

The uplanders also made use of river transportation. Early on, hunters commonly used twenty-to thirty-foot long dugout canoes to transport their furs downstream. Later, as the number of more permanent settlers increased, local residents modified the shallow draft dugout design into a "plank-built gigging canoe" that they used for fishing. Yet they relied more heavily on the interconnected overland trails and roads to get from place to place in the valley. River transportation was more significant for the commercial agriculturalists below Van Buren. [27]

In Missouri, as mentioned previously, the railroad construction of the 1850s stopped in the mining region of the eastern Ozarks well north of the Current River. This improvement, though limited, lessened the shipment time of goods from St. Louis to the southern Missouri hill country. Nevertheless, the adverse condition of roads in the Current River hills, where internal improvements basically involved trampling Indian trails into wagon paths, limited their carrying power as a commercial transportation network. This initial advance of railroads probably had a marginal consequence on the volume of trade goods entering the southern Courtois Hills and on the way of life here. During the Civil War, the difficulty encountered in moving troops and supplies through the area vividly demonstrated the limitations of the road system for potential commercial development.

In the 1850s, the rate of population growth in the southern Courtois Hills decreased despite the railroad construction north of the area and the passage of the Graduation Act. During the previous decade, between 1840 and 1850, the population of the Ripley County, which then included present-day Ripley, Oregon, Carter, Shannon, Reynolds, Howell, and portions of Texas and Dent counties, jumped 236 percent from 2,856 to approximately 9,622. Between 1850 and 1860, the population of roughly the same area rose 136 percent. This represented a drop in the rate of growth even though the region experienced a greater increase in the actual number of people in the 1850s compared to the 1840s. In 1860, the population was 22,668. At this time, Carter and Shannon counties tallied close to 1,234 and 2,284 people respectively. [28]

During the 1850s, the American born Scotch-Irish uplanders continued as the dominant influence in the Courtois Hills and Current River country. For the most part, other settlers avoided the rugged hill country. Large numbers of Germans concentrated in the Missouri valley and, like other immigrant groups, they rarely ventured deep into the Ozark hills. The Irish-Catholic settlement southwest of the Current stood out as the exception. [29] The Civil War and the accompanying guerrilla-feud activities dismantled the Irish colony and scattered the Irish families to areas in and out of the Ozarks.

A significant institutional change, encouraged by the rapid rise in legal property owners after the passage of the Graduation Act, followed the population increase in the Ozarks after 1840. This was the reorganization of counties in the Current valley that resulted in defining more durable county political jurisdictions. The creation of Shannon County in 1841 and Texas, Reynolds, and Oregon counties in 1845 reduced the area of Ripley County to its present size plus Carter County. [30] In 1847, a dispute over the location of the Ripley County seat at Van Buren culminated in a group of "Southerners" convincing the state legislature to move the county government farther south to a hamlet, named Doniphan. The conflict arose between settlers upriver, probably consisting of mostly Tennesseans, and the settlers downstream, most of whom migrated from Virginia and the Carolinas. The latter group succeeded in getting the county seat more centralized in the reorganized Ripley County. At the end of the next decade, in 1859, the legislature approved the creation of Carter County (named after early settler Zimri Carter), and Van Buren once again became a county seat. [31]

Outside of the development of railroad links east and west across Missouri and into the northern Ozarks, the Current River region retained its frontier character at the end of the 1850s. The encroaching rails and the land speculation binge of that decade, however, set the stage for dramatic change after the chaotic Civil War years. The violence of the Civil War terrorized the people and their communities along the riverway.

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Last Updated: 02-Mar-2005