Let The River Be:
A History of the Ozark's Buffalo River
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Vance Randolph, the Ozark region folklorist, once met a man who claimed that if Newton County, Arkansas were ever "smoothed out, it would be bigger'n the whole state of Texas." [1] The tale aptly illustrates not only the topographic character of Newton County in particular but also the whole of the southernmost of the Ozark Plateaus, the Boston Mountains. Containing possibly the tallest waterfall between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, this area of northwest Arkansas is a heavily forested land of deep, sharply defined valleys. Flat-topped ridges with vertical lime- and sandstone bluffs separate small creeks and rivers which have, over the centuries, divided the Arkansas highlands into a myriad of narrow valleys and hidden "hollers." It is in western Newton County where the Boston Mountains reach their greatest height of 2,561 and where the one hundred and forty-eight mile long Buffalo River begins its winding, unbroken journey.

Flowing in an easterly direction, the Buffalo leaves the wooded cragginess of the Boston Mountains in the northeastern quarter of Newton County and slices through the more moderate rolling terrain of the Springfield Plateau in Searcy and the southern portion of Marion counties before joining the White River a few miles above Batesville, Arkansas. Its watershed comprises 1,388 square miles (an area slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island), is about seventy miles in length, averages twenty-two miles in width, and constitutes 4.8 percent of the drainage area of the White River. [2] The Buffalo River is not one of Arkansas' major waterways; it has only occasionally been used for transportation purposes and has never been considered suitable for industrial use. It is regionally and nationally unique because it has never been dammed, and its banks have not been extensively developed. Its human history, however, provides a revealing study of the intimate relationship between people and mountains and the effect the latter can have on the former. For more than a century after being settled, the northwestern highlands of Arkansas hindered both transportation and communication among the inhabitants and encouraged the development of a distinct mountain culture: a culture that continued well into the twentieth century to evoke its nineteenth century origins. As recently as 1955, Vance Randolph could write

In the Ozark Mountains elderly folk still lead simple lives, without any modern gadgets. They are attracted to particular localities, strongly influenced by clan and family backgrounds. The gods of the mountains are not the gods of the valleys. Hillfolk are not like lowlanders. . .there is still plenty of time in the backwoods, to sing ballads and tell tales. [3]

The extent to which the Ozark mountain culture existed, however, depended primarily upon geography. Life in the several county seats certainly differed from life on forty acres up a secluded "holler." The common denominator that linked both was the slower pace of change evident throughout the region. Writing a quarter of a century after Randolph, Milton Rafferty viewed the Ozark phenomenon from a different perspective.

To say that the culture of the Ozarks is changing is a truism, for there is little in the world that doesn't change. However, the rate of change and the process of change from place to place within the Ozarks has been variable, so that much that was still is, much that was is gone, and the remainder, mainly imagery, never existed. [4]

Generalizations and stereotypes are always difficult to substantiate under close examination. What often emerges from such an appraisal is a range of historical realities that cannot be aggregated into a general statement, but within which lie individual truths that bear, to some degree, a relationship to the stereotype. The separation of the general from the specific, the stereotype from the individual histories of the Ozarks, is a major theme in this work. By any measure, the fundamental distinction between what Randolph would term hillfolk and lowlanders begins with the highlands themselves—a series of plateaus and valleys whose character was developed by extensive erosion.

Buffalo River Watershed (map drawn by Mary Lebeau). (click on image for a PDF version)

Originally a low inland sea beneath which had collected a thick layer of sedimentary rock, the Ozark Plateau, perhaps sixty million years ago, uplifted to form an asymmetrical dome possibly three to four thousand feet high. Through a series (geologists remain divided regarding the exact number) of erosion and uplift cycles, followed by the extensive activity of numerous streams, the Ozarks attained their present appearance. [5] The Ozark Plateau is not one homogeneous geological formation, but is divided into four distinct sections. The Missouri portion of the province is dominated by the Salem Plateau, a relatively flat "prairie" region which is broken only adjacent to the major streams where the relief may be as great as 500 feet. The St. Francis Mountains, the smallest of the Ozark regions, comprises 100 square miles of discrete hills within the Salem Plateau. Surrounding the Salem Plateau on the north, west, and south is the Springfield Plateau which resembles the plain-like topography of its neighbor except for the river valleys which dip only 200 to 300 feet below the upland surface. [6] Forming the precipitous southern boundary of the Ozarks, the Boston Mountains are the most rugged and spectacular of the entire area.

The geological composition of the Ozark Plateau is principally limestone and dolomite. But while both the Salem and Springfield plateaus consist of this material, the St. Francis Mountains are of volcanic origin and are made up of igneous rock. The Boston Mountain section is composed of, in addition to a limestone foundation, a thick layer of interbedded shales, limestones, and sandstones, and a pronounced cap of Atoka Sandstone. It was the erosion of these top two layers that produced the conspicuous escarpment of this southern area and explains its designation as the Boston Mountains rather than the Boston Plateau. [7]

The limestone which characterizes the Springfield Plateau and the ridge slopes of the Boston Mountains contains a high percent of chert, a flintlike quartz more durable than limestone. Upon weathering, the limestone dissolves into fine soil particles and is carried downward. The undissolved chert remains on top and forms a layer of adamant debris. [8] As a result, the Buffalo River country became literally a land of rocks which possessed only a small amount of arable land on the more level sandstone uplands and in the small alluvial valleys. The rocky condition of the soil prompted the government surveyors who first platted the region in the early nineteenth century to note in their log books: "Land poor stony and broken," and "Land 2nd rate soil but too stony and broken for cultivation," and "Land most harrassingly [sic] hilly and so rocky that it was with difficulty I could enter my Jacob-staff at any one place, unfit for cultivation." [9]

The combination of early erosion and the more recent extensive weathering by vigorous water courses has led, over the geologic ages, to the formation of a rugged country dominated by narrow valleys restricted by sheer bluffs and prominent ridges in the Boston Mountains which give way to rolling stony "prairies" sharply incised by rivers and streams in the Springfield Plateau. The river valleys are circuitous and have cut deeply into the limestone which borders them. The formation of a high perpendicular bluff on the outside bend of a stream is common throughout the Buffalo River country, while the inside of the curve usually assumes the shape of a gently sloping hillock. Although narrow, the valleys possess rich alluvial soil which, while suitable for agricultural pursuits, is subject to the ravages of devastating flash floods after periods of heavy rainfall. The bluffs and ridges, which are generally too stony and dissected to encourage agricultural production (limited areas have been cleared in recent years for grazing), are covered by a dense deciduous forest. The density of that wooded expanse, when coupled with the highly irregular topography, produced a region which could be penetrated only with great difficulty.

Prehistoric peoples first occupied the Arkansas Ozarks as early as 12,000 years ago. Throughout the following millennia small bands of hunters and gatherers left remnants of their occupation in the rich flood plains, on the ridgetops and upland plateaus, and in the recesses of innumerable bluff shelters. [10] Beginning as small family-sized units, these Ozark peoples slowly began to communicate and trade with other local groups in ever-widening circles. Use of domesticated plants gradually led to more intensive use of the river and stream bottoms between 5,000 and 1,000 years ago. Annual base camps became more permanently established in the valleys during the late prehistoric times, but the bluff shelters continued to be used for habitation as well as for specialized purposes like burials and food storage. Technological changes about A.D. 1-500 include a shift from the use of a dart hurled by an atlatl to the extensive use of the bow and arrow. Social relationships among the autonomous groups continued to develop until during the Mississippi Period (about 1,000 to 300 years ago) some of the Ozark dwellers were participating in pan-regional social and ceremonial systems. [11]

Definitive statements about the original occupants of the southwest Ozarks, however, cannot be made. New research directions within the past several years have caused archeologists to expand their view of who the prehistoric peoples were and how they developed culturally. This recent research is particularly important because the Arkansas Ozarks are no longer viewed as an anomalous cultural manifestation, but as part of a broad regional pattern of cultural development found throughout the Eastern Woodlands. These research directions were initiated by Daniel Wolfman in 1974 and later expanded by George Sabo, et al. in 1982 in reports originally prepared for the National Park Service and the United States Forest Service respectively. [12]

As greater research emphasis is being placed on sites other than the bluff shelters, a more balanced picture of prehistoric occupation is beginning to emerge. [13] Much, however, remains to be learned. The 1982 plan for the conservation of archeological resources in Arkansas identified numerous topics for future research that would expand existing knowledge of prehistory in the Arkansas Ozarks. Among the research subjects proposed by the Arkansas archeologists were the effect of past environments on human adaptations, the origin of plant domestication in the Ozarks, variability in settlement-subsistence patterns through time and across the Ozarks region, the movement of raw materials into and out of the mountains, and the connection of the Ozarks to cultural developments in surrounding regions. [14] Continuing research and analysis will broaden the present picture of prehistoric occupation and place the Ozark natives in their proper context.

Whether these peoples were the ancestors of later historic Indian groups who populated the area adjacent to the Arkansas Ozarks or whether they abandoned the plateau for reasons unknown, the only Indian tribe identified with northwest Arkansas after 1700 were the Osage who hunted throughout the western Ozarks. Archeological research indicates, however, that the Osage never occupied the Ozarks in any permanent fashion. [15] And, as pressure mounted from the approaching white frontier, the Osage, in the treaty of Fort Clark (1808), relinquished all claim to land in Arkansas north of the Arkansas River. [16] In spite of the treaty, the Osage continued to use northern and western Arkansas for hunting—a practice which led them into increasing conflict with an immigrant Arkansas tribe, the Cherokee.

The Cherokee Indians were not indigenous to Arkansas, but moved there when forced out of their traditional lands farther east. The first contingent of Cherokee to Arkansas probably arrived shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Hopewell in 1785. Through the terms of that agreement, Cherokees in Tennessee agreed to cede to the United States certain parcels of land. A small number of the tribe, dissatisfied with the treaty, embarked down the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers until they reached the mouth of the St. Francis River in Arkansas and ascended that stream. After a residence of a few years along the St. Francis, the Indians moved westward to a more satisfactory location on the White. From time to time other dissidents joined the group until by 1817 they numbered between two and three thousand. [17]

Shortly after the Treaty of Hopewell, another group of Cherokees left Tennessee and settled along the northern bank of the Arkansas River. [18] In 1808, a delegation of discontented Tennessee Cherokees arrived in Washington, D.C. to petition the President to set aside lands west of the Mississippi for their use as hunting grounds. An exploring party decided that land between the Arkansas and the White rivers in present Arkansas would be suitable. Some years later on July 8, 1817 Joseph McMinn, General David Meriwether, and General Andrew Jackson concluded a treaty with the Cherokees whereby the Indians ceded two large tracts of land in Tennessee in exchange for a wide strip of land between the two aforementioned rivers. The boundary of the new tract began on the north bank of the Arkansas at the mouth of Point Remove Creek and ran northeast to Chataunga Mountain on the White River, thence up the White to the mouth of the Little North Fork Creek, thence southwest on a line parallel to the eastern border to Table Rock Bluff on the Arkansas. [19] The new Cherokee lands included the entire watershed of the Buffalo River.

The movement of the Cherokees onto their new reserve continued in earnest after 1817. Just over a year after the signing of the treaty, Governor McMinn of Tennessee reported that 864 families had either already departed or were preparing to and that that total amounted to one-half the Cherokee Nation. [20] In 1819 after the signing of yet another treaty, he observed that six thousand Indians had left Tennessee for Arkansas. The latter figure, however, was disputed by those Cherokees who elected to remain east of the Mississippi. Indeed, those who opposed both the treaty and any suggestion that they leave their homeland protested that the number stated by McMinn was grossly exaggerated and that a more realistic figure would be thirty-five hundred. Moreover, roughly four times that number, they claimed, remained east of the river. [21] Nevertheless, the Cherokees continued to immigrate to the treaty lands in Arkansas.

The preponderance of the newcomers settled along the banks of the Arkansas although a few made their way into the Buffalo River area. Local legends contend that a Cherokee village, Sequatchie, was located on the Buffalo in northern Searcy County at the mouth of Spring Creek. [22] The village, alleged in local tradition to be the largest town built in Arkansas by the Cherokees, was presided over by Peter Cornstalk who married the daughter of one of the early white settlers in the region, Robert Adams. Sequatchie was supposedly abandoned in 1832 when its inhabitants moved to the Indian Territory in present Oklahoma. [23] A somewhat less dramatic, although more substantial reference to Cherokees living in the vicinity of the Buffalo River was recorded by one of the initial land surveyors in present Searcy County. On November 7, 1829 the surveyor noted that a village of Cherokees was located on Bear Creek in the southwestern part of the county. [24] That this was a permanent settlement was somewhat substantiated by the observation by another surveyor five years later that the settlers that he found along Bear Creek were "cultivating the land which has been improved by the Indians." [25] Few of the tribe must have moved into the Ozarks, however, for the main body of Indians protested fervently when the western line of the reserve was mistakenly drawn giving them less land on the Arkansas and more on the White. In a letter to President James Monroe, the Arkansas Cherokees complained in 1824 that the faulty line "deprives us of the best soil for agriculture, and "throws most all the Cherokees from their farms and houses to rugged and dreary mountains." [26]

In any case, the Western Cherokees remained dissatisfied with their existence in Arkansas. They believed that the land allotted them there was less than that appropriated in the treaties of 1817 and 1819. Furthermore, the Cherokees complained that the Osage tribe to the west was provoking hostilities and that the United States government was irregular in the payment of their annuities. [27] To resolve those grievances, the Western Cherokees sent a delegation to Washington in the spring of 1828. Although prohibited by tribal proclamation from negotiating any cession or exchange of territory, the representatives of the tribe yielded to pressure from the government and signed a treaty on May 6, 1828 which provided for an additional exchange of land. Through the terms of that agreement, the Western Cherokees surrendered all rights to land in Arkansas and accepted as their "permanent home" a tract of land amounting to seven million acres in present Oklahoma. [28] Upon its return home, the Cherokee delegation met a decidedly hostile reception. The delegates' lives and property were threatened, the national council declared them guilty of fraud and deception, and the treaty was declared null and void. [29] Nevertheless, the Cherokee in Arkansas recognized the inevitability of the situation and began to depart their home of ten years and move onto new land to the west.

Ozark legends and folk traditions are, of course, not limited to stories of Cherokee villages. In 1541 Hernando de Soto marched into Arkansas and planted the seed which centuries later grew into Ozark tales of Spanish treasure. The exact point of his crossing of the Mississippi and the extent of his explorations in Arkansas remain issues of speculation. Only the latter topic, however, is relevant here. Seeking gold and glory, De Soto began his trek in 1539 from the gulf coast of Florida, and after exploring as far north as the headwaters of the Coosa River near the present Georgia-Tennessee border, he crossed the Mississippi during the spring of 1541. His route from there is conjectural. Many historians trace his explorations to the central portion of the state, while others believe he explored, at least partially, the Arkansas Ozarks. One of the latter, Henry R. Schoolcraft, even postulated that not only did De Soto explore the highlands of Arkansas but also claimed he traversed the Buffalo from mouth to source. [30] Others are not so bold, but several do place him in the Ozarks. [31] The question of the Spaniard's exploits in Arkansas will, perhaps, forever remain shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty. Certainly the only evidence locating his expedition within the Buffalo River watershed, other than the vague descriptive narrative of the expedition's journals, consists of rumors and tales of Spanish gold and lost caves with ancient dates scratched on their walls. [32] Such information is largely bound up in local folklore and rarely produces tangible evidence of Spanish occupation.

Although not conclusive proof that De Soto passed near the Buffalo River, the contents of a bluff shelter just outside the watershed perhaps holds a clue to the Spaniard's route. In southern Newton County along a steep bluff lies a rockshelter wherein is carved a Latin inscription which reads GLORIA PATRI ET FILIO ET ESPRITUI SANCTO. Showing signs of painstaking effort, the carving is on a large limestone boulder which faces the rear of the shelter, well within and protected by the overhanging rock face. [33] The shelter is in a next to inaccessible location and not along main traveled roads.

The possibility that the inscription could date from the sixteenth century, while interesting, is purely speculative. But the alternatives suggest no rational explanation. If the carving is not Spanish in origin, of necessity, it is of much more recent derivation. After the passage of De Soto, no recorded journey was made into the Arkansas Ozarks until the entrance of white pioneer farmers during the 1820s and 1830s, although unknown French couriers d'bois could certainly have penetrated the area. The inscription is clearly of Catholic genesis. The early American settlers, however, almost entirely consisted of Protestants, and while Catholics appeared during the latter part of the century, they resided in central Searcy County far from the bluffs of southern Newton County. It is conceivable that during the Civil War a battle-weary straggler or fugitive took advantage of the shelter's secluded nature and chiseled the inscription. In 1864, a Union detachment attacked and scattered an independent company of Confederates in the valley below the shelter. But the company consisted of local farmers, and it is doubtful that any were sufficiently acquainted with Latin to conceive of such a purposeful endeavor. Possibly the letters were cut by some ephemeral traveler who temporarily sought refuge in the dry recess. Yet the shallow cave is all but inaccessible, and only with great difficulty would a needy wayfarer seek that particular shelter. In addition, the road on top of the ridge would have constituted the natural route of travel and for the casual wanderer the most trouble-free means of crossing the mountains. The inconvenient location of the site effectively negates the possibility of its being accidentally found by a resolute itinerant. The origin of the protected inscription remains, thus, lamentably obscure—an obscurity that of itself adds intriguingly to the possibility of its being a De Soto remnant.

Although the Buffalo River country remained a remote and unsettled area well into the third decade of the nineteenth century, the name Buffalo River, or rather Buffaloe Fork of the White River, first appeared on a topographical map in 1810. [34] This map, one of the many that resulted from the early nineteenth century surveys of the trans-Mississippi West, appeared in Zebulon M. Pike's final report on his explorations along the upper Arkansas River in 1806 and 1807. While Pike was proceeding up that river into what would later become Colorado, a detachment of his survey party explored the lower reaches of the Arkansas. Headed by Lieutenant James B. Wilkinson, son of the commander of United States military forces in the Mississippi Valley, General James Wilkinson, this small group left the Pike expedition in present Kansas and marched down the Arkansas during the winter of 1806-1807. Upon completion of his survey, Wilkinson forwarded his report and a map of his route to Pike. Using the Wilkinson survey, his own maps, and several contemporary western charts, Pike commissioned Anthony Nau to prepare the maps which appeared in the final report. While it is unlikely that Wilkinson visited the region of the Buffalo himself, it is apparent that he learned of the river from settlers and travelers he encountered along the Arkansas. However he learned of the river's name, it seems to have been in common use by 1807, sometime before the river valley was actually settled by Euroamericans. [35]

Zebulon M. Pike's 1810 map of Buffaloe Fork of the White River [Credit: Library of Congress, "The First Part of Captn. Pike's Chart of the Internal Part of Louisiana," Plate I:G1380/.P5/1810] (click on image for a PDF version)

The origin of the name doubtless stemmed from the common occurrence of the American bison in the vicinity of the Buffalo. Until around 1820, the animal thrived along the northern and western portions of the Arkansas Territory. [36] In 1844, that tireless Traveler of the prairies, Josiah Gregg, noted that "within thirty years, they were abundant over much of the present states of Missouri and Arkansas." [37] Moreover, a sizeable quantity of bison bones have been unearthed in the numerous bluff shelters in the Ozarks indicating tha the animal had long been an inhabitant of northwestern Arkansas. [38] Based apparently on the shaggy beast that then roamed Arkansas, the name Buffalo River was brought into usage by Wilkinson's survey and Pike's map.

The early development of the Buffalo River valley, which began two decades after the Wilkinson expedition, reflected in many ways the larger development of western America, and, in a very real sense, typifies that westward movement because the history of America's westward expansion is largely the story of the exploration and settlement of the waterways of North America. From the Monongehela and the James to the Rio Grande and the Willamette, the growth of the United States is inextricably bound up in its rivers. Along with the dramatic sagas associated with these giants of western migration are countless other stories of the quiet and undramatic peopling of the numerous rivers and streams which served as tributaries of those better known other highways to the interior. It was along these small streams that the American people went about the business of permanently settling the North American continent. The Buffalo is one of these rivers.

Unlike many of these "roads" to the interior, however, the Buffalo River was never used extensively as a course for transportation. With the exception of isolated instances, navigation of the river has been restricted to flat boats and rafts. The Buffalo is, along most of its way, too shallow for vessels possessing a deeper draft. In addition, the depth of the stream varies in direct proportion to the amount of rainfall in the watershed. The subsequent fluctuation in water level has prohibited the establishment of any constant or dependable system of conveyance by water. A single exception was the piloting of a steamboat some twenty-four miles up the river from its junction with the White. The trip during the 1890s was accomplished with no little difficulty and was never repeated. [39]

The Buffalo River valley today is a forested region decidedly rural in character and appearance. Still inhabited log cabins, kerosene lamps, and outdoor plumbing, while rapidly diminishing along the river, furnish scattered yet vivid reminders of a not-so-distant past. It was in part because of the river's relative remoteness and its unsuitability for reliable commerce that it was able to retain its natural character and become one of Arkansas's last free-flowing waterways. Its future as a free spirit was challenged in the 1950s and 1960s, however, when the Army Corps of Engineers revealed plans to construct two dams across it. Conservation and wilderness preservation organizations quickly mobilized to preserve the river. As a result, the National Park Service studied the Buffalo and announced that it was opposed to the impoundments and instead favored protecting the stream by placing it under federal jurisdiction as the Buffalo National River. On March 1, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon signed Public Law 92-237 which provided that 95,730 acres of land along the Buffalo be placed under federal ownership. [40] Thus by congressional action and presidential concurrence, the Buffalo River is destined to remain free, unbridled, and largely unspoiled by twentieth century development.

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Last Updated: 14-Jan-2008