The Ozarks have long been stereotyped: hillbillies, moonshiners and general lawlessness in the rugged hills with free-running floating streams.
But with “The Conflicted Ozarks,” the second volume in the “A History of the Ozarks” trilogy, we learn more than the basics about the bloody history of south-central Missouri — the Ozarks uplift — and Boston Mountains of northern Arkansas.
Brooks Blevins, professor of Ozarks studies at Missouri State University in Springfield, teaches classes in the history and culture of this fascinating and once-troubled region. He has written a well-researched and detailed — though sometimes densely phrased — account of the violent life of the Ozarks during and after the Civil War.
For instance, a number of white land and business owners in the Ozarks had enslaved African Americans before the Civil War. The numbers were smaller than the plantation states of the Deep South, but it was enough to create racial divisions that help explain tensions that have continued into the present.
In the course of the war, men dedicated to the South fought Union troops in two major battles in the area: Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas and Wilson Creek in the Springfield area. The region remained divided throughout the Civil War and for years after.
Blevins writes that “the region’s population of more than 7,300 slave owners tied tens of thousands of whites directly to the institution” of slavery.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Missouri was home to nearly 115,000 slaves, according to the 1860 census. They lived mostly along the fertile flood plains of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. In the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, the same census shows about 32,000 slaves.
Blevins frames the issue: “The widely varying importance of slaves in the interior Ozarks — ranging from none in Douglas County [Ava is the county seat] to more than 12.5 percent of the population in nearby Greene County [Springfield is the county seat] — underscores both the physical diversity of the Ozark uplift and the diverse nature of settlement and society in the region.”
The slaves worked in mines, on farms, in manufacturing, households and businesses. Blevins plumbs the records of the federal Works Progress Administration to see what former slaves said when they were interviewed decades after the war.
For instance, Joe Bean, who grew up in bondage to Dick Bean, recalled squirrel hunting with “good ole master Bean,” whose “hide get all turned around if somebody hit a Negro. He’d let nobody chuck ’em around.”
But memories of slaves also included masters requiring “all the children to eat out of the same pan and providing them nothing to wear other than a long-tailed shirt until they were almost teenagers,” Blevins writes. He says sexual exploitation appeared to be common in small slaveholding households, citing a study that 32% of slaves in Newton County were identified in one census as “mulatto.” That figure was more than three times the national average, he writes.
During the war, the region was torn apart with fighting not unlike that elsewhere across Missouri. Guerrilla bands and regular troops fought for dominance in an area where Republicans represented the Union and Democrats favored the Confederacy.
After the war ended in April 1865, skirmishes continued. There emerged in Taney County a vigilante band, the Bald Knobbers, that spread mayhem and destruction in raids against those of whom they disapproved. These vigilantes got their name from the treeless hills where they sometimes met.
“In 1886, at the height of its influence in Taney County, the Bald Knobber movement spread into neighboring Christian and Douglas counties. In those places — where Republicans already held a tight grip on local politics and faced little threat from a revolt by Democrats — the vigilante movement tended to metamorphose according to the concerns of members,” Blevins writes.
Some Bald Knobbers busted up saloons and got the attention of Eastern newspaper reporters, who helped to put the area in the national consciousness and create some of the stereotypes that remain.
Blevins explains how Branson’s popular entertainment extravaganza of Silver Dollar City and show clubs overlay a land severely troubled more than a century ago. He has dug well beneath the surface of the Ozarks to uncover a detailed, rich history of this area.
Repps Hudson is a freelance writer and adjunct college instructor who lives in University City. He lived on a ranch in the Ozarks in the 1950s and attended a boys summer camp in the Branson area.