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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

An Introduction to the Ozarks: It’s Not What You Might Expect



Gravel road sloping down toward a red-roofed farmhouse in the distance and bare trees at the horizon.

Backroad, Webster County, Missouri, 2021

Picture by Kaitlyn McConnell



This can be a place lengthy managed by the Native Osages, claimed by the French, and for many years underneath the jurisdiction of the Spanish Crown. It’s a spot that turned the primary “Indian Territory” for Native Individuals who have been pressured out of their ancestral homelands and pushed throughout the Mississippi River, a spot traversed by hundreds of Cherokees on the final leg of their Path of Tears. It was a vacation spot for Tennesseans, Kentuckians, and Carolinians in ox carts and lined wagons. It was a launching level for forty-niners and cattle drives to the West Coast. It was the place the place Basic Ulysses S. Grant obtained his first star. It was dwelling to steer miners and iron mongers, to cowboys and the enslaved, to circuit riders and trappers, filth farmers and counterfeiters.

It was the final searching floor of Daniel Boone, the house of industrialist Moses Austin and his son Stephen F., the “Father of Texas.” It’s the birthplace and childhood dwelling of African American scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. It was dwelling to Hermann Jaeger, a Swiss immigrant who saved the European wine business within the nineteenth century. It was the location of “Wild Invoice” Hickok’s first shootout and Jesse James’s first prepare theft. It was the place a teenage Charlie Parker honed his licks on the alto sax and the birthplace of community tv’s first frequently scheduled nation music present. It’s dwelling to the world’s largest retail company, the nation’s main meat-producing firm, and the premier assortment of American artwork.

Not what you anticipated from an introduction to the Ozarks? What if I informed you it was a area settled overwhelmingly by white pioneers from the Appalachians, a few of whose descendants have been nonetheless singing seventeenth-century British ballads and making moonshine whiskey in hidden caves on the daybreak of colour tv? That it’s a place the place the foundations of neighborly civility melted in the warmth of the Civil Conflict, the place racially motivated violence occurred at a per capita charge matched by few different areas within the years across the flip of the twentieth century?

That huge stretches of its rocky, infertile ridges and hollers supplied little greater than naked subsistence for generations of households and that these households as soon as composed a big proportion of the nation’s migrant labor provide? That it was dwelling to not less than one group tucked thus far again into the inaccessible hills that electrical energy strains lastly reached it the similar 12 months that people piloted a rocket ship to the moon and again? That it comprises a number of the nation’s most concentrated districts of white poverty, a number of the poorest counties west of the Mississippi?

Sound extra prefer it?

Welcome to the Ozarks, an American area with no single story to inform, a spot extra advanced than you imagined however possibly simply as colourful as you hoped. The Ozarks is a mid-American upland area famous for its bodily magnificence and infrequently related with stereotypical photos of hillbillies and poverty-induced backwardness on the one hand and rugged, frontier-like individualism on the opposite. It’s a place that gives a variation on the American story, however a really American story nonetheless.


Black and white map titled: Subregions of the Ozark Uplift. Map by Jim Coombs & Emilie Burke, Maps & GIS Unit, Missourri State University. The graphic shows a region between Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas, with major cities and geographic subregions labeled.


Map by Jim Coombs & Emilie Burke, Maps & GIS Unit, Missourri State College


Spanning an space of greater than 45,000 sq. land miles (roughly the dimensions of the state of New York), the Ozarks covers a lot of the southern half of Missouri and northwestern and north central Arkansas, in addition to a lot smaller parts of northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas. Geographers divide the area into 4 main sections—the Boston Mountains, the St. Francois Mountains, the Springfield Plain, and the Salem Plateau—together with a number of smaller subdivisions of riverine hills. Rivers mark the broad boundaries of the Ozark uplift: the Missouri on the north, the Mississippi and the Black on the east, the Arkansas on the south, and the Grand (or Neosho) River on the west.

On a lot of its western edge, although, the Ozark area tends to fade imperceptibly into the Nice Plains. Regardless of the frequent references to mountains within the Ozarks, the area is technically not mountainous however relatively a severely eroded plateau or uplift. Solely the igneous St. Francois Mountains, the historic core of the uplift, qualify as precise mountains. Even the very best elevations of the Ozark plateau, discovered within the Boston Mountains of northwestern Arkansas, hardly ever exceed 2,500 ft above sea stage. The area is likely to be described as an unlimited panorama of ditches, some deeper than others.

Bodily, the Ozarks is famous for its abundance of water sources and karst options and for its steep and rugged terrain, though giant swaths of the area include rolling hills of minimal reduction. The area bears hanging bodily similarities to Appalachia basically and the Cumberland Plateau specifically. These similarities, mixed with the commonalities of the upland South people cultures present in every area, proceed to encourage comparisons with the a lot bigger Appalachian area.


Six women sit around a table indoors working on a red, yellow, and white patterned quilt.

Quilters of the Serving to Hand Membership at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Rader, Missouri, 2023


Picture by Kaitlyn McConnell


Like Appalachia, the Ozark area has lengthy been characterised as a rural area peopled by remoted inhabitants. However lengthy earlier than barefooted hillbillies, wildcatters, and hoedown fiddlers got here to outline the Ozarks within the nationwide consciousness, the individuals who lived within the area have been common actors within the American drama.

By the point of European settlement alongside the Mississippi within the seventeenth century, the Ozarks was primarily the realm of the Osages. The earliest white settlements, these of the French within the eighteenth century, exercised minimal long-term impact on the area’s historical past, as they have been quickly overrun by American settlers who flooded the world after the Conflict of 1812. The overwhelming majority of those settlers traced their ancestry to the British Isles and Germany and got here to the Ozarks from the higher South states of Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia. Within the course of, they transported the society and tradition of the upland South to this trans-Mississippi highland. The one notable exception was within the northeastern nook of Oklahoma, the place the Cherokees and several other smaller displaced American Indian nations established new houses within the early nineteenth century.

Though slavery existed within the Ozarks, the area’s ruggedness and infertility prevented the event of plantation-style agriculture. The consequence was a a lot smaller enslaved inhabitants than in most areas of the South, which, mixed with sporadic race-related violence and subsequent Black flight within the years across the flip of the 20th century, translated into a contemporary Ozark area that’s dwelling to only a few African Individuals.

Till about thirty years in the past, the Ozarks remained a spot the place (exterior of the Cherokee Nation) ninety-eight % of the inhabitants was white. The previous three a long time have witnessed important demographic change. Largely the consequence of the labor recruiting practices of the area’s company leaders, resembling Walmart and Tyson Meals and its opponents within the poultry processing business, the Ozarks is now dwelling to important populations of individuals of colour. Foremost amongst them are Mexicans, Mexican Individuals, Guatemalans, and others from Latin America, in addition to Marshall Islanders. However the area additionally claims important numbers of Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao, Somalis, and Sudanese. Most of those newcomers dwell in a relatively confined hall of the Ozarks in far northwestern Arkansas and much southwestern Missouri, the place folks of colour and whites of Hispanic or Latin American descent account for about one in 4 residents.


Group of people sitting in folding chairs outdoors. At the center, some play instruments: upright bass, guitar, and fiddle.

Spring Fling, Champion, Missouri, 2018


Picture by Kaitlyn McConnell


Even earlier than the beginnings of this current in-migration pattern, the demographics of the white Ozarks had undergone change. Because the Nineteen Sixties, the Ozark area has attracted giant numbers of retirees, particularly from the higher Midwest. A number of deliberate communities have been created particularly for this objective. The area has additionally grow to be a number one development space for the Amish and comparable traditionalist offshoots of the novel reformation. As well as, low-cost land and enduring people tradition attracted many back-to-the-landers and others of a counterculture bent to the Ozarks. All of this occurred throughout an period in which out-migration sparked by agricultural transformation and poverty led tens of hundreds of Ozarkers to depart the area.

Even amid the hanging demographic adjustments of the previous few a long time, the Ozarks within the twenty-first century is a spatially divided place and a land of haves and have-nots. Essentially the most fertile, various, and affluent subregion of the Ozarks, the Springfield Plain stays essentially the most densely populated and most closely capitalized of all of the subregions—the locus of main universities, Fortune 500 firms, and metropolitan statistical areas. In stark distinction, rural subregions such because the Boston Mountains and Courtois Hills envelop inside their romantic ridges and hollers sparse, nearly all-white populations whose generations of poverty evince no indicators of abating. Some would possibly say that the Springfield Plain seems to be like America and all the time has, whereas the Boston Mountains and Courtois Hills appear to be the Ozarks.

It could be extra correct, nonetheless, to assert that the Ozarks in toto seems to be extra like America, with oases of wealth and prosperity amid huge stretches of countryside and cities whose fortunes vary from middling to only north of hopeless. All of those locations mirror an Ozarks evolving with an everchanging nation and world.


Through bare trees, a view of a river winding through hills.

Present River, Shannon County, Missouri, 2023


Picture by Kaitlyn McConnell


Brooks Blevins is a historian and the Noel Boyd Professor of Ozarks Research at Missouri State College. A local of the agricultural Ozarks of Arkansas, he’s the creator or editor of a dozen books, together with the current Historical past of the Ozarks trilogy printed by the College of Illinois Press. Blevins is a presenter on the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Competition.

Additional Studying

Brooks Blevins, A Historical past of the Ozarks, three volumes (Urbana: College of Illinois Press, 2018–2021)

Brooks Blevins, “The Ozarks,” in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Tradition, Vol. VI: Ethnicity, Celeste Ray, ed. (Chapel Hill: College of North Carolina Press, 2007)

W. Ok. McNeil, Ozark Nation (Jackson: College Press of Mississippi, 1995)



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