Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written ten nonfiction books, two novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Civil War Springfield, Wicked Springfield: The Seamy Side of the Queen City, and Murder and Mayhem in Missouri.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Jasper County Place Names

A year or so ago, I posted an entry in which I criticized the fact that the Jasper County portion of Moser's Directory of Towns, Villages, and Hamlets Past and Present (available on the Internet at the website of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, the Springfield-Greene County Library, and possibly other sites) confuses Blende City with Blendville. Later, I issued a mea culpa for being overly critical when someone pointed out to me that libraries should not be held accountable for the accuracy of their web content any more than they are held accountable for the accuracy of every book they stock on their shelves, and I also realize that the compiler of a monumental work like Moser's directory should himself not be held accountable for the complete accuracy of everything included in the work. The compiler of such a large work in most cases has to rely on other secondary sources and cannot be expected to personally verify every fact. So I do not intend the following to be construed in anyway as a criticism but merely as providing additional information.
To repeat what I said a year or so ago, contrary to what Moser's directory says, Blende City and Blendville were not the same community. Blende City was located a mile or so southwest of Carl Junction near what is now Highway JJ, while Blendville was located in what today is southwest Joplin. Also, there seems to be some confusion about the various names by which Blende City was known. It was originally just a mining camp called Skeeterville after lead was discovered at the site around 1880. Supposedly the man who first stuck ore there named the camp Skeeterville, suggesting the presence of mosquitoes, to try to keep other miners away. The ploy didn't work, and soon so much blende (zinc ore) was being mined from the site that the booming community was named Blende City. A year or so later, an addition to the town was built and named Lehigh, and soon Lehigh had engulfed or at least overshadowed Blende City to the point that the entire community became known as Lehigh. Under the listing for Fidelity in Moser's directory, the author notes that Fidelity was also known as Skeeterville and Lehigh. This, at least as far as I have been able to determine, is not true. Fidelity was a completely separate place (located near the present-day intersection of I-44 and Highway 71) and was never known by any other name. Apparently someone simply got Fidelity and Lehigh (or Blende City) mixed up.
Parr Hill is mentioned in Moser's directory as a Jasper County place, but the notation under the listing says that it "could not be located." For the record, Parr Hill was a mining camp/community located in what is today southeast Joplin. There is still a Parr Hill Park just a couple of blocks north of the Dillon's store on East 20th Street. Swindle Hill is also listed in the directory as a separate community, but "nothing more is known about the place." Swindle Hill was another Joplin-area mining camp located near the present-day intersection of East 7th Street and Murphy Boulevard (the Ewert Park vicinity).

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Jennison in Joplin

I've heard or read quite a few stories about notorious characters who frequented Joplin during its mining boom in the 1870s and 1880s. As I noted in a recent post, the notorious characters often mentioned in connection with Joplin include the James brothers and the Younger brothers. Although their connection to Joplin has been exaggerated, there were, in fact, a number of colorful or notorious characters who migrated to Joplin during the years immediately after the lead mining boom began in the early 1870s. Some of them, like Charles "Fletch" Taylor, were ex Confederate guerrillas, and others, like Bruce Younger and Hobbs Kerry, although not ex guerrillas themselves, had a close connection to the post-war outlaw gangs that sprang from the guerrilla bands.
Not all the shady characters who came to Joplin, though, were ex Confederates or were allied with ex-Confederate gangs. One notable exception was Charles "Doc" Jennison, who served during the Civil War as a colonel of the 7th Kansas Cavalry and made a name for himself as a notorious jayhawker. At least that's what many Missourians considered him.
After the war, Jennison served a couple of terms in the Kansas State legislature, but around 1877, he came to Joplin and opened a restaurant and saloon called the Saratoga. Jennison's name shows up repeatedly in Jasper County Court records, mostly in connection with violating liquor laws. Although I haven't delved into the records very much yet, I believe the violations were mainly for selling liquor without a license or for selling liquor on Sunday. I think he was also indicted a time or two for gambling violations--running a Faro bank, etc.
Jennison left Joplin in the early 1880s and died shortly afterwards at Leavenworth, Kansas.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Jesse Roper

I first ran onto the name of Jesse Roper when I was reading about the infamous train robbery that occurred at Olyphant, Arkansas, in the fall of 1893. At the time Roper had been on the run from the law for over a year, after having killed Sheriff Byler of Baxter County in mid June of 1892. When one of the robbers was caught a few days after the train holdup, it was first thought that he was Jesse Roper. After a man who knew Roper viewed the prisoner and said positively that he was not Roper, it was still thought, however, that Roper was probably one of the eight men who had held up the train. (He wasn't.)
While researching other topics, I have since run onto Roper's name two or three more times. From what I've been able to ascertain so far, Roper was apparently never caught, but there were numerous false sightings of the fugitive, and a number of men were captured who were first thought to be Roper but who turned out not to be.
So, now I'm starting to get hooked, and sooner or later I'll probably have to end up delving into the Roper story a little deeper. That's usually how it happens. I run onto the name of a colorful character in Ozarks history or the mention of an infamous incident, and I lodge the name in the back of my mind but don't think much about it at first. If I run onto a second or third mention of the same character or incident, though, I start thinking more seriously about it and usually end up having to write about it in one fashion or another.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

County Names

In an entry I posted a year or so ago, I remarked that certain towns in the Ozarks were once known by a previous name, such as Dadeville having first been called Melville. The same is true about some of the counties in the region. For instance, Texas County was first called Ashley County, and McDonald County was first named Seneca County (after the Seneca Indians who lived in the region). What was originally Kinderhook County is now Camden county, and Dallas County was supposedly given its present name because its original name, Niangua, was considered too hard to spell and pronounce. One of the more interesting name changes pertains to Ozark County. It was originally given that name when it was first formed but changed its name to Decatur County and was known as such for a couple of years during the 1840s before changing its name back to Ozark.
I'm not sure whether there is an equivalent town in the Ozarks--one that briefly flirted with a different name before changing its name back to its original.

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Jesse James Was My Great Uncle

Yesterday, I was looking through some books in the local history room of the Joplin Public Library about Joplin's early history. Some of the stories chronicled in a couple of the books appear to be based mainly on oral legend and after-the-fact exaggeration rather than contemporaneous evidence. One such story that caught my eye was the oft-repeated assertion that the infamous outlaw Jesse James spent considerable time in and around Joplin. For instance, Jesse, using an assumed name, was supposedly introduced to a Joplin banker during the 1870s, and when the banker found out Jesse''s real name, he worried that the James gang would rob his bank. Jesse, though, upon learning of the man's concern, assured the banker that he would never rob a bank around Joplin because he considered it his hometown.
From what I've been able to discern from first-hand sources, this story and those like it are, at best, exaggeration. It's true that Jesse James was known to have passed through the Joplin area at least a time or two, but there's no documentation that he ever spent any considerable amount of time here. Same goes for the Younger brothers, who, like Jesse, are sometimes reported to have been denizens of Joplin. The Youngers' half-uncle Bruce Younger did frequent the town during its early days, and Fletch Taylor (Quantrill lieutenant and the James boys' immediate commander during the Civil War) did move to Joplin during the early lead-mining days and became a leading citizen of the town. Jesse's sister was even reported in a local newspaper as having visited Taylor in Joplin. But the Younger gang and the James boys mainly spent their time (when they weren't actively on the run) farther north around Jackson County, St. Clair County, and so forth, or else in Texas.
The exaggerated stories about Jesse James's exploits in and around Joplin, though, are hardly unique. Nearly every county in the Ozarks (or the Midwest for that matter), it seems, lays claim to some connection to the notorious outlaw. And if you get to talking about family history with the people you meet, it seems that about half of them claim kinship to Jesse, as though it were some badge of honor.

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Old-time Newspaper Editors

I do a lot of perusing of old newspapers, and I am often amused by the sardonic wit that editors of the nineteenth century exhibited, a sense of humor that is often missing in today's more matter-of-fact approach to journalism. Another thing that characterized reporting from the 1800s that is largely absent today was a keen competition between rival newspapers. (Perhaps the main reason it's missing today is the simple fact that there are not nearly as many papers as there used to be.)
Often these two traits of nineteenth century reporting (humor and competition)were combined when the editor of one newspaper would snipe at the editor of a rival paper. If the rival papers happened to be situated in rival towns (as opposed to being located in the same town), the sniping was often accompanied by bragging on one's own town while poking fun at the rival town. It's amusing today to look back at some of these editorial jabs.
Here, for instance, is a brief comment from the editor of the Springfield Times that appeared in his November 7, 1877 edition: "Blessed is Granby! She only has 37 dogs within her corporate limits. Our marshal sees to it that more than that number are killed every week." This little item was no doubt in response to a complaint about dogs that had recently appeared in the Granby Miner. Another item from a later edition of the same Springfield paper gives a hint of the rivalry that existed between Springfield and Joplin: "The following, from the Joplin Herald, is cool and refreshing in a village like ours: 'Main street presented its old-time appearance last night. The gambling halls and saloons were crowded and money seems to be plenty.'" The editor may have been a bit smug about Springfield's superior morality, but many Springfieldians couldn't resist the lure of the money that flowed in Joplin during the mining boom and moved 70 miles west to get in on the riches.

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