Ozarks History

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

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Location: Missouri

I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fourteen nonfiction books, two novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are A Concise Encyclopedia of the Ozarks, Bushwhacker Belles, and Wicked Women of Missouri.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Osage War

The so-called Osage War was a bloodless confrontation between Osage Indians and a company of Greene County (Missouri) militia under Colonel Charles Yancey in the winter of 1836-1837. The Osage had been removed to reservations in Kansas and Indian Territory through a series of treaties in the early 1800s, but some of them persisted in drifting back into their former homeland. Their presence in southwest Missouri, according to R.I. Holcombe's 1883 History of Greene County, was "distasteful to the settlers," and Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered them removed.
Yancey, who was also presiding judge of the county court, decided to go out and negotiate personally with the Indians and only call out his troops if it should prove necessary. Two other men, Chesley Cannefax and Henry Fulbright, accompanied him on his mission. Taking along a young black man, who had been raised among the Delaware and spoke several Indian dialects, as an interpreter, the trio set out to the south and southwest of Springfield and, after a couple of days travel, met a party of Osage Indians mounted on ponies near Flat Creek in what later became Stone County. Yancey was dressed in full military regalia, with plumes and epaulets, and the white men hoped that his "imposing appearance" would make a favorable impression on "the display-loving savages." The Indians were impressed enough to let out a shrill yell and gallop away without speaking a word.
Their fear somewhat aroused by the reaction of the Indians, the white men followed uneasily and soon came upon an Indian camp of about 100 men and an equal number of women and children. Apparently assuming Yancey was some sort of "great chief," the Indians met the white men with beads and other Indian finery as tokens of their goodwill, and the Osage chief, Nawpawiter, sat down with Yancey and his party to talk. Newpawiter agreed to remove from the area but asked, because of the inclement weather and the condition of some of his people, that he not have to do so until the weather got better. Yancey granted the request, issuing a written permission for the Indians to stay where they were for a few days until the weather improved, and then he and his small party continued on their way, looking for other Indians in the region.
About 35 miles south Springfield in Barry County, Yancey and his men came upon a large assemblage of Indians that they thought might be a war council, as one brave reportedly rode out brandishing a tomahawk and making indecent gestures toward the white men. Although Yancey and Fulbright thought they could parley with the Indians as they had done with Newpawiter and induce them to leave, Cannefax argued for a stronger course of action. His advice finally prevailed, and the white men returned to Springfield to call out the militia.
More than a hundred men were soon armed and mounted, and the militia met the Indians again in present-day Christian County, on the Finley River. The Indians greatly outnumbered the whites, but they were poorly armed, mainly with just bows and arrows. The Indians retreated, and Yancey pursued them to the west side of the James River, where the two sides drew up facing each other. The Indians at first refused Yancey's demand that they give up their arms and remove across the state line, but they soon acquiesced, although a few young braves continued to grumble as they laid down their weapons. According to Holcombe, some of the white men "behaved very rudely" toward the Indian women, but Yancey supposedly put a quick stop to the misbehavior. Over the next couple of days, which were bitterly cold, the militia escorted the Indians to the state line, where they were admonished not to come back into Missouri.
When the militia got back to Springfield, they found the townspeople almost in a panic because of rumors they had heard that a general Indian uprising had begun. No hostilities ensued, however, and thus ended the so-called Osage War.
As a footnote to this story, it might be interesting to mention that later in 1837 Judge Yancey killed a man on the square in Springfield. The first person to be put on trial for murder in Greene County, he was acquitted and later was appointed a circuit judge.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Belle Starr's 35-Mile Dash

According to legend, sixteen-year-old Myra Maybelle Shirley (later known as Belle Starr) was out on a scout from Carthage on behalf of her brother Bud and his guerrilla buddies in early 1862 when she was captured at Newtonia on February 3, which happened to be her sixteenth birthday, by Major Edwin Eno, who was stationed there in command of Union forces, and held in the Ritchey mansion because Eno had sent out a detachment in pursuit of Bud Shirley and his guerrilla band and he knew that Myra would warn her brother if she were not detained. Personally guarded by Eno, Myra paced the floor cursing and ranting against the major or pounded out songs on the piano to release her pent up emotions, but he merely laughed at her anger and frustration, further incensing the young woman and finally driving her to tears.
After a suitable elapse of time, Eno became satisfied that his men had an ample head start on Myra and that he could safely release her. She rushed through the door, cut several switches from a cherry bush to use as riding whips, and sprang into the saddle of her trusty steed. Plying the cherry switches with vigor, she sped away and, a short distance from the house, left the road and cut across fields, leaping over ditches and fences and making a bee line for Carthage thirty-five miles away aboard her speedy horse. Major Eno pulled out his field glass and climbed to an upper room of the Ritchey mansion to watch as Myra raced away like the wind. "I'll be damned," he said with a hint of admiration. "If she doesn't reach Carthage ahead of my troopers, I'm a fool."
Sure enough, Myra reached her hometown in time to warn her brother of the Federal troops sent out to capture him, and when the soldiers reached Carthage shortly afterwards, she was there to greet them and inform them with a smirk that Bud Shirley and his men had left town half an hour ago and were probably in Lawrence County by now.
The problem with this story is that it almost certainly didn't happen. The legend was first propagated by S.W. Harman in his book Hell on the Border, published in 1898, almost ten years after Belle Starr's death. The story, as related by Harman, was full of errors. Myra Shirley would have turned fourteen in 1862, not sixteen, and in addition the idea that the incident supposedly happened on her birthday seems like a bit of romantic nonsense. Harman misspelled the major's name as Enos instead of Eno and misspelled the name of Mathew Ritchey as Ritchery. Also, Eno was not stationed at Newtonia until 1863. These factual errors, the fantastic notion of a fifteen or sixteen-year-old girl off on a scout by herself 35 miles from home, and the fact that the story was not heard of until almost ten years after Belle's death make one suspect that the whole incident was probably manufactured or at least highly fictionalized to embellish the infamous reputation she had gained long after she had left Carthage.
A different version of the legend holds that Myra was not detained by Eno but instead came to the Ritchey home of her own accord as a spy to try to gather information for her brother and his guerrilla friends. Mr. Ritchey, a strong Union man, knew the Shirley family and did not like them, but out of courtesy he admitted the girl and let her spend the night. While she was there, Myra made herself very agreeable and entertained her hosts and the other guests, including Major Eno, by playing the piano. The next morning, having obtained vital information about Union forces in Newtonia, Myra cut some cherry switches and rode off side-saddle toward Carthage, but she had ridden only a couple of miles when Confederate forces launched a surprise attack on the Union troops at Newtonia. The cutting of the switches had been a signal that the place was vulnerable to attack.
While this second version of Belle's visit to Newtonia is somewhat more believable than the first, it, too, probably has very little basis in fact.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Tri-State Tornado

I've written on this blog about the 2011 Joplin tornado and the 1880 Marshfield tornado, but I don't think I've ever written about the 1925 Tri-State tornado, other than perhaps just to mention it in passing.
The Tri-State tornado was first sighted in Shannon County, Missouri, about 12:40 p.m. on March 18, 1925, and the first fatality occurred about twenty minutes later north-northwest of Ellington. The storm virtually annihilated the town of Annapolis in Iron County, killing two people there. Two more people were killed at the small community of Leadanna, also in Iron County. The twister then crossed Bollinger County and entered Perry County, where it struck the town of Biehle, destroying many homes and killing four people. At least eleven people were killed in Missouri before the tornado continued its deadly path through Illinois and into Indiana.
The storm cut a swath 235 miles long and about 1,200 yards wide on average. Altogether it killed 695 people, making it by far the deadliest single tornado in U.S. history. Although not officially rated at the time, it is considered an EF5 tornado.
The Tri State tornado was part of a whole series of tornadoes that broke out on the same day, and the total number of deaths for all the storms that day was 747.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Railroad Comes to Springfield

The years immediately before the Civil War and especially the years immediately after the war were a time of great activity in the building of railroads across the Ozarks (and the whole country, for that matter). The history of railroad building in the Ozarks is a vast subject that is beyond the scope of a brief blog entry, but I'll briefly outline the events that led to Springfield, Missouri, finally getting a railroad in 1870.
The Pacific Railroad was chartered in 1849 to extend from St. Louis to Missouri's western border and thence to the Pacific Ocean. In 1852, an amendment to the law authorizing the Pacific Railroad created a Southwest Branch, which would diverge from the main branch at Franklin (appropriately renamed Pacific) and head southwest toward Rolla and Springfield while the main Pacific Railroad continued due west toward Jefferson City and Tipton.
By 1861, almost eighty miles of track had been completed along the Southwest Branch from Pacific to Rolla before the Civil War interrupted almost all railroad construction in the United States. Thus, work was halted on both branches of the Pacific Railroad.
Work resumed after the war, and by 1866, another twelve miles of roadbed for the Southwest Branch had been completed to Arlington. However, the Southwest Branch defaulted on its bonds, and the track from Pacific to Rolla and the roadbed to Arlington were seized by the state and sold to John C. Fremont, a Civil War general who had originally made his name as an explorer and had been the 1856 Republican presidential candidate. Fremont renamed the Southwest Branch the Southwest Pacific Railroad. (The main line of the Pacific Railroad was not sold, and it later became the Missouri Pacific.)
In 1866, the same year Fremont bought the Southwest Pacific, Congress incorporated the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad under his control with authority to build a railroad from Springfield to the Pacific Ocean. An entity of the Atlantic and Pacific purchased the Southwest Pacific in 1867, and rails were laid to Arlington on the already-existing roadbed the same year. However, that company, too, defaulted on its payments (although the main Atlantic and Pacific was still operating), and the state again seized the property in June of that year. Citizens of Springfield were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the railroad, but all the difficulty in getting a road built across the state made some people doubt whether Springfield would ever get a railroad. A St. Louis newspaperman supposedly remarked that the people who were working to get a road to Springfield were just as likely to get a railroad built to the moon as to Springfield. In 1868, the state sold the old Southwest Pacific property to a new company, the South Pacific Railroad, and it was under this name that the railroad finally reached Springfield in April of 1870. Thus the town was facetiously dubbed Moon City, and the name is still occasionally used today. For instance, the press of Missouri State University is known as Moon City Press.
Later in 1870, tracks were completed as far as Pierce City. The same year, the Atlantic and Pacific acquired the South Pacific, and the A&P was, in turn, acquired in 1878 by the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad. The Frisco remained the dominant railroad in the Ozarks until 1980, when it merged with Burlington Northern.

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