Where Are the Ozarks?
Perhaps the most accepted scientific definition of the Ozarks is the one outlined by Milton Rafferty, former professor of geography and geology at Missouri State University, in his book Ozarks: Land and Life. According to Rafferty, the boundaries of the Ozarks are marked in a general way by important rivers: the Mississippi River on the east; the Missouri River, including a narrow band of hills north of the river, on the north; the Grand River on the southwest; the Arkansas River on the south; and the Black River on the southeast.
Science, however, does not tell the whole story. There exists what might be called a cultural or popular conception of the Ozarks that corresponds only in a very general way with the geographic boundaries. This popular conception of the Ozarks tends to define the region more narrowly than science does. In other words, there are a number of places that are geographically within the limits of the Ozarks where the people nonetheless do not usually think of their area as part of the Ozarks. These areas, of course, tend to be on the fringes of the region.
The Mississippi River counties, like Perry and Cape Girardeau, comprise one such area. A spokesperson for the City of Cape Girardeau recently told me that the people of that area thought of the edge of the Ozarks as lying forty or fifty miles west of Cape.
The counties that border the Missouri River on the south, in the central and eastern parts of the state, such as Cole County and Moniteau County, comprise another problematic area. A resident of Jefferson City recently told me that the Ozarks began several miles to the south. Similarly, a resident of Tipton said the people of his area associated the Lake of the Ozarks, forty miles to the south, with the Ozarks but didn’t think of their own area as part of the region.
Even the residents of some of the counties farther south do not always consider themselves as living in the Ozarks. For example, a couple of years ago I heard Dr. Brooks Blevins of Missouri State University’s Department of Ozarks Studies tell a story on Ozarks Public Television of a time he was driving south from Jefferson City on Highway 63. He stopped in the German-settled community of Vienna, Missouri, in Maries County, and was told by locals that he was not yet in the Ozarks, despite the fact that Vienna, by all geographic definitions, is well within the Ozarks.
The southeastern tip of Cherokee County, Kansas, is technically in the Ozarks, but as someone who is familiar with that area, I’ve never gotten the sense that the people there generally think of themselves as being in the Ozarks.
Conversely, there are also people who live somewhat outside the geographic limits of the Ozarks who still identify themselves as Ozarkians (or Ozarkers, as some residents prefer to be called). For example, the people who live around Clarksville, Arkansas, obviously consider themselves to be on the edge of the Ozarks, since the institution of higher learning there is called the University of the Ozarks. Yet, by most geographic definitions, Clarksville is not in the Ozarks but instead part of the Arkansas River Valley.
These people define the Ozarks (or at least their part of it) more broadly than does science, but I think they are in the minority. Overall, I think the rule that culture defines the Ozarks more narrowly than does science still holds. It seems to me there are more people who live in the Ozarks but don’t realize it than there are people who live outside the Ozarks and yet claim identity with the region.