Ozark History: The First Inhabitants

osageShow Me Oz – Excerpted from the Introduction to my book, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country

The Ozark “Mountains” are an anomaly – an island in a sea of plains, a bump in an otherwise flat road. When viewed from the air the folds and contours of the Ozarks resemble a human brain; an interesting comparison, since the Ozarks also represent one of the most ancient and diverse landscapes in North America.  Among the unique and dizzying array of flora and fauna, caves, sinkholes, crystal clear springs and toe-numbing rivers is a rich and tangled history of human habitation.

Before the influx of European settlers, the Ozarks were inhabited by a series of indigenous peoples. The Paleo-Indians, also known as Bluff Dwellers, were believed to have lived here during the last ice age, some 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. Archeological investigation indicates that these early peoples were already a part of a skilled and artful culture that wove nets and baskets, sewed clothing, and used mortar and pestle to grind cultivated seeds and grains. They also crafted sophisticated wooden bows and deadly arrows for use in hunting and to protect their very large territory from intruders.

Bluff Dwellers

Steve Miller painting: Prehistoric Bluff Dwellers of the White River Valley, Ozarks Plateau.  Ralph Foster Museum School of the Ozarks.
Image via the
White River Historical Quarterly.

According to archeological records, the peoples of the region continued to grow and expand both geographically and culturally. During the Archaic period of 7,000 BC to the Mississippian Period beginning around 900 AD, trading with other tribes was well underway in the region and the art of firing clay pottery, building extensive earthen structures and the cultivation of corn and other subsistence crops had been perfected. De Soto mentioned encounters with the native peoples as early as 1541.

By the time Henry Rowe Schoolcraft explored the “Aux Arcs” region in 1818, the earlier inhabitants had either evolved into or been replaced by the Osage in the north and the Quapaw in the south. The Osage were known to have a strong physical presence about them and it was evident that they had controlled the Ozarks region for a very long time.

The creation stories of the Osage recount how they fell from the sky to live upon the earth where they called themselves Children of the Middle Waters. Their semi-nomadic nature found them living in hide teepees while hunting buffalo and other large game on the plains in the fall and living in earth lodges near the river in winter and early spring.

In one of Schoolcraft’s earliest encounters with the Osage, he came upon a village made of many earthen domes built in a large clearing in the forest. He noted his discomfort. The village was eerily tidy, yet completely abandoned – as if the occupants had intended to return very soon. He did not yet understand the culture of the Osage and stumbling upon this freakish concept was unnerving to him. This could have been an Osage spring camp, or it could have been used by another tribe such as the Delaware, Kickapoo or Shawnee, who also used the Ozark forestland for hunting forays and travel parties.

At this early stage in their career, Schoolcraft and his sidekick Levi Pettibone were not explorers on par with those of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Rather, theirs was a private business venture in which they would study the resource potential of the Ozarks region – primarily lead ore – and then get rich and famous by selling books and maps leading wealthy venture capitalists to those particular areas of interest.

Osage Dreams

Detail of  the painting”Osage Dreams,” by Charles Banks Wilson. Image captured from the article entitled, The Osage Indians by George Sabo III, University of Arkansas.

Without much in the way of navigation or wilderness survival skills, the pair often found themselves lost for days, sometimes weeks at a time. Thinking they would be hunting game birds for food in the heavily forested region, all they brought for weaponry were a pair off ineffectual shot guns. They often ran out of food and water and relied upon the few white settlers already in the region for sustenance.

Before Schoolcraft arrived, the Ozarks had been hunting grounds to regional tribes other than the Osage, including the Kickapoo, Shawnee, and Delaware. But by the time he made it back to civilization and published his work, the Ozarks was fast becoming a refuge for eastern tribes fleeing the white settlers and their growing militias. Oftentimes, their flight was a last-ditch effort to retain some semblance of freedom and to preserve their traditional ways against the ever-growing flood of white settlers who had little need or tolerance of the American Indian.

Because Native Americans left little behind to scar the land in their passing, only small fragments of their existence are found today. In the Ozarks, only remnants of Indian inhabitants remain in the form of spear points, arrowheads and hand tools. These items are most often found along or near rivers and streams where they once hunted and fished.

2014 12-1 Bent Trees (9)

Of the less well-known signs left behind in this rugged landscape, “bent trees” were made to mark trails and to point the way to nearby water or shelter. Young saplings would be bent to the ground and tethered in place. Eventually the tethers would rot away and the tree would continue to grow with an “elbow” in the middle. Bent trees can still be found today.  You can read more about these unusual landmarks in my article, Indian Bent Trees: History or Legend.

© 2016 Jill Henderson  Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.

AJOS-214x32813A Journey of Seasons

Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.

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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.

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4 responses to “Ozark History: The First Inhabitants

  1. Very, very good article, Jill!

  2. Thank you so much, Di! There’s a place in Noel, Missouri called Bluff Dwellers Cavern and apparently there’s a small museum with artifacts dating back 5,000 years. I’d love to go see that. The cave is supposed to be pretty nice, too.

  3. Jill, I have read Schoolcrafts’ book. He mentions stopping off in Mine a Breton (now Potosi) and looking back at the last sign of civilization on his way west and south. I have lived in Potosi, Mo. my entire life and I bemoan the fact that our citizens do not study or enjoy our history. Your article about the Indians was much appreciated.

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