How the Ozarks Came to Be America’s Oldest Mountains
Editor’s note: Every day of the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, singer and storyteller Marideth Sisco lit up stages with tales from the Ozarks. Here she tells the story of the Ozarks itself—how the area developed geologically and culturally. Her words are unedited and unabridged.
The oldest hills. The clearest water. The roughest, most rugged, and unforgiving terrain, yet the most heartbreakingly beautiful landscape. The easiest place to live and the hardest to make a living—this is the Ozarks! “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” a popular saying in post-Great Depression America, would have cut no ice with the residents of the Ozarks in those times. It had already been a guiding principle for generations—a recipe for survival, if you will.
Notwithstanding the portraits of hill folk drawn by Al Capp in Li’l Abner, life in the Ozarks has never been the easy, lazy life of the stereotypical hillbilly. Eighteenth-century Osage people migrating through the Ozarks, encountering the first European settlers, marveled that anyone would think to settle permanently in that rugged, inhospitable territory. They said such folks must be crazy. Nobody could live through the summers, which were always too hot, dry, buggy, and prone to tornadoes, or winters, which were too cold, wet, and prone to ice storms. Lovely and offering plenty to harvest in spring and fall, but impossible otherwise.
So how did it get that way? For that we must go very far back to the very beginning. All the way to the murky beginnings of Planet Earth, when the recently molten planet was still cooling and settling. Before such things as dates, or time itself, when continents were colliding and parting. Somewhere in that distant past, an errant chunk of what could have become part of South America instead wrenched itself loose and plunged northward, crashing into a southward trending piece of the Canadian Shield, a vast formation of volcanic rhyolite granite formed at Earth’s very beginnings and covering all of Northern Canada and, at its east end, reaching much farther south.
The collision buckled and twisted the rock along the seam, forming the Ouachita Mountains of what is now north-central Arkansas. But the effects of the impact did not stop there. Ripples of energy of a magnitude hard to imagine in human terms plowed northward, colliding eventually with that eastern end of the shield, heaving it aloft to cause an immense shift to occur in that vast rock, raising a portion of that almost solid volcanic formation to become the core of what is today the Interior Highlands of North America. That core would later be called the St. Francis Mountains. And the highlands themselves would become the region we now know as the Ozarks. But not for a very long time.
Further continental disturbances would raise and lower this area countless times over the ages, so that all the area except for the actual mountain tops would be repeatedly drowned in a mineral rich shallow sea, forming over eons of time layers of soft sedimentary limestone and dolomite. Those layers would rise, become rocklike, crack, weather, and begin to erode, forming deep valleys and steep limestone bluffs. And then the process would all begin again.
Someone visiting the Ozarks today and reading this description will inevitably say, “What mountains?” For they are the oldest and have been worn away until mere nubs of their former selves poke out of the surrounding eroded limestone, barely fit to be called hills. But the process took a very long time. It would be millions of years of weathering that Ozarks rock before the Appalachian Mountains began to form, and millions more before the giant uplift that formed the Rockies. The Ozarks actually began 1.65 billion years ago. That’s how old.
Human settlement, if you could call it that, began a mere 12,000 or so years ago, and for millennia consisted of roving nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers who harvested the spring greens and young, tender wildlife such as deer, elk, bison, and the occasional mastodon, and returned to gather autumn’s harvest of nuts, berries, trout, catfish, and black bear. It was an Eden in spring and fall, between the ice and the ticks and chiggers.
It was still that way when the Europeans arrived. As settlers poured in from the east, they settled first the fertile valleys and farmland, looking for good soil, plentiful resources, and places that reminded them of home. It was a tougher breed that tackled the less hospitable places—the Appalachians, the Adirondacks, the Poconos, the White Mountains, and the Green, the Smokies.
As more and more folks came, they filled those places, and still more arrived. In the north, they flooded the plains and flowed over the Badlands all the way to the Rockies. In the south, they drained the swamps and fought disease and heat with the unwilling help of those they captured from hotter parts of the world. In the middle, after crossing the Ohio River and then the Mississippi, they then had to choose. They could head north to St. Louis and on into northern Missouri and the rapidly filling glaciated plains and river bottomlands along the Missouri River. They could go farther south across the swampy, inhospitable Arkansas lowlands to swing farther west via the White River and the Black into gentler territory. Or they could opt for the most dangerous and daunting, and forge straight ahead west, into the wild and tangled Ozarks.
From all they had heard, the going was uncertain and the habitable valleys few and narrow, the hills steep and rocky, where civilization would always be hard to reach and amenities hard to come by. But, my God, it was beautiful. And neighbors would be few. And you could live off the land if you were tough enough, brave enough, or desperate enough for solitude—or just not wanting to be found. If you fit into one of those categories, you might feel right at home. If you lived.
The largest contingent to choose that middle way was bands of what we would come to call the “Scotch-Irish,” Most of them were Ulster Scots who had already been subjugated to English rule and faced the hostility of the Irish they were forced to live among, and they were in no mood to be treated badly going forward. Moreover, a good many of these had been followers of William of Orange, the Protestant king of England, and were known as “Billy’s boys.” Their fierce independence turned them away from the rapidly growing cities and towns and toward rougher, less settled areas of the Appalachians and, when that became crowded, on west to the next patch of rough country—the Ozarks. Somewhere along the way, they began being referred to as hillbillies. That’s Hill. Billies.
They brought with them their centuries-old musical traditions, along with their fiddles, dulcimers, guitars, and button-box accordions. Soon they would encounter the cigar-box banjoes of the African Americans, the mandolins of the Italian settlements farther west, and the musical heritages of all their neighbors. For although many groups rejected the deep Ozarks in favor of more hospitable land, several chose to live just outside, and that mostly Scotch-Irish core of early Ozarkers began mixing with the Germans to the north; the Swiss, Austrians, and Poles to the west; and the Italians to the southwest.
Soon, the music of the British Isles began developing some unique flavors of its own, as those attending dance parties who had been brought up on jigs, reels, and hornpipes had to now learn the steps of the schottische, the polka, and the tarantella. They didn’t always understand each other’s speech, but music was their common language, and good enough for socializing. Bit by bit, the Ozarks began to less resemble “Appalachia light” and more to resemble a culture that still had its roots in the British Isles but had changed irrevocably to something not quite like anything else.
And so the Ozarks was settled. It acquired its peculiar name almost inadvertently early on, when French settlers wrote home from what’s considered the first European settlement, the Arkansas Post—a military outpost near the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers, and gave their address as Aux (from) Arcs (Arcansa), or “From Arkansas.”Arcansa was the name given by eastern tribes to the branch of Siouan Indians living there—who called themselves Quapaw, as distinct from the related Kansa Indians, who lived farther west.
The Ozarks today is filled with relics of past attempts at enterprise, including hundreds of water-powered grist and sawmills on every viable stream, mostly turbine-driven, grinding wheat and corn for humans and livestock, milling timber, and serving as community centers where culture and folkways were shared and developed. Not until tough-rooted fescue grass was introduced, which could cling to and thrive on the steep, rocky hillsides, was beef cattle ranching able to become a viable industry and the Ozarks agriculture economy to thrive.
Other crops grown and harvested in the skimpy bottom lands were cotton and timber, which they could sell along with bear grease harvested from the wild, by floating it down the rivers to the lowland mills and manufacturers, and corn, which could be processed at the gristmills into food for humans and cattle, or refined into another favorite elixir—moonshine. The story goes that one farmer raised such a fine crop one year that he figured it brought in nearly fifteen gallons per acre.
According to geographers, the Ozark region today extends over all or part of 93 counties in four states: Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, with a total area of approximately 45,000 to 50,000 square miles, an area about the size of Florida or Ohio. Mostly covered with forests of oak, hickory, and pine, the region is widely known for its karst topography of springs, caves, and sinkholes and includes the largest single-outlet spring in the United States, Big Spring, in the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways, with an average flow of 13 million gallons a day. Missouri alone has a recorded 7,300 caves, the majority of which are in the Ozarks. Less than a quarter of the entire region has been cleared for crops and pasture.
Less well known but widely recognized by biologists is the curious fact that there are more endemic and glacial relic plants in the Ozarks than almost anywhere. Horticulturist Scott Woodbury of the Shaw Nature Reserve in Grey Summit, Missouri, calls the Ozarks “a tapestry of plants, uprooted and on the run from ever-changing climate and advancing glaciers.”
It took 2 million years, he said, for plants and animals to migrate here ahead of the glaciers, then retreat with them back north as the climate warmed. “But some species (called glacial relics) stayed behind. They found refuge in the bottoms of cool sinkholes, north-facing slopes, box canyons, and wetland fens.” Today, they comingle with countless endemic plants (which began here and never migrated away) and introduced plant species (brought by birds, animals, First Peoples, and Europeans), making the Ozarks one of the most biologically diverse areas on earth.
Although the beef cattle industry still ranks high in the Ozarks economy, tourism now surpasses it. In the early days of the twentieth century, wealthy businessmen from St. Louis discovered that if they could find their way through the winding dirt roads down through the river hills into the eastern Ozarks, they could hire experienced river guides with their unique flat-bottomed “johnboats” who could take them out on the Current River, the Jack’s Fork and the White for a few days or weeks of fishing and camping. As the timber industry grew, railroads were built, and the road south became easier, the guided fishing excursions became more and more popular. Some still exist today.
Roads are better now, local economies have taken advantage of the region’s natural beauty, and area attractions like Branson, with its music shows and theme parks like Silver Dollar City and Shepherd of the Hills have made their way into the top tiers of what draws people to the area. The natural beauty is unsurpassed, as is the fierce independence, the tough-as-nails courage and tenacity of its people.
Life in the Ozarks is easier now, but the hill folks who are now sixth- and seventh-generation Ozarkers have passed along to as many of the newcomers as they could the perennial guiding principle that guarantees their survival: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” That’s the Ozarks.
As we say here in the Ozarks, when we’ve gone visiting, have had a wonderful time, and hate to see it end, we turn at the doorway for a last goodbye, and we say, longingly, “Y’all better come and go home with us.”
Marideth Sisco is a singer and storyteller living in West Plains, Missouri, and a participant in the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.