An Introduction to the Ozarks: It’s Not What You Might Expect
This is a place long controlled by the Native Osages, claimed by the French, and for decades under the jurisdiction of the Spanish Crown. It is a place that became the first “Indian Territory” for Native Americans who were pressured out of their ancestral homelands and pushed across the Mississippi River, a place traversed by thousands of Cherokees on the last leg of their Trail of Tears. It was a destination for Tennesseans, Kentuckians, and Carolinians in ox carts and covered wagons. It was a launching point for forty-niners and cattle drives to the West Coast. It was the place where General Ulysses S. Grant received his first star. It was home to lead miners and iron mongers, to cowboys and the enslaved, to circuit riders and trappers, dirt farmers and counterfeiters.
It was the last hunting ground of Daniel Boone, the home of industrialist Moses Austin and his son Stephen F., the “Father of Texas.” It is the birthplace and childhood home of African American scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. It was home to Hermann Jaeger, a Swiss immigrant who saved the European wine industry in the nineteenth century. It was the site of “Wild Bill” Hickok’s first shootout and Jesse James’s first train robbery. It was where a teenage Charlie Parker honed his licks on the alto sax and the birthplace of network television’s first regularly scheduled country music show. It is home to the world’s largest retail corporation, the nation’s leading meat-producing company, and the premier collection of American art.
Not what you expected from an introduction to the Ozarks? What if I told you it was a region settled overwhelmingly by white pioneers from the Appalachians, some of whose descendants were still singing seventeenth-century British ballads and making moonshine whiskey in hidden caves at the dawn of color television? That it is a place where the rules of neighborly civility melted in the heat of the Civil War, where racially motivated violence occurred at a per capita rate matched by few other areas in the years around the turn of the twentieth century?
That vast stretches of its rocky, infertile ridges and hollers provided little more than bare subsistence for generations of families and that these families once composed a significant percentage of the country’s migrant labor supply? That it was home to at least one community tucked so far back into the inaccessible hills that electric power lines finally reached it the same year that humans piloted a rocket ship to the moon and back? That it contains some of the nation’s most concentrated districts of white poverty, some of the poorest counties west of the Mississippi?
Sound more like it?
Welcome to the Ozarks, an American region with no single story to tell, a place more complex than you imagined but maybe just as colorful as you hoped. The Ozarks is a mid-American upland region noted for its physical beauty and often associated with stereotypical images of hillbillies and poverty-induced backwardness on the one hand and rugged, frontier-like individualism on the other. It is a place that offers a variation on the American story, but a very American story nonetheless.
Spanning an area of more than 45,000 square land miles (roughly the size of the state of New York), the Ozarks covers most of the southern half of Missouri and northwestern and north central Arkansas, as well as much smaller portions of northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas. Geographers divide the region into four major sections—the Boston Mountains, the St. Francois Mountains, the Springfield Plain, and the Salem Plateau—along with several smaller subdivisions of riverine hills. Rivers mark the broad boundaries of the Ozark uplift: the Missouri on the north, the Mississippi and the Black on the east, the Arkansas on the south, and the Grand (or Neosho) River on the west.
On much of its western edge, though, the Ozark region tends to fade imperceptibly into the Great Plains. Despite the frequent references to mountains in the Ozarks, the region is technically not mountainous but rather a severely eroded plateau or uplift. Only the igneous St. Francois Mountains, the ancient core of the uplift, qualify as actual mountains. Even the highest elevations of the Ozark plateau, found in the Boston Mountains of northwestern Arkansas, rarely exceed 2,500 feet above sea level. The region might be described as a vast landscape of ditches, some deeper than others.
Physically, the Ozarks is noted for its abundance of water resources and karst features and for its steep and rugged terrain, although large swaths of the region contain rolling hills of minimal relief. The region bears striking physical similarities to Appalachia in general and the Cumberland Plateau in particular. These similarities, combined with the commonalities of the upland South folk cultures found in each region, continue to encourage comparisons with the much larger Appalachian region.
Like Appalachia, the Ozark region has long been characterized as a rural region peopled by isolated inhabitants. But long before barefooted hillbillies, wildcatters, and hoedown fiddlers came to define the Ozarks in the national consciousness, the people who lived in the region were regular actors in the American drama.
By the time of European settlement along the Mississippi in the seventeenth century, the Ozarks was primarily the realm of the Osages. The earliest white settlements, those of the French in the eighteenth century, exercised minimal long-term effect on the region’s history, as they were soon overrun by American settlers who flooded the area after the War of 1812. The vast majority of these settlers traced their ancestry to the British Isles and Germany and came to the Ozarks from the upper South states of Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia. In the process, they transported the society and culture of the upland South to this trans-Mississippi highland. The one notable exception was in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma, where the Cherokees and several smaller displaced American Indian nations established new homes in the early nineteenth century.
Although slavery existed in the Ozarks, the region’s ruggedness and infertility prevented the development of plantation-style agriculture. The result was a much smaller enslaved population than in most areas of the South, which, combined with sporadic race-related violence and subsequent Black flight in the years around the turn of the twentieth century, translated into a modern Ozark region that is home to very few African Americans.
Until about thirty years ago, the Ozarks remained a place where (outside of the Cherokee Nation) ninety-eight percent of the population was white. The past three decades have witnessed significant demographic change. Largely the result of the labor recruiting practices of the region’s corporate leaders, such as Walmart and Tyson Foods and its competitors in the poultry processing industry, the Ozarks is now home to significant populations of people of color. Foremost among them are Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Guatemalans, and others from Latin America, as well as Marshall Islanders. But the region also claims significant numbers of Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao, Somalis, and Sudanese. Most of these newcomers live in a comparatively confined corridor of the Ozarks in far northwestern Arkansas and far southwestern Missouri, where people of color and whites of Hispanic or Latin American descent account for about one in four residents.
Even before the beginnings of this recent in-migration trend, the demographics of the white Ozarks had undergone change. Since the 1960s, the Ozark region has attracted large numbers of retirees, especially from the upper Midwest. Several planned communities were created specifically for this purpose. The region has also become a leading growth area for the Amish and similar traditionalist offshoots of the radical reformation. In addition, cheap land and enduring folk culture attracted many back-to-the-landers and others of a counterculture bent to the Ozarks. All of this took place during an era in which out-migration sparked by agricultural transformation and poverty led tens of thousands of Ozarkers to leave the region.
Even amid the striking demographic changes of the past few decades, the Ozarks in the twenty-first century is a spatially divided place and a land of haves and have-nots. The most fertile, diverse, and prosperous subregion of the Ozarks, the Springfield Plain remains the most densely populated and most heavily capitalized of all the subregions—the locus of major universities, Fortune 500 companies, and metropolitan statistical areas. In stark contrast, rural subregions such as the Boston Mountains and Courtois Hills envelop within their romantic ridges and hollers sparse, almost all-white populations whose generations of poverty evince no signs of abating. Some might say that the Springfield Plain looks like America and always has, while the Boston Mountains and Courtois Hills look like the Ozarks.
It would be more accurate, however, to claim that the Ozarks in toto looks more like America, with oases of wealth and prosperity amid vast stretches of countryside and towns whose fortunes range from middling to just north of hopeless. All of these places reflect an Ozarks evolving with an everchanging nation and world.
Brooks Blevins is a historian and the Noel Boyd Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University. A native of the rural Ozarks of Arkansas, he is the author or editor of a dozen books, including the recent History of the Ozarks trilogy published by the University of Illinois Press. Blevins is a presenter at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.