Arkansas Stories and Tips

A Brief History of the Buffalo

Reminder Photo, Arkansas, United States

The first settlers in the Buffalo River country came primarily from the southern Appalachians and early records show they were establishing homes here as early as 1825. They were a rugged, self-sufficient group. They had to be. Those who find driving the winding mountain roads tortuous today might attempt to visualize what it was like to cross them with all you owned in the world loaded on a wagon pulled by a team of oxen and only vague trails to follow through the forest.

Towns sprang up early. Records show Jasper was an established town by 1840. One of the first residents was John M. Ross, a Choctaw, who became postmaster in 1843, when Jasper was made the first post office in Newton County. His salary for the year of 1845 was $7.09.

Despite their isolation, the early settlers were not untouched by the Civil War. The Confederacy mined bat guano from the big cave on Cave Mountain in the Boxley Valley, which they used to make gunpowder. In fact, it was estimated that half the gunpowder the Confederacy used during the war came from this cave on the Buffalo River.

The rugged terrain kept Ozarks settlers isolated and it was an isolation that endured almost up to the beginning of World War I. Before the advent of tourists and television, there were speech patterns, songs, and traditions carried into the hills that gradually evolved into their own unique colloquial culture, much of it influenced by the highly superstitious slave culture. Thus "Ozark voodoo" came into being, and the obscure concept of "woodswomen" (practicers of nature-based magic, sometimes evil) was introduced to modern mythology.

Today in Jasper you still run across people who embody this unique isolated culture with its bizarre words and affinity for home-made everything. But it is only when you get out in the "hills" on the backroads and trails that you catch any glimpse of the "Ozark voodoo." It will likely vanish entirely within a decade.

Electricity did not reach the area until the 1930s and one of the greatest changes it brought was the radio (many residents in these hills still have no television, but radios are plentiful). The outside world had found the Ozarks at last.

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