Local History Website of the SMSU Department of History
Early Settlers of Southwest Missouri
As early as the late 1700s, French and Spanish explorers had traveled through the area now known as Missouri. More Americans began moving to this area after President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803. At this time, the area now known as Greene County was called “Osage country” because of the Osage Indians who often traveled here in the fall to hunt. By 1812, members of the Kickapoo Nation built a small town where Springfield is today. In 1818, Congress opened the Missouri Territory. Then, even more American families moved to the new territory. Most of these families settled along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Some families, however, traveled further west to what is now Southwest Missouri.
At this time, John P. Pettijohn decided to bring his family to the new territory. He was born in Virginia and was a soldier in the American Revolution. In 1797, he and his new wife moved to Ohio. The Pettijohns stayed in Ohio until John decided to move his family to the new Missouri Territory. They first settled where the Big North Fork and White Rivers meet (in present-day northern Arkansas). They built a log cabin and planted a garden. Animals were plentiful in the Ozarks. Large numbers of deer, turkey, bear, and buffalo roamed this area. So, the Pettijohns were able to hunt a lot for food. Some of these hunting trips took John and his sons as far north as the James River. On one of these trips, they built a small cabin to claim a plot of land. They loved the area and decided to move the family there. In 1822, the Pettijohns and a few other families moved to live near the James River. The Pettijohns' new cabin was about eight miles from where Springfield is today.
By this time, a number of other families had settled in this area. At first, these settlers rarely saw any Indians. This would soon change. In the fall of 1822, the United States’ government made the area around the James River a reservation for the Delaware Indians. The settlers were forced to give up their land. Then, these families moved back to their original homes in Illinois, Tennessee, or Ohio. They were still very upset though. A lot of these settlers sent letters to Washington, DC begging the government to let them have their land back. In 1830, the American government finally gave in. The Delaware Nation was moved to a reservation further west, and a number of these families moved back to reclaim their old homesteads. Other settlers too came to this area. One of these new settlers was John P. Campbell. He brought his family here from Tennessee. The family soon became very famous in this area. John Campbell is best known as the founder of Springfield. His brother, Junius, started Springfield’s first store.
By this time, Missouri had become a state. Then, even more newcomers poured in from the East. They often traveled by boat to Missouri. Many floated along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. They often settled by the Mississippi River or a nearby river or stream. More adventurous settlers, however, traveled by wagon. They ferried across the Mississippi River and traveled further west to settle.
The journey to the western part of Missouri was long and dangerous. In 1830, Joseph Rountree and his family made this journey to Greene County. Fortunately, he kept a journal of his trip. This primary source tells what it was like traveling across the southern part of Missouri in those early days. In late December of 1830, the Rountree family took a ferry across the Mississippi River. Then, they went south to Sainte Genevieve to buy more supplies. Next, they headed southwest to Greene County. Overall, this trip by wagon took over three weeks, but it was not an easy journey.
Along the way, they met harsh winter weather. They often had to stop for a day or two because the snow was too deep to go on. Other times, parts of their wagon would break. Very often, they had to stop and repair these parts. One time, the trip was delayed because the wagon tipped over while they were crossing a creek. The Rountrees then had to set up camp for two days so their supplies could dry. When conditions were good, they could travel up to twenty miles a day. Other days, they might only cover as few as eight miles. Finally, the Rountrees reached Greene County on January 16, 1831. The Rountree’s received a warm welcome from the county residents and were glad that the difficult trip had come to an end.
Life in the Ozarks for these early settlers was not easy. Several families lived miles away from towns and neighbors. Most had to supply their own food, clothing, and shelter. Also, they had to fend themselves from dangerous weather and wild animals.
A lot of these settlers built their cabins near rivers and streams. Though they were close to a source of water for drinking and washing, they were also near a potential flood hazard. In one case, the Darr family experienced such a danger. Their home was by Bratton’s Spring Creek in Ozark County. One time, during a horrible rainstorm, the creek quickly flooded. In no time at all, the floodwaters picked up the Darr’s cabin with the family still inside it! As his home was being swept away, Mr. Darr was able to grab a nearby tree branch and pull himself to safety. Unfortunately, his family was not able to do the same. Mr. Darr had to spend the rest of that night in the tree. By morning, the water receded. Then, Mr. Darr could safely get out of the tree and look for his family. Sadly, he soon discovered that his wife and daughter drowned in the flood. This tragic flood also took the lives of other nearby residents.
Early settlers also faced the danger of wild animals. Panthers were amongst the most feared animals in this region. Panther attacks were common and sometimes fatal. As a result, hunters often used big dogs to track and kill the dangerous panther. One winter, a group of hunters followed panther tracks to a cave. The hunters sent in eleven dogs to scare the panther out of the cave so that they could shoot it. The panther, however, stayed in the cave and fought the dogs. The hunters waited outside until three injured dogs limped out of the cave. The hunters then proceeded into the cave and found the panther (nine feet long from end to end) and eight of their dogs dead.
Life for the early pioneers in Greene County and the Ozarks was difficult but sometimes rewarding for those who stayed. The trip here was difficult; and once here, they faced many harsh conditions. Most of these settlers, however, stayed and were able to make a better life for themselves. Many felt that they had discovered a land of “milk and honey” in the Ozarks, and they were willing to make many sacrifices for their new home.
Author: Grant R. Miller
Sources: The History of Greene County, Missouri, edited by R. I. Holcombe; Past and Present of Greene County, Missouri, by Jonathan Fairbanks and Clyde Edwin Tuck; The Turnbo Manuscripts: 800 Tales of Life in the Early Days of the Ozarks, by S. C. Turbo
Website Created and Maintained by F. Thornton Miller, SMSU Department of History