Harrisons on Big Piney (Monograph 8)

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

By Dr. William “Bill” Ambrose

As early as 1816, the short-leaf virgin pineries in the upper reaches of the Big Piney Creek watershed were being harvested, cut in to plank lumber, and rafted to St. Louis for the busy building industry. Within a year or so, the James Harrison family had settled at the mouth of the Little Piney on the Gasconade River. James Harrison and his brother-in-law, John Duncan, and their families were among the first to locate there; the Boone, Bates, and Baldridge families had been in that area just a little further up the creek for several years. The much smaller Little Piney Creek watershed and pinery having already been mostly harvested, lumbering wasn’t the family goal or business model –it was mercantilism at their home and tavern. The St. Louis to Springfield Road cut a diagonal from James and Larkin Bates’ mercantile at the mouth of Mill Creek on the Little Piney to Devil’s Elbow, the Big Piney ford, just nipping the Gasconade River along the way without having to cross it at the mouth of the Little Piney. This was the road of commerce, not just locally but fully across the state, which passed right through James Harrison’s land not far from his log cabin.

In short order disparate parts of the disorganized Ozark frontier economy based in natural resource exploitation found a nexus at James Harrison’s two-story log cabin, Liberty Hill. The community became known as “Little Piney.” Lumbermen, Indians, farmers, migrants, and hunters had a place to come to rest, have a meal and beverage, or peddle their wares. Over its first decade, Harrison’s at Little Piney matured from a frontier trading outpost to the very center of frontier community and government, while at the same time James Harrison raised a family in the mercantile business.

The Big Piney River watershed is 755 square miles while the Little Piney’s is 300 square miles. Even though the watershed was less than three times greater, the pinery on Big Piney Creek was a hundred times greater resource compared to the Little Piney Creek but was much higher up away from the Gasconade River and spread wider across the Big Piney River watershed. The pine trees were a lot further away from the mills and much more difficult to get to the mills. Big Piney planks also had a far greater distance to raft to markets in St. Louis. All these factors led to the need for many more workers, supplies, and provisions, requiring far greater mercantile services than on Little Piney. More food and clothing for the mill workers, more food and tack for the work animals, more finished metal parts for the mills and timbermen – the mercantilists were the common source for all these products. And the St. Louis to Springfield Road brought all that commerce directly through that valley. Many sons of that first generation of Ozark frontier settlers to the Little Piney region moved the six or eight miles to the Big Piney River Valley and started businesses and bought land, mostly to speculate in land values.

Two of James Harrison’s sons bought land in scattered sections from the mouth of Big Piney Creek to Devil’s Elbow six miles upstream, where a shoal afforded nearly year-round river crossing for the St. Louis to Springfield Road. They were simply following the economic model their father had perfected at Little Piney. By the mid-1830’s John B. and James P. Harrison had begun their own quest of the Big Piney mercantile business. That nexus of commercial activity became know as “Harrisons on Big Piney.” Like Liberty Hill, Harrisons on Big Piney became the place to talk and trade – probably in numbers far greater than on the Little Piney. Lumbermen, rafters, farmers, and merchants gathered there to do business and share conversation. All eleven Cherokee detachments that followed the Northern Route on the Trail of Tears passed by both Liberty Hill and Harrisons on Big Piney, undoubtedly purchasing significant quantities of food and supplies at both locations. Not only did all eleven Cherokee detachments on the Trail of Tears Northern Route across Missouri pass by and purchase supplies from Harrisons on Big Piney, it is likely that all the detachments camped there along that beautiful stream, creating mile-long camps in that protected valley.

One young man, Green Woods, had followed his older brother to the Big Piney in search of opportunity. Their father, William Woods, was a founder and successful farmer in the rich Belview Valley at Caledonia, fifty miles to the east. Older brother Harvey, who had associated with James A. Bates in business interests, found excitement in the pine plank trade –buying planks to fill St. Louis contracts and riding the rafts to market. Little brother Green was a softer sort, seeking teaching positions in one-room schools in small communities of mill worker families on the frontier. Both had the great benefit of a successful father having their backs from a distance of a two-day horseback ride. Even the back-up plan hadn’t worked for Harvey, as he was dead by 1840.

Green, in a January 1839 letter home, in order to appropriate a bit of frontiersman status to himself, wrote that in addition to looking for a teaching position, he had been “chopping and malling rails.” Green had been at Harrisons on Big Piney along the St. Louis to Springfield Road listening to a contemporary merchant trade with a Cherokee detachment provisioner and recorded in the letter that, “We will have more corn in this country than the Indians will consume with the other markets, money is plentier here than any other place I have been.” From invoice records we also know another Big Piney local, Albert G. Bates, a son of James Bates and member of that second-generation of young men to move to the next opportunity, Big Piney, sold twenty-nine bushels of corn to the Cannon Detachment at the same location in 1837. Seems like according to the Cannon Detachment diary that there was enough corn to make other valuable products as well at Harrisons on Big Piney. As Lt. Cannon recorded on December 8, 1837, “…marched at 9 O’c AM, halted at Piney a small river, ½ past 3 O’c PM. Rained all day, encamped and issued corn only, no fodder to be had, several drunk, 11 miles today.” Where do you suppose the whiskey came from? As a footnote, Albert G Bates, born in 1818 and son of perhaps the most powerful man in the region, was a husband and father on the early Missouri Ozark frontier – but was dead by 1845. It was the Wild West Missouri Ozarks!

All the detachments had military or Cherokee paymasters who carried Federal Government “specie” – gold and silver money– to pay for food and supplies at set government rates along the trail. Clearly the records prove that farmers and merchants along the trail sold food and other essential supplies to the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears. It was the only way the twelve thousand Cherokees on the Trail of Tears across Missouri survived the ordeal! Can we then infer that the Trail of Tears was an economic boon to farmers and traders in the Missouri Ozarks?

Green Woods later became a beloved ordained minister in the Methodists Church, South. He served across a large area centered around Dent County. In 1862 he was taken from his farm and family by Federal Civil War uniformed troops, likely Kansas Jayhawkers, and killed with one shot through his head just two miles from home. The body was found a week later with his tongue cut out and left hand gone. The family contends that the killing was ordered by a Methodist North minister who claimed Woods was preaching against the Union and had refused to take the required oaths. Green Woods had been raised around slavery on his father’s farm and had seen slavery at the plank mills, lumberyards, and river rafts. He had seen the forced Indian removal of Osages and other tribes from Missouri and the Cherokees on their Trail of Tears heading toward a wilderness anonymity. He had experienced the conflicts associated with exploitative resource extraction schemes and land speculation across the resource-rich Piney Valleys. He had seen the thousands of American migrants go west with hope for opportunity on the St. Louis to Springfield Road through his valley homeland. Yet ultimately, he was killed for preaching his faith. Unfortunately for him, he lived at the vortex of social, cultural, and economic contradiction – the Missouri Ozark frontier in the mid-1800’s! His killing was the perfect contradiction, an oxymoron, a “theological murder.” His descendants continue to declare he was not just murdered, he was “martyred.”

The Trail of Tears plays prominently in illuminating the contradictions for us today. As we know today, the Cherokees and the citizens of the United States were told that to save the Cherokee Nation as a “people” they had to be removed from their comfortable homes and farms in the East to be sent to a backcountry wilderness in the West. They traveled that westward directed St. Louis to Springfield Road, being driven to a hopeless desert asylum alongside hope-filled white migrants walking with confidence toward the opportunities and abundance in the valley of Texas and beyond.

3D Diorama Along the Trail of Tears

By William Ambrose

On the western side of the state of Missouri, the Trail of Tears is generally the Springfield to St. Louis Road.  The General Land Office (GLO) surveyors, those earliest government surveyors who surveyed the unsettled frontier lands ahead of any land sales, were required to draw the existing roads on the township plats beginning at about the time they surveyed the western half of Missouri.  The Springfield to St. Louis Road was pre-historic – it was a trace on the ground from Springfield to St. Louis used by Native Americans for travel for trade and hunting long before Americans arrived in the state.  The GLOs were the building blocks of President Jefferson’s rectilinear survey system, known as the Public Land Survey System, created by the Land Ordinance of 1785, a federal law. The system was laid out in 6-mile-by-6-mile squares, each square being known by its north-south “Township” number and its east-west “Range” number. 


By William Ambrose

From 1837 to 1839, the Federal Government forcibly removed 17,000 Cherokees from their centuries-old homelands in Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Alabama.  The Cherokee families were rounded up at gunpoint by Federal troops, held prisoner in detention camps, divided up into detachments of about 1000 people, and then forced to walk the 1000 miles to “Indian Territory,” now Oklahoma. Approximately 4000 died during that process. 

If you have any suggestions, comments, or critiques please email Chris.Dunn@GeoVelo.com

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