The Cherokee Saw This on the Trail of Tears (Monograph 15)

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

By Dr. William “Bill” Ambrose

Farming practices come and go across wide swaths of the landscape across the temporal plain. Crops that you commonly see today may have either not existed just a few years ago or may not have been successful in those locations because of several factors. Some things that might affect a farmer’s crop selection are that the climate continues to change, soil fertility has changed, hybrid seeds have become available, or that market demands have changed. We know what crops were grown and where in the Ozark landscape at the time of the Cherokees’ removal, because agriculture is an important part of history – it was written down. So what did the Cherokees see growing on farms they passed in the Ozarks in the 1830’s that we would not see today?

The subsistence farmer always grew corn. He could feed his family or his livestock the corn. He could sell any extra he grew, as it was always in demand. Or he could convert it to whiskey to sell. Transportation was a major concern in the Ozarks, so, if you were going to have to transport a product to market, it was best to have a valuable product. By weight whiskey is far more valuable than corn. The early Ozark farmers always tried to grow as much corn as they had fertile fields in which to grow it. Corn consumes the nutrients from the soil fairly rapidly, eventually leaving the field unable to grow a good corn crop. When that happened the farmer would clear another field of timber, brush, and rock, and plant his new cornfield. This policy worked well in the early Ozarks, as there was usually plenty of nearby virgin land available. So what was the farmer to do when he was left with a useless, cleared field with a nice seedbed, having been cultivated for several years, that would no longer grow corn crops?

Crops of smaller grains need that finer seedbed and don’t require nearly as much fertility as corn. Wheat became the best choice to grow in those exhausted fields. In fact, wheat began to be planted in those worn out upland fields and in many new fields developed on lands considered then to be not fertile enough for any cropping. By 1840 wheat production in several Ozark counties had reached ten percent of corn totals. At that level of production, wheat had become a staple crop in those counties. It could be used by the farmer who grew it for food for his family or livestock. Like other staples, there was a good market for the farmer’s extra wheat, either as wheat grain or as its refined product, flour. Of course, grain mills were required for a commercial flour market; therefore, the Cherokees would have also frequently seen flour mills of some variety on their removal trek across the Ozarks. These flour mills were likely water or horse powered and located near each small hamlet the Cherokees saw. Today we would not see wheat growing in these locations across the Ozarks nor the mills to make flour. These fields today would be planted in permanent pasture, most likely fescue, for livestock grazing. The efficient worldwide wheat market now supplies everyone’s need for wheat or mill flour in the Ozarks, even though from around 1840 up until 1920 wheat and flour were major exports from the Ozarks.

By the 1830’s many of the people living along the roads in Missouri that the Cherokees traveled had moved here from Tennessee or Kentucky after their farms had worn out in those eastern states. There were several important reasons why they came to Missouri. One was that many owned slaves, who were legal in Missouri but were prohibited in Illinois by Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Another is that there was little land available for sale in Illinois because the Native American land claims had not been settled. Additionally, the best crop to grow in Missouri to sell for cash was tobacco, which requires year-round attention, provided by the slaves brought in with these “southern planters” who knew how to grow tobacco. Tobacco depletes the nutrients in the soil in just a few crops, so the availability of abundant land to develop new fields was essential. By 1840 many of the counties the Cherokees passed through in the Ozarks were producing and selling 100,000 pounds of tobacco every year. Several of those counties developed a reputation for their high-quality tobacco because of the particular soils and the care given by the planters. It’s likely that these fields today are overgrown with worthless plant species that deliver almost no ecological services – native plants like eastern red cedar and broom sedge – plants that will grow on exhausted soils where nothing else will grow. Another thing the Cherokees saw that we won’t see is slaves. Slavery ended in Missouri on January 11, 1865, when a state convention adopted an ordinance abolishing slavery in the state. That occurred almost a year before the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on December 18, 1865, ending slavery in the United States of America.

Cotton became “King” in the “South” because it continued to be in high demand over many decades and usually brought a price that provided a profit to the planter. Cotton production was tried repeatedly in the Ozarks with very limited success– primarily in the most southern Missouri counties along the Arkansas border. Nonetheless, the Cherokees would have seen cotton fields scattered across their Ozark path. Cotton was grown by Ozark farmers primarily to meet each individual family’s needs. Each family developed the carding and spinning equipment necessary to convert the raw cotton into cloth and then clothing for the family’s use. Two other fiber crops were also grown, hemp and flax. Hemp was used to make rope. As finished metal products like chain were very expensive, rope made from hemp sufficed for those purposes that we today would use a chain or cable. Flax is another fiber crop for clothing. The stalk is first subjected to retting in the field, a rotting process that dissolves the tissues surrounding the fibers. The flax is then dried, crushed, and beaten to free the fibers from the stalk material and give some flexibility to the fibers. Clothing has been made from flax for several thousand years from its cloth form known as linen; more likely flax was used in the Ozarks for moisture resistant bags and tarps used on the farm. None of these fiber crops are grown in the Ozarks today; to some large degree their fibers have been replaced by man-made, synthetic materials. These old fields would likely now be planted to permanent pasture, as the cattle industry is the major agricultural activity today in the Ozarks.

Each farm had a copse, or a “camp,” as they called a grove of sugar maple trees. The sap from these trees was collected in buckets hung below a bored hole in the tree trunks during late winter/early spring each year. Families at that time typically used about one-hundred pounds of “sugar” produced from boiling down very large volumes of the liquid sap. Forty quarts of maple sap are needed to make one quart of maple syrup. Again, maple sugar produced beyond the family’s needs could be sold for ten cents per pound to earn cash for other necessities that had to be purchased. That camp of sugar maples would have added a lot of color to the woods in autumn in the Ozarks. Today these maple trees make up a very small component of our Ozark woodlands which are now best described as being “oak-hickory” forests.

Farm livestock in the 1830’s Ozarks were free-range grazed or were sometimes said to be “running out.” There were no fences to keep the stock “in,” only fences to keep the stock “out.” It was essential to have fences around your crop fields and your garden, as your livestock or someone else’s would surely eat them. No forage was generally put up for winter as the livestock just grazed freely across everyone’s property in the unoccupied woods. Cattle grazed on native grasses in the spring and summer, then on canes and rushes along the creeks in the winter. Hogs stayed fat on abundant mast products from the forest trees – acorns and nuts. To keep their livestock near the homeplace, the farmer made sure salt was available there. Free range grazing finally ended statewide in Missouri in the 1960’s. Today you will see miles and miles of fences in the Ozarks keeping everyone’s cattle separate. Raising cattle is the primary agricultural practice today in the Ozarks. Hogs are now raised from piglet to market hog in confinement feeding barns or “CAFO’s” (concentrated animal feeding operations).

As you travel through the Ozarks, be sure to watch for all the many types of agriculture you pass by! Try counting the number of fence post you go past in one mile.

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