Early Settlement on the Upper North Fork River
Wed, 10/14/2020 - 2:22pm admin
I've written previously about the Topaz community near the western side of Howell County in Douglas County. Northern Howell County has many ties to the place. Several families still living here trace their origin to the Norfork River, its headwaters, and the people who initially settled here. Among my sources for this article, I will refer to one written by Leonard Rowe in March 1959, and published in the Willow Springs News. Rowe, a former Missouri State Conservation Agent and respected naturalist was eighty-five years old at the time. He sourced most of his article on an interview with J.H. Wood, then eighty-six years old, and his wife "Tena," who was eighty-two. J.H. Wood was the grandson of Henry William Wood, the son of William Henry Wood, pioneers, and some of the first settlers at Topaz and the White River's upper North Fork.
Based on his discussions with J.H. Wood, Rowe wrote, "The Wood family, of English descent, first migrated from North Carolina in 1839, settling on the Meramec River in what is now St. Louis County. In the spring of 1840, Grandpa Henry Wood and a friend, Posey Freeman, explored these North Fork hills in search of land which they could homestead. The remaining Shawnee Indians were friendly and never gave them any trouble. In later years Grandpa Henry Wood named Indian Creek, of the above watershed, in honor of these Shawnee Indians who guarded this stream as their hunting grounds. The pioneers found game plentiful including bear, elk, wild turkey, deer, and fish."
In a family history written in 1924, North Fork River farmer Moses Johnson reminisced about those earliest days of white settlement on the river with much of the same information, with a few slight variations. Johnson remembered that Henry William Wood, Aaron (Posey) Freeman, and William Clinton first explored the river and lands in 1839. He wrote, "They struck Indian Creek at the head and followed it to the mouth (of the North Fork River) and gave it its name on account of the Indian huts they found along the creek. The next spring, they came to the happy hunting ground. Aaron Freeman located at a large spring on North Fork (Topaz) and put up a grist-mill and a distillery. William Clinton located at a spring on the west side of North Fork near the mouth of Indian Creek. Henry William Wood located at the third crossing below and on the west side of the same creek. Shortly after they came, there was a child born in the family of H.W. Wood and was given the same name as his father (with a reversal of the first names - the child was named William Henry Wood.) He was the first white child ever born on the North Fork." J.H. Wood pretty much confirmed this and dated the events in the Rowe article, stating:
"On returning to the Meramec colony, Grandpa Wood and (Aaron) Posey Freeman loaded their families in ox carts and headed for the North Fork hills. It took twenty-five days to make their way back over ridges, hollows, and rivers to the settlement where they pitch their first came on March 10, 1840. William Wood, the father of J.H., was born that same fall. He lived to eighty-six and was the first white child born in this area."
Leonard Rowe also wrote, "Let us pause and evaluate the present-day progress and opportunities which started with the efforts and hardships of the early pioneers. The greatest effort of the early settlers was to merely survive at all in a wilderness where there were no homes, no roads, no schools, no churches, no stores, no doctors, no neighbors, no ready-made anything, except as created from the wild with their own hands. Their homes were made of logs, chinked, and plastered with mud. The roofs were made of split oak shingles. In the absence of nails, each tier of shingles was held down with oak poles, tied securely at the ends with twisted sprouts pinned into the holes of the log frame. To cover their dirt floors, they placed the smooth side of split logs closely laid."
"Their firearms were flintlock rifles, often causing a miss by slow fire, no matter how accurate the aim at the time of the trigger pull. Grandpa Wood once told of crippling a bear because of his rifle's slow fire, which he later killed by tracing the blood trail into a cave. He and his hunting partner, Posey Freeman, quietly entered the cave with blazing pine knots. They shot the bear as it watched the moving shadows across the roof of the cave."
"A deep stone trench, dug by hand over a hundred years ago (1959) and requiring many weeks of labor, is still visible on J.H.'s farm. An old gentleman who was then known as Bushy Woods dug the trench. He was nicknamed 'Bushy' because of the nature of his unshaven beard, which grew straight out from his face creating a huge and fierce appearance. The purpose of the trench was to receive water from North Fork to operate a much-needed grist mill. The project was never completed because of the Civil War and intrusion of Bushwhackers, who ravished the countryside during those years."
Referring back to the Moses Johnson notes describing this period, Johnson wrote, "The Delaware Indians were located on North Fork and Indian Creek. The Shawnee located about thirty-five miles northeast of a creek called Jack's Fork. It seemed they visited each other very often; they had a trail that was worn out very plain, and in some places, it was about knee-deep. They got into trouble and had a war with each other, and weakened their tribes very badly. They both changed their place of living. Some of them came back on hunting tours after the whites had settled and would talk of the game they had killed. Their trail went across the foot of King Mountain (north Howell County.)
I find the co-mingling of the Shawnee and Delaware tribes in this part of the Ozarks responsible for early settlers' recollections in which the location of these tribes was often swapped back and forth. By this time, the tribes were living in log cabins and had an existence similar to the whites they were living around. The Shawnee and Delaware were friendly with each other, intermarried, and often lived in mixed settlements. They had been allied in their fight with whites in the late 1700s in which they had been defeated and had been removed across the Mississippi River to settle on our Ozark streams. By the late 1830s and early 1840, they were under orders to withdraw from here to reservations in Kansas and later Oklahoma but were apparently hiding out in one of the last areas here remote enough to offer concealment.
Some of the settlers who had intermarried with Indians also found this part of the Ozarks a safe haven. Moses Johnson wrote that Alabeth Freeman, wife of Aaron Freeman, mentioned earlier tried to "obtain her gift as a Mississippi Choctaw, in December 1830 or 1831. One witness said that Alabeth was gone for four or five days when she went to get her land from the Indian agent." One source stated the Freeman's financed their purchase of the land and spring at Topaz with proceeds from that Choctaw land sale.
Leonard Rowe, writing in the Wood article, before the advent of government protection of some of our rivers, opined, "The pioneer history of the North Fork River is typical of any watershed located in this region. Each watershed has received about the same treatment since the white man became established. This statement would include the Current River and Eleven Point on the east, Piney and Gasconade on the north, the Niangua, James, and White Rivers on the west. These streams flow through rough and rugged country, and sixty-five percent of the terrain drainage is covered with forests. Approximately two-thirds of these forests are now under fire protection by agreement with the Missouri Conservation Commission or incorporation within the National Forests. Living today, during the push-button age, we may wonder why early settlers were so thoughtless of natural resources. It is necessary to know past history in order to conceive the future potential of this vast territory. in the early days of this region during the settler's efforts to survive, no consideration was made for the future."
"Hence the forests were assaulted, the bluestem soon destroyed, the soil fertility was greatly lowered, the streams and rivers made shallow by gravel from burned forest land and newly cleared hillsides. A ravished land resulted from annual burning, over logging, overcropping, and leaving the hills exposed to erosion. On the ridge tops one hundred years ago, before man started such devastating practices, one could see for great distances through sparsely spaced oak and pine. The brush thicket of today is nature's way of holding the soil. To burn oak and pine forests destroys the young pine and increases the density of oak. The roots of the young oak resprout, while the native shortleaf pine must again start from seed. The northern range of native shortleaf pine roughly parallels the Gasconade watershed or Highway 66 across the state." I suppose that would equate to today's Interstate 44.
Henry William Wood died in September 1898. He was one hundred and three years old. He and his wife rest in hollowed pine tree coffins, covered with pine slabs, secured with pine dowel pins in the Mount Ararat Cemetery in eastern Douglas County. Their son James was the first person buried in the Mount Ararat Cemetery at Topaz in a like manner.