The Racial History of Howell County
Wed, 08/05/2020 - 12:59pm admin
In looking back at the first European arrivals in our county, around the end of the 18th century, racial tensions would be primarily between Native Americans and whites. The two races had been at war for a century in the eastern United States as the conflict spread ever westward with the growing populace. Indians pushed out of their native homelands from the east coast onward, were now followed westward by those they had been fighting.
About the time of the longhunter (white adventurers pursuing the fur and hide trade in our region on trips lasting six months or more), the dispute here was over hunting and trapping territory. Ownership of the land was a non-issue. Missouri, at the time, was owned by the Spanish, and later the French, and few Americans were allowed title to the land. Following the defeat of the Shawnee and Delaware in Ohio in 1794, parts of these defeated tribes were pushed across the Mississippi into what would be Missouri. Their new home was the Louisiana Territory, purchased by the United States in 1804.
As the first white settlers arrived in our part of the Ozarks, they encountered some of these displaced people. Neither Indians or whites were native to this area. In either 1806 or 1809, Charles Hatcher living near Thomasville, traded with Indians; it is unclear which tribe. All the early settlers tell of contact with various bands or tribes living nearby or in hunting parties traveling. In most cases, this contact was friendly, though there are several instances of clashes and deaths occurring on both sides. Some intermarriage between the cultures resulted from the interaction, but hatred and resentment from conflicts of the past made the two groups wary or disdainful of each other.
An article in the Missouri Intelligencer published in Franklin, Missouri, in 1824 gave details from the Committee on Indian Affairs, and "Reported that the following Indians live within the limits of Missouri: 1. A remnant of Shawnees and Delawares, on the Mississippi River above Cape Girardeau. (A band of Shawnees was also living on the upper Jack's Fork, not mentioned in this report.) 2. A remnant of Shawnees and Delawares on the head of the Current River. 3. A remnant of Delawares on the headwaters of the White River (Norfork River in our part of the Ozarks.) 4. A remnant of Piankashaws on the headwaters of the Black River. 5. A remnant of Peoria's, on the headwaters of the St. Francis River. 6. A remnant of Kickapoos on the Osage River."
The report went on to state, "That these remnants and parts of tribes are scattered across the state, from the Mississippi to its western boundary, occupying small districts of the country, and surrounded, or pressed upon, by the white population. The committee believes that such a position must be the effect of accident or inadvertence and that it is pregnant with evil both to the Indians themselves and to the people of the state of Missouri." The conclusion of the report was that all these Indians needed to be removed and sent into territories west. Nothing was done then, but in 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act resulting in the gradual removal of Native Americans from the Southeastern United States and our part of Missouri.
The Cherokee removal forced by President Andrew Jackson in 1838 resulted in a final roundup and clearing of all native peoples in the Ozarks. The Trail of Tears routes passed north and south of Howell County, with the closest passing in Ripley County to the east. Local groups of Indians were rounded up and sent to the removal groups. The result of the removal in our area is families that had members with native blood denied it. Up to and beyond the Civil War, some families lived in fear of being forcibly removed from their homes and sent to a reservation, first in Kansas, and later Oklahoma.
Because of our connection to so many of the watersheds (we are in so many cases the source of the headwaters for so many of our rivers) involved in the early displacement of Native Americans, it is an integral part of our history forgotten and ever fading from memory.
Missouri became a state in 1821, and we will celebrate our bicentennial next year. At this time, two hundred years ago, the struggle of the 1820 Congress was over what kind of state we would be, based on race. By compromise, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, a state where slavery was not only allowed, but protected. The Missouri constitution had a clause prohibiting any free black persons from living permanently in its borders. Should a free black want to come into the state, often to do some form of hired skilled labor, a white person had to sponsor them and post a five hundred bond on their behalf. This was a substantial sum of money in that era and, consequently, was a seldom occurrence.
Still, I found in the Oregon County court records a singular instance of this happening. Between the years of 1845 and the end of the Civil War in 1865, one free black man was allowed to enter the county legally. The year before the formation of Howell County, while we were part of Oregon County, in 1856, Thomas Brown was building a watermill at Falling Springs north of the Eleven Point River. I believe he hired a skilled millwright from Tennessee to help erect the mill, a free black man by the name of Julius Gayhart. The bond document is signed by both Brown and Gayhart, who affixed his mark, apparently being unable to write. It reads,
Know all men by these presents that we, Julius Gayhart a collard man as principal and Thomas Brown as his securities, are held and firmly bound with the State of Missouri in the just and full sum of five hundred dollars to the payment thereof, well and timely to be made and done we bind ourselves, our heirs, executors, and administrators firmly jointly and severally by these presents sealed with our seals and dated the eleventh day of August 1856.
The conditions of the above bond are such that are as follows. Whereas the said Julius Gayhart has this day taken out a License to Reside in the County of Oregon and State of Missouri. Now, if the said Julius Gayhart shall act honorably, honestly, and be peaceable and in no case commit any outrage or misdemeanor and strictly observe the laws of the land, then this obligation to be void otherwise to remain in full force and effect.
Howell County's records between 1857 and 1865 were destroyed by fire, and while it is possible some free black person was brought into the county, I think it highly unlikely.
On the other hand, the census of 1860 does list thirty-six persons living in the county as slaves. The largest slave owner listed was county patriarch, Josephus Howell, residing at West Plains with six slaves. The names of slaves were not recorded, only their age and sex. Josephus owned one man, aged forty-three; one woman, aged thirty; a young girl aged thirteen, a young boy aged nine and another boy age five, and girl nine months old.
In the census of the county, six slaves are described as mulattoes, a person of mixed ancestry, in this case, having one white and one black parent. All but one were under the age of sixteen. The majority were infants, leaving the question of whether some of the owners were also parents of these children. Female slaves outnumbered males two to one.
The thirty-six slaves were owned by fifteen people and listed as living in six houses. In most cases, a single slave was owned and likely lived in the same house as their owner.
It is strictly my opinion, supported by several narratives and other bits of information I've run across over the years, that slaves in Howell County were treated better than other parts of the state and the deep south. They worked alongside their masters, ate common meals, shared in the trials of living in a wilderness, and to a degree, were treated as family members. They were still enslaved but not subjected to a harsh plantation slave experience. The earliest burials were in the same cemetery as their masters. Following the Civil War, after emancipation, several of those freed chose to remain with their previous masters for a time. This is evidenced by the Missouri Militia rolls taken immediately after the Civil War, listing all military-age males, including blacks, indicating some former slaves had not left home. Perhaps this is just because they had nowhere else to go, but I do believe in some cases a bond with the family remained for many years until the Jim Crow era forced a separation of the races.
Slavery was not a profitable enterprise during Howell County's early years and did not have time to grow substantially before the Civil War. In the Little Dixie section of the state along the Missouri River, breeding slaves to sell had become a profitable industry. With a population of over 3,100 in the Howell County census of 1860, there were just three dozen slaves.
In that census, a man listed as a mulatto, also listed as a free black in the states of Arkansas and Tennessee, where he had previously lived, was not required by the Howell County court to post bond. He had already lived here for nearly a decade, and a settlement of persons of color had grown up around his home in Pottersville. His unique story will be the subject of our next article.