Reminiscences of an Early Settler
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 1:00pm admin
In July 1925, The West Plains Journal Gazette interviewed Ephraim J. Buford of Mansfield, Arkansas, and wrote a lengthy article that gives us a significant window into the earliest pioneer life of Howell County. The report, used as a source for some of the county's earliest historians, might be familiar to some. Under the headlines, "Was in West Plains When No Buildings Stood Here, and Eph Buford, Born at Thomasville in 1843, Moved to Howell County in 1852," appeared on the front page of the paper. Historical notations in parenthesis are mine. The article continues:
"Relatives in West Plains and Thomasville at this time are enjoying a visit from Eph Buford and his wife, former pioneer residents of this part of the country who left here forty-three years ago (1882) and have made few visits back to their old home since that time. During their stay here, Mr. and Mrs. Buford are guests of Mr. Buford's brother M. J. Buford of Worchester Avenue."
"Eph Buford was born at Thomasville 82 years ago,(January 24, 1842). At that time, Thomasville was the county seat of Oregon County and was the metropolis in this part of the state. Oregon County then consisted of the present territory now within its borders - all of Howell county and parts of Shannon and Carter counties."
(The author of this article is a bit mistaken. In 1842, Thomasville and all the territory mentioned was still part of Ripley County, Missouri, with a county seat at Van Buren. In 1845, Oregon County was formed out of Ripley County, and as described above, had a county seat at Thomasville.)
"In 1852, William Buford (Eph's father) moved with his family to Hutton Valley and located on the beautiful and fertile valley where many of the early settlers afterwards cast their lot. Here Eph grew to be a husky strapping young man."
In 1858 and 1859, William Buford obtained four parcels of land in north Howell County from the United States Government. Roughly half of the land was purchased with cash. The other was a "Scrip Warrant" bounty redeemed for William's service in one of the Indian Wars east of the Mississippi, likely the War of 1812 fighting the British and Indians. The first tract of land in 1858 made the Bufords one of the first families settling just south and east of what is today Willow Springs. At the time, the fledgling community of Hickory Top was being built by Ezekiel Jones in today's downtown Willow Springs. Another of the Buford's nearest neighbors was Benjamin Alsup, living south of Willow Springs near the south junction of today's US Highway 60/63. The Buford properties were located east of the south junction bordering what is today US 60, extending to a mile south of King Mountain. This location put them between two fires a couple of years later when the Civil War broke out. All farms in this area were destroyed during the war as Ezekiel Jones, and Ben Alsup chose opposite sides.
The story continued, "Eph was just 16 years old when the war broke out (Civil War 1861.) One evening his father sent Eph out to bring in the cows. Eph never came back, for he went to Rolla, where he enlisted in the Union Army. He was at first with the 3rd Missouri Infantry. (The author was in error here - he joined the Union 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry.) After his term of enlistment expired, he re-enlisted and joined the 14th Missouri (Cavalry.) Both companies in which Eph served saw some hard fighting. According to his compiled service record, at the age of 18, Eph enrolled in the 3rd MSM Cavalry at Alton, in Oregon County in October 1863. That unit was engaged in protecting elections coming in November and fought daily with Confederate troops and southern partisan guerrillas. The raid terminated after the election, and as Eph's company was leaving, the Oregon County courthouse was set on fire by guerrillas and burned to the ground. In less than a year of this sort of skirmishing, Eph was considered a veteran. He was promoted to Corporal and enlisted in the Union 14th Missouri Cavalry, which saw additional action scouting in Missouri. Though not mentioned in this article, Eph's company was shipped to the west to fight Native Americans as the Civil War ground to a close in 1865.
The Gazette recorded, "Then came the homecoming, and it was one of sadness for Eph. All along the route after he left Rolla were stone chimneys to mark the spots where happy homes once stood, and a contented and prosperous people lived. First came the Union army, afterwards the Confederates and, more often, the bushwhackers, who robbed and killed for the fun and excitement it afforded. They left few buildings standing in the country, the torch had been applied everywhere."
"There was not a single building in West Plains as Mr. Buford passed through there on his way home from Hutton Valley to Thomasville. Marauding bands had not visited the Thomasville country, which was out of the beaten path for the coming and goings of the troops. There Mr. Buford found many families who had remained during the war."
"One of the old settlers who Mr. Buford knew was Dr. J.C.B. Dixon. He bought the old Buford homestead at Hutton Valley (all land south of today's Willow Springs at this time was considered part of "the Hutton Valley") directly after the close of the Civil War and resided there for many years before moving to West Plains. Dr. Dixon practiced medicine all the way from Jacks Fork and Current River to North Fork and Elevenpoints and the Arkansas border, often riding 50 miles on horseback to visit a patient."
"Another old settler whom Mr. Buford well knows is Reverend Daniel Shipman, pioneer Baptist minister. Rev. Shipman was the first white child born on the site of the City of Poplar Bluff, where he is spending his declining years with a son. Away back in the 50s, Rev. Shipman came to Hutton Valley and, for several years, made his home and put in a crop on part of the Buford farm. Mr. Buford was present when Rev. Shipman was ordained to the ministry. The minister remained here during the war until he was taken prisoner and finally released and went to Illinois to remain until the conflict between the states ended."
Following the death of Reverend Dan Shipman in 1926, the West Plains Journal-Gazette provided an interesting side note regarding the relationship between the Buford's and Shipman's. Dan Shipman's obituary told of a time before the Civil War when Eph Buford's father William experimented with sorghum cane. It stated, "William got some cane seed just before the war and watched it grow. He became disappointed with the outlook and sold the patch to Reverend Shipman. The minister followed directions and made the first sorghum known in Howell County. This was when the Buford family lived near Hutton Valley."
Returning to the Gazette, "When Mr. Buford moved with his parents to Hutton Valley in 1852, there were many elk in the country, and deer and bear were numerous. He saw his father shoot deer from the door of their cabin home. There were many elk horns all over the country. In the winter of 1856, Mr. Buford says three feet of snow covered the ground. Then it rained and sleeted, a thick coating of ice forming on top of the snow. John Beller, an uncle of Mr. Buford, killed 35 deer walking on top of the snow and hitting them on the head with a club. He salted the hides to sell in the spring."
"The nearest mill at the time was on North Fork (River), in what is now Ozark County. Eph took the grain to the mill to get it ground into meal. He drove a team of oxen hitched to a cart. The axle of the cart was made of hickory and the wheels of solid oak. It took a week to go to the mill, wait for your 'turn' to get the grain ground, and get back home."
"One evening after dark, while driving back home, Eph fell asleep. The oxen knew the way and continued on the journey. The friction of one of the wheels as it turned on the axle soon set fire, which burned, dropping the wagon to the ground. Eph was thrown out. He put out the fire, took the sacks of meal, and placed them on one of the oxen, and then rode the other one home. Wolves followed him, howling all night in the wilderness. His father borrowed a wagon from a neighbor and hauled the damaged cart home."
"Afterwards, a mill was erected on Jack's Fork where Mr. Buford took the grain because it was nearer than the North Fork mill. It was known as Smiley's Mill. One day when going down a long hill to the creek, Mr. Buford's team of oxen ran away. They went right into the creek, turned the wagon over in four feet of water, and threw Mr. Buford out of the water, so the journey to the mill could not be continued. On arriving at the mill, it was found that the grain could not be ground; it was water-soaked and wet. So it was spread out on quilts and blankets in the sun to dry. Mr. Buford's grub gave out while he was waiting for the corn to dry. He had no money and was forced to work for the miller binding oats for his meals."
"Mr. Buford knew all the old settlers after whom the fertile valleys were named. There was Hutton, Peace, Gunter, Howell, and all of the early pilgrims who settled the valleys in this country that were named for them."
"In the winter of 1853, Mr. Buford's uncle Jack Thomas, together with his son Richard Thomas, went hunting in the northern part of Howell County. They pitched camp and had good luck killing much game. One day his father became lost from his son. Uncle Jack Thomas found his way back to Thomasville, but his son never came back. In the spring, his bleached bones were found on Gunter's Valley. His gun, which had been made by Mr. Buford's grandfather, lay beside him. The bones were taken to Thomasville, and Mrs. Thomas kept them in the garret at her home until she died. Then the bones were buried with her. The camp which the hunters couldn't find is known today as Lost Camp, east of Willow Springs."
"When Mr. Buford was a boy, he saw Jack Shehain (Shehane) hanged at Thomasville. Shehain had killed a man and was convicted and sentenced to pay the death penalty. Before the date for his hanging, Shehain sold his body to two doctors of the town for a gallon of whiskey, which he drank while in jail at Thomasville. The hanging was witnessed by a big crowd."
"A few years afterwards, Mr. Buford and his uncle, Jack Belier, were fishing in Elevenpoints just below Thomasville and found a coffin in the creek. They went to town and told the story of their find. Several of the town rushed to the scene, dragged the coffin from the creek, and examined the contents. It was the skeleton of the murderer which the doctors had dissected and wired the bones together. They had placed the bones in the creek when the war broke out. It had been there for several years undisturbed."
"Mrs. Buford, who is eight years younger than Mr. Buford, is as lively as a spring chicken, so says, Uncle Eph. She was Nancy Jane Chastain, and her parents Bailey and Catherine Chastain resided for many years before and after the war on a farm three miles north of West Plains. Mrs. Buford, who was a girl of eleven years, well remembers the time when a notorious bushwhacker came to their home with his lawless band to take her father out and hang him, as they had done others but failed to carry out their threat."
"Mr. and Mrs. Buford were married at Thomasville and, for many years, have passed down the pathway of life living happily and contentedly together. Both have wonderful memories and delight to talk of the past and relate experiences of the early settlers, almost all of whom have long ago gone to their last reward."
Eph Buford went to his last reward in 1937 while living near Mansfield, Arkansas. He is buried alongside his wife in the Coop Prairie Cemetery in Scott County, Arkansas. Nancy Buford preceded her husband in death five years before he died. There is a lot of information to digest in this Gazette article. The information therein closely matches other settler accounts and gives us insight into the early history of our county.