The Risley History of Howell County

Among the earliest historical sources of Howell County is a speech written and publicly read in West Plains by the pioneer newspaper editor Samuel A. Risley for the one-hundredth anniversary of our nation's founding on July 4, 1876. Over the years, myself, and other local historians have quoted pieces of this document, but I'd like to share it with our readers as a whole. It is an excellent account of Howell County up to that time, and the foundation from which many local historians have written.
At the time of its writing (1876), Sam and Alice Carey Risley had lived in Howell County only a few years. The couple met during the Civil War in New Orleans, where Sam Risley was a wounded Union soldier from the Battle of Vicksburg and Alice Carey, a new nurse volunteer, treated him. Theirs was a harrowing story up to that point, both narrowly escaping death more than once during the war. They corresponded by mail after Sam Risley's recovery and married near St. Louis, Illinois in 1869. Sam came to Howell County alone in 1870 to start a newspaper. With the help of attorney/merchant B.F. Olden founded the South Missouri Journal at West Plains, later renamed the West Plains Journal. Most of the early papers printed while under the ownership of the Risleys have been lost to time.
Sam was an industrious fellow, also building one of the first steam-driven sawmills in the county on the edge of a pine forest at Dry Creek, eighteen miles west of West Plains on the western edge of the county. In 1873, Alice Carey Risley left St. Louis to join her husband. She departed New Year's Day by rail to its end at Rolla. Next she hired a horse and buggy and began the hundred-mile journey over frozen dirt pathways to a new home. The couple settled in a cabin on Dry Creek. Alice Carey wrote that they were often without mail for six weeks. Like the rest of her neighbors, who were also relatively new, the diet was primarily wild meat. The town of West Plains was still recovering from the war and covered with brush and hog paths between the businesses and houses. She was an excellent writer, and we will hear from her later in this story. 
Though the Risleys had been here only six years, their keen observations and information-gathering skills qualified Sam as much as anyone to write a brief history of the fledgling county of Howell:
From the West Plains Journal, May 26, 1904, "a copy of the following sketch of Howell County was prepared by Sam A. Risley and read at the Centennial celebration held in this city. We are indebted to R.S. Hogan of this city for the copy from which this article was set:"
In 1838, all the territory now embraced in the limits of Howell County was a wilderness un-trod by any human foot. The Indians had left the country years before, and all the territory lying between township 29, north, and the state line south, Elevenpoints River east, and the North Fork of White River west was abandoned to the deer, elk, bear, wolves and other wild animals native to the country.
The first settler within the present limits of Howell County was a hunter named Adams, who settled at the spring which at present (1876) affords most of the water used in West Plains, in the summer of 1839. His nearest neighbor was 20 miles away. Adams soon tired of the solitude and sold his improvement to Josiah Howell, who may be called the first permanent settler in the county which now bears his name. He moved to the place where West Plains now stands in October 1839. His sons William, Thomas J. (afterward for many years Representative of Oregon County), and Josephus N., settled in the immediate neighborhood, and signs of civilization began to show themselves in the wilderness.
In 1840, Eli L. Tabor was elected presiding justice of the County Court, Ozark County then included range 10, now embraced in Howell. In 1841 Nathan McCammon settled three miles east of West Plains, and about the same time, a man named Hutton located on the valley which now bears his name. He was one of that class of pioneers, now almost extinct, who could not bear to be crowded, and finding that he had neighbors within 18 or 20 miles, he left his valley in disgust and plunged still deeper into the western wilderness.
At this time in the history of the county, there were no roads. The first public road of which we have any account was located by A.V. Tabor, and ran down the North Fork. The territory at present comprised in Howell County then belonged to Ripley County, except range ten on the west line, which was a part of Ozark County.
The inhabitants of the county then went to St. Louis or Batesville to dispose of the furs and skins taken in the chase, and to lay in the necessary supplies of groceries, medicines, and ammunition. In 1841 A.V. Tabor went 40 miles to mill, and others went still further. There were then no saw mills; floors and doors of the houses were made of puncheons hewed thin and dressed smooth with a plane.
There was as much, or more, interest taken in politics then as at the present time. A.V. Tabor informs me that he went through the woods 30 miles to an election, and carried a keg of whisky, and that on the way he fell in with three other men, each with a keg of whiskey, and that they had "a jolly time."
By the year 1844, the country had gained considerably in population, and the county court of Ripley County organized Howell Township. The total vote of the township at the presidential election of 1844 was 14, all for Polk, of Tennessee.
In February 1845, Oregon County was created and included the territory now embraced in Howell except range 10 on the west line. The first county court of Oregon County was held in May 1845. John R. Woodside made out the tax books. The number of names on the tax books was 150, of which 25 resided in the present limits of Howell County.
As late as 1846 hunting bands of Indians from the Delaware, Kaw, and Shawnee tribes visited this country to hunt. At this time the woods were full of bear, deer, elk, and other game, and a good hunter could make a great deal of money. It was no uncommon thing to then to see 50 or 60 elk in one drove. Deer were equally abundant, and black bears were numerous. A good hunting dog was then worth as much as a horse. The elk left this country in 1847-8. Many deer and a few bear still remain. In 1848 most of the country was sectionalized and the favorable reports of the surveyors induced considerable immigration.
In 1850 there was but one post office in Oregon County. It was kept by Josephus Howell about one mile east of the public square in West Plains and was christened West Plains by Judge John R. Woodside. At that time scarcely a stick of timber grew in sight of the spring in West Plains. All the valleys and hills around about were barren of timber and covered with tall prairie grass. From any of the hills, a man could be seen for miles down the valley which is now covered with a dense growth of timber. West Plains was then a much more appropriate name than now. The country continued to increase in population, and in the Legislature of 1856-7, a bill was passed forming the present county of Howell. The county was given the territory embraced in ranges 7 and 10 inclusive, east and west, and from the north line of township 27 north, to the state line south; all of which territory it still retains.
Benjamin Alsup, Jas. Ellison, and Joseph H. Russell were the first county justices, Joseph Howell was the first sheriff, and Joseph Harris was the first clerk. Judge Ellison soon resigned his office and John McDaniel was appointed to fill his place. The county was attached to the 15th Judicial Circuit over which Judge Albert Jackson presided. Judge John R. Woodside was the first circuit attorney. The first circuit court was held in a little log cabin one mile east of West Plains, and there was but one case on the docket.
The county prospered and gradually increased in population until the breaking out of the rebellion, in 1861. At that time the population of the county was about 3,200. West Plains was a thriving village of about 150 souls. There were several good stores and dwelling houses, and a passable courthouse. The country had many fine farms opened and the people were thriving and happy. But soon, 'the war drums beat aloud; the brazen trumpet brayed its thrilling note and the rude clash of hostile arms breathed fearful prophecies of coming trouble,' which were soon realized. Differences of opinion naturally occurred and warm friends became estranged and soon were enemies. The great body of the people inclined to the side of the South and several companies were raised in the county for service in the southern army. 
The situation of the county made it a thoroughfare for all the raiding parties of both armies engaged in this section of the country, and the people were soon compelled to hunt a location less dangerous. Only about a dozen families remained in the country during the war. The few men that remained were frequently obliged to 'lay out' as it was called, that is to hide in the woods and caves for weeks at a time to avoid being captured and killed.
In 1863 there was not a soul left in West Plains. Mr. D. (Dabner) Pennington told me that he was in the town in the summer of that year and the only living thing he saw was a cat. The doors of the tenantless houses swung idly to and fro; the curtain-less sash rattled in the breeze; tall weeds filled the streets; the very birds had flown from the desolate scene, and he returned home determined to leave the country.
In the fall of 1863 three or four guerrillas led by a man named Watson burned the town. Not a house was left standing. Toward the close of the war raiding and guerrilla parties infested the county, and nearly every farmhouse and most of the fencing was burned.
We will continue Sam and Alice Carey Risley's History of Howell County in our next issue.
Content Paywall Trunction: 

Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793

Comment Here