Just Where IS the Ozarks, Anyway?

I was in standing in line at the cash register in a restaurant in Columbia, Missouri recently, waiting to pay my ticket. I overheard the cashier comment, “We (meaning Columbia) are on the northern edge of the Ozarks.” The gentleman paying his ticket replied with, “Really. Just where are the Ozarks, anyway?”

I asked the cashier, when it was my turn at the register, how she determined Columbia to be part of the Ozarks. She explained when she moved to north Missouri she looked on a map to see if there was a mountain range in the area (of course, I’m thinking to myself, Look out the window lady, do you see any mountains in any direction?) She said when looking over the map, the nearest mountains she could see were the Ozarks Mountains, so she determined that Columbia was on the northern edge. I just smiled and left her to her ignorance of geography, choosing to not block the line of people waiting behind me with a geography lesson.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2008 describes the Ozarks or Ozark Plateau as, “...an upland region, actually a dissected plateau (of about) 50,000 square miles, chiefly in S. Mo. and N. Ark., but partly in Oklahoma and Kansas, between the Arkansas and Missouri rivers; the Boston Mountains are the highest and most rugged section, with several peaks more than 2,000 feet high.”

Robert Flanders, Director of the Center for Ozarks Studies said in an article in the Ozarks Watch magazine, “I conclude that ‘Ozarks’ like ‘Great Plains,’ is a singular noun ending in ‘s’ (can one Ozark be found, anymore than one Great Plain?)” Therefore, where IS the Ozarks is correct, rather than where ARE the Ozarks.

I’ve had many battles with my book editors over the years when I list where I live, in my author material. When I insist that I live in the Ozarks Mountains, undereducated East Coast editors always cross out the ‘s’ and try to make it the Ozark Mountains. Explaining that Ozark is a town in Arkansas (and Missouri), but the region and the mountains are the Ozarks, falls on deaf ears; they have the red pencil and the last word.

There are several myths about where the name, Ozarks, originates. One version says it is from an Osage Indian word for bent river, although no corresponding Osage word has been found.

Donald Harrington, in his book, Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks has a description of the word originating from bois d'arc, the French name for the Osage orange tree. His story describes the fictitious Ingledew family learning how the Osage Indians used bois d'arc wood for making bows and ties the name of the wood, and the arch of the bow, to the origin of Ozarks.

The late Clay Anderson, former owner of The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine, wrote in his book, Ozarks, “There are a number of theories (about the origins) but the most plausible is that the name evolved from the French, aux arcs. Aux is a preposition meaning of, to, or from, while arcs signifies hills or bows. The pronunciation of aux arcs is roughly the same as Ozarks.”

The more likely origin of the name comes from the French who mapped the area in the late 1600s and early 1700s. After France gained control of the area (which we know later as the Louisiana Purchase), the French sent surveyors to explore their holdings.

The French cartographers entered the area where the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers join, and mapped the rivers for several hundred miles. They named the northernmost bend in the Arkansas River as the Aux Arcs, which translates to “top of the arc” or northernmost bend in the river. It was a significant landmark for early travelers and the phrase Aux Arcs, when spoken by non-French speakers evolved into what sounded like Ozarks (even though the “s” would be silent in French). That northernmost location was eventually simply deemed Aux Arcs, meaning beyond the last bend of the Arkansas River. Eventually the entire mountainous region above the last great bend in the Arkansas River was simply called, the Ozarks.

The Ozarks and the northern Missouri plains had been the homeland of the Great and Little Osage Indian tribes. When the government confiscated their land and moved them west into Indian Territory (later Oklahoma), other tribes were pushed by the government into the Missouri and Arkansas territories. Once those tribes were also pushed farther west the region was opened to white settlement and the new Ozarks immigrants were primarily Scotch, Irish, English and German people, many of whom had moved from Tennessee and before that, North Carolina.

The mountains of the Ozarks is an ancient chain of mountains, older and larger than the Rockies, but so worn down over time to appear now as eroded hills. The late Phil Sullivan, a friend who visited my farm many years ago, remarked how the Ozarks Mountains aren’t any smaller than those in his homeland of Upstate New York, but seemed so. He said, “The primary difference between roads in the Ozarks and the Adirondacs is that  in the Ozarks, roads follow the mountain tops and you look down at the landscape. But in the Adirondacs, nearly all of the roads follow the valleys and you are always looking upward at the landscape, which makes them seem much larger.”

But ask any native of the region what is the origin of the name and you’ll get, “Doesn’t matter where it came from, it’s not just a place, anyway. It’s a culture, a feeling and it has no set borders.” I’ve heard that kind of description from a great many people over the years.

If you look at the entire map of the Ozarks Plateau, the mass of rock underlying the land, it is described as running all the way up to Booneville, Missouri. Maybe that cashier in the restaurant in Columbia, Missouri, wasn’t so far off after all.

As Clay Anderson so succinctly put it, “The geology, history, folklore and culture of the Ozarks are distinct, but the precise thing that makes the Ozarks unique remains nebulous. Most likely it has to do with the people, who shape the land and are shaped by it.”