Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Polar Vortex (2014) and an Irish Wilderness winter – 1858

As the Polar Vortex held the country in a deep freeze this past week, NFL wildcard playoffs, college bowl games, Netflix movies, enjoyed in the comfort of central heating, helped pass the time. But my thoughts wandered back to the Irish Wilderness and how difficult life on the frontier must have been in harsh weather circumstances. Images came to mind of a drafty log cabin, with smoke from the fireplace, and temps outside below zero.  So – from a warm office  – I searched the Internet to see what the weather was in Oregon County in November of 1858, when Father Hogan began his almost year-long sojourn there.  
While the National Weather Service didn’t seem to have easily accessible records from 150+ years ago, there was another treasure online. The Pope County Arkansas Historical Association had posted the diary of a homesteader’s thousand mile journey from North Carolina to Arkansas by wagon – a journey that took the family across southern Missouri in the early winter of 1858.

This diary of John C. Darr was printed in the Atkins (Arkansas) Chronicle 30 July 1909 through 08 October 1909. The articles were researched and contributed by Mrs. James D. (Earlene) Peak to the Pope County (Arkansas) Historical Association Quarterly. Quarterly Editor: Ms. Laura L. Shull.

The full diary post can be found at
Not surprisingly, the early winter of 1858 was cold, damp and snowy in southeastern Missouri. This traveler’s account gives a less sanguine view than Father Hogan’s of the people and prospects of the area that Irish immigrants were beginning to settle. But it makes one wonder. As they passed through Van Buren and headed west toward Thomasville … were there Irish fellow travelers on the road?

The Darr family crossed the Mississippi River by ferry on November 10 landing near Charleston, Missouri. With other immigrants they traveled from 12 to18 or 20 miles a day. Mr. Darr remarked on places Hogan had also mentioned in his memoir, On the Mission in Missouri: 1857-1868: Black River, Current River, Van Buren, Thomasville, and Howell County.  
18th Nov (1858). Clear, windy and cold. We break up camp with all our company, having caught up with the Sabbath breakers, they having had bad luck by breaking down a wagon. The piously inclined said that it was a judgment meted out to them for traveling on Sunday. We presume that they judged aright; we now pass over some of the poorest and hilliest country I ever saw. Cross Black river, a most beautiful stream of water. Take up camp, having drovn 20 miles, evening clear and cold.

 Johnson Shut-Ins on the Black River.  Photo by Leland Payton, The Beautiful and Enduring Ozarks

Mr. Darr’s take on the local populace is a stark contrast to Hogan’s description of the settlers he met.  In Chapter IX, in the section entitled “Society in Southern Missouri,” Hogan describes “the simple quiet ways of the early settlers of southern Missouri” – from what constituted a respectable dowry to the technology of making clothes and coverlets to a tolerant mention of the daily sips of home brewed liquor. Quite a contrast to those Mr. Darr met and bartered with:
19th Nov (1858). Morning clear and cold. We left camp, winding our way over Poor Pine Ridge, finding here and there small settlements in the coves and valleys which grow such as corn, wheat and the laziest people on earth; as if we wanted to buy corn or potatoes we had to gather and dig them. As to flour and meal we could scarcely buy either, as mills were scarce, sorry affairs and usually unhandy, they did not appear to have the energy to go to mill, or had no use for money. Meat we could always get plenty and cheap, as they got it out of the woods. We next crossed Current river, a good szed stream, rapid and the clearest I ever saw. On its banks stood the village of Van Buren, consisting of half dozen dilapidated old shanties, plenty whiskey, powder and shot. We camp on the banks of the river having drove about 19 miles. 
Leaving Van Buren, heading west, they passed close by the place where Hogan would soon build his log church. A year earlier, in November of 1857, Hogan and his mentor, Father James Fox, had ridden a little farther north through Reynolds and Shannon counties, across the Current River where the Jack’s Fork enters, through Eminence, Birch Tree and on to Thomasville on the Eleven Point River. There they turned back east, going up Pike’s Creek, through Van Buren and Ten Mile Creek, crossing the Black River and on to Potosi and homeward.  

Winter on the Jack's Fork River. Leland Payton photograph, The Beautiful and Enduring Ozarks 

Mr. Darr’s account of the terrain and the village of Thomasville:  

22nd Nov (1858). Snow four inches deep and still snowing. Continue our journey. Ceased snowing at 11 o'clock a.m. Here we came to the valley of Eleven Points river, a small winding stream which we forded on our route 18 times. I, having left the train with my gun shooting small game, had to wade the stream half dozen times before the wagons came up with me. I did not know if I was ahead or behind the wagons until I discovered them behind me. But you must know I had a pleasant time wading the river and six inches snow on the ground. But I had secured a nice bunch of wild pigions which were good and fat, the only fat ones I had ever seen before, although no doubt I had not only seen thousands before but millions, all I killed on our route west of the Mississippi river were fat. Passing up Eleven Points river we camp in the village of Thomasville, a village in the woods. Camp after a days drive of 15 miles, cloudy and snowing again.23rd Nov (1858). Four inches snow on ground this morning. We leave Thomasville, pass through very thinly settled hills and valleys, water very scarce. I must tell you that we had been living on Irish potatoes for several days and still doing so. These we had to dig in the snow; no bread stuff to be had, they would all tell us, "Our folks have gone into Ar-can-saw, about 50 miles to mill with wheat, looking back to-night." (end of quote is my construction) I found some flour for sale in Thomasville. But it being in the night and we had to chase chickens out of their roost in the flour bin, I concluded to wait until morning and stick to the potato digging and eating which was not so bad with fat quail, squirrel and pigeon. Meeting nothing of note we camp in Howells valley after a days travel of 20 miles. Cloudy.
24th Nov (1858). Leave our camp in Howells valley which is a fine prairie country in Oregan county Mo., moving one and one half miles we take the road leading to Yellville, Ark., our way leading over prairie and barren plains, passing many good settlements on the praries.
In a sort of executive summary of findings from his three reconnoitering trips to the Ozarks, Hogan wrote up his keenly observed and knowledgeable conclusions on “The Information Gathered”

The information we had gathered was, that Ripley, Oregon and Howell counties afforded good advantages for settlement to people of small means and of patient, frugal, industrious habits. The country as we found, was quite healthy. Land was cheap. The land was by no means all good, but enough of it was good to support many inhabitants, if not a dense population. About one-third of the whole area could be tilled for orchards, vineyards, or the usual vegetable or cereal crops; and the yield was far more generous than the appearance of the soil would indicate. The ground, too, when once broken and cleared, was easily cultivated. There was plenty of timber of good quality everywhere at hand, that made it an easy task to build dwellings, barns, stables, fences, and to furnish fuel. Springs and streams of pure, clear water were abundant except in a few localities. The lands that could not be cultivated were fairly grassy and could feed many cattle. The price of government land was from twelve and a half cents to one dollar and twenty five cents per acre.