|Vol. I, No. 4, Spring 1988|
by James Price
James and Cynthia Price have conducted extensive archaeological and historical research at a frontier habitation site in Ripley County, on the eastern edge of the Missouri Ozarks. Their goal has been to discover and explain settlement and subsistence strategies of Ozarks pioneers. Their efforts have provided us with an intimate glimpse of a family and its life in another time.
To the casual observer walking trough the underbrush on a hill overlooking Harris Creek Valley in Ripley County the place would look like many others in the Ozarks. This particular place, however, is the habitation site of an early Ozarks pioneer family whose members came to the Ozarks Border in 1814, fleeing the disastrous effects of the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811 and 1812. Micajah Harris, his wife Sally, and three children came to the site from Little Prairie on the Mississippi River where he had lived on a Spanish land grant of 200 arpents. The earthquake's epicenter was located at Little Prairie and the land he occupied soon became the middle of the Mississippi River. For their new home, the Harrises chose a site over-looking the valley of Six-mile Creek, later to be called Harris Creek, above a large spring. It was but 75 feet from the Natchitoches Trace, the great over-land trail that passed from Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Natchitoches, Louisiana, and ultimately into Texas.
Micajah was something of a "shaker and doer" on the Ozark frontier. Prior to his death in early 1821 he served as Justice of the Peace for the Current River Township in the County of Lawrence in the Arkansas/Missouri Territory, as a county road commissioner (1816, 1818, 1820), and as captain in the militia. He was active in the affairs of the county court, and territorial elections were held in his cabin in 1817 and 1818, and in the home of his widow, Sally, in 1821.
Exceptionally vivid descriptions of the cabin site and family are preserved in accounts of Henry R. Schoolcraft, and John Bell of the Stephen Long Expedition who visited there in 1819. The best account is provided in the writings of George W. Featherstonhaugh in 1834. After riding for hours through a large forest fire and suffering from a severe headache Featherstonhaugh reached Widow Harris s in the afternoon. His hostess offered him "bad fried bits of pork, with worse bread, and no milk." He and his son helped the Harris family fight the forest fire and save their buildings. He described the widow's cabin as being a double cabin, a two-cribbed structure. In a summation of his visit he stated, "Take them altogether they were an amiable and good family of people, and not without the means of living comfortably if they only know how to set about it." Such was the view of an English gentleman toward a family and a place in the Ozarks, a world he little understood. Actually, the Widow Harris was above average in her net worth based on the number of livestock she and her family owned.
After Micajah's death, Sally never remarried and lived out her life on that place, by the Trace, departing this world shortly after 1850. From her vantage point she witnessed an abundance of American history. In addition to the travelers mentioned above, both Moses and Stephen Austin passed by the cabin, as did thousands of hopeful settlers, on their way to Texas. During the Cherokee Removal, the Trail of Tears, one removal column came down the Trace and camped by Widow Harris's cabin. Her sons, Washington and Travis, assisted in fording the Cherokee across Current River at a place which to this day is called "The Old Indian Ford."
Even after Sally's death the place continued to witness events important to our history. Jefferson Thompson, Missouri's Swamp Fox of the Confederacy, recruited a group of Ripley County volunteers and trained them in the valley below the cabin. And, in the fall of 1864, a column of 4000 Confederates led by General Sterling Price and Marmaduke passed by on its way to the bloodbath of Pilot Knob.
This place was also the birthplace of a Missouri legislator. Washington Harris was elected by citizens of Ripley County to serve in the House of Representatives of the Missouri General Assembly in the years 1847-1857. After the widow's death, her son Travis Harris and his wife Martha built a substantial cabin with a large stone and brick chimney only twelve feet from the Trace. Martha took out the first land patent on the Harris farm in 1856, after Travis's death. Her daughter, Emily, married Lewis Stilwell and lived in the cabin until 1876, when it was moved to the valley. Their blind son, Hag Stilwell, lived in the cabin until his death in 1966.
This place and the Harris family witnessed many events in our local, regional, and national history. However, its history is only one part of its significance. It has also provided an archaeological window through which we can examine in rather minute detail the lives of Ozarks pioneers. The site has yielded significant scientific data that allow us to determine diet, refuse disposal habits, household and farmstead inventory, accessibility of trade goods, and numerous other details of a lifeway on the Ozark Border in the first half of the nineteenth century.
(Top) Wagons bound for Texas cut a deep trench in the landscape on the Natchitoches Trace. All of the wagons on the trail passed the Widow Harris cabin. (Middle) Rough-dressed sandstone blocks were found in the fireplace chimney foundation of Travis and Martha Harris's cabin. (Left) The Harris family served food on refined English earthenware plates such as this specimen recovered from the site.
Archaeological excavations on the site revealed remains not only of the two-cribbed log structure mentioned by George Featherstonhaugh, but of an earlier cabin floor from the initial settlement of the site, covered over to prepare a floor for the second cabin. The first structure had been a rude cabin ten feet on a side with a dirt floor and a central firehearth. The successor cabin crib, built atop the first, had a stone firebox surmounted by a mud-plastered stick chimney. Later, another crib was added with a breezeway or "dog trot" between the two, under which a shallow cellar was dug. A portion of the foundation and chimney base of the Travis Harris cabin was also excavated. Two smokehouses were excavated, one associated with Sally's cabin and one with Travis's. The area around the first cabin, that of Micajah and Sally, had an extensive deposit of fireplace ashes containing numerous artifacts and faunal and floral materials indicating that the occupants simply threw refuse out the door, a disposal pattern that continued well into modern times in many areas of the Ozarks.
A popular myth about Ozarks pioneers is that they came to the new territory with nothing but a chopping ax and a long rifle, and hacked a meager existence out of the wilderness while eating out of homemade wooden bowls and beating their worn out horseshoes into nails. Every school child has been taught that with his trusty rifle the pioneer brought wild game home to feed his family. Our research on the Widow Harris site and a half dozen other sites in Shannon, Carter, and Ripley Counties reveals that such scenarios were not true of all early settlers.
The Widow Harris site yielded thousands of artifacts indicating that the Harris family had ready access to numerous trade goods. The family's participation in trade networks far beyond the Ozarks is evidenced by the large quantity of manufactured goods in the archaeological deposits of the site. Artifacts include an extensive array of refined English earthenware ceramics including shell-edge, mocha, transfer print, handpainted polychrome, and flow blue, to name a few. American-made coarse earthenware with salt and lead glazes is also common on the site. Deposits yielded fragments of a variety of cast iron cooking vessels ranging from Dutch ovens to kettles and saucepans.
The archaeological assemblage also contained clay tobacco pipes from Ohio, buttons, beads, pins, Jew's harps, English Sheffield cutlery, pewter and iron spoons, glassware, clock parts, eyeglass fragments, coffeemill parts, whetstones, English sheep shears, wood bits, gimlets, files, awls, shovels, and dog collars. Other items include structural hardware in the form of nails, large door slidebolt staples, hinges and latches. The site yielded numerous parts of firearms, gunflints, rifle balls, a saddle frame, a curry comb, horseshoes, wagon parts, a plow point, chains, and myriad other artifacts. Obviously these people had more than an ax and a long rifle. In fact, they had just about any material possession anyone of their status had east of the Appalachians at the time.
Nor did the Harrises depend exclusively upon wild game for food. Faunal remains recovered from this site reveal they consumed pork as the bulk of their meat diet. Over 90% of the animal bones recovered from the archaeological deposits are those of hogs. Large tusks indicate the hogs ran wild, feeding off the mast. It was a very efficient subsistence strategy, involving the storage of protein on the hoof with only minimal effort required for herd maintenance and meat procurement. A lifeway with a dependence on pork was brought from the Old World, perfected in Appalachia, and continued in the Ozarks. It remained a dominant pattern into the 1950's when open range was outlawed. Remains of bones, gizzard stones, and egg shells indicate that chickens were also important to the Harrises.
Wild species represented on the site include deer, turkey, panther, raccoon, rabbit, opossum, and squirrel. The Harrises, like many people of their time, had a fondness for passerine birds such as robins and meadowlarks. Of note is that the site yielded both ivory-billed woodpecker and passenger pigeon bones, two now-extinct species. Aquatic resources are represented by turtle, fish, and frog bones.
Floral remains recovered in charred form from the archaeological deposits represent corn, sorghum, beans, watermelons, and peaches as domesticated foodstuffs. Wild species represented are various nuts, wild plums, hawthorn, and blackhaw.
Today the place where the Widow Harris lived is in the solitude of the forest, miles from any blacktopped highway. Through systematic historical research and scientific endeavors, this now obscure and isolated place has yielded its secrets and added significantly to the knowledge of our rich Ozarks heritage and to a better understanding of the nature of life on the early nineteenth century Ozarks frontier.
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