Vol. V, No. 4, Spring 1992


Kith and Kin in the Ozarks

by Robert Flanders



Once in Grandin, Carter County, Missouri, I approached a house for directions. A conversation ensued, not about directions, but about the family of the people at the door. An adult son recited at great length a set of relationships going back four generations, involving, it seemed, dozens of names; a recital staggering in its complexity and extent. As he waxed eloquent, his mother, standing just behind him, exhibited a smile of satisfaction and pride. "Does he have it right, mother?" I asked. "Most of it," she said mildly. "He'll get better as he gets older."

In the summer of 19781 was in Shannon County, Missouri, at primary election time. It is, as they say, "the real election," inasmuch as the Democratic Party primary winners were expected to win in November in that solidly Democratic county. The Shannon County Current Wave published an eight-page supplement entirely devoted to political ads. A quarter of the front page had been bought by a young candidate for county office. He introduced himself by naming his father, his father's father, and many paternal kin, living and dead. Then his mother's family the same. Next, his wife's patrilineal and matrilineal clans were introduced. That was all. Nothing more. Nothing about experience, accomplishments, or qualifications. His qualification was who he was, and he had told the voters that.

In the Ozarks, as in many cultural regions strong in tradition, merit does not reign; family does. Why this should be so is difficult for those not in the tradition to understand. Why a person of old family but no particular attainment often seems to be preferred over a more recent arrival of manifest achievement is old-fashioned. It is, of course, in the fashion of the old, a holdout against the juggernaut of modern meritocracy. Visiting once with a husband and wife in Newton County, Arkansas, people both successful in business and of old and good family, I asked, "How do folks neighbor in this valley?" They looked puzzled and replied they weren't sure they understood. Well, I said, "do neighbors collaborate in stock round-ups, in large tasks around the place, etc.? .... No," they said slowly, still not getting my drift. Then, "What if there is a fire, or accident, or sudden illness, even death?" Well, kinfolks help, they said. Of course, if one has no kin, then neighbors would help out. Some silent reflection, then, "Bill... that's a good idea, neighbors helping. We probably should do more of that!"

Communities were first, and often are still today, kin groups, though related in ways so complex as to be understood only by themselves. Institutions of government, church, and school came late and sat lightly upon those earlier kin societies. Government, church, and school often remain simply other expressions of kin networks. More than once I've been told no newcomer (i.e. a person not born there or closely related to resident clans) could be elected to public office, to a board of deacons, or to a school board. And though outsider teachers might be hired, they would soon be rotated out and never granted "tenure," i.e. permanent appointment.

Family cemeteries ("graveyards" in traditional Ozarks-speak) are places of great social import to the living. They are often sites of annual clan reunions, or "picnics," being carefully cleaned and groomed for Memorial Day. The dates of this day of remembrance are often staggered in different Arkansas locales so that people may attend more than one event in more than one place, as marriages have interlocked people into multiple clans. The stones are lessons for the children; they learn not only the names of forebears, but their final places as well, and perhaps first gain desire to be buried there themselves, someday. I saw a middle-aged couple landscaping an obviously new headstone in the remote and isolated Middlebrook Cemetery of Iron County, Missouri. Surprised that there were any recent burials in that yard, I stayed until they left to read the stone. The death date was in the 1890s. I suppose the original stone was worn, and so needed to be replaced.

An interest in "kith and kin" is more than old-fashioned, however, more than a pastime for a declining number of isolated rural folks. As readers of OzarksWatch know, pursuit of roots, of heritage, of "personal history," is spreading across social classes and educational levels. More school children than ever before investigate family history as part of their schoolwork. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register of Historic Places and other cultural conservation programs, have brought attention and effort to bear on loc al hi story, the common history of common people and their generations. An antidote to drift, to placelessness and rootlessness of the modern world, is to know who we are and where we come from. To know ourselves we must know kith and kin. This issue of OzarksWatch is devoted and dedicated to the traditions of kith and kin in the Ozarks.


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