Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992

Winter 1991

Bowin' An' Spikin' in th' Jillikins

by James E. Price

If someone told you he was "goin' bowin' an' spikin' in th' braintch" you would have no idea what he was going to do unless you are an older native of the southeastern Missouri Ozarks. Translated, it means he is going to shoot fish with a bow and arrows in a small stream or spring branch. The word "jillikins" used in the title, means rugged, uninhabited country.

Natives of the southeastern Missouri Ozarks have a long tradition in the use of bows and arrows for hunting and fishing. In order to understand this subsistence practice one must be cognizant of the natural environment and culture in which it prevailed. The rugged hill country or "jillikins" of the southeastern Missouri Ozarks was first settled by Euro-Americans in the two decades after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Most were of Scotch-Irish descent, progeny of inhabitants of the Plantation of Ulster in 17th century Northern Ireland who found their way to America in the 18th century. Settling first in Pennsylvania, they migrated after the Revolutionary War into the Appalachian South. By the end of the 18th century and the first decade of the 19th century, much of the arable land in that region was occupied. In 1803, the United States acquired the Ozarks region as part of the Louisi-aha Purchase and many settlers came to this new land where they could continue to practice their efficient traditions of subsistence of self-reliance. By the Civil War the Ozarks hills were dominated by these peoples of Appalachia.

Labeled as "hillbillies" for generations, these people, who spoke a colorful archaic Elizabethan English dialect, occupied the Ozarks Highland, demanding little from industrialized society. It had been their nature to "make do" with the resources at hand and to adjust and adapt to meet changing conditions. Many of their tools seem primitive when compared to commercially-manufactured counterparts, yet they served well the needs of life in the hills and represent the continuation of older Euro-American traditions and habits of work.

Ozarks peoples of the southeastern stream drainages were for the most part subsistence farmers who ran hogs on open range in a semi-wild state and raised a couple of small patches of corn. Their mostly pork and corn diet was supplemented with wild game and fish. Sometime in the 19th century, at least as early as the 1830s and possibly earlier, natives of the Current River, Jacks Fork, Eleven Point, Black, and St. Francis valleys of the southeastern Ozarks slope used bows and arrows to kill fish and game. This practice, despite game laws, continued as late as the 1950s. Such hunting was not simply sport but a basic subsistence strategy for extremely poor people who could not afford a firearm or who saved their ammunition for large game only. This seems farfetched in the 20th century but was viewed as a common way to procure protein for well over a century in the Ozarks. In this century the Great Depression witnessed a major increase in the use of bows and arrows as hunting devices since there was little or no money to buy firearm ammunition.

Origins of the Ozarks tradition of the use of bows and arrows are difficult to trace. In a rather extensive search of the region's historical literature I have been unable to locate a single reference to the subject. Nor, have I been successful in tracing this practice back to the Appalachian region from where the original settlers came. It appears to be indigenous to the southeastern Missouri Ozarks. There is a possibility that the early pioneers adopted the practice from the Shawnee or Delaware Indians who briefly occupied the Current and Jacks Fork drainages in the 1820's. A large rolled sheet iron projectile point has been archaeologically recovered from a Shawnee site on the Jacks Fork and a tanged spike was similarly recovered from an 1830s Euro-American refuse pit on the upper Current River in Shannon County.


Bows and arrows were employed for killing both small game as well as fish and the equipment used was quite different for each. The major land mammal hunted was the cottontail rabbit since it could be "whistled down," that is, the hunter could whistle at a running rabbit and often it would stop and listen, affording the hunter a good shot at a stationary target. Of course they shot at about anything that moved that would "grease the platter," including squir-reis, raccoons, and opossums. Dogs usually accompanied the hunter to keep the game moving. It was often said of a good dog that one had to stop up one of his nostrils to keep him from chasing two rabbits at the same time. If a rabbit took to a hole it could sometimes be "twisted out" with a saw "brarr" (briar) or a piece of "bobbed warr" (barbed wire).

Hunting bows were much shorter than fishing bows since they had to be maneuvered through cane brakes and briar thickets. Most often they were made of hickory, "tougher than pecker-wood lips", which was rived from a straight-grained billet and shaped with hatchets, drawknives, pocketknives, and broken glass, the latter being employed as a scraper for final smooth-lng. Rabbit bows tend to range from 36 to 46 inches in length.

Hunting "arrs" (arrows) were approximately 24 to 30 inches in length and approximately 1/4-inch in diameter, made of hickory or sometimes cane. Projectile points or arrowheads for these demonstrate the ingenuity of the Ozarks people. Small arrowheads were made from large horseshoe nails. The nail head was heated and drawn out to a flat, triangular biconvex blade and barbs were filed on it, creating a small but deadly arrowhead (Figure 1 ). The spike of the nail was inserted into a longitudinal hole in the end of the arrowshaft. String, or sometimes fine copper wire, was wrapped around the end of the shaft to prevent it from slipping. Sometimes the string was coated with pine "rosum" (pitch) to prevent it from breaking or unwinding. Fletching was seldom put on arrows since they were generally used to shoot only short distances at game.

Another type of projectile point made by the Ozarks people was apparently used for hunting but I have known them to be employed in shooting fish. They were made from sheet iron cut into a preform and rolled into a conical point with a single barb (Figure 2). This is easier than it appears and can be done working the metal cold. Final dressing on the point was done with a file.

Fishing bows and arrows are much larger than those used to kill small game. Fishing with such implements was done by wading upstream in the shallow gravel-bottomed creeks and spring branches searching the crystal-clear water for fish. After a fish was spotted it was stalked until it was in bow range, usually fifteen feet or less. Often fish were shot on their"nestes" (spawning beds). It took considerable skill and experience to hit a fish with an arrow since, due to refraction, the fish was not actually located where its image appeared in the water. One had to judge the depth of the fish below surface and its distance from the archer. Aim had to be taken under the image of the fish in order for the arrow to take a direct route to the actual location of the fish.

Figure 1. Stages in the manufacture of an arrowhead from a horseshoe nail.
Figure 2. Stages in the manufacture of conical rolled sheet iron projectile points. These were often made from pieces of flour barrel hoops.


Fishing bows were usually made of red cedar, hickory, or bois d'arc (Osage orange), the former being preferred. Such bows are almost always six feet in length and were made by first splitting the wood with a froe into a long billet and shaping it with the aforementioned tools used to make rabbit bows and arrows. Usually bows were strung with heavy twine but I have seen them strung with baling wire. A protrusion and two grooves were carved on either end of the bow to accommodate the stringing.

Arrows used in fishing were generally 36 inches in length, perhaps based on the old yard arrow of Europe. Arrowshafts tend to be approximately one-half inch in diameter. Oddly, they were made of straight-grained pine. This was to facilitate recovery of the arrow since it would float in the water with the point downward. No fletching was used on such arrows. Notches were cut on the sides of the back end of the shaft to facilitate gripping it when drawing the bow. Crossed nocks were cut in the back end of the shaft to accommodate the string or wire.

Projectile points used on these fishing arrows were called "spikes". Ozarks residents employ the same term when describing prehistoric chipped stone projectile points, calling them "lnjun spikes". Fishing projectile points are much heavier than small game points and resemble larger gigs used to spear fish from a boat. All such "spikes" in my collection are socketed and have from one to three prongs (Figure 3). Inside diameter of fourteen "spikes" in my collection are all close to one-half inch in diameter at the orifice. "Spikes" range in length from four and one-half inches to nine and one-half inches. Single-pronged "spikes" resemble harpoons and one specimen I have (Figure 3, C) has two barbs.

These unique projectile points were forged from pieces of scrap iron. Forging was done in a small blacksmith shop or often in the cabin yard using a charcoal fire to heat the metal. Small pieces of iron, ranging from bits of wagon or buggy rims to bolts, were forged into "spikes". On single-pronged points the ferrule or socket was made by forging the end of the stock into a fan shape and rolling the metal into a tube with an overlapping seam (Figure 4). Often the seam was welded shut using borax or sand as flux. The sharp tip and barb were made by. reducing the end to a tapered flat shape and bending it back on itself and welding it. The tip was forged sharp and the barb was lifted from the weld with a cold chisel. Finishing was done with a file. A hole was drilled or filed in the ferrule to accommodate a tack which firmly secured the point on the shaft.

Figure 3. Specimens of one, two, and three-pronged fishing projectile points or "spikes" from Carter, Ripley, and Butler Counties, Missouri.
Figure 5. Stages in the manufacture of a double-pronged fishing "spike".
Figure 4. Stages in the manufacture of a single-pronged fishing "spike".


Multiple-tipped "spikes" were made by splitting the stock and forging each prong round or oval followed by forming the sharp tip and barb on each prong as described above (Figure 5). The gullet or gullets between the prongs were often filed sharp so the "spike" would cut through water with minimal resistance.

The specimen illustrated in Figure 3, F was made by my father, Acel Price of Ripley County, in 1934 and the one illustrated in Figure 3, M belonged to my grandfather, Howard Kennon, who made it circa 1910. Both were used in small eastern tributaries of Current River between Booger Boo Bay and Bay Mill Eddy north of Doniphan, Missouri. I witnessed the end of "spikin" as a youngster in the late 1950s. About 1959 was the last time my brother and I used them on the upper Glaze Creek, the Davis Cutoff, and the Everett Branch in Ripley County. Yes, we brought home a mess of fish on a typical Ozarks fish stringer made from a slender tree limb with one fork attached (Figure 6), another ephemeral artifact worthy of preservation. Stringers such as this were tied in the hammer loop of one's "overhauls" (overalls) and trailed behind in the water. A "bait" of fish fried in "hawg jaw drippings" with some "taters", cornpone, and green onions on the side was just about the best thing I ever "flung a fang in". It even beat Arkansas sirloin (bologna) once considered a delicacy in the Ozarks.

My collection of bows and "spikes" has little monetary value but represents a subsistence lifeway that is no more. Without preservation of these specimens and the oral traditions that surround them, a part of the diverse cultural heri-rage of our nation would be irretrievably lost.

Figure 6. An Ozark fish stringer made from a tree limb.
This article was first published in The Gristmill, a quarterly publication of the MidWest Tool Collectors Association.
Dr. James Price collects and uses antique woodworking tools. The Missouri Cultural Heritage Center has designated him as a Missouri Master Craftsman. He directs the University of Missouri-Columbia Southeast Missouri Archaeological Research Center, at Naylor, in Ripley County, Missouri.


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