Vol. VI, No. 1, Summer 1992 / No. 2, Fall 1992


The Ozarks Eden of Silas Turnbo

by Lynn Morrow

Lynn Morrow is Supervisor of the Local Records Program of the Missouri State Archives. He has written for OzarksWatch before.

Silas Turnbo (1844-1925) collected stories from Ozarkers in the upper White River country from as early as the 1860s. His collection, finally transcribed and typed, now constitutes the largest single manuscript holding of 19th century Ozarks reminiscences and genealogy. History, folklore, family stories, and tales of pioneers' heroic adventures are here. Turnbo particularly sought tales of the Civil War, and tales of the hunt. The wild game of the wilderness was to Turnbo's friends and compatriots, "the greatest natural resource of the antebellum Ozarks," according to author Morrow. The following article focuses on that game, and on the hunt for it.

Silas Turnbo loved the Ozarks. He was born near White River in Taney County, Missouri, grew up on White River in Marion County, Arkansas, survived three years active service in the Arkansas Confederacy (1862-1865), lived a modest subsistence life befitting a southern hillman, collected hundreds of settler's stories from neighbors and correspondents, and wrote that he wished to die and be buried near White River, a final wish unfulfilled.

The family is Turnbo's threshold of departure in his storytelling about the first generation of settlement by white American Southerners along White River drainages; every tale is personal and related to kith and kin. His communication about the land is specific. There is no doubt about just where an event took place, for his knowledge of the region was intimate and he wrote for those who knew it as well as he did. But modem readers may be surprised that Turnbo infrequently mentions the term Ozark or Ozarks in his writings; Turnbo was not schooled or interested in academic modeling or interpretation. He believed that the legends of the chase were, as William Faulkner would write, "The best of all breathing and forever the best of all listening."

Today, Turnbo and his informants would be amazed at the modem sentimental view of wildlife. What most modems fail to realize is that first settlers on the south-em frontiers were predators in their own environment. Whether or not they felt they were heeding the Genesis maxim to subdue the earth and all that was in it, they certainly took up and mastered that challenge. They embraced blood sport and sought its rewards at every mm. The chase, accompanied by an anxious spirit of gain, promised short and long term profit, a sureness of profit more predictable than land speculation, timbering, or commercial agriculture.

The greatest natural resource in the antebellum Ozarks for Turnbo's friends was large game. Although surrounded by living waters, climax forests, and luxuriant grasses, Turnbo's stories only incidentally recorded remarks about flora. It was nature's living animals and man's ongoing relationship with them--a relationship defined often by challenges for superiority--that fascinated Silas Turnbo and his informants and about which they never tired of telling.

"The woods were open," said Turnbo, and belts of prairies and trees lay interspersed across the land. The pioneers continued the Indian practice of burning the prairies to keep open large spaces for special hunting events. "The land did not require a fence," he wrote, "for the settlers' stock had not yet invaded that section." Turnbo described exploration of the new land in modest literary terms:

The river bottoms and the face of the [White River] bluffs were covered with tall cane. Flocks of wiM turkey were seen frequently, and deer and other game was noticed along each shore. Hundreds of beautiful colored song birds were seen and heard in the timber bordering the shores. The dense growth of timber, cane and grapevines tangled together, and added to this the high craggy bluffs, made the scenery all along as far as one went upriver, seem like a great jungle of other climes. Though the scenery was wild, yet it was beautiful, grand and enchanting and the journey up the stream was enjoyable and entertaining to the little band of pioneers.

Silas Turnbo was a youth when his family lived in southeast Taney County, Missouri, and he remembered severe winter weather, in particular the twenty-inch snow which began falling on the 23rd day of January, 1856.

In a few days after the snow ceased falling a warm wave set in followed by a light rain which materially lowered the depth of the snow, but on the 2nd of February a severe blizzard swept over the Ozark region from the northwest and the weather turned to icy cold. On the morning of the 3rd the temperature was eighteen degrees below zero and it was twelve degrees below on the morning of the 4th. Though the thermometer clim[ed] back to zero and above, the weather remained so cold for several days that a hard crust of ice formed on the snow. The water in the river was hid by thick ice. Wild animals including flocks of wild turkeys crossed at will, [but] the crust on the snow cut the deer's legs so bad that they were hardly able to keep out of the hunters way. Hundreds of them were slaughtered for their hides only.


Silas Turnbo and grandchildren. 1920 at Locust School, Ozark County, Missouri.

The men who hunted on horse back wrapped their horses legs with leather to prevent the ice from cutting them. Deer and turkeys were soon on starvation and became very poor before the snow and ice went off which did not occur until the middle days of February when the air warmed up with south wind and rain clouds formed and a heavy rain followed.

The black bear was the largest carnivore in the White River region. It was reported to be a common resident of both Missouri and Arkansas and was the premier game animal of settlement days. (Arkansas was to become known as the "Bear State," and Missouri uses the bear on its state seal.) Because bears could be dangerous, bear hunters were esteemed over other hunters. Bears were sought for their meat which was sold in urban markets. Skins were used in making rags, blankets, and hats, and grease or oil was desired for softening leather, greasing wagon axles, supplying lamps with fuel, cooking and seasoning food, and even for human hair dressing. Eating bear meat was considered , a way to restore a man's sexual powers.

Turnbo's informants placed great value on their bear dogs, who chased the animals out of corn fields, attacked bears during the chase, and gave unconditional loyalty to their masters.

Traffic in deer hides was the primary item in the game economy. In frontier Missouri and Arkansas, in the absence or scarcity of money, the deer hide became for a time an article of currency. A deer hide was worth 25 cents a pound, reported Henry Rowe Schoolcraft during his 1818-1819 Ozarks journey.

Deer are not herd animals, although in late winter temporary feeding groups ranging up to one hundred or more may occur in local places. Turnbo's chronicles are full of tales of seeing large numbers of deer. The abundance of deer provided both food and barter for early settlers. Four families--the Teverballs, Bridges, Shrivers, and Sanders---lived below modem Gainesville on Lick Creek during the early 1840s. Henry Sanders told Turnbo about his winter work:

Mr. Sanders says that his father was a deer hunter and he has known him to have as many as forty dead deer in his smoke house in winter time when snow covered the ground. His main time to kill deer was when it was cold weather with plenty of snow. When he would start out to hunt deer while snow was on the ground he would have us children to follow him with horses and ropes and when he would kill a deer we would tie a knot in the hair of the horse's tail, then tie one end of the rope around the dead deer's neck and fasten the other end to the horse's tail above the knot and drag the deer home. The snow would pr event the hair on the deer from being rubbed off and not spoil the hide.
This was our daily work as long as snow lay on the ground. I have brought many dead deer home in this way as father would kill them. When a big lot of furs, pelts and deer horns were accumulated my father would load them into an ox wagon and take them to St. Louis and exchange them for salt, coffee, and other needed supplies.

Ozarkers held contests to see how many deer could be killed in one night's fire hunt or over a few days. If the contest was held along White River or a major tributary, the hunters sank the deer carcasses, weighted with stones, in deep water until they could be retrieved later. Of course pioneers "salted" deer licks, sometimes by boring holes in tree roots and filling with them salt, and then waiting in a tree scaffold above for a good shot. If a great number of deer was not the day's goal, one could kill a deer and use its entrails to attract wild bees and then follow a bee to fresh honey.


Turnbo's tales of wolves seem to be entirely about the gray wolf, although during the first generation of settlement and beyond there were three species of wolves in the White River country. These were the gray (or limber) wolf, the red wolf, and the coyote. Today, it is likely that only the coyote inhabits the Ozarks. The last authentic specimen ofared wolf in Missouri was a small female taken in Taney County in 1950.

Turnbo wrote of the Leven T. Green family who

"were as expert in killing wolves as they were in slaying deer and bear and hunting bee trees. They shot them, caught them in pen traps, steel traps, and poisoned them and destroyed whelps until it would seem that there was not a live wolf left to tell the doleful tale of their destruction, but instead of being exterminated they appeared to increase in numbers as fast as they were thinned out."

Green and his five sons lived on Little Creek, Ozark County, Missouri.

Leven Green was a Methodist preacher and used his influence among sinners and prevailed on them to repent. He would plead with them in an earnest tone to turn from their evil ways. His exhortations were as strong among the wicked as his ambition was in attacking and slaying a fat bear. On his arrival here the country was so thinly settled then that there were no schoolhouses or other public buildings where the people could meet for worship, but Green would hold meetings at the settlers' houses. lf he had an appointment to preach at a cabin some distance off to be filled at 11 a.m. of a Sunday he would rise early on Sunday morning and after partaking of his morning meal of wild meat and honey he would take his rifle down from the rack and examine it well to see if it was in good shape for killing game. If so he would shoulder it up and with his family Bible and the old fashioned hymn book under his arm he would start through the wild woods to the place where [he] had announced he would preach that day. If he met any deer on the way he would kill them if he could and remove the hides and carry the hides with him. Sometimes it was late before his arrival but the audience knew he would make his appearance sooner or later if nothing occurred to prevent him and would wait patiently for the hour of his coming. On reaching the place of appointment, he would leave the rifle and deer hides in the chimney corner, then go into the cabin and prepare himself to deliver an exhortation to the congregation and persuade sinners to turn to the Lord and lead a better life. At the conclusion of his discourses he was ready to pick up his gun again and return back home through the woods and kill more deer and add more hides to his Sunday forenoon killing. Mr. Green's sons were as equally skilled in killing game as their father was.

In Turnbo's tales about wolves, hunters sometimes took on an aura of particular viciousness themselves. He wrote that "the depredations of wolves were so terrible on stock that the pioneers did the acts of savages and in some cases inflicted the most creel treatment on the ravenous beast they could invent in payment [return] for the destruction of property." The wolves killed sheep, hogs, calves, and young colts. Little North Fork settler Elias Keesee said, "...our temper was irritated to the highest pitch. Sometimes when we captured a wolf alive we confined it and took off its hide." He described, graphically, one such instance:

On one occasion when I was a small boy my father [Paton Keesee] caught a big wolf in a steel trap. It would show the animal too much mercy to slay it out right and we determined to punish it with the most cruel torture I could think of. Leaving the wolffast in the trap I sought the assistance of Ben Risley and Levi Graham which was willingly given. With chains, ropes and stout thongs of dressed buck hide and we tied the animal so secure that it could neither bite, kick or hardly move and with sharp knives we proceeded to remove its hide. This was horrible and was more like the work of savages, but we had been annoyed so much by them that we showed as little mercy toward wolves as the wild Indians did to white people living on the frontiers in the years gone by.
The beast lived through the terrible ordeal and when we loosed it and turned it free it got on its feet and actually ran off out of sight. This was the last seen or heard of it. It is not reasonable that it went far or lived but a short length of time. [sic]

On other occasions pioneers captured wolves, knocked out their teeth, and then turned their dogs on them to witness the bloody killing. And woe to the dog who did not attack the wolff Settlers fashioned long poles with a hook on the end which they used to poke down a cave opening to catch in the hides of young wolves who were then dragged from the cave to a death by clubbing. Not to waste anything, the wolf hunters cut off the ears and scalp and from the bounty money used them to pay taxes.

"There is no denying the fact," Turnbo wrote, "that venomous reptiles frighten humanity. Most everyone is afraid of snakes...When an abundance of game existed in the Ozark hills it was common for hunters to camp in the forest all night, or leave their cabins before daybreak and take their station at a certain locality [to avoid an encounter with snakes]."


Settlers in Madison County, Arkansas, planned a several days' camp hunt. Ben Hager told Turnbo that they took four ox wagons with them "to haul our camping outfits in and to bring back the wild meat hides, furs, and honey." Hager continued with his tale:

On the second day before we intended to reach our stopping place, we noticed a small spike buck loping down the hillside toward Kings River. We were not over anxious to kill a deer before reaching camp but one of the men remarked that the little deer would furnish us plenty of venison for supper, and we halted the ox teams to see if one of the men wanted to shoot it.

Dave Russell was an excellent shot at long range and one of the men says, "Dave hit it," and he took aim at the fleeing deer with "Old Greasy Kate," as he called his old flint lock rifle. But just before he was ready to pull the trigger the deer began to act in a queer manner by jumping high, then it would go sideways a few yards and leap up and kick, as if something had struck its legs.

Phelps says, "Dave, don't shoot. The deer might be snake bit." And Mr. Russell lowered the muzzle of his gun and the little buck increased its speed to a fast run and was soon beyond our view down the mountainside.

Our curiosity being aroused, we all went to the spot where the deer had jumped around so and was astonished at seeing a large number of diamond rattlesnakes crawling on the ground, and they all seemed to be traveling from toward War Eagle River toward Kings River. The length of the reptiles ranged from fifteen inches to nearly five feet in length. We picked up clubs and stones and killed rattlesnakes until we all became sick from inhaling the odor from them, and had to quit work and went back to the wagons and drove on.

Fourth of July events were times for great community gatherings and performances for the public all across the American frontiers. At one such memorable occasion the bounty of birds and animals played an important role. Turnbo left a record of this event, which he called "An Old Fashioned Barbecued Dinner."

The 4th day of July, 1855, was a memorable one to the writer. At that time my parents were living on the south bank of White River in the southeast corner of Taney County, Mo. My father had bought this land from Cage Hogan and we moved there from the mouth of Elbow Creek when I was less than ten years old. This land is known now as the Bill Dial place and is owned now by Baxter Brown.

On this farm there was a fine barbecued dinner eaten here on that day. The dinner came about in this way. The settlers from the mouth of Shoal Creek down to Bull Bottom devised a plan to get rid of some of the obnoxious birds and ravenous wild animals. They were determined to exterminate all they could. Crows, hawks, owls, and eagles were on the list of destruction. The animals that were selected to go on the list of the dead were possums, coons, moles, skunks, squirrels, foxes, wild cats, catamounts, wolves, and panthers. The arrangements were completed in the early spring.

The men were divided into two companies. The writer's father, J.C. Turnbo, headed the lower company which included all the settlers living along the river from our house down to Bull Bottom. George Fritts was foreman of the upper settlement who lived on the river from Allen Lucas' s to the mouth of Shoal Creek. The dinner was to be eaten on our place on the 4th of July. Every member of the two organizations agreed to do their part in furnishing provisions for the dinner and bring in the scalps to be counted by a committee appointed for the purpose.

Everyone including the women did their duty in making ample preparations for the feast. Plenty of beef, mutton, pork and wild meat was furnished which was barbecued by Martin Johnson, Rube Denton, and others. The wives and daughters prepared plenty of bread and nicknacks of all sorts, that were in common use in that day. It was understood that the side that was defeated would furnish two gallons of pure whiskey for the occasion.

When the day arrived a large crowd assembled on the ground for the celebration which was selected in a hickory grove. The people all proved to be quiet and orderly. There were no lemonade stands [or] dancing floors on the ground.

The scalps of birds and animals were all counted carefully which was done before noon and the number was found to be three thousand when the men completed the task of counting the scalps. They put them all into one heap and the pile of scalps of birds and animals were astonishing to look at. The bird's scalp consisted of the upper bill and the top part of the skin and feathers on the top of the head. The larger animals consisted of both ears attached together by the skin on the top of the head; the mole scalp was the nose including a strip of hide from the base of the nose to the top of the head.

Many favorable comments were made by the people as to the great number of scalps brought in to be numbered. The lower company showed up with the most scalps and won the whiskey, but the committee deemed it advisable not to have whiskey on the ground so the upper company was informed that if they were willing to agree to it that they need not furnish the liquor that the people would get along better without it and so the two gallons was not on the ground.



At twelve o'clock the scrumptious dinner was placed on a long table that had been prepared in the hickory grove in the woodland pasture which is now in cultivation and men, women and children enjoyed themselves together eating an old fashioned barbecued dinner.

Turnbo's scheme of collecting seemed to have a closure at about the time of the Civil War. The suffering of the War was the nation's most traumatic time; it was no different with White River families. The War closed the memory of youth, a "golden age", and the settlers' easy life where one' s livelihood was free on a great open range. Quick gains in possessions, large and small, vanished.

But the game population diminished too. Ever increasing settlement curtailed what had been unbridled access to the free range and free game. Option laws denying access to the "Ozarks commons" became the stuff of progressive political rhetoric and ultimately of majority voters during the twentieth century. The generation following the Civil War saw new terms enter conversation--market hunter, sportsman, and conservation. But the natural resource base about which they argued was being decimated by continued widespread harvest by natives, by railroads bringing professional hunters into the region, and by the widespread use of new rapid-fire weapons.

In 1902 Turnbo lost his small farm to creditors. Nearing sixty years of age, he then turned headlong into what was perhaps easy for him and what was certainly a lifelong love----collecting and writing frontier tales with the hope of marketing them for a reasonable subsistence. The height of his collecting activity spanned the years 1902-1908 as he published accounts in newspapers, two small Fireside Stories books, and sought help from a major commercial publisher. But financial reward was not to be his. He lived the remainder of life with various of his children, in and out of the Ozarks, making periodic trips to White River to ponder the past. He died, and is buried, in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where he was living with one of his children.

The forests, prairies and canebrakes of the early frontier Ozarks--and their wild creatures---were the world of Turnbo and his informants. The White River region described by Turnbo is greatly different from what we find there today. The same natural laws hold sway, but the hand of man lies heavy on the land. Gone are the open woods and most of the glades with waving prairie grasses. The rich bottom lands covered with cane--those that have not been covered with the waters of giant reservoirs--have been drastically altered.

The rich fauna that abounded in those forests, canebrakes, and glades is gone and the remaining creatures reduced to pitiful remnants compared to what the pioneers knew. The open woods described by Turnbo is a closed, brushy forest today, and indeed became so even in Turnbo's time during the late nineteenth century. The large stands of virgin pine were exploited almost out of existence.

Four White River Valley counties--Taney and Ozark in Missouri and Boone and Marion in Arkansas--were the stage for seventy percent of Silas Turnbo's collection of folk memory. His work is a significant addition to the history of this region, and Ozarks enthusiasts will continue to consult his writings for a very long time.

In the Spring, 1991 issue of the White River Valley Historical Quarterly, Lynn Morrow (who also edits the Quarterly), wrote:

One can not study Ozarks history and culture for long without encountering the Silas C. Turnbo Papers, the largest nineteenth-century Ozarks manuscript collection in a public repository. Turnbo' s writings comprise over 2500 transcribed, typed pages in twenty-eight bound volumes housed at the Springfield-Greene County Public Library, Springfield, Missouri. Scholars have been slow to thoroughly exam. ine the collection due to the lack of a comprehensive finding aid and the lack of a thematic organization of stories.

To assist those who want to use the voluminous Turnbo documents, Morrow and James Keefe have compiled a Place Name and Surname Index which is at the Springfield-Greene County Library.

In addition to the Springfield-Greene County Library, the complete Turnbo papers can be examined at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. Partial collections are at the College of the Ozarks, Point Lookout, Missouri; The Arkansas History Commission, Little Rock; and the Kansas State Historical Society at Topeka.

The White River Chronicles of S.C. Turnbo, by Lynn Morrow and James Keefe, will be published soon by the University of Arkansas Press.


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