The Ozarks

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The Saint Francois Mountains, viewed here from Knob Lick Mountain, are the geologic core of the Ozarks.

The Ozarks (also referred to as Ozarks Mountain Country, the Ozark Mountains or the Ozark Plateau) are a physiographic, geologic, and cultural highland region of the central United States. The region covers much of the southern half of Missouri and an extensive portion of northern Arkansas, extending westward into northeast Oklahoma and southeast Kansas. The Shawnee-town Hills which stretch across southern Illinois are sometimes included in the Ozarks, but are more often linked to the limestone Iowa-plateau country that extends through neighboring states to its east and south. The boundaries of the Ozarks are vague to most people and subject to interpretation and disagreement by scholars.

Although sometimes referred to as the Ozark Mountains, the region is actually a high and deeply dissected plateau. Geologically, it is a broad dome around the Saint Francois Mountains. The Ozark Highlands area, covering between 47,000 square miles (122,000 km²) and 50,000 square miles (129,000 km²) depending upon the source, is by far the most extensive mountainous region located between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. Together, the Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains form an area known as the U.S. Interior Highlands, and are sometimes referred to collectively. For example, the ecoregion called Ozark Mountain Forests includes the Ouachita Mountains. The Arkansas River valley and the Ouachitas, both south of the Boston Mountains, are usually considered not part of the Ozarks.

Set apart by rugged terrain, the Ozarks form a cultural region defined largely by a population that professes political conservatism, religious conservatism and sectarianism, and a strong belief in the values of rural living.

Origin of the name

Elevation map of the Ozarks.

Etymology of the name Ozarks is a subject of speculation. The word is a toponym believed derived as a linguistic corruption of either "aux Arkansas" or "aux arcs" in the decades prior to the French and Indian War. After the Louisiana Purchase, American travelers in the region referred to various features of the upland areas using the term "Ozark," such as "Ozark Mountains" and "Ozark forests." By the early twentieth century, "The Ozarks" had become a generic term.[1] Eventually, the term came to refer to all Ozark Plateau drainage into the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers.

It is generally accepted that "Ozark" derives from a phonetic English spelling of the French abbreviation "aux Arks" or "aux Arkansas."[2] originally referring to the trading post at Arkansas Post, located in wooded Arkansas Delta lowland area above the confluence of the White River into the Mississippi River.

There are various theories on the origination of the words "aux arcs," including: "aux arcs" meaning "toward the arches" in reference to the dozens of natural bridges formed by erosion and collapsed caves in the Ozark region; an abbreviation of "aux arcs-en-ciel," French for "toward the rainbows" which are a common sight in the mountainous regions; and a corruption of the French words "aux arcs" meaning "with bows" - similar to the Lakota Sans Arcs (without bows), meaning that the Native Americans in the region that became known as the Ozarks had bows and arrows.


Located in the south-central United States, the Ozarks are a heavily forested group of highlands. They extend southwestward from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Arkansas River. Along with the adjacent Ouachita Mountains, they represent the largest area of rugged topography between the Appalachians and the Rockies. The region is characterized by many underground streams and springs and is drained by the Osage, Gasconade, White, and Black rivers.

Their extensive range—approximately 50,000 square miles (130,000 sq km), an area the size of Florida—covers parts of five states: Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

Missouri has the largest portion of the Ozarks at 33,000 sq mi (85,500 sq km). Sparsely populated southeast Missouri is home to many natural springs and rivers and has a number of forest and park systems. The central part of the state is the location of the 54,000 acre Lake of the Ozarks. The Lake of the Ozarks State Park covers 17,000 acres of pristine beauty and provides for hunting, fishing, boating, hiking, biking, and golfing. Southwest Missouri has been developed for tourism and is the home of the Branson resort. Natural caves and springs are found throughout; some of the springs are part of the National Park system, which offers camping and fishing and other family activities.

Arkansas contains 13,000 square miles (33,700 sq km) of the Ozarks region. Northwest Arkansas is the most mountainous of the Ozark terrain. Its breathtaking scenery includes rugged hills, high bluffs, meandering rivers and streams, forests, lakes, meadows, and a diversity of flora and fauna. The north-central part of the state is considered the "cultural mecca" of traditional Ozark life. The northeast area of the Arkansas Ozarks abuts the Arkansas Delta region. It holds contrasting vistas and numerous rivers.

The Ozark terrain in northeast Oklahoma is not as mountainous as it is to the east, but is scenic and offers hunting, fishing, and water sports. The Illinois Ozarks stretch along the banks of the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois. An extension of the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, they rise abruptly from the surrounding countryside and stretch for 70 miles in an east-west direction. It is a rugged region and ecologically diverse, home to an extensive array of plant and animal life not found in other portions of the Ozarks. The western boundary of the Ozarks stretches into a small portion of southeast Kansas, referred to by locals as "the Little Ozarks." Hunting and fishing is abundant in this area. The area was once rich in coal mining and the state has taken some of these areas to make wildlife preserves and fishing lakes in the now flooded coal mine pits.

Geographic subdivisions

The Ozarks and its primary physiographic regions.

The Ozarks consist of four primary physiographic sections—the Springfield Plateau, the Salem Plateau, the Saint Francois Mountains, and the Boston Mountains. The topography is mostly gently rolling, except in the Boston Mountains, along the escarpments separating the Springfield and Salem Plateaus, and the Saint Francois Range where it is rugged.

Karst features such as springs, sinkholes, and caves are common in the limestones of the Springfield Plateau and abundant in the dolostone bedrock of the Salem Plateau and Boston Mountains. Missouri is known as "The Cave State" with over 6000 recorded caves (second to Tennessee); the majority of these caves are found in the Ozark counties.[3]

The Ozark Plateaus aquifer system affects groundwater movement in all areas except the igneous core of the St. Francois Mountains. Geographic features unique to the Ozarks, particularly in Missouri, include limestone and dolomite glades (open areas within woodland offering little or no soil for trees to grow on). They support grasses and forbs in shallow soil on exposed bedrock in sloping, otherwise heavily forested areas.

"Blondie's Throne," is a flowstone located in Missouri's Marvel Cave.

The Boston Mountains are the highest section of the Ozarks. Summits can reach elevations of just over 2,560 feet (780 m) with valleys 500 to 1,550 feet (472 m) deep (150 m to 450 m). Turner Ward Knob is the highest named peak. Located in western Newton County, Arkansas, its elevation is 2,463 feet (751 m). Nearby, five unnamed peaks have elevations at or slightly above 2,560 feet (780 m).

The Saint Francois Mountain Range rises above the Ozark Plateau and is the geological core of the highland dome. The igneous and volcanic rocks of the Saint Francois Mountains are the remains of a Precambrian mountain range. The core of the range existed as an island in the Paleozoic seas. Reef complexes occur in the sedimentary layers surrounding this ancient island. These flanking reefs were points of concentration for later ore-bearing fluids which formed the rich lead-zinc ores that have been and continue to be mined in the area. The igneous and volcanic rocks extend at depth under the relatively thin veneer of Paleozoic sedimentary rocks and form the basal crust of the entire region.[4]

Lakes and waterways

Big Spring in the Missouri Ozarks is one of the largest in the United States, discharging 276 million gallons of water per day into the Current River.
Big Sugar Creek in Southwest Missouri.
Buffalo River from a river trail overlook near Steel Creek in the Boston Mountains.
The St. Francis River rises in the eastern Ozarks where it is a clear, rapid stream.

The Corps of Engineers lakes that were created by damming the White River beginning in 1911 with Lake Taneycomo have provided a large tourist, boating and fishing economy along the Missouri-Arkansas border.

During the period 1911 through 1960, six lakes were created by the construction of dams in the White River basin. White River lakes include:

  • Lake Sequoyah, the uppermost impoundment on the White River, is a small recreational fishing lake east of Fayetteville, Arkansas, formed in 1961.
  • Below Sequoyah (northeast of Fayetteville) is Beaver Lake, formed in 1960.
  • The White River continues its northeasterly flow into Table Rock Lake (1958) in Missouri, which feeds directly into Taneycomo.
  • Lake Taneycomo was created in 1913 as a warm water lake and in 1958 became a cold water lake when the Table Rock Dam was completed.
  • From Lake Taneycomo the river zigzags southeasterly back into Arkansas forming Bull Shoals Lake along the Arkansas-Missouri line. Completed in 1952, Bull Shoals is the furthest downstream lake on the White River proper.
  • Lake Norfork was formed by the damming of the North Fork River, a tributary of the White River, in 1941.

The Lake of the Ozarks, Pomme de Terre Lake, and Truman Lake in the northern Ozarks were formed by damming the Osage River and its tributary the Pomme de Terre River in 1931, 1961 and 1979 respectively.

Grand Lake in Northeast Oklahoma was built in 1940. Stockton Lake was formed by damming the Sac River near the city of Stockton, Missouri in 1969; via a pipeline it supplements the water supply of Springfield in nearby Greene County. Most of the dams were built with a dual prerogative of flood control and generating hydropower.

The creation of the lakes significantly altered the Ozark landscape and impacted traditional Ozark culture through displacement. Prior to the impoundments, communities, farms and mills concentrated along the river valleys and numerous streams for drinking water and power. Many farm roads, river fords and even railways were lost when the lakes came, disrupting rural travel and commerce. Prior to damming, the White and Osage River basins were similar to the current conditions of the Buffalo, Elk, Current, and Eleven Point Rivers.

The Buffalo River in northern Arkansas was the first river in the U.S. to be designated a "National River." Designated as such by an Act of Congress in 1972, the lower 135 of its 150 miles flows within the boundaries of an area managed by the National Park Service.

In Missouri, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways was established in 1964 along the Current and Jacks Fork River. While not officially a "national river," it is the first U.S. National Park based on a river system. The Eleven Point River is included in the National Wild and Scenic Riverways System. These river parks annually draw a combined 1.5 million recreational tourists to the least populated counties in Arkansas and Missouri.

Missouri Ozark rivers include the Gasconade, Big Piney and Niangua Rivers in the north central region. The Meramac River and its tributaries Huzzah and Courtois Creeks are found in the northeastern Ozarks. The Black and St. Francis Rivers mark the eastern crescent of the Ozarks. The James, Spring, and North Fork Rivers are in south-central Missouri. Forming the West central border of the Ozarks from Missouri through Kansas and into Oklahoma are Spring River and its tributary Center Creek. Grand Falls, Missouri's largest natural waterfall, a chert outcropping, includes bluffs and glades on Shoal Creek south of Joplin. All these river systems see heavy recreational use in season, including the Elk River in Southwest Missouri and its tributary Big Sugar Creek.

Ozark rivers and streams are typically clear water, with baseflows sustained by many seeps and springs, and flow through forests along limestone bluffs. Gravel bars are common along shallow banks, while deep holes are found along bluffs. Except during periods of heavy rain or snowmelt – when water levels rise quite rapidly – their level of difficulty is suitable for most canoeing and tubing.

Fish hatcheries are common due to the abundance of springs and waterways. The Neosho National Fish Hatchery was built in 1888; it was the first Federal hatchery. The Missouri Department of Conservation operates numerous warm and cold water hatcheries and trout parks; private hatcheries such as in the town of Rockbridge, Missouri are common.


Traditional economic activity

The Ozarks contain ore deposits of lead, zinc, iron, and barite. Many of these deposits have been depleted by historic mining activities, but much remains and is currently being mined in the lead belt of south-central Missouri. Historically the lead belt around the Saint Francois Mountains and the Tri-state district lead-zinc mining area around Joplin, Missouri have been very important sources of metals. Mining practices common in the early twentieth century left significant undermining and heavy metal contamination in topsoil and groundwater in the Tri-state district.

Much of the area supports beef cattle ranching, and dairy farming is common across the area. Dairy farms are usually cooperative affairs, with small farms selling to a corporate wholesaler who packages product under a common brand for retail sales. Oil exploration and extraction also takes place in the Oklahoma portion of the Ozarks, as well as in the eastern half of the Boston Mountains in Arkansas. Logging of both softwood and hardwood timber species on both private land and in the National Forests has long been an important economic activity.

The majority of the Ozarks is forested; oak-hickory is the predominant type; cedars are common, with stands of pine often seen in the southern range. Less than a quarter of the region has been cleared for pasture and cropland. Forests that were heavily logged during the early to mid-twentieth century have recovered. However, deforestation contributed through erosion to increased gravel bars along Ozark waterways in logged areas; stream channels have become wider and shallower and deepwater fish habitat has been lost.

The numerous rivers and streams of the region once hosted hundreds of water-powered timber and grist mills. Mills were important centers of culture and commerce; dispersed widely throughout the region, mills served local needs, often thriving within a few miles of another facility. Few Ozark mills relied on inefficient water wheels for power; most utilized a dam, millrace, and water driven turbine.[5]

During the New Deal-era, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed hundreds in the construction of nearly 400 fire lookouts throughout the Ozarks at 121 known sites in Arkansas. Of those lookouts, about half remain, many of them used by the Forest Service.

Growth industries

Ozark Mountains shrouded in mist.

Tourism is the growth industry of the Ozarks as evidenced by the growth of the Branson, Missouri entertainment center. In 1983 Branson began its transformation into a major tourist attraction when the 7,500 seat Swiss Villa Amphitheatre opened in its suburb of Lampe. Since that time, additional theaters, museums, restaurants and amusement parks have either been opened or planned. While Branson's visitors tend to be largely from the Midwest, numerous nationally known entertainers have performed there.

In addition to tourism, poultry farming and food processing are significant industries throughout the region. The Tyson Foods corporation and ConAgra Foods each operate numerous poultry farms and processing plants throughout the Ozarks. Schreiber Foods, the largest privately held cheese company in the world, has operations throughout southern Missouri. Stillwell foods has frozen vegetable and other food processing centers in eastern Oklahoma. Commercial farms and processing operations are known to raise levels of chemical and biological contaminants in Ozark streams, threatening water supplies and endangering native species.

The trucking industry is important to the economy with national carriers based in the region, including J. B. Hunt and Prime, Inc. Springfield remains an operational hub for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Logging and timber industries are also significant in the Ozark economy with operations ranging from small family run sawmills to large commercial concerns. Fortune 500 companies such as Wal-Mart and Leggett & Platt were founded, and are based, in the Ozarks.


Wild strawberries

The term Ozark is often used to refer to a region of people with a distinct culture, architecture, and dialect shared by the people who live on the plateau. Traditional Ozark culture is a mixture of cultures, similar to Appalachia, the Upland South, and the Lower Midwest. Early settlers in Missouri were American, followed in the 1840s and 1850s by Irish and German immigrants. Much of the Ozark population is of German and Scots-Irish descent, often including some Native American ancestry, and Ozark families tend to have lived in the area since the nineteenth century.[6]

Homesteads in rural areas tend to be isolated rather than being clustered into villages. Early settlers relied on hunting, fishing and trapping, as well as foraging to supplement their diets and incomes. Today hunting and fishing for recreation are common activities and an important part of the tourist industry. Foraging for mushrooms, especially morels and puffballs, and for medicinal native plant species, including St. John's Wort and ginseng, is common, and is financially supported by established buyers in the area. Other forages include poke and watercress, persimmons, numerous wild berries including blackberries, raspberries, mulberries, wild cherries and wild strawberries, and many wild nuts such as black walnut, hickory and even acorns.[7] Edible wild legumes, wild grasses and wildflowers are plentiful, and beekeeping is common.

The Ozarks' natural environment has long been held to promote good health, especially in the healing qualities of cave air and spring water. In 1913, an Illinois doctor, C.H. Diehl, bought Welch Spring. He believed that the spring water had healing properties and that cool, pollen-free air from the adjacent cave would be beneficial for people with asthma, emphysema, and tuberculosis. He built a hospital over the mouth of the cave and dammed the spring, forcing the air out through the cave opening into the hospital. His hospital closed within several decades, due in large part to its inaccessibility to people outside the region. However, his concepts of health properties are commonly held in the Ozarks.[8]

Ozark culture is widely referenced in print and broadcast media. Where the Red Fern Grows and the Shepherd of the Hills are books that take place in the Ozarks. Ozark Jubilee, an early and influential national country music television show, originated in Springfield in 1955; it aired under two other names on ABC through 1960 and featured many Ozark musicians including Porter Wagoner. Examples of interpretations of traditional Ozark culture include the two major family theme parks in the region, Silver Dollar City and the now defunct Dogpatch U.S.A., and the resort entertainment complex at Branson.

Traditional Ozark culture includes stories and tunes passed orally between generations through community music parties and other informal gatherings. Square dances were an important social avenue throughout the Ozarks into the twetieth century. Square dances sprung up wherever people concentrated around mills and timber camps and in geographically isolated communities; many of these saw their own local dance tunes and variations develop. Of all the traditional musicians in the Ozarks, the fiddler holds a distinct place in both the community and folklore. Community fiddlers were revered for carrying local tunes; regionally, traveling fiddlers brought new tunes and entertainment, even while many viewed their arrival as a threat to morality. [9][10]

Ozark religion, like that of Appalachia, was predominantly Baptist and Methodist during periods of early settlement. It tends to be conservative, or individualistic, with Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists, traditional Anglicans, and other Protestant Pentecostal denominations present. The 1970s saw communes established in rural counties, which remain home to some sects unique to the area. Catholicism is rare outside of the cities and is generally present only in a few communities settled by German Catholics and those areas of original French settlement. The predominant Christian denomination in the Ozarks is the Baptist denomination.


  1. Lynn Morrow, "Ozark/Ozarks: Establishing a Regional Term" White River Valley Historical Quarterly 36(2) (Fall 1996). Retrieved April 27, 2022.
  2. George R. Stewart, Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States(NYRB Classics, 2008, ISBN 978-1590172735), 137.
  3. Cave Tours Missouri State Parks. Retrieved April 27, 2022.
  4. A.G. Unklesbay and Jerry D. Vineyard, Missouri Geology—Three Billion Years of Volcanoes, Seas, Sediments, and Erosion. (University of Missouri Press, 1992, ISBN 0826208363).
  5. George E. Suggs, Jr., Water Mills of the Missouri Ozarks (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0806122595).
  6. Milton D. Rafferty, The Ozarks: Land and Life, 2nd ed. (University of Arkansas Press, 2001, ISBN 1557287147).
  7. Jan Phillips, Wild Edibles of Missouri (Missouri Department of Conservation, 1998, ISBN 978-1887247184).
  8. History of Welch Hospital National Park Service. Retrieved April 27, 2022.
  9. Allen Gage, Old-Time Fiddling: A Traditional Folk Art With Four Ozark Musicians Bittersweet IX(3) (Spring 1982). Retrieved April 27, 2022.
  10. Julie Henigan, Play Me Something Quick and Devilish: Bob Holt - Old-Time Square Dance Fiddler Musical Traditions, June 15, 1998. Retrieved April 27, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Gerlach, Russel L. Immigrants in the Ozarks: a study in ethnic geography. University of Missouri studies, v. 64. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976. ISBN 9780826202017
  • Hudson, John C. Across This Land: A regional geography of the United States and Canada. Creating the North American landscape. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. ISBN 978-1421437583
  • Phillips, Jan. Wild Edibles of Missouri. Missouri Department of Conservation, 1998. ISBN 978-1887247184
  • Rafferty, Milton D. The Ozarks: Land and Life, 2nd ed. University of Arkansas Press, 2001. ISBN 1557287147
  • Rhodes, Richard. The Ozarks: The American Wilderness. New York: Time-Life Books, 1976.
  • Stewart, George R. Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States. NYRB Classics, 2008. ISBN 978-1590172735
  • Suggs, George E., Jr. Water Mills of the Missouri Ozarks. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0806122595
  • Unklesbay, A.G., and Jerry D. Vineyard. Missouri Geology—Three Billion Years of Volcanoes, Seas, Sediments, and Erosion. University of Missouri Press, 1992. ISBN 0826208363

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.


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