I’ve written earlier about the first volume of Brooks Blevins’ A History of the Ozarks, which was a most welcome addition to my bookshelf. The second volume came out this fall, and I’ve been working through it; I’m happy to say that I like it even better than the first.
Subtitled “The Conflicted Ozarks,” this volume takes us through the history of the Ozarks during the Civil War into the troubled years afterward, ending after the great timber boom of the 1880s. A third volume that will bring us into the modern years is promised.
A particularly illuminating part of this book is its treatment of slavery in the pre-Civil War Ozarks. I grew up hearing the common phrase that slavery in our part of the country “wasn’t that bad” because slaveowners typically owned only one or two slaves, rather than participating in the large-scale plantation system that existed farther south. According to this view, “slaves were treated as part of the family” and were happier with their condition than the unlucky slaves of the Deep Confederacy. Blevins addresses this conception with sensitivity, noting the essential differences between slavery in the Ozarks and other areas of the country, but also pointing out that even small-scale slavery is still slavery, and that slaveowners of the Ozarks, like slaveowners elsewhere, didn’t hesitate to break up slave families through the sale of spouses and children when it suited their economic interest. In fact, because of its intimacy, Ozarks slaveowning could evolve into deep personal animosity and mistreatment, with all the power on one side of the equation.
The book also gives a comprehensive cross-border treatment of the war itself. We tend to hear about the Civil War in the Ozarks from a single-state viewpoint, or even from a narrower one such as the history of the war in a particular region or from the perspective of a unit or campaign; it’s helpful to read about the war in a broader context. Similarly, the diverging paths of Missouri and Arkansas after the war are well described, along with ways in which the two states remained similar.
The first volume of this trilogy was challenged by its scope; covering prehistory, early Native American history, the colonial period, and the years of American rule up to the beginning of the Civil War is a daunting task. This volume, with its much more confined time period, feels tighter and more narratively coherent, and the vast increase in number and type of source material makes itself felt as well, with Blevins bringing in all kinds of material, from official documents to personal letters and diaries. The breadth of research is just a thrill.
Like its predecessor, this book belongs on the shelf of anybody who wants to be a serious student of Ozark history.