Notes from Hunter Creek – 3.31.2016

Hunter Creek and

Vera Cruz History

Ozark trapping is currently at one of its low points. Most trappers don’t trap just for the money.  Like a lot of outdoorsmen, they enjoy communicating with nature during winter when there are very few others out in the woods at that time of the year.

But because of many factors, prices for fur are at rock bottom levels.  And every trapper likes to be repaid on some level for all of their diligence. One of the many factors: the Chinese are not buying fur. A fur buyer I know from Ohio informed me that on good-sized raccoons he was paying up to $ 5.00 apiece. However, at auction they were bringing about half of that on a good day.

Originally, Douglas County was part of Ozark County with the county seat situated at Rockbridge. But in 1857, Douglas County was partitioned from Ozark County and the county seat was relocated to Vera Cruz, just in time for bushwhacking and the Civil War.

While the nasty business of outlaw behavior and bushwhacking occurred primarily in Missouri’s western counties, the practice also extended down throughout the Ozark region.  One must remember that Missouri got its original name “the outlaw state” for good reasons. For a seven-year period beginning with Gov. Jackson’s succession from the Union in 1861 until about 1868, during reconstruction, there was no effective state or local government or real law enforcement in Missouri.

In 1861 and 1862, there was a fair amount of Union and Confederate troop movements in this area. Vera Cruz was located at an important junction of roads.  The Vera Cruz Road from Rockbridge to Hartville, located on the Gasconade River and an important milling center was transportation hub. In Hartville, a spur road connected to the vital Wire Road, which ran from St. Louis to Rolla to Springfield. At Vera Cruz, there was also the Salt Road that connected to the Wire Road at Marshfield, and Hunter Creek Road, which traveled upstream to a small community that was eventually named Militia Springs, and later renamed “Ava”.

By the way, if you want to see the effect of a well-traveled county road heavily laden for decades with wagons of grain on their way to the grist mill, or logs on their way to the saw mill, check out the old Hunter Creek road, and other nearby gravel roads near Vera Cruz. The lane is still sunken and lays around 4-5 feet below the surrounding terrain.

This is a very good example of a sunken county lane, but it exists to some extent on most old wagon roads in the Ozarks. Of course these roadways followed original well-worn Indian trails, first traveled by the Osage and later the Cherokees.

In 1862, the Vera Cruz commu­nity consisted of approximately 180 – 200 sturdy settlers.  In November, a regiment of infantry and cavalry, along with two companies of Con­federate artillery, were on a “dis­ruptful security mission.” They were detached from Confederate General Marmaduke’s division, which was encamped to the south on the White River at Norfork, Ark., with another 6,000 troops.  A couple of days earlier, the Confederate force had ransacked and burned a good portion of Rockbridge.

As the 1600 Confederate troops approached Vera Cruz, a roadside skirmish occurred resulting in the deaths of two Confederate soldiers and one local Union Militia soldier. This was followed by an intensive cannonade on the beautiful little valley village of Vera Cruz by the Confederate forces. Two more Union troopers were lost in the exchange along with the subsequent destruction and burning of the recently constructed log courthouse.

Additionally, one of Douglas County’s first county commissioners was shot and killed by a Confederate soldier while trying to retrieve his prize mare, which had been taken by Southern troops.

Remember, this area was not slave country. Most area residents sympathized with the Union. In fact there was a local pro-Union home guard, consisting of approximately 50 local men.  On this day, they were supplemented by an Illinois cavalry company consisting of about 100 men, detached from Gen. Curtis’s Union troops that were encamped at Marshfield. These troops had been posted to this remote area to protect the local residents from recent bushwhacking activity and to report on any Confederate troop movements in the area.

The Illinois captain in charge was eventually surrounded by the larger Confederate force and finally surrendered. Their firearms and horses and mules were confiscated; and the Union soldiers were paroled after agreeing not to take up arms again.    At this stage of the war between the states this was a common practice followed by both sides. Neither the North or the South had developed the complicated task of prison administration, nor was there any way of taking care of enemy wounded.

In less than a year, this practice was first discontinued by the North, and subsequently the South. The North realized that they had an inexhaustible strength of men, and later, had almost 200,000 freed black slaves to fill their void, while the South did not.  At the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, there were approximately 16,000,000 million people in the Northern states, while the South contained a population of 3.5 million white people and five- million slaves.

So when the battle of Clark’s Mill ended, the net result was as follows. Most, but not all local land records were lost with the destruction of the courthouse. A significant portion of the home guard disbanded, and the rest enlisted with the Union troops stationed at Rolla. The paroled Illinois cavalry eventually made their way on foot to Marshfield about seven days later.

The Confederate force retracted from Missouri back to an area just north of Calico Rock, Ark., where General Marmaduke had made his winter camp.

As a result of this engagement there were six persons to be buried. It is presumed the Southern force took their dead with them to bury in Arkansas. The Douglas County commissioner was buried in old Vera Cruz; and one of the home boys that was killed is buried in the cemetery next to the still-standing Missionary Baptist Church. The church is a beautiful log structure erected in 1897.

And, Vera Cruz, which had once boasted of a general store and post office, blacksmith shop, gristmill and sawmill, gradually became a thinly populated “spot” along the road.

It was decided Vera Cruz was too remote and too dangerous to defend. Union commanders, along with county officials, eventually decided to remove the county seat, first to Rome on Beaver Creek, and later to Arno on Cowskin Creek.

Finally in early 1864, Militia Springs was selected as the county seat. The new settlement was located on a higher and more easily defensible point and was serviced by a reliable spring of the same name.

After the war, the town was re-named “Ava”. By the way, you can visit the original “Militia Spring” in Ava. It is located one city block south of the local high school and one block north of the Douglas County Herald building on East Washington or Highway 14 East. The spring is located in a small but attractive park operated by the City of Ava.

Note:  Most of the research for this column came from two main sources: the recorded archives at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Park and a nifty little book written in 1992 by Jack Vineyard, “The Battle of Clarks Mill at Vera Cruz.”

Jack, a former neighbor, educator, and amateur historian ended up actually owning the land area in old Vera Cruz and the original location of the Battle of Clarks Mill at Vera Cruz.

And Jack, who just recently passed on, was one of the best storytellers ever, a lost art.

Together, in November 1994, Ava Chamber of Commerce, Vineyard family, and local and regional Civil War reenactors held a reenactment of the civil war battle.

The reenactment, which drew big crowds, took place on a weekend preceding firearms deer hunting season in November that year.  After several booming cannon volleys in the little valley, there was nary a deer to be spotted locally for at least two weeks.

Now, get up and go enjoy the beautiful Ozark outdoors!