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. It covers much of the south half of Missouri and an extensive portion of northwest and North central Arkansas. The region also extends westward into northeast Oklahoma and extreme southeast Kansas. Although sometimes referred to as the Ozark Mountains, the region is actually a high and deeply dissected plateau. Geologically, the area is a broad dome around the Saint Francois Mountains. The Ozark Highlands area, covering nearly , is by far the most extensive mountainous region 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, although the Arkansas River valley and the Ouachitas, both south of the Boston Mountains, are not usually considered part of the Ozarks.
"Ozarks" probably derives from a phonetic English spelling of the French abbreviation "aux Arks", short for "aux Arkansas" ("toward Arkansas"), 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. "Arkansas" seems to be the French version of what the Illinois tribe (further up the Mississippi) called the Quapaw, who lived in eastern Arkansas in the area of the trading post. "Ozarks" is a toponym believed derived as a linguistic corruption of "aux Arkansas" in the decades prior to the French and Indian War. Eventually, the term came to refer to all Ozark Plateau drainage into the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers.
Other possible derivations include "aux arcs" meaning "toward the arches" in reference to the dozens of natural bridges formed by erosion and collapsed caves in the Ozark region. These include Clifty Hollow Natural Bridge (actually a series of arches) in Missouri, and Alum Cove in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest. It is even suggested "aux arcs" is an abbreviation of "aux arcs-en-ciel", French for "toward the rainbows" which are a common sight in the mountainous regions. 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 20th century, "The Ozarks" had become a generic term.
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 deep (150 m to 450 m). Turner Ward Knob (TWK) 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.
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 20th 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 east 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-20th 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 saw 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.
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 and 257 in Missouri Of those lookouts, about half remain, and many of them in use by the Forest Service.
Tourism is the growth industry of the Ozarks as evidenced by the growth of the Branson, Missouri, entertainment center. 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. All told, six lakes were created by the construction of dams in the White River basin from 1911 through 1960. White River lakes include Lake Sequoyah, a small recreational fishing lake east of Fayetteville, Arkansas, formed in 1961; Sequoyah is the uppermost impoundment on the White River. 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, where the river now zigzags southeasterly again 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 formed by damming 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 National River was created by an Act of Congress in 1972 as the Nation's first National River administered 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 US 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 Rockbridge are common.
In addition to tourism, poultry farming and food processing are significant industries throughout the region. The Tyson Foods corporation and ConAgra Foods each operates numerous poultry farms and processing plants throughout the Ozarks. Schreiber Foods, the largest privately held cheese company in the world, sees 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 endangered native species.
The trucking industry is important to the regional economy with national carriers based there including J. B. Hunt and Prime, Inc. Springfield remains an operational hub for BNSF 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.
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, and other Protestant Pentecostal denominations present. The 1970s saw communes established in rural counties; the Ozarks are also home to some sects unique to the area. Catholicism is rare outside of the cities, a few communities settled by German Catholics and those areas (mostly Washington County) of original French settlement.
Homesteads in rural areas tend to be isolated instead of 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. Edible wild legumes, wild grasses and wildflowers are plentiful, and beekeeping is common.
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; under a variety of names, it aired nationally on ABC through 1960. 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 20th 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 revered for carrying local tunes; regionally, traveling fiddlers brought new tunes and entertainment, even while many viewed their arrival as a threat to morality.
Historians such as Vance Randolph collected Ozark folklore and lyrics in volumes such as the national bestseller Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (University of Illinois Press, 1976), and Ozark Folksongs (University of Missouri Press, 1980), a four-volume anthology of regional songs and ballads. Ozark anecdotes from the oral tradition are bawdy more often than not, full of wild embellishments on everyday themes.