Conor Watkins' Ozark Mountain Experience
Article 75
By Conor Watkins


Just How Are The Ozarks Defined?
-An Explanation of The Geographic And Cultural Boundaries

The Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas are an often misunderstood region to which definite geographic boundaries have not been assigned.  The Ozarks are defined by both the cultural habits of the residents and the natural landscape/geography of the area.  The underlying geology has played an important role in characterizing the Ozarks.

Traditional Ozark culture is defined by independent minded individuals who are socially conservative, and practice one of several Protestant forms of Christianity.  A decent number of Catholics are also present in the area.  Ozarkers are generally laid back, not in too much of a hurry, and willing to talk to anyone with time to kill.  Respect is very important when interacting with Ozarkers.  One might be welcomed with open arms onto property posted with “NO TRESPASSING” signs if they ask permission to visit.  On the other hand, the same property owners are likely to greet unannounced visitors with harsh words and possibly a firearm.

Ozarkers tend to be socially and often politically conservative.
This political sign was observed near Dixon, MO before the Nov 2004 election.

Conservative Protestant religions are common in the Ozarks
although pockets of Catholics are present.

Part of the independent nature of many Ozarkers is due to the characteristic of the land in which they live.  Historically, living in the Ozarks was hard work.

A large percentage of early Ozark settlers emigrated from Appalachian regions.  The majority of these settlers were Scotch-Irish in descent.  Germans came slightly later and tend to be concentrated along the borders of the Ozarks, especially the area near the Missouri River, although they are present in good numbers throughout the Ozarks.  The Germans are known for their tidy homesteads and pro-Union sentiments during the Civil War.

French also settled portions of the eastern Ozarks area early, mainly to mine and trade mineral riches in the old leadbelt area near Potosi, Flat River, Old Mines, etc.  Such mining started as early as the 1600’s.  Small numbers of Italians, rural Irish, English, and other European settlers helped settle the Ozarks.  Towns such as Rosati, St. James, and Rolla are home to many of Italian backgrounds.

Ozark Culture is present throughout much of southern Missouri and roughly coincides with the landscape of the Ozarks.  This does not necessarily mean that the two go hand in hand, as there are areas where the landscape is very Ozark, yet the culture is not, and vice versa.  Geographically, portions of the St. Louis suburbs of Chesterfield, Ellisville, Ballwin, Eureka, Pacific, and even Kirkwood fit the Ozark landscape, but the culture does not.  Those digging/landscaping in these portions of the above communities will notice many cherty nodules included in the clayey soil.

A Basic Introduction To Ozark Geology

Are the Ozarks really mountains?  This question is asked repeatedly by many, especially those who have seen the much larger mountains in the western and eastern United States.  The Ozarks are not mountains in the typical sense.  The mountains in the west are either folded upward or uplifted along faults.  Since Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, and Oklahoma are relatively flat, compared to southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, the Ozarks represent a localized area of higher topographic relief.  The Ozarks are really a plateau that has been uplifted and then dissected by streams eroding and down cutting through the uplifted area.

It has been theorized that the Ozarks have been uplifted and eroded during several episodes in the past several hundred million years.  Many of the caves presently exposed in the Ozarks are believed to be relicts from these erosional episodes.

Surface drainage patterns indicate that indicate that the Ozarks were once much closer to sea level than they are at present.  When the Ozarks were lower, many streams meandered across wider floodplains.  When the Ozarks were uplifted, streams entrenched their meanders by downcutting, preserving them to this day.  The Devil’s Elbow of the Big Piney River, located near Ft. Leonard Wood, is an excellent example of an entrenched meander on an Ozark stream.

The Devil's Elbow of the Big Piney River is an excellent example of an
entrenched meander on an Ozark stream.

The rock formations of the Ozarks are dominated by dolomites, a type of magnesium carbonate.  The dolomites of the Ozarks or notorious for containing inclusions of chert, a hard flint like rock, which complicate quarrying and construction projects using rock from the area.  Other formations consisting of sandstone, shales, and limestones are present in lesser amounts throughout the plateau.  As the rocks of the Ozarks weather, their insoluble impurities are left behind, making for very clayey, cherty soils that are not conducive to agriculture.

The St. Francois (pronounced Francis) Mountains are a unique area of 1.4+ billion year old igneous knobs forming the highest portion of the Ozarks.  This area is best known for Elephant Rocks and Johnson’s Shut-ins, two popular state parks owing their existence to geology.

The granite bolders known as the Elephant Rocks are one of the more
commonly known attractions in the igneous St. Francois Mountains.

The exact extent of the Ozarks has been defined by many individuals and remains a contentious issue, as many disagree as to where the Ozarks begin and end.  Some claim that the Ozarks extend from Missouri and Arkansas into parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Illinois.  Dr. Tom Beveridge, a past Missouri State Geologist and Department Head of Geological Engineering at UM-Rolla always believed the Ozarks to be more limited in extent.  He claimed that the Ozarks were confined to the Salem Plateau and not included in a southwest portion of the state known as the Springfield Plateau.  The Springfield Plateau is higher in many places than the Salem Plateau but is not nearly as dissected and lacks the characteristic steep ridges and valleys one sees near Rolla.  He defines this flatter area as the Western Plains of Missouri although it shares some cultural similarities with the rest of the Ozarks.  These plains contain Springfield, Joplin, Carthage, and Osceola, towns traditionally defined as being in the Ozarks.  As one drives south from Springfield towards Branson, they leave the flatter Springfield Plateau and enter the more rugged Salem Plateau.  Beveridge’s Ozark boundaries extend through parts of Missouri, Arkansas, and a very small portion of southern Illinois.

Those traveling east towards St. Louis on I-44 will notice a flattening of the landscape just after passing Beaumont/Antire Road (exit 269).  The highway comes down a large hill and enters a flatter area near Fenton and Valley Park.  Some consider this to be the eastern edge of the Ozarks.  Although Ozarkian features do exist east of this line, they are more subdued and end before reaching St. Louis city proper.

No matter how the Ozarks are defined, Rolla is situated within the region.  It is located in the rugged Salem Plateau and is home to the laid back rural culture common to the Ozarks.  Remember this next time the car in front of you doesn’t start moving as soon as the light turns green or the person ahead of you in the quick checkout at Wal-Mart isn’t really in all that big of a hurry.

(C) 2006 by Conor Watkins