The record of burning waxes with each surge of immigrants and wanes when they decamp. Yet even when thriving, their flames could not propagate everywhere. They constantly ran into ecological baffles and geologic barriers. On that roughened terrain the swells of flame that rolled with the westerlies from the plains broke, like a storm surge against a rocky isle, splashing forward but with spent momentum. Something more would be needed to overcome those internal checks – more people, greater biotic leverage, more firepower. An 1828 treaty sent the Cherokee to Oklahoma. Their forced removal meant a forced eviction of fire. But already a new wave of colonizers was probing into a land partly broken to an agricultural halter before lapsing into fallow.
The largely Scots-Irish peoples who poured over the Cumberland Gap were a footloose culture, well adapted to unsettled places. Theirs was a folk economy and ethos suited to marcher lands, forged in Scotland and northern Ireland. They preferred to keep their larder on hoof rather than planted. In the New World their kinetic economy of herding, hunting, and gardening found ample room to roam, and acquired even greater clout by hybridizing with the hunting and swiddening culture that emerged around New Sweden, as backwoods Finns absorbed selective practices of the indigenous Delawares. The resulting fusion was an ideal alloy for a pioneering society, one that could range widely and break ground for others more inclined to stay and cultivate. It was a loose-jointed, restless society that worked best when moving and became troubled when stuck.[i]
Frontiers are often flaming fronts. Whether or not those marcher lands hold fire of themselves, the violent abrasion of people against people and of people against land kindles flame as swiddeners slash and burn, pastoralists loose and burn, hunters stalk and burn, travelers clear and burn, and warriors battle with fire and sword. Unsettled places invite fire, and those fires become catalysts for what will follow. Under the impress of settlement the land changed, as new grasses, trees, and creatures, no less than peoples, supplemented and often replaced those before them. The forecast “dark and bloody ground” of Kentucky had its environmental analogue in a dark and burned landscape. What spared such places from full ruin was the intrinsic dynamic of the frontier. It struck, broke, and moved on, leaving to others the tedious task of gathering up the ecological shards and remaking landscapes into viable habitats.
In Missouri the earliest settlements clung to major riverways which served as routes of transport and trade. But the broad Missouri that bisected the state also defined its two biotic realms, the prairie loess to the north and the forested highlands to the south. Vast prairies were not landscapes a backwoods society favored: they were a place for the plow, not the long rifle. The French clung to the rivers; Germans sought out bottomlands and modest hillsides; the Scots-Irish pushed into the interior, where they could hunt, trap, put down maize plots, and loose their herds to fatten on the abundant grassy balds that served as ready-made pastures. In brief, the newcomers favored places akin to those they knew. The floodplains were fever-ridden and prone to cholera; the highlands allowed the newcomers then to scatter, as though the frontier were temporarily suspended. When asked why they settled the Ozarks rather than the farm-lusher plains, the pioneers said simply they liked the hills.
As those before them, they began claiming the land by remaking it in their own image. They hunted, they gardened, they turned out hogs, goats, horses, and cattle onto the Ozarks as an open range, and they burned. The numbers of fires increased, rising with populations of people, cattle, and hogs. Livestock granted biotic leverage, amplifying the effects of fire and more than replacing the fast-hunted indigenous fauna. Free-range grazing, in particular, invited free-range burning. Soon every hollow and hillside found its match.
Not only fire’s numbers but its sites and seasons changed. The Cherokees had preferred setting autumn fires associated with fall hunts on the uplands. This had the added benefit of forcing game to find winter forage in the bottoms and canebrakes, closer to encampments. The newcomers, with livestock to sustain them, burned in the spring, not wishing to strip the uplands of winter forage and pushing for a quick flush of fodder to plump up the stock after a lean winter’s fare. This altered fire regime modified the composition and dynamics of the Ozarks landscape.
Still, such ecological nuances were secondary to the sheer increase in numbers of fires and their propagation throughout the countryside. People and their stock overwhelmed the internal checks that had held fire to grassy patches between bluffs, creeks, and southerly exposures. The rains were good enough to keep growing something, and a fire-catalyzed economy kept the land constantly kindled. The fires filled out every landscape nook and cranny. This repeated firing and quenching tempered the Ozarks into a hardscrabble landscape. The fires worsened as a logging rush after 1890 swept away the shortleaf pine, and as oak thickets replaced savanna woodlands, and as more and more of the flora broke down into biotic rubble and rock. Visiting the hills, Aldo Leopold concluded that many people burned simply to shield themselves from all the burns others were setting. The Ozark candle was burning at both its ends.[ii]
By the 1920s the Ozarks were a shambles. Its chronicle of fire again records a decline, this time not because people had left but because they had stayed, and in fact multiplied along with their livestock, for the land could no longer grow enough to support fodder for both slow-combusting herds and fast-combusting flames. That old economy of frontier burning had no new lands to move into. Resprouting oaks took over sites once under pine, feeding hogs in ways that pine roots could not. Pasture degraded. Erosion worsened. The felled forests left a scalped and furrowed dome. Then drought and Depression forced another emigration, and state and federal governments intervened to acquire significant tracts of land – a new, reversed round of treaties, as it were – and imposed doctrines intended to evict fire from the land. Even as the biota rebounded, fires diminished in number and shriveled in size. The fire history of the Ozarks once more tracked its human history.
This is Ozark fire history as recorded in tree rings, travel journals, scientific surveys, and folk memory. But it is not a history understood by fire science. Fire behavior has no parameter for people, and since fire history must derive from fire behavior, there is no integral role for anthropogenic fire. For prevailing fire theory the Ozarks are an outlier, an interpretive anomaly, a freak of fire history.
Yet this vision of fire scholarship has always been an artificial construction, the bastard child of a wilderness ideology and a physical model of fire. The first proposes that the foundational world for analysis is the uninhabited landscape. Begin with the wild, then add people – that is how you understand history. The second proposes that fire is fundamentally a chemical reaction shaped by its physical circumstances. Start with the physical chemistry of combustion, then add a stratum called biology, and then add another stratum called culture – this is what a science-based scholarship of fire means.
[i] On the character of settlement generally, see Malcolm J. Rohrbough, The Trans-Appalachian Frontier (Oxford University Press, 1978), and on its syncretic fusion of practices, Terry Jordan and Matti Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989). Sauer, as always, gives many useful particulars.
[ii] Leopold quote from Susan L. Flader, “History of Missouri Forests and Forest Conservation,” in Flader, ed., Toward Sustainability for Missouri Forest, p. 20.
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