Very few people living or working in the Southeast Missouri Bootheel and Northeast Arkansas have any idea their lives as they know it was made possible by one of the greatest engineering feats in American history: that of draining the region. They have little idea of how different life there would be. Today, that feat would be impossible because of concern for the environment and government regulation.
Southeast Missouri is at the upper reached of what was once the largest bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. Extending through the flood plain of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, this vast forest covered 24 million acres from southern Illinois Missouri, Arkansas, and Mississippi southward to coastal Louisiana.
Not only has this area been subject to frequent flooding but also receives a high amount of annual rainfall, some 55 inches. This local flooding was caused by headwater and backwater flooding. Headwater flooding came from drainage of rainfall for the uplands and the region itself which flowed through channels and bayous southwards towards in into the Mississippi River. Backwater flooding occurred when seasonally high springs Mississippi River swollen by snowmelt from upstream backs up onto surrounding floodplain. A combination of these events resulted in frequent spring inundation of the Southeast Missouri lowlands.
Over geological time, the Mississippi River’s meandering has wondered through the area resulting in a wide and relatively flat floodplain. An abundant of low spots formed wetland and swamps that annually accumulated spring floodwaters.
The region where the Mississippi River meets the Ohio River is an area of transition in several respects. With the river unconfined it began creating new channels while abandoning old one. Over thousands of years, this process created oxbow lakes and swamps. These features would eventually fill with silt during periods of flooding and cypress and tupelo forest would replace the oak and hickory forest then predominate.
Native Americans settled on these oxbow lakes because the hunting fishing and water supply was good and the threat of flooding was less on the natural levee near the water course. Big Oak Tree State Park near Charleston is a great place to see the change in biodiversity.
At what time Spanish explorers passed through the area, and years later with the arrival of European settlers, Southeast Missouri lowland supported about 2.5 million acres of bottomland hardwood and swamp forest. Occasionally they found slightly higher and dryers areas of bottomland prairie.
Three hundred and fifty years ago, not only did the locale sustain acres of superior hardwood timber and soil that was rich and futile. Early settlers’ confronted the problems and difficulty of harvesting timber from wetlands and swamps and growing crops in sodden soil. Theirs was a Herculean task, carrying frontierism in a new level.
In 1849, Congress passes the first of a series of laws gingerly known as the “Swamp Land Grants. The first such grant gave Louisiana all the swamplands within that state on condition they are reclaimed, as much as possible, and made available for settlement. This was such a popular act that on December 28, 1950, the state of Missouri was given control of all wetlands and opens them for settlement.
In accepting these lands they agreed to construct levees and drain the swamp and reclaim the overflowed land making them fir for cultivation. The proceeds from the selling of these land shall be use to pay for levees and drains making the land useful.
In 1890 a wetland hardwood forest covered 90 percent of Southeast Missouri. The Mississippi River periodic flooded the area. Between 1718 and 1912 there have been 34 known major floods with overflows covering it most years. The area has an average annual precipitation of 45 inches. Then add an unknown amount of water flowing into the area from the Missouri Ozarks, through the Little River Valley. Nature using these forces crafted the Great Swamp which acting as a retention pond was Southeast Missouri in 1910.
Missouri's Little River Valley
The Lower Mississippi Valley got a respite from major flooding between 1903 and 1912 However, in 1912, a record overflow swept down the river valley. That year a flood broke the Mississippi County levees and floodwaters inundated the bottomlands.
Many landowners in the province saw the great potential of the region as farmland even as it was under water. Yet few people realized the magnitude of the job that would be required to make it profitable farmland. The planners of the Little River Drainage District took people with vision, with courage. They were planning a colossal, and costly engineering effort; the largest drainage and levee district of its kind in the world. Nothing of its size had been tried before.
Little River Drainage District in 1905, which helped drain over 500,000 acres of swampland that covered an area starting at the Arkansas state line to extend up to Cape Girardeau. After levees, dikes, and drainage ditch were completed within the district, no longer was 90% of the land unfit to grow crops. By 1930 less than three percent was incapable of being farmed. Local supporters claim it was then a “Garden of Eden,” “The Garden Spot of America.”
Between the times of De Soto’s crossing the Mississippi River in southern Crittenden County, Arkansas (this is the latest, and generally accepted, theory as presented by Dr. Hudson’s Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms in 1541 to 1801.) Four diaries were kept by members of his party; each recorded the Mississippi River as being in full flood when they crossed it. His diarist recorded it took two hours for his rag-tag rusty-armored men, his horses, hogs, and war dogs to cross the Rio de Espiritu Santo as they called the Mississippi River. Three out of five years since then, if the average kept since records have been kept hold up; the River will produce more than just an average overflow or a major flood.
The Little River Valley, and the territory in which it is located, has changed ownership six times. During these 260 years, ownership claims, or occupation, went from Native Americans, to the French from 1673 to 1762 and then the Spanish claimed ownership 1762 to 1800. Then in secret Treaty of San Ildefonso it again changed hands to be claimed by Napoleon’s France before being sold to the United States in 1803. (The Native American have still not be consulted about these claims of ownership or the Europeans right to sell.)
For most of the district, west of Crowley's Ridge was the swampy St. Francis River Basin, which was drained naturally by the St. Francis and Little rivers. Reaching from Southeastern Missouri the St. Francis system flowed into the Mississippi River All together, the St. Francis Basin, the White River bottomland, the Arkansas River bottomland, the Ouachita-Tensas Basin and the Mississippi-Yazoo Basin comprised the greatest tract of alluvial bottomland in the American south.
Changes to the area started after the Swampland Acts of 1849 and 1850 transferred over 24 million acres of swamplands to the states of Mississippi, Louisiana Arkansas and Missouri. Of this, the Little River Drainage District is made up of over 540,000 acres that drains of 1.2 million acres including a small area of the Ozark Highlands.
Six Missouri counties, Dunklin Mississippi, New Madrid, Pemiscot Scott, and Stoddard lay within the Little River Valley of the St. Francis Basin. All, or part, of these counties lay within the Little River Valley which also carried water from the Ozark highland counties of Bollinger, Perry, Madison and Cape Girardeau.
Within the continuous 48 states, it is considered the last frontier by some historians. The alluvial bottomlands of the Lower Mississippi River Valley presented the most promising, the richest and most productive land in the American South, if not the nation. Also, it presented the most challenging. Before the Bootheel was drained , bottomland farmers had to battle predators, floods, lack of a transportation system, wild animals such as bears, panthers, snakes, insects and illness’ such as malaria. Also roaming the forest were wild hogs (no razorbacks) and horses that had escaped De Soto years before.
With the land drained and the after much hand labor of cutting the hardwood forest, the chore of removing the stumps by hand, mules and dynamite was a major challenge. Plowing new ground with a mule was unbelievable hard labor and could be painful when the plow caught under a hidden root and twisted the plow handle into a body part, most often, the ribs. These work days were long and weary laden.
Parts of Little River are now a canal with only traces of the original influence that once dominated the landscape of the Bootheel. Before the Earthquake of 1811 and 1812 Little River, with its connection to the St. Francis River and Mississippi, was the main commercial route to the interior of Southeast Missouri. Its current powered grist mills. Now, except during high water, there is no current.
Before 1811, the Little River was a swift moving stream. Water from a large watershed flowed freely through her channel to where she joined the St. Francis River on her way to the Mississippi River near Helena, Arkansas
Little River’s watershed in the northwest rises in Ste. Genevieve and St. François counties, rain falling here and in the eastern Madison County and south Ste. Francois County hills runoff is funneled through the valleys into Castor River. The same is true for northeastern and eastern Wayne and western Bollinger counties.
To the east of Castor River watershed is that of Whitewater River. Starting in the southwest corner of Perry County, the Whitewater River enters northwest and crosses to the east of Bollinger to enter Cape Girardeau County. Most of this trip is through highland where the Whitewater River is picking up runoff.
The Whitewater and Castor rivers flowed together in southern Bollinger County. The two rivers running through Stoddard County to join Little River in New Madrid County were known as the Castor River.
After the series of 1811 and 1812 Earthquakes Little River was no longer a fast running river because falling trees and crumbling river banks blocked the channel. Each of these events acted as damns trapping or slowing the flow. The Little River Valley watershed was now receiving more water than the channel could effectively handle. There was no place for the water to go except to spread across its floodplain. With each rainy season, the overflow grew larger and stays longer. By 1900, Little River Valley had become a giant swamp covering 540,000, or so acres.
Little River a, tributary of the St. Francis River, is about 148 miles long. It runs from near Cape Girardeau passes between Crowley’s Ridge and the Sikeston Ridge then through the Bootheel into the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas to join the St. Francis River near Marked Tree, Arkansas.
The New Madrid County, Missouri, town of Morehouse owes its existence to the Himmelberger family’s interest in the lumber industry. What was to become Himmelberger-Harrison Lumber and Land Company acquired its first timber lands in 1864 at an estate sale. Without their business interest, the town and Little River may have been quite different. At one time, the Himmelberger interest controlled over 200,000 acres of timberland. Without Himmelberger’s early efforts at dredging Little River the Little River Drainage District would later be saved from making mistakes in their early operations.
Dredging operations in 1896 cut the Little River channel deeper while river bends were cut off by digging ditches across them to straighten the channel out and shorting the river. Starting at the Iron Mountain Railroad at Morehouse, the dredging operations ended at the south end of the county. This was the real beginning of draining the swamps of New Madrid County. Between 1890 and 1910, 700,000 acres of the seven original “swamp counties” was reclaimed by drainage ditches and canals.
The devastating 1844 Flood aided by frantic urging from congressional representative from the Mississippi River Valley pushed Congress to passes the Swamp Land Act of 1849 and 1850. These acts provided for the donation of public lands, which were subject to overflows of the Mississippi, to state governments. These political units could then sell that land to investors and the states could use the money for flood control. Missouri received three million acre; a lot of the money from land sales did not go for the stated purpose but into the pockets of land speculators.
Between 1858 and 1890, four important developments helped pave the way for settlement of Southeast Missouri Swamplands. The land within the Little River Valley was given to Missouri under the Swamp Land Act of September 28, 1850. This swampy land was a forbidden area. No roads crossed it; water was everywhere and seemingly endless. This area was known at the Dark Cypress, the Big Swamp or the Great Swamp. It had a mystique of its own and virtually uninhabited by humans until early in the 20th Century.
The first travelers met terrain and conditions within the Bootheel that discourage all by the most determined. Wild animals, including snakes, bears, and panthers roamed through the trees and cane-breaks. Tree so large that hollow ones sometimes became shelters for people. Sunlight had difficulty penetrating the intertwining leaf cover. A picture of gloominess was projected by the thick growth of trees engulfed in water.
Snakes and mosquitoes were a threat and nuance three-quarters of the year. This was a hostile habitat. Yet, people did come. People did settle in the area. They adjusted to the conditions and slowly, although it took years, drain the swamps and conquered the land. Animals’ trails became dirt roads long before they saw blacktop. Attitudes changed some. Education became more important and ceased to be “that nonsense.” Peonage greed weakened as farm mechanization increased. Obvious extreme racial hatred diminished as a means of social control; yet still has not totally disappeared. Civilized society creep into the Little River Valley.
The value of this area for timber and agriculture were soon realized. However, little value was not seen in maintaining the natural resourced and natural communities. By 197, only 98,000 acres, 4.1 percent, of the original forest remained with only roughly one percent in tracts larger than 1,000 acres.