Life on the frontier

Migration into the Bootheel during the 19th century and early 20th century was slow and steady. In spite of the vast amount of water covering the area, settlers managed to locate an area that was above the water most of the year. Many stopped on the Malden-Kennett Prairie 

Mostly it was males moving to the western frontier that settled in the area. Some were seeking adventure. Others were young men escaping a questionable past. In the east, most of the arable land had been in use for generations, or was worn out from too much use. Thus, to find available land that was rich meant going west to the frontier.

The attraction of land was especially true to ambitious young men. For them, from what that heard, of land rich beyond belief. A place they could raise a family and leave a legacy for his sons.

Arriving in the new land had to be culture shock. This shock must have been especially true for the young wife. The vast wilderness must have been a freighting sight; nothing but trees and water being so far from her past experiences. Having left a much more civilized place for this rough backwoods wasteland must have broken many of a young wife’s heart. To know this was to be her home never to see her parents again, maybe not even hear from or about them was sad, but this was depressive.

After a home site was selected, usually close to the trees that would be used to construct a cabin, the job of clearing the land would start.  Much has been written about the neighbors helping build living cabins. This may have been true after to population increased and the lumber companies started working the timber, but when the population was spotty, with no neighbors living within miles, each family had only their members to relay on.

 By necessity, most of the early houses were rugged, how unrefined depended on the skill and strength of the builders. Underbrush cleared out. Trees were cut, size depending on how far they were to be moved and where they would be placed in the structure. Some of the earlier structures were not much more than a lean-to.

Early houses were small square structures, usually sixteen to eighteen feet square with one room serving as living, bedroom and kitchen. Constructed of round logs with the ends notched in a simple saddle form was the standard construction pattern. Roofs consisted of split shingles, and pieces of shingle were sometimes used to chink the spaced between the logs. They may attach a lean-to. Later, when more help was available, they may build a double log cabin connected by with a “dog path.” Using rough hewed logs to build the wall left many cracks, crevices that let in light, rain, and insects. Time sometimes passed before the settlers found time to mud in these opening. Usually, there was only a door, no windows, cut on the south side of the cabin.

One of the important priories was growing food. The area cleared for a cabin became space for the first crop, corn and foodstuff. A sharp pointed stick was used to punch holed into the ground into which grain and other seeds would be placed. Each year a little more ground would be cleared. Nearly equal acreage of corn and cotton was raised. Corn was used for making meal for breadstuff and also for feeding the hogs, from which the other main food came from, pork.

Six acres was about what one field hand could take care of. In the early days, everyone worked, men, women, children, and slaves if available. Sometimes a small garden was near the cabin. This offered a seasonal break for the staple of corn and pork.

In the lowland, there was cane to be cut and roots to be dug out. The sharp point could easily penetrate body parts if pressured contact was made. After the cane was dried, usually after two months, it was burned.  This was generally done on a windy day. The wind drove the extremely hot fire to burn the lower branches and bark off of larger trees, killing them. Ashes covered the ground leaving it ready for planting.

Along the waterways of the delta, cane grew in abundance and almost impossible to go through, even on a horse. Hunters looked at these cane breaks differently than did the farmer. The hunter saw these growths as a place to find game. Bears, deer, and bison would seek refuge and find forage in canebrakes. To the farmer, these growths of cane represented a fertile bottomland that was higher than the surrounding area. This was land that could be cleared by burning the vegetation.

Field work was not done after they harvested the crops, usually sometimes in January. This was the time to clear more land, to bring it into production. Clearing the new ground was hard labor. Stumps had to be grubbed, removing the stumps left from the year before. Trees had to be fell and burnt and then the reins removed.  These new stumps had to be deadening then left to rot. They had to dig ditches to drain the lowlands. They needed dikes to protect the crops. Cotton stalks had to be cut down. Fields needed plowing for the new crop year. Even with the help of horses, or oxen, all these jobs required hard, exhausting manual labor.

Plows came later after the settler became more prosperous. Even with the trees removed, plowing was a painful job for a couple of years. Hidden below ground was a network of roots. Not only was the plow hard to hold in the ground requiring strength and stamina but it was a boring to walk hour after hour behind a horse or mule. When the plow point slipped under a hidden root, often, the plow handle would be jerked from the man’s grip to be thrown in his rib case.

Women and children also had jobs outside the house. They were expected to burn bush and logs, cut and clear bush, beat down cotton stalks, pick up chunks, use a hoe to remove weeds for crops and gardens, picked cotton, feed and watered the farm animal, milked cows, tinted the garden, and countless other jobs. The woman also took care of the house, cleaned the clothes, (and in some cases, card the cotton for use in the spinning wheel, weave the cloth before making cloths) cooked the meals, and have responsible for care of the husband and children. The older girls were expected to help the wife around the house, especially take care of the smaller children.

Corn made a perfect first crop. No special preparation of the ground was needed. The seed could be placed in holes jabbed with a sharp stick, then trampled into the ground. It would grow with little or no cultivation. Corn was a basic food for man and beast. After the first crop, the ground required some plowing before they could plant the next crop. They could make a forked hardwood sapling into a crude plow. One side of the fork was cut about a foot-and-a- half long, sharpened and served as the share. The other fork was left long enough to be the beam. A cross beam was added and they made a plow. Roots in new ground made this instrument very difficult to use, breaking it easily.

Corn harvest was labor intent. This took place before they gathered the cotton while the weather was still warm. The corn grew tall, usually taller than a man’s head. Very little, if any, breeze reached anyone working away for the end-rolls. In the lowlands this air was humid.

The corn harvest started just before the leaves started turning yellow. This operation required the stalks to be stripped from the ears down and placed in piles between the stalks to dry. A homemade sled was pulled through the field, a few days later, to gather these leaves, now known as fodder. Tied in bunches, the fodder is hung up to dry. During the winter, this fodder will be used as animal feed. Next, the tops, corn tassels, are cut off next to the ears of corn. These tops were then chocked, (tied together). Nude stalks now stood in the field supporting the ears of corn. After the first frost, the ears, shucks and all, were snapped from the stalks and stored in a crib made of rails. Corn shucking, (removing the protective leaves from the ears), would come later.

Milking the cows was considered women’s work. The mother and all the male members of the family would have been horrified for male to be caught at this task. His manhood would have been questioned.  He could have helped, like distracting the cow with food, and his masculinity would not have been questioned. Yet, it was considered all right for a boy to churn cream into butter.

In Arkansas and Louisiana, with a few drifting into the Bootheel, during the first half eighteenth century, a large number wild horse roamed the woods. These animals, while difficult to capture, could be broken and turned into useful farm animals.

Hogs also run wild in the forest. Some of these may have been ancestors from animals they escaped for the de Soto Expedition. Here, we are not talking razorback, but domestic animals that roamed free. During the summer and early fall, the increased availably of food in the woods allowed these animals fatten. Groups of male would take salt and their barrels in to wood to kill the hogs. Thus, meat would be preserved and available for the next year.

During the colonial period, religious and political leaders idealized the woman who was pious, hard working, and deferential to authority. Women, who lived in the Missouri bootheel during the early days of American’s occupancy, by necessity, were hard workers. They had little choose.  Conditions were primitive. This included the environment they lived in, the houses they occupied, and the lack of comforts they had. Simple survival meant hard labor under crude conditions. Parts of the Southeast Missouri Delta remained in a frontier condition into the twentieth century.

These frontier women raised very large families. Large families were considered an economic necessity. Early marriages were common. Knowledge of birth control was scarce. Children followed soon after marriage. In 1840, frontier women were the most prolific in the nation. The birth rate, based on children under ten for every thousand women between sixteen and forty-four, was higher there than in any other state or territory and 43 percent higher than the United States as a whole.

These women were products of their environment, depending on time and place. Some were crude, they smoked and chewed tobacco, drank whiskey, gambled, and cursed and swore as heartily as any man. If this were the only pattern of behavior, they knew, the only example they had, this how they behaved. Like people everywhere, this is only part of the picture. Women who moved in from an older, more settled region, they behaved differently. Some women sought out religious services and showed a more female nature considered the ideal womanhood.

Loneliness caused by separation from other family members was a major problem for many immigrant women. The first year, especially was very difficult for some ladies. Living among strangers, seemly in a hostile environment, cut off from family, for many young women this was the removal of all the security they had known, a form of abandonment. This seemed especially true at night, notably, when the wolf’s moans sounded so lonely. Cut off from the established societies that they knew, women sought to reaffirm their experience and identity by establishing and maintaining a circle of females for care and companionship. In doing this, they copied the familiar. As near as their current circumstances would allow, they replaced the institutions and environments they left behind.

Being too religious did not fit the frontier male’s idea of masculine behavior. Men, believing women were more spiritual than men, gave women the responsibility for the family’s religion. Women, therefore, were the main force in establishing religion and educational institution on the frontier women had plenty of things to occupy their time. Despite being busy, women sought out the companionship of other women. These relationships, helped relieve the loneliness of missing family members. Through these new relationships with other women facing similar problems and concerns, they built new support systems.

Besides their housework, the women provided the garden; hunted picked wild berries and helped gather nuts for the winter’s store. She gathered herbs to made most of the simple home medicines needed by the family. After the morning chores were done, she helped her husband pile brush when he was clearing fallen trees. Many a frontier woman could plow as straight a furrow as her man. Often she used the family cow to pull a plow. Taking it home at night, she then milked her for her children’s supper.

Clothing her family demanded much of her time. On the raw frontier, everyone had cloths made from animal skins. Preparing to skins required much time and hard work. As the family moved for the hunting and fishing economy, they would often plant a small patch of flax. They rotted in water and then the men broke the fiber. Women then would spin these course strands into a threat, which they would then weave into cloth before they could make cloths from it.

        Spanish Mill

Spanish Mill was another of the earliest settlements in the Little River Valley. Established in the late 1700’s, it was strategically located for a commercial center between the St. Francis River and the Mississippi A small port on Little River, Spanish Mill was 17 miles southwest of New Madrid and some five miles west of present day Portageville in New Madrid County.

        Point Pleasant

Another New Madrid County village was Point Pleasant an old settlement on the Mississippi were Indian villages existed from early times. A flat-boat could leave the Mississippi River and travel west to Little River at Spanish Mill.  Just north of Point Pleasant (about 15 miles south of New Madrid and northeast of Portageville, and eight miles northwest and across the river from Tiptonville, and Reelfoot Tennessee) and Island Number 11, Bayou Portage joined eight river miles south of Point Pleasant at Steward Landing.

River traffic could enter an inlet at just north of Point Pleasant. Or keelboats could use Steward Landing eight river miles south of Point Pleasant. Keelboat entering this inlet could enter Cushion Lake (forming part of the southern bounty of New Madrid and Pemiscot counties).  From there they could go to a plain where it joined with Bayou Portage to form Postage Open Bay (near the present southern New Madrid County line) which went all the way to Little River. At Spanish Mill, boats worked up and down Little River or take a distributaries (drainage channel) west to work the St. Francis River.

Little River at this time had enough current to power a mill at Spanish Mill. The settlement was a trade center. There was a store and market for barter of goods. Located on a commercial water way, the future looked good.


Gordonville is one of the oldest settlement is Cape Girardeau County. Settlers first came to the area in 1795 when the Spanish controlled the region. It set on a small stream east of Cape Girardeau and south of Jackson.

In this area, Bethel Baptist Church was organized July 19, 1806 by Rev. Daniel Green and is considered the first permanent church organized in Missouri. The first building was erected in October, that year, on land belonging to William Bull on Hubble Creek. Bethel means “House of God.”

One of the earlier names given to the settlement was Davis Mill, so maned from the mill operated as late as 1827 by Greer W. Davis. When the mill was taken over by the Peoples’ family, the village was referred to as People’s Mill until as late as 1874. Sometime between 1876 and 1886 the name Gordonville was given to the post office that was established in Samuel Gordon’s store.

A short distant to the west is Hubble Creek. In 1910, the Bank of Gordonville was capitalized with $10.000 along with several churches with the town setting on the Jackson Branch of the Iron Mountain Railroad.


Millersville is a community on the eastern bank of Whitewater River in the western part of Cape Girardeau County. It is an unincorporated community located six miles west of Jackson. Elevation 429 feet.

John Miller came to the area in October, 1803 with the Swiss German immigrants led by Colonel Frederick Bollinger. In 1803, he went up Big Whitewater and settled in Spanish territory. Along with his sons, Jacob and Isaac, they received permits to settle on the land. John Miller claimed nearly two square miles while Jacob and Isaac each claim 350 arpents claims.

The Millers were Scotch-Irish. With 12 children, the village grew quickly. The mocking name “Toad Suck” was given the village’s name until 1860 when a post office was established and named Millersville for the family.

In 2010, the population was 1,288, mostly decedents of John Miller. 

     McKendree Chapel

The first Methodist Church, McKendree Chapel, organized west of the Mississippi River was organized in 1806 on land granted to William Williams in 1798 three miles east of Jackson. It is believed to have been organized by Rev. Jesse Walker at the mouth of the Cumberland River and maned by Bishop William McKendree, Presiding Elder of the Kentucky District in 1801. McKendree was the first American born bishop, , was an officer in the revolutionary War and was present at the surrender of Cornwallis.

     Caney Creek

Caney Creek starts in Bollinger County and enters Cape Girardeau County from the west to empty into Little Whitewater River. Daniel Sexton settled on Caney Creek in 1798.  Its name, like Cane Creek, Cane Bayou and Cane Spring Creek, came from the large amount of cane growing along their banks.

      Byrd’s Creek and Settlement

Amos Byrd settled on a creek that flowed through the central part of Cape Girardeau County around 1799. He settled some 16 miles northwest of Cape Girardeau. A small settlement grew up around him. Thus the village and creek was maned for him.


Burfordville was a Cape Girardeau County village eight miles southwest of Jackson on Whitewater River. Major George Bollinger and other Swiss German immigrants settled there around 1800. Bollinger established and maned Burfordville for John Burfordville; however, it was not incorporated into 1900.

     Cape Girardeau County’s Covered Bridges

Whitewater River boasted two covered bridges. In 1938, there were only eleven such bridges in Missouri. The Burfordville Covered Bridge was built a few years after the Civil War. The Allenville Covered Bride Cape Girardeau County’s second. It was built in 1869 and condemned as unsafe in 1894, but remained as a landmark.

      Little Whitewater River

A tributary to Whitewater River, Little Whitewater River starts in Bollinger County flowing eastward to join the larger stream in southwest Cape Girardeau County near Burfordville.       

        Little Prairie

Little Prairie was first settle, near present day Caruthersville, in 1794 by Francois Le Sueur, on a Spanish Land Grant. He builds on a ridge touching the river and surrounded by rich soil, timber and game. Having friendly relations with the Delaware Indians in the area, there was a profitable trade. By 1799, the population was 78; by 1803, it Numbered 103.


Besides Little Prairie, in what is now Pemiscot County, there were three or four settlements. One was Gayoso. This was the oldest community in the county. Originally it was planned and named as the county’s seat of government by Albion Crow from Scott County, William Sayers of Mississippi County, and W.S. Moseley from New Madrid County.

The courthouse land was purchased from J. A. McFarlin with the town laid out in 1851 by William Bigham. A Spanish official, governor of Natchez Don Miguel Gayoso de Lamos, had the town named after him when he builds a small stockade near New Madrid in 1795. Because the river was constantly washing the town into the river, the county seat was moved to Caruthersville in 1900. A post office remained at Gayoso, from 1904 to 1910, when the community washed away for the last time.

Another community was on Little River in the western part of the county. A third village was just north of a lake known as Big Lake; while the fourth was on Portage Bay. The earthquake all but destroyed these communities and they were depopulated.

     Big Lake

Big Lake was one of the largest lakes in the county. There were to Big Lakes; the largest being called Pemiscot Lake, once covering 18,000 acres around 1900 it was drained.

Big Lake was part of a group of large lakes. Franklin Lake, also known as Cagle Lake in 1883 being maned for an early settler, “old man Cagle. Cagle Lake was one of the earliest lakes drained in the area. J. E. Franklin brought a large trace of land which include this lake and begin in 1898, using pumps, to drain the lake; location known as Pumping Station. The project was a failure until he started ditching. Just the name of the lake was changed and also attached to the nearby community; neither exists any longer.

Solitude appeared on a map until 1867on the northern end of Big Lake. In 1868 a post office was established there and discontinued sometime between 1876 and 1886. Floods may have been the cause of its demise. The name may have come because of the loneliness caused by its isolation.

   Pemiscot Bayou

Pemiscot Bayou was a large bayou which one extended almost the entire length of the count. .Being drained, little remains of the original stream. However, the name is still used on court records, maps and in reference to drainage districts, but it is not in common usage. Part of this waterway in the south central part of the county is now referred to as Gibson Bayou locally so maned after local landlord Newberry Gibson.

Seven mile Bend was a large bend in Pemiscot Bayou in the south-central part of Pemiscot County. Its name came for the length of the curve or bend in the bayou.

Willowpole Bridge was an old bridge made of willow pole on Pemiscot Bayou. The succeeding steel structured over the ditch retained then name. Because the road was redirected, the bridge was abandoned; also known as Criddle’s Bridge from a nearby resident.

        Wolf Bayou

The upper end of Wolf Bayou was called Sancil and flowed near Gayoso to empty into the Mississippi River. The name suggests a swamp and wilderness a place suitable for wolves and once was the habitat for these animals.

          Early Settlements Along King’s Highway

These were not the only settlements in Little River Valley along the King’s Highway several settlements had sprung up, farmers working the land, and scattered groups of Native Americans. Some of them in Scott County; among the first was in the vicinity of Sikeston. Captain Charles Friend also settled in Scott County with his family near Benton. Both of these men had trading post.

The Kings Highway, at best, it was only passable during dry weather. At this time, it was a dirt road. It did have one advantage; it was built on Sikeston Ridge. Unlike to Lowland on either side of the ridge, the soil was sandy. As little effort to maintain the road, it was rutted and washed out in places. Other roads throughout the region were not much better than animal trails. This in fact was how they started. A man on a horse could travel them. In the Lowland, the trails’ paths often were confusion and traveled with hope.

        River Travel by Flatboats

The Mississippi River which has so much influence on the land was travel by small boats or flatboats were used if larger objects needed to be carried. Flatboats, or keel-boats, were larger gangly craft powered mainly by the rivers current. These were large rafts, usually with a rough log cabin, some time with a pen for a milk cow. Most time they were used only as a one-way vessel, downstream.

The river was too deep to use poles to push them back upstream against the current.  Usually the wood used to construct them was broke apart at the destination and sold. Time was also a factor. The downstream trip on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers took a lot of time. The overland trip back consumed even mort time.

        Steamboats Introduced

In 1807, Fulton built the first steamboat, the Clermont. It was a great success on the Hudson River. Use of steamboats on the Mississippi River had to wait until 1811 when a company of men in Pittsburgh constructed the New Orleans

This boat made a trip from Pittsburg to New Orleans and for a short time was involved in transporting goods on the Mississippi River

Within five years other boats were built to travel up the Mississippi above the mouth of the Ohio. The first was General Pike, commanded by Captain Jacob Reed. The second steamer to go north at the mouth of the Ohio was the Constitution, reaching St. Louis in 1817. Before long a steadily flow of other steam power boats follow in its wake.

Steamboats possessed remarkable advantages of the keel-boat. Almost as soon as they hit the water, they were being studied for ways to make them more valuable as carries of freight as well as passengers. One great advantage they had over flatboats was their ability to return back upstream carrying a load of revenue bearing goods. Yet they were impractical and dangerous. Still, they were a great improvement over keelboats.

The change brought by the steamboat was remarkable. Not only did they lower the time necessary for at journey, but also lowered the cost of moving products from city to city. While freight was still costly, it was now not nearly as pricy as keel-boats.

        Morals on the Frontier

At this time in this county, life was hard. To survive in the backwoods where there was little law, violence was not unknown. American settlers, being more adventurous, were spread over a wide part of this area proved more difficult to govern than did the French and Spanish in the area. When problems and trouble arose, Americans had a tendency to physically settle it. Under American rule the population was far from being quiet and free from disturbances as it had been under the over site of the Spanish.

To many of the early American settlers, the Sabbath was not a day of rest. Owing to the lack of religious instruction, there was a period of considerable lawlessness. Public opinion was lax in restraining vice and immorality. One popular vice was gambling which was exceedingly popular and perhaps the most prevalent form of amusement.

Foreign travelers visiting Southeast Missouri often were amazed at what they thought most expressed the lawless condition of the region that of dueling. Not all layers of society used the method of pointing guns at each other to settle disputes. It was the professional men, especially lawyers and others that regarded themselves higher on the social scale as to look down with contempt of any man who appealed to the law for the settlement of difficulties. Gentlemen were expected to settle their own troubles.

The first known duel in the Bootheel was at Cape Girardeau in 1807. Joseph McFerron and William Ogle met on Cypress Island opposite Cape Girardeau. McFerron an Irishman with a good educator was a clerk of the Cape Girardeau District Court. Prior to this he had been a teacher and merchant. The cause is unknown concerning their disagreement. However, Ogle challenged McFerron to a duel. McFerron had never even fired a piston, but accepted the challenge. The duel resulted in Ogle being killed while McFerron escaped unhurt.

A more famous duel between Southeast Missouri citizens was between took place between Thomas H. Benton and Charles Laucas. The first duel between them took place in august, 1817. During the action, Benton was wounded in the knee and Lucas in the neck. The firing of shots would normally end the conflict. Not this time. Benton, when ask if he was satisfied, he demanded a second duel.

After reconciliatory efforts were make, Benton still demanded a second duel. They met on Bloody Island near St. Louis on September 27, 1817. This confrontation ended in the death of Charles Lucas and satisfied the honor of Benton.

With 1798 came settlers to Tywappity Bottoms; James Brady James Curran, Charles Findley, Edmund Hogan, Thomas, John, and James Wellborn and the Quimbys. The first settler at Commerce arrived in 1788. Thomas W. Waters set up a trading post in partnership with Robert Hall and they also ran a ferry service.

In 1800, Bird’s Point saw its first settlement when Joseph Johnson settled in the area. At some point in time St. Charles Prairie became known as Matthews Prairie. Early settlers include Edward Mathews and his sons Edward, Charles, Joseph, James and Allen, Charles Gray, Joseph Smith John Weaver, George Hector, and Absalom McElmurry. In 1805, Johnson sold his land to Abraham Bird whose name was given to Bird’s Point.

        Other Antebellum Settlement

Other early settlements within the present boundaries of New Madrid County were made along Lake St. Ann, St. John Bayou, at Lake St. Mary and on Bayou St. Thomas. These were trade centers for the farmers and trappers in the area. Grist mills were found in some of them.

In what is now Pemiscot County there was also several smaller settlements. One was in the Vicinity of Gayoso, one north of Big Lake, another on Little River, and fourths on Portage Bay.

Americans Move In

Life on the Frontier

Spanish Mill

Point Pleasant

Gordonville ,


McKendree Chapple

Caney Creek

Byrd's Creek and Settlement


Cape Girardeau County Covered Bridges

Little Whitewater River

Little Prairie


Big Lake
Pemiscot Bayou

Wolf Bayou

Early Settlements Along King’s Highway

River Transportation by Flatboats

Steamboats Introduced

Morals on the Frontier


Bird’s Point

Other Antebellum Settlements



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    Having grown up on Little River, I have been fascinated with it. Over the past several years, as a local historian, this area has been a special interest. 

     These areas have been treated much like step-children by Jefferson City and Little Rock. They seem to believe nothing has ever happened here.  Our history has been long and varied. Hope you enjoy my trip.  

    Near Puxico is the swampy Mingo Wildlife Refuge. One hundred and fifty year ago, most of the Little River Valley appeared that way. This valley covering two million acres was part of the largest wetland in America.

    Floods frequently intimated the Valley. Between 1815 and 2011, 15 major floods covered or threatened the area.

    Timber companies came in at the end of the 19th Century to clean cut the forest. Louis Houck, a Cape Girardeau lawyer and railroad builder, envisioned a rail network that covered the wetlands.

    Little River Drainage District (LRDD) Corporation was established in 1907 by an act of the Butler County (MO) Circuit Court. 

    Between 1909 and 1928 the LRDD dug nearly 1000 miles of ditches and constructed 30 miles of levees to drain 1.2 million acres of swamp and overflow land in Southeast Missouri. More dirt was moved than in building the Panama Canal.

    One surprise I had was the number of settlements in the area before 1811-1812. Another was the water connection between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis and I had no idea that Little River had enough current to run a grist mill.

    Norman Vickers


    January 2015
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    December 2013
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    Little River's Geographic Past