An Ozark Journey: The Old Salt Road
One of the great mysteries of Ozark County is the Old Salt Road, also known as McClurg’s Salt Road. Many living here today have heard of it, but most are unaware of its origin or its destination.
Active settlement of the Ozarks came on the heels of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the subsequent War of 1812 when the U.S. government actively made lands in this region available for settlement. The counties on the Arkansas border were among the last in Missouri to be settled, mainly because they were the most isolated.
Early settlers came to what would eventually become Ozark County either overland or by waterways. Overland was a slow, difficult and dangerous trek, but travel by water was also far from easy. The two primary pathways were the North Fork and the Little North Fork of the White River. Small boats could navigate these tributaries without too much difficulty, but they were slow and limited in cargo space. Steamboats at that time were limited in their movement upstream on the White River due to frequent log jams and many shoals.
By 1831, the White River had been cleared from the Mississippi up to a point slightly downstream from Batesville, Arkansas. This place became known as Jacksonport. The arrival of steamboat lines at this port made it a very active trading center and a favorable entry point for westward expansion.
Those who had settled earlier in what would become Ozark County were mainly fur traders or isolated families seeking a better life than they had known in the eastern states. Thomas Alsup was among the first of these. He made his way up the North Fork and settled at the mouth of Bryant Fork in 1812. It was not a journey for the faint of heart. The fear of Indian attacks, natural obstacles and many cases of flooding made passage an adventure.
Everyone who settled in this region needed certain supplies that the land could not produce. High on that list was salt—used not only by humans for curing meats like fish and jerky or for canning brine, but also for their livestock.
Bringing salt and other supplies overland from St. Louis was a very expensive option. Therefore, in those early years, essential items were often transported by steamer from the port of New Orleans up the Mississippi to the Arkansas and White Rivers and then upstream on those waterways as far as the boats were able to go. This led to the development of regional markets at Little Rock and Jacksonport. For most Ozark County settlers, a supply run meant traveling by oxen- or horse-drawn wagon overland to one of these markets. That was a difficult task. The biggest problem was a lack of roads into the Ozarks wilderness, and all travel was fraught with perils.
Joseph Washington McClurg was born into this environment in 1812 at Lebanon, Missouri. His parents died while he was a child, and the boy was raised by his grandparents back east in Pennsylvania. He was well educated there and became a practicing lawyer while still in his teens.
As a young adult, he returned to his homeland and was employed as sheriff of St. Louis County in 1837. By 1841 he had married and gone into business with his father-in-law as a merchant and lead miner at Hazelwood, which is in Wright County near its border with Douglas County.
In 1842, with salt prices rising dramatically in the region, he launched an ambitious project to deal with the crisis. McClurg personally went overland from Hazelwood to Jacksonport by horseback, noting the lay of the land as he went.
From that White River port, he took a steamboat to New Orleans, bought 1,000 bags of salt and shipped them by steamboat back to Jacksonport. From there, he hired teams of oxen and proceeded overland to the market in Springfield, carving a road through Ozark County as he went.
He repeated this venture several times in that decade, and his road became known from that point on as the Salt Road. It was arguably the most important road in Ozark County at that time and would later become a key element in the settlement of Ozark and Douglas counties.
McClurg followed an existing road from Jacksonport to the Jacob Wolf Trading Post at the junction of the North Fork and White River. Wolf’s store, founded in 1828 at what is today Norfork, Arkansas, was the last point of civilization on McClurg’s path between Arkansas and the Springfield area. That path took him south and west of what is now Mountain Home, which did not exist at the time. The route crossed into what is now Ozark County near Three Brothers, Arkansas, and followed a relatively straight line to Douglas County, entering near the spot where the community of Smallett was later established.
In 1861, Joseph McClurg served as a colonel in the Union Army, commanding the 8th Missouri Volunteer Cavalry. Ironically, Confederate forces frequently used his Salt Road during the Civil War to attack Union forces in Missouri. He was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1862 and then was elected as Missouri’s 19th governor in 1869.
A new sense of security came with the Civil War’s end, along with an influx of settlers and businesses. Small communities sprang up at convenient points along the Salt Road, and Ozark County became attractive again to westward-bound settlers. We’ll explore some of those budding communities and trace the Old Salt Road through Ozark County in more detail during our next visit.