A modest, unassuming house snuggles into a green hillside in a land once called Little Dixie, back when memories of that War shaped the minds of adults who remembered sitting on the knees of its vets.
In the inaugural decades of the 19th Century, Scots-Irish hill folk had pushed stock-laden wagons through fords and over muddy roads from Appalachia to these rolling wooded hills rippling outward from the Missouri. It was rich earth, good farmland, plenty of timber to construct homes and barns. And fences.
These were the latest in a long line of peasants and artisans so despairing of their lot they abandoned family and friends, home, and roots to pluck a plot of land—dangling like Hesperidean apples—from the not-quite virgin wilderness and pressed a livelihood from it. Their forebears had done so, leaving the Old World for the misty promises of a New. Their parents had done so, severing the umbilical cord to their Motherland.
Some of these hardy wagoners were fleeing property squabbles back east. Some were escaping minor warrants. Some were packing resentment that the fledgling Republic reneged on certain carrots dangled over militia enlistment for the war of independence. “Elbow room!” said Daniel Boone and these families rolling their rickety wagons through the wilderness were Boone’s spiritual cousins, escaping the scents of neighbors’ hearths wafting over the horizon. The Boone Himself, feeling constrained in Kentucky, set cornerstones down the Missouri a piece, just beyond St. Louis’ metropolitan bustle.
A succession of European kingdoms had laid claim to this expanse of the western hemisphere. First Spain, then France, then Great Britain saw the seemingly endless supply of lumber and ores and pelts as ripe for the plucking. First come, first serve. The land practically begged them to fold it into their Imperial ambitions. The fact people were already living here doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone. There are multiple and complex reasons the sudden clash of two cultures was such a disaster for one of them and no purpose is served judging the 15th Century by 21st Century standards. If humankind manages to survive that long some future culture will judge us pretty harshly.
At the dawn of the 19th Century the hill where the house sits was under the aegis of the US government. Stretching the Constitution to lengths that vexed him when Justice Marshall did it, President Jefferson bought most of the land between the Mississippi River and the Rockies: two landmarks most US citizens could barely imagine, though some in the new states west of the Blue Ridge had actually seen the former.
The collective American consciousness assembled its sense of the Westward expansion—of the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny—from a couple paragraphs in the middle of high school history books and the fanciful imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters. Which is to say it’s mostly wrong.
The Myth is that rugged individuals, seeking a piece of land to call their own, set across the plains to stake out a homestead, braving natural obstacles, untamed beasts, and indigenous peoples. We tell ourselves a story of Here is land no one is using. I can use it. I’m not hurting anyone. Freedom. The History is more complex. Book-length complexity.
For one thing the federal government exercised much more control over westward migration than any of us remember. Pursuant to the Land Ordinance Act of 1785 surveyors platted out the lands west of the Alleghenies in townships of six miles squared making grids of thirty-six 1-square mile sections, 640 acres apiece. After the Voyage of Discovery—Lewis & Clark exploring the Louisiana Purchase—surveyors began platting land west of the Mississippi.
It was all called Missouri in those days. The Missouri Territory, the watershed of the Big Muddy.
The War of 1812 had put a hiatus on the government activities but backwoods settlers still straggled into wilderness areas where they were protected by no one but themselves. After the Battle of New Orleans, Congress fast-tracked Louisiana statehood, securing the Mississippi delta. The new state took the name of the territory and areas of the Purchase above the 33rd parallel became Missouri Territory. Surveyors drew the western edge of what would be the state of Missouri with a longitudinal line bisecting Kaw Point, where the Kansas River flows into the Missouri. The federal government opened Missouri to settlement, but at $1.25/acre owning land was out of reach for most families.
Congress admitted Missouri to the Union in 1821. Up and down the Atlantic coast potential pioneers waited to learn if the new territory would permit slavery or not. The politics of Slavery drove everything at the cusp of the 19th Century. The Union itself was a precarious house of cards balanced on the will of Southern aristocrats. To maintain a balance in the Senate they demanded one new state that sanctioned slavery for each which banned it. When Massachusetts ceded her Maine provinces as a new Free State, Congress permitted slavery in Missouri. This brought more settlers from south of Mason-Dixon. Hence Little Dixie.
Many of these families brought slaves with them. These were not the legions of slaves in fields picking cotton, not our ordinary image of antebellum slavery. In Missouri they were house slaves, maybe one or two per household. It was not uncommon to find slaveholders toiling shoulder-to-shoulder with the women and men they called servants. It was a model carried over from the hills and hollers of Appalachia. The slavery brought to Missouri had marked differences from slavery in the Deep South, though nothing mitigates involuntary servitude. There is no point where slavery becomes zippity-doo-dah “not so bad”. Missouri was the last state in the Union to outlaw slavery. Both sets of Harry Truman’s grandparents were slaveholders. That’s just a fact of history, though not one Truman had any control over.
In 1825 the government cajoled/persuaded/forced the Osage Peoples into surrendering a strip of land twenty-four miles wide along the territory’s western border from the Missouri south to the Arkansas River. In 1826 the legislature in Jefferson City established Jackson County and the Blue Country—that region where the Blue River and Little Blue River flowed into the Missouri—was opened for business.
South of where the Blue River emptied into the Missouri a cluster of cabins emerged. The currents at Kaw Point prevented steamboats proceeding up river, so for some time this was the furthest travelers could travel the Missouri before disembarking. For some, it was a good place to settle. In addition to the farmers, merchants and traders opened shop near the river landing, smiths, coopers, wainwrights. In the spring of 1827 the settlers met and adopted the name Independence. The government in Jeff City accepted Independence as county seat and it became a both a destination, a way station, and a launching point for trains of pioneers headed for the west coast or traders importing from the Spanish post at Santa Fe.
Some of the settlers arriving in Independence from western Virginia gravitated south and east to the Sni-A-Bar Township. (No one really knows what Sni-A-Bar means. There is speculation it has something to do with an early French designation for a peculiar feature of a local creek. It’s an enduring mystery hardly anyone cares about.) The house on the hill sits in Sni-A-Bar Township.
Here in Sni-A-Bar Old Man Burrus built his grist mill where the springs burbled up from a hillside en route to the Little Blue. Here Effie Harris and her boy Jessie planted the walnut and black locust saplings she had transplanted from Virginia. Here Doc Smith opened a post office and called it Blue Springs. The settlers clung to their Southern way of life, clung to their peculiar institution, and when Lincoln sent an army to arrest the Missouri legislature lest they secede, the women of Little Dixie sent husbands and sons to wield the Stars & Bars.
The house was built a century later, in the wake of a different psyche-jarring war that shaped a generation suckled on grapes of wrath to quench their dust bowl parch. The center of town had moved closer, by then, and the undulating hills were wrapped within acres of split-log fences behind stately Victorian homes. Some developer got his hands on those hills, bulldozed streets into the slopes, and put returning vets to work building homes between the roads. The entire world changed in the wake of the Second World War and we in the United States shifted unalterably from an economy 80% rural and agrarian to one where 80% clustered around urban centers working industrial, manufacturing jobs. Those jobs let young vets buy the homes on the hills, marry their high school sweethearts, raise families, and retire with pensions. It was a good time to be part of the working class.
Now the Greatest Generation is dying and their grandchildren don’t want their little pink houses.
The neighborhood is about 70 years old, now. Fewer and fewer of the original owners still live here—or anywhere for that matter. Many of the other homes are rental properties, judging by the frequency they change inhabitants. Others house couples or small families. It’s a constantly changing organism. Upwardly mobile families and those who outgrow the small houses might move into larger, newer homes and resell to a younger couple ready for a starter home. Others might hunker down as their house decays around them. A certain number are always over their heads.
On Tuesday a half-ton pickup parked in front of the house. The truck dragged a long, flatbed trailer behind it, the trailer sided with removable meshed sections of gating. It was a custom assembly, nothing from a factory, something someone had done himself or hired out to a buddy with a welding machine when he needed special equipment for a small business venture. The frame had been painted a generic bright yellow, after sections of three-inch square steel were welded to secure the gate sections. These had been painted black at one time, though it was long enough ago the black was faded and dirty and chipped. That and an LLC logo custom-painted on the truck’s door suggests the driver has been doing this a while.
“This” is removing personal property from real property sites. Acme Property Removal & Salvage. Cartoon drawing of a coyote driving off a truckload of roadrunners. There are dozens of reasons someone might abandon possessions. They are all tinged with tragedy.
For months the house has set empty. From time to time a new notice appears on the door. Foreclosure. Eviction. Posted. No trespassing. Auction, steps of the Jackson County Courthouse.
This particular afternoon couple of workers moved through the open garage into the house carrying out cribs and chairs and dryers and wardrobes and chests-of-drawers and headboards and tables, a bag of hopes, a box of dreams, and a squeaky rocking horse that seemed to quiver forever inside its new corral of faded black steel mesh as the thirty-something man and woman somberly dragged the detritus of another couple’s life and packed it on their trailer. It’s a living. Scavengers sweeping in to pick the scraps of flesh from off dead bones. There’s no more blame than there is in maggots and turkey buzzards clearing away the world’s rot. Somebody has to do it. Callin’ it your job don’t make it right, Boss.
Somebody’s got to do it. Profiting off the misery of others. It’s not like Mr. Acme sold the last homeowner a mortgage he couldn’t afford or fired him or caused the illness that cost so much he couldn’t pay his other bills. Any more than I’m forcing some campesino to sell his beans at an unsustainable price so I can enjoy a cheap cup of coffee … Everything’s connected, and there’s blood on all our hands.
I read recently about a study that determined close to half of us in the United States could not scrape together $400 in an emergency. We’ve come a long way from that worker with a high school diploma supporting a family on a single income.
Outside it’s America.