A large tract of land including what is now Northwest Arkansas was for a time the hunting grounds of the Osage Indians. Later it was the home of the Cherokee on their forced move westward. In an effort to keep the peace between the tribes, land purchases were made and boundaries redrawn. But the settlers and politicians of the Arkansas Territory wanted the fertile valleys and timbered lands for themselves.
In the 1820s the Arkansas Territorial government opened the lands to white settlement. Meanwhile the Federal government passed laws to keep them closed. Throughout this wrangling, folks came, joining the squatters who had come earlier. All homesteaded under the sometimes realized threat of eviction. But by 1829 the land was opened officially for settlement.
These early settlers were hardy, adventurous, and smart. They knew how to clear land, grow crops, make and repair tools, preserve food, construct buildings, weave cloth, sew clothing, care for livestock, and doctor themselves. The work was hard, but the rewards were great—independence, a new beginning, and a plot of land to call their own.
They came in ox-drawn wagons, bringing with them the things they needed to begin a new life. Tools, housewares, furniture, clothing and linens, livestock, seeds, and treasured heirlooms were carefully chosen. They traveled as far as the river could take them and then journeyed overland to reach their new home, hacking out paths through forested mountains and valleys or following rough military roads. Not all settlers came of their own free will. Some were enslaved Africans and African Americans. They too played a large role in settling the Ozarks.
The first settlers chose the best property—flat, fertile bottom lands or prairies near a river or spring, but within easy reach of the forest. James Preston Neal was nine years old when his family traveled from Kentucky to Cane Hill (Washington County) in 1829. His stepfather, the Reverend Andrew “Uncle Buck” Buchanan, spied a nice piece of land with a spring on it, only to find that it was already claimed. The hunter who had the property offered to give it to Uncle Buck provided two conditions were met. First, that the hunter could find another good spring for himself, and second, that Uncle Buck would preach two good sermons. The deal was made.
Folks with money bought “improved” lands, cleared and ready for farming, or unimproved government land at a lower price. Those without money became squatters, taking over a piece of land, improving it, and hoping to someday buy it outright. Sometimes claim jumpers bought their land, forcing the squatters to buy it back or move on. Later on, the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed many U.S. citizens the right to claim 160 acres of public land provided they began living on it and improving it within six months. After five years, if they had met the improvement requirements, they received title to the land.
Settlers came with their extended family or joined relatives already on the frontier. It was more important to settle near kinfolk than on the best available land. Kin could help with big chores like clearing land or harvesting crops as well as aid families in overcoming hardships. Early farm families were often large in number to help with the heavy workload. And chores couldn’t wait. Crops had to be planted, food harvested, and cows milked at the proper time.
Over the years change came to Northwest Arkansas. Communities grew, businesses started, transportation improved, labor-saving tools were invented, educational opportunities expanded, and new folks came from the North or from overseas. But the area remained largely rural and agricultural well into the 20th century. Families stayed together, farming the same land as their ancestors and taking pride in their self-reliance and self-sufficiency. The land was theirs and they knew how to live on it.