We can look to March 11, 1833 as the beginnings of the Ozark Mail Trace…aka the Forsyth Road, the Springfield-Carrollton Road, the Wagon Road, the Springfield Road, the Ozark Road and later the Springfield-Harrison Road. The road’s aliases were as notorious as the Baldknobbers who later perched at nearby Murder Rocks.
Greene County, Missouri was established on January 2, 1833 and encompassed much of southwest Missouri at the time. After election of officers in February, the first sessions of the county occurred on March 11-14. Part of that business was the designation of roads and construction plans.
Three main roads were outlined and appropriated. The first was from Springfield to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Another roadway addressed was northward to the Osage River (Boonville Road), and the third to the mouth of the Swan Creek at the White River (Forsyth, Missouri). To the south, Arkansas was bringing a road from Carrollton to Forsyth.
The future roadways built on the success of these first roads as other communities and trading destinations grew. A map of Springfield began to look like the spokes of a pioneer wheel.
The footprint of these roads likely followed previous routes of Native Americans, with a few changes to accommodate mills and trade stops that early pioneers had constructed. Prior to the establishment of Missouri as a state, and a territory for that matter, there were already trails and paths that the future white men would follow in settling the region. The Native Americans had migrated back and forth to various hunting grounds and winter/summer encampments. As treaties moved the tribes further west, some of their trails shifted in accordance with their trade routes with the new white partners.
The Osage Trace is one of the better known Native American trails. And just like our modern highways, those traces had lessor side roads that fed the greater arterial traces. There are two better known trace routes through Missouri. The northern route followed along the Missouri River and is roughly marked by US Highway 24. The Santa Fe Trail would use this same route later. Another route is now followed in approximation by I-44. Tribes were pressed ahead by virtue of treaties and the pioneers filled in the vacancies left, including use of the old traces. The I-44 route became known as Old Wire Road, or sometimes called Telegraph Road, and even Military Road or even a portion going by the name Rolla Road.
Add to the confusion that there was also a Southwest Trail that often carried the moniker of Old Military Road. It also ran out of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers at St Louis and ran south to connect with the Natchitoches Trace that led into Arkansas and then back over into Mississippi. One leg of the Trail of Tears would later follow a portion of this.
The earliest mapping of any of the Ozarks’ traces are seen in Franquelin’s 1684 map of Louisiana (the territory at the time). However, while elegant, the French cartographer’s maps are hardly to scale and created from rudimentary reports given to him during his work in Canada. But they do show trails leading from the mouth of the Arkansas River on the Mississippi up to the mouth of the Osage River on the Missouri. Later travelers would discover a more extensive trail system within the hills and hollows.
Early on that trail for the Osage was the Verdigris-St. Louis trail that ran from the Verdigris River in Oklahoma to St Louis (the tribe’s rendition of I-44). As the westward expansion continued and trading posts moved, the Native American paths shifted. They turned off “I-44” and cut off to the north to head to the Boonville/Jefferson City region…their Hwy 65. Other routes were found in Southwest Missouri following the James River or the Swan.
The roads of the settlers would naturally use those well-known paths. New names would be attached to these trails and the others added to the highway system developing. Which brings us back to the designated road from Springfield to Forsyth.
Now that our interstates crisscross the map, as well as state and county roads, the traces of these old paths and roads are all but unknown or gone completely.
Charting those old roadways and their names provides for a dizzying journey and that is mostly due to the ever-changing landscape of needs, towns and modes of transportation that occurred over a short 50 to 60-year period of the 1800s.
There were no street signs for the early Ozarkian (some of the trails did have markings such as the three notch roads). The names changed with the need. If the decade determined that a road was being used to go to “Tom’s Mill”, it was Tom’s Mill Road. If the next few years it was used to go a little further to Bill’s Mill because the former mill burned, it might have then gone by Bill’s Mill Road.
Our Ozarks’ forefathers pinned Forsyth as a growing trade center for the region as steam boat captains challenged themselves to get farther upstream. Leaders in Springfield and Missouri pushed for monies to help clear the upper White River of obstacles in order to help the steamboats clear the shoals and log jams.
Keel boats were the first to follow the canoes of the Native Americans on the river highways. Robert Fulton’s successes with the steamboat then provided a quicker and more powerful resource to move supplies and men inland. Supply lines ran up and down the Mississippi and moved up the tributaries along its waters. The Arkansas and White Rivers in Arkansas had a growing system of boat landings. And the Missouri River to the north.
But there was still the overland trek to be made to reach into the hills. For the lower Ozarks region, the White River was closer than the Missouri, so this eventually led to the development of the Old Salt Road. But the first routes to Arkansas for southwest Missouri was the Ozark Mail Trace.
So, want to follow the old road? Parts are one of my favorite “Sunday Drives”. A quiet road, and for the careful eye, it provides a view of a wide array of plant species and wildlife as parts cross through the Mark Twain National Forest. Parts are gravel and a local traffic of atvs can be encountered at times.
Coming out of downtown Springfield, the Ozark Mail Trace was the southern route of Jefferson Avenue, while the northern route would later become a road to Jefferson City. Somewhere across Fassnight Creek, the wagon trail took a dogleg to the southeast and my best guess is that it ran by the Sequiota Park area where a mill either existed or did so shortly later. The road then crossed the James River in the vicinity of where 65 Highway now runs, perhaps and probably just east of there. The old Highway 65 bridge that now serves as a footbridge to the Greenway Trails was once part of the Ozark Road around the turn of the century. A marker once stood at the northwest corner of that bridge that marked the “first” mill of Greene County that was operated by a Mr. Ingram (yes, Ingram Mill Road gets its name from that).
Somewhere beneath the backwaters of Lake Springfield and in this area of the crossing was one of the larger springs that could be found. Big Springs, as it was called in the early years, may have provided additional water levels, so a logical ford and/or ferry would have likely existed above those waters rather than below. It is also likely that this is where the community of White Oak Grove grew up around the mill. The community can be found on old maps, but the exact location is unknown other than on the James River crossing of the Ozark Road.
Across the James River Freeway/Hwy 60 East you can catch old Highway 65 that runs parallel with the current highway. This road takes you to Ozark, Missouri (turning into Hwy NN at the first business district of Ozark…Lambert’s Café located nearby). As you head down a hill into Ozark, you can look to the left (east) and turn on McCracken Road and find the location of the historic Ozark Mill. This was the original path of the Ozark Mail Trace and the mill, then known as Hoover’s Mill, was also the original name of the town.
An old iron bridge crosses the Finley River. A covered bridge once stood here. Built in 1870, it was washed away in flooding in 1909. After you cross the river, Finley River Park is found to your left and an old Frisco Railroad caboose marks the spot where the Chadwick Flyer rail line once crossed overhead on its way to the lumber mills at Chadwick, Missouri and then was turned about to head back to Ozark and Springfield.
The road forks here, and a right turn takes you up the hill into Ozark. You’ll see the historic Weaver house to your left just after you pass the fire station and before you reach the intersection of 3rd Street and Business Route 65 (Jackson Street).
The Weavers were an early Ozark family and they had an ownership interest in the mill at one time.
East Jackson Street is easily lost within the bend in the road, traffic lights and the fact that you must proceed past and then backtrack to turn on to the oldest street in town. East Jackson Street is where the Ozark Mail Trace ran out of town and followed Garrison Creek, but now dead ends at Garrison Spring. The spring once supplied early Ozark with its fresh water needs and was likely a stop before heading on out of town. The spring is now on private grounds but is available for viewing by appointment.
To follow the Ozark Mail Trace, you will have to detour off the original path and continue travelling on 3rd Street/Business Route 65. You will pass the historic Ozark downtown and head up a steep hill to reach Highway 14 (the likely reason for the pioneer road taking the easier slope back at Jackson Street).
Turn left on Highway 14 and travel just over a mile to the outskirts of Ozark and turn down Highway W. This roughly begins to follow the path of the Ozark Mail Trace again. You will eventually hit gravel roads in approximately 9 miles as you turn left (east) on Red Bridge Road. This road crosses Bull Creek (thus the red bridge). Just upstream from the bridge was once the settlement of Bulls Mills and the location of a lumber mill and small grist operation (on private land and all that remains of the community is the small cemetery).
From Red Bridge, you continue up the gravel road a couple miles where you will turn right (south) on Hwy H. Another four miles and you will take a quick left on Hodge Hollow Road. This will run you over to State Hwy AA where the community of Swan was located on the banks of Blue Creek, a tributary of Swan Creek. All that remains today is an abandoned church and store (both on private land).
From Swan, the old road had a straight shot to Forsyth along the west banks of Swan Creek. That portion of the road no longer exists, so you can continue south on AA for about five miles until you reach Hwy 76. A right turn (southwest will take you to Forsyth).
Old Forsyth was situated where Shadowrock Park now sits along Hwy 160/76 where Swan Creek meets the White River. Unfortunately, the old log courthouse was taken down in 2018. Historical markers do remain.
The Ozark Mail Trace would have immediately crossed Swan and stayed to its left/west bank (probably a ford crossing as the backwaters of Bull Shoals lake were not there at that time). One of its first stops out of Forsyth would likely have been the Oliver Mill which was one mile north of the old town.