History of Iron County, Missouri

History of Iron County, Missouri

The geological area that Iron County is in the midst of is known as the St. Francois Mountains. In fact, the Ozark Highland is the oldest mountain range on our continent - its age estimated in the billions of years. This area also has the only mountain range which runs roughly east to west.

When the white men came to the area, drawn largely by mining possibilities, there were many Indians, but none seemed to have permanent homes. The Osage Indians had historically "owned" southern Missouri and some of today's roads follow their ancient trails. One in particular, Springfield Road, ran from near Springfield to St. Louis, and traversed the northern part of Iron County. By 1800 the eastern Indians were moving to this country. Members of the Algonquin tribes; the Delaware, Shawnee, Piankasha, Miami and Peoria came challenging the Osage dominion. These were the Indians the white men found here.

It seems the Delaware Indians came from the Ste. Genevieve area in the summer, and enjoyed the springs, made their arrowheads and hunted. As late as 1819 it was noted that there was an Indian village at the foot of Pilot Knob. Many people in Iron County trace their ancestors to Cherokees who came through here on the infamous Trail of Tears trek, taking the Cherokees to Oklahoma.

Many arrowheads and tools have been found on the farms. There were worship centers along the creeks. In Houck's History of Missouri, there is a rundown of 336 Indian mounds found in Iron County.

Soon the Indians were being moved farther west, and what we have left are the legends of Mini Sauk and Tom Sauk - the story of the beautiful Indian maiden who wouldn't leave her lover.

The first white settlers came quite early. No one seems to know what brought them here. It was before the Louisiana Purchase and the land was not surveyed, or open to purchase.

William and Joseph Reed settled in Belleview Valley in 1798, John Miller and James George settled on Marble Creek in 1800, and the same year David Shaver, Andrew Wallace and Major McFadden came to Des Arc (originally called Shavertown). Evidently, no one came to the Arcadia Valley area until Ephraim Stout moved up from Wayne County (where he had a Spanish land grant) and settled on the creek named for him in 1805. Others came shortly - including Looney Sharp and James Brown.

Stout's cabin stood near where the Arcadia Railroad Depot stood. He sold his land to Josias Berryman in 1825.

Looney Sharp and his two sons built a cabin near the Indian trail just east of the Knights of Pythias Cemetery and another some distance to the south close to a large spring not far from the old cabin the Russell's came to when they arrived from the east. James (Jim) Brown built a cabin by "Grant's Spring", in south Ironton.

Cyrus Russell, his wife and nine children and one nephew arrived on May 18, 1838 from Somers, Connecticut, after a long trip by wagon and boat by way of New Tennessee (on the Mississippi). There were only a few other families in the valley. In 1843 Cyrus built his home and it still stands today. There were no stores. For several years supplies were brought in from the east, and members of the family returned to the east for supplies and wives.

H.N. Tong and David Carson ran a store at the eastern base of Shepherd Mountain in what was known as Shepherd Valley. They purchased land from the Russell's and A. B. Guild had it surveyed into a town and called it Ironton. Iron County was established on February 17, 1857 by a special act of the Missouri Legislature - at the request of C.C. Ziegler, James Lindsay and John Polk. Iron County was formed from parts of Dent, Washington, Wayne, St. Francois, Madison and Reynolds Counties. A county seat was not determined on the first ballot, Ironton was chosen as the county seat on the second ballot.

The St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad to Pilot Knob was completed in 1857. The Pilot Knob Iron Company had hauled the iron ore over the plank road to Ste. Genevieve up to this time. Great wagons pulled by oxen kept the road busy. The drovers made the trip one way in two days. After the railroad came, the job of cutting wood and making charcoal for the engines became a big business. The mining company bought many acres of timberland for this purpose. The terminus of the railroad remained at Pilot Knob until 1871.

Missouri ranked only third to the states of Virginia and Tennessee in the number of battles and skirmishes in a single state during the Civil War, and Iron County saw its share of this action. When Fort Sumter was attacked in 1861, some 90-day soldiers came to the valley and set up camp. Federal troops kept Parson Pratte of Gum Springs from taking the town. Martial law was declared and pickets were posted at intersections, and passes had to be obtained to come and go. Troops were encamped on the greater part of the area. Fort Hovey was erected in 1862-63 on "Fort Hill. Communicable diseases were rampant. About 1,000 troops were here and many more arrived by train to be sent south. Pilot Knob was the telegraphic headquarters.

The site for Fort Davidson was to be near the center of the valley where the iron furnace and railroad were located. It was a hexagonal earthwork with a moat around it. An impressive spectacle was the interminable train of supply wagons, each drawn by six mules and guarded by squads of soldiers. Citizens with teams were persuaded to haul supplies.

General Ewing Confederate forces did attack the fort, successfully reaching the moat. Driven back by countless leveled barrels that blazed upon them and the big guns that rained canisters across the field, the Confederates tried two more attacks on the fort that had less than 1,000 men and failed each time. When dusk came and the fighting ceased, the Confederates had suffered more than 1,000 casualties while inflicting less than 100 on the Union forces. Falling back to "lick their wounds", the "rag-tag" forces of General Price decided to wait until the following day to finish off the Union troops in Fort Davidson. General Ewing realized that his small force could not hold out another day. Leaving a detail behind to blow up the powder magazine, Ewing's little army slipped out through Price's surrounding lines and was never challenged as the Confederates apparently mistook them for their own troops in the dark. Although they were pursued the next day, they made good their retreat to Leasburg, then known as Harrison.

The Union forces at Fort Davidson had delayed the Confederate advance on St. Louis enough to allow the Union to throw up a strong defense around St. Louis. Once St. Louis was well defended, it would have been sheer folly for Price to attack it. If Price had taken the advice of General Shelby and bypassed Pilot Knob, going directly to St. Louis, history might have taken a different turn and the Civil War might have been prolonged.

With the exception of a few guerrilla incidents, the fall of 1864 marked the end of major fighting in Iron County. Today, almost anyone in Iron County can point out to tourist's points of interest such as the monument located at the Villa Marie Du Lac in south Ironton. The veterans of Grant's old regiment to commemorate the spot where their Colonel Ulysses S. Grant received official notification of his promotion to Brigadier General erected it in 1886. The Union soldier on top of the monument still stands guard over the spring where Grant drank.

Another point of interest is the Shut-In-Gap; a very beautiful and scenic place where the Confederates first entered the Valley, and a short but hot skirmish ensued with the 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry. Still another point of interest is the old Court House in Ironton where the 47th Missouri and the 14th Iowa troops made a brave stand. The old Court House still has scars from the conflict.

Submitted by Jeanette Henson McClure

Suggested Reading:
The Official Records of the War Of The Rebellion