There is a magic in old places, a feeling that betrays their age. We feel it in the air’s scent and the water’s touch, whispers of influence that can penetrate wood, rock, air and mind. It is the magic that makes us uneasy, as if our simple instincts grasp at the inherent danger found in ancient places. And yet what fools we are, ignoring reason and seeking to conquer what is best left alone.
There were fools in the Ozarks long ago. They rode their canoes into the heart of darkness from open plains. In its mountains they found a home full of water, trees, fruits, and beasts. And as they hunted the forests and built their homes, they ignored the shamans who railed against the land. They spoke of the mountains’ unnatural creation. These were not familiar rock giants that grew from the ground in frightening, violent bursts, but strange tombs of the ocean’s displaced inhabitants. They were nothing but sand and time and memories, full of the hate and anger of the forgotten. But in their garden, the early fools disregarded the shamans and gorged themselves off the land. In time they disappeared, a mystery to those unfamiliar with the curse of the ancient. Later Indians grew weary of the place, sticking to its dense edges, peering into the heart of the Ozarks over thick walls of vegetation.
Centuries passed away until the arrival of the white man. They came from the distant sister of the Ozarks, the Appalachians, and so were accustomed to the danger of ancientness. They were brave and arrogant settlers, thinking themselves impervious to the land’s curse as they hobbled over the tortuous landscape on crafted wagons. They would explore on the rivers, marveling at the face-like rock cliffs strewn across the water’s edge like wary sentinels. On the flatter regions of the river banks, they chopped and cleared dark-soiled land to build their farms. It was a man’s work, cutting into the thick trees and pawing at the stubborn undergrowth with worn hands. Even the earth itself was reluctant to let them settle, blocking the hoes and shovels with rocks entrenched in the dirt. After clearing, the settlers’ heavy labor generated little rewards. It was not because the plants wouldn’t grow, but because they grew too well, grew wild even. Instead of producing fruit, the leaves and branches and shoots swelled. Corn stalks grew to unusual heights, tomato trees spread like ivy, and squash vines overran their boundaries. It was after several years of these farming failures that the settlers finally surmised that it was for beasts, not men, that the Ozarks had been created.
Yet the settlers’ pride, mixed with a lust for supremacy, demanded they remain. Instead of cultivating the land, they warred against it. First to suffer were the tall, sturdy trees of oak, pine and cedar that towered over the hills in thick clumps like conspiring giants. They were hacked down by violent strokes of the axe and their mangled and butchered corpses sold to the plains. Next, with shovels, picks and dynamite, the early colonists clawed at the hills’ crust, prying out great heaps of metal. In the earliest days, it was these two industries that ruled the region, but there were few lured in by its lucre. The reason was simple: no man was ever made rich from his labors in the old hills. Outside, the trees sold for a good price, but the Ozarks’ precarious, forested hills prevented the type of easy exporting that fashioned wealth. And as for mining, there was no gold, no silver, no bronze; none of the metals to feed a speculative mind and make a man rich. The Ozarks was more deliberate with its treasures, choosing to store the cruder, wilder and most dangerous metals within its vaults. Some have argued that the lack of gold in the old hills is somewhat of an anomaly considering the nature of the curse of the ancient. They argue that gold, after all, is the center of all conflict. Gold causes men to aspire for wealth, which feeds their greed and turns them desperate and savage until they are drawn into violence. But such circuitous schemes were never in the nature of the Ozarks. Instead, the hills offered more direct metals; iron to make the barrel and lead to fashion the bullet. And these two metals, though valuable for bloodshed, were common enough to the outside world to keep the settlers poor.
Among the first of these stubborn men was one named Jacob Mooney. In 1809, he left the mountains of Kentucky and travelled to what was becoming known as Northern Arkansas. He was spurred on by tales of adventure spread by explorers who had both the perception to recognize the land’s magic and the wisdom to resist settling. In Kentucky, Mooney was a carpenter. His work was excellent, his work ethic less so. Like any true bachelor, he refused to work more than necessary. He was a notorious free sleeper, some nights snuggling up to empty bottles in the dirt and others to unfamiliar breasts in houses of ill-repute. Those days would have lasted forever for Mooney had God in his providence not given him one night with May Phelps. She was 17 at the time, a homely girl of good Christian values who had spent that night with Jacob for reasons unfathomable. Two month later, she stood outside the saloon, waiting nervously to confront her baby’s father. When Mooney stumbled out of the doors, May burst into tears. Staring at this inconsolable girl, Jacob Mooney sobered and made the first of many noble decisions in his life. He married May, quit drinking and determined that he would make a good life for his progeny. His son Aaron was born in Kentucky and before he could walk his father loaded them into a wagon and left for Arkansas.
Jacob made good on his promise to provide for his family. He carved out a piece of land along the White River and in a month’s time had built a one-room log cabin. Those first years on the river banks were years of plenty and of sorrow. Like the other settler’s, Mooney quickly learned that the rocky land was no good for farming. But Jacob was a resourceful man and refused to let the Ozarks force him out. Hearing the tales of the land’s wild nature, he decided to try his hand at wild stock. In Northern Texas he bought a dozen head of cattle and drove them to his land in the mountains. On his farm, the cows wandered contently and grew fat off the thriving grasses. Seeing Mooney’s success emboldened the more rationale settlers to turn from the axe to the ranch. And so a new industry was born, and for the first time in the mountains of the Ozarks there grew success.
As Mooney’s ranch propagated, he sought to increase his progeny. But what the land had given Mooney in wealth it made him pay for in blood. The Mooney’s second child, William, passed away a month after birth. The third child lasted only a few days. During her fourth and final birth, May hemorrhaged. Jesse Mooney’s birth through pools of blood was the prophecy of his life. He would grow strong and wise and respected, he would be his father’s pride, a man dedicated to blood relations. All of Northern Arkansas would know his name, and in the end, Jesse would leave this world the same way he entered it.
Years after May’s death, travelers began to pour through the region. To accommodate the traffic, Jacob built a ferry. It was a profitable business and Mooney and his two boys ran it respectably. They were God-fearing people, and no pilgrims were turned away for want. Jacob Mooney gained a reputation as a Christian man, a wise man, and most importantly, a family man. He was dedicated to his boys, as if their success would compensate for the sins of his youth. While running the ferry, he taught them everything a man should know: how to be honest, how to judge a man, how to hold your ground. But despite the bond, Aaron Mooney ran away at the tender age of 15. Where he went and what kind of man he became, no one knows. Neither Jacob nor Jesse ever spoke of him again.
By 1828, the word had spread of the beauty of the Ozarks and the success of the land’s ranchers. Settlers began to pour into the mountains and the town of Yellville was established, fifteen miles west of the ferry. Other towns began spring into existence and in 1836 Arkansas became a state. That same year the Tutts and Everetts moved to the newly formed Marion County in northern Arkansas. These two families, whose names would become famous across the Ozarks, shared only three commonalities: they were from Virginia, desired power, and had immense potential for violence. The commonalities aside, the two were completely different breeds.
The Tutt clan originated from the mountains of Virginia. Their forefathers, ignoring warnings of Indian dangers, had charged into the wilderness and thrived. But the mountains worked upon them and they became men of the land, self-sufficient, strong, and wild. Yet the Tutt’s were also strangely charismatic. As strangers moved into the now settled region, they were drawn to the Tutt family both by their everyman appearance and their unexplainable sagacity. The Tutt’s were just as approachable as the Lord himself, but seemed to offer more practical advice. With their beards and jokes and homespun knowledge, they seemed sure disciples of “King-Mob,” yet ironically they never accepted Jackson’s party. The Tutt’s saw in Jackson a little of themselves, that old hickory toughness, and the self-portrait must not have been to their liking.
Out of the numerous Tutt families dotting the Virginia Hills, it was only Hansford or “Hamp” Tutt and his four sons, Richard, John, Henry and George that migrated to Arkansas. Rumors were that it was family scandal and contention that prompted the move, but knowing Hamp’s character those rumors must be false. It is not that Hamp was above a fight or ill-reputed behavior. While generally pleasant, he was apt to drink, and the strange effects of alcohol have been documented throughout history. But the rumors must be discounted because Hamp Tutt was a finisher and never left business unsettled. Contention would be fought or else resolved and scandals would be disproved or else atoned. In a way it was one of his most admirable qualities. The real answer as to what drove him and his family from the ancestral hills was something far simpler: wanderlust. In Virginia, Hamp had begun to feel that nostalgic yearning for the days of his forefathers, who had marched undaunted into strange mountains and come off conqueror. Hamp desired his own wilderness, a ground of rebirth to test his mettle and prove worthy of the Tutt heritage. When the Tutts arrived in the Ozarks, they settled a plot of land on the edge of Yellville, just beyond Crooked Creek. The plot was named Tutt Hill and Hamp set out to make himself king of the mountains.
The Everetts came from the city of Fredericksburg, located in Virginia’s Northern regions. They were a gentleman family, at least by American standards. The first Everetts had settled the region by selling tobacco and other crops. But despite their remarkable farming skill, they never made much money in agriculture. They were adamantly opposed to slavery and so never had the man-power to compete with plantations. But God graces his favorites with many gifts, and the Everett’s were religious church-goers. As a reward, they excelled in business, law, politics and just about any field they tried their hand at. It was said in Fredericksburg that if an Everett decided to try his hand at selling horse shit he would still manage to make more money than the Governor. With their religious piety, their abundant wealth, and political power, the Everetts were the center of the town.
The family had plans to bring their money making touch to Fredericksburg by establishing the town as a center for trade. They commissioned the construction of canals, roads, and turnpikes to spur economic growth. Then, in 1832, their ambition heightened as they used political influence to connect Fredericksburg to Richmond by railway. But the railroad push became their downfall. In 1834, the bank war between Jackson and Biddle caused a brief recession that was just long enough to bankrupt the city. The railway expenses became the rallying cry for the Everetts’ opposition and after the 1835 election there was none of the family left in office. Despite the shift in power, many of the Everett clan stayed put, patiently waiting for the wheel to turn. However Bart and his brothers Jesse and Sim were less patient. In 1836 they left to find a home in newly formed Arkansas, certain they could gain influence in the fledgling state.
It was these two families who would center in the coming violence. The feud, which in later years would become known as the Tutt-Everett war, would consume the Ozarks. The cause of the feud has often been debated. There are many who claim it was politics, a battle between Whigs or Democrats for control of the region. Others claim the cause was more akin to classical Greek tales of man’s desire for forbidden women. Both of these factors did exist, but they were only symptoms, not causes. In truth, the violence was a result of the ground, the water, the air and the age of the Ozarks, enacting the same ancient curse it dealt to all foolish trespassers.