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ETHNONYM: Hillbillies


Identification. The Ozarks is a geographical-cultural region in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas in the United States. The residents of the region have traditionally viewed themselves and have been viewed by outsiders as forming a distinct culture based on self-identity as "Ozarkers," a rural life-style, descent from immigrants from southern Appalachia, and a generally traditional-Conservative outlook. Since the end of World War II, the region has experienced considerable population and economic expansion, and the traditional way of life is no longer as common or as obvious as in the past. A notable current feature of the population is that it is divided between "traditionalists" who resist externally imposed change and "progressives" who encourage such change. For all Ozarkers, Ozark identity is traced patrilineallyif one's father is a native-born Ozarker, one is then an Ozarker; otherwise one is an outsider or a "furriner." In general, this summary focuses on the traditional way of life.

Location. The Ozark region covers some sixty thousand square miles, primarily in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, and small sections of eastern Kansas and Missouri. The region is roughly bounded by the Missouri River on the north, the Mississippi River on the east, the Arkansas River on the south and the Grand River on the west. It is an upland plateau covered by a mix of hills, valleys, grasslands, and Forests. Running roughly north to south and west to east, the Region can be subdivided into a number of geographical zones: Missouri River Border, Osage-Gasconade Hills, St. Francis Mountains, Courtois Hills, Central Plateau, Springfield Plain, White River Hills, and Boston Mountains. The region is largely rural, with urban centers at Jefferson City, Springfield, and Joplin, Missouri, and Fayettville, Arkansas. Average winter temperatures range from 30° to 40° F and summer temperatures from 70° to 75° F. Average annual Precipitation is about forty inches.

Demography. The population of the Ozark region is about 2 million, which represents a tenfold increase since 1850. Since the mid-1960s the region has experienced rapid population growth at a rate about three times above the national average. Most of the growth is attributable to inmigration. Since the turn of the century, population shifts have resulted in a number of urbanized settlements near major lakes, existing cities, and transportation routes.

Linguistic Affiliation. Residents of the Ozarks speak a Regional dialect of American English, classified as South Midland English or as Northern Midland English in the northernmost sections. Use of regional or local dialect words and colloquial expressions is an important marker of Ozark identity.

History and Cultural Relations

The first inhabitants of the Ozarks were the ancestors of Contemporary American Indians who arrived in the region as long as twelve thousand years ago. At the time of European contact, the major Indian groups in the region were Osage, Illinois, Missouri, and Caddo, all of whom eventually ceded their lands and moved west. At later dates Kickapoo and Cherokee occupied western areas of the region, although they, too, eventually settled in Oklahoma. The first Europeans were the Spanish in the mid-1500s, but the area was not settled until the French established Ste. Genevieve in 1735, followed by other French settlements in the eastern Ozarks. It was not until after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 that largescale immigration and settlement began. Many of these settlers were native-born Americans of Scots-Irish ancestry who migrated west from Kentucky and Tennessee and the Appalachian region in general. Wealthier migrants settled in the border areas; others, in the interior regions where the soil was poor and land cheaper. The population of the Ozarks was eventually dominated by these settlers, producing an Ozark regional culture similar in many ways to the Appalachian regional culture.

Although the Ozarks is thought of and is largely populated by Whites of British ancestry, other groups also have settled there. In the north are a number of German communities, and there are an identifiable population of African-American Ozarkers (many of whose ancestors entered the Region during the first years of settlement), a few Italian and Swedish communities, and, in the last 20 years, some Amish and Mennonite communities.


The traditional settlement pattern was of isolated family farms located on what seemed to be the best farmland available. In recent years, there has been a clear pattern of movement to towns and cities along transportation routes, leading to the appearance of eight primary regional centers: Jefferson City, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluff, Springfield, Joplin, Northwest Arkansas City, and Batesville. Three house types predominate throughout the Ozarks. Shacks are found mainly in rural, undeveloped areas; two-story houses predominate in the northern and west-central areas; and contemporary-style houses are found in areas of recent development or growth. Trailers have become common in recent years, especially as a means of establishing a second home in the rural areas. The one-room schoolhouse is now all but extinct. Traditionalists tend to live in the rural, more heavily forested areas, in isolated valleys, and in culturally defined traditional neighborhoods in larger towns.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The economy of the first generation or two of settlers was essentially Subsistence farming and herding with maize, wheat, tobacco, and hemp the major crops and pigs and sheep the major livestock. By the close of the 1800s, subsistence farming had given way to general farming, which rapidly declined after 1930, being replaced, in part, by more specialized farming such as dairy and fruit farming and livestock raising. Other major industries are mining (iron, lead, zinc, barite), lumbering, recreation, tourism, and various service and transportation industries. Agriculture is now a part-time activity for most Ozark residents who continue to farm. With poverty still a problem in some rural areas and in some cities, government assistance is a source of income for some families.

Industrial Arts. The production and repair of all material objects needed for the family farm was a major activity for both men and women in the past and reflected the core value of self-reliance. Although many of these crafts have fallen into disuse, the methods and designs have been kept alive through organized efforts such as the Bittersweet magazine and book series and regional Ozark cultural centers.

Division of Labor. The division of labor by sex was clearly marked, with much of women's work restricted to women, but men's work open to both sexes. Women's work included most domestic chores as well as employment outside the home. Men's work included planting and harvesting the fields, tending the livestock, cutting and hauling wood and ice, hunting, distilling whiskey, and employment outside the home. Hunting and fishing are important male activities.

Land Tenure. Ownership of land was and remains an important source of Ozark identity and status. Since inmigration has increased, land prices have increased, too, making the sale of land an important source of income for some families.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Kinship. Although the nuclear family is the basic domestic and residential unit and Ozarkers share a sense of Ozark identity, their ties to the bilateral kinship network integrate individuals into the community. Children are taught their family genealogies, and individuals place considerable importance on being descendants of native Ozarkers. Kin terms follow the typical North American system, although children sometimes identify themselves to others as the son or daughter of "so-and-so."

Marriage and Family. Marriage in the past usually followed dating in the context of group activities. Today, Courtship and marriage practices are typical of those in mainstream America. Marriage was seen as a partnership, with the husband and wife each taking responsibility for culturally defined male and female tasks. Postmarital residence was neolocal, although the couple might reside with one set of parents or the other until they could afford a home of their own. Men and women spent little time together, given the rigid division of labor by sex and the common practice of men socializing with other men at the country store or blacksmith's shop.

Socialization. The home, the church, and organized group activities were the major arenas for socialization. The extended kin network often played a central role in child rearing and education. Until fairly recently, formal education and Especially college education were resisted by many.

Sociopolitical Organization

The key social distinctions are between Ozarkers and outsiders and between traditional and progressive Ozarkers. Other distinctions are based on wealth, rural versus urban residence (which is related to traditional versus progressive), and possession of traditional knowledge and skills. Whatever their political party affiliation, Ozarkers have a reputation for being on the conservative side of the issues. Traditionalists believe that local problems should be dealt with in accordance with local beliefs and customs. To some extent, this is made possible by the relative isolation of some communities and the use of local police officers.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religion occupies a central place in Ozark life. Protestantism is the major religion, with traditionalists generally belonging to the more fundamentalist denominations such as the Church of Christ or Baptist church and progressives belonging to the Presbyterian, Episcopal, or Methodist denominations. For traditionalists church attendance and church-sponsored events are of considerable importance. Beyond the services that often involve group singing and emotional displays, camp meetings, outdoor baptisms, Community suppers, picnics, and other church events provide an opportunity for social interaction and the reinforcement of Ozark beliefs and customs.

Arts. Music and dancing are central features of Ozark life. Children routinely attend singing classes, singing is a basic component of church services, dulcimer making and playing have undergone a recent revival, and bluegrass music and square dancing are common entertainments. Some utilitarian crafts such as rug making and quilting have been reborn as art forms for personal enjoyment and the craft trade.

Medicine. Although most Ozarkers have access to and use modern medical care, there was a rich folk pharmacopeia of herbal and vegetable oils, tonics, and potions to treat most ailments. Traditionally, the midwife was a person of considerable importance in the community.

Death and Afterlife. In the past, all activities concerning death and preparation for burial took place in the home of the deceased. Today, these matters are left to funeral homes and their directors, though the tradition of neighbors cooking a midday meal for the relatives on the day of the burial continues. In the past, widows were forbidden to remarry for one year.


Gerlach, Russel L. (1976). Immigrants in the Ozarks: A Study in Ethnic Geography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Gilmore, Robert K. (1984). Ozark Baptisms, Hangings, and Other Diversions: Theatrical Folkways of Rural Missouri, 1885-1910. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Martin, Gladys, and Donnis Martin (1972). Ozark Idyll: Life at the Turn of the Century in the Missouri Ozarks. Point Lookout, Mo.: School of the Ozarks Press.

Massey, Ellen G., ed. (1978). Bittersweet Country. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books.

Morgan, Gordon D. (1973). Black Hillbillies of the Arkansas Ozarks. Fayetteville: Department of Sociology, University of Arkansas.

Rafferty, Milton D. (1980). The Ozarks: Land and Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.