Deep River: A Memoir of a Missouri Farm

Deep River: A Memoir of a Missouri Farm

by David Hamilton


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Deep River uncovers the layers of history—both personal and regional—that have accumulated on a river-bottom farm in west-central Missouri. This land was part of a late frontier, passed over, then developed through the middle of the last century as the author's father and uncle cleared a portion of it and established their farm.

Hamilton traces the generations of Native Americans, frontiersmen, settlers, and farmers who lived on and alongside the bottomland over the past two centuries. It was a region fought over by Union militia and Confederate bushwhackers, as well as by their respective armies; an area that invited speculation and the establishment of several small towns, both before and after the Civil War; land on which the Missouri Indians made their long last stand, less as a military force than as a settlement and civilization; land that attracted French explorers, the first Europeans to encounter the Missouris and their relatives, the Ioways, Otoes, and Osage, a century before Lewis and Clark. It is land with a long history of occupation and use, extending millennia before the Missouris. Most recently it was briefly and intensively receptive to farming before being restored in large part as state-managed wetlands.

Deep River is composed of four sections, each exploring aspects of the farm and its neighborhood. While the family story remains central to each, slavery and the Civil War in the nineteenth century and Native American history in the centuries before that become major themes as well. The resulting portrait is both personal memoir and informal history, brought up from layers of time, the compound of which forms an emblematic American story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826220356
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 13 Years

About the Author

David Hamilton is Professor of English at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He is the editor of the Iowa Review and Hard Choices: An Iowa Review Reader.

Read an Excerpt

Deep River

A Memoir of a Missouri Farm

By David Hamilton

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2001 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-7167-9


In the Bottoms


Long views have long moved me. Their pull goes back to very early memories, such as one of a new red tractor, in a dark, close basement, and my spending hours at its wheel, steering it into the blank of a wall that stood like all opportunity dead ahead. The Second World War had ended, and the Korean War was about to begin. Intimations of conflict were everywhere, as were memories of loss and deprivation. At eight or nine, I was too young and distant from crises to have specific knowledge of them, much less to gauge their meaning, though I heard my grandmother, with whom we lived, caution me again and again to be thankful for the food I had. And in our basement, all that winter, I harvested for others from my station on our new tractor.

Equipment was hard to come by at the end of one war and shortly before the next. My father and uncle had been fortunate to have purchased a repossessed Massey-Harris. Bright red, it had been brought into our basement until spring to protect it from the weather and to lessen the envy of neighbors. Old whitewash flaked from those walls. Hand tools and odd pieces of lumber leaned against them. One bare forty-watt bulb dangled from an overhead fixture and threw dull illumination on the wall in front of me.

It was my small theater of possibility as one winter afternoon after another, after walking home from school, I went downstairs, climbed into the tractor's seat, and steered toward that imaginary horizon. The only window was high, small, and behind me to the wintry north. A gray wash of shadow surrounded my play. But for me, that gloomy wall opened to a sunswept expanse of grain. I worked long rolling fields, under sky blue to the horizon, with wheat spreading on all sides like my expectation of summer. I thought it heroic to bring all that grain to harvest. On that tractor, I farmed more acreage than my family would ever know, and night after night, my mother had to call and call again to tell me to turn out the light and come upstairs for supper.

We were a brand-new farm family. We had moved to Missouri just the year before so my father could farm with his brother. The two men had grown up on a Missouri farm, and now in ripe middle age, they were returning to work they had known. All my knowledge of farming then came from a children's book in which the words were few and the pictures vivid as Farmer Brown honored his seasons, plowing, disking, planting, cultivating, harvesting, and plowing again. I learned to read that book before I could read, but I knew the words and so sat and turned the pages and "read" it to my younger brother, George.

As years passed, that relationship more or less reversed itself, at least with respect to farming, which is one reason why I was with George in his pickup one summer afternoon not long ago as we drove up on and turned down a levee where the ruts thinned out like time. It was a section of levee within the Grand Pass Wildlife Area that we were not supposed to be on, except perhaps on foot. Nevertheless George drove south about "half a quarter," as our uncle would have said, and stopped. No continuous forward progress was possible. Soon the tracks would end and we'd have to back out. One of nine ponds dredged in the bottoms to attract migrating waterfowl, and their hunters, lay before us; another lay off in the middle distance on my right. There was not much action in the glare of a sunny afternoon though several red-winged blackbirds held forth among the cattails. Then George glanced in his rearview mirror and said, "Here comes trouble."

Another pickup had pulled up on the levee behind us, that half a quarter back, and stopped perpendicular to the levee, blocking our retreat. One young man sat staring from the passenger's side while another sitting on a tool box in the bed leaned back against the cab. The driver got out and walked toward us.

Angular and slender, he wore boots, jeans, a short-sleeved shirt, shades, and a wide-brimmed hat. A holster and gun would have completed the outfit of a western lawman, and he was law of a sort. He worked for the Missouri Department of Conservation, which managed the wildlife area. He probably had a gun in his truck, as George has had from time to time in his glove compartment. We watched him saunter our way; not yet thirty, he could have been the son of either one of us.

"Afternoon, George. What ya-all doing down here?" The man leaned on our truck by George's window.

"Oh, just looking around. How're you, Raymond?" George looked as if winter were closing in and he knew he'd have to endure it.

"You know you're not supposed to be down here, don't you?"

"Yeah, we know. You just pull aside and we'll back on out."

There was some silence after that. Raymond's options were more numerous than the one George had suggested. George kept his seat, his hefty, work-strengthened arms resting on the wheel, his weathered face and obsidian eyes turned fully on Raymond. Perhaps his manner alone would provide the needed instruction. "All right," Raymond finally said, "but ya-all keep on out of here; we don't want any trouble." George's smile softened as he agreed, "No, we don't," and stared the agent back toward his truck. He admitted that he'd thought of several excuses, half-reasonable ones too, inspecting the levee for the levee district for example, but had thought, why fake it? Meanwhile, Raymond pulled aside, and we backed out of and off the levee with the MDC workers following behind our plume of dust to see that we got in no more trouble.

"Levee," by the way, is a curious word. From the French lever, it has to do with "raising" something. We levy a tax. We construct a levee, an embankment to contain a flooding river, from a tax so raised. A French monarch would hold a levé, or reception, on rising from his bed. All these meanings negotiate between elements not on a level, maintaining one of them at an advantage with respect to the other. At the same time the word both looks and sounds like "level," as if all were on a level, and the levee itself looks as level as a train tracing the course of a river.

A levee, then, marks a line of contact between forces we'd like to keep at ease with each other but cannot always. It can denote democracy, even egalitarian ideals, snaking through the bottoms as farmer joins farmer in their mutual struggle with the river; or it can suggest something rather more autocratic as was the case that afternoon when our neighborhood's century-long attempt to keep farmland just above river level was giving way to measures to leverage us out of the district.

For the Grand Pass Wildlife Area has taken over several former farms, all of which had been wetlands before becoming farms in this century. Of the ten thousand acres once under cultivation in the Van Meter and Tetesaw Levee Districts, almost half now belong to the wildlife area as farmland returns to managed land for the sake of wild things (and their hunters). All but a scrap of our family farm was the MDC's most recent acquisition, our land a peninsula jutting into acreage brought earlier under their control.

Our father and uncle had bought the land when George and I were boys. They bought it cheap because, if it were to be farmed, most of it had to be cleared. Finding changes advisable in their lives, they made a farm that soon supported their two families, then George's family when he joined them in the late sixties. A decade later, George had taken it all over, and it had fallen to him to oversee support of our aging parents and aunt and uncle and, later, to negotiate the sale.

From most points of view, returning bottomland to a near-wild state would seem a fine thing. George too had started as an admirer of the project as it grew up around us. But as the MDC dredged channels and ponds into the land they held and pumped river water in as refuge for migrating coots, teals, geese, and ducks, they raised the water table in our fields too, which made working them difficult. George weathered five years of faltering negotiations with persons who portrayed themselves expertly as deaf to his concerns.

When the MDC first settled in as neighbors, workers at the reserve had given George run of the place and even keys to barriers chained across its roadways. They admired his knowledge of waterfowl and his interest in all things out-of-doors. George has a degree in botany, likes to hunt ducks himself, can recognize nearly all their varieties on the wing and a whole lot of trees, weeds, shrubs, and wildflowers without having to walk up close. But as it got harder for George to farm, the MDC resisted any suggestion that their activity was affecting us. When George became convinced that the state meant to coax us beyond a statute of limitations and then have us at their mercy, he sued for their "taking" of our land without condemning it. "Inverse condemnation" is the term. A year later we settled. Now he was unwelcome on land that he had prowled for over forty years and in a position to be run off it by hirelings of a bureaucracy with which he had done battle.

These are not tragic events. In the long view, the reclamation of wetlands by the state can hardly be a bad thing no matter how clumsy or aggressive their taking. Moreover, we sold the year after the "500-year" flood of 1993. Our farm had been completely flooded and all our crops lost. Prices in the bottoms had faltered. But since the MDC wanted our peninsula badly and George had dragged them toward court, they found it harder to wait us out and so bought at a price that most would say was to our advantage.

Unhappy memories remained, though, so while I joked with George that he should set up a honky-tonk on the lousy thirty acres the MDC had not wanted and blast its sloughs with rock music on those cold autumn mornings when hunters, having just drawn assignments to ponds one through nine, snuck out before dawn to their camouflaged blinds, he daydreamed of buying more bottomland downriver and confronting the state again as a battle-hardened neighbor.

Grand Pass

Named for a narrow pass between Salt Fork and lakes in the bottoms. Old Osage Trail followed this divide, or pass. —Place Name Study by Miss Nadine Pace

Before that afternoon on the levee, and knowing that our time was running out, I had begun returning to the farm more often. Once, driving in midwinter with the snow-covered fields shining like heavy cream in the late afternoon, and racing sundown, I swung west through broad bottoms that brought me to the river and the bluff at Waverly then east again across what was once prairie. The hazed-over sun glittered in my rearview mirror. The sky was gray white, and against the clouds I saw wisps of scriggling lines, what seemed like smoke threads blowing out and sagging back against each other, more and more of them appearing on the horizon as long strings of geese came over the rises one after another. The slower beat of their wings gave them away as geese, not ducks. They landed and wheeled up again, like a great waterspout or a slow cyclone. Thousands of snow geese, blue, white, and a milky gray. Those geese didn't insist on landing in a conservation area. They'd found fallen corn in a farmer's field and were taking advantage of it. There would be little volunteer corn in that field the following season.

My turnoff followed soon. I turned north, along a town street. "Village" is not a colloquial word here; we have small and smaller towns. "Village" has been reserved for Indian settlements even though they were often larger and inhabited much longer than any of our small towns. And of that we may be suspicious. "Village" was colloquial, at least in print, a century ago. The small newspapers of the county would mention "the Village of Grand Pass" or Miami. That no longer happens, however, and whether it ever was on the tongue I cannot say; I have never heard it.

The street ran downhill, back into the bottoms, but I went no farther than their edge then wheeled around in a U-turn and pulled up to a green sign, "Grand Pass, pop. 53." A red pickup had pulled out from a lane above and started to follow me into the bottoms. As I stopped, it paused, pulled over to the side of the road halfway down the bluff, and its lights went off. Its driver remained inside. A stranger, in an out-of-state car, I stood half a quarter away, not surprised. Nor was I alarmed, though I took for granted a gun rack and rifle. I'd given him small cause and trusted I would add nothing to that. We were long past the era of bushwhackers. I'd just come to check on something and might even touch his civic pride. Besides, as he would notice, I'm white, which is a detail I'm apt to forget since it weighs on me little. But I was multiplying my assumptions. Had I been black, he'd probably still have sat, waited, and watched me out. But probably too he'd have been a bit more on edge, as he was literally now, parked on the side of the steep bluff, the nose of his truck tilted sharply downhill, the shadows welling up from beneath it.

But it was late, and I could hardly make out the sign hanging from a small, square shelter house that roofed a pump. It was an old farmhouse pump with an iron handle you lifted and pushed down. The citizens of Grand Pass had improved their spring. A tin cup hung from the pump handle. A wooden sign, with well-crafted letters, etched but fading, read "Everlasting Spring"—

Ye Who Drink
From The Spring
Shall Return
To Drink Again.

A great many of those who did, did not. Grand Pass, named both for an upland ridge that allowed passage between Salt Fork Creek and the river bottom and for the grand passes of waterfowl that twice annually visited the lakes and marshes in the bottoms and so inspired the development of the wildlife area, was an early stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Here it angled down off the upland prairie, the "prayer" as old-timers called it. "Come in off the prayer," they said. Travelers stopped to rest their horses, their oxen, and themselves and to drink at the spring before moving back out onto the "prayer."

Crossing to the south side of the river at a ford near Arrow Rock, the Santa Fe Trail followed the old Osage Trail to Grand Pass, making a short cut of about fifty miles under the Big Bend of the Missouri on a southeast-northwest pass across Saline County, which itself is about the size of Rhode Island. After Marshall claimed the county seat in 1839, the trail angled farther south to take it in too as Marshall became the radial center and newer roads overran the old trails. But for many years the Santa Fe Trail served as a cross-county highway; farmers worked their ox-drawn wagons along it, carrying grain to a mill on Salt Fork. In a couple of days they could make the twenty or so miles from farms on the north edge of the county to the mill near Napton. There they might be stopped for a day or two waiting their turn. It was a time to catch up on what was happening in Arrow Rock, downriver near the southeast corner of the county, or Sweet Springs around to the southwest, or in Miami, Malta Bend, Laynesville, or Grand Pass, small towns strung along the river as it skirted our district.

From Grand Pass, as I walk downstream along the levee, a broad alluvial floodplain swells on my right. A corresponding bottom spreads from the left bank, though I cannot see much of it because of the timber, mostly cottonwood and willow, that lines both sides. Once glacial melt lapped up on the loess bluffs that bordered the bottoms at widths of ten miles or more. The bluffs and the plains beyond them arose as wind lifted dust off old riverbeds and deposited it farther away. Over eons the silt the water carried, rockless and fertile, settled to the bottom of the river and when the river receded became bottomland. Then during the dry seasons, some of that dirt blew up on and added to the adjacent hills and plains.

The first white settlers carved out patches in the timber that had once covered the bottoms. They had found their way by following the river upstream, and they assumed, rightly, that the abundant forest proved the land fertile. They assumed wrongly that the upland plains, with few and scattered trees, were infertile in spite of the long prairie grass and the wildflowers. It would take a generation to correct that error. Then farms spread all over the plains; and the bottoms, with their timber, their marshes and swags, their mosquitoes and malaria—"autumnal fever" in early accounts—were mostly abandoned. Only after farmers had claimed all the upland were the bottoms reentered and cleared.

So my father and uncle participated in developing a late and bypassed American frontier. Midcentury advances in agriculture, Cold War competition with Soviet five-year plans, pressures of their own midlives, and a war-bred policy of hoarding grain all combined to spur them on. Today with more conserving attitudes in the ascendant, especially toward wetlands, rivers, and streams, that bottomland is being withdrawn from agriculture about as rapidly as farmers once cleared it. It was a good farm though, fortunate land to farm, about as good as the earth provides.


Excerpted from Deep River by David Hamilton. Copyright © 2001 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Laces, an Introduction1
I.In the Bottoms5
Grand Pass
Underlined Passages in My Father's Walden
The Bottoms
To Clear
Winter Onions
II.Hanging Mart Rider38
Dark Cloud
Coon Hollow
Frank James
Dr. John Benson
A Man
Judge Lynch
Mart Rider
"Why, Mrs. Hamilton!"
The Hatchet
III.The Missouri Princess and Petit Missouri85
One Boy
People of the Canoe
Our Discipline
Jim Duncan Wading
The Miamis
The Old Fort
IV.Mother, Father, Farm120
The Miami Mastodon
Chicago Women
The Bridge
Mother and Her Boats
Chartreuse Sails
River Horse
Deep River, a Conclusion161
Bibliographical Appendix165

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