Missouri Bootheel

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Missouri Bootheel
Missouri Bootheel locator v1.svg
Location of the bootheel region centered on 36°15′N89°51′W / 36.250°N 89.850°W / 36.250; -89.850 Coordinates: 36°15′N89°51′W / 36.250°N 89.850°W / 36.250; -89.850
  Land1,708.45 sq mi (4,424.9 km2)
 (2019) [2]
  Density36.3/sq mi (14.0/km2)
Topographic map of the bootheel and surrounding areas of Missouri and neighboring states. Missouri Bootheel topo map v1.png
Topographic map of the bootheel and surrounding areas of Missouri and neighboring states.

The Missouri Bootheel is the southeasternmost part of the U.S. state of Missouri, extending south of 36°30′ north latitude, so called because its shape in relation to the rest of the state resembles the heel of a boot. Strictly speaking, it is composed of the counties of Dunklin, New Madrid, and Pemiscot. However, the term is locally used to refer to the entire southeastern lowlands of Missouri located within the Mississippi Embayment, which includes parts of Butler, Mississippi, Ripley, Scott, Stoddard and extreme southern portions of Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties. The largest city in the region is Kennett.


Until the 1920s, the district was a wheat-growing area of family farms. Following the invasion of the boll weevil, which ruined the cotton crop in Arkansas, planters moved in. They bought up the land for conversion to cotton commodity crops, bringing along thousands of sharecroppers. [3] After mechanization of agriculture and other changes in the 1930s, many black families left the area to go North in the Great Migration. These counties have predominantly white populations in the 21st century, although a few have significant minorities of blacks.


When Missouri was admitted to the Union, its original border was proposed as an extension of the 36°30′ parallel north that formed the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. That would have excluded the Bootheel. John Hardeman Walker, a pioneer planter in what is now Pemiscot County, argued that the area had more in common with the Mississippi River towns of Cape Girardeau, Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis in Missouri than with its proposed incorporation in the Arkansas Territory. The border was dropped about 50 miles to the 36th parallel north. It follows that parallel about 30 miles until intersecting the St. Francis River, then follows the river back up to about the 36°30′ parallel just west of Campbell, Missouri.

According to an apocryphal story in various versions, the Bootheel was added to the state because of the request of some Missourian to remain in the state "as he had heard it was so sickly in Arkansas"; "...full of bears and panthers and copperhead snakes, so it ain't safe for civilized people to stay there over night even." Another legend has the adaptation made by a lovestruck surveyor to spare the feelings of a widow living 50 miles south of the Missouri border, but unaware of it. At one time, the area was known locally as "Lapland, because it's the place where Missouri laps over into Arkansas". [4]

During the American Civil War, a number of battles took place in this area, most notably the Battle of Island No. 10.

Until the early 20th century, the district was largely covered by wetlands and swamps, but otherwise was a wheat-growing area of family farms. Lumbering was important in the 1890s until the most valuable trees were taken.

In 1905, the Little River Drainage District built an elaborate network of ditches, canals, and levees to drain the swamps, as people believed that the highest use was for agriculture. They did not understand about the important function of wetlands in modifying river flooding.

From 1880 to 1930, the population in the area more than tripled as many workers were brought in. Cotton became the chief commodity crop. [5] Meanwhile, the boll weevil ruined the cotton crop in Arkansas, and planters moved into the Bootheel, bought up the new lands or leased them from insurance companies that had invested in the area, and recruited thousands of black sharecroppers as workers. [3]

During the 1910s, the Bootheel experienced a surge in racial violence between white tenant farmers and black workers who were imported by landowners from the South. This competition between white laborers and black laborers resulted in a period of extreme racial violence which took the form of lynchings in New Madrid, Charleston, and Caruthersville. [6] [7] [8]

In contrast to the other cotton-growing areas of the South, where blacks had been disfranchised around the turn of the century, they were allowed to vote in Missouri and played a political role in this area. [9] In the main, political power was held by white power brokers, especially Democrat J. V. Conran from the 1930s to 1960s. He worked closely with blacks in the region. An ally of Senator and President Harry S. Truman, Conran packed the ballot boxes but did bring efficiency and government services, and helped improve economic and social conditions. [10]

During the Great Depression, the Farm Security Administration said that the Bootheel was a "paradox of rich land and poor people." In 1935 three fourths of all farms were operated by tenants, most of them black. [11] Radicals in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union organized protests by hundreds of sharecroppers in early 1939, alleging that landlords had evicted masses of tenants because they did not want to share federal AAA checks with them. The Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency, responded by providing low-cost rental housing for 500 cropper families. It awarded $500,000 (equivalent to $7 million in 2019) in grants to 11,000 families in 1939. The protest fizzled out as Communist and Socialist elements battled for control. [12]

Geography and geology

Available samples from the Bootheel and most of the southeastern Missouri counties demonstrate late Tertiary (more than 1.8 mya) to Quaternary (1.8 mya to present) geology, much younger than neighboring highlands. The lowest point in the state is in southwestern Dunklin County along the St. Francis River near Arbyrd, at 230 feet above sea level. The bootheel area is notable for being the epicenter of the 1811–12 New Madrid earthquakes, some of the largest earthquakes ever felt in the United States.

Swamp reclamation and flooding

A typical Bootheel scene: the Mississippi floodplain in southern Pemiscot County Mississippi River floodplain in Pemiscot Township.jpg
A typical Bootheel scene: the Mississippi floodplain in southern Pemiscot County

As glaciers receded towards the end of the Ice Age and turned ice into liquid, the Mississippi River grew longer and wider. Over time, the silt deposits of the Mississippi created some of the most fertile soil in the world, ideal for agriculture. The areas around the Mississippi are composed of thick regolith that is around 100 metres (330 ft) thick. The Bootheel lies in the flood plain between the Mississippi and St. Francis rivers, so the land is very flat. Since clearing and drainage of wetlands in the early 20th century, it has been predominantly developed for agricultural purposes. Prior to the 20th century, it was mostly unsettled swampy forestland.

Between 1893 and 1989, developers cut about 85% of the native forests in the region; most clearing was done in the early decades of the 20th century. The entire landscape was transformed into farmland by extensive logging, draining of the watershed, channelization, and the construction of flood control structures. High levees along both river courses, an extensive system of drainage ditches and diversion channels, and controlled lakes, pumping stations and cutoffs protect the area from flooding. The soils are predominantly a rich and deep glacial loess, alluvial silt, and a sandy loam, well-suited for agricultural use.

But the levees have changed the nature of the rivers, and cumulatively have aggravated flooding problems. They also prevent regular silt deposits, as they have increased the speed of the rivers. The reduction in wetlands has reduced important habitats for many species of migratory birds and a variety of fish and animals.

Flooding is a major concern along the Mississippi River. With such a large river basin and the vast discharge of water, the river makes the towns along its banks highly susceptible to frequent flooding. The National Weather Service reported that from 1980 to 2002, nine floods in the United States had total losses exceeding one billion dollars. In terms of monetary loss and effects on society, the Great Flood of 1993 was the worst. [13]

New Madrid fault zone

Earthquakes have long been frequent in the area. The New Madrid Fault Zone (pronounced /njˈmædrɪd/ ) is named for the city of New Madrid in the Bootheel. This fault zone is entirely hidden beneath the deep alluvial deposits of the Mississippi embayment. Unlike the San Andreas Fault in California, it is not visible anywhere. This fault zone was responsible for an extremely powerful series of earthquakes that rocked the area in 1811 and 1812, known collectively as the New Madrid earthquake. It was reported to have been so powerful as to ring church bells along the East Coast. Subsidence formed Reelfoot Lake on the other side of the Mississippi River in West Tennessee. An eyewitness of the earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 noted:

Great fissures opened the earth, geysers show mud and rocks hundreds of feet in the air, new hills and ridges heaved up out of the ground, and the river itself ran red with brimstone and sulfur. Whole islands in the river disappeared, the forests went under, the tall oaks snapped like twigs, and violent winds tossed bundles of fallen timbers. Deafening thunder rang to the heavens. Animals went crazy; thousands of birds hovered and screamed. [14]

The states of Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana felt the brunt of this quake, ruining lives and leaving residents in fear of aftershocks and possible larger quakes. The New Madrid Seismic Zone is still active and frequently produces small earthquakes. Scientists have estimated that a strong earthquake is inevitable and is overdue. Residents of the area are aware of the risk, but critics say they are not well prepared for a disaster. William Atkinson, author of The Next New Madrid Earthquake, writes:

The area is well overdue for a moderately powerful tremor- which will cause major damage and undoubtedly some casualties...With each passing year, the inevitable earthquake is becoming more powerful, while the state of readiness in the Mississippi Valley remains woefully inadequate.

Given the population in the area, even a moderately sized earthquake would be disastrous. [15]

Culture and economy

The Bootheel (pronounced Boothill in the region) is on the edge of the Mississippi Delta culture that produced the Delta blues. Its relatively large black population makes it distinct from the rest of rural Missouri. The area has a unique rural black culture reflected in its music, churches and other traditions. The black population ranges from about 26% in Pemiscot County, to 15% in New Madrid County, and about 9% in Dunklin County.

The Bootheel once had a reputation for lawlessness. Remote settlements along the river banks, miles from paved roads, provided an ideal environment (and market) for moonshining and bootlegging.[ citation needed ]

Culturally, the Bootheel is considered more Southern than Midwestern. It was settled largely by people from the South, both black and white. It is considered part of the Mid-South, a region centered on the Memphis metropolitan area; it is also included in the area of the Upper South. Definitions of the Mid-South vary but in general include west Tennessee and Kentucky, north Mississippi, northeast Arkansas, and the Missouri Bootheel. [16] The locations of the region's television stations had reflected this until the early 21st century prior to smaller, but closer cities obtaining local stations and before the digital transition in 2009:

Economically, the agricultural area is one of the more impoverished parts of Missouri. It does not enjoy the benefits of tourism as do areas of the nearby Ozark Mountains. There is some manufacturing, but the area is primarily agricultural. Because of its alluvial past, the area's rich soil is ideal for growing soybeans, rice and cotton. Some truck crops are grown, most notably various types of melons, especially watermelons. A limited amount of livestock is raised. In contrast to much of the rest of Missouri, there are few fences.

No large cities are located in the Bootheel. Sizable towns include Kennett, the birthplace of singers Sheryl Crow, David Nail, and Trent Tomlinson; and Sikeston, the birthplace of professional athletes James Wilder Sr., Brandon Barnes, and Blake DeWitt. Sikeston's city limits fall within both Scott County and New Madrid County. Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff are often considered to be part of the Bootheel due to the influence the two cities have had on the development of the region, but neither is located within its geographic boundaries.

Hornersville, a small town in southern Dunklin County, was home to William H. "Major" Ray, a one-time 19th-century circus "midget". He later became known as the representative of the Buster Brown shoe brand. He and his wife, Jennie, are buried in a cemetery in Hornersville. [17] Caruthersville is the county seat of Pemiscot County.

The small towns of Senath and Arbyrd are also located in Dunklin County. They are home to a locally celebrated ghost light, sometimes called the "Senath Light" or "Arbyrd light". It occurs between these two towns and closer to Hollywood near the Lulu Church and Cemetery. [18] [19]

The Missouri Bootheel is the home of two members of the musical group the Kentucky Headhunters, Doug and Ricky Phelps. They received their education at Southland C-9, the consolidated schools of Arbyrd and Cardwell, Missouri. They performed at the Cotton Pickin Festival in the small town of Arbyrd; a place where they spent much time while growing up. They both performed as Brother Phelps, and then Doug came back and performed with The Kentucky Headhunters. This festival is a major attraction and draws a huge crowd for a town of only about 550 people. Other prominent acts at Arbyrd include T. Graham Brown and The Bellamy Brothers. [20] [21] [22]

Also in the northern part of Dunklin County lies the town of Malden, the home of country/rockabilly singer Narvel Felts. Felts' music has played worldwide, as he continues to tour.

Related Research Articles

Pemiscot County, Missouri U.S. county in Missouri

Pemiscot County is a county located in the southeastern corner in the Bootheel in the U.S. state of Missouri, with the Mississippi River forming its eastern border. As of the 2010 census, the population was 18,296. The largest city and county seat is Caruthersville. The county was officially organized on February 19, 1851, and is named for the local bayou, taken from the Fox dialect word, pem-eskaw, meaning "liquid mud". This has been an area of cotton plantations and later other commodity crops.

New Madrid County, Missouri U.S. county in Missouri

New Madrid County is a county located in the Bootheel of the U.S. state of Missouri. As of the 2010 census, the population was 18,956. The largest city and county seat is New Madrid, located on the northern side of the Kentucky Bend in the Mississippi River, where it has formed an oxbow around an exclave of Fulton County, Kentucky. This feature has also been known as New Madrid Bend or Madrid Bend, for the city.

Dunklin County, Missouri U.S. county in Missouri

Dunklin County is a county located in the Bootheel of the U.S. state of Missouri. As of the 2010 census, the population was 31,953. The largest city and county seat is Kennett. The county was officially organized on February 14, 1845, and is named in honor of Daniel Dunklin, a Governor of Missouri who died the year before the county was organized.

Arbyrd, Missouri Town in Missouri, United States

Arbyrd is a small town in Dunklin County, Missouri, United States. The population was 509 at the 2010 census. The town was officially incorporated in 1919.

Cardwell, Missouri City in Missouri, United States

Cardwell is a city in Dunklin County, Missouri, United States. The population was 713 at the 2010 census. The current Mayor of Cardwell is Brandon Cupp and the current aldermen are Harvey Beasley, Mike Clark, and Chuck Walls.

New Madrid, Missouri City in Missouri, United States

New Madrid is a city in New Madrid County, Missouri, United States. The population was 3,116 at the 2010 census. New Madrid is the county seat of New Madrid County. The city is located 42 miles (68 km) southwest of Cairo, Illinois, and north of an exclave of Fulton County, Kentucky, across the Mississippi River.

Caruthersville, Missouri City in Missouri, United States

Caruthersville is a city in and the county seat of Pemiscot County, Missouri, United States, located along the Mississippi River in the Bootheel region of the state's far southeast. The population was 6,168, according to the 2010 Census.

Kennett, Missouri City in Missouri, United States

Kennett is a city in, and the county seat of, Dunklin County, Missouri, United States. The city is located in the southeast corner of Missouri, 4 miles (6.4 km) east of Arkansas and 20 miles (32 km) from the Mississippi River. It has a population of 10,932 according to the 2010 Census. Kennett is the largest city in the Bootheel, a mostly agricultural area.

Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge is an 11,047-acre (45 km²) National Wildlife Refuge located in Mississippi County, Arkansas, managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. It is situated 2 miles (3.2 km) east of Manila, Arkansas, and consists mostly of a shallow lake, swamp, and bottomland hardwood forests. The preservation of habitat for waterfowl in an intensely agricultural region is the primary purpose of the refuge. 6,400 acres (20 km²) of Big Lake is classified as a National Natural Landmark and 2,144 acres (8 km²) are classified as wilderness.

Mississippi embayment Low-lying basin filled with Cretaceous to recent sediments

The Mississippi Embayment is a physiographic feature in the south-central United States, part of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. It is essentially a northward continuation of the fluvial sediments of the Mississippi River Delta to its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. The current sedimentary area was formed in the Cretaceous and early Cenozoic by the filling with sediment of a pre-existing basin. An explanation for the embayment's formation was put forward by Van Arsdale and Cox in 2007: movement of the earth's crust brought this region over a volcanic "hotspot" in the Earth's mantle causing an upthrust of magma which formed the Appalachian-Ouachita range. Subsequent erosion caused a deep trough that was flooded by the Gulf of Mexico and eventually filled with sediment from the Mississippi River.

Route 164 is a state highway in the Missouri Bootheel. The route starts at U.S. Route 412 in Cardwell. The route travels eastward across the bootheel, and it goes through the towns of Arbyrd, Hornersville, Rives, and Steele. It becomes concurrent with US 61 briefly in Steele, and intersects Interstate 55 (I-55) east of the city. The route ends east of Cottonwood Point, near the Mississippi River.

John Hardeman Walker was an early landowner in southeast Missouri, most famous for convincing the United States Congress to place the Bootheel in Missouri instead of Arkansas.

A flash flood watch is issued by the National Weather Service when conditions are favorable for flash flooding in flood-prone areas, usually when grounds are already saturated from recent rains, or when upcoming rains will have the potential to cause a flash flood. These watches are also occasionally issued when a dam may break in the near future.

Arkansas Delta

The Arkansas Delta is one of the six natural regions of the state of Arkansas. Willard B. Gatewood Jr., author of The Arkansas Delta: Land of Paradox, says that rich cotton lands of the Arkansas Delta make that area "The Deepest of the Deep South."

Randolph, Tennessee Unincorporated community in Tennessee, United States

Randolph is a rural unincorporated community in Tipton County, Tennessee, United States, located on the banks of the Mississippi River. Randolph was founded in the 1820s and in 1827, the Randolph post office was established. In the 1830s, the town became an early center of river commerce in West Tennessee. Randolph shipped more cotton annually than Memphis until 1840. In 1834, the first pastor of the Methodist congregation was appointed. The fortunes of the community began to decline in the late 1840s due to failed railroad development, an unfavorable mail route and other factors. The first Confederate States Army fort in Tennessee was built at Randolph early in the Civil War in 1861, a second fortification at Randolph was constructed later that same year. During the Civil War, the town was burned down twice by Union Army forces.

Delta Regional Authority

The Delta Regional Authority (DRA) is a Federal-State partnership whose mission it is to improve the quality of life for the residents of the Mississippi Delta. The Delta Regional Authority serves 252 counties and parishes in parts of eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee. Led by a Federal Co-Chairman appointed by the President and the governors of the eight states, the DRA fosters partnerships throughout the region as it works to improve the Delta economy. DRA funds can be used to leverage other federal and state programs.

Missouri's 25th Senatorial District is one of 34 districts in the Missouri Senate. The district is based in Southeast Missouri and includes all of the counties of Butler, Dunklin, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Ripley, Stoddard, and Wayne.

National Weather Service Memphis, Tennessee

National Weather Service - Memphis, TN is a local weather forecast office responsible for monitoring weather conditions in the U.S. Mid-South region for counties in Eastern Arkansas, the Missouri Bootheel, Northern Mississippi, and Western Tennessee. The current office in Memphis maintains a WSR-88D (NEXRAD) radar system, and Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) that greatly improve forecasting in the region. Memphis is in charge of weather forecasts, warnings and local statements as well as aviation weather. The name of the doppler radar (WSR-88D) used by this office is MEG. Jim Belles is the Meteorologist-In-Charge (MIC) of this office.

The 1st Missouri Infantry was an infantry regiment that served in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. Originally commanded by Colonel John S. Bowen, the regiment fought at the Battle of Shiloh, where it was engaged near the Peach Orchard on April 6, 1862. On April 7, during the Union counterattacks at Shiloh, the regiment was instrumental in preventing the Washington Artillery from being captured. The regiment was next engaged at the Second Battle of Corinth, where it outflanked several Union positions. On the second day at Corinth, the regiment was only minimally engaged. On November 7, the 1st Missouri Infantry was combined with the 4th Missouri Infantry to form the 1st and 4th Missouri Infantry (Consolidated), as a result of heavy battle losses in both regiments.


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