Opening the door to Wilson’s Creek

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11206868_10153338033036983_4499726781958824199_oWilson’s Creek National Battlefield has long represented a defining moment in American history. School children from all around visit on yearly field trips; old and young alike come to see the site remembered for its Civil War history.

Is it the lure of battle that draws such individuals back time and again? Is it the curiosity about such a valuable piece of America’s heritage? Or is it the natural aspects of the park that keep attracting visitors?

Regardless of any individual reason, it is important to acknowledge Wilson’s Creek for the lessons, both good and bad, that the site has to teach.

One neat thing about Wilson’s Creek, I think, is that you can go out and see the battlefield (without modernizations),” said Superintendent Ted Hillmer.

“One neat thing about Wilson’s Creek, I think, is that you can go out and see the battlefield (without modernizations),” said Superintendent Ted Hillmer, who has worked for the National Park Service for more than 35 years, 11 of them at Wilson’s Creek. “We need to work with people who have that same passion for preserving history; that’s why I work for the National Park Service. I really think that the mission is to preserve and protect those cultural significant places for the next generation.”

History is one word that describes Wilson’s Creek. Within the gentle rolling hills at the famed Civil War battle site lie remnants of the past, some more evident than others. According to information from C.S. Weslager, an author on the Delaware Native Americans, the area was inhabited by the Delaware in the early 1800s, when tribes encamped along the banks of the river.

Referred to as Anderson’s Village and Delaware Town, the Delaware-tribe community was prominently comprised of farmers, evidenced by the many cornfields dotting the landscape.

Trading, especially in remote areas, was a crucial aspect to the area’s development. Far removed from towns and cities, obtaining supplies proved to be a challenge for the area’s earliest pioneers.

Two individuals, William Gillis and James Wilson, are thought to have eased such problems. The operator of a trading post near Delaware Town, Gillis supplied the Native Americans with the necessary items to support their trapping enterprises. Wilson, the namesake of Wilson’s Creek, arrived in the area in 1821 and served as an interpreter for the Native Americans. He later established a fur trading post where the James River meets Wilson’s Creek, which he operated until his death in 1834, leaving behind quite a colorful reputation.

“He was a white man who lived among the Delaware, and supposedly, depending on who you read, had one or several Delaware wives,” said Jeff Patrick, librarian at Wilson’s Creek. “There are a number of rumors about James Wilson that we’ll probably never be able to verify.”

As time progressed, increasing numbers of settlers began immigrating into the region, especially those of European descent. As stated in the Cultural Landscape Report prepared for Wilson’s Creek by the National Park Service in 2004, Native Americans were forced to vacate the area in response to a new treaty with the U.S. Government between 1828 and 1831. Such events ultimately led to a permanent decline in the Native American population throughout the region.

With increasing numbers of settlers came a desire for better communication. The notable Wire Road and legendary Butterfield-Overland Stage helped fulfill that need on a local and a national level.

Patrick said the Wire Road was a vital artery for civilians and the military and played an important role in the area’s development. It was “the I-44 of the 1850s and ’60s,” he said.

The Butterfield-Overland Stage began in northern Missouri and ran to California in one of the first regional attempts to link Missouri with the West Coast. The stage was a frequent sight at Wilson’s Creek as it traveled the Wire Road and used one of the local homes as a “flag stop.”

“(The Wire Road) runs diagonally through the battlefield (and) the Ray house was used as a flag stop,” Patrick said. “If you had a passenger or you had mail, you would put out, literally, a small flag and they would stop.”

The stage did not survive long, however, before it was shut down by Congress because of the outbreak of the Civil War.

“It’s (was) the first great attempt to create some sort of transportation network that would take people from Missouri on into California,” Patrick said. “It’s an elaborate scheme to do this, and they are able to pull it off. Unfortunately, the war basically kills it.”

By then, the Wire Road had been firmly established and was quickly utilized by the Union Army. Telegraph wires were strung throughout northwest Arkansas and Springfield and the route was used as a transport system for troops and supplies.

The beginning of the Civil War in 1861 created controversy for the Springfield area. While local sentiments were divided, many of Missouri’s residents owned slaves, including several of the families located near Wilson’s Creek.

In August 1861, groups of Confederate soldiers moved into the area and camped all around the creek; not far away, Union troops remained stationed in Springfield. It was only a matter of time until the tension was destined to snap.

This article appeared in The Christian County Headliner News on June 23, 2009.