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The Irish Wilderness

All of my life, I called the place I visited my grandparents "Wilderness", which was the name of the community there.  I became aware, mostly through my father, that others would refer to the area as the Irish Wilderness.

My research now finds apparently that the 16,000+ acres of the Mark Twain Nation Forest which lies in Oregon County is officially named, as of 1984, the "Irish Wilderness".

Now, WHY is it called the Irish Wilderness?  There is a story behind that and here it goes:

When John Joseph Hogan, a young Irish Catholic priest and poet who would later serve as Bishop of Kansas City, came to Missouri in 1857, he witnessed suffering everywhere--such as Irish children dying of starvation in rosinweed shanties, Irishmen working as expendable labor laying railroad track for little or no pay, and African slaves manacled with iron hand-cuffs lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the boiler deck of a barge. Hogan's mission to go into the interior of North Missouri and and "build a chapel or two" would not be simple.

Many who endured famine and depression in Ireland crossed the Atlantic for the better life America promised. When they reached the northeastern part of "show-me" state, they were surprised to find how hostile Missourians treated them. They were doubly cursed for being both Irish and Catholic. It was only after Father Hogan arranged purchase of land south of the urban turmoil, between the 11-Point and Current Rivers in Ripley and Oregon counties, that the hope of a place where they could worship openly and raise families could be realized. The land was partially tillable, and fresh water gushed endlessly from wondrous springs. Game was plenty, and in the forest wilderness they believed their children, church and community-at-large would be protected.

By the spring of 1859 there were about forty families on the newly acquired land, with more Catholics on the way. According to Hogan, these people were completely self-sufficient, and the "quiet solitariness of the place seemed to inspire devotion. Nowhere could the human soul so profoundly worship as in the depths of that leafy forest, beneath the swaying branches of the lofty oaks and pines, where solitude and the heart of man united in praise and wonder of the Great Creator." Vice was little known among them although they usually took their morning dram, or a drop with a friend, from a keg of the best, distilled by themselves or by some neighbor willing to share or barter on accommodating terms. Everyone smoked, men and women, young and old. The weed grew abundantly, and was usually the best tended crop on the place.

When the Civil War broke out, bushwhackers and rebels rushed into the area killing the settlers, burning and looting their dwellings, and running out whoever survived. Tragically, the area was never resettled by the Irish, and these immigrants' dream of a place in the wilderness they could call their own would come to naught. Where their Catholic log-cabin church was erected, the Wilderness Free Will Baptist Church now stands. Today, the land is protected as part of the Mark Twain National Forest and is popularly known as the Irish Wilderness.

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2005  Denise Woodside - Storyteller and Webmaster - My Simpson Family