Johnson's Ford (3CR0313) Early 19th Century Bridge Remains on Osage Creek, Carroll
Dendrochronology dating techniques have placed the cutting date of the timbers used on the bridge as late as 1838, and as early as 1831. Analysis of the General Land Office survey plat from 1839 indicates a major road, from Huntsville, Arkansas to Springfield, Missouri crosses the Osage Creek, near this location. Other historical records mention a road trending, in a northwest and southeast direction, through the approximate location of the site. Finally, the archaeological record indicates this was a beam type timber- frame bridge compatible with bridges built in the early- mid 19th century associated with mid-continent military roads.
As our forefathers marched westward to settle the great expansions of wilderness, early roads became their only means of conveying materials and information, which was essential to the growth and development of our fledgling nation. As the decades go by, these once treasured means of transportation, dry up, as better roads are constructed and cities develop, leaving them forgotten to the lonely pages of history.
The main goal of this research project is to identify the historical significance of the bridge and subsequent roadway at 3CR313, Carroll County, Arkansas. Analysis of the structure and materials using dendrochronology and comparative research on contemporary bridges will provide a quantitative and qualitative date of construction. The bridge and the corresponding site date at around 1838. Historical context can place a military roadway within the immediate area of the site, making this bridge a good candidate for a thoroughfare along the military road in between Springfield Missouri and Huntsville Arkansas (see Figure 1).
The bridge site 3CR0313, also known as Johnson Ford (named for the current landowner), is located southwest of Berryville, Arkansas along the banks of the Osage Creek. Jerry Hilliard, of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey was notified on September 29, 2005 by the land owner, that a number of large timbers that had been recently exposed on his land along the Osage Creek. Mr. Johnson believed that they could be the remains of a possible bridge. The remains were massive hand hewn timbers, some as large as 3.66 meters to 4.57 meters long, (Figure 2)across the 25 meters wide creek. On either side of the creek banks adjacent to the remains is evidence of an old road trace providing further support that this was a bridge rather than a mill or other structure.
After initial examination of the structure, we concluded that these were the remains of a timber-frame bridge with mortise and tenon construction (Figure 3). The bridge remnants were covered by gravel and silt; flood deposits had buried the remains creating a constantly wet environment that preserved the wooden mud sills and other structural elements. Recent flooding has created washouts and erosion that exposed the remains first noted by Mr. Johnson, the landowner. Through the use of excavation techniques, further remains were unearthed during subsequent fieldwork at the site. Unfortunately, all that remains of the bridge at Johnson’s Ford is the foundation. This makes it almost impossible to know the exact type of bridge that was constructed. However, through analysis of the remains and historical documentation of road construction techniques, we believe that the bridge was a beam type bridge, common to the period.
On January 26th 2006, we returned to the site joined by Dr. David Stahle, Distinguished Professor Department of Geosciences University of Arkansas, who took samples of several white oak timbers for tree-ring dating. Portions of six timbers were removed with a chainsaw and four increment core samples were taken with a hand borer. These samples (see Figure 7) were then taken to University of Arkansas’s tree-ring laboratory, where Dr. Stahle could perform further analyses.
In addition to taking samples for dendrochronology, a large trench was dug with the use of a backhoe parallel to the upstream or east side of the bridge. This was done in order to investigate planking that was discovered along the central gravel bar of the creek (Figure 10). These planks were placed to prevent the river current from eroding the mud sill support of the bridge (see Figures 8 and 9). These planks were beveled at one end and then drove into the ground at least a 30cm deeper than the mud sill.
On the north side of the creek, more planking was discovered during hand excavation of the area (Figure 11). This set of planks was set perpendicular to the parallel mud sills, and was attached with machine cut nails. No wire nails were recovered indicating the construction and subsequent repair was done prior to their common usage, or before around 1890 (Davidson 2003). The wood planking provided a platform for rock fill, which helped to hold the sills in place forming a solid foundation for the bridge. This would have been especially critical during times of flooding when water would have covered the bridge supports. Charred wooden planks in the fill were also uncovered during the hand excavation of the north bank suggesting that the bridge probably burned (see Figure 11).
While tree-ring dating is accurate in its applications in archaeology, chronological errors can occur (Bannister 508). Dendrochronology can provide the date of the tree’s last year of growth, i.e. when the timber was cut, but it does not indicate when the timber was actually used in the structure. These dates, however, can be cross-referenced with other sources, to provide a more exact date. Dendrochronology analysis has conclusively placed the bridge construction between 1831 and 1838.
Of the ten samples that David Stahle took during the second visit to the site only three provided cutting dates (Figure 12). While samples were taken from the remains from the north bank and central gravel bar of the bridge, the three samples that had positive dates were all taken from the central gravel bar. The first and most accurate of the three, was a hewn white oak timber cross section sample taken from timber #121 from the central gravel bar, this dated to 1837 for its cutting date. The second was from cross section sample from timber #122, which is a round white oak timber. This sample dated to 1831, but this date is tentative. The third is a cross section sample from the hewn white oak timber #123; the date of 1799 however, is not conclusive, due to unclear frost ring analysis.
19th Century Military Roads and Bridges:
Arkansas had a particularly high concentration of military roads during this period in American history due to the fact that there was a high concentration of “Indian” raiders on the borders, as well as a growing concern with the turmoil between Texas and Mexico (Nelson 10). Even though these roads were built for military purposes, socio-economic benefits were very apparent. Citizens of the region were charged with most of the actual labor involved in the construction of these roadways which provided much needed income to the poor settlers as well as allowing for further commerce expansion to the region. As the population grew so did its need for roads.
These early military roads laid the foundation for further growth, for which the benefits are quite apparent in Arkansas, as well as Michigan and Florida, which had a similar build up of roads in the early nineteenth century (Nelson 10). In 1836 plans for a military road and fort system stretching from the upper Mississippi River to the Red River were in progress. The portion of this Great Military Road relevant to the Osage River bridge site, (3CR0313), ran from the Spring River, Missouri to Fort Smith with construction well under way by 1841 (Nelson 14). The road from Springfield to Huntsville including the crossing over the Osage River was probably a small portion of this road system.
In a letter from the head of the U.S. Topographic Corp, instructions for constructing road and bridges in Arkansas were made (Williams et al. 34-36). The letter states that:
1826LT. F. L. Griffith U.S. A. WASHINGTON D. C.
SIR, You have been selected to superintend the making of a road from a point on the West Bank of the river Mississippi, opposite the town of Memphis in the state of Tennessee, to Little Rock in the Territory of Arkansas, authorized by an act of Congress approved the 31st of January 1824. -Enclosed is a copy of the report of the Commissioners who surveyed the route, with a copy of the plot of the survey.
The road is to be opened in reaches staked out as straight as practicable, keeping a view the general direction of the survey, in the ascent and declivities of hills, and other localities, which cause a necessary deviation from a straight line. It is to be at least twenty four feet wide throughout and all timber, brushwood, and other rubbish or impediments, are to be removed from it. And all holes within its limits are to be filled with earth. The stumps must be cut as low to the ground as practicable, their height in no instance to exceed two thirds of their diameter; they should be hollowed towards the centre in cutting them to retain the rain and moisture. Marshy or swampy ground must be causewayed with poles or split timber, from five to eight inches in diameter at the smallest end, laid down compactly, side by side, across the direction of the road the 'causeways to be eighteen feet wide, secured at each side with heavy timbers or riders firmly and securely staked down. Ditches four feet wide and three feet deep are to be dug on each side of the causeways, and the earth and sand taken there from to be thrown upon the causeway so as to render it convex or highest in the centre-and if the swamps or other grounds be of such a nature as not to afford earth .sufficient to cover the causeways at least eighteen inches in the centre and six inches at the sides, a sufficiency is to brought from other places-At proper distances in long causeways, or through very wet ground, open. Log bridges are to be constructed to let the water pass freely through Where any separate causeway shall exceed seventy yards in length, it must be open in the centre or at each distance of seventy yards, to the width of twenty feet.
The hills on the route are to be dug down and wound round in such a manner as to make them practicable for carriages or loaded wagons. All streams, branches, Creeks, lagoons and rivers, except are to be bridged in the most substantial manner-if not more than ten feet wide with strong and permanent log abutments for the floor beams to rest upon-if more than ten feet wide with staunch frame bridges built upon trestles or arches none of which are to be more than fourteen feet apart-the main timbers of the bridges are not to be less than twelve by twelve inches, squared & hewed, & where uprights are twenty feet in height, measuring from the mudsill to the cap sill, they are to be fourteen by sixteen inches squared and hewed- The mud sills are to be logs not less than two feet in diameter hewed on the upper and lower sides, the bark to be taken off the other two sides, and to extend ail least four feet at each end beyond the exterior sides of the uprights-the uprights are to be firmly secured into the mud sills and cap sills by mortises and tendons with two pins in each, and to be firmly braced with timbers of five inches squared and hewed with mortises and tendons pinned in like manner. The floor beams of the bridges are to be four in number, one on each side of the bridge resting at each end on the cap sill, and immediately over the uprights and the others between them equidistant from them and from each other-The flooring of the frame bridges is to be of sawed plank three inches thick or of hewed puncheons from three to five inches thick the other bridges may be covered with split or hewed puncheons of the same thickness-the bridges are to be twelve feet wide in the clear-that is twelve feet measuring from title' exterior sides of the cap sill-the planks or puncheons are to be securely pinned to be beams at each end-no timber is to be used in the bridges, either under the water, or exposed to the air, but that which is known to be durable.
The bridges are to be built so high above the water that no part thereof from bank to bank shall ever be exposed to danger' from the highest freshets-Good and staunch hand rails are to be affixed to the bridges. Such small streams as are never deep enough in freshets to obstruct carriages in passing, and have firm sandy bottoms, with firm banks, may be dug and left as fords.
The structural remains documented during field work are consistent with the Army regulation for the construction of bridges described in the correspondence. The mud sill timbers that were excavated were approximately 35 (1.15 ft) - 40cm (1.31 ft) wide hewn timbers with mortise and tenon joints, with the decking made of hewn planks 7.5 cm (3 inches) wide. According to an interview with Dr. Larry G. Pleimann Adjunct Associate Professor Department of Civil Engineering at the U of A, the dimensions of structural remains are consistent with the type of bridge described in the correspondence above. He went on to say that with the type of material used and the structural components that are in the archeological record, Dr. Pleimann suggests that the bridge was probably a beam type bridge that is easily capable of spanning the 25 meters of the Osage Creek (Figure 14).
While the above rendering of the beam type bridge is compatible with the bridge on Osage Creek, the Pier would have consisted of four or more upright timbers and could have been boxed in. Due to the lack of structural remains it is impossible to tell exactly how the piers would have looked. The vertical planking shown in the diagram would help to prevent erosion from under cutting the main piers of the bridge; these could have extended a substantial distance up the piers.
General Land Office and Other Historical Records:
One case of a fraudulent survey is that of Moon Lake, in northeastern Arkansas. The original GLO survey indicated a major lake within their survey area, but later investigation showed that there was no lake in the immediate area at the time the survey was conducted (Chaney 30). Generally speaking, most GLO surveys were fairly accurate, which does not rule the use of plats in research, but shows that cross referencing is required when dealing with historical maps.
The 1839 General Land Office Survey Plat for Township 20N and Range 25W place the military road Osage River crossing from Huntsville, Arkansas to Springfield, Missouri, within a reasonable distance and at the proper trajectory for the bridge at Johnson’s Ford (Figure 15). Cross referencing the GLO field notes and survey plats with modern topographic maps, satellite imagery, and field exploration, has concluded that the road could not possibility be at the location that is specifically indicated on the GLO Plats.
If the road crossing over the Osage River followed the plat exactly it would have gone straight over a 75-foot bluff, very impractical by even today’s standards, and most improbable by the standards of the 1830’s. As it is shown on the plat, it is only approximately 1.19km from the actual site of the bridge remains. The most logical placement for such a substantial bridge is along the military road to Springfield; there simply are no other period pioneer roads in the immediate area. Further supporting evidence that this is the 1837 crossing are the deeply embedded road remnants visible on the creek bank. Also of note is that the remains and road remnants crossing the river trend at the same orientation (northeast- southwest), as that of the road shown in the 1839 GLO map.
Historical records from what is now Carroll County, Arkansas, from the early part of the nineteenth century, are spotty at best. During this period, Carroll County did not have a working newspaper. Most accounts of life during the 1830’s were taken from oral traditions and local legends and do not usually record the mundane things in their communities. They usually tend focus on the tragedies and triumphs faced by individuals, leaving out other historical information like who constructed transportation ways and manufacturing facilities in their area.
Unfortunately these reports do not mention the exact location, or the destruction of a bridge. Some evidence of Civil War era artifacts were reportedly found by relic hunters in the vicinity although no evidence of a skirmish can be documented.
The General Land Office survey plat records from 1839 show a major military road from Springfield, Missouri to Huntsville, Arkansas within a reasonable distance from the archeological remains of Johnson’s Ford. An old road traces from either side of the creek shows the general direction of the road trending in the same orientation as that of the road platted on the GLO. Dendrochronology analysis of samples indicates a cutting date for at least one of the timber sills to around 1838.
Johnson’s Ford, 3CR0313, is the remains of an early nineteenth century bridge, across the Osage Creek, in Carroll County, Arkansas along what is known as the military road to Springfield, Missouri. The road trace on either side of the creek banks at the bridge remnants are evidence that the remains are of a bridge rather than a mill or other structure. The bridge is made with mortise and tenon construction techniques, comprised mainly of white oak timbers.
The bridge would have been 25 meters across and a width of around 5 meters or more. Comparisons to other bridge designs from the same time period have similar spans, but due to the lack of remaining structural components, the actual style of the bridge could not be determined since only foundation elements remain. However, based on the time period and remaining elements, the bridge in question was likely a beam type bridge. According to Dr. Pleimann, the beam type bridge would have been sufficient to span the crossing and support the amount of traffic that it was intended to carry. This bridge type and the remains are consistent with engineering plans available for early-mid 19th century military bridges.
As the roads became more advanced and traveled, inhabitants of the region would use them for commerce and post roads. This allowed for a drastic boom in the population and eventually economic growth. These simple paths through the wilderness would eventually become routes for the free trade of ideas and allow a group of individuals to become a unified county. Roads are the veins of a nation, and its travelers are the blood that flows through them. Without blood they will not survive, but when the needs of the people are met, a nation will grow strong and healthy.
Bannister, B., William Robinson
Chaney, Phillip L.
General Land Office Records of the Original Surveys of Carroll County,
Hill, Forest G.
Jurgetski, William M., Kathleen H. Cande, and George Sabo III
Meier, Hugo A.
Nelson, Harold L.
Official Records of the Civil War
Peyton, Billy J.
Watson, Richard L. Jr.
Williams, C. Fred; et al.
Copyright ©2012, Arkansas Archeological Survey, Revised - December 2012