|There are no records and only sparse evidence
of the first human occupation of the area that surrounds Branson. Scholars
theorize that the ancestors of the Osage Indians appeared in central
Missouri sometime in the 14th century. These people were nomads, following
game around the region east of the Mississippi between the Missouri and
Arkansas rivers. The tribe lived this way for centuries, dominating other
tribes who shared their homelands and aggressively attacking any others
whom invaded their territory.
When the first Anglo men began to arrive in the region in the early 1700s, the Osage were at war with tribes from the southern woodlands as well as many of the plains Indians.
After the Spain claimed the region, Spanish and French traders plied their goods with the Osage for fur, but the warring traditions of the Osage disconcerted the Spanish and contributed to the crowns decision to transfer the Louisiana Territory back to France. One month later, it was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The following decades were tragic for the Osage people as the United States government made and broke treaties and forced the Osage into submission. This signaled the end of Indian occupation and opened the door to homesteaders.
Moving west from Kentucky and Tennessee, English, Irish and Scottish farmers carved an existence and created a unique culture in the Ozark Mountains. Proud heritage and individuality came with these people, and they thrived on the isolation that the deep woods provided, becoming fiercely independent and suspicious of outsiders. This isolation served to preserve their culture well into the 20th century.
Existence was tough, with limited soil for farming along the river valleys and steep, heavily forested slopes that made raising livestock a challenge. But it was timber that would prove to be the first practical economic stabilizer.
To satisfy the railroads insatiable hunger for cross ties, farmers became loggers and sawyers, and once-forested tracts of land were clear cut. As more and more farmland became available, strawberries and tobacco became cash crops that contributed to the areas cash flow. In 1837, the Missouri State Legislature created Taney County with the town of Forsyth named as the county seat. For the next twenty years, the area grew as lumber, ranching and farming drove the economy. But this would all end in 1861, when civil war literally tore the area apart. Taney County lied on the border between the Confederacy and the Union, and the land changed hands many times during the course of the war. Battles left innocent citizens dying and wounded, their homes broken and burned, and the areas infrastructure devastated. Once the war was over, the few who remained tried to rebuild their lives, farms and businesses, but it would be nearly a half a century before the gashes left by the war scarred over.
One ill side effect of the war were the renegades and outlaws who used the turmoil of conflict and the ruggedness of the Ozarks as an opportunity to practice their violent way of life. The regions most feared outlaw during the war was Alf Bolin and his gang of outlaws who ambushed stages and caravans along the roads leading north out of Taney County. Legends of gold bullion hidden in the hills around Branson entice treasure hunters to the area today. This lawlessness continued in the region, giving birth to the organization of a band of vigilantes. Thirteen men formed the group that would become known as the Bald Knobbers, after their meeting place atop Snaps Bald. They dispensed their own brand of justice and within just a few months, the groups numbers swelled to more than a thousand. The governor of Missouri was forced to step in to stop them.
The population of the region continued to grow. A demand for electricity in the towns and villages, coupled with a desperate need to control the devastating floods that ravaged the White River Valley, hatched an ambitious plan. As early as 1907, government officials and engineers began masterminding the construction of a dam on the White River, up river from Branson. But the first dam would come four years later, 12 miles downstream, near the county seat of Forsyth. The water that backed up behind Powersite Dam created Lake Tanycomo, the first major lake in Missouri, and began the alteration of the landscape and way of life of Branson. World War II delayed construction of the next dam until 1947. When completed, Bull Shoals dam backed up the waters of the river 75 miles to the base of Powersite Dam.
However, flooding continued until 1958 when Table Rock Dam was built above the warm waters of Lake Tanycomo, creating a 50,000-surface-acre water wonderland just south of Branson. The new lake changed many things. Cold water from the bottom of Table Rock created a quality trout fishery in adjacent Tanycomo. But the warm waters of Table Rock heated things up in Branson, and visitors began to arrive in droves.
Entrepreneurs began to take advantage of this influx of tourists. A limestone cave northwest of Branson was transformed into an attraction that evolved into Silver Dollar City, one of the nations most popular theme parks. A novel by Harold Bell Wright that had drawn attention to the area since 1907, became the setting for the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor drama. An amphitheater was built in a rolling pasture and hundreds of thousands of theatergoers relive the telling of the story of love, betrayal and forgiveness every year.
The roots of the driving force of modern-day Bransons economy are sunk deep in the hills and the culture of the mountains. Ozark Mountain jug bands were always locally popular and two groups, the Baldknobbers and the Presleys performed when and where they could, and finally both bands were able to build theaters along Highway 76 in the late 1960s. Their popularity was instantaneous and they played to sold-out crowds regularly. This drew the attention of nationally known entertainers who moved to Branson to take advantage of the throngs of tourists hungry for entertainment. Today, no less than 40 theaters line the streets of this entertainment Mecca.