The Yocums, a prolific clan in the interior Ozarks for two centuries, are inextricably bound by history and folklore with significant events in the White River country. Anglicized from Joachim, the surname appears in many expressions, including Yocum, Yokum, Yoachum, Yoakum, Yochum, and more. They were among the “first families” in the interior Ozarks, families who sought the hunter’s wilderness life and fur trade and followed Native Americans migrating from the east and the south into the White River valley. Indigenous and Yocum history have been interwoven ever since.
No reliable published Yocum family history yet exists. However, four brothers—Solomon, Jacob, Jess, and Mike—came through Ste. Genevieve and into the James fork of the White River valley in about 1818; they were descendants of Palatinate Germans who already had much westering experience. They arrived in time to host traveler Henry Rowe Schoolcraft during his famous journey in 1818–1819. The Yocums lived and traded on the rivers until Solomon and others moved onto Delaware tribal land on the James River (in Christian County, Missouri) during the 1820s. The Delawares received silver specie annuities and manufactured goods and temporarily owned their reservation lands. Their resources attracted others to rent their land, and to trade in pelts, stock, agricultural products, weapons, and illicit alcohol.
In 1825 John Campbell, subagent to William Clark, the superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis, who was living among the Delawares, named certain “outlaw characters” who refused to pay rent to the Delawares and, worse, sold them alcohol. Among them were Solomon Yocum and John Denton whom agent Campbell ordered off the reservation. Yocum did not go far. He and others set up a new facility just south of the reservation boundary at the mouth of Finley Creek where it joined the James. There they processed legal whiskey and brandy intended for the illegal market among the Native tribes.
The persistent Yocums were after the Delawares’ silver specie coins. They laundered their profits to mask the accumulation of federal specie from alcohol sales. Perhaps remembering the European Joachimsthaler (literally, Yocum dollar), the Yocums devised a clever scheme to produce their own silver coins, “Yocum Dollars,” by melting down specie and recasting them in a crude smelting process, probably located in a nearby “silver cave.” This silver speculation proved successful, and they probably provided the same service for their fellow distillers for a share of the profits.
The Delawares removed to Kansas reservations during 1829–1831, taking their annuities with them, and the source of Yocum silver dollars disappeared. To cover their imaginative design, the Yocums took advantage of their neighbors’ gullibility by promoting the myth of a silver cave. This myth, originating in John Law’s famous eighteenth-century Mississippi Bubble land speculation in the Mississippi valley, was already more than a century old in the Ozarks, and, for fun, Anglicized Native Americans passed it on to successive settlers in the late antebellum decades. Scholarly publications during the nineteenth century by Thomas Nuttall, G. W. Featherstonhaugh, Missouri geologists, and others warned of specious legends of precious metals, but the myth continued to thrive in Ozarks folklore.
The Yocum silver dollars continued as good currency for several years. They contained more silver than federal dollars, so silver speculators soon bought them up and melted them down to sell the ore. The Yocum coins disappeared from circulation. The Yocums, however, diversified their investments. They acquired land, livestock, and mills. By 1835 Jacob owned one of the largest cattle herds in southwest Missouri. By 1850 Solomon was a major swine producer. At the junction of Finley Creek, Solomon’s nephew George owned the largest milling business in Webster County. At the close of the nineteenth century the now-venerable Reminiscent History of the Ozark Region proclaimed Solomon Yocum was one of the most praiseworthy of all old Ozark pioneers.
Little did the Yocums realize that their name and the legend they spawned would become synonymous with twentieth-century Ozark stereotypes and tourism. Al Capp’s Li’l Abner family was called Yocum, and the now-defunct Dogpatch USA theme park was just a few miles south of where the Yocum Dollar was minted. Just east of the Yocum settlements lies sprawling Silver Dollar City, on Indian Point, the real Ozarks silver mine.
Ayres, Artie. Traces of Silver. Reeds Spring, MO: Ozark Mountain Country Historical Preservation Society, 1982.
Morrow, Lynn. “The Yocum Silver Dollar: Images, Realities, and Tradition.” In The German-American Experience in Missouri: Essays in Commemoration of the Tricentennial of German Immigration to America, 1683–1983, ed. Howard Wight Marshall and James W. Goodrich (Columbia: Missouri Cultural Heritage Center, 1986), 159–76.
Morrow, Lynn, and Dan Saults. “The Yocum Silver Dollar: Sorting Out the Strands of an Ozarks Frontier Legend.” Gateway Heritage 5 (Winter 1984–1985): 8–15.
Published January 11, 2023
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