Mystery of the Irish Wilderness


“Leland and Crystal Payton’s MYSTERY OF THE IRISH WILDERNESS is a fascinating, deeply-researched, and beautifully illustrated book. I recommend it very highly to everyone interested in Missouri and Ozark region history, in the history of the Catholic church on the American frontier, and in the history of Irish immigrants in 19th-century America.”

—Kerby Miller, Curators’ Professor of History, University of Missouri-Columbia

“Mystery of the Irish Wilderness is a beautifully-produced story of a little-known chapter in American Catholic history. It also illustrates how heroic priests struggled to keep the spark of religion alive in the wilderness and helped build the social institutions that were critical to American political and economic development. A lovely book.”

—Charles Morris, Author of American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church (1998)

Land and Legend of Father John Joseph Hogan’s
Lost Irish Colony in the Ozark Wilderness

Leland and Crystal Payton
$18.95; paper; 7 x 10; 128 pages
80 color plates
ISBN: 978-0-9673925-4-7

Here is a fresh inquiry into the fate of pioneer priest John Hogan’s colony of immigrant Irish that mysteriously vanished during the Civil War. In the year or two before the war unloosed renegades and military irregulars over the hills of the Ozarks, a foresighted young Irish priest guided the settlement of young Irish families in the hills and along the streams of Oregon, Ripley, Shannon and Carter counties. By the end of the War, most of the Irish settlers were gone. What happened to the colony? Where did the settlers go? The story has become mythic in the hills of southeastern Missouri. The name Irish Wilderness now denotes a 16,500 acre unit of the National Wilderness system.

Illustrated with color maps and photographs of the still-wild Ozark landscape where the legendary settlement briefly thrived, MYSTERY OF THE IRISH WILDERNESS brings new insight into the legend and the land in which it played out. The Paytons have discovered information on the possible fate of the vanished Irish colonists; they follow the history of the land from Hogan’s first exploratory trips before the Civil War to its inclusion in the national wilderness system in 1984 and its use today.

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Reviews of Mystery of the Irish Wilderness

Catholic Historical Review, Jan 2010

Although this work is not a scholarly analysis of Catholic missionary work in the nineteenth century, its value to historians is the Paytons’ adroit use of material from the writings of Hogan that they discovered in the archives of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the Diocese of Kansas City–St. Joseph.These first-person journals and notes record the ingenuity and dedication of a young Catholic priest forced to deal creatively with virulent anti-Catholic prejudice in addition to the numerous trials and travails of frontier travel.The book is also beautifully adorned with color pictures of the locations and sites visited by the missionary priest.

Catholic Key Review, Feb 5 2010 by Bishop Emeritus Raymond J. Boland

I was not surprised to discover that the Mystery of the Irish Wilderness, painstakingly researched and penned by Leland and Crystal Payton, won the Gold Medal for best Regional Non-Fiction in 2009. The award was richly deserved.

Over the years one grew accustomed to reading snippets of information about the Irish Wilderness. Facts were few and there were many who doubted the existence of anything other than a fanciful name on a forestry map. The Paytons have provided a meticulously crafted manuscript which ties all the loose ends together enabling us to know why and how the Irish Wilderness settlement came to reality. It was a noble endeavor with a sad ending.

Excellent New Book On Missouri History by Sean McLachlan

I’ve written three books on Missouri history and I’m still amazed at how many interesting stories there are still to be told about this state’s fascinating past. One of them is the tale of a dedicated Irish priest who set up a colony for Irish immigrants in the rough hill country of the Ozarks.

Mystery of the Irish Wilderness by Leland and Crystal Payton is the latest release from Lens & Pen Press. The Paytons are well known for their beautiful photographs of the Ozark region, and like their earlier books this volume is filled with them. The text is interesting too, telling of Father John Joseph Hogan’s efforts to develop and serve two different colonies in widely separated regions of Missouri, one in the northern prairie, and the other in the Ozarks near the southern edge of the state. The first colony prospered, but the other disappeared during the chaos of the Civil War.

The Paytons meticulously reconstruct what could have happened to the colonists, and found that at least some seemed to have returned to the region after the fighting stopped. Most, however, moved away to parts unknown, so an enduring air of mystery still surrounds Hogan’s Ozark colony. To complete the story, the book covers Hogan’s rise to become the first bishop of Kansas City and St. Joseph’s, and the successful fight by twentieth century preservationists to get the “Irish Wilderness” declared National Forest.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Missouri, Irish-American, or Catholic history. I also enjoyed the Paytons’ book See the Ozarks, also from Lens & Pen Press, about the development and reinvention of the rural region into a major holiday center. It’s full of images of vintage postcards, a hobby of mine, so it was an easy sell for me!

Sean McLachlan is a freelance writer specializing in history and travel. He has written three books on Missouri, the latest being Missouri: an Illustrated History.

Rural Missouri, January 2009

Mystery solved: Book offers new insight into Father Hogan’s Irish Wilderness

Some of the wildest, most remote land in Missouri can be found between the Current and Eleven Point rivers. Hikers know it as a land of tall pines, caves and steep hollows.

Part of this land today is known as the Irish Wilderness, and many a visitor has wondered why. Leland and Crystal Payton of Springfield count themselves among those who were intrigued by the legend of the Irish Wilderness.

Midwest Irish Focus, January/Eanáir, 2009

A Missouri mystery revisited

…for those seeking out the full story (of the Irish Wilderness), Leland and Crystal Payton …have created a beautifully photographed and wonderfully researched book …In this slim, but fact-filled, volume … the Paytons relate a story that is at once ambitious and sad as they quote extensively from the journals of Roman Catholic priest Fr. John Joseph Hogan as he sets out from St. Louis on a mission to establish a community for the ever-growing immigrant Irish population of Missouri.

Throughout the book the Paytons provide lush photography sprinkled with historical documents and photos that help keep the story moving along briskly. It is a fascinating tale and it is well and thoroughly told

The Catholic Missourian, December 19, 2008

Authors explore mystery of Fr. Hogan’s Irish settlement in southern Missouri

Prodigiously illustrated with stirring color photography, the 128-page book tells the story of a colony of Irish immigrants Fr. Hogan established in 1858 on land bought from the federal government near the Arkansas border. …In Mystery of the Irish Wilderness, the Paytons follow the land’s story through corporate logging in the early 1900s to the culture clashes leading up to the government’s designation of 16,500 acres as part of the Mark Twain National Forest in 1984. The authors also investigated many of the legends and maudlin myths about the Irish Wilderness that developed in the years after the Civil War. They found and pieced together abundant circumstantial evidence about what happened to the colony and whether any of its inhabitants returned to the area, but not enough to draw incontrovertible conclusions.

Irish America Magazine – online edition October/November 2008 issue

The Irish experience in the Southern U.S. has long been a neglected area of study, though that is changing. Mystery of the Irish Wilderness: Land and Legend of Father John Joseph Hogan’s Lost Irish Colony on the Ozark Wilderness (by Leland and Crystal Payton) explores the matters. It is a fascinating look at a forgotten experiment led by a visionary Catholic priest who attempted to create a colony for refugees of the Irish Famine in the Ozark mountains of Missouri. The priest was John Joseph Hogan, from Limerick, and his plan was to give struggling Irish Catholics a foothold in America, even if they would have to live side-by-side with the Scotch Irish, with whom they often battled. The land became known as the Irish Wilderness, and many of the Catholic Irish were displaced during the U.S. Civil War, never to return. Almost 100 years later, a land dispute brought this story back into the public eye, and the Paytons are right to suggest this is an important chapter in the Irish-American story. “Many themes come together in this story,” the authors explain. “Immigration, war, and the challenges of being Catholic in a fundamentally Protestant culture.”
Tom Deignan reviews a selection of recently published books of Irish and Irish-American interest.

Civil War Books and Author

Mystery of the Irish Wilderness is the story of Catholic priest John J. Hogan’s mission to establish agricultural “colonies” in Missouri for poor Irish immigrants. Much of the text comprises lengthy excerpts from Hogan’s own published memoirs describing his journeys and interactions (positive and negative) with the existing populace. Fr. Hogan’s efforts were widespread, establishing settlements in SE Missouri between the Eleven Point and Current rivers — the “Irish Wilderness”, now a Federal preserve — and in far off Chillicothe. However, by war’s end, the more isolated wilderness colonies had been abandoned. The narrative of co-authors Leland and Crystal Payton provides background information as well as their own take on the ‘mystery’ behind the dispersal of the Ozark settlements during the Civil War. Hogan’s post-war career is also discussed.

The book’s presentation is beautiful, with full-color illustrations on almost every page. Both period and professionally executed modern photographs are included. Archival and modern topographical maps also support the text well, giving the uninitiated reader a good geographical orientation. Combined with the quality construction and materials used, the book’s physical appearance is impressive. On the downside, while there’s a short select bibliography, those with a scholarly interest in the material will not find footnotes or an index.

Readers looking for a detailed explanation of why the settlers abandoned their claims and where they went will not find one. The authors were unable to uncover any conclusive evidence, and Hogan’s own writings add little to our understanding, as he traveled to Chillicothe in December 1859 and never did return to the Ozark settlements. What is left is speculation, but the most reasonable conclusion appears to be an incremental dispersal brought on by community isolation in combination with wartime social and economic dislocation — a fate similar to that of large numbers of communities throughout the southern and border states. As a conclusion, this is perhaps the most reasonable that can be made; however, the text is uncited and the reference material supporting the book’s coverage of the civil war years contains unreliable secondary sources such as the work of the late Jerry Ponder, a highly partisan and controversial [I would go so far as to say discredited] regional writer and researcher.

Red flags aside, there is more to Mystery of the Irish Wilderness than the war years. The book is a visual feast, with rare insights into frontier missionary work in Missouri and American Catholic history in general.

Andrew Wagenhoffer


Sample page spreads. Click on the image to see the full spread.

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