The early French trappers who explored the region called it “Little River” to distinguish it from its larger cousin a few miles to the east, the Mississippi River. Ironically, the little body of water provided the name for the largest drainage district in the United States.
A U.S. federal law, the Swamp Land Act of 1850 essentially provided a mechanism for reverting title of federally owned swamp land to states which would agree to drain the land and turn it into productive, presumably agricultural, use.
The Missouri glades were granted by the federal government under the Swamp Land Act of September 28, 1850, to the State of Missouri. Missouri in turn conveyed it to the several counties in which it was located. The title remained vested in the counties for years because of their inability to find anyone willing to assume the burden of paying taxes on what was considered worthless land.
Finally, lumbermen, recognizing the large quantities of merchantable timber standing on the land, purchased it for small amounts. After removing the timber, they found themselves with an asset (swamp land) that was a burden in the way of taxation.
This area had been subjected to over flow from both the Mississippi River and the hill streams from the Ozark foothills, both of which carried to and deposited on the land vast quantities of sediment and silt. The inevitable result from these overflows was the building up of a soil unequaled in fertility and containing all the chemical elements of a balanced super soil.
The landowners, recognizing the potential value of the land, decided to devise some means of protection against the super-abundance of water.
Plans to turn the swamp into farmland date back to the 1840s, but the job seemed too big. Not even the government had ever undertaken anything of this magnitude before. But, the landscape was soon to be transformed.