Billy Buster and the Lick Creek crossing, part 2
In our earlier discussion of the Billy Buster phenomenon, we focused on William Randolph Hearst’s Billy Buster nickname and how it became a household word in America during the early 20th century. Hearst was born in 1863, and the name Billy Buster was already by then a verbal symbol of the American cultural values, or qualities, of strength, tenacity and intensity. The term “bust” was initially used here prior to the American Revolution as a variant of the English word “burst.” A person, object or event that burst or busted things was a “buster.”
By the 1840s, several big city newspapers and theaters had presented robust fictional characters with that name. One newspaper storyteller wrote about a rather stubborn pet goat named Billy Buster. We might guess that he was a billy goat. According to Douglas Harper’s Etymology Dictionary, the term “Billy Buster” is known to have been used in Arkansas and Missouri during the 1850s. The name for Lick Creek’s crossing in Ozark County could very well date from that era.
In the early days of settlement along the Atlantic Coast, the government relocated many Native American tribes in a great purge. Some went west peacefully, but the Seminoles in Florida were not so inclined. In terms of human lives, the three Seminole Wars were more costly to the new Republic than the American Revolution or the War of 1812.
The Seminole Wars started in 1817 and were not finally resolved until 1858. As the conflict wound on and on, the names of Seminole leaders became well known throughout the country.
Details of military encounters were frequently reported in newspapers of the day. Since the indigenous names of these warriors were difficult to spell and pronounce, they were often given English names or epithets like “Billy Ham” and “Tommy John.” One of the famous Seminole chiefs of that era was Tallahassee. His oldest son was born in 1833 during the Second Seminole War and was named “Billy Buster” by the whites who came to know him.
The Second Seminole War ended in 1842 when Billy Buster was just 9 years old. More than 4,000 Seminoles surrendered at this time and were sent West. Many of them died along the way.
Still a very young boy, the Seminole Billy Buster chose instead to defy the government; he disappeared deep into the swamps of Central Florida.
He and about 300 other rebels settled in a primeval wilderness south of Kissimmee, not far from what is now Disney World. They were able to navigate this terrain far better than the Army of that day and managed to avoid capture there. Shortly before the Civil War, the government finally granted them the right to stay in Florida.
In the middle of this harsh region is an elevated patch of prairie land that forms a 55-acre island. Billy Buster lived there and became the chief of his small tribe as well as a national symbol of independence and perseverance. Today, the island is part of a state wilderness preserve known as Buster Island. Thousands of visitors come to this spot annually, but even in the 1800s, writers, reporters and the curious from far and wide came to see this historical site.
George Hearst may have had Billy Buster, the Seminole Chief, in mind when he chose that as a nickname for his son. In any case, both William Randolph Hearst and Billy Buster were destined to become famous.
During the Civil War, the Seminoles were fortunate to be out of sight and out of mind while the nation was engrossed in other matters. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a surge of national interest in the Wild West and in Native Americans, in general. Popular traveling shows like those of Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley toured from coast to coast. Ironically, William Randolph Hearst was forced to pay $27,000 to Oakley in 1903 for libel in a Hearst paper.
Several government-sponsored and private expeditions into the Everglades during this period recorded the life and times of the Seminoles. Billy Buster was often mentioned in those reports as a resourceful and independent leader. He died at the Brighton Reservation near Fort Myers, Florida, in 1940 at the age of 107.
In 1936, the popular radio show “Gang Busters” was launched. It was a bold dramatization of law enforcement in major crime scenarios nationwide. That buster of a program ran on various networks for more than 20 years. The phrase “gangbuster,” like “billybuster,” has become a descriptive adjective that is literally a part of the English language today.
With the term Billy Buster being such a popular part of American culture for more than 100 years, it’s impossible to say what specific person or event inspired the naming of the onerous crossing and grist mill at Lick Creek near Howards Ridge. It is probably safe, however, to say that the spot lives up to the reputation of its name.
It may not seem important today to know, or even care, why the names Billy Buster Crossing or Buster Mill were chosen more than a century ago. Maybe it’s just idle curiosity. Author Kurt Vonnegut once said, “History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.”
Maybe that’s reason enough to drift off occasionally on an Ozark Journey.