The Ozark Mountain Region has inherited much of its cultural identity and folk practices from older European tradition, especially from the British Isles and Germany. These stories, languages, religious beliefs, and even some magical methods, developed amongst isolated families in the heart of Appalachia before being carried to the Ozark Mountains around 1820 after the forced removal of the Osage and New Settler Cherokee to Oklahoma. Ozark culture would further develop into what we see collected in the early twentieth century by famous folklorists like Vance Randolph in his Ozark Magic and Folklore and Mary Parler in her multi-volume collection entitled Folk Beliefs from Arkansas. These works cover a range of folkways, many of which are still around today despite the slow decay of Ozark folk culture. One of these traditions that has endured over the years, especially in the more rural areas of the Ozarks, is believing in what Ozark folk call the "Little People," or fairies.
There's hardly a single origin story for the Little People, even amongst tight-knit rural families. I myself have heard about a dozen in my time collecting folklore across the Ozark Mountains. In one story, the Little People were said to have been mistakenly brought over from Ireland to the New World in a farmer's pocket. Others have claimed the Little People, much like the fairies of Celtic and Pan-European folklore, were actually fallen angels cursed to wander the mortal realm in return for their siding with Lucifer in his rebellion. The most common belief I've collected, however, sees the Little People as animistic spirits of nature and guardians of the wilderness. In most of the old stories, some of which are still recited around a campfire or woodstove, it's said that the Little People were here in the Ozarks even before the oldest indigenous peoples.
In reality, lore surrounding the Little People represents a blending of Old and New World cultures. This amalgamation would have specifically taken place in the Appalachian Mountains amongst rural families. Part of this tapestry of belief would have come from Pan-Celtic sources like Britain, Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Here, fairy lore would have already been a foundational part of the culture for centuries, the fairies themselves representing ancient animistic beliefs from across the Celtic world. German families were also very common in Southern Appalachia and would have added to the story with their own tales of the "Moosleute" or "moss folk," who were capricious guardians of nature and wildling spirits. These European beliefs would have then mixed with those from Indigenous communities in Appalchia, specifically the Cherokee who have what they call the "Little People" or "yvwi tsunsdi" ?? ????, common features of both traditional storytelling and cultural practices.
Physical Characteristics and Personality
As a whole, the Ozark Little People aren't so different in form to what was passed from these more ancient sources. It's important to note however, that much of the beliefs and traditions of the Ozarks are based in specific families or small communities, so there tends to be many different variations on common themes. While stories, of course, vary throughout the region about specific details regarding the Little People and their culture, there are some common elements that are still held to be true.
While the fairies of European folklore often go by many different names, including the "Fair Folk," the "Gentry," and the "Good Folk," in the English-speaking areas of the British Isles, as well as Gaelic names like the "aos sí" or the more ancient "aes sídhe," the Little People of the Ozarks are almost entirely without alternatives. In the older European variations, phrases like the Good Folk are used as circumlocutions of language, or as ways of naming these spirits while trying to avoid offending them. In the Ozarks, the phrase Little People is itself a circumlocution and according to the legends isn't what the Little People call themselves. That name remains for the Little People themselves and would be taken as a grave offense if used by some outsider. In short, it seems those Ozark ancestors who passed down these beliefs didn't find it necessary to use any other terms besides the one that had always been around.
In the past hundred years or so, more and more people have begun to use words like "fairy" when referring to the Little People, mostly from folklore and storytelling influences from outside the Ozarks. I was talking to one informant about this very notion and he told me that "the Little People ain't fairies…Fairies are from storybooks and the Little People are real." While this distinction might make some chuckle, it points to a very important notion that the Little People are in most cases wholly unlike the sprites and fairies of the Brothers Grimm and other sources. While this distinction would have been more strictly observed at one time, today most people in the area won't think twice about using the word "fairy" as a suitable alternative to Little People.
Size and Shape
The Little People are often depicted as just that: little. In most stories, they are described as being anywhere from only a few inches tall to around two feet at the tallest. Legends abound, however, about the Little People and their shapeshifting magic. It's believed that while their natural forms might be quite small, they can change at will into any human or animal form they choose. This often makes identifying one of the Little People a difficult task. There are ways of sniffing out one of the Little People in disguise, however. It's said that there will always be something off about the human form one of the Little People might take.
In most accounts, the Little People are said to look exactly like humans except, of course, smaller. There are stories describing them with all kinds of body shapes, often as many as we see in our own world. In general, they are said to wear clothes from the past, reminiscent no doubt of what the first families to settle in the Ozarks wore. In one story I collected, my informant told me that when she was a kid, she saw one of the Little People early in the morning after milking her family's goats. She said he, "looked just like an old man with a beard, except only about a foot tall. He wore old-timey clothes like from the Civil War times and a bright red, pointy hat."
Other stories have described the Little People in very similar ways, but the style of their clothing seems to vary from person to person. Many have described them to me as being from around the Civil War, others offer up a picture of something much more ancient. In one anecdote, my informant told me the Little People he saw were all wearing buckskin clothes and hickory nut shells for hats. The red hat as described in the first story is also often a common feature in descriptions of the Little People. I've yet to been able to deduce this for a factm but I suspect these descriptions are influenced by images of Scandinavian gnomes that were popular features of storybooks and Christmas cards around the turn of the Twentieth century.
Culture and Purpose
In nearly all of the descriptions of the Little People that I've encountered they are always described as living in towns and villages that mirror our own human settlements. Solitary Little People are a rarity, and even if someone were to encounter one of these sprites on their own, they would no doubt assume them to be a part of a larger community. These villages are almost always hidden away from sight, usually inside of certain woodland landmarks like ancient trees, solitary boulders, or natural springs. As it was once described to me, these villages often occupy a magical space within these landmarks that is much larger on the inside than the outside. In many of the stories, a human onlooker only discovers a village present after spying on one of the Little People entering in through a secret door into the side of a boulder or tree. For this reason, these natural features of the land are often held with great respect by Ozark hillfolk as possibly housing a clan of Little People. Still to this day, many farmers leave solitary trees alone in their fields believing them to be homes to the Little People.
Because the Little People's society is viewed as a mirror of our own, they are often described in many of the same ways. For instance, the Little People are said to have their own language, religion, customs, occupations, and pastimes. Very little of this culture can be described in great detail, of course, as the Little People are very cautious of human gazes. This is another similarity shared with Ozark culture itself, which has often been described as highly secretive and distrusting of outsiders as epitomized in the title of folklorist Vance Randolph's collection of Ozark tall tales, We Always Lie to Strangers. Those who are able to recount what they've seen of the Little People most often describe them as performing tasks like milking, hunting for game, chopping wood, or even hanging clothes out to dry. It's important to note that the Little People are often described in very mundane ways compared to their fairy cousins from across Europe.
The purpose of the Little People is often debated, even to this day. Some believe them to be demons or fallen angels, but this claim is held by few in the Ozarks. Most see them as guardian spirits of the land itself. This belief follows, as the Little People are so often associated with certain natural landmarks and features. The presence of the Little People in these specific spots often allows for the survival of certain springs, old growth trees, and even entire patches of forest. The Little People then act as a sort of balancing force between humankind and nature. When we get to invasive, shortsighted, or greedy, the Little People are there to remind us of the importance of honoring the land and protecting it.
Encounters with the Little People are most often brief and usually result from happenstance. As many of the stories go, a human finds themselves out in the woods, usually at certain liminal times like early in the morning or around twilight. Activities that brought these humans to the woods vary from story to story. In most accounts, it's either a hunter stalking deer at dawn, or a child who loses the trail on their way back home. In both cases, the story goes much in the same way, but we'll use the example of a hunter. As they are stalking slowly through the woods, they hear something rustling in the bushes not too far in the distance. They creep slowly toward the sound, believing it to be a racoon or possum. As they move around behind the cover of a tree stump they spot one of the Little People. As I described in the previous section, the Little People are often spied performing very menial tasks like gathering firewood or picking berries. In one story, a hunter told me he spied one of the Little People milking a groundhog.
These encounters are most often harmless, and the human onlooker usually runs away with a fantastic story to pass around town. In a few cases though, the meeting between a human and one of the Little People is much more intimate. In these stories, the human often rescues one of the Little People from a predator animal like a coyote or hawk. In return for such a kind gesture, the fairy usually rewards the human with a map to buried treasure, precious gems, or sometimes even magical abilities. It's often children who find themselves in these situations, as they are seen as innocent and thereby more likely to help a woodland creature in need.
In a few cases, such close contact with the Little People results in a not-so-happy ending. Hexes from the Little People are quite common, usually upon a person's home or crops. Such curses usually result from negative interactions with the Little People. Examples include cutting down a tree that houses a clan of Little People or bulldozing over one of their sacred springs. These curses are often described as long-lasting and sometimes are even passed down through a family. As the stories go, rectifying such offenses is difficult but not impossible. In one anecdote, my informant told me her father had been cursed by the Little People and was only able to heal himself after he restored the natural spring he'd blocked off to make room for a barn.
Magic and Healing
For some Ozarkers, encounters with the Little People have resulted in gaining certain healing or magical abilities. While this story is far from common, I've encountered several modern healers and magical practitioners who credit the Little People for their power, and there are no doubt more in the past. Most often this power comes as a result of a human rescuing one of the Little People from danger, as detailed in the previous section. On rare occasions, a human might also gain magical abilities through playing a game with the Little People. Like their European cousins, the Little People of the Ozarks are often described as tricksters who can be outsmarted by cunning humans. Agreeing to a game with the Little People is dangerous business, often resulting in hexes and curses if the human loses. But if someone can keep their wits about them and watch for fairy tricks, the prize is almost always worth the trouble.
In one story I collected, a healer told me she was gifted her power as a small child through winning one of these fairy games. She'd met the troop of Little People one morning while she was out picking black raspberries. A particularly wizened old fairy challenged the little girl to a raspberry picking contest. The one who had the most berries in their basket at the end of three minutes was the winner. The little girl agreed, suspecting this haggard old man wouldn't be able to pick nearly as many as she could. So, they started off and the old fairy shot up into the raspberry canes as quick as lightning. The little girl began to cry at the trick but still tried to pick as many berries as she could despite her tears. After the three minutes the old fairy called the game. His basket was full of ripe black raspberries but looking over, the little girl's basket was filled with three times as many. The old fairy was shocked, as was the little girl herself. She happily wiped away her tears and looked at the crowd of Little People. About five or six of them in the front smiled and waved to her with hands soaked in black raspberry juice. As a reward for winning the game, the old fairy gifted the child with healing magic, but told her that she was never again to eat another black raspberry and that if she did her powers would leave her. At the time of our conversation, my informant was around fifty years old and swore she'd never eaten a black raspberry since.