Osage burned the forest to keep it open to hunt game. Fire allowed grass
and other plants for grazing to grow on the sunny ground under the widely
spaced trees. Lightning and Indians set fires that were carried by the
grass across large areas. This use of fire allowed prairie-like conditions
to spread eastward into areas that are now forest.
Because of frequent fires, the forest was not as dense
then as it is now. Open woodlands were common on sunny south slopes
and ridgetops. Savannas, where widely spaced trees grew over a carpet
of grasses and wildflowers, were widespread. Glades are places where
thin soils prevent easy growth of hardwoods. Now often overgrown with
cedar, they were also kept open by fire.
The Osage were driven out of the state by the white settlers.
Their legacy, and that of the Indians before them, can be seen in the
overgrown savannas that still dot the watershed. You can see restored
savannas in Caney Mountain Conservation
Area. Carefully controlled periodic burning is returning savannas
and glades to their presettlement appearance.
The early traveler and writer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft never
saw any Osage Indians on his 1818-1819 trip through the Ozarks. That's
because the Osage only came to the Ozarks during the warmer months of
the year for long hunting trips. During Schoolcraft's winter journey,
the Osage were snug in their villages on the Osage and Missouri Rivers
to the north.
Schoolcraft did, however, come across many signs of Osage
Indians. He found a hunting encampment near Tecumseh. He also found
three deserted camps in the Swan Creek Valley, along a trail called
the Osage Trace. Swan Creek Watershed is west of the Beaver Creek Watershed,
so it is two watersheds west of Bryant Watershed. The Osage returned
to their encampments every year for hunting. Schoolcraft wrote that
the three camps looked like they could hold 100 people each. Men, women
and children went on the long hunting trips. Some elders stayed behind
in the villages to tend the crops.
The huts in the hunting camps were called wigwams and
were shaped like dome tents. The Osage made wigwams from small bent
hickory poles that they covered with animal skins or rush mats. They
arranged the wigwams in a large circle. In the center of the circle
was a wooden scaffold for drying meat. Schoolcraft wrote that the chief's
hut was easy to spot because it was larger than the others. The camps
didn't look like abandoned settlements. They were very neat and well
ordered because the Osage used them every year.
Schoolcraft was impressed with the careful ways of Indians
he had seen in other places. He described how an Indian would make a
small fire by gathering pieces of dry wood from the forest floor and
sit close to it for warmth. He contrasted this with the white hunter's
custom of cutting large green trees and making a huge bonfire, then
sitting far back from the fire to avoid getting burned.
The Indians only killed what they needed. They ate, preserved
or used the bones and skin of everything they killed. Schoolcraft wrote
that he once saw a white hunter carrying the meat and skins of five
bears stop to kill three buffalo for "no other object than the sport
of killing them. Behavior like that by white hunters was a major source
of the trouble "between the red and white hunters of Missouri."
Source: Schoolcraft's "Journal of His Trip into the
Interior," recently reissued and updated by Dr. Milton Rafferty under
the title Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks, University of Arkansas