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History Schoolcraft's Journey in the Deep Ozarks

Lessons From The Past: Schoolcraft's Journey in the Deep Ozarks

Thursday Nov. 5, 1818: “I begin my tour where other travelers have ended theirs, on the confines of wilderness…”
Schoolcraft’s route through the Ozarks from Ashley Cave to Beaver Creek.  Click to see large version

This period of increased awareness of Lewis and Clark’s expedition is a good time to explore the journal of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft was one of the first white travelers to make detailed notes of a journey through the Ozarks at the moment of very early settlement. The Ozarks were still nominally the hunting grounds of the Osage; the Delaware had migrated from the east into the region, and only a few white hunters were living with their families in the interior. Schoolcraft and a companion set out from Potosi, Missouri, a lead-mining village of 70 buildings, with one pack-horse in November of 1818. They walked down to Arkansas, up to the Springfield area and then back to Potosi, crossing the Black River in Wayne County. The two men walked 900 miles in 90 days.

Schoolcraft diligently recorded his observations about natural communities and their plants, trees and wildlife, streams, geology, the Osage, and early settlers. Streams he crossed and described include Courtois, Ashley and Bull Creeks, and the Meramac, Current, Big Piney, North Fork, James and White Rivers. He often describes oak woodland and forest, and forests of pine, as well as frequent savanna, glade, and prairie.

Saturday, Nov 7, between Potosi and Courtois Creek: "Our path this day has lain across an elevated ridge of land, covered with yellow pine, and strewed with fragments of sandstone, quartz, and a species of coarse flinty jasper, the soil being sterile, and the vegetation scanty."

Ancient open-grown post oak woodland with grassy understory.  Photo courtesy of the Ancient Cross Timbers Consortium.

Sunday, Nov 8, 1818, near the headwaters of the Meramac: "We immediately entered on a hilly barren tract, covered with high grass, and here and there clumps of oak-trees. Soil poor, and covered with fragments of jaspery flint, horn-stone, quartz, and detached masses of carbonate of lime. Such, indeed, has been the character of the small stones under foot from Potosi, but the ledges breaking out on hill sides have uniformly been limestone."

The amount of open land they crossed in the Ozarks we might find suprising today. Tuesday Nov. 10: "One of the greatest inconveniences we experience in traveling in this region arises from the difficulty of finding, at the proper time, a place of encampment affording wood and water, both of which are indispensable. On this account we find it prudent to encamp early in the afternoon, when we come to a spring of good water, with plenty of wood for fire, and grass for our horse; and, on the contrary, are compelled to travel late at night in order to find them."

Sunday, Nov. 15, heading southwest from Ashley Cave: "...the soil was covered thinly with yellow pine, and shrubby oaks, and with so thick a growth of under-brush as to increase, very much, the labour of travelling. To this succeeded a high-land prairie, with little timber, or underbrush, and covered with grass... In calling this a high-land prairie, I am to be understood as meaning a tract of high-land generally level, and with very little wood or shrubbery. It is a level woodless barren covered with wild grass."

The North Fork River

Schoolcraft called the North Fork “the Limestone River” because of all the limestone in the river valley. He wrote that the river was “wholly composed of springs” flowing pure, cold, and clear water. Schoolcraft visited Topaz Spring, which feeds the North Fork River and later became the site of a water mill for settlers. Schoolcraft called it Elkhorn Spring because he found an elk horn there.

Saturday, Nov 21, in the valley of the North Fork: "The bottom-lands continue to improve both in quality and extent, and growth of cane is more vigorous and green, and affords a nutritious food our horse. The bluffs on each side of the valley continue, and are covered by the yellow pine." Schoolcraft and his companion saw flocks of turkey and ducks, as well as a great many deer, squirrels, and beaver. Bear and elk were also common. And the rivers were deep. Once, they found a place to cross the North Fork that they thought was only two or three feet deep. The water was so clear that what looked easy to wade turned out to be so deep that their pack-horse fell in and had to swim across. The water spoiled or damaged much of their provisions of meal, salt, sugar, tea, and powder for their guns. Soon after they were lucky to find a trail that led to a cabin where a settler family gave them food. The diet of the settlers they found was composed of meat from wild animals and meal ground from corn grown by their cabins.

Here is his description of the area near James River, around what became Springfield, written on Monday Jan. 4, 1819: “The prairies, which commence at the distance of a mile west of this river, are the most extensive, rich, and beautiful, of any which I have ever seen west of the Mississippi river. They are covered by a coarse wild grass, which attains so great a height that it completely hides a man on horseback in riding through it. The deer and elk abound in this quarter, and the buffalo is occasionally seen in droves upon the prairies, and in the open highland woods. Along the margin of the river, and to a width of from one to two miles each way, is found a vigorous growth of forest trees, some of which attain an almost incredible size…"

Periodic native and lightning set fires kept the landscape more open that it is today. Aside from cities and towns, highways and gravel roads, impounded streams and the elimination of elk, wolves, and buffalo, the lack of fire on the land is probably the biggest change on the landscape.

Schoolcraft writes of seeing white hunters laden with skins stop to shoot game just for the fun of it, and contrasts that behavior with that of the natives: “The Indian considers the forest his own, and is careful in using and preserving every thing which it affords. He never kills more meat than he has occasion for. The white…destroys all before him, and cannot resist the opportunity of killing game, although he neither wants the meat, nor can carry the skins.”

Schoolcraft’s journal has recently been reissued and updated by Milton Rafferty, with maps and notes on what certain areas look like today. Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks: Schoolcraft’s Ozark Journal,1818-1819 is published by University of Arkansas Press. Amazingly, the complete Journal is now online! An abridged version is also available. http://history.smsu.edu/FTMiller/LocalHistory/Schoolcraft/schcrftjournal.htm

Written by Hank Dorst for The Broadcaster, Winter 2004 issue, published by Ozarks Resource Center. Photo of North Fork River by Peter Callaway. Source: Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks, Dr. Milton Rafferty, cartography by Heather Conley, University of Arkansas Press. Used by permission.