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…”
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,
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
|Ancient open-grown post oak woodland with grassy
understory. Photo courtesy of the Ancient Cross Timbers
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
all before him, and cannot resist the opportunity of killing game, although
he neither wants the meat, nor can carry the skins.
Schoolcrafts 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: Schoolcrafts
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