Ozark County History
MOGenWeb Site, Johnna Quick -- Coordinator
The Spanish were probably the first white men seen by the Indians of the Ozarks. Credit was given to the Spaniard, Hernando de Soto (1500?-1542), an associate of Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, as being the white man to discover the Mississippi Valley and the Ozarks. As a result of his exploration, Spain was given a claim to the area.
Although historians have presented different theories as to the precise route of De Soto’s journey, one general route has usually been accepted. In May, 1539, De Soto landed at Tampa Bay, Florida, with 600 men, 200 horses, and extensive equipment and supplies. Hoping to find riches comparable to those found in Peru, he made his way through northern Florida, went northeast through Georgia and South Carolina, and turned northwest into Tennessee, southwest to Alabama, and north and west to the banks of the Mississippi, near the present site of Memphis. He found no gold, and by the time he reached the banks of the Mississippi, in May, 1541, his expeditionary force had been reduced and weakened severely by Indian battles, hardships, and disease. De Soto crossed the Mississippi and then went up the river to the Indian province of Casqui, located in the New Madrid area of Missouri. While at Casqui, Rodrigo Ranjel, private secretary to De Soto, described the following incident in his diary:
“The Caciques and two of his wives being at their liberty in the quarters of the Governor (De Soto), which were guarded by his halberdiers, he asked them what part of the country was most inhabited; to which they replied, that to the south, or down the river, where were large towns, and the Caciques governed wide territories, with numerous people; and that to the northwest was a province, near some mountains, called Coligoa. He, with the others, deemed it well to go thither first; saying that the mountains, perhaps, would make a difference in the soil, and that silver and gold might afterward follow.”
De Soto then traveled across country to the “province of Coligoa, contiguous to certain mountains” at the source of the St. Francis River or the hills of the White River. Ranjel described the entrance to Coligoa and the events that followed:
“The inhabitants of Coligoa had never heard of the Christians, and when these got so near their town as to be seen, they fled up stream along a river that passed near by there; some throwing themselves into the water, whence they were taken by their pursuers, who, on either bank, captured many of both sexes, and the Cacique with the rest. Three days from that time came many Indians, by his order, with offerings of shawls, deer-skins, and two cowhides; they stated that at the distance of five or six leagues towards the north were many cattle, where the country, being cold, was thinly inhabited; and that, to the best of their knowledge, the province that was better provisioned than any other, and more populous, was one to the south, called Cayas.
About forty leagues from Quiguate stood Coligoa, at the foot of a mountain, in the vale of a river of medium size, like the Caya (the Arkansas), a stream that passes through Estremadura. The soil was rich, yielding maize in such profusion that the old was thrown out of store to make room for the new grain. Beans and pumpkins were likewise in great plenty; both were larger and better than those of Spain; the pumpkins, when roasted, have nearly the taste of chestnuts.”
De Soto’s expedition reached northeastern Oklahoma or northwestern Arkansas by autumn, 1541. Here the group remained for a month to fatten the horses in the ample Indian cornfields. They then turned to the southeast and spent the winter somewhere in Arkansas or northern Louisiana. In the spring De Soto led his expedition back to the Mississippi, having by that time lost half of his men and three-fourths of his animals. He had planned to go down the Mississippi to the seacoast but became ill and died. Luis de Muscoso took command of the expedition and carried out De Soto’s plan. From the mouth of the Mississippi, the expedition traveled by sea to Mexico.
It has been stated that the Spanish were mining lead on the White River near Bull Shoals in Baxter County, Arkansas, as early as 1515 before De Soto’s expedition. Writers in the area have theorized that perhaps De Soto himself crossed the White River at or near that place. Schoolcraft stated that “I am of the opinion that De Soto crossed the White River near the Bull Shoals area.”
The Spanish were not the only people to explore and lay claim to the Trans-Mississippi West. The French did likewise during the seventeenth century. In 1673 Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette, with a party of five, paddled down the Mississippi River, planning to travel to its mouth. They stopped at the mouth of the Arkansas River where they were greeted by rather warlike Indians. After smoking the peace pipe and talking with the aborigines, Joliet and Marquette became satisfied that the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. Afraid of the dangers of the trip on to the mouth of the river because of the presence of the Spanish and dreading the long, hard work of traveling back up the Mississippi over such a great distance, they then turned back toward Lake Michigan.
In 1682 Rene Robert Cavalier, Sier de la Salle, with a party of twenty-three Frenchmen and eighteen Indian braves with their wives and three children, went down the Mississippi. They stopped near the mouth of the Arkansas and were greeted by the Indians whom Joliet and Marquette visited. La Salle raised a cross and took formal possession of their country. Securing two Arkansas Indians as guides, the party continued down the Mississippi, reaching its mouth in April, 1682. They assembled on dry ground near the river’s mouth and took formal possession of the Mississippi Valley drainage basin. After raising a standard bearing the arms of France, La Salle proclaimed:
“In the name of the most high, mighty, invincible, and victorious Prince, Louis the Great, by the grace of God King of France and of Navarre, Fourteenth of that name, I, this sixth day of April, one thousand six hundred and eighty-two, in virtue of the commission of his Majesty which I hold in my hand, and which may be seen by all whom it may concern, have taken, and do now take, in the name of his Majesty and of his successors to the crown, possession of this country of Louisiana, the seas, harbors, ports, bays, adjacent straits, and all the nations, peoples, provinces, cities, towns, villages, mines, minerals, fisheries, streams, and rivers, within the extent of the said Louisiana,…along the river Colbert, or Mississippi, and the rivers which discharge themselves therein,…hereby protesting against all who may hereafter undertake to invade any or all of these foresaid countries, peoples, or lands,….”
Thus by 1682 the French and the Spanish had both laid claim to the Mississippi Valley drainage basin. Making good those claims was another matter.
About forty years after La Salle’s journey, the Frenchman, Bernard de La Harpe, explored the Red River some distance above Natchitoches and crossed over to the Canadian and Arkansas rivers. La Harpe noted passing the mouth of the White River while on his journey. He referred to reaching the “riviere Blanche, qui court daus le nord-quest du cote des Osages,” which entered the “riviere des Sotolis,” or Arkansas, four leagues from the Mississippi. French fur traders were known to have advanced up the White River as far as Liberty (present-day Norfork, Arkansas).
As a result of the French and Indian War (1753-1763), which began with a conflict between French and British outposts in the disputed Ohio Valley, the French were defeated as a power in North America. At the Treaty of Paris, 1763, which ended the war, the Trans-Mississippi West was ceded to Spain, while Britain received Canada, Florida, and the territory east of the Mississippi. On October 1, 1800, France and Spain signed a secret treaty, the Treaty of San Ildefonso, retro ceding Louisiana to France; and on April 30, 1803, the United States purchased the area from France for $15,000,000.
The Louisiana Purchase opened nearly a million square miles of land, including the Ozark Highlands, to American settlement. Orleans Territory, whose boundary followed closely the boundaries of present-day Louisiana, was formed in 1804; and the remainder of the purchase, including Missouri and Arkansas, was organized as Louisiana Territory in 1805.
American exploration and settlement of the White River Valley, with its fertile bottom lands, began almost as soon as the Louisiana Purchase was made. The White River, called Ne Ska or Niska by the Sioux and Unica or Nika by the Osage because of its clear waters, was the subject of remark at an early date.
One of the earliest descriptions of the White River at its mouth was given by the Lutheran minister, Timothy Flint, in a letter to his brother, the Reverend James Flint of Massachusetts in May, 1819. He was surprised to find that the White River appeared green rather than white. He wrote:
“The channel of White River was distinguished by its current, the green colour of its waters, compared with the white waters of the Mississippi, and by an open channel, marked by willows in full foliage, which as nearly resembled the leaves of the peach-tree, that I asked one of the boatsmen who was familiar with the country; what kind of tree it was, who answered with much solemnity, that it was the wild peach. It was a new order of things to stern the current, and go upstream, as floating 500 miles before the heavy current of the Missouri and Mississippi. The current came down the river at the rate of three miles an hour. It seemed about three hundred and fifty yards in width, and at this time had fifty feet of water in depth. In ascending, we were struck with the grandeur of the forest, the immense size of the trees, and their dark green foliage.”
The only scientific exploration expedition which passed through Ozark County, of which there is a record, was that of the explorer and ethnologist, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, and his companion, Levi Pettibone, during the winter of 1818-1819.
Information on the life of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, obtained from the Dictionary of American Biography, shows that he was an accomplished man. Schoolcraft (1793-1864), the son of a glass maker, was born in Albany County, New York, and went to common school in Hamilton, New York. At fifteen he entered Union College and later attended Middlebury College. In school his favorite subjects were language and natural science, especially geology and mineralogy. He studied glass making and in 1817 wrote a book on the subject at Utica, New York.
At the age of twenty-five, he began his explorations with the visit to the central Ozarks, which was Indian Country at that time. His report of the exploration, A View of the Lead Mines of Southern Missouri, was published in New York in 1819. Two other reports of the exploration were published later. Schoolcraft was considered a competent geologist, and in 1820 he was sent on an exploring expedition to the upper Mississippi and the Lake Superior copper region, writing a narrative of that tour.
In 1822 he was appointed Indian agent for the tribes of the Lake Superior region. He made a second expedition in 1832, and in 1836 he was promoted to Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Michigan and served in the department until 1841. He negotiated several treaties with the Chippewa during that period. He married a quarter-blood Chippewa girl, who though educated in Europe, understood and shared much of the primitive Indian culture. She died in 1842, and in 1847 he married Mary (Howard) of Beaufort District, North Carolina. Schoolcraft helped to found the Historical Society of Michigan in 1828 and the Algic Society of Detroit in 1832. He wrote many books, several on the American Indians. He traveled much and received many honors. He was “fluent, interesting, convincing, and made a good public appearance.”
Schoolcraft, Pettibone, and one pack horse left Mine a Burton (Potosi), Missouri Territory, on November 5, 1818. On November 9 they were on the Merrimack and two days later crossed the Current River, a tributary of the Black, traveling in a south-west direction. They learned that several white settlements had already been made at the mouth of the Current in present-day Randolph County, Arkansas.
Two weeks after the journey had begun, Schoolcraft and Pettibone came by accident upon the banks of the Big North Fork of White River, probably in present-day Douglas County. Schoolcraft described it as “a small stream running south, which originated in several springs.” He did not know until later that the stream was the Big North Fork. He believed the stream to be a tributary of the White River, however, and directed their route of travel along its banks for about six miles and then set up camp for the night. The next day, they were able to travel only twelve miles. Schoolcraft made the following observations about what they saw:
“The valley we are now in is bounded on each side by bluffs of limestone, overlaying sand-stone. The mineralogical character of the country has been quite uninteresting since last noticed.” Naming the stream the Limestone River, Schoolcraft wrote further:
“This stream is wholly composed of springs which gush at almost every step from its calcareous banks, and it rapidly assumes the character of a considerable river. The waters are very pure, cold, and transparent.
We have this day passed over some rich bottom lands, covered with elm, beech, oak, maple, sycamore, and ash. We have frequently driven the deer from its covert; and the wild turkey, duck, and grey squirrel, have been almost constantly in sight.”
The party camped on the banks of the river that night, and while continuing their journey the next morning, November 20, 1818, observed the first wild cane, within a mile of their previous camp. They found that it was fairly easy to travel through the cane-brakes. They began to see several green plants which they had not noticed before and concluded that they were approaching a milder climate. Black haw was “found in great perfection, notwithstanding the advanced season.” They continued southward through rich alluvion lands, “common to all the streams and valleys of Missouri”, and which were covered with a luxurious growth of forest-timber, shrubs, vines, cane, and green-briar, often so matted and interwoven together that their walk was made slow and fatiguing. The extent of the bottom lands was small, however, and was bordered by very high bluffs of calcareous rock. On this day they saw many bear and deer. They also saw turkey, duck, swan, prairie-hen, and squirrel. By this time the stream itself had become “devious beyond all example.” Schoolcraft recorded his observations:
“…the stream is further characterized by being made up wholly of springs, which bubble up from the rocks along its banks. No tributary has, as yet, swelled its current, either from the right or the left; but it continues visibly to increase from the springs, some of which are of immense size, and all remarkable for their purity of waters.”
Schoolcraft visited and named one spring which he felt deserved to be ranked among the natural phenomena of the region. He observed:
“It rushed out of an aperture in a lime-stone rock, at least fifty yards across, and where it joins the main river, about 1,000 yards below, equal to it, both in width and depth, the waters possessing the purity of crystal. I set my gun against a tree, and unbuckled my belt, preparatory to a drink, and in taking a few steps toward the brink of the spring, discovered an elk’s horn of most astonishing size, which I afterwards hung upon a limb of a contiguous oak, to tell the future traveler that he had been preceded by human footsteps in his visit to the Elkhorn Spring.”
The difficulties of their journey southward seemed to increase with the size of the stream and the width of the valley. It was hard work breaking through thickets bound together by grape vines and green-briar which were constantly entangling the horse’s foot and winding around their bodies. They sometimes had to use a knife to cut their way through. During this process Schoolcraft lost his mineral hammer which he used to shoe the horse and to obtain mineral specimens. At dusk they camped on the skirts of an extensive cane-brake on the bank of the river, exhausted after a day’s travel of only twelve miles.
On Saturday, November 21, Schoolcraft noted that the bottom lands continued to improve in quality and extent and that the cane, which proved to be a good food for their pack horse, was more vigorous and green. He made numerous sightings of turkey, bear, deer, pigeon, duck, and squirrel. He also noted that the bluffs on each side of the valley continued and were covered by yellow pine. Six miles below the camp made the night before, they came to the place where the river received its first tributary. This tributary, coming in at right angles from the left at the foot of a very lofty bluff, was described as a stream of a size nearly equal to the Limestone River (Big North Fork) itself. The river below the junction was visibly increased in size. Schoolcraft observed:
“The extreme limpidity of the water of this stream (Big North Fork) gives rise to a species of deception of which we have this day had a serious proof. It is so clear, white, and transparent, that the stones and pebbles in its bottom, at a depth of eight or ten feet, are reflected through it with the most perfect accuracy as to colour, size, and shape, and at the same time appears as if within two or three feet of the surface of the water. Its depth cannot, therefore, be judged by the eye with any probability of that degree of exactness which can be had by looking into other clear streams. The explanation of this phenomenon is referable to the extreme degree of the purity of the water, which holds no fine particles of earth in suspension, and admit the rays of light to pass through it without being intercepted or refracted by its particles.”
Schoolcraft revealed that his party learned this lesson in science the hard way:
“In attempting to ford the river where the water appeared to be two or three feet deep, the horse suddenly plunged in below his depth, and was compelled to swim across, and our baggage got completely wetted. Our tea, meal, salt, sugar, etc. was either greatly damaged, or entirely spoiled; our skins, blankets, and clothing were also soaked with water, and such part of our powder as was not bottled shared the same fate. This proved a serious misfortune as our situation precluded the possibility of getting new supplies.”
It was near night when this accident happened, and they immediately encamped and began to dry their supplies to try to save what was not already entirely ruined. This took them a considerable portion of the night. They had traveled twelve miles that day in a south-south-east direction.
On Sunday, November 22, they decided to leave the river bank which was so difficult and try traveling the highlands. When they left the valley, they followed a due west course for about two miles in order to completely disengage themselves from the pine-forest, the ravines, and the brush bordering the right bank of the river. They suddenly found themselves on a rather level, open barren where there was very little timber or underbrush. Then they altered their course to south-south-west and traveled in a direct line about fourteen miles. Schoolcraft noted that they “passed over a sterile soil, destitute of wood, with gentle elevations, but no hills or cliffs, and no water.” As night approached, they entered a rocky valley, bending toward the southeast, in hopes of finding water. Schoolcraft noted that the sterile valley deepened as they proceeded. It was nothing more than a dry channel scooped out of a confusion of rocks and stones. They traveled for two miles with night closing in and no prospect of finding a suitable place to camp. As the sky darkened, the wind began to rise, whispering among the pines which crowded the high bluffs that encompassed them. They expected to spend “a cheerless night”. Schoolcraft described what happened:
“We almost involuntarily stopped to survey the scene around us, and at this moment observed a small spring of water trickling among the stones at our feet; and turning toward its source, a cave in the rock, situated about midway up the bluff, yawned before us.
Elated with this sudden discovery, we immediately scrambled up to explore it; found it inhabitable with a spring issuing at its mouth and encamped. It was a spacious cave, and when we had kindled our fire, the reflection of light upon its high and rugged roof, and the different apartments into which it spread, produced an effect, an aweful grandeur, which it is impossible to describe. The train of reflections in which we are apt to indulge is not always the effect of previous resolution, nor is it always within the power of control; and while we partook of our frugal meal of dried venison, bread, and water, we were almost imperceptibly drawn into a conversation on the nature and objectives of our journey, and the hardships of the hunter’s life; its advantages and disadvantages, and comparison between the savage and civilized society. This carried us to other scenes, the land of our nativity, which seemed dearer in being at a distance; the conversation dropped, and we spread our skins and prepared for sleep.”
While the light alternately glared and faded upon the “terrific walls” of the cave, Schoolcraft, with knife in hand, engraved, upon the smooth calcareous rock, the date of their visit and a long poem.
They turned the horse loose to graze that evening, “with the poorest prospects [of it] picking up a meal”, and spent the greater part of the next morning looking for it. After finding their horse, they followed the valley about three miles, and came to the banks of the stream they had left the day before (Big North Fork). The weather was pleasant. They noted a considerable change in the face of the country. Instead of rich bottom land, they now had high oak prairies. The perpendicular bluffs, and the pine had also disappeared and were replaced by sloping hills, covered by oak trees. The stream had vastly increased in size, and was deep enough to float a keelboat of twenty tons capacity. They thought perhaps the river had received a large tributary from the left bank and followed the river several miles upstream looking for it, but found that they had been mistaken. They returned to their horse, continued downsteam about three miles, and then camped on the bank of the river. They traveled ten miles that day, observing little game.
Tuesday, November 24, was rather uneventful. The party packed at daylight, traveled fourteen miles, and camped. Schoolcraft described the lands seen as “chiefly poor”. The bottom land was still of good quality but very narrow and hemmed in by rocks and hills. About seven miles below the camp of the night before, they came to a tributary stream which entered from the right bank. It flowed into the Big North Fork contrary to the direction of the current of the river, and with such velocity that it maintained its course for many yards upstream, until the opposing current overpowered and turned it downward. Very soon they came to another stream which entered from the left. A little below the junction of these streams, they passed several Indian camps which had been deserted three or four years and which were in a state of decay. Schoolcraft made the following observation:
“These are the first traces of savage life (save some hacks apparently made with hatchets in saplings, noticed yesterday and today) which we have seen since leaving the Fourche a Courtois River. Several causes have induced the Indians to relinquish hunting in this quarter, and principally their wars among themselves, which have kept them in mutual fear of each other. Lately the Indian title has been extinguished by purchase by the United States, and this stream will no longer be included in their hunting grounds. It was claimed by the Osage.”
Schoolcraft noted that the inducements for hunting in the area were great, and that large quantities of bear, deer, elk, and beaver skins might be collected for trade. He saw many turkey, ducks, and geese. He described an adventure he had with the beaver:
“I had an opportunity this day while traveling across a very rocky bank of the river, to observe two large beautiful beavers who were sporting in the water. They afterwards came out and set upon a log, occasionally changing positions, and evincing great dexterity and quickness in their movements. They were within shooting distance, but I reserved my fire a few moments to observe their motions when suddenly they darted into their hole.”
The next day, November 25, the exploratory party passed through a region of sterile, timberless land which had a few strips of good bottom land intervening. The weather was mild. After traveling ten miles, they came upon a large cabin covered with split boards. Thinking that at last they had found a hunter, they hurried to the cabin, but to their disappointment, they found it had been deserted for eighteen months or a year. They decided to use it for shelter and camped at an early hour. Schoolcraft described the scene:
“The site had been chosen with the sagacity of a hunter. A stream ran in front; on the back was a thick and extensive forest; and a large cane-brake commenced near one side of it and extended to the banks of the river so that it afforded great facilities for procuring the three great requisites for encampment, wood, water, and horse-feed. On going to the river we are surprised to find it considerably enlarged. It is as wide at this place as the Muskingum at Marietta, and probably affords as much water at this season of the year.”
By Thursday, November 26, the party had come to believe that they were on the White River and not the Limestone (Big North Fork), because of the great width of the river. They had come to believe that possibly the river they had been following had discharged its waters some miles above, where the thickness of the cane and brush rendered it impossible to travel near the river’s bank. Schoolcraft, therefore, went back upstream about five miles and took a tour into the country on the opposite side of the river but found no stream of any size coming in at that place. On this day, for the first time, Schoolcraft injected a note of distress into his account of their journey. He wrote:
“It is necessary here to note that we have for several days been in the expectation of striking the hunters’ settlement on White River, having already been in the woods more than double the time contemplated. Our supplies have quickly been failing for several days. Our bread gave out more than a week ago, and we have not Indian meal enough to last more than one day more. Our dried meat and our shot are also nearly expended, so that there appears a certainty of running out of provisions very soon, without the possibility of getting a supply, unless we should be fortunate enough to arrive at some hunter’s cabin in the course of one or two days. We have in fact already been on short allowance for two days past and beginning to feel the effects of an unsatisfied appetite.
The following incident will serve to show the situation to which we were reduced. In returning from the little tour of observation I made on the right bank of the river, I met with a deserted Indian, or White Hunter’s Camp, where I found three pumpkins upon a vine which had sprung up from a seed accidentally dropped by the former occupant. One of them having been partly eaten by some wild animal, I gave the plant to my horse, except a portion which I reserved for my own use, and which I sat down and ate with as much pleasure as I have enjoyed from the most delicious melon or peach. I was not, indeed, before sensible of such a degree of hunger. The other two I took to camp, where I received the hearty congratulations of my companion upon so fortunate a discovery and arrangements were immediately made for a grand stew.”
That evening they found stalks of cotton growing spontaneously among the weeds encircling the camp, and noted that the bolls were “handsomely filled with cotton of fine quality”, and picked some of it to use to kindle a fire. They found cotton better than tow for this purpose.
By the next day, they had exhausted their provisions and their shot. They decided to leave their heavy baggage and horse at the cabin, so that they could travel faster, and search for a settlement which they believed was near. They piled their baggage in one corner of the camp and placed boards and bark over it to protect it from the weather. They kept their knapsacks, along with blankets and other necessities. They turned the horse, which had on a bell, loose in the cane-brake. With these arrangements completed, they left, at an early hour, keeping on the highlands nearly parallel with the river, which ran in a course south-south-west. After traveling about six miles they heard the fire of a gun; and thinking it was a hunter who could help them, they tried to locate him. They fired several times, yelled, and were finally answered. They pursued the reply but were not able to find the source, losing one or two hours time in the process. Going eight miles further, night overtook them. They camped in an Indian bark tent, which had not been occupied for one or two years, on the bank of the river. The weather was becoming cooler.
On Saturday, November 28, they awakened to a dense fog which prevented them from discerning objects at a distance of fifty yards. They ate the last morsel of their provisions and waited until sunrise to break camp. Leaving camp, they ascended the river-hills on their left and traveled hard, until late afternoon, in a south-south-east direction, the route of the river. Again the need for water forced them to return to the river bank; and there, having traveled fourteen miles, they set up camp in a thick cane-brake. They had acorns for supper. Settled before a campfire, Schoolcraft made the following observations:
“Our route this day has laid across a rough and sterile tract of country, covered with oak, and destitute of streams; and we have seen appearances of deer for whom it appears to be a favorite range at this season of the year. The rocks are invariably secondary lime-stone, which has continued to be the rock surface in all the districts we have passed over since last notice. The mineralogy has not been interesting. Iron ores, some crystallized quartz, pyrites, and horn-stone, are the principal substances noticed. The weather which has been mild and pleasant since we commenced our journey has experienced a change that has greatly been operating for several days, and we have sensibly felt the increase of cold for the last two nights. The uniform temperature of the air was 44 degrees and the serenity of the atmosphere was smoky, but at the same time, an increased warmth was observed; and with the exception of a slight shower of rain which fell during the night while camped on the Merrimack, and a rain-storm which prevailed while in Ashley’s Cave on the Current, the sky has remained unclouded. We did not, indeed, expect to find the climate so favorable at this season of the year and are disposed to believe that the month of November in this region may be characterized by mild, serene, and pleasant weather.”
The next day they were again greeted by a thick fog which caused delay. When the fog cleared, they ascended the river-hills on their left once more and took a south-south-east direction across the highlands. They traveled until dark and then camped in a deep ravine, having covered twelve miles. Tired, hungry, and discouraged, Schoolcraft wrote:
“Nothing can exceed the roughness and sterility of the country we have today traversed; and the endless succession of steep declivities, and broken rocky precipices surmounted added to a languor consequent to our situation, had rendered the day’s march unusually fatiguing.”
The weather was colder that night, and they got little sleep.
The next morning, November 30, they continued their journey as usual. After traveling two miles, they fell into a horse path with fresh tracks leading in two directions. They now knew that they were on an occasionally traveled trail between two settlements, which put their minds at ease a great deal. They now had to choose a trail and hope that it led to the nearest settlement. After some debate, they followed the trail to the left which led to the northeast. They walked about three miles to the north-east, changed their minds, and turned back. They traveled about half a mile on the same path when they met a hunter on horseback. He was the first man they had encountered in twenty days. The man they met had formerly resided as a hunter at a remote settlement on the White River and was returning from a visit to that region, where he had just disposed of a small improvement. From him they learned that the stream they had been following was the Great North Fork of White River. They learned also that they were within ten miles of its mouth and that they were within a few miles of a house either way. Elated, they turned about and followed the hunter in a north-west direction to a hunter’s house on Bennett’s Bayou. Schoolcraft gave the following account of his visit:
“Our approach was announced by the loud and long continued barking of dogs, who required repeated bidding before they could be pacified; and the first object worthy of remark which presented itself on emerging from the forest, was the innumerable quantity of deer, bear, and other skins, which had been from time to time stretched out, and hung up to dry on poles and trees around the house. These trophies of skill and prowess in the chase were regarded with great complacency by our conductor as we passed among them. And he told us that the house we were about to visit belonged to a person by the name of Wells, who was a forehanded man for these parts, and a great hunter. He had several acres of ground in a state of cultivation and a substantial new-built log house, consisting of one room, which had been lately exchanged for one less calculated to accommodate a growing family. Its interior would disappoint any person who has never had an opportunity to witnessing the abode of man beyond the pale of the civilized world. The dress of the children attracted our attention. The boys were clothed in a particular kind of garment made of deerskin, which served the purpose of shirt and jacket. The girls had buck-skin frocks, which it was evident, by the careless manner in which they were clothed were intended to combine the utility both of liner and calico, and all were abundantly greasy and dirty. Around the walls of the room hung the horns of deer and buffalo, rifles, shot-pouches, leather-coats, dried meat, and other articles composing the ward-robe, smokehouse, and magazine of our host and family, while the floor displayed great evidence of his own skill in the fabrication of household furniture. A dressed deer skin served up much in the shape the animal originally possessed and filled with bear’s oil, and another filled with wild honey hanging on opposite sides of the fire-place were too conspicuous to escape observation.”
The morning of December 1 was “cold and frosty” at the hunter’s house, and the exploratory party of two spent the first few hours preparing for the journey back to the deserted cabin where they had left their baggage and pack horse. At the same time, Wells and his sons prepared for a bear hunt up Big North Fork and to accompany them. From Wells, Schoolcraft bought some wild honey, lead, and corn for bread. He then pounded the corn in a mortar and moulded the lead into bullets. By eleven o’clock the exploratory party, along with Wells and his sons, were on their journey. They traveled rapidly, covering the twenty mile trek back to the deserted cabin that day.
After a breakfast of roast turkey the next morning, Wells and his sons left the camp abruptly. Schoolcraft was relieved that they had gone. He had found them to be unpleasant company. He stated that “when they had passed out of sight we could not forbear an expression of joy at the departure of the men in whose presence we felt rather like prisoners than associates.” He disliked them because they enjoyed “partaking of whatever was disgusting, terrific, rude, and outre.” Both Schoolcraft and Pettibone spent the rest of that day and the next preparing for the trip to the White River. The first thing they did was to make moccasins from deerskin. Their shoes had been cut to shreds. Their biggest problem, however, was obtaining meat. They had been able to get only enough lead at the Wells cabin for five bullets. After using four bullets unsuccessfully, they were finally able, at night by torch light, to kill a turkey, which was at roost in an oak tree. Their last shot was gone.
It rained constantly on December 4, and they were confined to camp. The next day they forded the river and pursued a westward course, the direction they had been told to take, toward Sugar-Loaf Prairie on the White River. They traveled two miles across a high ridge and struck a small river, a tributary of the Big North Fork. They followed up this stream seven or eight miles and camped in a cane-brake on a low point of land formed by the junction of two streams near its head. The journey was “excessively bad” that day. Some good land was noticed along the stream, but they noted a lack of timber. Thickets, cane-brakes, and swamps along the stream slowed them down. In crossing one swamp their pack horse got mired, but after unpacking the supplies, they were finally able to pull it out. After repacking, they made their way three miles further.
On December 6 they traveled sixteen miles, west-south-west, across a rocky ridge of land and camped on a “pretty large stream running south” which they believed emptied into the White River. Schoolcraft learned later that this stream was the Little North Fork. He noted that “the face of the country is very rough, lands sterile, timber oak, and very scanty.”
After traveling a few miles the next day, they halted their pack horse near the summit of a bald mountain and walked up to survey the country side from the mountain top. The party was awe-stricken by the beauty of the scene, after a short rest, they traveled thirty miles further west and feeling that they had gone far enough in that direction, according to the instructions they had received from Wells, they turned southward. They soon found a horse path which they followed and shortly found themselves on the banks of the White River.
Schoolcraft and Pettibone walked up the White River Valley to the mouth of the James River, reaching that place on January 1, 1819. There they bought horses and turned and began their journey back down the valley on horseback. At Bull Creek they traded the horses for a canoe, which was faster but not without its dangers. Floating down the river, Schoolcraft’s canoe passed the mouth of Big Creek on January 11. He described that creek as being thirty yards wide, and he also noted that three hunters had just located themselves at its mouth and were cutting down trees for a house. Immediately after passing the mouth of Big Creek, they met a trader coming up stream with a large canoe, in which he had the remains of a barrel of whiskey and a few other articles to barter off for skins among the hunters. The trader knew nothing of what was going on in the civilized world, not even the name of the President.
On the same day the exploratory party reached the cabin of McGary, which was located across the White River from the mouth of Little North Fork. It was here that Schoolcraft learned that he had been on Little North Fork on December 6. Of Little North Fork, Schoolcraft wrote:
“A stream 50 yards wide, and estimated to be 100 miles in length. It could be ascended a considerable distance by light water craft and has some rich alluvion near its mouth, but it originates in, and runs chiefly through, a barren region.”
McGary had a field of several acres of corn under cultivation, and he had several horses, cows, and hogs. His house was built of logs, after the style of the settlers of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. He was provided with a hand mill, for grinding corn, and a smoke-house filled with bear and other meats. Schoolcraft noticed that he had a couple of old volumes of books and had some wearing apparel of foreign manufacture.
Schoolcraft traveled twenty miles on down White River from McGary’s cabin to the Bull Shoals the next day. Here he ran into danger. He described what happened:
“Here the river has a fall of fifteen or twenty feet in the distance of half-a-mile, and stands full of rugged calcareous rocks, among which the velocity and incessant noise. There are a hundred channels, and the strange navigator runs an imminent risk of being dashed, upon the rocks, or sunk beneath the waves, whose boiling and unceasing roar warns him of his peril long before he reaches the rapids. There is a channel through which canoes and even large boats pass with a good depth of water, but being unacquainted with it, we ran the hazard of being sunk, and found our canoe drawn rapidly into the suction of the falls, apprehensive of the results. In a few moments, notwithstanding every effort to keep our barque headed downwards, the conflicting eddies drove us against a rock, and we were instantly thrown broadside upon the rugged peaks which stand thickly in the swiftest part of the first schute, or fall. Luckily it did not fill, but the pressure of the current against a canoe thirty feet in length, lying across the stream, was more than we could counteract, and we had nearly exhausted our strength in vain endeavors to extricate and aright it. For all this time we were in the water, at a depth of two, three, and four feet, at a cool January temperature, but at length succeeded in lifting it over a ledge of rock, and again got afoot. We now shot down the current rapidly and undisturbed for 600 yards, which brought us to the verge of the second schute, where we twice encountered a similar difficulty, but succeeded, with analogous efforts, in passing our canoe and effects in safety. This is the most considerable obstruction to the navigation of the river we have yet encountered, but is said to be perfectly safe in high tides, when the rocks are buried by the vernal and autumnal floods.”
On January 19, Schoolcraft reached the mouth of Big North Fork and the cabin of a hunter name Matney. Schoolcraft described the Big North Fork:
“…a stream 200 miles in length, and a hundred yards wide at its mouth. Its waters are clear, being entirely made up of springs, which are numerous all along its banks, but the navigation is interrupted by rapids. It is bordered on both sides by limestone bluffs, covered generally with tall pines, and affording some detached strips of land.”
Schoolcraft considered the country of the Big North Fork to be “a sterile region, which will never admit of a dense population.”
Leaving the Big North Fork, Schoolcraft traveled on down the White River until he reached the junction of the Arkansas Road. By way of this road, he returned to Potosi, arriving there February 4. And so ended what had been a challenging and exciting journey.
To recapitulate the chapter briefly, the Spaniard, Hernando de Soto, was given credit for discovering the Ozarks and the White River Valley. More than a century later, La Salle, a Frenchman, laid claim to the area in the name of France; and French fur traders penetrated far up the White River. American exploration and settlement of the Ozarks began almost as soon as the Louisiana Purchase was made in 1803. The earliest scientific exploration of present-day Ozark County was made by the American, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, in 1818-1819. He gave a detailed report of what he found in A View of the Lead Mines of Southern Missouri, which was published in New York in 1819; and soon afterwards Americans were reading about the country of the White River Valley and Ozark County. Although the report was not altogether a favorable one, it may have encouraged immigration. Certainly, the hunter and trapper must have considered it an optimistic report.
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