Early Ozarks explorer Henry Schoolcraft spent a full day exploring the caves, creeks and valleys in this area in his Ozark journey. He described the valley as one of “unrivalled attraction” and the views as “commanding and delightful”. For him, the exploration of Ashley Cave inspired “wonder and awe”.
Thursday, November 12th, 1818
We find ourselves in a highly interesting section of country, and which affords some of the most picturesque and sublime views of rural scenery which I have ever beheld. The little brush camp we hastily erected last night, and in which I now write, is situated in a beautiful valley, on the banks of a small clear stream, with a rocky and gravelly bottom. The width of this valley is about 800 yards, and is bounded on the west by a perpendicular wall of limestone rock 200 feet in height, and rising in some places in cubical masses, resembling the mouldering towers of some antique ruin. On the east the bluffs are neither so high nor precipitous, and are intersected by hollows worn out of the rock by the action of rain operating, for many centuries, on calcareous rock. Down one of these hollows we descended into the valley, not, however, without leading our horse in the most cautious and circuitous manner. The top of these bluffs supports a substratum of a very sterile, gravelly alluvion, and is covered by tall pines, which add much to the beauty of the prospect from the valley below. In the stupendous wall of rocks before me are situated several caves, whose dark and capacious mouths indicate their extent. Many of these, however, cannot be visited without ladders, as they are situated forty or fifty feet above the level of the creek. With considerable difficulty and labour we entered one of them, by means of a large oak which had fallen partly against the mouth of the cave. We found it a spacious chamber, connected with others of less size, and affording both stalactites, and stalagmites. The former hang like icicles from the roof in various fanciful forms, and some specimens which we succeeded in detaching were translucent, and exhibited much beauty and regularity in the arrangement of their colours, consisting of concentric lines of yellow and brown passing by imperceptible shades into each other. We also obtained in this cave native salt-petre, very white and beautiful. It was found filling small crevices in the rock. The number of caves which we have this day visited, large and small, is seven, and all afford salt-petre. In the largest of these, great quantities of this article are annually collected and manufactured by Col. Ashley, of Mine à Burton, and transported to his powder-manufactory, in Washington county. The cavernous nature of the country bordering this stream is one of its most distinguishing characteristics, and I have seized upon this fact in calling it Cave Creek. This little stream is one of the most interesting objects in the natural physiognomy of the country, which we have thus far met with, and affords a striking instance of that wonderful arrangement in the physical construction of the surface of the earth, which gives vallies to the smallest streams, and tears asunder rocks to allow them passages into rivers, and through them into their common basin, the ocean. Its banks rise in majestic walls of limestone, which would form the most ample barrier to the waves of the sea, and they occasionally rise into peaks, which if located on the coast of the ocean, would be hailed as landmarks by the mariner. The Opposite banks correspond with general exactness in their curves, height, composition, and thickness of strata, and other characters evincing their connexion at a former period. Yet the only object apparently effected by the separation of such immense strata of rocks, a change which I cannot now contemplate without awe and astonishment, is to allow a stream of twenty yards across a level and undisturbed passage into the adjacent river, the Currents, which it joins, after winding in the most circuitous manner about four miles below. In the course of this distance, the views which are presented are commanding and delightful, and to the painter who wishes to depict the face of nature in its wildest aspect of rocky grandeur, I could recommend this valley, and the adjacent county, as one of unrivalled attractions. A scene so full of interest could not fail to receive the homage of our admiration, and we rambled about the country, until night almost imperceptibly approached, when we returned to our camp, repacked our horse, and moved up the valley of Cave Creek, one mile to Ashley Cave, in which we encamped safe from the weather, turning our horse loose to feed about its mouth. We had just built our night-fire as it became dark, and while I spread out our skins and prepared for sleep, Mr. P. boiled our accustomed pot of coffee, and got ready a supper, which, although not consisting of many dishes, or choice cookery, excited our most cordial approbation, and we partook of it with that keen appetite, and that feeling of lordly independence, which are alone felt by the wild Indian, and the half-starved Missouri hunter. Having finished our frugal meal, we determined to explore the cave before we lay down, lest some beast of prey, hid in its recesses, should be aroused by our intrusion, and pounce upon us during the night. This cave is situated in a high wall of lime-stone rock, forming the southern bank of Cave Creek, eighty miles south-west of Potosi, and near the head of Current's River, one of the principal tributaries of Black River, in Missouri territory. The entrance to it is by a winding foot-path from the banks of the creek, and leads to the mouth of the cave at an elevation of about fifty feet above the level of the water. Its mouth is about ninety feet wide and thirty in height, a size which, without great variation, it holds for two hundred yards. Here it suddenly opens into a room which is an irregular circle, with a height of eighty or ninety feet, and a diameter of three hundred, having several passages diverging from it in various directions. The two largest passages lead south-west and south, and after winding along a considerable distance, in the course of which they are successively widened and narrowed, unite and lead on in a south course about five hundred yards, where the passage is choaked up by large masses of stalactite, formed by the water which has filtered through the superincumbent rock at that place. The largest passage from the circular amphitheatre of the cave diverging north, opens by another mouth in the rock, facing the valley of Cave Creek, at no great distance below the principal mouth by which we entered. Several smaller passages diverge from each of the main ones, but cannot be followed to any great extent, or are shut up by fragments of the fallen rock. Near the centre of the largest opening, a handsome spring of clear water issues, from which we procured our water while encamped in the cave.
The ragged faces and hanging position of many parts of the sides and roof of this cave, added to its sombre colour, which has been heightened by soot smoke, its great extent, singular ramifications, and the death-like stillness which pervades such ample spaces situated so far below ground, inspire both wonder and awe, and we did not return from our examination, without feeling impressions in regard to our own origin, nature, and end, and the mysterious connection between the Creator of these stupendous works and ourselves, which many have before felt, but none have yet been satisfied about. In contemplating this connection, we feel humiliated; human reason has no clue by which the mystery may be solved, and we imperceptibly became silent, absorbed in our own reflections. Such at least was the effect produced in this instance, and we returned to trim our night-fire and go to sleep, with the taciturnity of the American savage.
Friday, November 13th, 1818
The atmosphere threatening rain this morning, we did not think proper to quit the cave, and have divided our time between hunting, mending our clothes, and noticing the geological character of the adjacent region. In hunting large game we are not very successful; our guns, as we were informed by the hunter's wife at Fourche à Courtois, not being adapted to killing deer and bear. Of wild Turkey, ducks, and squirrels, we, however, kill a plenty, to answer our purposes, and we do not seek anything further. The most remarkable fact respecting the cave in which we are encamped, is the nitre which it yields. This is found in the native state, filling small crevices in the rock, and also in combination with the earth which forms the bottom of the cave. The nitre is formed by mixing this earth with a certain quantity of wood ashes, and lixiviating the whole in the common way by means of a tub and fasset. The potash of the wood-ashes is necessary to enable the salt to form, and the whole is then concentrated by boiling in a kettle, and afterwards set aside to cool and to crystallize. In this way the crude nitre is obtained, which may be brought to any required state of purity by redissolving and recrystallizing.
The works which have been erected by Colonel Ashley for this purpose are all situated in the mouth of the cave, so as to be completely protected from the weather. No person is, however, here at the present to attend to his business, and the works appear to have lain idle for some time. Large quantities of crude salt-petre are lying in the fore part of the cave. The earth found in this cave, and which is now so highly charged with nitrous salts, presents an extraordinary circumstance for the consideration of the geologist, and one which must be conclusive in regard to the antiquity of the cave itself. This earth is a mixture of clay and sand in rather gross particles, but has sufficient tenacity to adhere in lumps when dug up, and contains plentifully interspersed pebbles of quartz, slate, granite, and other stones, and also fragments of horn-stone, or a kind of flint. It is in fact precisely the same kind of earth, deposited in the same manner, and mixed with the same stony substances, as the alluvion deposit which covers all the adjoining hills, and has constituted the soil of all the uplands from Potosi; nay, from the west banks of the Mississippi river to this place. The conclusion is irresistible, that this cavity in the rock existed previous to the deposition of the substratum of the soil upon the calcareous rock of this country, and, consequently, previous to the existence of trees or vegetation of any kind, unless it be of certain mosses and lichens which flourish upon naked rocks. And that when this soil was deposited, the cave in which we now sit, a pre-existing cavity in the rock, was also filled, partly or entirely, with the alluvion now found in it. The greater part of this alluvion has been subsequently washed out, and the cavity thus re-opened by water filtering through its calcareous roof, leaving certain parts on the bottom, and huge piles in several places, not situated in the current of the stream, remaining. This operation has not, indeed, wholly ceased at the present time, for the water is continually carrying down small particles of earth into the valley below, and the effect must be more perceptible after violent or long-continued rain, when the earth becomes soaked, and the infiltration of water is consequently greatly increased. This opinion is further corroborated by observing that the sides and the roof of the cave, and the several passages leading from it, are water-worn, and full of smooth circular cavities like the rocky margin of the sea, or the calcareous banks of a river, and evince the force of a more powerful action than would probably be excited from any springs or streams which issue, or have ever issued from the cave. It is highly probable, therefore, that these impressions are oceanic, and existed previous to the cave's being filled with alluvial earth, and were made by that deluge of water which geologists teach us has repeatedly inundated the earth in its primeval ages, and which we have the authority of Moses for declaring did inundate the earth as late as the days of Noah.
The geological character of the country in this vicinity is secondary; the rock formations, far and wide, being secondary limestone, stratum super-stratum. This has, indeed, characterized our route from Potosi to this place, with the exception of a vein of sand-stone, which alternates with it near the Fourche à Courtois. Its mineralogical character has consequently presented a corresponding uniformity, and the actual number of species and varieties of minerals found is small. Ores of iron and manganese, pyrites, quartz, horn-stone, and jasper, are the principal substances noticed. The last-mentioned mineral is found in the west bank of Cave Creek, about a mile below our present encampment. It occurs as a stratum below secondary limestone, by which it is overlayed to the thickness of at least 100 feet. It is the striped variety, the colours being blue and white, of various shades.
Saturday, November 14th, 1818
A rain-storm which commenced during the night, has continued with little intermission, all day, so that we have been confined to the cave. Thus situated, beyond the boundaries of the civilized world, shut up in a dreary cavern, without books to amuse the mind, or labour to occupy the body, we have had ample leisure to reflect upon the solitude of our condition, and in reverting to the scenes of polished life, to contrast its comforts, attractions, and enjoyments, with the privations and danger by which we are surrounded. There springs, however, a pleasure from our very regrets; we are pleased in reflecting on scenes of former gratification; of lands that are distant, and of times that are past; and the mind is insensibly led to hope for their repetition. We expect much of the future time; we please ourselves with fond anticipations of joy, and with proud hopes of wealth, power, or renown. Thus it is that the mind is never in a state of satisfied repose, and the whole sum of human bliss is made up by the recollections we borrow from the past, and the expectations we entertain of the future. The present is never a season of happiness, which is a relative enjoyment, and can only be estimated by its absence. Neither are our ideas of this grand pursuit of our lives at all definite. Nothing can be more discordant and contradictory than the different notions which different persons or people have attached to the term happiness. One places it in wealth, another in power, a third in splendour, and a fourth in the contempt of all. Perhaps the sum of human bliss was as correctly estimated by the South Sea Indian, as it is frequently done by his more enlightened European brethren. A South Sea Indian becoming tired of life, put an end to it, by stabbing himself to the heart. The deed excited universal horror, and the grief of his family was uncontrolable. "Alas," cried a relative, "what evil spirit could have prompted him to this deed! He was blessed beyond many of his countrymen. Had he not always plenty of train-oil for his subsistence? Had he not a smooth white fish-bone, twelve inches long, run through his nose? What more could be wanting to complete his happiness?" We have been in the expectation, for several days, of being joined by the hunter who accompanied us from the Fourche à Courtois, and who parted with us on the 1Oth instant, in pursuit of a deer; but night has again over-taken us, and we are again disappointed, from which it is concluded that he has either been taken prisoner by the Osage Indians, or got lost in the woods. (This turned out to be the fact, as we learned upon our return. Having got into a district of wood where deer were plenty, and unwilling to lose the opportunity of killing them, although he wanted neither their flesh or skins, for he could carry neither with him, he fired at, and killed many, and pursued them a great distance from the spot where we parted, and he was unable afterwards to find his way back. He wandered about nearly a week in the woods in search of us, and at last accidently arrived at the saw mills on the Gasconade river, the only settlement in that region, from which he returned in safety to his house on the Fourche à Courtois.)
Funding for the Schoolcraft Journey project on Unlock the Ozarks has been provided by the Missouri Humanities Council.