Schoolcraft's Ozark Journey

Beaver Creek Settlement

Ozarks explorer Henry Schoolcraft and his companion Levi Pettibone stayed at the cabins of two Ozark families, Holt and Fisher, near this spot during the last days of 1818 on their three-month expedition through the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks. Schoolcraft documented the journey which is related in the book Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks compiled by Dr. Milton Rafferty.

Saturday, December 12th, 1818

The ground this morning was covered with a thick white frost, the air keen and cold, and having been prevented from getting much sleep during the night by the severity of the weather, we left our encampment at day-break and ascended the bluff, bordering the river bottom at the distance of a mile on the east.

In travelling a few miles we observed a smoke issuing from the ground, in a column about two feet in diameter, as if produced by subterranean fire. On coming up, however, it proved to be a warm dense air escaping from a cavern below, through a small aperture in the rock. All was dark within, but by throwing down stones, it appeared evident from the noise, that there was a large cavity, and thinking it might repay the risk and trouble of going down, I determined to descend; or, at least, to make the attempt. There was just room enough at the mouth to squeeze myself in, and I supported myself against the rocks, carefully feeling my way down, and as I descended, could see the light from above. At the distance of twenty feet, this orifice, which had increased gradually, though irregularly, in size, opened into a spacious chamber, terrific in appearance from its rugged walls, viewed by the feeble light transmitted from above. In three several directions, passages of nearly equal size diverged, as from a centre, descending gradually into the earth, and appearing like rents caused by some mighty convulsion. I followed down one of these as far as the least glimmering of light could be discerned, and groped along some distance further, but as this was rather a dangerous business, and I had no light for exploring with any degree of satisfaction, I gave up the attempt, bringing out a fragment of the rock, which appeared, on inspection, to be similar in every respect to the rock on the surface, viz. secondary lime-stone.

Following the course of the river, which is devious beyond comparison, we found ourselves at the distance of about six miles on the banks of Beaver Creek, a beautiful, clear stream of sixty yards wide, with an average depth of about two feet, and a handsome gravelly bottom. A little beyond this we found a horse-path, which led, within the distance of a mile and a half, to the hunters' camps we were in search of. Distance eleven miles.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Sunday, December 13th, 1818

We are now at the last hunter-settlement on the river, which is, also, the most remote hound to which the white hunter has penetrated in a south-west direction from the Mississippi river, toward the rocky mountains. It consists of two families, Holt and Fisher by name, who have located themselves here within the last four months. They have not yet cleared any land for corn, nor finished their houses, notwithstanding the advanced season. They have fixed the site of their habitations on the east banks of the river, on the verge of a very large and rich tract of bottom land, occupying a bend in the river. It is covered by a heavy forest of oak, ash, maple, walnut, mulberry, and sycamore, the latter skirting the immediate banks of the river, with a vigorous growth of cane below. The opposite bank of the river is a perpendicular bluff of lime-stone rock, rising at the water's edge to a height of 300 feet, where it terminates in very rugged peaks, capped by a stinted growth of cedars and oaks, and forming a most striking contrast with the level, rich, and heavy wooded plain below, over which it casts its broad shadow by half-past three in the afternoon, which must render it a cool and delightful residence in summer. The bold and imposing effect of this scene is much heightened by beholding two natural pyramids, or towers of rock, ascending with a surprising regularity from the highest wall of the bluff, to a height of fifty or sixty feet, while all the surrounding stratum of rock has submitted during the lapse of ages to the powerful force of attrition, and been carried by rains, and by gravitation, into the adjoining vallies, whence, being comminuted by the action of water, it has been discharged through the Mississippi into the ocean. Without referring the origin of these remarkable pillars of stone to such, or similar causes, it is impossible to reconcile the, appearance with the general aspect and economy of mineral nature. Our first care on reaching this spot, was to endeavour to procure one the hunters to guide us on our way, but in this we have not, as yet, been successful. They are strongly impressed with a fear of being robbed by the Osage Indians, and represent that they have not corn enough to last their families until our return; that their camps are not yet finished, etc.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Monday, December 14th, 1818

The love of gain, which so strongly characterizes polished society in all parts of the world, has also found its way into these remote woods. We have travelled over many a trackless desart, and uninhabited plain. We have crossed, that boundary in our lands, within which virtue prompts, wisdom teaches and law restrains; we are beyond the pale of civilized society, with all endearments, inquietudes, and attractions; but we are not beyond the influence of money, which is not confined by geographical boundaries, located in its operation upon any particular class of society, or degree of civilization. We, accordingly, found this, after all their plausible excuses, the only real obstacle in the way of our agreement with them to accompany us as guides, but thought it advisable to submit to a little imposition, in order to accomplish our main design in visiting this region, and have just concluded a bargain with Holt. He is to have our horse, and ten dollars, accompany us as guide and hunter, with the benefit of all skins or furs he may collect on the tour. He is first to go about 100 miles down the river, purchase corn from some wealthy hunters there, for the use of his family. In the meantime we shall remain, and employ ourselves in making a canoe descend the river on our return, or in completing the hunters' cabins, that they may leave their families in a comfortable situation while we are absent. Fisher concludes to accompany us gratuitously, but would not go unless Holt went as guide, from which it is evident they have a perfect understanding of each other's views.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Tuesday, December 15th, 1818

The hunters did not get ready to start on their preliminary tour after corn in season to set out before noon, and determined to defer starting until to-morrow. In the afternoon we assisted them in splitting boards, and covering the roof of a log-house. The weather continues cold.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Wednesday, December 16th, 1818

This morning Holt and Fisher, accompanied by a son of the latter, with three horses, set out on a journey to purchase corn, which they intend carrying on their horses, in a particular kind of narrow leathern bag, kept for that purpose. We have been employed in chopping wood for the use of the family, as we are left, ad interim, to protect and provide for the women and children. The weather is now severely cold. There has, this day, for the first, been floating ice in the river, and water freezes in a few moments in the cabin.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Thursday, December 17th, 1818

Employed in chopping wood, and clearing land. Our day's work, during the hunters' absence, will be much the same, and made up chiefly of the following particulars: in the morning, rise at, or before day-break, and build a large cabin-fire, of logs eight feet long; then pound the corn which is to serve the family during the day. This is done in a wooden mortar, with a pestle attached to a spring pole. The time from this to breakfast is employed in patching mockasons, etc. We then sally out into the forest with our axes, and chop and clear away cane and brush until dinner, which answers also for supper, and happens about five o'clock, so that we never sit down without an appetite. Our bill of fare presents no variety. We have homony, that is, corn boiled until it is soft, and bear's bacon for dinner, without any vegetables. The same for breakfast, with the addition of sassafras-tea. The day's work closes with building a large night-fire, and packing up, from the adjoining forest, wood enough to replenish it during the night, and succeeding day. We then lie down on a bear-skin before the fire, and enjoy the sweet repose resulting from daily labour. The weather continues cold and frosty. Water poured upon the corn this morning previous to pounding, froze in carrying it from the cabin to the mortar, a distance of thirty yards.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Friday, December 18th, 1818

Employed as yesterday. We are sometimes led to contrast the force of habit on different persons, or different classes of society; but it is only on comparing the manners and customs of people widely separated, and whose modes of life and of thinking are wholly dissimilar from our own, that the power of moral or physical habit is rendered striking, or extraordinary. We have had frequent occasion, while sojourning among the hunters in this region, to draw such comparisons. A few instances may here be mentioned. We had furnished our travelling pack with a quantity of choice young hyson-tea, and this morning made a pot of it, and invited Mrs. Fisher to partake, presuming it would be highly relished, but were surprised to hear her declare it was bitter, and unpalatable stuff. She could not drink it. She preferred dittany, sassafras, and spice-wood tea, to our hyson. We had not before imagined that there was any part of the white population of the United States strangers to this plant, so universally in use in our country.

Some days ago, a young child of Mrs. H being taken violently ill with what I considered a bilious attack, I administrated one of "Lee's pills," which gave effectual relief, and the child suddenly recovered. This incident served to give them great confidence in my skill, and led to further applications. Mrs. F., whose delicate situation was apparent, had she not mentioned it, feared the consequences of a costive habit, and applied to me for relief. Having little experience in these matters, I felt great delicacy and reluctance in giving any advice, but ventured on recommending a few of my anti-bilious pills, which had the desired effect. One of her daughters, a girl of fourteen, now applied; in short, before I left their cabins, I dealt out all my pills, and acquired the reputation of being a great doctor.

Justice, which in civilized society is administered through all the formalities of the law, is here obtained in a more summary way. Two hunters having a dispute respecting a horse, which one had been instrumental in stealing from the other, the person aggrieved meeting the other, some days afterwards, in the woods, shot him through the body. He immediately fled, keeping in the woods for several weeks, when the neighbouring hunters, aroused by so glaring an outrage, assembled and set out in quest of him. Being an expert woodman, he eluded them for some time, but at last they got a glimpse of him as he passed through a thicket, and one of the party fired upon him. The ball passed through his shoulder, but did not kill him. This event happened a few days before our arrival, but I know not how it has terminated. In all probability several lives will be lost before a pacification takes place, as both parties have their friends, and all are hot for revenge.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Saturday, December 19th, 1818

Engaged in chopping until noon. In the afternoon we crossed the river on the ice, and visited the pyramidal rocks before mentioned. The west bank of the river, at this place, consists of a rugged wall of lime-stone, on the top of which the two pyramids are situated. The ascent to them lies through a deep defile of rocks, through which we passed with great difficulty, climbing up by the roots of the cedar, and rugged projections of rock, and occasionally leaping from one overhanging promontory to another:

"O'er toppling rocks, where stinted briers grow,
Cautiously, fearfully, tremblingly we go:
Passing by devious pad!, and dreadful steep,
Where the black serpent takes his sunny sleep,
And one mistaken tread, or whirling brain,
Is fraught with instant death, or lingering pain."

In crossing over the river, the remarkable purity of the water attracted our attention, producing a deception similar to that experienced on the 21st of November, in fording the Great North Fork of White River, the depth of the water, which appears to be only five or six feet, being in reality, more than twenty. The ice, too, is so clear, that, in walking across, it appeared as if we were walking on a pane of glass, reflecting every inequality of bottom, pebble, etc. with as much accuracy in this depth, as if covered by a pane of glass in a merchant's case.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Sunday, December 20th, 1818

Observed as a day of rest. The weather this day has been perceptibly milder, and a little smoky.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Monday, December 21th, 1818

Employed until three o'clock in splitting and hewing planks for a floor to Holt's cabin, when rain compelled us to quit.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Tuesday, December 22nd, 1818

The rain ceased this morning, leaving the atmosphere foggy, damp, and warm. Employed in completing the job commenced yesterday.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Wednesday, December 23rd, 1818

About ten o'clock this morning, Holt and Fisher returned, laden with corn. The day has been mild and pleasant, the dense fog having entirely disappeared, giving place to a clear blue sky.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Thursday, December 24th, 1818

Employed in hewing out a table, daubing and chinking the house, etc. We this day left Fisher's, and removed to Holt's, a distance of half-a-mile, having now got his cabin in a comfortable condition. The hunter, although habitually lazy, and holding in contempt the pursuits of agriculture, so far, at least, as is not necessary to his own subsistence, is nevertheless a slave to his dog, the only object around him to which he appears really devoted. His horse, cow, and hogs, if he have any, living upon vegetable food, can subsist themselves in the woods; but the dog requires animal food, which he cannot himself alone procure, and to furnish which occupies no inconsiderable portion of the hunter's time. It is no easy task to provide a pack of hungry dogs, from six to twelve, the usual number owned by every hunter, with meat, the truth of which we have witnessed for several days past, and the hunters went out this morning to kill meat enough to supply them until our return. They had several days before killed a buffaloe, a bear, and a panther, about twelve miles above, on the banks of the river, but not having their horses with them, concealed it in the woods in such a way as to prevent its being devoured by the wolves. They embarked early this morning in a canoe to bring it in, and returned in the afternoon with the bear, and a part of the buffaloe, the wolves having, notwithstanding its being scaffolded, got up, and destroyed the rest. They also brought down some of the leg-bones of the buffaloe for the sake of the marrow they contain, which they told us is considered a great delicacy, intending it as a treat to us. These bones are boiled in water to cook the marrow and then cracked with an axe, and the marrow taken out. The quantity is immense. It is eaten while hot, with salt, and with the appetites we now possess, and which are voracious, we have eaten it with a high relish. A very high value is set upon a good dog by the hunter, and they are sought with the greatest avidity. We have been told of a hunter, who lately exchanged a cow for a dog, but this is considered extraordinary even here.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Friday, December 25th, 1818

Christmas-day. Employed in splitting oak-boards, etc. At our suggestion, the hunters went out to kill some turkeys, as we wished one for a Christmas-dinner, and after an absence of a couple of hours, returned with fourteen. I prevailed on Mrs. H. to undertake a turkey-pie with Indian meal crust, which we partook of under a shady tree on the banks of the river, the weather being warm and pleasant.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Saturday, December 26th, 1818

Employed in beating meal for bread on our tour. We have, at last, obviated every difficulty opposing our progress, and got matters in readiness for continuing our journey, to-morrow being fixed upon for starting, should the weather prove favourable.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Sunday, December 27th, 1818

Rain, which began last night, prevented our starting this day, which has been improved in reflection and rest. The sabbath is not known by any cessation of the usual avocations of the hunter in this region. To him all days are equally unhallowed, and the first and the last day of the week find him alike sunk in unconcerned sloth, and stupid ignorance. He neither thinks for himself, not reads the thoughts of others, and if he ever acknowledges his dependence upon the Supreme Being, it must be in that silent awe produced by the furious tempest, when the earth trembles with concussive thunders, and lightning shatters the oaks around his cottage, that cottage which certainly never echoed the voice of human prayer. In conversation a few days ago, with our host, on the subject of religion, he observed that when living on the banks of the Mississippi, some years ago, he occasionally attended a methodist-meeting and thought it a very good thing, but had found as many rogues there as any where else, and on account of a particular act of dishonesty in one of the members of the church, had determined never to go again, and had since thought there was no great use in religion; that a man might be as good without going to church as with it, and that it seemed to him to be a useless expense to be paying preachers for telling us a string of falsehoods, etc. He said, that itinerant preachers sometimes visited the lower parts of White River, and had penetrated within 300 miles of the place where we then sat, but had not found much encouragement.

Schools are also unknown, and no species of learning cultivated. Children are wholly ignorant of the knowledge of books, and have not learned even the rudiments of their own tongue. Thus situated, without moral restraint, brought up in the uncontrolled indulgence of every passion and without a regard of religion, the state of society among the rising generation in this region is truly deplorable. In their childish disputes, boys frequently stab each other with knives, two instances of which have occurred since our residence here. No correction was administered in either case, the act being rather looked upon as a promising trait of character. They begin to assert their independence as soon as they can walk, and by the time the reach the age of fourteen, have completely learned the use of the rifle, the arts of trapping beaver and otter, killing the bear, deer, and buffalo, and dressing skins and making mockasons and leather clothes. They are then accomplished in all customary things, and are, therefore, capable of supporting themselves and a family, and accordingly enter into marriage early in life. The women are observed to have few children, and of those, being deprived of the benefit of medical aid, an unusual number die in their infancy. This is probably owing wholly to adventitious causes, and may be explained on the same principles as a similar circumstance in savage life, the female being frequently exposed to the inclemency of the weather, always to unusual hardships and fatigues, doing in many instances the man's work, living in camps on the wet ground, without shoes, etc. Mrs. H. tells me, she has not lived in a cabin which had a floor to it for several years; that during that time they have changed their abode several times, and that she has lost four children, who all died before they reached their second year. The girls are brought up with little care, and inured to servile employments. They have ruddy complexions, but, in other respects, are rather gross, as they live chiefly on animal food. Being deprived of all the advantages of dress, possessed by our fair country-women in the east, they are by no means calculated to inspire admiration, but on the contrary disgust; their whole wardrobe, until the age of twelve, consisting of one greasy buckskin frock, which is renewed whenever worn out.

Among all classes superstition is prevalent. Witchcraft, and a belief in the sovereign virtue of certain metals, so prevalent in those periods of the history of the progress of the human mind, which reflect disgrace upon our species, have still their advocates here. Mr. F. related to us an amusing story of a rifle he had, that was bewitched, so that he could kill nothing with it, and sold it on that account. He had fixed his suspicions upon a neighbour, and was full in belief that he had, out of malice, laid a spell upon his rifle.

Mrs. H. had a brass ring which she had worn for several years, and declared it to be an infallible remedy for the cramp, which she was much troubled with before putting on the ring, but had not had the slightest return of it since. She was now in much distress, on account of having lately broken it so that it could not be worn, and observing that I collected ores and minerals, thought I might possess some skill in working metals, and solicited me to mend it. It was in vain I represented it was not the case; that I had no blow-pipe, or other necessary apparatus for that purpose; she was convinced I could do it, and I did not wish to show a disobliging disposition by refusing to make the attempt. By cutting several small stems of cane of different thicknesses, and fitting one into the other until the aperture was drawn down to the required degree of fineness, I soon made a blow-pipe. A hollow cut in a billet of wood, and filled with live hickory coals, answered instead of a lamp; and with a small bit of silver, and a little borax applied to the ring, and submitted to the influence of my wooden blow-pipe, I soon soldered the ring, and afterwards filed off the redundant silver with a file that happened to be among the moveable property of our host. When I made Mrs. H. a table out of the butt of an enormous white ash-log, she declared I must be a carpenter; when I relieved her child from a bilious attack, she was inclined to consider me a physician; but she was now convinced I was a silversmith.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Eleven days later, on January 7th, 1819, Schoolcraft and Levi Pettibone returned to this camp.

Thrusday, January 7th, 1819

The atmosphere, on encamping last night, was clouded up for a change of weather, which we were fearful would prove rain, but a little after midnight it commenced snowing, and continued without intermission until day-light, and at different periods, until four o'clock in the afternoon. Lying down considerably fatigued, we slept soundly, and did not discover the snow until it had fallen some depth upon us, and although I could not relish sleep under such circumstances, both my companion and the hunters maintained their positions upon the ground until near day-light, when the snow had attained a depth of several inches. We now followed down the valley in which we had encamped about eight miles, in which distance it opened into the valley of Swan Creek, and we found ourselves about ten miles above its junction with White River, upon the banks of this large and beautiful stream, which is richly entitled to the appellation of a river. Some doubt arose here as to the proper course of travelling, the day being cloudy, and the atmosphere obscured with snow; but, in travelling a few miles south, we were rejoiced to find ourselves in sight of the Bald-hill, a well-known land-mark to the hunter in this region, and which I have already alluded to in my journey west. Toward this we steered undeviatingly, without regard to the steepness of the intervening hills or valleys, or the scraggy brush that opposed our progress, and falling into our old trail at its foot, pursued with an accelerated pace toward the Hunters' Cabins. Snow had, however, so much obliterated the track, that we were unable long to continue in it; and, as the thick and clouded state of the atmosphere prevented our guides from judging of our position, we soon became completely lost. In this dilemma, recourse was had to a very novel experiment, and in which I confess I had but little faith. One of the hunters happened to be riding a horse, which he said had, two or three times, on similar occasions, on being left to take his own course, brought him safely either in some well-known spot in the woods where he had before encamped, or to his own house. He determined again to make trial of the horse's sagacity, and throwing the reins loose upon its neck, the animal took its own course, sometimes climbing up hills, then descending into valleys, or crossing over streams, and at last, to the infinite satisfaction of all, and to the surprise of myself and co-travellers, led us to the top of a commanding precipice which overlooked the valley of White River, with its heavy-wooded forest, the towering bluffs on its south-western verge, with the river winding along at their base, and the hunters' cottages, indicated by the curling smoke among the trees, in plain perspective. Joy sparkled in every eye; we stood a moment to contemplate the sublime and beautiful scene before us, which was such an assemblage of rocks and water-of hill and valley-of verdant woods and naked peaks-of native fertility and barren magnificence, as to surpass the boldest conceptions, and most happy executions of the painter's pencil, or the poet's pen. The reins were now resumed, and as we descended the bluff the hunter lavished great encomiums on the sagacity and faithfulness of his horse, whose pedigree and biography we were now entertained with.

In due course of narration, it was shown where the horse had originated, what masters he had been subject to, how he could live in the woods without feed, how long he had been the fortunate owner of him, what "hair-breadth escapes" he had made upon his back, etc. etc. All this was mixed with abundance of the most tedious, trifling, and fatiguing particulars, communicated in bad grammar, wretchedly pronounced, so that we were heartily glad when he had arrived at the conclusion, that he was an animal of uncommon sagacity, strength, activity, and worth. For, as in most other biographies, all these words had been wasted to prove the existence of wisdom where it never was, and to make us admire worth which nobody had ever discovered. The end of this dissertation, that had only been interrupted by the occasional stumbling of the beast itself, (which was in reality a most sorry jade,) brought us to within half-a-mile of their cabins, when they both discharged their rifles to advertise their families of our near approach, and in a few moments we were welcomed by dogs, women, and children, all greasy and glad, to the nailless habitations of our conductors. Distance twenty miles.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Friday, January 8th, 1819

Once more arrived at the spot where circumstances had condemned us to perform a kind of quarantine during sixteen days on our journey westward, every object appeared familiar to us, and the very stumps and trees around the house, and the lofty spiral rocks which towered in front, seemed objects with which we had enjoyed in memorial familiarity, and contributed in some degree to that buoyancy of spirit which is so natural on the accomplishment of an undertaking, which has been approached with fatigue, and attained with difficulty; for they were regarded as the silent witnesses of some of the most painful of those difficulties and fatigues, and served to awaken a train of reflections and comparisons which were at once exhilarating and satisfactory. We had already determined on returning to Potosi by a different route from that pursued on our outward journey, as well to diversify the tour, as to avoid the distressing situations to which we were often reduced in passing through the wilderness. It only remained to decide upon the route which promised to afford the most interesting field for observation; and both on that account, as well as uniting greater conveniences in travelling, the descent by White River by water seemed to possess decided advantages. We lost no time, therefore, in preparing for our descent, feeling an anxiety to rerum, which was much heightened by the reflection that we had already consumed more time than we had allotted ourselves for the performance of the entire journey on quitting Potosi, and that our friends would be ready to conclude we had fallen a sacrifice to the dangers of a tour, which few had approbated as adviseable in the outset, and all united in considering as very hazardous.

-Henry Schoolcraft

Missouri Humanities Council Logo

Funding for the Schoolcraft Journey project on Unlock the Ozarks has been provided by the Missouri Humanities Council.