Schoolcraft's Ozark Journey

Corker's Cabin

Henry Schoolcraft and companion Levi Pettibone stayed at the Coker family cabin near this location twice during Schoolcraft’s early exploration of the Ozarks. The Cokers survived by hunting the wide variety of game in the area supplemented by locally grown corn and honey. The furs of beaver, otter, raccoon, deer and bear were rafted down the White River to current day Jacksonport, Arkansas to be traded for salt, knives, rifles and other necessities.

Wednesday, December 9th, 1818

The path we are pursuing became so feint and indefinite, that we were unable to follow it more than a mile from our encampment, but taking the general course of the river, forced our way through the thick cane and brier which over-run the rich alluvial banks of the river, with incredible fatigue. At the distance of seven miles we came unexpectedly into a small opening in the midst of one of the most gloomy thickets of cane we had yet encountered. Here, in a small camp, tight only at top, we found a family who had two weeks before emigrated from the lower parts of White River. They had brought their furniture and effects, such as it was, partly in a canoe up the river, and partly on pack-horses through the woods.

Nothing could present a more striking picture of the hardships encountered by the back wood's settler, than this poor, friendless, and forlorn family. The woman and her little children were a touching groupe of human distress, and in contemplating their forlorn situation we for a while forgot our own deprivations and fatigues. They were short of provisions, the husband being out in search of game, and after obtaining such information as the woman was able to give, respecting the next settlement, we continued our journey in a north-west course along the hills which skirt the river bottoms at the distance of a mile from its banks, and arrived at an early hour in the afternoon at the house of a Mr. Coker, at what is called Sugar-Loaf Prairie. This takes its name from a bald hill covered with grass rising on the verge of the river alluvion on the west side of the river, and is discernible at the distance of many miles. The settlement at Sugar-Loaf Prairie consists at present of four families, located within the distance of eight miles, but is so recent that a horse-path has not yet been worn from one cabin to another. It is the highest settlement on the river, excepting two families at the mouth of Beaver Creek, about three miles above (the actual distance is fifteen miles overland and forty miles by river). These people subsist partly by agriculture, and partly by hunting. They raise corn for bread, and for feeding their horses previous to the commencement of long journeys in the woods, but none for exportation. No cabbages, beets, onions, potatoes, turnips, or other garden vegetables, are raised. Gardens are unknown. Corn and wild meats, chiefly bear's meat, are the staple articles of food. In manners, morals, customs, dress, contempt of labour and hospitality, the state of society is not essentially different from that which exists among the savages. Schools, religion, and learning are alike unknown. Hunting is the principal, the most honourable, and the most profitable employment. To excel in the chace procures fame, and a man's reputation is measured by his skill as a marksman, his agility and strength, his boldness and dexterity in killing game, and his patient endurance and contempt of the hardships of the hunter's life. They are, consequently, a hardy, brave, independent people, rude in appearance, frank and generous, travel without baggage, and can subsist any where in the woods, and would form the most efficient military corps in frontier warfare which can possibly exist. Ready trained, they require no discipline, inured to danger, and perfect in the use of the rifle. Their system of life is, ill fact, one continued scene of camp-service. Their habitations are not always permanent, having little which is valuable, or loved, to rivet their affections to anyone spot; and nothing which is venerated, but what they can carry with them; they frequently change residence, travelling where game is more abundant. Vast quantities of beaver, otter, raccoon, deer, and bear-skins, are annually caught. These skins are carefully collected and preserved during the summer and fall, and taken down the river in canoes, to the mouth of the Great North Fork of White River, or to the mouth of Black River, where traders regularly come up with large boats to receive them. They also take down some wild honey, bear's bacon, and buffaloe-beef, and receive in return, salt, iron-pots, axes, blankets, knives, rifles, and other articles of first importance in their mode of life.

We were received by Mr. Coker with that frankness and blunt hospitality which are characteristic of the hunter. Our approach to the house was, as usual, announced by the barking of dogs, whose incessant yells plainly told us, that all who approached that domain, of which they were the natural guardians, and whether moving upon two, or upon four legs, were considered as enemies, and it was not until they were peremptorily, and repeatedly recalled, that they could be pacified. Dried skins, stretched out with small rods, and hung up to dry on trees and poles around the house, served to give the scene the most novel appearance. This custom has been observed at every hunter's cabin we have encountered, and, as we find, great pride is taken in the display, the number and size of the bear-skins serving as a credential of the hunter's skill and prowess in the chace.

We had no sooner acquainted our entertainer with the objects and contemplated extent of our journey, than he discovered the fear which appears to prevail on this river, respecting the Osage Indians, and corroborated what we had before heard of their robberies. He considered the journey hazardous at this season, as they had not yet, probably, broke up their hunting camps, and retired, as they do every winter, to their villages on the Grandosaw river. He recommended us to abandon our guns for rifles, to take with us as little baggage as possible-thought we should find it a poor season for game, and made other remarks of a discouraging nature. The fact was, he had an old rifle for sale, thought we had money, and wished to get double the worth of it, and wished us to engage an idle hypochondriac, who hung about him, as a guide. We were inclined to do both, but could not agree as to the price of the former, and the latter could not be prevailed to go at any price.

-Henry Schoolcraft

A little over a month later, on January 10th, 1819, Schoolcraft and Levi Pettibone returned to this cabin.

Sunday, January 10th, 1819

Leaving the hunter's cabin at an early hour, we passed, at the distance of two miles below, the mouth of Bear Creek, along, narrow, crooked stream, coming in on the right. Near its head, the hunters procure flints for their rifles. Toward evening we passed a hunter's cabin on our right, and about two miles below another on our left, where we concluded to stop for the night, and found it to be the habitation of a Mr. Coker, by whom we were entertained thirty-one days ago on our journey up. He appeared pleased at our return, and our success. Distance twenty-five miles.

-Henry Schoolcraft

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