Schoolcraft's Ozark Journey

Near Pine Ridge

Wednesday, January 6th, 1819

We were deceived in the valley which we yesterday entered. Instead of Swan, it proved to be Bull Creek, also a tributary to White River; but which we should have headed, leaving it wholly on our right, as it is universally known among hunters, and avoided, as a hilly, sterile region, and which, from the similarity in the natural phisiognomy of the hills, trees, soil, and brush, is considered a dangerous place to get lost in, particularly in foggy weather, when the sun cannot be seen. Of the justice of this impression, our journey this day has afforded conclusive proof, being foiled in several successive attempts to cross the adjoining high-lands, and returned upon it, at different places, by its lateral valleys. Thus we spent one half of the day in vain and perplexing endeavours, wandering from one high knoll to another; and, at length, by a lucky hit, succeeded in reaching one of the tributary streams of Swan Creek, upon which, after following it down for several miles, we encamped; distance ten miles. In passing down Bull Creek, and in some places along the valley in which we are now encamped, the tracks of bear upon the snow, some of enormous size, have been very plentifully observed; but as hunting is not our object, we have not pursued them to the dens, and to the hollow trees, into which they have, at this season, retired. These traces, made upon the snow, in the most inclement part of a Missouri winter, show conclusively, that although this animal retires, on the approach of snow and cold weather, into crevices, caves, and fissures in the rock, and into large hollow trees, and other places where he can lie secure and warm; and can there subsist a length of time upon the superabundant fat with which nature has provided him for that purpose, and without any other nutriment; yet he occasionally quits those recesses, and seeks food upon the adjoining plains. It is probable, also, that he frequently changes the place of retirement during the winter-season, and only ventures out of his hiding-place in the mildest days, and at noon, when the power of the sun is at its maximum of heat upon the earth. Hunters kill this animal during the winter-season by tracking him up to his den, either upon the snow, or by the scent of dogs. If tracked to a large cave, they enter, and often find him in its farthest recess, when he is shot without farther difficulty. If a narrow aperture in the rock, dogs are sent in to provoke him to battle; thus he is either brought in sight within the cave, or driven entirely out of it, and while engaged with the dogs, the hunter walks up deliberately to within a few feet, and pierces him through the heart. A shot through the flank, thigh, shoulder, or even the neck, does not kill him, but provokes him to the utmost rage, and sometimes four or five shots are necessary to kill him; for, as he is constantly in motion, it is very improbable that the first shot, however sure the rifle from which it is driven, will penetrate the heart; and it is not uncommon that one, two, or three of the best dogs are killed in the affray, either by the bear, or a mistaken shot from the huntsman, in which case the bear taken by no means compensates for the dogs lost; for a high value is set upon a good dog, and his death is greatly lamented. Neither is such a dog soon forgotten; and his achievements in the chace, his deep-mouthed cry, his agility and fleetness, his daring attack, and desperate gnash, and his dexterity in avoiding the fatal paw of his antagonist, these long continue to be the theme of admiration. When seated around his cabin-fire, the old hunter excites the wonder of his credulous children, gathered into a groupe, to listen to the recital of his youthful deeds, and thus creates in their breasts a desire to follow the same pursuits, and to excel in those hunting exploits which command the universal applause of their companions, and crown with fancied glory the life of the transalleganian hunter, whether red or white.

In the course of the last two days we have also passed, upon different streams, the habitations of the beaver, an animal so highly valued for its fur, and which differs from other quadrupeds in having chosen that part of the vegetable creation for its sustenance which is rejected by all others, viz. the bark of trees. To procure this, it is provided with two large teeth in the under-jaw, set with astonishing firmness, and resembling chissels, by which it is enabled to gnaw or cut down saplings, and even large trees. These, when down, they completely peel, preferring, however, the bark of the smaller limbs and twigs, which are young, tender, and full of sap. Often they so contrive it as to make them fall into the water, where they serve to stop and collect all floating limbs and brush, making a kind of dam, which thus supplies them with food without the labour, (and an immense labour it must be) of gnawing down large trees. There are few descriptions of wood, the bark of which they will not eat. Thus they attack the maple, the mulberry, black walnut, and elm; nor does the astringent and bitter properties of the oak prevent them from making it an article of food. They prefer, however, all barks which have an aromatic, or spicy flavour, and from the number of those trees We find peeled, possess a high relish for several kinds of laurus, which abound in the valleys in this region, particularly spice-wood and sassafras. Being web-footed, their favourite region is the water, and they seldom venture far from the banks of the stream they inhabit, and never travel on to neighbouring high-lands. They burrow in the banks of the stream above the water level, so that they lie dry: but the mouths of their habitations are situated below the waters, so that it enters them for a distance, and they cannot get out without diving into the water. By this sagacious contrivance they at once exclude the cold air from their habitations, and prevent their being entered by animals which cannot endure to live under water. It is probable many of their natural enemies are thus debarred of their prey. As all other species of animated nature, which has been endowed with sufficient sagacity and foresight for its own preservation by habits and customs peculiar to itself, is also endowed with some peculiar tastes, habits, or propensities, which are prone to work its own destruction; so the beaver, which has wisdom enough to cut down trees and form dams, and elude the vigilance of its enemies, both man and beast, in an hundred ways, yet falls a sacrifice to its passion for high sweet-scented herbs, and spicy barks. It is by a skilful preparation of these, that beaver-trappers are enabled to take such quantities of them. A natural musky substance, taken from the stomach of the beaver, serves as the principal article in the composition of the bait which is put into the trap; some sassafras, and other barks and fragrant herbs, are added; the exact proportions and method of preparation being a secret only known to those who are skilled in trapping, and who are unwilling to communicate the information.

-Henry Schoolcraft

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