Schoolcraft's Ozark Journey

Near Topaz Spring

Henry Schoolcraft, an early Ozarks explorer, stopped at Topaz Spring on his journey through the Ozarks in the fall of 1818. He observed that the waters possessed the “purity of crystal” and that the spring deserved to be ranked among the most impressive of natural phenomena of the region. To advertise his passing through the area, Schoolcraft hung an elk’s horn of “astonishing size” on a nearby tree

Friday, November 20th, 1818

Within a mile from our last night’s encampment, we met with the first cane, and found new difficulties in forcing our way through it. Our approach to a warmer climate is further indicated by several green plants which we have not before noticed and particularly by the black haw, which we have this day found in great perfection, notwithstanding the advanced season. The lands continue to be that rich alluvion which is common to all the streams and vallies of Missouri, and covered by a luxuriant growth of forest-timber, shrubs, vines, cane, and green-briar, often so matted and interwoven together, that our progress is not only retarded, but attended with great fatigue. The extent of these bottoms is, however, small, and they are bordered by very high bluffs of calcareous rock. In our progress, we have been continually breaking in upon the retreats of those natural possessors of the soil, the bear and the deer. The turkey, the duck, swan, prairie-hen, and squirrel, have also viewed us as enemies, and fled at our approach. Such is the admirable power and foresight with which the Creator has endowed every part of animated nature, for its own conduct and preservation, that whether operating by instinctive impulse, as in the deer or wild-fowl, or by a reasoning and comparing faculty as in man, the effect is equally powerful, certain, and complete.

The stream which we are pursuing is devious beyond all example, and 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 the purity of their waters. We have passed one of these springs to-day, which deserves to be ranked among the natural phenomena of this region. It rushes 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, is 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 towards 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 advertise the future traveller that he had been preceded by human footsteps in his visit to the Elkhorn Spring.

The difficulties we find in making our way down this valley, especially with a horse, seem to increase with the size of the stream, and the width of the valley; and if we formerly thought it wearisome in climbing over stony ridges, we now find it laborious in breaking our way through thickets bound together by grape-vines and green-briar, which are constantly either entangling our horse's feet, or become so wound around our bodies, that we are obliged to use a knife in cutting through. In breaking through one of these thickets I lost my mineral hammer, a misfortune I shall have frequent cause to regret, as it served both for detaching small specimens of such mineral bodies as I found worthy of notice, and for occasionally putting a nail in the shoes of our horse. The latter is, I confess, the only essay I have ever had occasion to make in the farrier's art; but it is an attention dictated by humanity, and which every traveller who makes long journeys across such stony and desolate tracts, should be provided for. We encamped at dusk on the brink of the river, on the skirts of an extensive cane-brake, more fatigued than we have been for several days, and having only travelled a distance of twelve miles. General course, south.

-Henry Schoolcraft

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