Schoolcraft's Ozark Journey

Potato Cave

Henry Schoolcraft, an early Ozarks explorer and documentarian, and Levi Pettibone, stumbled upon Potato Cave in the quest to find water and a campsite for the evening. At this site Schoolcraft inscribed the date and a portion of a poem onto a “smooth calcareous rock”. The entire poem can be found in Dr. Milton Rafferty’s Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks.

Sunday, November 22nd, 1818

The difficulties attending our process along the banks of the river induced us this morning to take the highlands, where we found the travelling much easier, both to ourselves and our horse. On quitting the valley of the limestone we held a due-west course for about two miles, in order completely to disengage ourselves from the pine-forest, the ravines, and the brush, bordering the right bank of the river, when we found ourselves on an open barren, with very little timber, or underbrush, and generally level. We now altered our course to southsouth-west, and travelled in a direct line fourteen miles without meeting anything worthy of remark. We passed over a sterile soil, destitute of wood, with gentle elevations, but no hills or cliffs, and no water. The want of the latter we began sensibly to experience as night approached, and entered a rocky valley bending towards the south-east in hopes of finding it. Nothing could equal the sterility, or the rugged aspect of this valley, which deepened rapidly as we went, and was nothing more than a dry channel scooped out of a mass of rocks and stones, and seemed alike to forbid the expectation of finding either wood, grass, or water. For two miles we pursued our way without the prospect of finding a suitable place to encamp. Night was closing fast around us, and as the sky darkened, the wind began to rise, and as it murmured among the pines which crowned the high bluffs by which we were encompassed, seemed to forbode that we were destined to pass a cheerless night. We almost involuntarily stopped to survey the scene around us, and at this moment observed a small spring of water trickling among the stones at our feet; and turning toward its source, a cave in the rock, situated about midway up the bluff, yawned before us.

Elated with this sudden discovery, we immediately scrambled up to explore it; found it habitable, with a spring issuing at its mouth, and encamped. It was a spacious cave, and when we had kindled our fires, the reflection of light upon its high and rugged roof, and the different apartments into which it separated, produced an effect of aweful grandeur which it is impossible to describe. The train of reflections in which we are apt to indulge is not always the effect of a previous resolution, nor is it always within the power of control; and while we partook of our frugal meal of dried venison, bread, and water, we were almost imperceptibly drawn into a conversation on the nature and objects of our journey, the hardships of the hunter's life, its advantages and disadvantages, and comparison between savage and civilized society. This carried us to other scenes, the land of our nativity, which seemed dearer in being at a distance; the conversation dropped, and we spread our skins and prepared for sleep. While the light alternately glared or faded upon the terrific walls of the cave, I engraved the date of our visit with a knife upon a smooth calcareous rock, and transcribed from my journal a part of the following inscription, previously penciled for the purpose:

O thou, who, clothed with magical spell,
Delight'st in lonely wilds to dwell,
Resting in rift, or wrapt in air,
Remote from mortal ken or care.
Spirit of Caverns, goddess blest!
Hear a suppliant's fond request,
One, who nor a wanton calls
Or intruder in thy walls;
One, who spills not on the plain
Blood for sport, or worldly gain,
Like his red barbarian kin
Deep in murder, foul in sin;
Or with high horrific yells
Rends thy dark and silent cells;
But a devious traveller nigh,
Weary, hungry, parch'd and dry:
One who seeks thy shelter blest,
Not to riot, but to rest,
Grant me, from thy crystal rill,
Oft my glittering cup to fill;
Let thy dwelling, rude and high,
Form our nightly canopy,
And by super-human walls
Ward the dew that nightly falls:
Guard me from the ills that creep
On the houseless traveller's sleep,
From the ravenous panther's spring,
From the scorpion's poisoned sting,
From the serpent-reptile curst,
Or the Indian's midnight thrust.
Grant me sweet repose by night,
And a vision of delight!
Grant me this, and o'er my sleep
Thy aerial vigils keep.
Let me dream of friendship true,
And that human ills are few;
Let me dream that boyhood's schemes
Are not, what I've found them-dreams;
And his hopes, however gay,
Have not flitted fast away.
Let me dream life is no bubble
That the world is free of trouble,
And my heart's a stranger still
To the cares that fain would kill,
Let me dream I e'er shall find
Honour fair, or fortune kind,
And that time shall sweetly fling
In my path perpetual spring.
Let me dream my bosom never
Felt the pang from friends to sever;
And that life is not replete,
Or with loss, pain, woe, deceit,
Let me dream misfortune's smart
Ne'er hath wrung my bleeding heart,
Nor from home its potent sway
Drove me far, oh far away.
Let me dream my journey here
Is not fraught with toil severe;
That the barren is not dreary,
Nor my daily marches weary;
And the cliff, the brake, the brier,
Never wound, and never tire;
Stony couch and chilly sky,
Trackless desart, mountain dry,
These afflict not, but beguile
Time away, like beauty's smile,
Let me dream it, for I know,
When I wake, it is not so.

-Henry Schoolcraft

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