Schoolcraft's Ozark Journey

Smallin Cave

Henry Schoolcraft, an early Ozarks explorer, was astonished at his first sighting of the “stupendous cavern” and was eager to explore its hidden recesses. He made note of the “number and variety of curious and interesting objects” the cave presented but was prevented from fully exploring the cave by not having a boat at his disposal.

Friday, January 1st, 1819

On leaving Findley's Fork, we followed up a small deep valley, which in a short distance, and after a few windings, terminated suddenly in a cave opening on a hill-side the whole width of the valley, with a stream running from its mouth. The first appearance of this stupendous cavern struck us with astonishment, succeeded by a curiosity to explore its hidden recesses. Its width across, at the mouth, could not be estimated at less than 200 feet, with a height of about ninety or 100 at the highest point, descending each way, and forming, when viewed in front, a semi-circle, indented alternately, with projecting and retreating rocks. It keeps this size for several hundred feet, when a gradual diminution takes place, which continues until it is not more than ten feet across, where our progress was stopped by the stream of water which occupies the whole width of the passage, and the water, being dammed up below by a stalactitic incrustation deposited from it, forms a small lake in the bottom of the cave. Its depth appears in some places ten or fifteen feet, and the singular calcareous formation by which it is encompassed, gives it the appearance of a stupendous vase, or bath. The outlet of this natural bath presents, at a depression of ten feet below, another, but smaller lake, encompassed by a similar deposition of calcareous matter, hardened by the absorption of carbonic acid gas from the atmosphere. Large masses of stalagmite, and several columns of stalactite, pendant from the roof, are also found; but the percolation of water, to whose agency the formation of these substances are generally referred, has entirely ceased.

In that part of the cave which is dry, and in the bottom of the brook which runs across it, is found a singular calcareous formation, in the shape of small globules from the size of a grain of sand to that of a musket-bullet, which covers the bottom of the cave to the depth of a foot or more, so that in walking upon it the foot sinks, as if on a bank of loose dry sand. Some appearances of salt-petre are also furnished in crevices of the rock, which is secondary lime-stone; and, upon the whole, the cave, from its extent, which remains unknown, and the number and variety of curious and interesting objects it presents, is well worthy of a day's attention. To explore it, a boat would be necessary. We spent but an hour in it, the hunters being satisfied after gazing a few minutes, and anxious to continue the journey.

On quitting the cave, we entered on a district of country characterized by gentle sloping hills, well wooded with oak and hickory, with some extensive prairies, and a pretty fertile black soil, and encamped last night on the banks of a small stream, affording some handsome sites for plantations. On travelling two miles this morning we entered a rich and extensive valley, and found ourselves unexpectedly on the banks of James' River, the stream we were in search of. It is the principal north western fork of White River, and a large, clear, and beautiful stream. It originates in high-lands, a little south of the Gasconade river, which falls into the Missouri above St. Charles, and running in an opposite direction for two hundred and fifty miles, forms a junction with the south fork of White River, one hundred miles below. Along its banks are found extensive bodies of the choicest land, covered by a large growth of forest-trees and cane, and interspersed with prairies. Oak, maple, white and black walnut, elm, mulberry, hackberry, and sycamore, are the common trees, and attain a very large size. On the west commences a prairie of unexplored extent, stretching off towards the Osage river, and covered with tall rank grass. Towards its mouth, it is said to be bordered with high rocky bluffs. We forded the river on horseback, and pursuing up its western bank about four miles, encamped near the shore, in the vicinity of a lead- mine. Distance six miles. Weather cold and piercing. Killed one prairie-hen and one goose.

-Henry Schoolcraft

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