At or near this location early Ozarks explorer Henry Schoolcraft reached the westernmost part of his three-month journey. On the James River, he spent four days battling snow and cold. Despite these conditions, he was able to document the geology and wildlife and also note the economic advantages of the location for possible future settlement.
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.
Saturday, January 2nd, 1819
Calculating to remain here several days previous to our return, we spent the afternoon of yesterday in constructing a comfortable camp, and covering the roof with bark, etc. This morning, at day-light, it commenced snowing, but ceased about eight o'clock, and continued clear, with the exception of occasional flickerings, until two o'clock, when a snow-storm set in, which continued till night, and confined us to our camp. In the interim, we went out to examine the lead-mine, which is situated in the west bank, and in the bottom of the river, as lumps of ore can be seen through the water, which is very clear and transparent. The ore is galena, or sulphuret of lead, accompanied by sulphuret of zinc, and imbedded in the bank of the river in a red clay. The bottom of the river is a rock of secondary lime-stone, stratified. Killed six turkeys and one wolf.
Sunday, January 3rd, 1819
The snow ceased during the night, and the sun rose clear, and shone uninterruptedly during the day. The morning was cold, but the snow commenced thawing about nine o'clock and continued till a little after three, when it commenced freezing. The river, which was open on our arrival, is now covered with ice, except where there are ripples. Employed in exploring the adjacent country and the mines. In the afternoon, selecting specimens of ore, and building a small furnace for smelting lead, as the hunters are desirous of supplying themselves with bullets. Killed two deer and one wolf.
Monday, January 4th, 1819
It began snowing a little after midnight, and continued until day-break. Engaged in digging at the mines, and viewing the country. The prairies, which commence at the distance of a mile west of this river, are the most extensive, rich, and beautiful, of any which I have ever seen west of the Mississippi river. They are covered by a coarse wild grass, which attains so great a height that it completely hides a man on horseback in riding through it. The deer and elk abound in this quarter, and the buffaloe is occasionally seen in droves upon the prairies, and in the open high-land woods. Along the margin of the river, and to a width of from one to two miles each way, is found a vigorous growth of forest-trees, some of which attain an almost incredible size. The lands consist of a rich black alluvial soil, apparently deep, and calculated for corn, flax, and hemp. The river-banks are skirted with cane, to the exclusion of all other underbrush; and the lands rise gently from the river for a mile, terminating in high-lands, without bluffs, with a handsome growth of hickory and oak, and a soil which is probably adapted for wheat, rye, oats, and potatoes. Little prairies of a mile or two in extent are sometimes seen in the midst of a heavy forest, resembling some old cultivated field, which has been suffered to run into grass.
Near our present encampment are some bluffs, which serve to diversify the scene, and at the foot of which is situated a valuable lead-mine. A country thus situated, cannot fail to present a scene of great beauty in the season of verdure, and even now, in the depth of winter, wears a pleasing aspect. It is a mixture of forest and plain, of hills and long sloping valleys, where the tall oak forms a striking contrast with the rich foliage of the evergreen cane, or the waving field prairie-grass. It is an assemblage of beautiful groves, and level prairies, of river alluvion, and high-land precipice, diversified by the devious course of the river, and the distant promontory, forming a scene so novel, yet so harmonious, as to strike the beholder with admiration; and the effect must be greatly heightened, when viewed under the influence of a mild clear atmosphere, and an invigorating sun, such as is said to characterize this region during the spring and summer. Taking these circumstances into view, with the fertility and extent of soil, its advantages for water-carriage, and other objects, among which its mines deserve to be noticed, it offers great attractions to enterprizing emigrants, and particularly to such as may consider great prospective advantages an equivalent for the dangers and privations of a frontier settlement. The junction of Findley's Fork with James' River, a high, rich point of land, is an eligible spot for a town, and the erection of a new county out of this part of the unincorporated wilderness of Arkansaw, would soon give the settlers the advantages elsewhere enjoyed in civil communities. A profitable fur-trade would be one of the immediate advantages attending such a settlement. Both the Osage and Cherokee nations would soon be drawn to this spot, as the most eligible and convenient point for trading; also, a part of the Pawnees, and some scattered bands of the Delawares and Shawanees of Missouri Territory. A water-communication exists with the Mississippi. Steamboats may ascend White River to the mouth of its Great North Fork. Keel-boats of twenty tons burthen may, during the greater part of the year, ascend to the mouth of James' River; and boats of eight tons burthen may ascend that to the junction of Findley's Fork, about fifteen miles below our present spot of encampment, to which the navigation may be continued in smaller boats, thus establishing a communication by which the peltries, the lead, and the agricultural products of the country, could be easily, cheaply, and at all seasons, taken to market, and merchandize brought up in return.
Having now satisfied ourselves with respect to the objects of our tour and the weather rendering a further residence unpleasant, it is determined to begin our journey back to-morrow.
Funding for the Schoolcraft Journey project on Unlock the Ozarks has been provided by the Missouri Humanities Council.