Schoolcraft's Ozark Journey

Wells Homestead (Bennetts Bayou)

Hungry and cold, Ozark explorer Henry Schoolcraft and companion Levi Pettibone were fortunate to encounter a settler named “Wells” and his family near this spot during their three-month journey through the Ozarks. Rested and re-supplied with food and directions, the travelers continued their journey the next day.

Monday, November 30th, 1818

We obtained little sleep last night on account of the cold, and commenced our journey at a very early hour this morning. After travelling two miles we fell into a horse-path with fresh tracks leading both ways, and after some deliberation followed the left-hand end of it, leading to the north-east.

There was no doubt now of our being on a path occasionally travelled between two settlements, but it was impossible to tell which of them we were nearest. We first concluded to follow to the north-east; but, on going about three miles, altered our minds, and had returned about half a mile on the same path we went, when we met a man on horseback. He was the first human being we had encountered for twenty days, and I do not know that I ever received a greater pleasure at the sight of a man. He proved to be a person who had formerly resided as a hunter at a remote settlement on White River, and was now returning from a visit to that region, where he had disposed of a small improvement. From him we learned that the stream we had been following down, was the Great North Fork of White River; that we were then within ten miles of its mouth, and that we were within a few miles of a house either way. Elated with this information, we turned about and followed our informant, who, in travelling about seven miles ina north-west direction, brought us to a hunter's house on Bennet's Bayou, a tributary stream of the North Fork, where we arrived about three o'clock in the afternoon.

Our approach was announced by the loud and long continued barking of dogs, who required repeated bidding before they could be pacified; and the first object worthy of remark which presented itself on emerging from the forest, was the innumerable quantity of deer, bear, and other skins, which had been from time to time stretched out, and hung up to dry on poles and trees around the house. These trophies of skill and prowess in the chace were regarded with great complacency by our conductor as we passed among them, and he told us, that the house we were about to visit belonged to a person by the name of Wells, who was a forehanded man for these parts, and a great hunter. He had several acres of ground in a state of cultivation, and a substantial new-built log-house, consisting of one room, which had been lately exchanged for one less calculated to accommodate a growing family. Its interior would disappoint any person who has never had an opportunity of witnessing the abode of man beyond the pale of the civilized world. Nothing could be more remote from the ideas we have attached to domestic comfort, neatness, or conveniency, without allusion to cleanliness, order, and the concomitant train of household attributes, which make up the sum of human felicity in refined society.

The dress of the children attracted our attention. The boys were clothed in a particular kind of garment made of deer-skin, which served the double purposes of shirt and jacket. The girls had buck-skin frocks, which it was evident, by the careless manner in which they were clothed, were intended to combine the utility both of linen and calico, and all were abundantly greasy and dirty. Around the walls of the room hung the horns of deer and buffaloe, rifles, shot-pouches, leather-coats, dried meat, and other articles, composing the ward-robe, smoke-house, and magazine of our host and family, while the floor displayed great evidence of his own skill in the fabrication of household furniture. A dressed deer-skin served up much in the shape the animal originally possessed, and filled with bear's oil, and another filled with wild honey, hanging on opposite sides of the fire-place, were too conspicuous to escape observation, for which, indeed, they appeared to be principally kept, and brought forcibly to mind the ludicrous anecdote of potatoes and point:

"As in some Irish houses where things are so-so,
One gammon of bacon hangs up for a show."

Our first care was to inform our host that we wished something to eat; that we had come across the wilderness from Mine à Burton, had been twenty-four days out, and run short of shot, and that we had been without meat or bread for several days. We were about to add, that we were inexperienced in hunting and travelling in the woods, and had probably fared worse than an old hunter would have done in our situation; but he anticipated our design, notwithstanding our being disguised as hunters, and taking hold of my companion's shotgun, remarked, "I reckon, stranger, you have not been used much to travelling in the woods."

While his wife was preparing a meal, we entered into a general conversation on the subject of our journey, and obtained from him such directions as were necessary for continuing our course, which we now learned we had widely missed. He inquired respecting the country we had crossed, what were the streams, the kind of wood, and the game. All this was done with a view either of learning from us, or of judging for himself whether it was a region for hunting, and what animals it abounded with. He was particularly anxious for bear, deer being very common in all parts, and to use his own words, "hardly worth shooting;" and from information we gave him, he immediately determined to set out the next day on a bear-hunt, up the Great North Fork. His wife seemed to take a very great interest in this piece of information, and was even more particular than he in inquiries respecting the freshness of the signs we had seen.

We now sat down to a meal of smoaking-hot corn-bread, butter, honey, and milk, a diet we should at any time have relished, but in the present instance very judiciously set before us; and after eating as much as we supposed two hearty men ought to, arose unsatisfied, not more from a regard to moral than physical propriety. After supper we made many inquiries respecting the region we were in; its bearing and relation to the nearest settlements; the quality of soil, mineral and vegetable productions, etc. topics upon which he readily gave us information. He was ever anxious to show that he knew something of civilized society (from which, by the way, we had afterwards reason to conclude he had made a sudden escape.) told us, that he sometimes went on business into the settled parts of Lawrence county, and that he then lived within a hundred miles of a justice of the peace, and by way of proving this, showed us a summons he had himself lately received. He desired us to read it, (a thing neither himself nor any member of his family could do,) but with all our ingenuity in deciphering syllables and connecting words, we could not tell him when, or where, the suit was to be held; who he was to answer, nor, indeed, make any sense out of it. In the course of the evening I tried to engage our hostess and her daughters in small-talk, such as passes current in every social corner; but, for the first time, found I should not recommend myself in that way. They could only talk of bears, hunting, and the like. The rude pursuits, and the coarse enjoyments of the hunter state, were all they knew. The evening was now far spent; we had related the most striking incidents of our tour, and had listened in return to many a hunting exploit, in the course of which, the trophies on the wall were occasionally referred to as proof, when a motion was made for sleep, and we lay down on a skin before the fire, happy in the reflection that we had a roof to cover us. Distance twelve miles.

-Henry Schoolcraft

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