November 2018 marks 200 years since New Yorker Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his companion Levi Pettibone launched a memorable journey into the wild and mostly unsettled region now called the Ozarks. Brooks Blevins, Noel Boyd Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University, will discuss their travels and other accounts of the Old Ozarks in a September event in Springfield cosponsored by the State Historical Society of Missouri.
After a business failure, Schoolcraft went west at age 25, arriving a few months later at the Missouri Territory’s lead mining area around Potosi. Witnessing the area’s success, he decided to travel to the Ozarks to see if the rumors of untapped lead deposits in that area were true. The journey he and Pettibone began in November 1818 would last three months and cover a 900-mile trek through the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks.
Schoolcraft wasn’t the first nonindigenous explorer of the Ozarks. The French had been mining lead in the area for decades; the term “Ozarks” is believed to be French in origin. Fur traders and trappers had also been coming into the Ozarks for a long time. Yet Schoolcraft is the first Euro-American known to have written an account of what he saw and experienced there. His book, Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansaw, was published in 1821.
Schoolcraft and Pettibone were not experienced outdoorsmen. They were poorly equipped for a winter foray into the wilderness and lost their packhorse at least twice. At one point, they lost all of their food and their gunpowder was rendered useless. Despite all of this, Schoolcraft kept detailed notes on the geology, flora, fauna, and people they encountered during their travels.
Modern readers will be surprised by Schoolcraft’s descriptions of the landscape. He described open woodland in areas that are now heavily forested, particularly near the Meramec River. Schoolcraft also noted pine and oak trees of immense size where Douglas and Ozark Counties now stand—trees that have long since been logged out of the Ozarks. He mentioned the thriving prairie grass, ten feet tall in some places, near the James River in what is now Greene County.
Schoolcraft observed that a skilled hunter would never want for a meal. He was impressed by the amount of deer and elk. Bears were common as well, although the meat was considered a delicacy. While Schoolcraft was staying at the cabin of one settler on the White River, hunters returned with 14 turkeys for Christmas dinner.
Even so, Schoolcraft was unimpressed with the few settlers he met. Despite relying on them for sustenance and guidance through the wilderness, he made very few positive observations about them. In Schoolcraft’s eastern-educated eyes, these pioneers were ignorant and uncultured, and would most likely be moving on once the area became more settled. But in fact, descendants with the same surnames can be found in the Ozarks to this day.
Schoolcraft did find small amounts of lead on Pierson’s Creek near modern-day Springfield, but he had hoped for deposits at least as large as those in Potosi. In his mind, his journey was a failure. Ironically, had he gone 60 miles to the west, he would have found some of the largest lead deposits in the world.
Blevins’s September 18 lecture at the Springfield Library Center, 4653 South Campbell Avenue, is sponsored by SHSMO, the Springfield–Greene County Library District, Missouri State University Libraries, and the Missouri State University Ozarks Studies Institute. He will sign copies of his recently released A History of the Ozarks, Volume 1: The Old Ozarks.