Mining at Potosi
An engraving portrays the nineteenth century mining settlement at Potosi.
By Trevor Harris
The best way to know the landscape is to walk it, to feel it directly. Get out, and hike a trail that
peels off down a hill. Let it be your guide to the other side. Getting out of the car and putting feet on the Earth helps you to see and understand the natural world.
The next best thing to walking and experiencing a landscape in person is to look at a representation of it. A study of old maps can unearth unfamiliar place names, topographic patterns, and meandering rivers all worthy of exploration. Maps are fodder for future explorations.
Another way to know a landscape is to read a historic account of that place. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft explored the Ozarks by hiking and horseback riding nine hundred miles in ninety days in late 1818 and early 1819. He published Journal of a Tour Into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansas in 1821, the same year Missouri became a state. Schoolcraft’s journal offers a treasure trove of landscape descriptions from his early exploration of the Ozarks in an era when the Osage mingled with American traders at outposts on the Arkansas, Osage, and Missouri Rivers. Missouri’s cities were mere frontier outposts, and the interior belonged to Native Americans and a few hardy French and American settlers.
Springfield geography professor Milton Rafferty republished Schoolcraft’s original journal and additional material in 1996 in Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks: Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Ozark Journal.
“I begin my tour where other travelers have ended theirs, on the confines of the wilderness, and at the last village of white inhabitants, between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. I have passed down the valley of the Ohio, and across the state of Illinois in silence!”
Thus began Schoolcraft’s journal as he set out from Potosi across the interior of the Ozarks. He was twenty-five when he began his walk in search of adventure that he wasn’t getting working in his father’s Hudson River glass factory back East. Schoolcraft imagined that by promoting the potential for mining in Missouri’s Ozarks he would surely gain a role in the territory’s government. He even had a specific job in mind: Superintendant of Mines.
Although that appointment never materialized, Schoolcraft’s Ozark journal did leave a detailed account of early nineteenth-century Ozark landscapes in the St. Francis, White, and James River watersheds. He wrote of a massive prairie where modern-day Springfield sits. He detailed open, barren spaces where groves of Eastern Red Cedar now grow. Changes since then interested Milton Rafferty, who first discovered Schoolcraft’s Missouri journal as he was finishing up his doctoral work at the University of Nebraska.
“I had just gotten a job at Missouri State University, then Southwest Missouri State,” Milton says. “I was trying to find things to read about this area. I ran across the Schoolcraft journal and was just fascinated. When I got down here, I started using it to teach my classes. I like to take examples of local geography and show them how much things change over time.”
As an example of how Missouri’s landscapes changed between Schoolcraft’s walk and today, Milton points to a journal entry for January 4, 1818, which he often reads to his students. On that fifty-ninth day of his trip, Schoolcraft and travel companion Levi Pettibone arrived at Kickapoo Prairie.
As he neared the then-mile-wide Kickapoo Prairie, Schoolcraft wrote: “The prairies are the most extensive, rich, 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.” Today, that’s Springfield.
“That immediate area became a farm, then a subdivision, and is now a university,” Milton says.
The French and Americans had already altered the Ozark landscape when Schoolcraft visited in 1818. As he began his travels, Schoolcraft was wary of the risks from mining activities that had been ongoing for 120 years near Potosi. He noted, “Scarcely ground enough has been left undisturbed for the safe passage of the traveler, who is constantly kept in peril by unseen excavations and falling in pits.”
Schoolcraft took good notes along the way. To this day, conservationists, archaeologists, and cartographers still use his journal as one way to know what a pre-Euro-American Missouri landscape looked like.
Americans settled in southern Missouri in growing numbers after statehood. They farmed, mined, and cut timber. Through these activities and the absence of fire started by Native Americans, landscapes—while often pleasing to the eye—look vastly different from those that Schoolcraft saw almost two hundred years ago.
Courtesy of James D. Harlan
This map traces Schoolcraft's route through the Ozarks.
Retreat of the Native People
When Schoolcraft came through, the Osage and other tribes still occupied lands south of the Missouri River where they gardened, fished, and hunted. In his journal, Schoolcraft noted a pair of abandoned Shawnee and Delaware hunting camps. On January 14, 1819, Schoolcraft wrote that he found “an excellent kind of flint, and some antique bones and arrowheads,
from beneath a heavy bed of alluvium covered by trees.” He suspected these artifacts were from Indians who had abandoned summer hunting camps to return to more permanent winter encampments elsewhere.
The Osage had tolerated and traded with small French settlements along the Missouri Territory’s largest rivers, occasionally harassing offending settlers or traders, but they became dependent on trade for European- and American-manufactured trade goods and weapons.
After the United States bought the Louisiana territory in 1803, the American settlers doomed the Osage way of life. With a series of treaties starting in 1808, the Osage began retreating from eastern Missouri. The American settler population of the Missouri Territory increased from an estimated 25,000 in 1814 to 65,000 in 1820, and the last Osage tribe withdrew from western Missouri into Kansas in 1823, though they returned for hunts as late as 1837.
Other Missouri tribes similarly were removed from their lands. Once Missouri became a state in 1821, the population grew even more, and the increased demand for food led to a growth in farms that dramatically altered the state’s flora and fauna. Before the settlers, the prairie landscapes dominated by various grasses once covered 30 percent of Missouri. According to Paul Nelson’s Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri, less than 0.2 percent of native prairies remain in the state. Many of these native grasslands were plowed under for crops or grazed by livestock.
Courtesy of Missouri State Historical Society
Logging Current River Grandin
Logs floating along the Current River are destined for the mills at the Missouri Logging and Mining Company at Grandin in Carter County.
Years of Logging
The American settlers also built homes, barns, and stores, so they harvested timber for building material. And as the troves of potential lumber were discovered by railroad investors in the post-Civil War years, the Ozarks timber boom was on.
The oak-pine forest that Schoolcraft noted throughout his journal covered much of what is today Shannon and Oregon Counties and was felled for railroad ties to meet Missouri’s post-Civil War demand for new railroads. Many late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century settlers to the Ozarks found work in Missouri’s growing timber economy.
With enormous sawmills came loggers and their families. The southern Missouri towns of Winona and Doniphan owe their origins to a booming timber economy. Timber harvest and processing peaked in 1899 when sawmills in Missouri turned out 724 million board feet of lumber. The operations required to maintain the timber boom were massive, includ- ing twin sawmills at Grandin. Located southwest of Van Buren, Grandin was established in 1887 by the Missouri Lumber and Mining Company as a location for a sawmill that could—at its peak in 1894—process seventy-five acres of timber per day from Missouri forests. The timber boom ended with the Great Depression of the 1930s.
What this boom meant for the Ozarks landscape was a great decline in pine forests and oak woodlands. Had he returned one century later, Schoolcraft would probably not have recognized the wooded hillsides of the central and eastern Ozarks that he had traversed.
Courtesy of Missouri State Historical Society
Shannon County Logging
Workers in Shannon County harvest timber during the late nineteenth century logging boom.
The Role of Wildlife
While timber harvest significantly altered the Ozark’s landscape, the absence of wildfires had a comparable major impact. When lightning would strike pre-Euro-American Missouri’s forests and grasslands, fires would burn until they ran out of fuel or until they reached a steep bluff or impassable stream. The Osage saw the value of these burns. Fire consumed brush and, in its wake, left lands ripe for new grass that would attract grazing bison. For thousands of years, naturally occurring and perhaps fires set purposely by Native Americans maintained the species mix in Missouri’s natural communities.
Some white farmers in pioneer-era Missouri continued setting fires as a means to remove woody plants from fields and to stimulate grass production for livestock production. Over time, however, as more settlers arrived, wildfires and burning were actively discouraged to protect houses and other structures.
This widespread suppression of fire as a landscape management tool had unintended results. Without being checked occasionally by fire, new and different species began to dominate. Cedars grew in fallow fields, and native plants that thrived when wildfires burned their habitat, such as shooting star, began to suffer. Underbrush built up in wooded areas.
River Cane West Plains
River cane common in Schoolcraft's time is seen here growing along the North Fork of the White River outside West Plains. Today, river cane is a much less common sight in Missouri's streams.
Restoration of the Landscape
Farmer and rancher Colin Collins grew up near West Plains. He went away for school and work but returned to his family farm in the 1970s.
“The plants have changed and the animals have changed dramatically,” Colin says. “When I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, if we saw a deer, that was something to talk about. We never hunted them because there were none to hunt. Now, they are a pest for us. We have controlled hunts on our property. When I was first told there were wild turkeys in the Ozarks, I thought they were lying. Now, they are everywhere. On the other side, one of the other things that we enjoyed doing as kids was quail hunting. Now, we might see a quail once in awhile. They’re just gone, and I really don’t know why. Foxes were very prevalent when I was growing up. Now, we see very few foxes, and I see coyotes. We didn’t have them back in the ’50s.”
In 2016, an increasing number of public land managers and private residents are working to restore their properties to what they might have looked like during the state’s pre- Euro-American era. One example is Prairie State Park near Mindenmines. Although the four-thousand-acre park has several tracts of prairie that were never plowed, others have been restored by brush clearing and controlled burning. Some of the best wildflower shows in the state can be found here.
“When we come across a piece of ground, we should ask ourselves ‘What was this? What was here? Pine, oak, native grass?’ ” says Hank Dorst, a West Plains resident and forest advocate. “Once we come up with an idea of what we think was here, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Can we work with that? Can it be restored?’”
He says in some cases, the costs and time of restoration will not produce anything that’s a value to society in the short term. In other cases, woodland restoration or a controlled burning regime might be appropriate: “People are more aware now about what used to be on that site and how that may influence what they can grow there now.”
The West Plains-based environmental nonprofit Trillium Trust is using technology to connect Missourians with their history. Visit UnlocktheOzarks.org for detailed plans on a tour where travelers can experience sites mentioned in Schoolcraft’s journal.
A Springfield-based group is already planning events to celebrate the bicentennial of Schoolcraft’s historic fieldwork. For more information about their planned activities, contact Tom Peters at Missouri State University Library at 417-836-4700.
A series of public events this spring will kick off a celebration of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. There, you can see the full-size map in this article, which was created by Geographer Jim Harlan of the route Schoolcraft is believed to have taken. Also at these events, the author of this article, Trevor Harris of KBIA in Columbia, will be speaking about a radio series created in conjunction with this article. The events will be:
• April 7 at 7 PM at the Springfield Conservation Center
• April 9 at 7 PM at the Yellow House in West Plains
• June 18 at the Moses Austin Festival in Potosi
This article and map are made possible through a partnership between Columbia’s KBIA 91.3 FM and Missouri Life in partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council and with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.