Comments by Bob Corbett
I recently met the man who owns the property on which Ashley Cave sits in southeast Missouri. I was fascinated to hear about “his” cave, and then he surprised me a few days ago with the loan of the Schoolcraft book about which I speak below. I read it in just a few days, simply gripped by the tale which Schoolcraft tells, despite his often rather inept narrative and limited perspective. However, those factors added a certain curious interest themselves.
Henry Schoolcraft was just 25 in 1818 when he undertook the exploration of an area of southeast and southwest Missouri. He was joined on this trip by Levi Pettibone, a friend of his of similar age. Both were city boys from New York state, and not adept at wilderness exploration.
Schoolcraft, however, had a fairly serious knowledge of minerals and rocks and in writing. This was an attempt to explore a place which had not yet been written about and to begin to make a name for himself. He seems to have succeeded somewhat, but the book wasn’t quite the door-opener he had hoped it would be.
In the late autumn of 1818 the two young men set off on foot from Potosi, Missouri, some miles south of St. Louis. They took a pack horse, and each had a “gun,” but it turns out they really need “rifles.” I don’t know the distinction in mind, unless it is a hand gun versus a long gun, but they soon learned their “guns” weren’t very useful in hunting, which was the main purpose of the guns for their trip.
The horse was a pack animal and the two men walked.
I found the journal wonderfully interesting and had visions dancing in my head of what excitement it must have been to take off in this semi-wilderness area with only the most rudimentary directions and relatively few “outdoors” skills.
The first part of their journey they walked in a generally southerly direction from Potosi to the White River, down into Arkansas and then turned northwest, going out to investigate a lead mine area near present-day Springfield, Missouri, quite a walk.
Their first “destination” to the extent they had destinations was Ashley Cave, the one my friend owns. That whole area is a “karst” area, a term I had never seen before, but which seems to mean an area of many caves and other odd rock formations.
It took them about a week to arrive at Ashley Cave, and then they hit their first bad weather, rain, and spent a few days camped out in the cave until the weather cleared.
The journal is told by the day. I was quite surprised to read on the third day’s entry when they were between the Courtois and Huzzah creeks, that they were passing through Delaware and Shawnee Indian areas. Further, these Indians, and the white settlers of the area were all quite frightened of the Osage Indians. I was just not aware that at that period this area still had animosities between various Indian tribes or between Indians and whites.
As they walked they hunted and picked for food. There was no mention in the entire journal of any fish which surprised me since there is a great deal of discussion of the many creeks and rivers they walked near. I’ve done some canoeing and camping in that area and know it is famous for marvelous fish.
However, they did see many bear, innumerable deer, lots of elk and significant numbers of buffalo. Wild turkeys seemed to abound as did grey squirrels. They seldom had trouble with food until they ran out of shot.
While they were encamped at Ashley Cave during the rainy three days, Schoolcraft has one of the few passages in the journal which is not just descriptive of the day’s walk, but more reflective. I was quite surprised by his thoughts when he says:
“… we are pleased in reflecting on scenes of former gratification, of lands that are distant, and of times that are past, and the mind is insensibly led to hope for their repetition. We expect much of the future times; we please ourselves with fond anticipation of joy, and with proud hopes of wealth, power or renown. Thus it is that the mind is never in a state of satisfied repose, and the whole sum of human bliss is made up by the recollections we borrow from the past, and the expectations we entertain of the future.”
This passage just fascinated me. How different Schoolcraft and I are. He seems to only find excitement and interest in the past and the future and TODAY is just something to fulfill some dream of a future from the past, or to reflect back upon in the future as an achievement. Now I too have both those fascinations, however, I am on who has lived such a charmed life, and continues to do so today, such that TODAY, NOW, THIS MINUTE is part of what I most enjoy in life.
At first I began to wonder if this was a fact of age. He was 25 when he wrote that, I am just a few months short of my 70th birthday. Have I now come to relish the present in a way that I may not have 45 years ago? I think not. I must admit to having lived a life I’ve found very exciting, with few serious troubles, so maybe we had different youths. Nonetheless, I can remember well how much I relished life at each phase and each new adventure or turn of life. Schoolcraft and I just seem to have very different views about our present moments.
After having been in the wilderness for more than 30 days seeing virtually no other humans, they finally are in some trouble. They are about out of shot, which would mean no game. They are low on all other supplies, and have not quite reached a place they have been advised has some settlers and where they expect to get replenished supplies.
They decide they have to take a chance that they are near this settled area, and they leave the bulk of their belongings and their horse and proceed on ahead believing they will move more quickly.
It still takes them three days to find settlers and are taken in by one family who it seemed treated them quite well and sold them some supplies. They tell of their travels and the family tells them of what lies near and ahead in their journey. Schoolcraft’s tales of the ample game, especially bears, in the area they’ve come from intrigues the settler and he arranges a hunting trip.
Since the hunters’ route would take them close to where they had left the their horse and most of their belongings. They make a deal.
“Our wayward course for the last two days had already carried us many miles in a direct line toward it, and he told us he could by a near route, carry us there before nine o’clock at night… which he had no sooner raised … than he refused to conduct us, unless we would pay a certain sum of money, which he stipulated. He had already found we had money, for we had paid him very liberal, if not exorbitant prices, for everything we had received, and it had only served to inflame his avarice…”
The hunter promised them a deer, but though several of them hunted they just couldn’t get one. This failure of the hunters to get them a deer seems to have very much upset Schoolcraft who writes:
“Their avarice, their insensitivity to our want, not to call them sufferings, and their flagrant violations of engagement, has served to sink them in our estimation to a very low standard…”
I was much surprised by Schoolcraft’s outburst and, it seems to me, his incredible arrogance and ungratefulness. He constantly carps that the local people are uneducated, dirty, irreligious and other sorts of negative things. But here these two guys come out of nowhere, are accepted into their cabin, fed and significantly resupplied from supplies which are EXTREMELY hard to get in the area, and Schoolcraft is totally ungrateful.
Okay, they made a bargain for the deer. But, after going out of their way from their hunt to lead them back to their horse and gear, the hunters make two serious tries and can’t get a deer, but do bring back two turkeys. And yet Schoolcraft’s outburst denigrates them so.
I found the settlers to sound like decent, albeit, quite simple people, and Schoolcraft to be a snob! (Albeit a bold one!)
Later on he does admit some serious generosity on the part of almost all the settlers he met. He allows their general hospitality, pointing out that no money was asked for food and shelter and that they almost all refused money when it was offered.
After they begin their journey again, they soon get to the White River, and come to the property of two settlers in a fairly remote area. They spend some time with the families, and then engage the two men (and pay them) to lead them as guides and hunters to an area far to the northwest to see a lead mine. The men agree and over the Christmas / New Year period (in some significant snow) they take this trip.
Again, despite the really decent care they received from the “guides” (and Schoolcraft acknowledges this) he then tell us:
“The white hunter, on encamping in his journeys, cuts down green-trees, and builds a large fire of long logs, sitting at some distance from it. The Indian hunts up a few dry limbs, cracks them into little pieces a foot in length, builds a small fire and sits close by it. He gets as much warmth as the white hunter, without half the labour, and does not burn more than a fiftieth part of the wood. The Indian considers the forest his own, and is careful in using and preserving every thing it affords.”
Even this insight is on hearsay evidence, since they never see an American Indian on the entire trip. Further, it was not only the “white hunters,” but Schoolcraft and Pettibone did this same thing every night of the trip!
After returning from the west, they decide to return to Potosi via a different route, one where they can mainly use rivers. They sell their horse and some other supplies and purchase a canoe. They make much better time on the way back.
On Jan. 21st, after 75 days of their journey, Schoolcraft has hurt his ankle and will be laid up for several days. The area they are now in is more settled and farms are frequent. Thus Pettibone decides to leave and he takes off alone. Schoolcraft seems not to mind this at all.
It is interesting to note that in a journal of well-over a 100 pages in which the two men traveled 750 miles together, there are not more than four lines of text, if that, which even mention Pettibone!
He tells us that in 1811-1813 serious earthquakes had been experience in the New Madrid area, especially close to Fredricktown where he was then holed up with the bad ankle. This is the area of the legendary “New Madrid Fault” which hangs over the head of this entire area even today as a fault likely someday to produce another major earthquake as it seems to have done nearly 200 years ago.
I was quite surprised when the journal ends abruptly when he gets back to Potosi. He had kept a day by day journal of what happened that day, and only here and there were there any reflections, mainly just a journal of events and experiences. Still, I wasn’t quite ready for the absolutely abrupt ending.
The trip was 90s days to the day of when they began, and some 900 miles had been traversed. Schoolcraft returned first to St. Louis, then back to the east. Three years later, in 1821 the journal was published in England.
The book was fascinating for me. I began simply with the curiosity about details of my friend’s cave. Perhaps, since that adventure occurred so early in the book my interest peaked in a hurry. But by that time I was fairly hooked, and while not great literature and not even a great journal, it still gripped me. I had camped and fished and canoed in that area in years past. It is very rugged country. One of my sons has a lovely piece of land and rustic cabin in that area today, not far from Ashley Cave. So much was in favor of my being gripped by the book.
This particular version, a full reprint of the 1821 original, was improved by the editing and introduction by Milton D. Raffertry. He gives us the history of the text itself, was the person instrumental in having the book reprinted, himself has followed this walk as best he can. Further, in the back he give a day-by-day account of where, as best he can tell, they walked using current day maps and property boundaries. One could take this appendix and use it as a guide to rewalk much of what Schoolcraft and Pettibone walked. It is an attractive notion even to me.
Rafferty also gives us a brief biography of Schoolcraft’s later years, he was a semi-successes, always being a bit short of his own dreams for his career.
Schoolcraft was born on March 28, 1793 near Albany, NY. He arrived in Potosi in August of 1818 at age 25. He had a long and modestly distinguished life primarily in the east and died December 10, 1864, just 71 years old. ThatBob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com