Two hundred years ago this month (November), Henry Rowe Schoolcraft headed out in search of lead, and throughout the next three months, wrote his way into southern Missouri history.
The journal Schoolcraft kept during his journey through the Missouri Ozarks, a trip that spanned November 1818 to February 1819, paints a literary picture of a landscape very different from what much of this area is like today. However, Schoolcraft’s chronicling of the wildlife and natural features he saw provides foundational data for conservation and natural resource management for this part of the state that still has value today.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was born in 1793 in Albany County, N.Y. He wore a number of scientific hats in his life, but it was an interest in geology, minerals and, specifically, lead mining, that drew him to the Missouri Territory in 1818. (Missouri didn’t achieve statehood until 1821.)
While staying at the home of Moses Austin in Mine a Burton — now the city of Potosi — Schoolcraft conducted a survey of that area’s mining and smelting operations. While completing this survey, he heard reports of lead deposits on the James River and began planning a trip to what is now Missouri’s Ozarks region to gather information on that area’s lead mining potential.
Accompanied by a man named Levi Pettibone, the 25-year-old Schoolcraft began his trek on Nov. 5. The two traveled across southern Missouri as far west as present-day Springfield. There, he found lead at the mouth of Pearson Creek at what is now the city’s eastern edge. This was the turn-around point of his journey. Schoolcraft and Pettibone headed in a southeasterly direction, trekked eastward through northern Arkansas, then swung back up into what would become Missouri and concluded their trip by returning to Potosi on Feb. 4.
The most valuable resource this trip produced was the detailed journal Schoolcraft kept of his travels. Published under several titles in ensuing years, Schoolcraft’s “Journal” — one of the titles used during the work’s publication history — was the earliest description of the interior Ozarks by a skilled observer. An example of the value of Schoolcraft’s words can be found in his Jan. 4, 1819, entry:
“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 buffalo is occasionally seen in droves upon the prairie ....”
He wrote these words from his camp at the juncture of Pearson Creek and the James River. Using that spot as a reference point, “prairies which commence at the distance of a mile west” would begin somewhere in the vicinity of where Glendale High School is today. This presumption makes sense when you consider that Kickapoo High School, a site fairly directly west of Glendale, sits on land that was also prairie. It was known as the Kickapoo Prairie in Springfield’s early days.
Thus, it seems apparent that what Schoolcraft was describing was a prairie that stretched from somewhere around Glendale westward to Kickapoo (and probably beyond). Look at south Springfield today, and it’s hard to imagine elk and bison grazing among grass that’s higher than a horse’s back.
And therein lies the value of Schoolcraft’s writings.
All environmentally related management strategies, whether they be oriented toward wildlife, vegetation or aquatics, need foundational information. This usually is data about what plants, animals, soil types, springs, etc., were there originally. This knowledge of an area’s original environmental components can serve as building blocks for conservation management strategies. Although no one will likely ever see herds of bison or elk grazing between Glendale and Kickapoo high schools again, this pre-settlement knowledge can provide baseline information for conservation-oriented management strategies.
Schoolcraft’s writings also provide a sobering realization of the environmental changes we bring to the landscape. To be clear, no one is suggesting south Springfield be returned to a landscape of horse-high prairie grass and bison. The economic, societal and cultural benefits brought about by human development of this area have had immeasurable positive effects on the city’s growth and development.
At the same time, though, overlaying Schoolcraft’s words across the current landscape provides a clear picture of the powerful role we play in determining the stewardship of our natural resources.
Thankfully, many Missourians care about conserving the state’s forest, fish and wildlife resources, and they show it in a number of ways. People wanting to know how they can improve the state’s outdoor resources for present generations and future ones can get information at their nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation's Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call (417) 895-6880.