Missouri Man Retraces Ozarks Explorer’s Historic Trek
Deep inside Smallin Civil War Cave, Rick Mansfield stood next to the very spot where famed Ozarks explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft stood 200 years ago.
In the dim light, Schoolcraft — age 25 at the time — noted the two pools of water flowing along the sides of a massive rimstone formation. An amateur geologist, Schoolcraft wanted to linger and see more of the huge cave, but his guide urged him to press on to try to locate lead deposits in the area.
“We stayed but an hour,” a disappointed Schoolcraft wrote in his journal.
On a recent Wednesday, almost 200 years to the day that Schoolcraft visited the cave, Mansfield — a modern-day explorer and writer from Ellington, Missouri — marveled at Schoolcraft’s 900-mile trek through the Ozarks from Nov. 6, 1818 to Feb. 4, 1819.
A lover of history, Mansfield, 64, said he hoped to bring Schoolcraft’s illuminating trek to life for modern-day Missourians by hiking the entire route Schoolcraft and companion Levi Pettibone took in search of lead suitable for mining.
So far, Mansfield has covered 526 miles along Schoolcraft’s route, the Springfield News-Leader reported.
“I hope to bring him the recognition that is due,” Mansfield said, during a short, frosty foray into Smallin cave, following Schoolcraft’s route. “I recently gave a talk at Echo Bluff State Park about Schoolcraft’s journey, and there were a lot of outdoors people there, but only three out of 50 had even heard of Schoolcraft.”
Schoolcraft’s exploration was documented in a short book, “Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks: Schoolcraft’s Ozark Journal, 1818-1819.” In it, Schoolcraft describes a wild Ozarks that was just beginning to be shaped by trappers, miners and pioneers.
Starting from Potosi, Missouri, Schoolcraft moved southwestward, crossing the Current River and traversing vast stands of old-growth pine forest before stopping at the junction of Beaver Creek and the White River, south of modern-day Springfield.
There, a pioneer family agreed to guide him north toward the James River and Pearson Creek, where there were rumors of a lead mine.
“They postponed his trip a few weeks, and that likely saved his life,” Mansfield said.
The explorers were unaware that Osage Indians used the Smallin cave area as their fall hunting grounds. The Osage did not appreciate the way many pioneers and trappers wantonly killed native game in excess of what they needed. Crossing paths at the wrong time could prove deadly.
They eventually found lead deposits near Pearson Creek, which Schoolcraft noted in his journal. He built a small forge and managed to dig up enough galena — lead ore — to melt into bullets for his flintlock rifle.
Mansfield said he’s making the journey equipped in some respects like Schoolcraft and Pettibone. He carries a small antler-handled patch knife and small camp ax on his belt, and a wooden canteen for water.
He wears a warm woolen top similar to what frontiersmen wore 200 years ago, but he appreciates having a modern backpack and sturdy hiking boots. He wears a vintage brass compass around his neck.
“I also have a GPS device, a SPOT device for emergencies, and I did have a $300 tent, but the fiberglass tent poles broke during a windstorm,” he said. “Now I just use a canvas lean-to overhead, and where I can, I make a fire in front of it to reflect the heat.”
One benefit of Schoolcraft’s walk during winter: No ticks, chiggers, copperheads or timber rattlers.
Schoolcraft and Pettibone began their journey armed with waterfowling shotguns, but local pioneer families convinced them the guns were almost useless for hunting deer and defending against bears in the Ozarks forest. Halfway through their trek, they switched to a flintlock rifle.
Mansfield acknowledged he, too, does not hike the woods unarmed. So far he’s had no close encounters with bears.
“But just this morning I saw a bobcat and a red fox, and I’ve had coyotes come yapping within 50 to 60 feet of my fire one night,” Mansfield said.
Aside from having to detour around some posted lands, Mansfield said the toughest part of his journey so far has been trying to keep warm when the temperature dropped to 14 degrees, with 30 mph wind gusts whipping overhead.
“It was so windy I couldn’t build a fire,” he said. “It was very cold that night.”
Mansfield has made several stops along the way, giving talks about Schoolcraft’s trek and officiating at some church services, weddings and funerals.
Early on, he had to walk 40 miles in 48 hours, in part to make it to a church to give a talk. He occasionally walks at night, which isn’t as hard as it might seem.
“Even without a light, your eyes can adjust to the darkness enough to where you can walk,” he said.
“One aspect of this, aside from bringing more attention to Schoolcraft’s journey, is to try to get more people to connect with nature. When you’re out in nature, you really do get closer to God.”