‘A Continuity Of Place And Blood”


Nearly twenty years ago I passed a winter in a woods cabin in that neighborhood and got to know an older man, part Indian, who remembered his grandmother telling of the natives’ removal. The story (or legend) was that the chief of that group above the river stayed behind with his daughter when their kinsmen were sent off to Oklahoma, and that the two of them fasted to death in protest of the loss of their wilderness home.

Pothunters long ago dug up and carried off anything of worth from the flour-fine, never-rained-on dust of those shelter floors. But the evidence of two thousand years or more of habitation is not so easily erased. Scrambled by careless shovels, to be surebut not obliterated.

A profusion of chert flakes tells where a man sat pressing a deer antler against the edge of his stone blank, shaping a projectile point. A bowl-sized depression worn to perfect symmetry and smoothness on the top of a boulder beside a shelter entrance evokes the imagined sound of stone pestle falling, falling, in the stolid rhythm of a life.

It was a band of the Osage that used this particular bluff, or at any rate used it last. No wonder that they found it appealing. The dry shelters afforded comfort. The river gave nourishment and transport. The level floodplain on its far side was fertile for planting. The setting gave protection.

With the slope falling away so sharply as to forbid frontal attack, with the path along the bluff too narrow in most places for more than two men abreast and with fine promontories on the upper rim from which lookouts might hoot warning, the location was beautifully defensible against any enemy except passing time.

The Osage were the last of the Ozarks’ dominant native peoples, and there is no knowing with any certainty how long man occupied the highlands before them.

Clovis projectile points, fashioned some twenty-five to thirty thousand years after the crossing of the Bering land bridge from Asia by the first small migration of Paleo-Indians, have been found in the Ozarks, though not in association with any datable materials-bones, the ashes of a primitive hearth. Had they in fact been dropped there by casual hunters? Or had they perhaps been traded for as curiosities millenia later? We do not know. But we do know that by the end of the prehistoric period, the Osage people had come to occupy the greater part of the region. Their area of heaviest settlement was along the river in Missouri that bears their name, though they dwelt and ranged freely through the interior and western Ozarks, resisting the pressure of the Caddo people from the south and the Illinois and Quapaw from the east and southeast. Wrapped in the fastness of their hills, selfsufficient, provincial, suspicious of contact from without, the Osage clung to their woodland ways.

One recent fall morning I walked a small crop field in the central Ozarks with a sixth-generation hill man who, since boyhood, has been fascinated by the beautiful stone tools left buried in the ground by the people who preceded his forebears to that valley.

Shredded stalk litter covered the earth and made any artifacts hard to see. We had given up and turned back toward the truck when a glint of chert in the harvested corn row caught my eye. It was a piece of a corner-notched woodland point, possibly as old as three thousand years or as new as three hundred. And not a foot away from that in the row, where the plow had stirred them out of time, were two settler potsherds. We rubbed the point and sherds clean and straightened to survey the place.

From the evidence in our hands it had been first the site of an Indian camp or village and then of a pioneer cabin. It was surrounded by tillable land, yet on a distinct prominence far enough from the stream to be safe from any sudden rise of water.

It was plain to see why men over the centuries had wanted to live exactly there. But in that common wanting there had been unredeemable loss for some.

“I begin my tour where other travellers have ended theirs.…” Henry R. Schoolcraft, ethnologist and explorer, noted in the first entry-Thursday, November 5, 1818-of the journal of his Ozarks expedition. Schoolcraft had a flair for self-dramatization, if not for exactitude.

In truth, Schoolcraft and his companion on the journey were lamentable, though plucky, tenderfeet. They struck off from the mining settlement of Potosi, the westernmost Ozark outpost of any consequence, full of the spirit of adventure but ill-provisioned and carrying guns unsuitable for the region’s game.

A fair share of the time they were lost, wandering along and across rivers they called by the wrong names. They sprained their ankles and exhausted their shot and prodded their pack horse into a stream over his depth, wetting their remaining powder. And at the end of these exertions, after having clawed through enough greenbriar and topped enough steep ridges to conclude that Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase for three cents an acre had been “dear at the price,” Schoolcraft and friend arrived at the confluence of the White River and North Fork in Arkansas-to find that quite a vigorous, if still widely dispersed, vanguard of habitation had preceded them there.