This year marks the 200th anniversary of Franklin County, a fact of which many Missourian readers are aware. It is also the 200th anniversary of the first documented exploration of the Ozarks by a white explorer, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a fact which probably is less known to our readers.
“Everyone has heard of Lewis and Clark,” says Eric (Rick) Mansfield, “but few know of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.”
Mansfield, a storyteller, minister, author and retired educator from Ellington, wanted to change that. Two hundred years to the day after Schoolcraft made his epic trek of 900 miles in 90 days, Mansfield set out to do the same thing.
On Nov. 6, 1818, Schoolcraft and his traveling companion, Levi Pettibone, left Potosi in the Missouri Territory in search of lead deposits near the James River in the southwest part of the territory (near today’s Springfield).
The three-month journey through what is now southern Missouri and northern Arkansas did turn up lead, but the real treasure from that early odyssey is Schoolcraft’s detailed journal, published in 1821 as “Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansaw (sic) in 1818 and 1819.” It is the earliest description of the wildlife, vegetation and landscape of the Ozarks by a skilled observer.
Schoolcraft, a New Yorker educated in chemistry, mining and mineralogy, came west after the failure of his father’s glassworks in pursuit of fame and fortune. He and Pettibone were woefully unprepared for the realities of exploring the wilderness, and relied heavily upon the aid of settlers throughout their journey.
They began in Potosi, traveled through Current River country, on toward the James River and Bull Shoals areas, then through northern Arkansas along the White River and back into Missouri, returning to Potosi on Feb. 4, 1819. Schoolcraft’s journal became the first written travel guide to the Ozarks.
At the age of 10, Mansfield was introduced to Schoolcraft by a pastor at Shannondale who read him passages from the explorer’s journal. That early connection was reinforced three years ago when Mansfield was asked by Dave Tobey, a ranger at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, to portray Schoolcraft at park events.
“That led to this journey,” he said, shaking his head in wonder.
Cynthia Dea, a 17-year-old Ellington High School student who works for Mansfield at Webb Creek Park near Piedmont, has portrayed various characters for many of his historical presentations. For this journey, she took the role of Levi Pettibone.
Dea did not walk the majority of the route with Mansfield, but she joined him several times throughout his trip for special presentations to schools, libraries and civic groups, as well as traveled several day trips as her schedule allowed.
The idea of recreating Schoolcraft’s journey started as a humorous challenge, but turned into a mission of sorts for Mansfield. He wanted to raise awareness of Schoolcraft’s contributions to Ozarks history. It also became a bit of a personal challenge, to see if he could actually do it.
Other people have recreated parts of the Schoolcraft voyage, but to the best of Mansfield’s knowledge, no one else has replicated the entire journey during the original time frame, November to February.
Starting an extended hiking and camping trip in early November in Missouri can be a risky proposition, as indeed it turned out to be for Mansfield. Although spring is tantalizing us now, think back to the winter we just had — extended periods of polar vortex and brutally cold weather.
Mansfield camped 63 nights out of the 90 days of the trek, including nights when the temperature dipped to 12 degrees and the wind whipped his tent so hard that the fiberglass tent poles snapped. After that, he used a piece of canvas to make a lean-to, open to a campfire — except for one night when it was so windy he couldn’t build a fire.
“It was very cold that night,” he says in what is surely an understatement.
By comparison, Schoolcraft camped out 58 nights during the original voyage, and stayed in settlers’ homesteads the rest of the time.
On the plus side, winter means no chiggers, ticks, copperheads or rattlesnakes. But he did get up close and personal with a bobcat, a red fox and a bull, and he had “coyotes come yapping within 50 to 60 feet of my fire one night.” No bear encounters, he noted with relief.
There was also a bit of an age difference. Schoolcraft was 25 at the time of his trek. Mansfield is 64, with a few health challenges. He intended to get in shape prior to the departure date, but before he knew it, it was November and he hadn’t built up his endurance. He hadn’t even hiked with his pack on.
It didn’t take long for him to lighten his pack from 50 pounds to about 30.
For part of the trek, Mansfield wore clothing and carried gear typical of the era. His costume included a wool top similar to what frontiersmen wore, a wooden canteen, a small hatchet tucked into his belt, a knife with an antler handle and a vintage brass compass. For practical reasons, he also used a modern backpack and hiking boots.
In a nod to safety and for the peace of mind of his wife, Judy, he carried a GPS device, a SPOT emergency device, and a cellphone.
Because of other commitments, such as portraying Santa Claus at numerous events during the holidays plus officiating at some weddings and funerals, Mansfield left the trail and returned to civilization from time to time. But for the most part, he walked the same sections of the route on the same days, and returned to Potosi on Feb. 4, 200 years after Schoolcraft did.
Celebration in Potosi
As the end of the voyage approached, family and friends made plans to join Mansfield as he arrived back in Potosi. A small group met him outside the city and walked the final 4 miles with him.
The celebration began with a panel presentation at the Washington County Library by Mansfield and two other Schoolcraft reenactors, Bob Kipfer and Eric Fuller, along with remarks and tributes by numerous people involved in the project.
Then everyone headed outside and walked through the streets of Potosi to Casey Cabin, a renovated log structure in Heritage Park, on the actual property where Schoolcraft departed and returned 200 years ago. Dozens of costumed re-enactors toasted Mansfield with mugs of hot chocolate, while a crew from NPR in St. Louis taped the event.
As Mansfield noted that day, he replicated the voyage to give recognition to Schoolcraft, to rekindle the spirit of adventure, and to reconnect with God’s creation. “I considered myself a spiritual person before, but I’ve come away much closer to God than I was three months ago,” he said.
“I did this in great part to bring recognition to an explorer who should be as widely known as de Soto or Columbus,” Mansfield said. “It’s part of our history. It is especially part of the Ozark history.”
Read More About It
Mansfield documented his trip in a journal, as did Schoolcraft, as well as with frequent posts and short videos on his Facebook page (www.facebook.com/rick.mansfield.96). He is already at work on a book about his trek, tentatively titled “A Journey Through Time: Schoolcraft’s Ozarks Revisited” and planned for 2020 publication.
Meanwhile, you might want to read “Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks: Schoolcraft’s Ozark Journal 1818-1819” edited by Milton D. Rafferty (University of Arkansas Press, 1996). It is available at Neighborhood Reads, 401 Lafayette St. in Downtown Washington, as well as online.
Schoolcraft Presentation at St. Clair Museum May 4
Listen to Rick Mansfield personally tell the story of his recreation of Henry Schoolcraft’s epic journey through the Ozarks when he speaks Saturday, May 4, at 1 p.m. at the St. Clair Historical Museum, 560 S. Main St., St. Clair. Admission is free, although donations are welcome. Light refreshments will be served.
Mansfield’s talk is part of the ongoing Franklin County Bicentennial celebrations; read more about this and other events at www.franklinmo200.com.
Prior to Mansfield’s presentation, the second annual 5K Walk and Run will begin at noon. It starts and ends at the museum. Runners, walkers and supporters are invited to tour the museum, which will be open, and to join the Schoolcraft program.