Henry Rowe Schoolcraft is the authority on the Ozark landscape in the early nineteenth century. How good of an authority is he?

First, the background: Schoolcraft, along with an otherwise anonymous companion, traveled from Potosi to the White River Country and back in the winter of 1818-1819, and published a book (Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansas in 1818 and 1819). Schoolcraft went on to a notable career as an explorer and chronicler of Native American culture, so I assume that the authority of Journal of a Tour rests as much on his later career as it does on the book's own merits (see his Wikipedia page for more information).

The book has a few characteristics that lead me to question the authority of his book. First, he spends a fair amount of time explaining how unprepared--both in equipment and in knowledge--he and his companions are. The suffer so from "want of experience" that at one point, a hunter's wife points out the deficiencies of their equipment.

This, I think, is a case of protesting too much: Schoolcraft and his companion get from Potosi to the headwaters of the Current River in seven days time, which seems pretty quick. And they seem to stay reasonably warm and fed, except for a couple of brief stretches, which is an accomplishment, given he and his companion have only such gear as they can fit on one packhorse. In other words, his pose as a tenderfoot is more than a little contrived.

Second, his tenderfoot persona means that a lot of the book--most of it, in fact--is given over to the details of traveling, hunting and camping (and mooching off whatever settlers they happen across, and complaining about the settlers, who apparently recognize moochers on sight). The narrative goes like this: they get up, they walk awhile, they shoot a turkey, they cross a river, they camp. If they take a rest day, Schoolcraft does a little philosophizing.

Lastly, he's on the trip for a reason: he's been sent (I think by the Austin family, but I'm not sure) to have a look at the mineral resources of the White River country. He's not on the trip to do focussed natural history. Any description of the landscape he offers is incidental to his other business.

Still, there are moments when he offers a detail--a brief one, perhaps--but one that catch my attention. For example, leaving Potosi, he reports,

A deep blue sky hung above us; the atmosphere was clear and pure, with a with a gentle breeze from the south-west, which, passing through the dried leaves of the trees, scattered them over the valley we had left, and murmured a pensive farewell.

It's the quintessential warm Ozark winter sky, the kind we've enjoy plenty of this (2011-2012) winter.

The Ozarks he describes are a patchwork. Some features (stoney and barren hills, flint ridges, pines along the Gasconade, better timber in the river bottoms) can still be found today. However, other features (prairies and savanas) are no longer to be found.

Based on Schoolcraft's account, we've been told that the lost prairies and savanas are the result of fire suppression in the 20th century, but I wonder if this is so. Some the open places he talks about sound like the high plateau country now in pasture.

There's a big stretch of open pasture just north of Licking, for example. I wonder if it was prairie when Schoolcraft traversed the Ozarks. In other words, I wonder if the lost prairies and savana of the Ozarks are in fact not lost, but instead have been fenced and used as pasture.