Arkansas Travelers: Geographies of Exploration and Perception, 1804-1834. By Andrew J. Milson. (The University of Arkansas Press, 2019, Pp. 277)
Reviewed by Jason McCollom
“Mapping the perceptions of the travelers has illustrated the places experienced and perceived by these men rather than simply the spaces they traversed. This geographical focus on the history of these spaces yields a deeper understanding—a deeper map—of the Arkansas past” (222). So argues Andrew J. Milson in Arkansas Travelers: Geographies of Exploration and Perception, 1804-1834. Milson, a geographer and historian at the University of Texas-Arlington, came to this conclusion by analyzing the cultural and environmental perceptions of four early-nineteenth-century travelers in Arkansas—William Dunbar, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Thomas Nuttall, and George William Featherstonhaugh—and then applying a unique methodology to visually and geographically map those perceptions. Though not all the explorers traversed large swaths of the Ozarks, their observations, and Milson’s analysis, provide a glimpse into the region’s formative years of European settlement.
Dunbar explored the Ouachitas and Hot Springs immediately after the Louisiana Purchase. Schoolcraft made his way through the Ozarks, and Nuttall along the Arkansas River Valley, in 1819 during Arkansas’s territorial period. Featherstonhaugh traveled across northeast Arkansas towards Little Rock in 1834, on the cusp of statehood. Milson has a keen eye for discerning four layers of “landscapes” and “places” in the travelers’ reports, or, their observations, geographically bound, on culture and the environment. First, Milson teases out their perceptions of native culture and land use; then those of hunters and settlers of European extraction; next, observations on the commercial potential of the land; and finally, the natural environment.
The first chapter provides excellent biographies of the four men. In chapters two through five Milson utilizes each explorer’s travel reports to reconstruct their journeys, with highlights of their cultural and environmental perceptions. Mississippi plantation owner William Dunbar headed a group along the Ouachita River to the hot springs of Arkansas. During his 1804-1805 trek his observations homed in on the commercial and settlement potential of this area. Dunbar encountered French and Spanish settlers in Louisiana and Arkansas and various Native tribes, such as the Caddo, Quapaw, and Osages. He commented on several natural resources with the potential to produce gunpowder and dyes and noted modest deposits of coal and iron ore as well as numerous animals.
From 1818 to 1820 Thomas Nuttall made his way down the Mississippi to the White River, en route to the Arkansas River. He characterized the Mississippi and White River basins unsuitable for settlement or farming, owing to constant flooding and the shifting of the rivers. Once on the Arkansas River, Nuttall became more optimistic about commercial development, and had mostly amiable contact with the Quapaw and Cherokee. Near present-day Fort Smith, he projected a bright agricultural and settled future for the Arkansas River Valley.
Arriving in St. Louis in 1834, Englishman and Geologist to the United States George W. Featherstonhaugh headed a mission to survey the lands between the Missouri and Red Rivers. Traveling south through the eastern Missouri Ozarks, Fenston, as he was known, found few redeeming qualities in the settlers and hunters he encountered. He envisioned this region of the Ozarks as separate from the progressing civilization of St. Louis, and as an area in which agriculture and commercial development was stunted and stagnate. Moving into the Arkansas Ozarks he evinced disgust at the local culture, describing, for instance, a settler woman’s face as “extraordinarily dark, bony, [and] hairy” with “trimmings to match” (158). In contrast, Fenston found the natural Ozarks landscape fascinating and aesthetically pleasing. Once in Little Rock, moving towards the hot springs like Dunbar before him, Fenston could not help but to denigrate American cultural frontier norms, such as gambling, drinking, and superstitious religion.
“Greenhorn” explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his companion Levi Pettibone arrived in Potosi, Missouri, in 1818 with a design to survey the mining potential of the region. A New Yorker looking to make his career and fortune, Schoolcraft was ill prepared for a 90-day, 900-mile trek through the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas. Of all the travelers in Milson’s book, Schoolcraft spent the most time in the Ozarks and provides a wealth of cultural and environmental perceptions of the region. Schoolcraft traveled southwesterly from Potosi and linked up with the North Fork River in present-day Ozark County, Missouri. He found little commercial or agricultural potential in the rocky, barren landscape, though the waterways merited his praise. He reached the White River and then the James River near Springfield, where several settler families assisted him with supplies, food, and advice. At the James River, Schoolcraft’s tune changed: he foresaw vast, productive farms and economic development in southwest Missouri. By early 1819 Schoolcraft was back on the White River, which he also predicted could harbor flourishing farms and settlement, going into the Arkansas Ozarks near present-day Batesville, and then back north to Potosi.
Milson brings his analysis together in chapter six, “Deep Mapping the Arkansas Past.” The methodology involved mapping the journeys via GoogleEarth, and adding for each traveler place-marks indicating positive, negative, and purely descriptive perceptions on environmental and cultural features. Finally, a cartographer illustrated 18 maps with corresponding symbols along the travelers’ routes. Taken together, the maps and the written journals provide a more holistic interpretation. Mapping reveals that the four journeyers generally praised areas they deemed already or potentially commercially or agriculturally developed, and disparaged poorer, non-agricultural, and non-white cultures (though there are individual exceptions, which Milson discusses).
Arkansas Travelers is a unique, interdisciplinary study of the cultural and environmental landscapes of the state. The numerous maps provide a welcome accompaniment to Milson’s shrewd reading of each party’s journey. For the field of Ozarks Studies, the author’s breakdown of Schoolcraft’s time in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas and his accompanying maps are unrivaled. From this first methodological step, future research would do well to investigate broader questions. Can these travelers’ perceptions be considered unique among their early-nineteenth-century counterparts in other regions of the U.S.? Apart from merely positive and negative perceptions, what additional significance can be derived from mapping travelers’ paths? It will be exciting to see to what conclusions similar historical geographic studies lead scholars.
Andrew J. Milson is professor of history and geography at the University of Texas at Arlington. His ancestors settled in Arkansas in the 1820s.
Jason McCollom is Associate Professor of History at Missouri State University West Plains. His book, Political Harvests: Transnational Farmers’ Movements on the U.S. and Canadian Plains, 1905-1950, will be published by University of Nebraska Press in 2021.