(Editor’s note: this writing was submitted by Deloris Gray Wood)
There is a cave listed on the USGS Montauk Quadrangle Map as the Saltpeter Cave in the southwest corner of Dent County, with Texas County on the west and south sides.
The front opening of Saltpeter Cave on Ashley Creek is like a clam shell that is more than 40 feet wide and extends into the cave about 75 feet.
The cave was originally shown as Ashley Cave on the Missouri School of Mines map. Mount Olive Baptist Church and Mount Olive Cemetery on Missouri Highway VV are located about a mile and a half north of the Saltpeter Cave, with what was the Wofford Farm located in between.
The cave was behind, about a mile from where my mother, Eula Wofford Gray, 96, and her sister, Marie Wofford Urban, were born and grew up. Three Wofford children, including Ernest, were born at the cave and their parents Lonnie and Fannie Wofford stored the cow’s milk in the Saltpeter Cave where he had a sawmill nearby and she a garden.
Obe and Wayne were born up at the Wofford home place while Utah “Buck” Wofford was born at Tan Vat on what was his Uncle John Kell’s place. Kell had sold this farm and established Cedar Grove, both on the Current River, now NPS Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
Mother had no idea about the history of the cave, only rumors of the outlaw Jessie James Gang riding up on horseback into the cave and spending the night there with their horses.
What she did not know was that it was a historic place that kept all its secrets, even though there was a clue with the name of the creek: Ashley Creek.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and Levi Pettibone left Potosi, Nov. 5, 1818. They arrived Nov. 11 at the Saltpeter Cave and left the cave the morning of Nov. 15, 1818. That was 200 years ago.
Often referred to as the Lewis and Clark of the Ozarks because of Schoolcraft’s journal where he recorded the flora, fauna, trees, water sources and minerals he found as he walked through the Ozarks.
In Schoolcraft’s “Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansaw,” Schoolcraft referenced valleys, ridges, prairies, caves and farms on the land that they walked, using rivers, creeks, springs, lakes and ponds for campsites that had wood and places for their pack horse to graze.
In the Cherokee Removal 20 years later, 1837-1839, the Cherokees walked in the area in eastern Crawford County that Schoolcraft recorded in his diary, and Lt. B.B. Cannon recorded in his diary establishing the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Historically, the tribes known to have moved through the Dent County area are notably the Delawares, Shawnees, Choctaws and Osages.
Margret Vickery, former publisher of The Salem News, wrote:
“William Ashley, (1785-1839), a famous fur trader and explorer prior to the War of 1812, discovered the cave and erected a large plant for the extraction of saltpeter. The saltpeter was mixed with soil and wood ashes and water in large tubs with a faucet. It was concentrated by boiling the mixture in a kettle and then set aside to cool and crystalize. Old wagons pulled by oxen and mules crawled over the hills and down the river valleys to take the mixture to Potosi, a distance of about 80 miles, where it was made into gunpowder.”
“The works which have been erected by Colonel Ashley for this purpose are all situated in the mouth of the cave, so as to be completely protected from the weather. No person is, however, here at the present to attend to his business, and the works appear to have lain idle for some time. Large quantities of crude saltpetre are lying in the fore part of the cave.”
William Henry Ashley holds his place in Missouri State government as he served as our first lieutenant governor, Sept, 18, 1820, to Nov. 15, 1824.
Ashley was very important to the area. Ashley and his crews were the surveyors of many of the townships in the area. Texas County was originally named Ashley County, and the cave and creek that flows into the Current River were named in his honor. Ashley had trading posts at Saltpeter Cave, Tan Vat on the Current River and just over in Wright County on Beaver Creek at the edge of Ashley (Texas) County was another of his trading posts.
In 1719, a French explorer named DuTisne passed through Dent County and discovered the Montauk Springs and Current River. French trappers operating from St. Louis in the 18th century named the stream La Riviere Courante because of its swift flow. Ashley Creek is upstream and to the west of the Current River and is one of the tributaries of the Upper Current River.
Saltpeter Cave has a large rock in front that has fallen from the ceiling where there is believed to be an Indian petroglyph along with the names of visitors who have visited the cave, except mother, who said she did not want her name etched on the wall of the cave.
When Schoolcraft left Arkansas heading back toward Potosi he took another route, crossing the Current River at Hicks Ferry Jan. 25, 1819, staying at a farmer’s house in Ripley County near what became Doniphan. He was going in reverse of John Benge and the Benge Detachment that followed his movement 20 years later in the Cherokee Removal. It became known as the Benge Route of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, up to Dr. Bettie Ford crossing on his ferry at Old Greenville.
There he left what became the Benge Route. At Fredericktown, Schoolcraft crossed the Hildebrand Route. He then picked back up the Northern Route at Cooks Settlement on the Farmington Road on the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail to Farmington.
Schoolcraft and Pettibone crossed over the Northern Route in 1818 in Crawford County. He went west back to Potosi to end his 900-mile trek as he recorded Schoolcraft’s Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansaw.
This story is about a very historic site and the first known place of commerce in Dent County, located on private property and posted no trespassing.