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In History’s Footsteps
Nearly 200 years after Thomas Nuttall’s exploration of eastern Oklahoma, a writer and an artist retrace his steps on a ramble of their own.
By Susan Dragoo
Art by Debby Kaspari
Published March/April 2015
The year is 1819, and the land we know as eastern Oklahoma is the dominion of the Osage. The few Europeans in this vast tract of country are French traders and trappers headquartered at Three Forks—where the Arkansas, Verdigris, and Grand rivers come together near present-day Muskogee. Only sixteen years have passed since the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, and the wilderness west of the Mississippi River still excites curiosity among many. Earlier, president Thomas Jefferson had dispatched explorers to establish the territory’s boundaries and discover its flora, fauna, geology, and peoples. A few of those explorers passed through or near the land that will become Oklahoma, but the region nonetheless remains for the most part a mystery.
Enter an Englishman, on a privately funded expedition, exploring streams, mountains, prairie, and forest. He had arrived in the U.S. in 1808 at age twenty-two to satisfy his curiosity about North American plants, at the time largely undescribed by the scientific community. Having already botanized in the Northeast, into the Northwest as far as the mouth of the Yellowstone River, and deep into the South, he now seeks to discover the flora of the West on his way to reach the Rockies via the Arkansas River Valley, where he anticipates botanical treasure. Branded absent-minded by his traveling companions, Thomas Nuttall is one of the first scientists to explore Oklahoma, leaving a detailed picture of its life and land in A Journey of Travels into the Arkansas Territory During the Year 1819, published in 1821. It was reissued in 1979 in an edition published by the University of Oklahoma Press and edited by its emeritus director, Savoie Lottinville.
Though Thomas Nuttall eventually became a respected ornithologist, he primarily focused on flora during his time exploring the land that became eastern Oklahoma. Debby Kaspari’s pencil sketch, left, is of cliff swallows near Perkins. These compact migratory birds nest in Oklahoma in spring and summer before flying to South America in the fall to winter there.
Point de Sucre
[April 24] Rising . . . out of the alluvial forest, is seen from hence . . . a conic mountain nearly as blue as the sky, and known by the French hunters under the name of Point de Sucre, or the sugar loaf.
Ten miles east of present-day Poteau, Sugar Loaf Mountain, 2,564 feet above sea level, was Thomas Nuttall’s first recorded sight of what would become Oklahoma. He had just arrived at Fort Smith in a pirogue, or large dugout canoe, after a seven-month journey from Philadelphia along the Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas rivers. The Fort Smith garrison was located at Belle Point, a picturesque promontory where the Poteau and Arkansas rivers come together. The Army’s westernmost outpost, Fort Smith was established in 1817 to keep peace between the Cherokee and Osage. It was literally the edge of the frontier.
Our own ramble begins where Nuttall first saw Oklahoma rising over the western horizon. I am partnered with Norman artist Debby Kaspari—whose prolific nature paintings and sketches make her something of a naturalist in her own right—to retrace Nuttall’s path.
What remains of the natural environment Nuttall extolled? On a rainy April 24 nearly two centuries later, we stand near the water’s edge on Belle Point’s black stone landing and look in the distance for Sugar Loaf. Today, the Fort Smith National Historic Site graces this elevation, and the locks and dams of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System now control these waters, maintaining a minimum depth for cargo vessel navigation.
Nuttall remained at the fort for several weeks, exploring the adjoining prairie and the banks of the Poteau River and discovering new plant species, such as Nemophila phacelioides Nutt., more commonly known as largeflower baby blue eyes. Traveling southeast, he remarked again on the view of Sugar Loaf and what he called “the Cavaniol,” which appeared to him the higher of the two. Today, Cavanal Hill is billed as “the world’s highest hill.” At 1,999 feet above sea level, 565 feet lower than Sugar Loaf, Cavanal stands one foot short of the American designation for a mountain’s minimum height.
Low clouds dash my hopes of replicating Nuttall’s first sight of Oklahoma on the 195th anniversary of his arrival, but on a clear day, I can easily see both peaks from Interstate 40 near Fort Smith.
Before continuing west, Nuttall traveled to the Red River with soldiers tasked to remove white squatters in preparation for the relocation of Choctaw Indians from Mississippi. He returned to the garrison in late June, then left for Three Forks on July 6 in a boat with French-Canadian trader Joseph Bogy, camping the first night on a sandbar to avoid mosquitoes, a precaution that would become routine on this journey.
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