A one-day trek isn’t exactly ideal, but due to other obligations, this particular late November trek was much better than nothing at all. We chose to explore an area of the Shawnee National Forest that we had previously trekked, but that experience was cut short due to bad weather.
My trekking partners for this beautiful late fall day were my good friends James Restivo (Black Musket) and Cole Lawrence (Running Dog). Jim and Cole both do excellent portrayals of Kaskaskia Indians, but on this day they chose to forego the native attire and dress as Coureur De Bois (French Voyageurs). I had recently acquired a new sage colored, open front, osnaburg1 shirt for my hunter/farmer/settler persona and I was really looking forward to breaking it in.
Sage, or green, was a popular color during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and beyond. Annotations by author Timothy J. Todish from the journals of Major Robert Rogers state “Green was seen as a purely sensible color choice for men campaigning in the woods…”2 Osnaburg, heavy coarse cotton, was a popular choice of material for shirts to be made from. Osnaburg had a wide variety of uses during the 18th century. “It was made into tents, haversacks, shot pouches, wallets, knapsacks, and sometimes even leggings. It was also used for shirts, and for small clothes such as breeches and waistcoats, and often drawers.”3
In order to reach our desired destination, we had to first cross through a large horse pasture, that led to some steep hills. After descending down the steep hills, we had to cross a barbed wire fence before entering into the forest. I decided my best course of action would be to step in between the separate strands of barbed wire. About halfway through, I brushed up against one of the strands and I heard the sound of tearing. I knew I had just torn a hole in my new osnaburg shirt. After some confirmation from Jim, I had a nice little tear in the middle of the back of my new shirt. I suppose the tear added a little character to the shirt. At least that is what I tried to convince myself at the time.
As we had discovered from our last journey here, there are multiple ridgelines that seem to go on forever. You literally descend down one ridge just to climb up another. After ascending and descending these multiple ridges for a few hours, we decided to take a short rest and recuperate with some deer jerky made from a deer I had harvested the previous season in this same forest. What we didn’t notice right away was what was located just below the ridge top where we had decided to stop and rest.
After a brief rest and our fill of jerky, we began our descent down the ridge. We then noticed a very attractive rock face in the hillside. A rock overhang protruded from the hillside and provided cover for a small cut out, or cave, underneath it. The overhang was only big enough for about three average size men, but it easily provided enough shelter from bad weather. While sitting inside the rock cut out, my mind began to wander as it oftentimes does.
I thought about how I wished we had located this place the last time we trekked here when we were chased out of the forest by some very nasty weather. I imagined a bobcat or a cougar, both of which thrive in this part of the country, standing on the rock overhang, scouting its next move or preparing to ambush its prey somewhere below.
After getting my pessimistic thoughts out of the way, I imagined who and what had previously spent time inside this rock cut out. I am quite certain we were not the first to have ever located this “natural shelter.” I wondered if the Shawnee Indians ever used this cave for protection from weather, or possibly for a place of concealment while hunting. I imagined Indian children hiding here from their friends while playing in the woods. I wondered if any of the hunters employed through George Morgan in Kaskaskia (1765-1772) ever used this shelter from the weather. 4 Maybe they used it as a place of concealment for hunting, or possibly used it to hide from those same Indian inhabitants. I wondered how often this shelter was found, used, or talked about by the Jesuit missionaries, French soldiers, and settlers that traveled from Fort De Chartres or Fort Kaskaskia along the Mississippi River down to Fort Massiac (also known as Fort de l’Ascension, Fort Massac) overlooking the Ohio River in the late 1750s. It was very easy to lose track of time imagining all of the possibilities and the history that we were potentially sharing by sitting in and walking around this natural rock shelter.
As we exited the forest that evening, we were hopeful that we would soon return. We were willing to endure the monotony of multiple ridgelines to continue scouting these forests for that next piece of the great outdoors that would take us to a place two hundred and fifty years earlier. Until then, we resigned ourselves to re-entering our fast paced lives of the current century.
1 Merriam – Webster Dictionary Online, s.v. “Osnaburg,” accessed September 16, 2011, http://www.merriam webster.com/dictionary/osnaburg. A rough coarse durable cotton fabric in plain weave made orig. of flax and used in the gray.
2 Timothy J. Todish. The Annotated and Illustrated Journals of Major Robert Rogers (Purple Mountain Press, Ltd., 2002), 299.
3 Ibid., 299. Cited from: John MacComb, Albany agent for merchants Gregg and Cunningham, wrote to them on September 25, 1757 that he had “to make 1500 Bags for W. Coventry. You’ll therefore please send me 20 ps. Ozenbrigs.” John MacComb’s Letter-Copy book.
4 Mark A. Baker, Sons of a Trackless Forest (Baker’s Trace Publishing, 1997), 24.