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Milestones of Missouri's Hidden Hollows

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

Historians have long held that during his famous 16th century expedition into the United States, De Soto died in Arkansas in 1542 and did not reach the Missouri territories.

But in 1993, a commission of prominent De Soto scholars released newly translated, highly controversial, 400-year-old Spanish accounts stating otherwise. According to Donald E. Sheppard, who traced De Soto's Missouri route for the group, the expedition found salt (sodium chloride) at Saline Creek, on the Missouri side of the river, then saltpeter (potassium nitrate) first near Pilot Knob (beyond Farmington) and later near the White River in the Branson neighborhood.

The conquistadors eventually ran out of gunpowder as they fought the Indians on their push into the vast wilderness of the United States. Their discovery of saltpeter in Missouri was of great importance. The Missouri sites were the only places, according to Sheppard, where saltpeter was found by De Soto's people in North America. They used their firearms as clubs thereafter or made horseshoes with them!

Saltpeter miners were the first Europeans to place an indelible stamp upon the history of Missouri caves. The saltpeter mining, which may have begun with De Soto, was resumed by Phillip Renault in the 1720s and carried to its greatest heights in Missouri in the early 1800s by Gen. William H. Ashley.

But 19th century Missourians had many other uses for caves, and this lineage of utilitarian values, spanning more than 200 years, is the fabric that weaves the early milestones of Missouri cave history together.

People used Missouri caves as taverns, barns, spring houses, beer and wine cellars and sites for social gatherings, political events and religious services. This was because the caves were available and conveniently warm in winter and cool in the summer. Settlers harnessed spring-fed cave streams to provide power for paper mills, woolen mills, sawmills and gristmills.

By the 1840s, caves in the St. Louis area were attracting German brewers from the old country. A new industry was thus born, transforming St. Louis into a Midwest brewing center. Without the caves, which have a natural temperature range of 52 to 60 degrees 365 days a year, this brewing industry might not have been possible in St. Louis in the days before the availability of electricity.

The Civil War period represents a dark interlude in this march through time. Caves often served as rendezvous points for troop movements, hideouts for guerrilla forces and slaves and, during the Reconstruction years,

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