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An Osage Holy Site Bears Testimony to Ozark’s Past

Claire Kidwell
The entrance to Smallin Civil War Cave

Smallin Civil War Cave outside of Ozark, Missouri, has more history to it than its name would suggest. KSMU’s Claire Kidwell went there to explore its ancient past—which includes a fascinating element surrounding the winter solstice.

While hiking on the trail leading up to Smallin Civil War Cave, there’s a quiet atmosphere broken only by birdsong as you make your way to the cave.

As you turn a corner, though, and see the mammoth, 10-story entrance for the first time, the sight of it knocks the breath out of your lungs. People throughout the ages have had the same reaction, put best into words by explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who wrote about the cave.

“He said ‘We seem suddenly to be beholding some secret of the great works of nature, which had been hid from the foundations of the world.’”

That’s Wanetta Bright, who owns the cave and surrounding property with her husband.

Credit Claire Kidwell / KSMU News
Wanetta Bright inside the cave

While Schoolcraft was one of the first explorers to document the cave, he was far from the first to discover it.

“The Osage were here probably several hundred years, maybe closer to a thousand, no one knows for sure. The very first people that would’ve come in would have probably been right after the last Ice Age.”

Historians can trace the Osage’s presence there through archaeological findings within and around the cave. Traces of smoke from fires can still be seen on the cave walls today.

Bright says this was a holy place to the Osage.

Schoolcraft, in his encounters with the Osage near the cave, gave it the name “Winoca,” which means “spirit” in the Osage language.

Wandering into the cave, Bright points out natural structures as well as historical features in the cave itself. One of these features is a sun glyph—basically a symbol of the sun—carved into a flow stone and calcified by time.

Bright says during the winter solstice, something magical occurs. The sun is low enough on the horizon on that day that it shines directly into the cave; when that happens, the light bouncing off the water flowing through the cave creates a projection of another river on the ceiling of the cave. The sun also hits the glyph directly, which could be a marker.

“They believe that that was put here basically to note the beginning of winter, the shortest days of the year, and the amazing time when the ceiling becomes a moving stream.”

Another Osage marker is an old tree, bent at a right angle to point to the east. This probably indicates the area as a holy site too, since the Osage would pray toward the east, where their ancestors were from according to Bright.

Credit Claire Kidwell / KSMU News
The original Trail Marker Tree at Smallin Civil War Cave.

Earlier this year, another tree was purposefully bent to become a new trailmarker in case the old tree dies. The Brights extended an invitation to the Osage Nation, now based in Oklahoma, to come and bless the new tree.

“The Osage were excited about that and they came back and visited their old homeland, and even told us they were going to come back.”

Bright says she hopes for a long relationship with members of the Osage, and considers the cave part of their home.