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Smallin Civil War Cave Held Significance For The Osage During Winter Solstice

Smallen Civil War Cave

Smallin Civil War Cave in Ozark is offering special tours right now as it does every year around this time.  The Winter Solstice Tours provide a chance to learn about the Osage Indians who used to go to the area every autumn and how they knew when it was time to go home.

For about a 15-day period every year, the sun is at just the right angle that its rays go far back into the south-facing cave entrance.

“And at that angle, if it strikes the water, it will make a river of light about 200 feet long on the ceiling of the cave.  When we have water in the cave that also has created moisture on the ceiling casting a light back down on a flowstone that’s about 300 feet inside the cave, and on that is a petroglyph of the sun,” said Eric Fuller, archaeologist at Smallin Cave.

That petroglyph is about eight inches tall, and it lights up this time of year on sunny days, brighter, he said, than they light it with electrical lights.

What does that have to do with the Osage?  You can’t precisely date a petroglyph, according to Fuller, so you have to look at ‘”what makes sense?’”

“Their new year started in April.  They planted their corn and their squash in the ground, then they went out and hunted bison all summer long until they started seeing blazing star in the bluestem grass,” said Fuller.  “And then they came back and they harvested their corn and squash.  And that would be just right about the time of fall equinox.”

And that’s when they wanted to get to the Ozarks so they could harvest paw paw fruit before it was all eaten by possums and raccoons.  When they arrived, they’d burn the Ozarks hills and start hunting and gathering.  While the men hunted things like bear, elk, deer and woodlands bison, the women would gather paw paws, hickories, pecans and walnuts. They would also gather persimmons, which “they would turn into a kind of a fruit roll up that they called stanica,” said Fuller. 

“The very last thing that they could gather, that you could gather for use is the hackberries.  A lot of people don’t realize that hackberries are edible.  They’re kind of crunchy because they’ve got large seeds in them, but they would pound them into mortar, add suet to it, and then add a little bark of slippery elm to make it into a preserved pemmican.  Well, when you’re done with that, there’s no reason to be down here, and weather’s going to start turning bad, and so you go home.”

And that’s where the significance of Smallin Cave to the Osage comes in.  They’d return to their villages around Winter Solstice.  Henry Rowe Schoolcraft wrote about that, according to Fuller, and so did George Sibley, the government agent at Fort Osage.

“When this petroglyph is lighting up is really the time in which the Osage said, ‘hey, we’re done gathering.  Let’s go home,’” said Fuller.

He thinks that even 1000 years ago Osage ancestors may have been building sun calendars and acknowledging the Winter Solstice based on evidence found at Cahokia Mounds east of St. Louis. 

Smallen Cave has its seasons of spring rains when it’s flooded, summer when the cave is dry and the bottom of the cave at the entrance sparkles like snow from the calcite crystals.  And then in fall there’s the fall rains and spectacular fall colors, said Fuller, but this time of year is really special.

“Because it’s marking a time when the sun comes deeper into the cave than any other time,” he said.  “I can take a paperback book into this cave, open it at random at 450 feet inside this cave and start reading with no other light than sunlight.  And, so, just to be able to see Grandfather Sun coming into that cave 450 feet, there’s no other cave like it in Missouri.”

Winter Solstice Tours at Smallin Cave will be offered December 21, 23, 24, 26, 27 and 28 at 10 a.m. at the cave, 3575 N. Smallin Rd. in Ozark.  The cost is $19.95 for adults and $10.95 for kids four to 12-years-old. 

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.