“Daniel Boone was a man; was a real man…” So goes the theme song of the 1960s TV show about the old frontiersman. (TV Show Trivia: The actor Fess Parker played the part of Daniel Boone on the show. He also played the part of Davy Crockett in the TV show of the same name. This has caused endless confusion in the minds of thousands of Baby Boomers.)
Tradition says that early in the 19th century Daniel, during one of his many treks across the land that would one day be Missouri, discovered a saline spring bubbling up from the ground. Deer, elk, bison, and other wildlife would lick the ground for the salt that seeped into it. He immediately saw the commercial value of such on inland source of salt.
In the early days of our nation, salt was a prized commodity; necessary for preserving food without refrigeration, as well as for flavoring it.
Unfortunately, the tradition is, as so many are, untrue. It was actually his son Nathan who discovered the spring and began to make commercial use of it. In a brief history of the area, Mike Dickey writes:
Brine water was poured into kettles that held thirty or more gallons and heated on a stone furnace. These furnaces were parallel stone walls with a chimney at one end. The kettle was placed in the trough between the walls. As the water evaporated, salt crystallized in the bottom of the kettle. Approximately 250-300 gallons of brine water was required to obtain one bushel of salt. To boil this much water required about 100 cords of wood. Teams of wood cutters traveled as far as four miles to get fuel for furnaces. Approximately twenty five (sic) to thirty bushels of salt per day was produced and shipped down river to St. Louis where it sold for $2.50 a bushel. Because salt production was a labor-intensive project, many of the workers were African-American slaves.
Tragedies and other events made the enterprise rather short-lived. With the War of 1812 looming, Nathan accepted an appointment as a captain with the Missouri Rangers and sold his shares of the company to his partner, James Morrison. By 1933, Indian trouble and the horrible death of his son caused Morrison to close the saltworks. (One story states the 16-year-old son fell into a salt kettle of boiling water, was scalded, and died several days later. Another states that he died of rheumatic fever. Either way, how sad!)
Regardless of the length of time the saltworks was in production, it played a vital role in the settlement of Missouri. Documents from the time use terms like “flooded” and “streamed” when referring to the settlers making their way to The Boonslick Country.
At the Boon’s Lick State Historic Site, one can still see the remains of the (nearly 200-year-old!) saltworks and visit the interpretive center for dioramas of what they must have looked like.
Many thanks to Mike Dickey, site administrator for nearby Arrow Rock State Historic Site, for sending tons of amazing information my way. Any misinterpretations are strictly my own.