CHAPTER FOUR - JOURNEY FROM THE KANZAS TO THE PLATTE - THE ELK - THE ANTELOPE
WE turned from the Ka River on our left, and took a more northwesterly direction. We passed two more villages of the Kas, built in the same way, and deserted, as were the others. The weather heretofore had been very favorable, but from now on we had frequent thunderstorms, alternating with a keen north wind. Our baggage was often so soaked that we had to sleep in wet blankets, and get up in the morning as from a cold bath. Nevertheless, we all continued in health. The country through which we go is still the same rolling, treeless prairie, wearying to the beholder's eye. Now that we are penetrating deeper into the country, we observe more caution than hitherto. At evening we form our camp in a square; at night we tie our animals in its midst; and regularly mount guard. On May 14th we came to the Rush River; on the 19th to the Blue River. Both are rapid streamlets, uniting somewhat farther down as the Big Blue River, which empties into the Kanzas. Game becomes more plentiful. At times we saw deer, and also some wolves. At Rush River one of our hunters (we have two hunters in our company who daily go out hunting) shot an elk cow. As this noble animal, which was formerly at home in the greater part of the United States, is known to the younger generation only by description, it may not be amiss to devote some words to it.
The elk (Cervus Canadensis) bears resemblance to the European deer. It attains the size of a mule or small horse. The antlers, borne only by the male, grow to a height of four or five feet, and often have twenty to thirty tines. The antlers are shed from February to August. The hair is bluish gray in the fall, dark gray during the winter, and reddish brown in spring and summer. The elk is very skittish and has a keen sense of smell; but is also very curious. He must see the object of his fears, and often runs directly toward the hunter whom he has only scented. But as soon as he sees him, he stares at him a moment; then, with antlers thrown back and head held high, he rushes away like an arrow. In August and September, the pairing season, there are fierce encounters between the bucks. It is then most unadvisable to approach an elk that is merely wounded; for he will defend himself to the bitter end with antler and hoof, and even assume the offensive. In May and June the cow brings forth one or two young. The elks live on both sides of the Rocky Mountains, usually in herds of twenty or thirty, but also of hundreds, and even thousands. Their meat has in taste most resemblance to beef; but is inferior to buffalo meat.
On our way to the Blue River we came across another not less interesting inhabitant of the wilderness, the fleet antelope (Antelope Americana, Ord - Prong-horned Antelope, Sab.-wild goat.) This beautiful swift animal is of the size of our German domestic goat, but of more slender and elegant build. Its heavy, thick, smooth hair is yellowish-brown on neck, back and feet. On the flanks it shades to whitish. The belly and breast are entirely white. The hair at the back of the head is somewhat longer and blackish. The tail is short and white on its underside, as is the deer's. The bucks have roundish horns, turning backward and inward, with only one short tine. These horns are often a foot long. The females have shorter horns, and instead of the tine, several knobs. The fleetness of the antelope excels the speed of a race horse. They have excellent vision and keen scent, and are very skittish. With such characteristics it would seem almost impossible to get at them; but they have another quality, which commonly seals their fate - boundless curiosity. It is hard to stalk them. At first sight they run away; but if the hunter lies quietly down, elevating a hat, a bright colored cloth, or even an arm or leg, curiosity will bring them back. They approach, run away again, and repeat the performance till they come within range. For this reason hunters for antelope prefer red shirts. Loud colors stimulate their curiosity. Antelopes are fond of elevations from which they have a wide view. On the plains the Indians hunt them at times in a sort of round-up; or else drive them into a fencing made of bushes, wide at first but gradually contracting, till it leads to a swamp or some sort of enclosure, where they can easily be killed. Under all circumstances hunting antelope requires more than ordinary skill and care. Antelopes usually live together in small herds of from ten to thirty. On this side of the Rocky Mountains they are much more common than beyond them. The meat is rather tender, but lean and dry.
We marched two days along the Blue River without following its windings. We now repeatedly crossed plateaus. They can be compared with nothing more fittingly than with the sea. Round about, to the horizon, one sees nothing but grass and sky; no bush, no creek relieves the eye from the wearying prospect. Only an antelope at times flits by. Any other moving body causes suspicion rather than pleasure. On May 21st, we saw in the distance such suspicious figures. Our spy-glasses were put in requisition; but the objects were too far off for us definitely to decide whether they were elk, horses or mounted men. Some hours later the point was settled. They were five Delawares returning from beaver trapping on the Missouri. The Delawares are a tribe friendly to the whites. They live on the western border of the State of Missouri, and in part practice agriculture, but often make excursions into the country of their red brethren, and are there feared for their fearlessness and their superior armament with guns. These Delawares had shot an elk, which they shared with us, receiving some flour in return.
The next day we crossed the so-called "Pawnee trails," a broad road made by the Pawnees, a quite hostile Indian tribe, in whose vicinity we now are. Indian roads are usually recognizable by the marks of their tent poles, fastened at one end on either side of their pack horses, and trailing on the ground with the other. On either side of the Pawnee trails there were vestiges of a great summer encampment. For in the summer the Indians find it often too cumbersome to carry their tents of skins with them, and so make at every place where they camp so-called summer tents. For this the squaws cut tree branches and wands, put them into the ground in semi-circle, and cover this little natural tent with a blanket or a hide. Several hundred such tents were here in the vicinity. At evening we camped for the last time near the Blue River. We had had a north wind all day long, but at evening the wind changed to the west, and a terrible storm arose. The gale upset all our tents, and the rain poured down in torrents. All we could oppose to the elements was stoic equanimity. We wrapped ourselves in our blankets till the storm passed, and then stretched out around a fire. The next morning was pleasant. We were still twenty-five miles from the Platte. The road thither again went over a plateau on which no water could be found; but the rain, which had yesterday so incommoded us, had left some puddles behind, which today refreshed us and our animals. In the afternoon we reached a chain of small hills, from which we enjoyed a view of the Platte. At evening we camped on that stream.
CHAPTER FIVE - JOURNEY ALONG THE PLATTE TO THE SOUTH FORK
THE Platte has its sources on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, and has two main branches (North and South Fork), which, on their union, flow in an easterly direction toward the Missouri. A short distance below the meeting point the river divides afresh, and forms a great long island. At this island we reached the Platte. The river, of which we saw but a small part, is not broad at this point, with sparse borders of cottonwood (Populus Canadensis). The river valley is a mile or two broad on either side, and bounded by small hills (bluffs). The river is shallow, but carries so much sand that one may sink in the quicksands. The very valley is covered with pure river sand. Vegetation seemed here not to have advanced as far as in the prairie; but even at this point can be found the buffalo grass (Sessleria Dactyloides), a very short, delicate grass, growing in isolated bunches, preferred by the buffalo to every other kind, and also much appreciated by our animals. It grows only in sandy soil. We ascended the right bank of the river for six days. On the second day a lot of Indians encamped opposite us across the river. We thought them Pawnees, and expected a nocturnal visit from them, as they are notorious horse thieves, but were spared the infliction, probably because they thought the river too dangerous, or else because we were too watchful. The next morning they had disappeared. We now saw game daily, especially antelope, of which our hunters shot one. Many water birds were also about. The birds we had seen hitherto consisted chiefly of prairie chicken, lark, snipe, and a small kind of starling that was continuously swarming around us, and was so tame that it would at times sit on our pack animals while on the march. Here we got sight chiefly of water birds, such as ducks, geese, cranes, pelicans, gulls, and some very large kinds of snipe. We saw daily more marks of buffalo. Especially we saw many buffalo skulls, whose horns are always carefully turned by the Indians toward the west. The Indians believe that they thereby secure good luck on the buffalo hunt, and call it "Medicine," with which they designate everything great or wonderful to which they attribute secret influences. Dried buffalo dung, which we now find quite frequently, we now use occasionally for fuel, when absolutely no wood can be found. It burns tolerably well, but makes rather a glowing than flaming fire, adequate for cooking, but small comfort in severe cold - and the weather seems to be no more favorable than formerly. We have penetrating cold and thunderstorms in alternation. On the fifth day we came to a burial place where two Americans are interred - one, while drunk, shot the other and then himself. The incident happened several years ago; a simple stake marks the sad spot. On the seventh day we reached the junction of the north and south arms of the Platte. The bluffs, like the wings of a stage, on either side, had now become more interesting. I climbed one of the highest points to enjoy the view. The sandy hills are cut by many gulches, and so irregularly thrown together that in comparison to the prairie they may be even deemed romantic. Arriving at the top I found considerable strong "medicine." Thirty buffalo skulls, adorned with all kinds of gewgaws, lay before me in a magic circle, as cunningly arranged as "Caspar" in the "Freischuetz" could have done it. I felt no kind of call to break the charm, but took out my spy-glass to enjoy the view. Before me lay a great part of the river valley we had come over. I traced out the island along which we had passed, and the shallow, but broad and rapid, stream, whose northern and southern branches here unite at an acute angle. Opposite me were other bluffs; behind me the boundless prairie.
After I had enjoyed the fine sight to the full, I hurried back to my party. We now ascended the right bank of the South Fork, over which we were soon to cross. On the same day-it was the twenty-sixth of our journey-we saw the first herd of buffalo. The rejoicing was general. The voyager at sea cannot long more for land than the traveler in that region for the buffalo; for only in the land of the buffalo is there comfort and superfluity. Anxiously the days are counted till one may expect the first buffalo. Every sign is investigated by which one may gauge their vicinity. Weight is attached even to dreams. Our first enthusiasm brought ruin to the careless herd; for twelve of them were immediately shot, and of most of them the tongue only was taken. The juicy, nourishing buffalo meat we all found more palatable than the lean flesh of the antelope. The next morning we went up river only ten miles, and camped there, preparatory to crossing the South Fork. As special boats, covered with buffalo hides, are constructed for that purpose, two parties were forthwith sent out to hunt, to, procure the requisite buffalo hides. I joined one of these parties. But before we go on the hunt, let us consider more closely the noble game about to be hunted.
CHAPTER SIX - THE BUFFALO
THE buffalo (Buffaloe, Bison, Bos Americanus) is of the size of an ordinary ox, though his ungainly shape and long shaggy hair make him seem larger. The hair is yellowish brown; on the head and at the extremities, blackish. The fore part of the body to back of the shoulder blades is covered with thick long tufts. On the forehead the hair is curled, and so thick that a bullet glances off. Two short, thick, black horns project from the tangle; below, half hidden by the tufts of hair, roll two black gleaming eyes. The face is curved somewhat convexly. The upper lip is very broad below. From the underlip to the knees hangs down a long terrible beard. The head is very large and heavy; the neck thick and strong. On the back rises a considerable hump, formed of the prolonged spinal processes, and the muscles and ligaments thereto attached. The prolongation of the spinal processes increases from the rear to the front. The front ones are often twenty to twenty-four inches long. They are commonly called hump ribs. The rear part of the body is covered with shorter hair, which is like satin in summer. The tall is short and bare, with a bunch of hair at its lower end. Differences in hair are quite rare; but it is claimed that at times white buffalo, or buffaloes with white spots have been seen. The cow differs from the bull in being of smaller size and in having shorter hair and weaker horns. The whole appearance of the buffalo is ungainly, and at first sight terrifying. His step is heavy; nevertheless he trots, gallops and runs to match a horse. His sense of smell is very keen. He scents man at a mile. It seems, too, that the smell of the white man alarms him more than that of the Indian. The pairing season of the buffalo lasts from the end of July to the beginning of September. At this time the bulls and cows form one herd. Later on, they separate. The cows graze together in separate more compact herds, while the bulls are more scattered. In April, the cows bring forth their calves, which usually run with them for a year. As to numbers, buffalo herds vary greatly. One finds herds of fifty to a hundred head, but also of a thousand, and of several thousands. Often many herds graze side by side and cover the country to such an extent that they are estimated not by the number of herds, but only by the miles they occupy. It is a grand sight when one of these bands suddenly gets the wind of some enemy, and, with an old bull in the lead, runs off at a lumbering gallop. The first band throws itself on the second, carrying it along with it; this again on a third, and so on, till the whole herd, which was quietly grazing only a few moments before, rushes off in wild flight, seeming one great black mass in whirling clouds of dust. A fleeing band is irresistible. It blindly follows its leader; with him it hurls itself over precipices; it swims rivers after him; and even charges through the travelers' caravans, so that they must be shot in self defense, to, keep them from the train. After some miles, if they are not pursued, they usually halt, and begin again to graze. As I said before, they prefer the short tender buffalo grass. It grows on loamy sandy soil, usually saturated with salts. Where a buffalo herd has grazed for some time the ground is absolutely bare; for what they do not eat is trampled with their ungainly feet. Their bellowing can often be heard for miles. It is deeper and more muffled than that of our cattle, and at a distance not unlike the grunting of a great herd of swine. To their watering places they form narrow paths, over which they leisurely move on, one behind the other. A buffalo region is crossed by such paths in every direction. Formerly the buffalo roamed over the greater part of the United States. Civilization has gradually driven them back. Their real home now is the immense prairie between the boundary of the States and the Rocky Mountains. In the mountains themselves, and beyond them, they are much rarer. But here, in spite of the fact that many thousands are yearly killed by whites and Indians, their numbers are still incalculable. Should it, however, ever come to the extermination of these animals, then the whole of this country must necessarily assume some other shape; for to the inhabitant here the buffalo is more important than is his camel to the Arab. It supplies his prime necessities: food, dwelling and clothing.
The hunt for buffalo is one of the grandest and most interesting of which I know. The hunting is done either afoot by stalking, or on horseback by running. In both cases one must seek to be on the windward, to get as near as possible. For stalking, a hilly country is most favorable; but it is possible to get within shooting distance on the plain, if one does not find it too troublesome to creep on hands and knees, often for a mile. Even if the buffaloes see the hunter at this unusual locomotion, they often let him get near enough to shoot, provided his motion is quiet and regular. At the first shot they usually run away; but at times, when they do not see the hunter, they simply become restless, and permit him several shots. A wounded buffalo attacks the hunter only when he approaches too close; but then he uses his horns as a terrible weapon. The best place to give a buffalo a deadly wound is behind the shoulder blades, where the thick coat of hair stops. Shots back of that through the body trouble him little. A bullet on the head either glances off from the thick hair and firm skull, or at best does not penetrate far. Rarely does a buffalo collapse at the first shot. Usually they drag themselves along and remain standing on their feet to the last breath. In this respect the bulls show greater vitality than the cows. If the wound is near the backbone, they often fall down on the spot; but recover after a while and escape, often with the loss of the tongue or of some other piece of flesh that has been already cut out of them. Much more interesting than stalking is the hunt on horseback. This requires a skillful rider and a quick, well-trained horse. A good buffalo hunter prefers to ride without a saddle. He sticks one pistol in his belt, holds the other in his right hand, and starts off at top speed. He rushes into the midst of the fleeing herd, and for some minutes buffaloes and rider disappear in a thick cloud of dust. But suddenly he reappears at one side close behind a buffalo which he has picked for his prey and separated from the herd. The hunted animal exerts all its strength to escape its pursuer; but the emulous horse races with him, following all his turnings, almost without guidance by the bridle. Now he has overtaken him; he is racing close to his left side; but the buffalo turns sharply and the horse shoots past him. The race begins afresh. Again, the horse overtakes the buffalo; again they are running parallel, and the rider discharges his pistol point-blank in the buffalo's flank. He now gallops slowly after the exhausted animal, and, if necessary, gives him a second shot. Often the wounded animal turns upon the rider, who must then rely on the swiftness of his horse for safety. The cows are more agile than the bulls; swifter horses are therefore required in hunting them. The Indians usually hunt the buffalo on horseback in the way just described, with the difference that instead of firearms they commonly use bow and arrow. In full career they discharge their arrows with such accuracy and force that occasionally the arrow pierces the animal and wounds another one. When the Indians hunt buffalo in mass, as they do in winter for the hide, they use devices such as I have mentioned before with reference to hunting the antelope. Among other things, they sometimes drive them over steep cliffs, whereby whole herds are killed.
Buffalo meat tastes much better than beef. The meat of the cows is usually tenderer and fatter than that of the bulls, and particularly deserves the preference in summer, when the bulls are lean and unpalatable. From the slain buffalo only the best pieces are taken, namely, the tongue, the ribs, the humpribs, the meat on either side of the backbone, and the marrow bones, with at times also the liver and kidney. Buffalo tongues are celebrated; in dried condition they are sent by thousands to the States; but the ribs, especially the hump ribs of a fat cow, are much finer. They are usually roasted on the spit, while other parts are better suited for boiling. The thigh-bones, or so-called marrow-bones, are thrown into the fire until they are roasted, and then cracked open, yielding the finest marrow that ever tickled a gourmand's palate. Considering the absence of bread, and the traveler's life in the open air and daily exercise, it is not remarkable that the appetite makes unusual demands, and that people, who formerly were accustomed to eat scarcely a pound of meat daily, can consume eight and ten times as much of fresh buffalo meat, without being gluttons on that account. With the abundance of buffalo such a healthy appetite can be satisfied without trouble. Only so much is shot daily as will last for a few days. But if the journey goes through a region where neither buffalo nor other game is to be found, the buffalo meat is dried as follows: The meat is cut in strips as thin as possible, and hung upon poles or scaffolds, and there allowed to dry in the sun. If time is limited, a little fire is at first maintained under it; but it tastes better without the fire. When it is dried, it is beaten with a stone or hammer to make it more tender. It is then eatable, either dry or cooked, and can be kept for years, if protected against moisture and insects. The so-called toro is still more suitable for preservation. For its preparation this dried meat is beaten with a stone into a coarse grained powder, and mixed with as much melted buffalo fat and tallow as it will hold. The paste thus formed is pressed as compactly as possible into a bag of buffalo skin, which is then firmly sewed up.
The whites use the buffalo chiefly for food. The green skins are too heavy, and their preparation too difficult to justify the trouble of carrying them off. The Indians, on the other hand, tan the hides and use them partly for their own dwelling and clothing, partly in barter with the whites. Tanning is the business of the Indian women solely, and is carried on as follows: They first stretch the fresh hide with pegs on the ground, clean it with sharp stones of all flesh, fat and skinny parts, and finally rub in fresh buffalo brains. This latter gives the hides great pliancy, but is not a real tanning process. The hides thus prepared can therefore stand little moisture, and the hair falls out easily. The inner side of the hide thus prepared is usually adorned with all kinds of gaily-colored figures. Hides that are to be tanned on both sides are boiled in a solution of brain. When the hair is removed, brain is again rubbed in; and finally the hides are smoked, which makes them very suitable for tents and clothing. In addition to the hide, the Indians never forget to take the strong sinews from the neck and back of the buffalo. They dry them, and use them, torn into threads, with aid of an awl, for sewing.
With these manifold uses which the Indian makes of the buffalo, it will not seem strange to us, that this animal is the beginning and end of all their religious ceremonials; that great buffalo hunts can only be begun with mysterious rites; that the brave Indian dies in the belief that he is going to a land full of buffalo; and that one chief ground of the hatred of the Indians for the whites consists in their dread that the buffalo herds will be driven away and destroyed. The Indian and the buffalo are Siamese twins; both live and thrive only on one ground, that of the wilderness. Both will perish together.
CHAPTER SEVEN - THE SIOUX - PASSAGE OF THE SOUTH FORK
OUR hunting party consisted of only three men. We had ridden but a few miles, when we saw Indians in the distance, who had probably seen us long before. One of them galloped toward us. He had no clothing except an apron about the loins; and no arms except bow and arrows. We halted. The Indian gave us his hand in sign of friendship, and let us understand that a great Indian encampment was in the vicinity. Though the news was unwelcome, especially as we did not know to what tribe these Indians belonged, we continued our hunt. We soon saw buffalo, but they had been put into such turmoil by the Indians, who were hunting them, that it was a long time before we got a shot. From a hill I could survey the hunting of the Indians, and admire their skill as riders and as marksmen. Most of them were armed only with bow and arrow, though a few had guns. After we had ridden perhaps ten miles, we were lucky enough to kill three head. The last one was a cow. For a while she looked on as we flayed a bull, but forfeited her life by her curiosity. She had a calf with her that took to flight. The cow's udder was full of milk. We sucked out the milk, and found it refreshing and palatable. Laden with the hides, we returned at evening to the camp, where in our absence the Indians had also arrived. We now learned that there was on the other side of the river about five miles up stream a camp or village of several tribes of Sioux (Shiennes, Brules, Tetons, and Arapahoes) and of the Ogallallas. The Ogallallas and Sioux had formerly been at war; but had made peace shortly before this, and had united. The Indians who visited our camp had received small presents, especially tobacco; and, as the fur company still had some flour, had been regaled with sweetened mush, which was so much to their taste that, after satiating themselves to the full, they had taken the remainder with them. They also requested powder and whiskey, which was refused them on the pretext that we had no superfluity of the former, and nothing at all of the latter. Our leader, Harris, thoroughly realized that these unwelcome guests would further trouble us, and that just now was a most inadvisable time for crossing the river. So at night, after all the Indians had left, he caused the few barrels of spirits which he had with him to be buried, and enjoined on all of us the greatest vigilance. The night passed quietly. The next morning about sixty Indians on horseback appeared on a little rise in the neighborhood of our camp. They rode in a line up to our camp, giving a salute in our honor out of as many guns as they could muster, and sat down with us in a semi-circle. All appeared in gala attire, decked as far as possible with ornaments and bright rags, and with their faces freshly painted. One of them wore a red English uniform, on which he prided himself not a little. They had three leaders with them. One of them delivered an address, which may have been very eloquent, but of which none of us understood a word. To judge by his gestures, however, he had taken the pale faces to his heart, and expected in return evidences of our appreciation thereof. The pipe of peace was of course not forgotten, but went around the circle several times. The Indians received tobacco, which was divided out among the warriors by these leaders, and were again regaled with sweetened mush. In the afternoon, a second party of Indians arrived afoot, with two divers colored flags, on one of which a star was embroidered, and on the other a cock. The Indian who bore the former was painted red in the face; he who bore the other, wholly black. Speeches and smoking, presents and feeding were repeated. Toward evening our guests left us, seemingly satisfied with their reception. While this was going on in our camp the rest of the Indians had broken up their own camp, and had established themselves across the river just opposite to us. The whole shore became alive. The tents were erected in several rows for about a mile along the river, and formed an interesting, though hardly agreeable, sight. The high, conical, leather tents with the projecting tent poles looked from a distance not unlike a sea-port. By our estimate there might be seven or eight hundred tents; later on, we heard that there were about a thousand. As each of them contained at least one family, we estimated the whole number at five to six thousand. Our situation was critical. Separated from such a crowd, eager for robbing and plundering, and so superior to us in numbers, merely by a river, whose passage offered no special difficulties, there remained for us, should it come to hostilities, nothing but quietly to allow ourselves to be robbed, perhaps even scalped, or else to defend ourselves to the utmost without any hope for success. True, the Indians who had visited our camp today had behaved pretty decently; but every Indian has sufficient self-control to conceal his real plans. Besides, the Sioux have repeatedly shown themselves treacherous. All we could do for the time was to shun all cause for hostilities, and quietly delay the crossing of the river until the Indians should leave us. For they had given out that they were going the next day from here to the North Fork.
Morning appeared, but the Indian camp had not budged. On the other hand, we received abundant visits in ours. The river was about a quarter of a mile broad; quite rapid to be sure, but generally not very deep, so that one could cross a-foot or on horseback without much swimming. Besides, the Indians had made a little canoe out of buffalo hides, on which they crossed. Many squaws paid us their respects today. As none of us understood the Indian language, we had to communicate by signs, wherein the Indians have great skill. We obtained by barter with them several articles, such as tanned skins, mocassins, buffalo hides and the like. For a piece of chewing tobacco as big as a hand one could get a fine buffalo hide. Some Indians would sell everything they had on. But all showed immense curiosity.
They were continuously about us in our tents; all objects that were new to them they stared at and handled, not failing to appropriate some when unobserved. The two wives of the Missionaries were special objects of their curiosity. Among the guests who visited us today there was a leader of the Ogallallas, Bullbear by name. He is rather aged and of squat, thick figure. He had one of his seven wives with him. Our leader knew him from former days as a friend of the whites, and so invited him to stay with his wife over night. Bullbear gave us to understand that he could answer for his tribe, but not for the others; and readily accepted. The other Indians toward evening went back over the river.
Mrs. Bullbear is not ugly, and knows how to accept the presents made to her with much grace. Her leather shirt is richly adorned with beads and embroidery. All night through matters were lively in the Indian camp. Dreadfully piercing notes came to us over the water; and then a chorus of some thousand dogs howled such night music as I have never yet heard. The next morning we saw with pleasure how the Indians struck their tents, packed their horses and dogs, and gradually set themselves in motion toward the North Fork. We watched the march with our spy-glasses. The North Fork was only about three miles from us. The Indians crossed it, and set up their camp on the further shore. They also seemed to watch us, for they directed little mirrors toward us. Glad to be rid of our guests, we set in earnest about finishing the canoe at which we had hitherto worked but slowly. These canoes are made in the following manner: Small trunks of some wood that bends easily are split; out of these a boat-shaped frame-work is made with some cross-pieces inside; this is firmly bound with thongs of buffalo leather and willow bark, and all gaps are stopped with withes; and buffalo hides, sewed together, with the hair inside, are stretched as taut as can be over the whole. Then it is dried in the air, and the outside daubed over with a mixture of buffalo tallow and ashes. Our canoe was covered with three buffalo hides, and was about fifteen feet long by a width in the middle of five to six feet. It was finished toward evening, but we still spent the night here, to dig up the buried barrels of spirits. The next morning our canoe was put into the water. Though everything seemed quiet in the Indian camp, our leader preferred to cross the river somewhat further up. He detailed four men to draw up the canoe along the shore. The rest of us marched about ten miles and camped again on the river. The canoe arrived too late for crossing that same day; but on the next day we finally accomplished our passage. The river was rather broad and swift, but deep in only few places. As far as walking was possible, the four men pulled the boat through the water; then paddles and poles are used, during which time we were often carried far down stream. Each passage to and fro took over an hour. First, all the baggage and the empty carts were carried over in the canoe; then the passengers; finally the horses and mules were driven through the water. Apart from some few mishaps, arousing more laughter than sympathy, all went well. In addition, we made ten miles that same day, going up the stream, and camping on it.
CHAPTER EIGHT - JOURNEY UP THE NORTH FORK - THE PRAIRIE DOG - FORT LARAMIE
THE left bank of the southern Platte, which we are now ascending, is very sandy; the vegetation is scant. The bluffs close at hand are also of sandstone. A tower-like column of pure river sand rises in noticeable prominence. For some days we went up the river. We observed very many bitter herbs, especially wormwood; also Pomme Blanche (Psoralea esculenta), whose knobby root contains much starch, has a pleasant taste, and is gathered by the Indians. Long garlands of blooming wild roses frequently extended along the river. We saw no buffalo, but our hunters shot on the bluffs several antelope, so that we suffered no want. On the third day (June 6th) we left the river, going across a plateau in a northwesterly direction toward the North Fork. On this plateau we saw for the first time wild horses. They were very skittish. Their sense of smell is said to be very keen. We also got sight of the European rabbit, which is not found in the eastern part of the United States. The day was very sultry. We covered eighteen miles before we found some water in a puddle. In the afternoon, while we were again on the march, we were overtaken by a terrible hailstorm. Some of the hailstones were as big as pigeon eggs. The horses on which we rode could hardly be held in check; but the pack animals ran away as if under the lash. The hailstorm lasted, with short interruptions, about half an hour. We then gathered up our pack animals, which had run miles in the meantime, and camped near Ash Creek, which empties into the North Fork. The next morning we reached the North Fork, but it was noon before we could find a passage for our carts. The North Fork with its surroundings is just like the South Fork-much sand, little wood, no buffalo. We are now to go up the right side of the river about one hundred and sixty miles to Fort Laramie. The next day we saw four Indians on the further bank. They swam over. They were Shiennes. They gave us to understand that their tribe had parted from the Sioux and would be here in a few days to go up the river with us. They urged us, therefore, to wait. Our leader acted as if he did not understand them, gave them some tobacco, and went on. The next day we received a second embassy, but with no better result. The bluffs of our side, on which I now saw for the first time some cedars, gradually diminished until they were lost in the prairie. But behind them reddish cliffs arose, steeper and more imposing than we had yet seen. The sand formation prevails in them also. Several such rows of cliffs are crowded together en echelon, with a grassy embankment in front of each, flattening down at the end of the chain. Each chain consists of more or less broken down (weather worn) rocks, often presenting the strangest of shapes. So the first cliff in the first chain, perhaps eight miles from the river, presented quite the appearance of an old castle or citadel. More remarkable still is the last cliff of the same chain. Its tower-like top is seen from a distance of thirty or forty miles, for which reason it has been called the chimney. It is only a mile from the river. The cone-shaped base constitutes about three-fourths of its height, the pyramidal top one-quarter of it. The foundation is limestone; above it is crumbling sandstone. The height of the whole is given as 525 feet; that of the top part as 125 feet.
Heavy down-pourings of rain often interrupted our journey. Almost daily we had thunderstorms, for which the Platte is notorious. One time we had to stay in camp almost all day on account of the rain; but by way of compensation we found a quantity of pine wood and cedar wood, washed down from the rocks on which it grows sparsely; and beside the blazing fire we laughed at the weather and forgot all discomfort. The next day the sky cleared. We traveled somewhat away from the river, toward the left, and enjoyed a picturesque landscape. All about were rocks piled up by Nature in merry mood, giving full scope to fancy in the variety of their shapes. Some were perfect cones; others flat round tops; others, owing to their crenulated projections, resembled fortresses; others old castles, porticos, etc. Most of them were sparsely covered with pine and cedar. The scenery has obvious resemblance to several places in Saxon Switzerland.
At noon we halted in a little valley where rocks from either side confronted each other at a distance of half a mile. A fresh spring meanders through the valley. We encamped on the hill from which the spring flows. The place had something romantic about it. All around grew pine and cedars, wild roses, gooseberries and currants; from the top of the hill one enjoyed a wide prospect. On the one side the Chimney and the whole chain of rocks we had passed showed themselves; on the other side, fresh hills. Before us lay the Platte. The magnificent surroundings, the clear sky and fresh antelope meat put us all in good humor. But increasing sultriness reminded us soon that we had not yet received our daily allowance of thunder showers. We traveled twelve miles in the rain that afternoon, and camped by the stream, at whose spring we had our noon rest. It was so swollen by the rains that we had to postpone crossing till the next day. The next morning we crossed it, as well as Horse Creek, only a few hundred steps further on, and then turned, over a long uninteresting hill, again toward the river. From the top of the hill we saw in the western distance the Black Hills, a chain of mountains we must cross later on.
Near the Platte I saw on this occasion for the first time a so-called prairie-dog village. Single dwellings of this strange animal we had already observed on the South Fork; but here we had a whole colony before us, and also got a look at some of the shy inhabitants. The prairie dog (prairie marmot, Arctomys Ludovicianus, Ord), resembles the hamster of Europe, and belongs to the same genus. He is sixteen inches long; the hair yellowish-brownish-reddish; the head broad; the cars short; the body stout, the hairy tall about two inches long. The five toes on each foot are of very unequal length. Ills animal digs itself holes underground. The earth thrown out forms toward the exterior a firm round wall. The funnel-shaped entrance is one or two hands broad. For a foot it runs perpendicularly down; then obliquely inward and downward. Such dwellings, at moderate space from each other, can be seen spread over an area of several acres, or even miles. That is called a village. Hundreds, even thousands of these animals live in this way neighborly together. In fair weather they come out of their holes to sun themselves; squat quaintly on their hind legs, and utter a sharp, twittering sound. At man's approach they raise a fiercer cry, wagging their short tails withal, as if prepared for serious combat. If one comes nearer, however, they withdraw into their holes, at most peeping out. Even if one shoots them, they fall back L into their holes, and are not easily got out. In each hole several live together. Often six or eight can be seen retiring into one hole. The prairie dog lives on the seeds of several kinds of grass; but his dwelling is usually found in sandy regions, where grass grows scantily. He is found rather plentifully on either side of the Rocky Mountains. He sleeps through the winter, and so stuffs up the opening of his hole in the fall with grass. One often sees different animals creep into these holes, especially rattlesnakes, which are numberless in these regions, lizards, turtles, and a small kind of owl (Stryx hypogaea, Bonap). This quodlibet of animals cannot possibly constitute a friendly family; but Pike assures us that he has repeatedly seen a prairie dog, a horned frog and a turtle withdraw into the same hole. The owls and rattlesnakes seem to do most damage to the prairie dogs.
The North Platte, which we were now ascending, was here better supplied with wood than below, especially with cottonwood. We spent the night on its banks, in the neighborhood of an old winter camp. A number of cottonwood trees were lying about, which had been used partly for fencing, partly as fodder for the horses. (In winter the horses are fed with the bark of the tree.)
The next morning (June 14th), we left camp in good humor, for the crotchety master of human crotchets, I mean the weather, smiled on us; and the vicinity of Fort Laramie, but sixteen miles distant, promised us a speedy meeting with human beings. Before we reached the fort, we encountered the first "pale faces" we had seen since our departure from Missouri. They were French Canadians, clad half Indian fashion in leather, and scurrying along on their ponies, bedight with bells and gay ribbons, as if intent to storm some battery. Old acquaintances greeted each other, question piled on question; and each briefly told, in Canadian patois, the adventures he had been through. Meanwhile we came in view of the fort.
At a distance it resembles a great blockhouse; and lies in a narrow valley, enclosed by grassy hills, near by the left bank of the Laramie, which empties into the North Platte about a mile below. Toward the west a fine background is formed by the Black Hills, a dark chain of mountains covered with evergreen trees. We crossed the Laramie toward noon, and encamped outside the fort. The fort itself first attracted my attention. It lies on a slight elevation, and is built in a rectangle of about eighty by a hundred feet. The outside is made of cottonwood logs, about fifteen feet high, hewed off, and wedged closely together. On three sides there are little towers on the wall that seem designed for watch and defense. In the middle a strong gate, built of blocks, constitutes the entrance. Within, little buildings with flat roofs are plastered all around against the wall, like swallows' nests. One is the store house; another the smithy; the others are dwellings not unlike monks' off cells. A special portion of the court yard is occupied by the so-called horse-pen, in which the horses are confined at night. The middle space is free, with a tall tree in it, on which the flag is raised on occasions of state. The whole garrison of the fort consists of only five men; four Frenchmen and a German. Some of them were married to Indian women, whose cleanliness and neat attire formed an agreeable contrast to the daughters of the wilderness whom we had hitherto seen. In this connection, let me call attention to a mistaken idea often entertained as to these forts. They are often thought of as military forts, occupied by regular troops, and under military rule, whereas they are mere trading forts, built by single trading companies, and occupied by a handful of hired men to have a safe point for storing their goods, from which barter may be carried on with the Indians. Such forts exist on both sides of the Rocky Mountains, established by American and English companies; but nowhere is there a military fort erected by the government of either country. The simple construction, as above described, protects them adequately against any attack on the part of the Indians. Out of abundant caution some of them have a little cannon on the wall. As far as I know, there is no fort on the North Platte save Fort Laramie; but several American trading companies have built forts along the South Platte, the Arkansas, the Green River, and the Missouri. Beyond the Rocky Mountains are only English forts.
Fort Laramie was built in 1835 by Robert Campbell, and was then called Fort William. Later, it passed into other control, and was rechristened Fort Laramie after one Laramie, who was killed here by the Indians. The custom of perpetuating the memory of departed friends by transferring their names to the place where they fell, is so habitual in the Rocky Mountains, and the occasions giving rise to it are unfortunately so frequent, that at least half the names owe their origin to such events. the fort is at present in possession of Piggit, Papin and Jaudron. In many respects it has a very favorable location. There is sufficient wood in the vicinity and good pasture. A few days' journey further there is abundance of buffalo and other game, and the Platte from this point is navigable for small boats; at least Campbell has already gone down from here to the Missouri in buffalo boats. Then, too, it is a very suitable center for trade with important Indian tribes, especially the Sioux and Crows. The last named Indians had recently levied a small contribution from the fort, in that they had driven off sixteen horses grazing in the vicinity in full daylight and in view of two guards. Luckily the fort had a superfluity of horses, so that the loss was not serious. In addition to horses, the fort owns property that is of very great value in this region; that is, several cows. No attention is paid to agriculture, although the ground seems suitable for it. Hunting is the sole reliance for food. All we found in stock at that time was dried buffalo meat, of which we took a supply with us. As we stayed there the rest of the day, several races took place between our horses and those of the fort; and of course there was betting and swapping of horses. I swapped my horse, which was somewhat run down by the journey and thin, for a swift, well fed Indian horse trained to hunt buffalo. The Indian horses are said to have come originally from Mexico. They are of a small breed, and seldom can be called handsome; but they are very swift and hardy, and as they know no food save grass, are much more suitable for such a journey than American horses, which usually grow lean on mere grass. Still American horses, because they are larger and handsomer, are much sought after by whites and Indians, and, when once they are acclimated, are superior.
The distance from the boundary of Missouri to Fort Laramie, according to our daily reckoning, amounts to 755 miles, and was made by us in six weeks. All distances here can of course only be approximated. For this purpose we repeatedly counted the steps made in a given time, and found our average rate to be three miles an hour.