Tuesday, July 30. Arrived at the “Crossing” of the South Platte, alias “Overland City,” alias “Julesburg,” at 11 A. M., 470 miles from St. Joseph. Saw to-day first Cactus. 1:20 P. M. across the South Platte.
At noon on the fifth day out, we arrived at the “Crossing of the South Platte,” alias “Julesburg,” alias “Overland City,” four hundred and seventy miles from St. Joseph—the strangest, quaintest, funniest frontier town that our untraveled eyes had ever stared at and been astonished with.
It did seem strange enough to see a town again after what appeared to us such a long acquaintance with deep, still, almost lifeless and houseless solitude! We tumbled out into the busy street feeling like meteoric people crumbled off the corner of some other world, and wakened up suddenly in this. For an hour we took as much interest in Overland City as if we had never seen a town before. The reason we had an hour to spare was because we had to change our stage (for a less sumptuous affair, called a “mud-wagon”) and transfer our freight of mails.
Presently we got under way again. We came to the shallow, yellow, muddy South Platte, with its low banks and its scattering flat sand-bars and pigmy islands—a melancholy stream straggling through the centre of the enormous flat plain, and only saved from being impossible to find with the naked eye by its sentinel rank of scattering trees standing on either bank. The Platte was “up,” they said—which made me wish I could see it when it was down, if it could look any sicker and sorrier. They said it was a dangerous stream to cross, now, because its quicksands were liable to swallow up horses, coach and passengers if an attempt was made to ford it. But the mails had to go, and we made the attempt. Once or twice in midstream the wheels sunk into the yielding sands so threateningly that we half believed we had dreaded and avoided the sea all our lives to be shipwrecked in a “mud-wagon” in the middle of a desert at last. But we dragged through and sped away toward the setting sun.
Cramped with cold and inaction—at 6 A.M. the thermometer showed only 56° F. in the sun;-hungry, thirsty, and by no means in the mildest of humors, we hear with a gush of joy, at 3:15 A.M., the savage Yep! yep! yep! with which the driver announces our approach. The plank lodgings soon appear; we spring out of the ambulance, a qualm comes over us, all is dark and silent as the grave; nothing is prepared for us; the wretches are all asleep. A heavy kick opens the door of the soon-found restaurant, when a pheesy, drowsy voice from an inner room asks us, in German-English,-so strong is the causality, the crapulousness of why and wherefore in this "divided, erudite race:”—“And how ze komen in ?" Without attempting to gratify his intellectual cravings, we ordered him out of bed, and began to talk of supper, refreshment, and repose. But the “critter" had waxed surly after securing for himself a compound epithet, of which "hunds—" is the first syllable, and his every negative answer concluded with a faint murmur of "petampt." I tried to get his bed for Mrs. Dana, who was suffering severely from fatigue. He grumbled out that his "lady and bebbé” were occupying it. At length I bit upon the plan of placing the cushions and cloaks upon the table, when the door opened for a second dog-Teuton, who objected to that article of furniture being used otherwise than for his morning meal. Excédés, and mastering with pain our desire to give these villain "sausage-eaters” “particular fits," we sat down, stared at the fire, and awaited the vile food. For a breakfast cooked in the usual manner, coffee boiled down to tannin (ever the first operation), meat subjected to half sod, half stew, and, lastly, bread raised with sour milk corrected with soda, and so baked that the taste of the flour is ever prominent, we paid these German rascals 75 cents, a little dearer than at the Trois Frères.
At the Upper Crossing of the South Fork there are usually tender adieux, the wenders toward Mormonland bidding farewell to those bound for the perilous gold regions of Denver City and Pike's Peak. If “fresh," they take leave of one another with sincere commiseration for one another's dooms, each deeming, of course, his own the brighter. The wagons were unloaded, thus giving us the opportunity of procuring changes of raiment and fresh caps—our felts had long disappeared under the influence of sleeping on the perch. By some means we retained our old ambulance, which, after five days and nights, we had learned to look upon as a home; the Judiciary, however, had to exchange theirs for one much lighter and far less comfortable. Presently those bound to Denver City set out upon their journey. Conspicuous among them was a fair woman who had made her first appearance at Cotton Wood Creek—fit place for the lune de mélasse with an individual, apparently a well-to-do drover, whom she called "Tom" and "husband.” She had forgotten her “fixins," which, according to a mischievous and scandalous driver, consisted of a reticule containing a "bishop,” a comb, and a pomatum pot, a pinchbeck watch, and a flask of “Bawme”-not of Meccah. Being a fine young person of Scotch descent, she had, till dire suspicions presented themselves, attracted the attentions of her fellow-travelers, who pronounced her to be "all sorts of a gal.” But virtue is rabid in these lands, and the purity of the ermine must not be soiled. It was fortunate for Mr. and Mrs. Mann, the names were noms de voyage,—that they left us so soon. In a certain Southern city I heard of a high official, who during a trip upon one of the floating palaces of the Mississippi, had to repeat “deprendi miserum est;" the fond, frail pair was summarily ejected with bag and baggage to furnish itself with a down-stream passage on board a lumber raft.
We crossed the "Padouca" at 6:30 A.M., having placed our luggage and the mails for security in an ox cart. The South Fork is here 600 to 700 yards broad; the current is swift, but the deepest water not exceeding 250 feet, the teams are not compelled to cross diagonally. The channel was broken with sandbanks and islets; the bed was dark and gravelly; the water, though dark as hotel coffee, was clear, not, as described by Captain Stansbury, "perfectly opaque, with thick yellow mud," and the earthbanks which rise to five feet are never inundated. The half-broken mules often halted, and seemed inclined to lie down; a youth waded on the lower side of the team, shouting and swinging his arms to keep them from turning their heads down stream; the instinct of animals to find an easy ford ended with a few desperate struggles up the black cozy mire. Having reloaded on the left bank, and cast one last look of hatred upon the scene of our late disappointment, we set out at 7 A.M. to cross the divide separating the Northern and Southern Forks of the Platte.
We had now entered upon the outskirts of the American wilderness, which has not one feature in common with the deserts of the Old World. In Arabia and Africa there is majesty in its monotony: those awful wastes so brightly sunburnished that the air above them appears by contrast black; one vast and burning floor, variegated only by the mirage-reek, with nothing below the firmament to relieve or correct the eye. Here it is a brown smooth space, insensibly curving out of sight, wholly wanting "second distance," and scarcely suggesting the idea of immensity; we seem, in fact, to be traveling for twenty miles over a convex, treeless hill-top. The air became sultry, white clouds shut in the sky, and presently arose the high south wind, which at this season blows a gale between 10 A.M. and 3 P.M. The ground, bleached where sandy, was thinly scattered here and there with wiry grass, dun and withered, and with coarse and sunburnt shrubs, among which the “leadplant” (Amorphe canescens) was the characteristic. A dwarf aloetic vegetation became abundant; vegetation was fast going the way of all grass; after rain, however, it is doubtless fresh and copious. The buffalo grass sought the shade of the wild sage. A small euphorbia, the cottonweed, a thistle haunted by the Cynthia cardua, that butterfly common to the eastern and western hemispheres, and a bright putoria mingled with mushrooms, like huge bulbs. The cactus was of two kinds: the flat-leaved species is used by white men to filter water, and by the savages, who peel and toast it, as provaunt: there is another globular variety (an echinocactus) lying stalkless, like a half melon, with its brilliant flowers guarded by a panoply of spines. We pursued a sandy tract, broken by beds of nullahs and fiumaras, between two ridges of hillocks, draining to the right into a low bottom denoted by a lively green, with bays and bends of lush, reed-like grass. This is the well-known Lodge-Pole Creek or Fork, a mere ditch, the longest and narrowest of its kind, rising from a mountain lakelet near the “New Bayou” or “Park,” in the Black Hills, and falling into the South Fork of the Platte, about seventy miles west of the bifurcation. By following up this water along the Cherokee trail to its head in the Cheyenne Pass of the Rocky Mountains, instead of describing the arc via Fort Laramie, the mail would gain 61 miles; emigrants, indeed, often prefer the short cut. Moreover, from the Cheyenne Pass to Great Salt Lake City, there is, according to accounts, a practicable road south of the present line, which, as it would also save time and labor, has been preferred for the mail line.
In the American Sahara animal life began to appear. The coyote turned and stared at us as though we were trespassing upon his property. This is the jackal of the Western world, the small prairie-wolf, the Canis latrans, and the old Mexican coyotl, best depicted by the old traveler, Abbé Clavigero, in these words: "It is a wild beast, voracious like the wolf, cunning like the fox, in form like the dog, and in some qualities like the jackal.” The animal has so often been described that there is little new to say about it. The mountain men are all agreed upon one thing, namely, that the meat is by no means bad; most of them have tried “wolf-mutton" in hard times, and may expect to do so again. The civilizee shudders at the idea of eating wolf from a food-prejudice, whose consideration forms a curious chapter in human history. It is not very easy, says Dr. Johnson, to fix the principles upon which mankind have agreed to eat some animals and reject others; and as the principle is not evident, so it is not uniform. Originally invented for hygienic purposes, dietetic laws soon became tenets of religion, and passed far beyond their original intention: thus pork, for instance, injurious in Syria, would not be eaten by a Jew in Russia. An extreme arbitrariness marks the modern systems of civilized people: the Englishman, for instance, eats oysters, periwinkles, shrimps, and frogs, while he is nauseated by the snails, robins, and crows which the Frenchman uses; the Italian will devour a hawk, while he considers a rabbit impure, and has refused to touch potatoes even in a famine; and all delight in that foul feeder, the duck, while they reject the meat of the cleanly ass. The Mosaic law seems still to influence the European world, causing men to throw away much valuable provision because unaccustomed to eat it or to hear of its being eaten. The systems of China and Japan are far more sensible for densely populated countries, and the hippophagists have shown, at least, that one animal has been greatly wasted. The terrible famines, followed by the equally fearful pestilences, which have scourged mankind, are mainly owing to the prevalence of these food-prejudices, which, as might be expected, are the most deeply rooted in the poorer classes, who can least afford them.
I saw to-day, for the first time, a prairie-dog village. The little beast, hardly as large as a Guinea-pig, belongs to the family of squirrels and the group of marmots—in point of manner it somewhat resembles the monkey. “Wish-ton-Wish" — an Indian onomatoplasm-was at home, sitting posted like a sentinel upon the roof, and sunning himself in the midday glow. It is not easy to shoot him; he is out of doors all day; but, timid and alert, at the least suspicion of danger he plunges with a jerking of the tail, and a somersault, quicker than a shy young rabbit's, into the nearest hole, peeping from the ground, and keeping up a feeble little cry (wish! ton! wish!), more like the note of a bird than a bark. If not killed outright, he will manage to wriggle into his home. The villages are generally on the brow of a hill, near a creek or pond, thus securing water without danger of drowning. The earth burrowed out while making the habitations is thrown up in heaps, which serve as sitting-places in the wet season, and give a look-out upon the adjacent country; it is more dangerous to ride over them than to charge a field of East Indian "T'hur," and many a broken leg and collar-bone have been the result. The holes, which descend in a spiral form, must be deep, and they are connected by long galleries, with sharp angles, ascents and descents, to puzzle the pursuer. Lieutenant Pike had 140 kettles of water poured into one without dislodging the occupant. The village is always cleared of grass, probably by the necessities of the tenants, who, though they enjoy insects, are mainly graminivorous, and rarely venture half a mile from home. The limits are sometimes three miles square, and the population must be dense, as a burrow will occur every few paces. The Cynomys Ludovicianus prepares for winter by stopping the mouth of its burrow, and constructing a deeper cell, in which it hibernates till spring appears. It is a graceful little animal, dark brown above and white below, with teeth and nails, head and tail somewhat like the gray sciurus of the States. The Indians and trappers eat this American marmot, declaring its flesh to be fatter and better than that of the squirrel. Some travelers advise exposing the meat for a night or two to the frost, by which means the rankness of subterranean flavor is corrected. It is undoubted that the rattlesnake—both of the yellow and black species and the small white burrowing-owl (Strix cunicularia) are often found in the same warren with this rodent, a curious happy family of reptile, bird, and beast, and in some places he has been seen to associate with tortoises, rattlesnakes, and horned frogs (Phrynosoma). According to some naturalists, however, the fraternal harmony is not so perfect as it might be: the owl is accused of occasionally gratifying his carnivorous lusts by laying open the skull of Wish-ton-Wish with a smart stroke of the beak. We sighted, not far from the prairie-dog village, an animal which I took to be a lynx; but the driver, who had often seen the beast in Minnesota and Old “Ouisconsinc," declared that they are not to be found here.
From a privately printed commentary:
The party in the stage included my great aunt, Thesta Dana, her husband, Lieutenant James Jackson Dana, U.S.A., and their daughter May, two years old.
At Julesburg at the crossing of the South Platte Burton drew a charcoal sketch of a Kiowa buck which engendered a row right off. J. L. Slade, the baddest bad man the west ever produced, was a Division Superintendent on the Overland Stage, and he rode from Julesburg to Windriver Summit two hundred and eighty miles, ‘Jes to see no didos happened to that baby gal’. Slade, Wild Bill Hickoc, the Express Messenger, Lieutenant Beverley Robinson, afterwards a General in the U.S. Army, Joe Cuming, Burton, Lieutenant Dana, and the stock tenders and other hangers on at a Stage Station stood off an attack by the enraged Kiowas.”
From Julesburgh the route lay over the Rocky Ridge Road, “the most Indian Infested and Bandit Frequented on the whole Trail across the Country.” Over this Slade took my Aunt Thesta and my cousin May in his own buckboard with an outriding escort which my grateful Uncle James later described as sixteen of the most villainous cut throats on the Plains.