To Platte Bridge. August 16th.
At 8 30 A.M. we were once more under way along the valley of Father Platte, whose physiognomy had now notably changed for the better. Instead of the dull, dark, silent stream of the lower course, whose muddy monotonous aspect made it a grievance to behold, we descried with astonishment a bright little river, hardly a hundred yards wide-one's ideas of potamology are enlarged with a witness by American travel! a mirrory surface, and waters clear and limpid as the ether above them. The limestones and marls which destroy the beauty of the Lower Platte do not extend to the upper course. The climate now became truly delicious. The height above sea-level-5000 feet-subjects the land to the wholesome action of gentle winds, which, about 10-11 A.M., when the earth has had time to air, set in regularly as the sea-breezes of tropical climes, and temper the keen shine of day. These higher grounds, where the soil is barren rather for want of water than from the character of its constituents, are undoubtedly the healthiest part of the plains: no noxious malaria is evolved from the sparse growth of tree and shrub upon the banks of the river; and beyond them the plague of brûlés (sand-flies) and musquetoes is unknown; the narrowness of the bed also prevents the shrinking of the stream in autumn, at which season the Lower Platte exposes two broad margins of black infected mire. The three great elements of unhealthiness, heavy and clammy dews, moisture exhaled from the earth's surface, and the overcrowding of population—which appears to generate as many artificial diseases as artificial wants—are here unknown: the soil is never turned up, and even if it were, it probably would not have the deleterious effect which climatologists have remarked in the damp hot regions near the equator. The formation of the land begins to change from the tertiary and cretaceous to the primary-granites and porphyries—warning us that we are approaching the Rocky Mountains.
On the road we saw for the first time a train of Mormon wagons, twenty-four in number, slowly wending their way toward the Promised Land. The "Captain"—those who fill the dignified office of guides are so designated, and once a captain always a captain is the Far Western rule—was young Brigham Young, a nephew of the Prophet; a blondin, with yellow hair and beard, an intelligent countenance, a six-shooter by his right, and a bowie knife by his left side. It was impossible to mistake, even through the veil of freckles and sun-burn with which a two months' journey had invested them, the nationality of the emigrants; “British. English" was written in capital letters upon the white eyelashes and tow-colored curls of the children, and upon the sandy brown hair and staring eyes, heavy bodies, and ample extremities of the adults. One young person concealed her facial attractions under a manner of mask. I thought that perhaps she might be a sultana, reserved for the establishment of some very magnificent Mormon bashaw; but the driver, when appealed to, responded with contempt, “'Guess old Briggy wont stampede many o' that 'ere lot!” Though thus homely in appearance, few showed any symptoms of sickness or starvation; in fact, their condition first impressed us most favorably with the excellence of the Perpetual Emigration Funds' traveling arrangements.
The Mormons who can afford such luxury generally purchase for the transit of the plains an emigrant's wagon, which in the West seldom costs more than $185. They take a full week before well en route, and endeavor to leave the Mississippi in early May, when "long forage” is plentiful upon the prairies. Those prospecting parties who are bound for California set out in March or April, feeding their animals with grain till the new grass appears; after November the road over the Sierra Nevada being almost impassable to wày-worn oxen. The ground in the low parts of the Mississippi Valley becomes heavy and muddy after the first spring rains, and by starting in good time the worst parts of the country will be passed before the travel becomes very laborious. Moreover, grass soon disappears from the higher and less productive tracts; between Scott's Bluffs and Great Salt Lake City we were seldom out of sight of starved cattle, and on one spot I counted fifteen skeletons. Travelers, however, should not push forward early, unless their animals are in good condition and are well supplied with grain; the last year's grass is not quite useless, but cattle can not thrive upon it as they will upon the grammas, festucas, and buffalo clover (Trifolium reflexum) of Utah and New Mexico. The journey between St. Jo and the Mormon capital usually occupies from two to three months. The Latter Day Saints march with a quasi-military organization. Other emigrants form companies of fifty to seventy armed men—a single wagon would be in imminent danger from rascals like the Pawnees, who, though fonder of bullying than of fighting, are ever ready to cut off a straggler, - elect their “Cap.,” who holds the office only during good conduct, sign and seal themselves to certain obligations, and bind themselves to stated penalties in case of disobedience or defection. The “Prairie Traveler" strongly recommends this systematic organization, without which, indeed, no expedition, whether emigrant, commercial, or exploratory, ought ever or in any part of the world to begin its labors; justly observing that, without it, discords and dissensions sooner or later arise which invariably result in breaking up the company.
In this train I looked to no purpose for the hand-carts with which the poorer Saints add to the toils of earthly travel a semidevotional work of supererogation expected to win a proportionate reward in heaven.*
After ten miles of the usual number of creeks, “Deep," "Small," “Snow," "Muddy," etc., and heavy descents, we reached at 10 A.M. Deer Creek, a stream about thirty feet wide, said to abound in fish. The station boasts of an Indian agent, Major Twiss, a post-office, a store, and of course a grog-shop. M. Bissonette, the owner of the two latter and an old Indian trader, was the usual Creole, speaking a French not unlike that of the Channel Islands, and wide awake to the advantages derivable from travelers: the large straggling establishment seemed to produce in abundance large squaws and little half-breeds. Fortunately stimulants are not much required on the plains: I wish my enemy no more terrible fate than to drink excessively with M. Bissonette of M. Bissonette's liquor. The good Creole, when asked to join us, naïvely refused: he reminded me of certain wine-merchants in more civilized lands, who, when dining with their pratique, sensibly prefer small-beer to their own concoctions.
A delay of fifteen minutes, and then we were hurried forward. The ravines deepened; we were about entering the region of kanyons. Already we began to descry bunch-grass clothing the hills. This invaluable and anomalous provision of nature is first found, I believe, about fifty miles westward of the meridian of Fort Laramie, and it extends to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. On the Pacific water-shed it gives way to the wild oats (Avena fatua), which are supposed to have been introduced into California by the Spaniards. The festuca is a real boon to the land, which, without it, could hardly be traversed by cattle. It grows by clumps, as its name denotes, upon the most unlikely ground, the thirsty sand, and the stony hills; in fact, it thrives best upon the poorest soil. In autumn, about September, when all other grasses turn to hay, and their nutriment is washed out by the autumnal rains, the bunch-grass, after shedding its seed, begins to put forth a green shoot within the apparently withered sheath. It remains juicy and nutritious, like winter wheat in April, under the snows, and, contrary to the rule of the graminec, it pays the debt of nature, drying and dying about May; yet, even when in its corpse-like state, a light yellow straw, it contains abundant and highly-flavored nutriment; it lasts through the summer, retiring up the mountains, again becomes grass in January, thus feeding cattle all the year round. The small dark pyriform seed, about half the size of an oat, is greedily devoured by stock, and has been found to give an excellent flavor to beef and mutton. It is curious how little food will fatten animals upon the elevated portions of the prairies and in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains. I remarked the same thing in Somaliland, where, while far as the eye could see the country wore the semblance of one vast limestone ledge, white with desolation, the sheep and bullocks were round and plump as stall-fed animals. The idea forces itself upon one's mind that the exceeding purity and limpidity of the air, by perfecting the processes of digestion and assimilation, must stand in lieu of quantity. I brought back with me a small packet of the bunch-grass seed, in the hope that it may be acclimatized: the sandy lands about Aldershott, for instance, would be admirably fitted for the growth.
We arrived at a station, called the “Little Muddy Creek,” after a hot drive of twenty miles. It was a wretched place, built of "dry stones," viz., slabs without mortar, and the interior was garnished with certain efforts of pictorial art, which were rather lestes than otherwise. The furniture was composed of a box and a trunk, and the negative catalogue of its supplies was extensive —whisky forming the only positive item.
We were not sorry to resume our journey at 1 15 P.M. After eight miles we crossed the vile bridge which spans "Snow Creek," a deep water, and hardly six feet wide. According to the station-men, water here was once perennial, though now reduced to an occasional freshet after rain: this phenomenon, they say, is common in the country, and they attribute it to the sinking of the stream in the upper parts of the bed, which have become porous, or have given way. It is certain that in the Sinaitic regions many springs, which within a comparatively few years supplied whole families of Bedouins, have unaccountably dried up; perhaps the same thing happens in the Rocky Mountains.
After about two hours of hot sun, we debouched upon the bank of the Platte at a spot where once was the Lower Ferry.* The river bed is here so full of holes and quicksands, and the stream is so cold and swift, that many have been drowned when bathing, more when attempting to save time by fording it. A wooden bridge was built at this point some years ago, at an expense of $26,000, by one Regshaw, who, if report does not belie him, has gained and lost more fortunes than a Wall Street professional "lame duck.” We halted for a few minutes at the indispensable store—the tête de pont—and drank our whisky with ice, which, after so long a disuse, felt unenjoyably cold. Remounting, we passed a deserted camp, where in times gone by two companies of infantry had been stationed: a few stumps of crumbling wall, broken floorings, and depressions in the ground, were the only remnants which the winds and rains had left. The banks of the Platte were stained with coal: it has been known to exist for some years, but has only lately been worked. Should the supply prove sufficient for the wants of the settlers, it will do more toward the civilizátion of these regions than the discovery of gold.
The lignite tertiary of Nebraska extends north and west to the British line; the beds are found throughout this formation sometimes six and seven feet thick, and the article would make good fuel. The true coal-measures have been discovered in the southeastern portion of the Nebraska prairies, and several small seams at different points of the Platte Valley. Dr. F. V. Hayden, who accompanied Lieutenant Warren as geologist, appears to think that the limestones which contain the supplies, though belonging to the true coal-measures, hold a position above the workable beds of coal, and deems it improbable that mines of any importance will be found north of the southern line of Nebraska. But, as his examination of the ground was somewhat hurried, there is room to hope that this unfavorable verdict will be canceled. The coal as yet discovered is all, I believe, bituminous. That dug out of the Platte bank runs in a vein about six feet thick, and is as hard as cannel coal: the texture of the rock is a white limestone. The banks of the Deer and other neighboring creeks are said also to contain the requisites for fuel.
Our station lay near the upper crossing or second bridge, a short distance from the town. It was also built of timber at an expense of $10,000, about a year ago, by Louis Guenot, a Quebecquois, who has passed the last twelve years upon the plains. He appeared very downcast about his temporal prospects, and handed us over, with the insouciance of his race, to the tender mercies of his venerable squaw. The usual toll is 50 cents, but from trains, especially of Mormons, the owner will claim $5; in fact, as much as he can get without driving them to the opposition lower bridge, or to the ferry-boat. It was impossible to touch the squaw's supper; the tin cans that contained the coffee were slippery with grease, and the bacon looked as if it had been dressed side by side with “boyaux." I lighted my pipe, and, air-cane in hand, sallied forth to look at the country.
The heights behind the station were our old friends the Black Hills, which, according to the Canadian, extend with few breaks as far as Denver City. They are covered with dark green pine; at a distance it looks black, and the woods shelter a variety of wild beasts, the grizzly bear among the number. In the more grassy spaces mustangs, sure-footed as mountain goats, roam uncaught; and at the foot of the hills the slopes are well stocked with antelope, deer, and hares, here called rabbits. The principal birds are the sage-hen (Tetrao urophasianus) and the prairie-hen (T. pratensis). The former, also called the cock of the plains, is à fine, strong-flying grouse, about the size of a full-grown barndoor fowl, or, when younger, of a European pheasant, which, indeed, the form of the tail, as the name denotes, greatly resembles, and the neck is smooth like the partridge of the Old World.* Birds of the year are considered good eating: after their first winter the flesh is so impregnated with the intolerable odor of wild sage that none but a starving man can touch it. The prairie-hen, also called the “heath-hen” and the “pinnated grouse,” affects the plains of Illinois and Missouri, and is rarely found so far west as the Black Hills: it is not a migratory bird. The pinnæ from which it derives its name are little wing-like tufts on both sides of the neck, small in the female, large in the male. The cock, moreover, has a stripe of skin running down the neck, which changes its natural color toward pairing-time, and becomes of a reddish yellow: it swells like a turkey-cock's wattles, till the head seems buried between two monstrous protuberances, the owner spreading out its tail, sweeping the ground with its wings, and booming somewhat like a bittern. Both of these birds, which, are strong on the wing, and give good sport, might probably be naturalized in Europe, and the “Société d'Acclimatisation" would do well to think of it.
Returning to the station, I found that a war-party of Arapahoes had just alighted in a thin' copse hard by. They looked less like warriors than like a band of horse-stealers; and, though they had set out with the determination of bringing back some Yuta scalps and fingers, they had not succeeded. On these occasions the young braves are generally very sulky-a fact which they take care to show by short speech and rude gestures, throwing about and roughly handling, like spoiled children, whatever comes in their way. At such times one must always be prepared for a word and a blow; and, indeed, most Indian fighters justify themselves in taking the initiative, as, of course, it is a great thing to secure first chance. However we may yearn toward our "poor black brother," it is hard not to sympathize with the white in many aggressions against the ferocious and capricious so-called Red Man. The war-party consisted of about a dozen warriors, with a few limber, lither-looking lads. They had sundry lean, sore-backed nags, which were presently turned out to graze. Dirty rags formed the dress of the band; their arms were the usual light lances, garnished with leather at the handles, with two cropped tufts and a long loose feather dangling from them. They had bows shaped like the Grecian Cupid's, strengthened with sinews and tipped with wire, and arrows of light wood, with three feathers—Captain Marcy says, two intersecting at right angles; but I have never seen this arrangement—and small triangular iron piles. Their shields were plain targes-double folds of raw buffalo hide, apparently unstuffed, and quite unadorned. They carried mangy buffalo robes; and scattered upon the ground was a variety of belts, baldricks, and pouches, with split porcupine quills dyed a saffron yellow.
The Arapahoes, generally pronounced 'Rapahoes — called by their Shoshonee neighbors Shảretikeh, or Dog-eaters, and by the French Gros Ventres—are a tribe of thieves living between the South Fork of the Platte and the Arkansas Rivers. They are bounded north by the Sioux, and hunt in the same grounds with the Cheyennes. This breed is considered fierce, treacherous, and unfriendly to the whites, who have debauched and diseased them, while the Cheyennes are comparatively chaste and uninfected. The Arapaho is distinguished from the Dakotah by the superior gauntness of his person, and the boldness of his look; there are also minor points of difference in the moccasins, arrow-marks, and weapons. His language, like that of the Cheyennes, has never, I am told, been thoroughly learned by a stranger: it is said to contain but a few hundred words, and these, being almost all explosive growls or guttural grunts, are with difficulty acquired by the civilized ear. Like the Cheyennes, the Arapahoes have been somewhat tamed of late by the transit of the United States army in 1857.
Among the Prairie Indians, when a war-chief has matured the plans for an expedition, he habits himself in the garb of battle. Then, mounting his steed, and carrying a lance adorned with a flag and eagle's feathers, he rides about the camp chanting his warsong. Those disposed to volunteer join the parade, also on horseback, and, after sufficiently exhibiting themselves to the admiration of the village, return home. This ceremony continues till the requisite number is collected. The war-dance, and the rites of the medicine-man, together with perhaps private penances and propitiations, are the next step. There are also copious powwows, in which, as in the African parlance, the chiefs, elders, and warriors sit for hours in grim debate, solemn as if the fate of empires hung upon their words, to decide the momentous question whether Jack shall have half a pound more meat than Jim. Neither the chief nor the warriors are finally committed by the procession to the expedition; they are all volunteers, at liberty to retire; and jealousy, disappointment, and superstition often interpose between themselves and glory.
The war-party, when gone, is thoroughly gone; once absent, they love to work in mystery, and look forward mainly to the pleasure of surprising their friends. After an absence which may extend for months, a loud, piercing, peculiar cry suddenly announces the vanguard courier of the returning braves. The camp is thrown at once from the depths of apathy to the height of excitement, which is also the acmé of enjoyment for those whose lives must be spent in forced inaction. The warriors enter with their faces painted black, and their steeds decorated in the most fantastic style; the women scream and howl their exultation, and feasting and merriment follow with the ceremonious scalp-dance. The braves are received with various degrees of honor according to their deeds. The highest merit is to ride single-handed into the enemy's camp, and to smite a lodge with lance or bow. The second is to take a warrior prisoner. The third is to strike a dead or fallen man—an idea somewhat contrary to the Englishman's fancies of fair play, but intelligible enough where it is the custom, as in Hindostan, to lie upon the ground playing 'possum,” and waiting the opportunity to hamstring or otherwise disable the opponent. The least of great achievements is to slay an enemy in hand-to-hand fight. A Pyrrhic victory, won even at an inconsiderable loss, is treated as a defeat; the object of the Indian guerrilla chief is to destroy the foe with as little risk to himself and his men as possible; this is his highest boast, and in this are all his hopes of fame. Should any of the party fall in battle, the relatives mourn by cutting off their hair and the manes and tails of their horses, and the lugubrious lamentations of the women introduce an ugly element into the triumphal procession.
In the evening, as Mrs. Dana, her husband, and I were sitting outside the station, two of the warriors came and placed themselves without ceremony upon the nearest stones. They were exceedingly unprepossessing with their small gipsy eyes, high, rugged cheek-bones, broad flat faces, coarse sensual mouths everted as to the lips, and long heavy chins; they had removed every sign of manhood from their faces, and their complexions were a dull oily red, the result of vermilion, ochre, or some such pigment, of which they are as fond as Hindoos, grimed in for years. They watched every gesture, and at times communicated their opinions to each other in undistinguishable gruntings, with curious attempts at cachinnation. It is said that the wild dog is unable to bark, and that the tame variety has acquired the faculty by attempting to imitate the human voice; it is certain that, as a rule, only the civilized man can laugh loudly and heartily. I happened to mention to my fellow-travelers the universal dislike of savages to any thing like a sketch of their physiognomies; they expressed a doubt that the Indians were subject to the rule. Pencil and paper were at hand, so we proceeded to proof. The savage at first seemed uneasy under the operation, as the Asiatic or African will do, averting his face at times, and shifting position to defeat my purpose. When I passed the caricature round it excited some merriment; the subject, forthwith rising from his seat, made a sign that he also wished to see it. At the sight, however, he screwed up his features with an expression of intense disgust, and managing to “smudge" over the sketch with his dirty thumb, he left us with a "pooh!" that told all his outraged feelings.
Presently the warriors entered the station to smoke and tacitly beg for broken victuals. They squatted in a circle, and passed round the red sandstone calumet with great gravity, puffing like steam-tugs, inhaling slowly and lingeringly, swallowing the fumes, and with upturned faces exhaling them through the nostrils. They made no objection to being joined by us, and always before handing the pipe to a neighbor, they wiped the reed mouth-piece with the cushion of the thumb. The contents of their calumet were kinnikinik, and, though they accepted tobacco, they preferred replenishing with their own mixture. They received a small present of provisions, and when the station-people went to supper they were shut out.
We are now slipping into Mormonland; one of the stationkeepers belonged to the new religion. The "madam," on entering the room, had requested him to depose a cigar which tainted the air with a perfume like that of greens'-water; he took the matter so coolly that I determined he was not an American, and, true enough, he proved to be a cabinet-maker from Birmingham. I spent the evening reading poor Albert Smith's “Story of Mont Blanc”—Mont Blanc in sight of the Rocky Mountains and admiring how the prince of entertainers led up the reader to what he called the crowning glory of his life, the unperilous ascent of that monarch of the Alps, much in the spirit with which one would have addressed the free and independent voters of some well-bribed English borough.
We are now about to quit the region which Nature has prepared, by ready-made roads and embankments, for a railway; all beyond this point difficulties are so heaped upon difficulties—as the sequel will prove—that we must hope against hope to see the “iron horse” (I believe he is so called) holding his way over the mountains.