Submitted by scott on Mon, 10/17/2016 - 00:34

The United States territory lying in direct line between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean is now about 1,200 miles long from north to south, by 1,500 of breadth, in 49d and 32d N lat. about equal to Equatorial Africa, and 1,800 in N lat 38d. The great uncultivable belt of plain and mountain region through which the Pacific Railroad must run, has a width of 1,100 statute miles near the northern boundary; in the central line, ,1200; and through the southern, 1,000. Humboldt justly ridiculed the "maddest natural philosopher," who compared the American continent to a female figure,- long, thin, watery, and freezing at the 58th d, the degrees being symbolic of the year at which woman grows old. Such description manifestly will not apply to the 2,000,000 of square miles in this section of the Great Republic - she is every where broader than she is long . 

The meridian of 105d north longitude (G)-- Fort Laramie lies in 104 deg 31' 26" -- divides this vast expanse into two nearly equal parts. The eastern half is a basin or river valley rising gradually from the Mississippi to the Black Hills,and the other outlying ranges of the Rocky Mountains. The average elevation near the northern boundary (49 deg) is 2,500 feet, in the middle latitude (38 deg) 6,000 feet, and near the southern extremity (32 deg), about 4,000 feet above sea level. These figures explain the complicated features of its water shed. The western half is a mountain region whose chains extend, as far as they are known, in a general N and S direction. 

The 99th meridian (G) -- Fort Kearney, lies in 98 deg 58' 11" --  divides the western half of the Mississippian Valley into two unequal parts. 

The eastern portion, from the Missouri to Fort Kearney,-  400 to 500 miles in breadth - may be called the "Prairie land ". It is true that passing westward of the 97 d meridian, the  <cite>mauvaises terres</cite>,  or Bad Grounds, are here and there met with, especially near the 42d parallel, in which latitude they extend farther to the east, and that upward to 99d the land is rarely fit for cultivation, though fair for grazing. Yet along the course of the frequent streams there is valuable soil, and often sufficient wood to support settlements. This territory is still possessed by settled Indians, by semi-nomads and by powerful tribes of equestrian and wandering savages, mixed with a few white men, who, as might be expected, excel them in cunning and ferocity. 

The western portion of the valley, from Fort Kearney to the base of the Rocky Mountains - a breadth of 300 to 400 miles - is emphatically "the desert," sterile and uncultivable, a dreary expanse of wild sage (artemisia) and saleratus. The surface is sandy, gravelly and pebbly; cactus carduus and aloes abound; grass is found only in the rare river bottoms where the soils of the different strata are mixed, and the few trees along the borders of streams  -fertile lines of wadis, which laborious irrigation and coal mining might convert into oases - are the cotton wood, and willow, to which the mezquite may be added in the southern latitudes. The desert is mostly uninhabited, unendurable even to the wildest Indian. But the people on its eastern and western frontiers, namely, those holding the extreme limits of the fertile prairie, and those occupying the desirable regions of the western mountains, are, to quote the words of Lieutenant Gouverneur K Warren, US Topographical Engineers, whose valuable reconnaissances and explanations of Nebraska in 1855-56 and '57, were published in the Keports of the Secretary of War, "on the shore of a sea, up to which population and agriculture may advance and no farther. But this gives these outposts much of the value of places along the Atlantic frontier, in view of the future settlements to be formed in the mountains, between which and the present frontier a most valuable trade would exist. The western frontier has always been looking to the east for a market, but as soon as the wave of emigration has passed over the desert portion of the plains, to which the discoveries of gold have already given an impetus that will propel it to the fertile valleys of the Rocky Mountains, then will the present frontier of Kansas and Nebraska become the starting point for all the products of the Mississippi Valley, which the population of the mountains will require. We see the effects of it in the benefits which the western frontier of Missouri has received from the Santa Fe tract, and still more plainly in the impetus given to Leavenworth by the operations of the army of Utah in the interior region. This flow of products has, in the last instance, been only in one direction, but when those mountains become settled, as they eventually must, then there will be a reciprocal trade materially beneficial to both." 

 The mountain region westward of the sage and saleratus desert, extending between the 105th and 111th meridian (G) - a little more than 400 miles - will in time become sparsely peopled. Though in many parts arid and sterile, dreary and desolate, the long bunch grass <cite>(Festuca)</cite>, the short curly buffalo grass <cite>(Siskria dactyloides)</cite>, the mesquit grass <cite>(Stipa spata)</cite>, and the Gramma, or rather as it should be called "Gamma" grass <cite>(Chondrosium faeneum)</cite> which clothe the slopes west of Fort Laramie, will enable it to rear an abundance of stock. The fertile valleys, according to Lieutenant Warren, "furnish the means of raising sufficient quantities of grain and vegetables for the use of the inhabitants, and beautiful healthy and desirable locations for their homes. The remarkable freedom here from sickness is one of the attractive features of the region, and will in this respect go far to compensate the settler from the Mississippi Valley for his loss in the smaller amount of products that can be taken from the soil. The great want of suitable building material, which now so seriously retards the growth of the West will not be felt there." The heights of the Rocky Mountains rise abruptly from 1,000 to 6,000 feet over the lowest known passes, computed by the Pacific Kail road surveyors to vary from 4,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. The two chains forming the eastern and western rims of the Rocky Mountain basin, have the greatest elevation, walling in as it were the other sub ranges. 

There is a popular idea that the western slope of the Rocky Mountains is smooth and regular; on the contrary, the land is rougher, and the ground is more complicated than on the eastern declivities. From the summit of the Wasach range to the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada, the whole region, with exceptions, is a howling wilderness, the sole or bed of an inland sweetwater sea, now shrunk into its remnants - the Great Salt and the Utah Lakes. Nothing can be more monotonous than its regular succession of high grisly hills, cut perpendicularly by rough and rocky ravines, and separating bare and barren plains. From the seaward base of the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific - California-  the slope is easy, and the land is pleasant, fertile and populous.  


Burton, Richard. 1861. The City Of The Saints. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.