CHAPTER I: Trip Across The Plains
Arrival in Independence.—The Mail.—Captain Reynolds.—Starting and Detention.—Final Departure.—First Night.—Breakfast. —Lone Elm.—Shawnee Squaw.—First Camp.—Prairie on Fire.—Council Grove.—Appearance of Prairie.—Departure from the Grove.—First Night out.—First Buffalo seen.—Indian Fright.—Pawnee Fork.—Accident.—Buffalo Chips.—Herd of Buffalo.—Camp on the Arkansas.—Crossing.—Antelopes.—Jornada.—The Padre.
I embarked, for the first time, upon the great prairie sea that stretches throughout the central region of North America, in the month of November, eighteen hundred and fifty-three. I arrived at Independence, Missouri, the starting-point, on the twenty-seventh day of the previous month, accompanied by Mr. G. Rodman as traveling companion. The distance between this place and Santa Fé, New Mexico, is nearly a thousand miles, which is traversed monthly by the mule-teams that convey the mail back and forth. As this was our only facility for crossing the Plains at that season of the year, we accordingly took two seats in the mail-wagon, paying one hundred and fifty dollars each, which included board on the way, and transportation of forty pounds of personal baggage. The mail was to leave the first of the coming month, and we employed the time between our arrival and departure in making the necessary preparations for the trip.
When we engaged passage there were no seats taken, and there was every probability of our being the only passengers. We were, therefore, quite delighted when informed by the contractors, two days before the time of starting, that two gentlemen were on their way up the river to go out with us. These were Captain Reynolds, U.S.A., and his step-son, a Mr. Ash, of Philadelphia. They had been delayed coming westward, and, being fearful that the Santa Fé stage might start before their arrival, Captain Reynolds telegraphed the contractors from Jefferson City to wait for them. The dispatch was in the shape of a poetical effusion, and ran as follows: ‘‘
|Fink's1 stages are so rickety,|
|His horses are so slow,|
|His drivers are such drunken sots,|
|They scarce can make them go.|
|Then hold your horses, Billy,2|
|Just hold them for a day;|
|I've crossed the River Jordan,3|
|And am bound for Santa Fé.|
Every thing being in readiness, we left Independence on the afternoon of the first day of November. The morning was beautifully bright and clear, as if smiling upon our setting out, but toward noon the heavens clouded over, and the wind came on to blow almost with the fury of a hurricane. Our little train consisted of three wagons—one for the mail, another for the baggage and provisions, and an ambulance for the passengers. Two of them were drawn by six mules, and the
After traveling some two miles it commenced to rain, which made the roads quite slippery for the mules; and, as it bid fair to be a stormy night, the conductor thought it most advisable to turn back a short distance, and encamp in a convenient wood. We unharnessed in a grove contiguous to the house of Colonel Hall, one of the contractors, of whose hospitality the passengers partook for the night. The next morning being clear and pleasant, we made early preparations for a final departure. In the mean time we were joined by two additional passengers, Padre Donato, a Catholic priest, and a lay brother, named Carlos, both Italians, and on their way to New Mexico. This addition to our numbers created a necessity for another wagon, which was also drawn by six mules, and arranged to carry passengers in the winter season.
It was two o'clock P.M. by the time we were again under way, and before halting we drove twenty miles to New Santa Fé, a small settlement on the western borders of Missouri, where we encamped upon the prairie. The mail company had an agent at this place, with whom the passengers found accommodations for the night. The family lived in a rude clapboard cabin, but within there was an abundance of good cheer. The evening was dark and cold, and we felicitated ourselves upon being under
After supper we drew our chairs around the blazing hearth, and chatted with host and hostess until bedtime. Captain Reynolds and myself were favored with the best bed in the house, while the padre and his boy reposed on a soft spot on the floor, and the balance of the party slept in the wagons. In the morning the ground was white with a hoar-frost. The conductor and his men were astir early, and the teams were harnessed and ready for the road before I had shaken off my slumbers. As it was the last opportunity, for some time to come, that we would have to indulge in the luxury of a comfortable bed, we were disposed to prolong our morning nap even at the expense of the conductor's patience; but his stentorian voice quickly called us forth, and we were soon seated in the wagons and on our way across the prairies.
The distance from Independence to Santa Fé may be divided into three stages. The first, from the starting-point to Council Grove, is about a hundred and fifty miles, and passes through the country of the Shawnees,
The sun was just climbing over the eastern tree-tops on the morning of the third instant, as we took our departure from New Santa Fé. The air was keen, and made us shiver, in spite of overcoats and blankets. We drove fifteen miles to the Lone Elm, where we halted to breakfast, the animals being turned out to graze on the prairie grass, while the conductor and his men busied themselves in the cooking arrangements. The kitchen cabinet had not been fairly organized previous to leaving Independence, which had now to be accomplished before any thing could be done in the way of getting breakfast. Jones, a clever Kentuckian, who drove the baggage-wagon, was duly installed chief of the cuisine, and Converse and Mitchel—the former in charge of the mail-wagon, and the latter the forage—were nominated assistants. José, a Mexican, and the colored outdriver, were appointed "hewers of wood and drawers of water," and thus the organization was complete. Our kitchen being duly arranged, Jones and his subs set themselves about their useful, and, to the hungry lookers-on, deeply-interesting occupation. The stump of the Lone Elm furnished
We expected to see a camp-table brought forth, and a respectable set of tin-ware placed upon it, such as we had been accustomed to in camp-life; but here disappointment met us at the outset. The two subs came from the baggage-wagon, one carrying an India-rubber mule-cover, which he spread upon the ground near the fire for both table and cloth, while the other carried a dirty bag. By the time the mule-cover was duly arranged, the second had his bag untied, which he turned upside down, and poured upon the ground the entire complement of table-furniture, which, being inventoried on the spot, was found to consist of the following named articles, viz.: twelve tin cups, ten tin plates, six spoons, seven knives, two forks, two tin canisters, and two coffee-pots. In addition to the above was one frying and one stew pan; but, as the cooks were not so choice of these, they were not kept in the bag. The eatables were soon upon the table, and the "passengers for Santa Fé" were invited to take seats and help themselves. We sat flat upon old Mother Earth, and fell to work in a manner hardly to be sanctioned any where but on the prairies. As there
The spot known to all travelers upon the plain as the Lone Elm is a somewhat noted point, and would afford excellent capital for a romance manufacturer. When all that country was in the possession of the Indians, long before the white man had invaded their dominions, this tree is said to have been a great rallying-point for all the neighboring tribes. It stood solitary and alone upon the prairies, and its top could be seen for many miles around. Here, probably, many a midnight foray was hatched against some distant settlement encroaching too far toward the Indian hunting-ground, and under its wide-spreading branches many a sage council has been held. It served as a landmark for those seeking the frontiers, and in the early times of the Santa Fé traders it was a place of encampment for the night. Travelers came to look upon it as an old friend—they felt an attachment for the tree that had so often sheltered and shaded them from storm and sun, and no inducement could have made them cut it down. But in the course of time some modern Vandal came along, and laid low this last of its race; and when we passed, it was all gone but a small portion of the stump, and part of that cooked our breakfast. We may be accused of something akin to sacrilege in burning the remains of the old patriarch of the prairie; but with us it was breakfast or no breakfast, and upon such occasions hungry men are not much disposed to give way to romance.
We drove eleven miles to Bull Creek to dinner, where we arrived about two in the afternoon. On a hill near by was a small trading establishment, where divers primitive notions were kept to sell to the Indians. We made a visit to the cabin to endeavor to buy a little milk of the old German woman who ruled over the destinies of the kitchen; but we found her incorrigible, and could not induce her to part with it. Here we saw a young Shawnee squaw, whose tribe inhabit a region of country within a few miles. She was well dressed in semi-American style, and mounted upon a sorrel pony. She galloped across the prairie as we drew up, and in point of horsemanship was a model for any city-trained belle. We remained at the Creek until four, when we harnessed up and drove seventeen miles to Hickory Point, where we encamped for the night.
It was so late in the evening when we reached the camping ground that supper was dispensed with. The mules were secured near the wagons by picketing them to the ground, each one being allowed about twenty feet of rope to graze round. The next care was to prepare our own accommodations for sleeping, and we now found the dormitories as much out of order as was the cuisine in the morning. Two slept in the ambulance; the padre and his boy stowed themselves away in the baggage wagon; while the rest of us, who eschewed close apartments and impure atmosphere, made our beds upon the ground. Rodman and myself shared the same blankets, and, as a slight protection from the falling dew, lay down under one of the wagons; but the only advantage we had over those who slept in the wagons was that the quarters had been well aired during the day. Thus arranged, wrapped in our blankets, with our heads pillowed on our watch-coats, we made our most respectful bow to the God of Sleep, and, as soon as the freezing cold would
We harnessed up about sunrise, and drove eighteen miles to Rock Creek to graze and breakfast, but continued on to One Hundred and Ten before we halted to dine. Here flows a small stream of clear water, fringed on either side with cottonwood-trees, and close to the road were the log cabins of a settler with an Indian wife. In the timber were encamped a party of discharged soldiers on their way home to the States from Fort Massachusetts, in New Mexico. They had made their way alone across the prairies to this point without accident, partly on foot and partly mounted. They invited us to partake of their homely fare, which we declined, as our own pot was simmering over the fire, and, besides, we did not desire to reduce their scanty store, which was no more than enough to last them into the States. The night before the prairie was on fire all around us, and at one time we had fears the wind might change and bring it down upon our camp. It was the first time I had seen such a sight, and the spectacle was grand and beautiful. The heavens were lit up almost as light as day. The blaze showed a long line of fire, which licked up the dry grass like so much gossamer, and cracked like the reports of a thousand pistols as the flames ran along with the wind. The streaks of fire were faint at first, but increased in brightness as it was fanned by the wind, and
We rested that night at Switzer's Creek, ten miles farther on, and, as was our custom, went to sleep without supper or fire. When I awoke the next morning I found that Caw, the mail-dog, had curled up by my side during the night, and as I disturbed his slumbers, he looked at me with an apparent smile, as much as to return thanks for the accommodations my blankets had afforded him. The following day we made a drive of about fifty miles to Council Grove. The wind was piercing cold, and seemed to penetrate the very marrow of our bones. Toward evening it commenced to snow, which, mingled with hail, continued to fall all night and part of the next day. We arrived at the Grove just after dark.
Council Grove is about one hundred and fifty miles west of Independence, and is situated upon the west branch of the Neosho River. At that time it contained some half dozen log cabins and a trading-house, and is the station of the agent for the Caw Indians. Many of the tribe were then there, awaiting the distribution of their annuities. They number about a thousand in all, and were among the most miserable set of beings I have ever seen. They are said to have been in a fine condition at one time, but have sadly degenerated from their intercourse with the whites. They are great drunkards, and a bottle of whisky is potent enough to purchase any thing they possess. They seem to have learned all the vices but none of the virtues of the white man. The
The snow was falling fast when we drove up to the Grove, and all felt thankful that we would have a roof to shelter our heads during the night. We took possession of a filthy old cabin, windowless and doorless, and which some of the boys named the "Astor House," in which we ate our supper. As soon as we arrived, the blacksmith was set at work shoeing the mules and mending up the wagons. There was a trip of six hundred miles before us, through a country entirely uninhabited, and it was necessary that every thing should be put in the best possible order. Mr. Withington, the agent for the mail-contractors, treated us in the kindest manner, and while we remained he made our stay as pleasant as possible. We spent the evening around his cheerful hearth, and when bedtime arrived he furnished our party with all the beds he had to spare. The next morning Mrs. W. prepared us a warm breakfast, of which we partook with thankfulness. Just before we arrived, a man belonging to a party on their way from New Mexico came in to the Grove in almost a starving condition, who gave information of the peril of his companions, and desired that food might be sent out to them. Their provisions had given out three days before, when they sent forward the strongest of their number to seek relief. A supply of food was immediately dispatched to them, without which timely aid they would undoubtedly have perished in the severe storm then prevailing.
Sunday morning at Council Grove was occupied by the conductor and his men in making such alterations and improvement in the team as the nature of the trip before us seemed to require. Some of the mules we had driven to this point were exchanged for better ones, the former being left behind for the incoming mail to drive in to Independence. It was a stormy and unpropitious day. It had snowed all the night before, and toward noon it commenced to rain, which gradually increased as the day wore away, and the weather became colder. We were all disposed to wait there until there was a favorable change in the weather; but as the mail had to be carried through in a given number of days, and we would be likely to meet with some detention on the road at this season of the year, there was no time to be lost at this end of the route. We therefore hastened our departure, and, every thing being in readiness, we started from the Grove between one and two o'clock that afternoon. We drove seven miles, when we encamped for the night at a place called Elm Creek. We had intended making another drive before we slept, but as it was nearly dark when we reached this point, and the storm continuing with much severity, we concluded to remain until morning. The prospect for supper and a comfortable night was dreary enough. We gathered brush along the creek, and made a fire, and were thus enabled to cook a little food; but it rained in torrents while we ate, and we were all thoroughly drenched. After supper we sent out a wood-party to cut a supply of fuel for the night, who returned in a little while dragging after them a good-sized cottonwood-tree they had felled. This was cut up and piled upon the fire, and soon we had a large blaze, around which we huddled to warm our chilled
To sleep comfortably upon the ground such a night as this required more than ordinary management, and called into requisition all our ingenuity. The balance of the party slept in the wagons, but I preferred lying out to being cramped up among the baggage and mailbags, and accordingly made my bed under one of the wagons. I wrapped myself up in a buffalo robe and blankets, and, with as much resignation as possible, laid me down to sleep. I discovered, when too late to remedy the difficulty, that I was reposing in a little hollow, and soon became aware that the water was running toward me; but there was hardly a choice left, and I must either run the risk of being drenched there, or go elsewhere with every prospect of doing worse. I therefore determined to stand my ground and take the chances. In the course of time I fell asleep, and while in troubled dreams about Noah and the ark, I awoke to find a considerable pool of water by my side. It now required straight and steady lying to keep out of the water, but this I managed to do, and again passed into the land of dreams. In the course of the night I awoke a second time, and found the condition of things much worse; the water had collected in the hollow in which I was lying, and I was wet to the skin. This seemed like a determination to drive me out, but I resolved not to beat a retreat so long as I could keep the head above water; but all sleep was at an end, and I spent the balance of the night in moody reflection.
The morning at last dawned, rainy and unpleasant. We drove eight miles to Diamond Spring to breakfast. The rain came down in torrents while we were around the fire eating, and all were obliged to seek shelter in the
We encamped for noon and dined at Cow Creek. Here I received my first alarm from the Indians. Seeing a small herd of buffaloes feeding up the creek, Rodman, Ash, and myself started off in pursuit, two being armed with rifles, and the third with a small six-shooter. We followed them some distance from the camp, but finding they were moving off without a prospect of being able to overtake them, we concluded to return. We were on the point of retracing our steps, when one of the party cried out, ‘‘Look at the Indians!’’ and, turning to the north, we espied three mounted warriors, just out of rifle-shot, standing upon a roll of the prairie. The cry
In crossing Coon Creek the following day we met with an accident that came nigh putting some of us hors du combat for the rest of the trip. The wagon in which four of us were riding had been given into the care of the Mexican a little while before, and, as he was not much skilled in driving, the mules ran away with us. They plunged at full speed down the steep bank into the creek; and the wagon body, with its human load, was thrown off the running gears, and landed at least ten feet distant in the dry bed of the stream. The concussion seemed like a young earthquake. People may talk about seeing stars upon such occasions, but, as near as my recollection serves me, I had the pleasure of beholding a score or more of full-sized moons. I was pitched out of
At this time our road lay across what is known as the Dry Route, where for the distance of thirty miles there is no water. We last filled our kegs at the Pawnee Fork, which supplied us with water to drink, but we had none to cook with, and the mules were obliged to thirst until we reached the Arkansas. We made our last meal at Coon Creek, the scene of our disaster, where we cooked with buffalo chips in place of wood, of which latter there was none to be had. They burn with a bright warm flame, much the same as Irish peat. We passed through immense herds of buffaloes all day, but did not stop to kill any of them, being anxious to reach the river as soon as possible, as the mules had not been watered for twenty-four hours. Soon after dark we saw a fire ahead, which we supposed was the camp of a party of Indians, but when we drew near we found it to be the down mail from Santa Fé, a single wagon in charge of
Soon after we arrived at the camp of the down mail a large herd of buffaloes came toward us on their way to water. We could hear them some distance by the rumbling noise they made, and when they appeared in view they resembled a great black cloud moving close to the earth. Two of us sallied out, rifle in hand, hoping to be able to bag one of them, and laid ourselves down in a ravine near which we knew they must pass. They came slowly toward us in a great moving mass, fairly making the earth tremble with their tread, and the leader now and then stopping to snuff the air, as if apprehensive of danger. They were almost within rifle-shot, when they became alarmed at a noise in our camp, and turned and scampered off as rapidly as possible. This evening the wolves came around us in great numbers, and kept up a most dismal howling the while. They and the buffalo are sworn enemies, and have many fierce encounters. They chase the herds in droves and singly until they run some one of them down, which they hamstring, and afterward dispatch at pleasure. The oldest bulls sometimes fall a prey to them in this manner, and the bones of their victims lie scattered over the Plains. When the cows are attacked, the bulls, like gallant fellows, come to their rescue; and they farther exhibit their devotion to the gentler sex by forming a ring around them in time of a storm to shelter them as much as possible from its severity.
We resumed the drive at half past eleven o'clock at night, with twelve miles before us to the Arkansas, the first point at which we could reach water. The night was dark as pitch, and before we had driven a mile the mules refused to go faster than a walk through sheer fatigue,
We did not leave camp until ten o'clock the next day, and then continued our journey up the east bank of the Arkansas. The river here is not more than three hundred yards wide, with low banks, and filled with numerous beds of sand. The water is very shallow, clear, and pleasant to the taste, but in regard to navigation there is no hope of its ever being able to bear upon its bosom
We forded the river the next morning opposite our camp-ground, and stopped on the other side for breakfast. There were herds of buffaloes and antelopes grazing near, but we did not succeed in killing any of them. A large number of the former came down to the river to cross over about the time we encamped, but, becoming alarmed at our presence, they scampered off to the sand-hills, and a few only succeeded in getting across. The antelope is a most beautiful and graceful little animal, and,
We left camp at ten, and resumed our journey after filling our water-kegs and jugs from the river. For about four miles the road gradually ascends among the low sand-hills, when we strike the Jornada, a stretch of nearly fifty miles of dead level, without a tree, or bush, or hill to break the evenness of the surface, and covered with buffalo-grass. We dined near the spot where Colonel Cook disarmed the Texans a few years ago, which one of the passengers christened the Jornada Hotel. We made a night-drive of twenty-five miles, and encamped upon the open plains. The next morning we drove to Sand Creek for breakfast, completing the passage of the Jornada in fifteen driving hours.
To day our friend the padre complained of being mui enfermo in his cabeza, which means, in plain English, that the poor fellow had the head-ache. As a traveling companion we found him much more agreeable than many who understand our language and manners better. He greatly improved upon acquaintance, and his good qualities, which were gradually developed, more than overbalanced his eccentricities; and in all things we left a wide margin, because he was a stranger in a strange land. He was generous to a fault, and appeared to have in his heart an abundance of that desirable fluid the world calls the milk of human kindness. He was a man of learning and extensive travel, having been five years a missionary in the Holy Land, and had passed much time among the Arabs, whose language he spoke with fluency. Though he and I were far asunder in matters
1. Name of stage-proprietor from Saint Louis to Independence, Missouri.
2. Mr. W. M'Coy, one of the Santa Fé mail-contractors.
3. A small stream that empties into the Missouri below Jefferson City.