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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


IX.
THE AMERICAN DESERT.

Station 18, P. P. Express Co., June 2.

The clouds, which threatened rain at the station on Prairie-Dog Creek, whence I wrote two days ago, were dissipated by a violent gale, which threatened to overturn the heavy wagon in which my fellow-passengers and I were courting sleep—had it stood broadside to the wind, it must have gone over. It is customary, I learn, to stake down the wagons encamped on the open prairie; in the valleys of the creeks, where the company’s stations are located, this precaution is deemed superfluous. But the winds which sweep the high prairies of this region are terrible; and the few trees that grow thinly along the creek-bottoms rarely venture to raise their heads above the adjacent bluffs, to which they owe their doubtful hold on existence.

For more than a hundred miles back, the soil has been steadily degenerating, until here, where we strike the Republican, which has been far to the north of us since we left it at Fort Riley, three hundred miles back, we seem to have reached the acme of barrenness and desolation. We left this morning, Station 17, on a little creek entitled Gouler, at least thirty miles back, and did not see a tree and but one bunch of low shrubs in a dry water-course throughout our dreary morning ride, till we came in sight of the Republican, which has a little—a very little —scrubby cotton-wood nested in and along its bluffs just here; but there is none beside for miles, save a little lurking in a ravine which makes down to the river from the north. Of grass there is little, and that little of miserable quality—either a scanty furze or coarse alkaline sort of rush, less fit for food than physic. Soil there is none but an inch or so of intermittent grass-root tangle, based on what usually seems to be a thin stratum of clay, often washed off so as to leave nothing but a slightly argillaceous sand. Along the larger water-courses—this one especially—this sand seems to be as pure as Sahara can boast.

The dearth of water is fearful. Although the whole region is deeply seamed and gullied by water-courses—now dry, but in rainy weather mill-streams—no springs burst from their steep sides. We have not passed a drop of living water in all our morning’s ride, and but a few pailfuls of muddy moisture at the bottoms of a very few of the fast-drying sloughs or sunken holes in the beds of dried-up creeks. Yet there has been much rain here this season, some of it not long ago. But this is a region of sterility and thirst. If utterly unfed, the grass of a season would hardly suffice, when dry, to nourish a prairie-fire.

Even the animals have deserted us. No buffalo have been seen this year within many miles of us, though their old paths lead occasionally across this country; I presume they pass rapidly through it, as I should urgently advise them to do; not a gray-wolf has honored us with his company to-day—lihe prefers to live where there is something to eat—the prairie-dog also wisely shuns this land of starvation; no animal but the gopher (a little creature, between a mouse and a ground-squirrel) abounds here; and he burrows deep in the sand and picks up a living, I cannot guess how; while a few hawks and an occasional prairie-wolf (cayota) lives by picking here and there a gopher. They must find him disgustingly lean.

I would match this station and its surroundings against any other scene on our continent for desolation. From the high prairie over which we approach it, you overlook a grand sweep of treeless desert, through the middle of which flows the Republican, usually in several shallow streams separated by sandbars or islets—its whole volume being far less than that of the Mohawk at Utica, though it has drained above this point an area equal to that of Connecticut. Of the few scrubby cotton-woods lately cowering under the bluffs at this point, most have been cut for the uses of the station, though logs for its embryo house are drawn from a little clump, eight miles distant. A broad bed of sand indicates that the volume of water is sometimes a hundred-fold its present amount, though it will doubtless soon be far less than it now is. Its average depth cannot now exceed six inches. On every hand, and for many miles above and below, the country above the bluffs is such as we have passed over this morning. A dead mule—bitten in the jaw this morning by a rattlesnake—lies here as if to complete the scene. Off the five weeks old track to Pike’s Peak, all is dreary solitude and silence.

Speaking of rattlesnakes—I hasten to retract the skepticism avowed in a former letter as to the usual and welcome residence of these venomous serpents in the prairie-dog’s burrow. The evidence of the fact is too direct and reliable to be gainsayed. A credible witness testifies that he and others once undertook to drown out a prairie-dog in his domicil, and, when sufficient water had been rapidly poured in, out came a prairie-dog, an owl, and a rattlesnake all together. In another case, a tremendous rain raised a creek so that it suddenly overflowed a prairie-dog town, when the general stampede of prairie-dogs, owls, and rattlesnakes was a sight to behold. It is idle to attempt holding out against facts; so I have pondered this anomaly until I think I clearly comprehend it. The case is much like that of some newspaper establishments, whose proprietors, it is said, find it convenient to keep on their staff “a broth of a boy” from Tipperary, standing six feet two in his stockings and measuring a yard or more across the shoulders, who stands ready, with an illegant brogue, a twinkle in his eye, and a hickory sapling firmly grasped in his dexter fist, to respond to all choleric, peremptory customers, who call of a morning, hot with wrath and bristling with cowhide, to demand a parley with the editor. The cayota is a gentleman of an inquiring, investigating turn, who is an adept at excavation, and whose fondness for prairie-dog is more ardent than flattering. To dig one out and digest him would be an easy task, if he were alone in his den, or with only the owl as his partner; but when the firm is known or strongly suspected to be Prairie-Dog, Rattlesnake & Co., the cayota’s passion for subterranean researches is materially cooled. The rattlesnake is to the concern what the fighting editor is to the journalistic organizations aforesaid. And thus, while my faith is enlarged, is my reason satisfied.

A word now on the antelope. I liked him when I first saw him, days ago; I then wished for a better acquaintance, which wish has since been gratified; and since I dined with him (that is, off of him) my esteem has ripened into affection. Of the many antelopes I have seen, I judge a majority considerably larger than the deer of our eastern forests—not so tall nor (perhaps) so long, but heavier in body, while hardly less swift or less graceful in motion. He is the only animal I have seen here that may justly boast of either grace or beauty. His flesh is tender and delicate—the choicest eating I have found in Kansas. Shy and fleet as he is, he is the chief sustenance at this season of the Indians out of the present buffalo range. An old hunter assures me that, with all his timidity, he is easily taken by the knowing. To follow him is absurd; his scent is too keen, his fear too great; but go upon a high prairie, to a knoll or swell whence you can overlook fifteen or twenty square miles; there crouch in a hollow or in the grass, and hoist your handkerchief, or some red, fluttering scarf on a light pole, which you wave gently and patiently in the air; soon the antelope, if there be one within sight, perceives the strange apparition: his curiosity is excited; it masters his caution; he makes toward the strange object, and keeps drawing nearer and nearer till he is within fifteen or twenty rods. The rest requires no instruction.

Station 21, June 3, (evening), 1859.

Since I wrote the foregoing, we have traveled ninety miles up the south branch of the Republican (which forks just above Station 18) and have thus pursued a course somewhat south of west. In all these ninety miles, we have passed just two live streams making in from the south—both together running scarcely water enough to turn a grind-stone. In all these ninety miles, we have not seen wood enough to make a decent pigpen. The bottom of the river is perhaps half a mile in average width; the soil in good part clay and covered with a short, thin grass; the bluffs are naked sand-heaps; the rock, in the rare cases where any is exposed, an odd conglomerate of petrified clay with quartz and some specks that resemble cornelian. Beside this, in some of the bluffs, where clay overlies and is blended, under peculiar circumstances, with the sand below it, a sort of rock seems to be formed or in process of formation. Water is obtained from the apology for a river, or by digging in the sand by its side; in default of wood, corrals (cattle-pens) are formed at the stations by laying up a heavy wall of clayey earth flanked by sods, and thus excavating a deep ditch on the inner side, except at the portal, which is closed at night by running a wagon into it. The tents are sodded at their bases; houses of sods are to be constructed so soon as may be. Such are the shifts of human ingenuity in a country which has probably not a cold of growing wood to each township of land.

Six miles further up, this fork of the Republican emerges from its sandy bed, in which it has been lost for the twenty-five miles next above. Of course, it loses in volume in passing through such a land of drouth. Probably thirty times to-day we have crossed the broad sandy beds of creeks running down from the high prairies—creeks which in winter and early spring are sweeping torrents, but now are wastes of thirsty sand. Thus has it been for ninety miles—thus is it for many miles above and I presume many also below. The road from Leavenworth to Denver had to be taken some fifty miles north of its due course to obtain even such a pas sage through the American Desert; on a direct line from the head of Solomon’s Fork, it must have passed over some two hundred miles of entire absence of wood and water.

I have seen, during the last three or four days, several bands of wild Indians—Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Kioways, Sioux, etc.—mainly the two former. Of these, the Arapahoes have been the most numerous and repulsive. Their children swarmed around us at Station 16—the men being mainly absent on a marauding expedition against the Pawnees—the women staying in their lodges. The young ones are thorough savages—their allowance of clothing averaging six inches square of buffalo-skin to each, but so unequally distributed (as is the case with worldly goods in general) that the majority have a most scanty allowance. A large Cheyenne village is encamped around Station 19, where we stopped last night; and we have been meeting squads of these and other tribes several times a day. The Kioways are camped some eight miles from this spot. They all profess to be friendly, though the Cheyennes have twice stopped and delayed the express-wagons on pretence of claiming payment for the injury done them in cutting wood, eating grass, scaring away game, etc. They would all like to beg, and many of them are deemed not disinclined to steal. We are to pass through several more encampments, but expect no trouble from them. The Cheyennes are better clad, and seem to have more self-respect than the Arapahoes, but they are all low in the scale of intellectual and moral being, and must fade away unless they can be induced to work. More of them hereafter.

The unusual dullness of this letter is partly explained by an accident. Two evenings since, just as we were nearing Station 17, where we were to stop for the night, my fellow-passenger and I had a jocular discussion on the gullies into which we were so frequently plunged, to our personal discomfort. He premised that it was a consolation that the sides of these gullies could not be worse than perpendicular; to which I rejoined with the assertion that they could be and were—for instance, where a gully, in addition to its perpendicular descent had an inclination of forty-five degrees or so to one side of the track. Just then, a violent lurch of the wagon to one side, then to the other, in descending one of these jolts, enforced my position. Two minutes later, as we were about to descend the steep bank of the creek-intervale, the mules acting perversely (being frightened, I tear, by Indians) my friend stepped out to take them by the head, leaving me alone in the wagon. Immediately we began to descend the steep pitch, the driver pulling up with all his might, when the left rein of the leaders broke, and the team was in a moment sheared out of the road and ran diagonally down the pitch. In a second, the wagon went over, hitting the ground a most spiteful blow. I of course went over with it, and when I rose to my feet as soon as possible, considerable bewildered and disheveled, the mules had been disengaged by the upset and were making good time across the prairie, while the driver, considerably hurt, was getting out from under the carriage to limp after them. I had a slight cut on my left cheek and a deep gouge from the sharp corner of a seat in my left leg below the knee, with a pretty smart concussion generally, but not a bone started nor a tendon strained, and I walked away to the station as firmly as ever, leaving the superintendent and my fellow-passenger to pick up the pieces and guard the baggage from the Indians who instantly swarmed about the wreck. I am sore yet, and a little lame, but three or four days’ rest if I can ever get it—will make all right. This is the first and only accident that has happened to the express-line, though it has run out some thirty passage-wagons from Leavenworth, and perhaps half so many back from Denver, over a track where there was no track six weeks ago. And this was the result of a casualty for which neither driver nor company was to blame.

Three days hence, I hope to be at Denver (one hundred and eighty-five miles distant), whence our latest advices are very cheering to the hearts of the legions of faint and weary gold-seekers we have passed on the way. I trust, for their sakes, that this news will prove fully true.


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