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


X.
GOOD BYE TO THE DESERT.

Denver, June 6, 1859.

My last, I believe, was written at Station 20, ninety miles up the Republican from the point at which the Leavenworth Express Company’s road strikes that river in the great American desert. Six miles farther up, the stream disappears in the deep, thirsty sands of its wide bed, and is not seen again for twenty-five miles. Even a mile or two below its point of disappearance, I learn that recent excavations in its bed to a depth of eight feet have failed to reach water. Its rŽappearance below this point is marked, and seems to be caused, by the timely junction of a small tributary from the south, which appears to flow over a less thirsty bed, and pours into the devouring sands of the Republican a small but steady stream, aided by which the river begins to reappear, first in pools, and soon in an insignificant but gradually increasing current. At the head of this “sink,” the stream disappears in like manner to that of its emergence. Here is Station 22, and here are a so-called spring, and one or two considerable pools, not visibly connected with the sinking river, but doubtless sustained by it. And here the thirsty men and teams which have been twenty-five miles without water on the Express Company’s road, are met by those which have come up the longer and more southerly route by the Smoky Hill, and which have traveled sixty miles since they last found water or shade. This is a sore trial for weary, gaunt, heavy-laden cattle, and doubtless proves fatal to many of them. The Pike’s Peakers from the Smoky Hill whom I met here, had driven their ox-teams through the sixty miles at one stretch, the time required being two days and the intervening night. From this point westward, the original Smoky Hill route is abandoned for that we had been traveling, which follows the Republican some twenty-five miles further. Its bed is often dry, or only moistened by little pools exuding from the meagre current which filters slowly through the deep sands below. Where the bed is narrow and the channel under one bank, the petty stream is seen creeping slowly away to the Kansas, the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico. Of course there are seasons when the river runs above-ground throughout, and others when the “sink” is far longer than now.

The face of the country remains as I have already described it, save in the greater scarcity of wood and water. The bluffs are usually low, and the dry creeks which separate them are often wide reaches of heavy sand, most trying to the ill-fed teams. There is little grass on the rolling prairie above the bluffs, and that little generally thin, dead, worthless. Some of the dry-creek valleys have a little that is green but thin, while the river bottom—often half a mile wide—is sometimes tolerably grassed, and sometimes sandy and sterile. Of wood, there is none for stretches of forty or fifty miles: the corrals are made of earth, and consist of a trench and a mud or turf wall; one or two station-houses are to be built of turf if ever built at all; and at one station the fuel is brought sixty miles from the pineries further west. Even the grasses are often coarse and rushy, or so alkaline as to be injurious to cattle; the more common plants seem to be wild sage and wild wormwood. The cactus—which had begun to appear some two hundred miles back—grows common, but is dwarfed by the pervading sterility; the Spanish nettle and prickly pear are abundant further on. But little rock is seen, and that looks like a volcanic conglomerate. Yet the river, such as it is, is the life of this region; the ground-squirrel of the prairies digs his holes profusely in its vicinage; the hawk and the raven circle and swoop in pursuit of him; the antelope often looks down from the ridges, and is hunted with success; the bark of the cayote is heard; the gray-wolf prowls fearless and ferocious, and does not hesitate to rob cows of their young calves in spite of the desperate maternal resistance, and even to attack and disable ponies. The harness of the mules which draw the express-wagons have been often gnawed and injured as they hung up beside the tents, in which half a dozen men were sleeping, by these impudent miscreants. They may easily be shot by any one who will bait and patiently, skillfully hunt them.

A ride over a rolling “divide” of some twenty miles, brought us to the “Big Sandy,” running south-west to become tributary (when it has anything to contribute) to the Arkansas. Like the Republican, it is sometimes a running stream, sometimes a succession of shallow pools, sometimes a waste of deep, scorching sand. A few paltry cotton-woods, a few bunches of low willow, may have graced its banks or those of some dry creek running into it, in the course of the twenty miles or so that we followed up its northern bank, but I do not now remember any. I recollect only that the grass at intervals along its narrow bottoms seemed a little better than on the upper course of the Republican. One peculiarity of the Big Sandy I had not before observed—that of a thin, alkaline incrustation—mainly of soda, I believe—covering many acres of the smoother sands in its dry bed. Hence I infer that the water of its stagnant pools must be prejudicial to man or beast. At length we crossed its deep, trying sand and left it behind us, passing over a high “divide,” much cut up by gullies through which the water of the wet seasons tears its way to the Arkansas on the south or the Platte on the north, until we struck, at five last evening, the first living tributary to the Platte—a little creek called Beaver, which I have not seen on any map. It is about ten miles east of the Bijou, with which it probably unites before reaching the Platte.

After leaving the valley of Big Sandy, the grass of the uplands becomes better, and is no longer confined to the water-courses. It spreads in green luxuriance up the southward slopes of considerable hills, which seems to be owing to vast drifts of snow in winter, swept over and off the tops of hills by the fierce prairie-winds, and piled up here to a height of fifteen or twenty feet, to be slowly dissolved by the warmer suns of the spring months, and thus give rise to an after-growth of grass which contrasts strongly with the surrounding sterility.

At Beaver Creek we saw, for the first time in many weary days—for more than two hundred miles at the least —a clump of low but sturdy cotton-woods, thirty or forty in number—part of them laid low by the devastating axe, but still giving hope that the desert was nearly past. And, six or seven miles further, just as night was falling, we came in sight of pines, giving double assurance that the mountains were at hand. Pike’s Peak in the west—south-west, and Long’s Peak in the west-north-west, (the latter nearly the direction of Denver), had stood revealed to us hours before, by the gleam of their snowy diadems, as the morning sun dispelled the chill mists of the preceding night; but their majesty was a bleak and rugged one; while the pines, though but scattered clumps of the short and scrubby variety known in New-England and the south as pitch-pine, lent a grace and hospitality to the landscape which only the weary and wayworn, who have long traversed parched and shadeless deserts, can appreciate. They grow here mainly in steep ravines, and often show marks of fire which the bareness of the surrounding prairies—sterile as “pine plains” are apt to be—renders to me inexplicable. Possibly, the fires that scorched them were kindled in the leafy carpet spread beneath them by the trees themselves.

This is but the northern outskirt of the pine region, which stretches far south, through Arkansas and beyond, soon thickening into forests and widening to a breadth of some sixty miles. Scattered as it is, I could hardly repress a shout on meeting it. And it was a pleasure to see, last evening, the many parties of way-worn gold-seekers encamped beside our way, after their long journey through a woodless region, surrounding great, ruddy, leaping fires of the dead pitch-wood, and solacing themselves for their long privation by the amplest allowance of blaze and warmth; for the climate of the American desert is terrible. Be the day ever so hot in the sun’s unsoftened glare, the night that follows is sure to be chill and piercing, driving the musketoes and buffalo-gnats to their hiding-places directly after sunset. The fierce prairie-wind searches to the marrow (ice froze a quarter of an inch thick on the Plains on the 26th of May), and a shower at this season is very apt to be accompanied by hail as well as thunder and lightning. I trust our country has no harsher climate, save high among her grandest mountains.

From the Bijou to Cherry Creek—some forty miles—I can say little of the country, save that it is high rolling prairie, deeply cut by several streams, which run north-eastwardly to join the Platte, or one of its tributaries just named. We passed it in the night, hurrying on to reach Denver, and at sunrise this morning stopped to change mules on the bank of Cherry Creek, twelve miles south of this place (which is situated at the junction of the creek with the south fork of the Platte). The “foot hills” of the Rocky Mountains seemed but a few miles west of us during our rapid ride down the smooth valley of the Cherry Creek, which has a fine belt of cotton-wood only, but including trees of immense size—not less than three to four feet in diameter. The soil of the adjacent prairie seems light and sandy, but well grassed, and capable of yielding oats, potatoes, etc.; but the elevation (hardly less than six thousand feet), and the proximity of the Rocky Mountains, whose snow-covered crests, gleaming between and over the “foot hills,” seem hardly twenty miles distant, must ever render the growth of corn difficult, if not absolutely impossible. Wheat, I understand, has been grown fifty to eighty miles south of this, with moderate success. Still, if the adjacent gold mines realize the sanguine expectations now entertained here, this region will require millions on millions’ worth of food from the rich prairies and bottoms of Kansas proper, Nebraska, and Missouri, and we shall need but the Pacific railroad to open up a most beneficent home-trade, and give the rich valley of the Missouri and its immediate tributaries better markets than those of the east.

And I fervently trust that the fond expectations of these gold-seekers, however chastened, may not be disappointed. For the sake of the weary, dusty, foot-sore thousands I have passed on my rapid journey from civilized Kansas to this point, I pray that gold may be found here in boundless extent, and reasonable abundance. Throughout the next six weeks, they will be dropping in here, a hundred or more per day; and I trust that they are not to be sent home disappointed, spirit-broken, penniless. If they must recross the great desert with their slow-moving teams, may they be enabled to do so with lighter hearts and heavier purses.

For the very mothers who bore them would hardly recognize their sons now toiling across the Plains, and straggling into this place, hideously hirsute, recklessly ragged, barefoot, sun-browned, dust-covered, and with eyes shielded (where they have them) by goggles from the glare of the prairie-sun, reflected from the desert clay. A true picture of gold-seekers setting out from home, trim and jolly, for Pike’s Peak, and of those same gold-seekers, sober as judges, and slow-moving as their own weary oxen, dropping into Denver, would convey a salutary lesson to many a sanguine soul. Nay, I have in my mind’s eye an individual who rolled out of Leavenworth, barely thirteen days ago, in a satisfactory rig, and a spirit of adequate self-complacency, but who —though his hardships have been nothing to theirs—dropped into Denver this morning in a sobered and thoughtful frame of mind, in dust-begrimed and tattered habiliments, with a patch on his cheek, a bandage on his leg, and a limp in his gait, altogether constituting a spectacle most rueful to behold. It is likely to be some time yet before our fashionable American spas, and summer resorts for idlers will be located among the Rocky Mountains.

As to gold, Denver is crazy. She has been low in the valley of humiliation, and is suddenly exalted to the summit of glory. The stories of days’ works, and rich leads that have been told me to-day-by grave, intelligent men—are absolutely bewildering. I do not discredit them, but I shall state nothing at second-hand where I may know if I will. I have come here to lay my hand on the naked, indisputable facts, and I mean to do it. Though unfit to travel, I start for the great diggings (fifty miles hence nearly due west in the glens of the Rocky Mountains) to-morrow morning.


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