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


XII.
THE PLAINS —THE MOUNTAINS.

Denver, June 15, 1859.

I know far greater contrasts than that between the region which stretches hundreds of miles eastward from this spot toward the Missouri, and is known as The Plains, and that which overlooks us on the west, and, alike by its abrupt and sharp-ridged foot-hills seeming just at hand, and its glittering peaks of snow in the blue distance, vindicates its current designation, The Mountains. Let me elucidate:

The plains are nearly destitute of human inhabitants. Aside from the buffalo-range—which has been steadily narrowing ever since Daniel Boone made his home in Kentucky, and is now hardly two hundred miles wide —it affords little sustenance and less shelter to man. The antelope are seldom seen in herds—three is the highest number I observed together, while one, or at most two, is a more common spectacle. One to each mile square would be a large estimate for all that exist on the plains. Elk are scarcely seen at all, even where they have hardly ever been hunted or scared. Of deer, there are none, or next to none. For the plains are the favorite haunt of beasts and birds of prey—of the ravenous and fearless gray-wolf, of the cayote, the raven, and the hawk—the first hanging on the flanks of evely great herd of buffalo, ready to waylay any foolish calf or heedless heifer that may chance to stray for water or fresher grass beyond the protection of the hard-headed and chivalrous patriarchs, behind whose vigilant ranks there is comparative safety, and counting as their property any bull, even, whom wounds or disease or decrepitude shall compel to fall behind in the perpetual march. For, while a stray buffalo, or two, or three, may linger in some lonely valley for months—for all winter, perhaps—the great herds which blacken the earth for miles in extent cannot afford to do so—they are so immensely numerous and find their safety in traveling so compactly that they must keep moving or starve. Avoiding, so far as possible, the wooded ravines of the slender water-courses, where experience has taught them to dread the lance-like arrow of the lurking Indian, they keep to the high “divides,” or only feed in the valleys while they have these well covered by sentinel luills to give warning of any foe’s approach. Take away the buffalo, and the plains will be desolate far beyond their present desolation; and I cannot but regard with sadness the inevitable and not distant fate of these noble and harmless brutes, already crowded into a breadth of country too narrow for them, and continually hunted, slaughtered, decimated, by the wolf, the Indian, the white man. They could have stood their ground against all in the absence of fire-arms, but “villainous salpeter” is too much for them. They are bound to perish; I trust it may be oftener by sudden shot than by slow starvation.

Wood and water—the prime necessities of the traveler as of the settler—are in adequate though not abundant supply for a hundred miles and more on this as they are throughout on the other side of the buffalo-range; at length they gradually fail, and we are in a desert indeed. No spring, no brook, for a distance of thirty to sixty miles (which would be stretched to more than a hundred* [* Since writing the above, I learn by a newly arrived Pike’s Peaker that the waterless stretch of desert is already a hundred miles long, and that every day’s sun is extending it.] if the few tracks called roads were not all run so as to secure water so far as possible)—rivers which have each had fifty to a hundred miles of its course gradually parched up by force of sun and wind, and its waters lost in their own sands, so that the weary, dusty traveler vainly digs for hours in their dry beds in quest of drink for his thirsty cattle-rivers which dare not rise again till some friendly brook, having its source in some specially favored region, pours in its small but steady tribute, moistens the sands of the river-bed, and encourages its waters to rise to the surface again. In one case, an emigrant assures me that lie dug down to the bed-rock of one of these rivers, yet found all dry sand.

I know not that I can satisfactorily account, even to myself, for the destitution of wood which the Plains everywhere present, especially the western half of them. The poverty of the soil will not suffice, for these lands, when sufficiently moistened by rain or thawing snow-drifts, produce grass, and are not so sterile as the rocky hills, the pebbly knolls, of New England, which, nevertheless, produce wood rapidly and abundantly. On the Prairies of Illinois, Missouri, and eastern Kansas, the absence of wood is readily accounted for by the annual fires which, in autumn or spring, sweep over nearly every acre of dead grass, killing every tree-sprout that may have started up from scattered seeds or roots running from the timber in the adjacent ravine beneath the matted grass. But here are thousands of acres too poorly grassed to be swept by the annual fires—on which the thinly scattered reed-stalks and bunch-grass of last year shake dryly in the fierce night-winds—yet not a tree nor shrub relieves the tameness, the bareness, the desolation, of thousands after thousands of acres—not a twig, a scion, gives promise of trees that are to be. For a time, the narrow ravine or lowest intervale of the frequent streams were fairly timbered with cotton-wood, and low, sprawling elm, with a very little oak, or white-ash at long intervals intermixed; but these grew gradually thinner and feebler until nothing but a few small cotton-woods remained, and these skulking behind bluffs, or in sheltered hollows at intervals of twenty to forty miles. Once in ten or twenty miles, a bunch of dwarf willows, perhaps two feet high, would be found cowering in some petty basin washed out by a current of water many years ago; but these, like the cotton-woods, are happy if able to hold their own; indeed, I have seen much evidence that wood was more abundant on the Plains a hundred years ago than it now is. Dead cotton-woods, of generous proportions, lie in the channels of dry brooks on which no tree nor shrub now grows; and, at one or more stations of the express-company, near the sink of the Republican, they find dead pine eight miles up a creek, where no living pine has been seen for generations. I judge that the desert is steadily enlarging its borders and at the same time intensifying its barrenness.

The fierce drouth that usually prevails throughout the summer, doubtless contributes to this, but I think the violent and all but constant winds exert a still more disastrous potency. High winds are of frequent, all but daily, occurrence here, within a dozen miles of the great protecting bulwark of the Rocky Mountains; while, from a point fifty miles eastward of this, they sweep over the Plains almost constantly, and at times with resistless fury. A driver stated on our way up, with every appearance of sincerity, that he had known instances of tires being blown off from wagon-wheels by the tornados of the Plains; and, hard to swallow as that may seem, I have other and reliable assurance that, when the Missourians’ camp, on the express-road, was swept by a hurricane, five or six weeks ago, so that, after the wreck, but three decent wagons could be patched up out of their six, as I have already narrated, one of the wheel-tires was found not only blown off but nearly straightened out! There is almost always a good breeze at mid-day and after, on the Plains; but, should none be felt during the day, one is almost certain to spring up at sunset, and blow fiercely through the night. Thus, though hot days, or parts of days, are frequent on the Plains. I have experienced not even a moderately warm night. And thus trees are not; mainly because the winds uproot or dismember them, or so rock and wrench then while young, that their roots cannot suck up even the little nourishment that this soil of baking clay resting on porous sand would fain afford them. Thus the few shoots that cleave the surface of the earth soon wither and die, and the broad landscape remains treeless, cheerless, forbidding.

But the dearth of water and wood on the plains is paralleled by the poverty of shrubbery and herbage. I have not seen a strawberry-leaf—far from me be the presumption of looking for a berry! —since I left the Missouri three weeks ago; and the last blackberry bramble I observed grew on Chapman’s Creek—at all events, the other side of the buffalo-range. A raspberry-cane has not blessed my sight these three weary weeks, nor aught else that might be hoped to bear an old-fashioned fruit, save the far-off blackberries aforesaid, and two or three doubtful grape-vines on some creek a great way back. The prickly pear, very rare and very green, is the only semblance of fruit I discovered on the plains; a dwarfish cactus, with its leaves close to the ground; the Spanish nettle—a sort of vegetable porcupine—a profusion of wild sage, wild wormwood, and other such plants, worthless alike to man and beast, relieved by some well-gnawed grass in the richer valleys of winter water-courses (the flora usually very scanty and always coarse and poor)—such are my recollections of the three hundred miles or so that separate the present buffalo-range from the creeks that carry snow-water to the Platte and the pines that herald our approach to the Rocky Mountains.

THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS.

And now all changes, but slowly, gradually. The cactus, the Spanish nettle, the prickly pear continue, even into and upon the mountains; but the pines, though stunted and at first scattered, give variety, softness and beauty to the landscape, which becomes more rolling, with deeper and more frequent valleys, and water in nearly all of them; the cotton-woods along the streams no longer skulk behind bluffs or hide in casual hollows; you may build an honest camp-fire without fear of robbing an embryo county of its last stick of wood, and water your mules generously without drying up some long, pretentious river, and condemning those who come after you to weary, thirsty marches through night and day. The cotton-woods, as you near the wind-quelling range of protecting heights, which rise, rank above rank, to the westward, (the more distant still white-robed with snow) grow large and stately—some of them sixty to seventy feet high, and at least three feet in diameter; the unwooded soil ceases to be desert and becomes prairie once more; but still this is in the main a sandy, thinly grassed region, which cannot compare with the prairies of Illinois, of Iowa, or eastern Kansas.

There seems to be as rich and deep soil in some of the creek-bottoms, especially those of the South Platte, as almost anywhere; and yet I fear the husbandman is doomed to find even this belt of grassed and moderately rolling land, which stretches along the foot of the Mountains to a width of perhaps twenty miles, less tractable and productive than fertile. It lies at such an elevation —from five thousand to six thousand feet above the ocean level—that, though its winters are said to be moderate, its springs cannot be early. There was a fall of a foot of snow in this region on the 26th of May, when ice formed to a quarter-inch thickness on the Plains; and when summer suddenly sets in, about the 1st of June, there are hot suns by day, and cool, strong winds by night, with a surfeit of petty thunder squalls, but little or no rain. The gentle rain of last Thursday in the mountains fell, for a short time, in sheets just at their feet—say for a breadth of five miles—and there ceased. Hardly a drop fell within five miles west, or for any distance east of this place, though the earth was soaked only ten miles further west. Hence, the enterprizing few who have commenced farms and gardens near this point, tell me that their crops have made no progress for a week or two, and can make none till they have rain. I trust wheat and rye will do well here whenever they shall be allowed a fair chance; barley and oats, if sowed very early on deeply-plowed land, may do tolerably; but corn, though it comes up well and looks rank at present, will hardly ripen before frost, even should it escape paralysis by drouth; while potatoes, peas, and most vegetables will probably require irrigation, or yield but sparingly. Yet, should the gold mines justify their present promise, farming, in the right localities at the base of these mountains, even by the help of irrigation, will yield—to those who bring to it the requisite sagacity, knowledge, and capital—richer rewards than elsewhere on earth. Everything that can be grown here will command treble or quadruple prices for years; and he who produces anything calculated to diversity and improve the gross, mountainous diet of salt pork, hot bread, beans, and coffee, now necessarily all but universal in this region, will be justly entitled to rank with public benefactors.

And the Rocky Mountains, with their grand, aromatic forests, their grassy glades, their frequent springs, and dancing, streams of the brightest, sweetest water, their pure, elastic atmosphere, and their unequalled game and fish, are destined to be a favorite resort and home of civilized man. I never visited a region where physical life could be more surely prolonged or fully enjoyed. Thousands who rush hither for gold will rush away again disappointed and disgusted, as thousands have already done; and yet the gold is in these mountains, and the right men will gradually unearth it. I shall be mistaken if two or three millions are not taken out this year, and some ten millions in 1860, though all the time there will be, as now, a stream of rash adventurers heading away from the diggings, declaring that there is no gold there, or next to none. So it was in California and in Australia; so it must be here, where the obstacles to be overcome are greater, and the facilities for getting home decidedly better. All men are not fitted by nature for gold-diggers; yet thousands will not realize this until they have been convinced of it by sore experience. Any good phrenologist should have been able to tell half the people who rushed hither so madly during the last two months that, if these mountains had been half made of gold, they never would get any of it except by minding their own proper business, which was quite other than mining. And still the long procession is crossing the Platte and Clear Creek, and pressing up the “Hill Difficulty” in mad pursuit of gold, whereof not one fifth will carry back to the states so much as they brought away. New leads will doubtless be discovered, new veins be opened, new “diggings” or districts become the rage—for it were absurd to suppose that little ravine known as Gregory’s, running to Clear Creek, the sole depository of gold worth workling in all this region—and in time the Rocky Mountains will swarm with a hardy, industrious, energetic white population. Not gold alone, but lead, iron, and (I think) silver or cobalt, have already been diseovered here, and other valuable minerals, doubtless will be, as the mountains are more thoroughly explored—for as yet they have not been even run over. Those who are now intent on the immediate organization and admission of a new state may be too fast, yet I believe the Rocky Mountains, and their immediate vicinity—say between Fort Laramie on the north, and Taos on the south—will within three years have a white population of one hundred thousand, one half composed of men in the full vigor of their prime, separated by deserts and waste places from the present states—obliged to rely on their own resources in any emergency, and fully able to protect and govern themselves. Why not let them be a state so soon as reasonably may be.

Mining is a pursuit akin to fishing, and hunting, and, like them, enriches the few at the cost of the many. This region is doubtless foreordained to many changes of fortune; to-day, giddy with the intoxication of success—to-morrow, in the valley of humiliation. One day, report will be made on the Missouri by a party of disappointed gold-seekers, that the “Pike’s Peak humbug” has exploded, and that every body is fleeing to the states who can possibly get away; the next report will represent these diggings as yellow with gold. Neither will be true, yet each in its turn will have a certain thin substratum of fact for its justification. Each season will see its thousands turn away disappointed, only to give place to other thousands, sanguine and eager as if none had ever failed. Yet I feel a strong conviction that each succeeding month’s researches will enlarge the field of mining operations, and diminish the difficulties and impediments which now stretch across the gold-seeker’s path, and that, ten years hence, we shall be just beginning fairly to appreciate and secure the treasures now buried in the Rocky Mountains.


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