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


VI.
ON THE PLAINS.

Station 9, Pike’s Peak Express Co., }
Pipe creek,
May 28, 1859. }

I was detained at Manhattan nearly a day longer than I had expected to be by high water. Wildcat, five miles west, and Rock Creek, seventeen miles east, were both impassable on Thursday, so that an express-wagon from Pike’s Peak was stopped behind the former, while five mail-coaches and express-wagons faced each other through part of Thursday and all of Thursday night across the latter. Next morning, however, each stream had run out, so that they could be forded, and at one p. m. I took my seat in the Pike’s Peak express, and again moved westward.

Our way was still along the United States military road. crossing Wildcat, now a reasonable stream, and winding for some miles over-rugged, thin-soiled limestone hills, then striking down south-westward into the prairie bottom of the Kansas, which is as rich as land need be. A few miles of this brought us to Ogden, a land-office city of thirty or forty houses, some of them well built of stone. Just beyond this begins the Fort Riley reservation, a beautiful tract of prairie and timber stretching for four or five miles along the northern bank of the Kansas, and including the sad remains of Pawnee City, at which Gov. Reeder summoned the first (bogus) legislature of Kansas to meet—then fifty to one hundred miles westward of anywhere. They obeyed the summons, but forthwith adjourned to Shawnee Mission, a pro-slavery stronghold on the Missouri border. Pawnee City is now of the things that were.

Fort Riley is a position which does credit to the taste of whoever selected it. It is on high, rolling prairie, with the Kansas on the south, the Republican on the west, heavy limestone bluffs on the north, and the best timber in middle or western Kansas all around. The barracks are comfortable, the hospital large and well placed, the officers’ quarters spacious and elegant, and the stables most extensive and admirable. I hear that two millions of Uncle Sam’s money have been expended in making these snug arrangements, and that the oats largely consumed here have often cost three dollars per bushel. I have seen nothing else at all comparable to this in the way of preparations for passing life agreeably since I left the Missouri.

We here crossed by a rope ferry the Republican or northern fork of the Kansas, which, like the Big Blue, twenty-five miles back, seems nearly as large as the Kansas at its mouth, though the Smoky Hill, or southern fork at this point, is said to be the largest of the three. We met at the ferry a number of families, with a large herd of cattle, migrating from south-western Missouri to California, and crossing here to take the road up the right bank of the Republican to Fort Kearney and so to Laramie. They had exhausted their patience in trying to swim their cattle, and would hardly be able to get them all ferried over till next day. All day, as on preceding days, we had been meeting ox-wagons loaded with disheartened Pike’s Peakers, returning to their homes, but some of them going down into southern Kansas in search of “claims.” Most of those we interrogated said they had been out as far as Fort Kearney (some two hundred miles further, I believe), before they were turned back by assurances that Pike’s Peak is a humbug.

Across the Republican, between it and the Smoky Hill, is Junction City, as yet the most western village in Kansas, save that another has been started some fifty miles up the Smoky Hill. We stopped here for the night, and I talked republicanism in the church for an hour or so. Junction has a store, two hotels, and some thirty or forty dwellings, one of which is distinguished for its age, having been erected so long ago as 1858. A patriotic Junctioner excused his city for not possessing something which I inquired for, but which its rival, Manhattan, was supposed to have; “for said he, “Manhattan is three years old.” As Junction is hardly a year old yet, the relative antiquity of Manhattan, and the responsibilities therein involved, were indisputable. Junction is the center of a fine agricultural region, though timber is not so abundant here as I wish it were. This region is being rapidly shingled with “claims;” I hope it is likewise to be filled with settlers-though that does not always follow. Our landlord (a German) had tried California; then Texas; and now he is trying Kansas, which seems to agree with him.

We started again at six this morning, making a little north of west, and keeping the narrow belts of timber along the Republican and the Smoky Hill respectively in full view for several miles on either side, until the streams diverged so far that we lost them in the boundless sea of grass. A mile or two of progress carried us beyond any road but that traced only this spring for the Pike’s Peak expresses; for ten miles onward, no house, no, field, no sign of human agency, this road and a few United States surveyors’ stakes excepted, was visible; at length we came to where a wretched cabin and an acre or so of broken and fenced prairie showed what a pioneer had been doing through the last two or three years, and beside it was a tavern—the last, I presume, this side of Pike’s Peak. It consisted of a crotched stake which, with the squatter’s fence aforesaid, supported a ridge-pole, across which some old sail-cloth was drawn, hanging down on either side, and forming a cabin some six by eight feet, and perhaps from three to five and a half feet high—large enough to contain two whisky-barrels, two decanters, several glasses, three or four cans of pickled oysters and two or three boxes of sardines, but nothing of the bread kind whatever. The hotel-keeper probably understood his business better than we did, and had declined to dissipate his evidently moderate capital by investing any part of it in articles not of prime necessity. Our wants being peculiar, we could not trade with him, but, after an interchange of courtesies, passed on.

Two miles further, we crossed, by a bad and difficult ford, “Chapman’s Creek,” running south to the Smoky Hill, bordered by a thin streak of timber, and meandering through a liberal valley of gloriously rich prairie. Here we passed the last settler on our road to Pike’s Peak. He has been here two or three years; has seventy-five acres fenced and broken, grew three thousand bushels of corn last year, has a fine stock of horses and cattle about him, with at least eight tow-headed children under ten years old. His house, judged superficially, would be dear at fifty dollars, but I think he neither needs nor wishes to be pitied.

Our road bore hence north of west, up the left bank of Chapman’s Creek, on which, twenty-three miles from Junction, we halted at “Station 8,” at 11 a. m., to change mules and dine. (This station should be five miles further on, and three or four miles further south, but cannot be for want of wood and water.) There is, of course, no house here, but two small tents and a brush arbor furnish accommodations for six to fifteen persons, as the case may be. A score of mules are picketed about on the rich grass; there is a rail-pen for the two cows; of our landlady’s two sun-browned children (girls of ten and six respectively) one was born in Missouri, the other at Laramie. I was told that their father was killed by Indians, and that the station-keeper is her second husband. She gave us an excellent dinner of bacon and greens, good bread, apple-sauce and pie, and would have given us butter had we passed a few days later; but her cows, just arrived. have been over-driven, and need a few days rest and generous feeding. The water was too muddy—the prejudices of education would not permit me to drink it—the spring being submerged by the high water of the brook, which was the only remaining resource. She apologized for making us eat in her narrow tent rather than under her brush arbor, saying that the last time she set the table there the high prairie-wind made a clean sweep of tablecloth and all upon it, breaking several of her not abundant dishes. I have rarely made a better dinner, though the violent rain of the second previous night came nigh drowning out the whole concern.

We were in the wagon again a few minutes before noon (the hours kept on the Plains are good). for we had thirty-five miles yet to make to-day, which, with a mule team require a long afternoon. True, the roads are harder here, less cut up, less muddy, than in Eastern Kansas; but few men think how much up and down is saved them in traveling over a civilized region by bridges and causeways over water-courses. We still kept north of west for several miles, so as to cling to the high “divide” between Chapman’s Creek and Solomon’s Fork (another tributary of the Smoky Hill) so far as possible. Soon we saw our first antelope, and, in the course of the afternoon, five others; but not one of them seemed to place a proper estimate on the value of our society. Two of them started up so near us as to be for a moment within possible rifle-shot; but they widened the gap between us directly. We crossed many old buffalo-trails and buffalo-heads nearly reduced to the skeleton, but no signs that buffalo have been so far east this season. Two or three of the larger water-courses we crossed had here and there a cotton-wood or stunted elm on its banks, but the general dearth of timber is fearful, and in a dry season there can be little or no water on this long thirty-five miles. But it must be considered that our route avoids the streams, and of course the timber, to the utmost. The creek on which we are encamped (a branch of Solomon’s) is now a fair mill-stream, but in a dry time might doubtless be run through a nine-inch ring. It has considerable wood on its banks-say a belt averaging ten rods in width.

Twenty miles back, the rock suddenly changed entirely from the universal limestone of Kansas, east of Chapman’s Creek to a decaying red sandstone; the soil hence becomes sandy and much thinner; the grass is also less luxuriant, though in some places still good. For acres, especially on the higher ridges, there is little or no soil; rock in place or slightly disturbed nearly covering the surface. Through all this region, the furious rains, rushing off in torrents without obstruction, have worn wide and devious water-courses, but they are neither deep enough nor permanently wet enough to shelter timber. I reckon “claims” will not be greedily hunted nor bought at exorbitant prices hereabouts for some years yet.

Our hostess for the night has two small tents, as at No. 8, and gave us a capital supper, butter included; but she and her two children alike testify that, in one of the drenching thunder-storms so frequent of late, they might nearly as well have been out on the prairie, and that sleeping under such a visitation is an art only to be acquired by degrees. They have a log-cabin going up, I am happy to say. Their tents were first located on the narrow bottom of the creek; but a rapidly rising flood compelled them, a few nights since, to scramble out, and move them to a higher bench of prairie. It would have been pitiful to have been turned out so, only the shelter they were enjoying was good for nothing.

I believe I have now descended the ladder of artificial life nearly to its lowest round. If the Cheyennes—thirty of whom stopped the last express down on the route we must traverse, and tried to beg or steal from it—shall see fit to capture and strip us, we shall probably have further experience in the same line; but for the present the progress I have made during the last fortnight toward the primitive simplicity of human existence may be roughly noted thus:

May 12th.—Chicago.—Chocolate and morning newspapers last seen on the breakfast-table.

23d.—Leavenworth.—Room-bells and baths make their final appearance.

24th.—Topeka.—Beef-steak and wash-bowls (other than tin) last visible. Barber ditto.

26th.—Manhattan.—Potatoes and eggs last recognized among the blessings that “brighten as they take their flight.” bchairs ditto.

27th.—Junction City.—Last visitation of a boot-black, with dissolving views of a board bedroom. Beds bid us good-by.

28th.—Pipe Creek.—Benches for seats at meals have disappeared, giving place to bags and boxes. We (two passengers of a scribbling turn) write our letters in the express-wagon that has borne us by day, and must supply us lodgings for the night. Thunder and lightning from both south and west give strong promise of a shower before morning. Dubious looks at several holes in the canvas covering of the wagon. Our trust, under Providence, is in buoyant hearts and an India-rubber blanket. Good-night.


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