Townsend's Across the Rockies to the Columbia


CHAPTER II

Departure of the caravan - A storm on the prairie - Arrangement of the camp - The cook's desertion - Kanzas Indians - Kanzas river - Indian lodges - Passage of the river - Buffalo canoes - Kanzas chief - Costume of the Indians - Upper Kaw village - Their wigwams - Catfish and ravens - Return of Mr. Sublette - Pawnee trace - Desertion of three men - Difficulties occasioned by losing the trail - Intelligence of Mr. Sublette's party - Escape of the band of horses - Visit of three Otto Indians - Anecdote of Richardson, the chief hunter - His appearance and character - White wolves and antelopes - Buffalo bones - Sublette's deserted camp - Lurking wolves.

On the 28th of April, at 10 o'clock in the morning, our caravan, consisting of seventy men, and two hundred and fifty horses, began its march; Captain Wyeth and Milton Sublette took the lead, Mr. N. and myself rode beside them; then the men in double file, each leading, with a line, two horses heavily laden, and Captain Thing (Captain W.'s assistant) brought up the rear. The band of missionaries, with their horned cattle, rode along the flanks.

I frequently sallied out from my station to look at and admire the appearance of the cavalcade, and as we rode out from the encampment, our horses prancing, and neighing, and pawing the ground, it was altogether so exciting that I could scarcely contain myself. Every man in the company seemed to feel a portion of the same kind of enthusiasm; uproarious bursts of merriment, and gay and lively songs, were constantly echoing along the line. We were certainly a most merry and happy company. What cared we for the future ? We had reason to expect that ere long difficulties and dangers, in various shapes, would assail us, but no anticipation of reverses could check the happy exuberance of our spirits.

Our road lay over a vast rolling prairie, with occasional small spots of timber at the distance of several miles apart, and this will no doubt be the complexion of the track for some weeks.

In the afternoon we crossed the Big Blue river at a shallow ford. Here we saw a number of beautiful yellow-headed troopials, (Icterus zanthrocephalus,) feeding upon the prairie in company with large flocks of black birds, and like these, they often alight upon the backs of our horses.

29th. A heavy rain fell all the morning, which had the effect of calming our transports in a great measure, and in the afternoon it was succeeded by a tremendous hail storm. During the rain, our party left the road, and proceeded about a hundred yards from it to a range of bushes, near a stream of water, for the purpose of encamping. We had just arrived here, and had not yet dismounted, when the hail storm commenced. It came on very suddenly, and the stones, as large as musket balls, dashing upon our horses, created such a panic among them, that they plunged, and kicked, and many of them threw their loads, and fled wildly over the plain. They were all overtaken, however, and as the storm was not of long duration, they were soon appeased, and staked for the night.

To stake or fasten a horse for the night, he is provided with a strong leathern halter, with an iron ring attached to the chin strap. To this ring, a rope of hemp or plaited leather, twenty-two feet in length, is attached, and the opposite end of the line made fast with several clove hitches around an oak or hickory pin, two and a half feet long. The top of this pin or stake is ringed with iron to prevent its being bruised, and it is then driven to the head in the ground.

For greater security, hobbles made of stout leather are buckled around the fore legs; and then, if the tackling is good, it is almost impossible for a horse to escape. Care is always taken to stake him in a spot where he may eat grass all night. The animals are placed sufficiently far apart to prevent them interfering with each other.

Camping out to-night is not so agreeable as it might be, in consequence of the ground being very wet and muddy, and our blankets (our only bedding) thoroughly soaked; but we expect to encounter greater difficulties than these ere long, and we do not murmur.

A description of the formation of our camp may, perhaps, not be amiss here. The party is divided into messes of eight men, and each mess is allowed a separate tent. The captain of a mess, (who is generally an "old hand," i.e. an experienced forester, hunter, or trapper,) receives each morning the rations of pork, flour, &c. for his people, and they choose one of their body as cook for the whole. Our camp now consists of nine messes, of which Captain W.'s forms one, although it only contains four persons besides the cook.

When we arrive in the evening at a suitable spot for an encampment, Captain W. rides round a space which he considers large enough to accommodate it, and directs where each mess shall pitch its tent. The men immediately unload their horses, and place their bales of goods in the direction indicated, and in such manner, as in case of need, to form a sort of fortification and defence. When all the messes are arranged in this way, the camp forms a hollow square, in the centre of which the horses are placed and staked firmly to the ground. The guard consists of from six to eight men, and is relieved three times each night, and so arranged that each gang may serve alternate nights. The captain of a guard (who is generally also the captain of a mess) collects his people at the appointed hour, and posts them around outside the camp in such situations that they may command a view of the environs, and be ready to give the alarm in case of danger.

The captain cries the hour regularly by a watch, and all's well, every fifteen minutes, and each man of the guard is required to repeat this call in rotation, which if any one should fail to do, it is fair to conclude that he is asleep, and he is then immediately visited and stirred up. In case of defection of this kind, our laws adjudge to the delinquent the hard sentence of walking three days. As yet none of our poor fellows have incurred this penalty, and the probability is, that it would not at this time be enforced, as we are yet in a country where little molestation is to be apprehended; but in the course of another week's travel, when thieving and ill-designing Indians will be outlying on our trail, it will be necessary that the strictest watch be kept, and, for the preservation of our persons and property, that our laws shall be rigidly enforced.

May 1st. On rising this morning, and inquiring about our prospects of a breakfast, we discovered that the cook of our mess (a little, low-browed, ill-conditioned Yankee) had decamped in the night, and left our service to seek for a better. He probably thought the duties too hard for him, but as he was a miserable cook, we should not have much regretted his departure, had he not thought proper to take with him an excellent rifle, powder-horn, shot-pouch, and other matters that did not belong to him. It is only surprising that he did not select one of our best horses to carry him; but as he had the grace to take his departure on foot, and we have enough men without him, we can wish him God speed, and a fair run to the settlements.

We encamped this evening on a small branch of the Kanzas river. As we approached our stopping place, we were joined by a band of Kanzas Indians, (commonly called Kaw Indians.) They are encamped in a neighboring copse, where they have six lodges. This party is a small division of a portion of this tribe, who are constantly wandering; but although their journeys are sometimes pretty extensive, they seldom approach nearer to the settlements than they are at present. They are very friendly, are not so tawdrily decorated as those we saw below, and use little or no paint. This may, however, be accounted for by their not having the customary ornaments, &c., as their ears are filled with trinkets of various kinds, and are horribly gashed in the usual manner. The dress of most that we have seen, has consisted of ordinary woollen pantaloons received from the whites, and their only covering, from the waist up, is a blanket or buffalo robe. The head is shaved somewhat in the manner of the Sâques and Foxes, leaving the well known scalping tuft; but unlike the Indians just mentioned, the hair is allowed to grow upon the middle of the head, and extends backwards in a longitudinal ridge to the occiput. It is here gathered into a kind of queue, plaited, and suffered to hang down the back. There were amongst them several squaws, with young children tied to their backs, and a number of larger urchins ran about our camp wholly naked.

The whole of the following day we remained in camp, trading buffalo robes, apishemeaus, &c., of the Indians. These people became at length somewhat troublesome to us who were not traders, by a very free exercise of their begging propensities. They appear to be exceedingly poor and needy, and take the liberty of asking unhesitatingly, and without apparent fear of refusal, for any articles that happen to take their fancy.

I have observed, that among the Indians now with us, none but the chief uses the pipe. He smokes the article called kanikanik,-- a mixture of tobacco and the dried leaves of the poke plant, (Phytolacca decandra.) I was amused last evening by the old chief asking me in his impressive manner, (first by pointing with his finger towards the sunset, and then raising his hands high over his head,) if I was going to the mountains. On answering him in the affirmative, he depressed his hands, and passed them around his head in both directions, then turned quickly away from me, with a very solemn and significant ugh! He meant, doubtless, that my brain was turned; in plain language, that I was a fool. This may be attributed to his horror of the Blackfeet Indians, with whom a portion of his tribe was formerly at war. The poor Kaws are said to have suffered dreadfully in these savage conflicts, and were finally forced to abandon the country to their hereditary foes.

We were on the move early the next morning, and at noon arrived at the Kanzas river, a branch of the Missouri. This is a broad and not very deep stream, with the water dark and turbid, like that of the former. As we approached it, we saw a number of Indian lodges, made of saplings driven into the ground, bent over and tied at top, and covered with bark and buffalo skins. These lodges, or wigwams, are numerous on both sides of the river. As we passed them, the inhabitants, men, women, and children, flocked out to see us, and almost prevented our progress by their eager greetings. Our party stopped on the bank of the river, and the horses were unloaded and driven into the water. They swam beautifully, and with great regularity, and arrived safely on the opposite shore, where they were confined in a large lot, enclosed with a fence. After some difficulty, and considerable detention, we succeeded in procuring a large flat bottomed boat, embarked ourselves and goods in it, and landed on the opposite side near our horse pen, where we encamped. The lodges are numerous here, and there are also some good frame houses inhabited by a few white men and women, who subsist chiefly by raising cattle, which they drive to the settlements below. They, as well as the Indians, raise an abundance of good corn; potatoes and other vegetables are also plentiful, and they can therefore live sufficiently well.

The canoes used by the Indians are mostly made of buffalo skins, stretched, while recent, over a light frame work of wood, the seams sewed with sinews, and so closely, as to be wholly impervious to water. These light vessels are remarkably buoyant, and capable of sustaining very heavy burthens.

In the evening the principal Kanzas chief paid us a visit in our tent. He is a young man about twenty-five years of age, straight as a poplar, and with a noble countenance and bearing, but he appeared to me to be marvelously deficient in most of the requisites which go to make the character of a real Indian chief, at least of such Indian chiefs as we read of in our popular books. I begin to suspect, in truth, that these lofty and dignified attributes are more apt to exist in the fertile brain of the novelist, than in reality. Be this as it may, our chief is a very lively, laughing, and rather playful personage; perhaps he may put on his dignity, like a glove, when it suits his convenience.

We remained in camp the whole of next day, and traded with the Indians for a considerable number of robes, apishemeaus, and halter ropes of hide. Our fat bacon and tobacco were in great demand for these useful commodities.

The Kaws living here appear to be much more wealthy than those who joined our camp on the prairie below. They are in better condition, more richly dressed, cleaner, and more comfortable than their wandering brothers. The men have generally fine countenances, but all the women that I have seen are homely. I cannot admire them. Their dress consists, universally of deer skin leggings, belted around the loins, and over the upper part of the body a buffalo robe or blanket.

On the 20th in the morning, we packed our horses and rode out of the Kaw settlement, leaving the river immediately, and making a N. W. by W. course and the next day came to another village of the same tribe, consisting of about thirty lodges, and situated in the midst of a beautiful level prairie.

The Indians stopped our caravan almost by force, and evinced so much anxiety to trade with us, that we could not well avoid gratifying them. We remained with them about two hours, and bought corn, moccasins and leggings in abundance. The lodges here are constructed very differently from those of the lower village. They are made of large and strong timbers, a ridge pole runs along the top, and the different pieces are fastened together by leathern thongs. The roofs,-which are single, making but one angle,-are of stout poplar bark, and form an excellent defence, both against rain and the rays of the sun, which must be intense during midsummer in this region. These prairies are often visited by heavy gales of wind, which would probably demolish the huts, were they built of frail materials like those below. We encamped in the evening on a small stream called Little Vermillion creek, where we found an abundance of excellent catfish, exactly similar to those of the Schuylkill river. Our people caught them in great numbers. Here we first saw the large ravens, (Corvus corax.) They hopped about the ground all around our camp; and as we left it, they came in, pell-mell, croaking, fighting, and scrambling for the few fragments that remained.

8th.-This morning Mr. Sublette left us to return to the settlements. He has been suffering for a considerable time with a fungus in one of his legs, and it has become so much worse since we started, in consequence of irritation caused by riding, that he finds it impossible to proceed. His departure has thrown a gloom over the whole camp. We all admired him for his amiable qualities, and his kind and obliging disposition. For myself, I had become so much attached to him, that I feel quite melancholy about his leaving us.

The weather is now very warm, and there has been a dead calm all day, which renders travelling most uncomfortable. We have frequently been favored with fresh breezes, which make it very agreeable, but the moment these fail us we are almost suffocated with intense heat. Our rate of travelling is about twenty miles per day, which, in this warm weather, and with heavily packed horses, is as much as we can accomplish with comfort to ourselves and animals.

On the afternoon of the next day, we crossed a broad Indian trail, bearing northerly, supposed to be about five days old, and to have been made by a war party of Pawnees. We are now in the country traversed by these Indians, and are daily expecting to see them, but Captain W. seems very desirous to avoid them, on account of their well known stream called Little Vermillion creek 20 where we found an abundance of excellent catfish, exactly similar to those of the Schuylkill river. Our people caught them in great numbers. Here we first saw the large ravens, (Conws corax.) They hopped about the ground all around our camp; and as we left it, they came in, pell-mell, croaking, fighting, and scrambling for the few fragments that remained.

8th.-This morning Mr. Sublette left us to return to the settlements. He has been suffering for a considerable time with a fungus in one of his legs, and it has become so much worse since we started, in consequence of irritation caused by riding, that he finds it impossible to proceed. His departure has thrown a gloom over the whole camp. We all admired him for his amiable qualities, and his kind and obliging disposition. For myself, I had become so much attached to him, that I feel quite melancholy about his leaving us. [I have since learned that his limb was twice amputated; but notwithstanding this, the disease lingered in the system, and about a year ago, terminated his life. -Townsend.]

The weather is now very warm, and there has been a dead calm all day, which renders travelling most uncomfortable. We have frequently been favored with fresh breezes, which make it very agreeable, but the moment these fail us we are almost suffocated with intense heat. Our rate of travelling is about twenty miles per day, which, in this warm weather, and with heavily packed horses, is as much as we can accomplish with comfort to ourselves and animals.

On the afternoon of the next day, we crossed a broad Indian trail, bearing northerly, supposed to be about five days old, and to have been made by a war party of Pawnees. We are now in the country traversed by these Indians, and are daily expecting to see them, but Captain W. seems very desirous to avoid them, on account of their well known thieving propensities and quarrelsome disposition. These Indians go every year to the plains of the Platte, where they spend some weeks in hunting the buffalo, jerking their meat, and preparing their skins for robes; they then push on to the Black Hills, and look out for the parties of Blackfeet, which are also bound to the Platte river plains. When the opposing parties come in collision, (which frequently happens,) the most cruel and sanguinary conflicts ensue. In the evening, three of our men deserted. Like our quondam cook, they all took rifles, &c., that did not belong to them, and one of these happened to be a favorite piece of Captain W.'s, which had done him good service in his journey across this country two years ago. He was very much attached to the gun, and in spite of his calm and cool philosophy in all vexatious matters, he cannot altogether conceal his chagrin.

The little streams of this part of the country are fringed with a thick growth of pretty trees and bushes, and the buds are now swelling, and the leaves expanding, to "welcome back the spring." The birds, too, sing joyously amongst them, grosbeaks, thrushes, and buntings, a merry and musical band. I am particularly fond of sallying out early in the morning, and strolling around the camp. The light breeze just bends the tall tops of the grass on the boundless prairie, the birds are commencing their matin carollings, and all nature looks fresh and beautiful. The horses of the camp are lying comfortably on their sides, and seem, by the glances which they give me in passing, to know that their hour of toil is approaching, and the patient kine are ruminating in happy unconsciousness.

11th.-We encountered some rather serious difficulties today in fording several wide and deep creeks, having muddy and miry bottoms. Many of our horses, (and particularly those that were packed,) fell into the water, and it was with the greatest difficulty and labor that they were extricated. Some of the scenes presented were rather ludicrous to those who were not actors in them. The floundering, kicking, and falling of horses in the heavy slough, man and beast rolling over together, and squattering amongst the black mud, and the woebegone looks of horse, rider, and horse-furniture, often excited a smile, even while we pitied their begrimed and miserable plight. All these troubles are owing to our having lost the trail yesterday, and we have been travelling to-day as nearly in the proper course as our compass indicated, and hope soon to find it.

12th. - Our scouts came in this morning with the intelligence that they had found a large trail of white men, bearing N. W. We have no doubt that this is Wm. Sublette's party, and that it passed us last evening. They must have travelled very rapidly to overtake us so soon, and no doubt had men ahead watching our motions. It seems rather unfriendly, perhaps, to run by us in this furtive way, without even stopping to say good morning, but Sublette is attached to a rival company, and all stratagems are deemed allowable when interest is concerned. It is a matter of some moment to be the first at the mountain rendezvous, in order to obtain the furs brought every summer by the trappers.

Last night, while I was serving on guard, I observed an unusual commotion among our band of horses, a wild neighing, snorting, and plunging, for which I was unable to account. I directed several of my men to go in and appease them, and endeavor to ascertain the cause. They had scarcely started, however, when about half of the band broke their fastenings, snapped the hobbles on their legs, and went dashing right through the midst of the camp. Down went several of the tents, the rampart of goods was cleared in gallant style, and away went the frightened animals at full speed over the plain. The whole camp was instantly aroused. The horses that remained, were bridled as quickly as possible; we mounted them without saddles, and set off in hard pursuit after the fugitives. The night was pitch dark, but we needed no light to point out the way, as the clattering of hoofs ahead on the hard ground of the prairie, sounded like thunder. After riding half an hour, we overtook about forty of them, and surrounding them with difficulty, succeeded in driving them back, and securing them as before. Twenty men were then immediately despatched to scour the country, and bring in the remainder. This party was headed by Mr. Lee, our missionary, (who, with his usual promptitude, volunteered his services,) and they returned early this morning, bringing nearly sixty more. We find, however, upon counting the horses in our possession, that there are yet three missing.

While we were at breakfast, three Indians of the Otto tribe, came to our camp to see, and smoke with us. These were men of rather short stature, but strong and firmly built. Their countenances resemble in general expression those of the Kanzas, and their dresses are very similar. We are all of opinion, that it is to these Indians we owe our difficulties of last night, and we have no doubt that the three missing horses are now in their possession, but as we cannot prove it upon them, and cannot even converse with them, (having no interpreters,) we are compelled to submit to our loss in silence. Perhaps we should even be thankful that we have not lost more.

While these people were smoking the pipe of peace with us, after breakfast I observed that Richardson, our chief hunter, (an experienced man in this country, of a tall and iron frame, and almost child-like simplicity of character, in fact an exact counterpart of Hawk-eye in his younger days,) stood aloof, and refused to sit in the circle, in which it was always the custom of the old hands to join.

Feeling some curiosity to ascertain the cause of this unusual diffidence, I occasionally allowed my eyes to wander to the spot where our sturdy hunter stood looking moodily upon us, as the calamet passed from hand to hand around the circle, and I thought I perceived him now and then cast a furtive glance at one of the Indians who sat opposite to me, and sometimes his countenance would assume an expression almost demoniacal, as though the most fierce and deadly passions were raging in his bosom. I felt certain that hereby hung a tale, and I watched for a corresponding expression, or at least a look of consciousness, in the face of my opposite neighbor, but expression there was none. His large features were settled in a tranquillity which nothing could disturb, and as he puffed the smoke in huge volumes from his mouth, and the fragrant vapor wreathed and curled around his head, he seemed the embodied spirit of meekness and taciturnity. The camp moved soon after, and I lost no time in overhauling Richardson, and asking an explanation of his singular conduct.

"Why," said he, "that Injen that sat opposite to you, is my bitterest enemy. I was once going down alone from the rendezvous with letters for St. Louis, and when I arrived on the lower part of the Platte river, (just a short distance beyond us here,) I fell in with about a dozen Ottos. They were known to be a friendly tribe, and I therefore felt no fear of them. I dismounted from my horse and sat with them upon the ground. It was in the depth of winter; the ground was covered with snow, and the river was frozen solid. While I was thinking of nothing but my dinner, which I was then about preparing, four or five of the cowards jumped on me, mastered my rifle, and held my arms fast, while they took from me my knife and tomahawk, my flint and steel, and all my ammunition. They then loosed me, and told me to be off. I begged them, for the love of God, to give me my rifle and a few loads of ammunition, or I should starve before I could reach the settlements. No - I should have nothing, and if I did not start off immediately, they would throw me under the ice of the river. And," continued the excited hunter,- while he ground his teeth with bitter, and uncontrollable rage,- "that man that sat opposite to you was the chief of them. He recognised me, and knew very well the reason why I would not smoke with him. I tell you, sir, if ever I meet that man in any other situation than that in which I saw him this morning, I'll shoot him with as little hesitation as I would shoot a deer. Several years have passed since the perpetration of this outrage, but it is still as fresh in my memory as ever, and I again declare, that if ever an opportunity offers, I will kill that man." "But, Richardson, did they take your horse also?" "To be sure they did, and my blankets, and every thing I had, except my clothes." "But how did you subsist until you reached the settlements? You had a long journey before you." "Why, set to trappin' prairie squirrels with little nooses made out of the hairs of my head." I should remark that his hair was so long, that it fell in heavy masses on his shoulders. "But squirrels in winter, Richardson, I never heard of squirrels in winter." "Well but there was plenty of them, though; little white ones, that lived among the snow." "Well, really, this was an unpleasant sort of adventure enough, but let me suggest that you do very wrong to remember it with such blood-thirsty feelings." He shook his head with a dogged and determined air, and rode off as if anxious to escape a lecture.

A little sketch of our hunter may perhaps not be uninteresting, as he will figure somewhat in the following pages, being one of the principal persons of the party, the chief hunter, and a man upon whose sagacity and knowledge of the country we all in a great measure depended.

In height he is several inches over six feet, of a spare but remarkably strong and vigorous frame, and a countenance of almost infantile simplicity and openness. In disposition he is mild and affable, but when roused to indignation, his keen eyes glitter and flash, the muscles of his large mouth work convulsively, and he looks the very impersonation of the spirit of evil. He is implacable in anger, and bitter in revenge; never forgetting a kindness, but remembering an injury with equal tenacity. Such is the character of our hunter, and none who have known him as I have, will accuse me of delineating from fancy. His native place is Connecticut, which he left about twelve years ago, and has ever since been engaged in roaming through the boundless plains and rugged mountains of the west, often enduring the extremity of famine and fatigue, exposed to dangers and vicissitudes of every kind, all for the paltry, and often uncertain pittance of a Rocky Mountain hunter. He says he is now tired of this wandering and precarious life, and when he shall be enabled to save enough from his earnings to buy a farm in Connecticut, he intends to settle down a quiet tiller of the soil, and enjoy the sweets of domestic felicity. But this day will probably never arrive. Even should he succeed in realizing a little fortune, and the farm should be taken, the monotony and tameness of the scene will weary his free spirit; he will often sigh for a habitation on the broad prairie, or a ramble over the dreary mountains where his lot has so long been cast.

15th. -- We saw to-day several large white wolves, and two herds of antelopes. The latter is one of the most beautiful animals I ever saw. When full grown, it is nearly as large as a deer. The horns are rather short, with a single prong near the top, and an abrupt backward curve at the summit like a hook. The ears are very delicate, almost as thin as paper, and hooked at the tip like the horns. The legs are remarkably light and beautifully formed, and as it bounds over the plain, it seems scarcely to touch the ground, so exceedingly light and agile are its motions. This animal is the Antelope furcifer of zoologists, and inhabits the western prairies of North America exclusively. The ground here is strewn with great quantities of buffalo bones; the skulls of many of them in great perfection. I often thought of my friend Doctor M. and his golgotha, while we were kicking these fine specimens about the ground. We are now travelling along the banks of the Blue river, a small fork of the Kanzas. The grass is very luxuriant and good, and we have excellent and beautiful camps every night.

This morning a man was sent ahead to see W. Sublette's camp, and bear a message to him, who returned in the evening with the information that the company is only one day's journey beyond, and consists of about thirty-five men. We see his deserted camps every day, and, in some cases, the fires are not yet extinguished. It is sometimes amusing to see the wolves lurking like guilty things around these camps seeking for the fragments that may be left; as our party approaches, they sneak away with a mean, hang-dog air which often coaxes a whistling bullet out of the rifle of the wayfarer.