Indian Trail.- Rough Mountain Travelling.- Sufferings From Hunger and Thirst- Powder
River.- Game in Abundance.-A Hunter's Paradise.- Mountain Peak Seen at a Great
Distance.- One of the Bighorn Chain.- Rocky Mountains.- Extent.- Appearance.-
Height.- The Great American Desert.- Various Characteristics of the Mountains.- Indian
Superstitions Concerning Them.- Land of Souls.- Towns of the Free and Generous
Spirits- Happy Hunting Grounds.
FOR the two following days, the travellers pursued a westerly course for thirty-four
miles along a ridge of country dividing the tributary waters of the Missouri and the
Yellowstone. As landmarks they guided themselves by the summits of the far distant
mountains, which they supposed to belong to the Bighorn chain. They were gradually
rising into a higher temperature, for the weather was cold for the season, with a sharp
frost in the night, and ice of an eighth of an inch in thickness.
On the twenty-second of August, early in the day, they came upon the trail of a
numerous band. Rose and the other hunters examined the foot-prints with great
attention, and determined it to be the trail of a party of Crows, returning from an annual
trading visit to the Mandans. As this trail afforded more commodious travelling, they
immediately struck into it, and followed it for two days. It led them over rough hills, and
through broken gullies, during which time they suffered great fatigue from the
ruggedness of the country. The weather, too, which had recently been frosty, was now
oppressively warm, and there was a great scarcity of water, insomuch that a valuable
dog belonging to Mr. M'Kenzie died of thirst.
At one time they had twenty-five miles of painful travel, without a drop of water, until
they arrived at a small running stream. Here they eagerly slaked their thirst; but, this
being allayed, the calls of hunger became equally importunate. Ever since they had got
among these barren and arid hills where there was a deficiency of grass, they had met
with no buffaloes; those animals keeping in the grassy meadows near the streams.
They were obliged, therefore, to have recourse to their corn meal, which they reserved
for such emergencies. Some, however, were lucky enough to kill a wolf, which they
cooked for supper, and pronounced excellent food.
The next morning they resumed their wayfaring, hungry and jaded, and had a dogged
march of eighteen miles among the same kind of hills. At length they emerged upon a
stream of clear water, one of the forks of Powder River, and to their great joy beheld
once more wide grassy meadows, stocked with herds of buffalo. For several days they
kept along the banks of the river, ascending it about eighteen miles. It was a hunter's
paradise; the buffaloes were in such abundance that they were enabled to kill as many
as they pleased, and to jerk a sufficient supply of meat for several days' journeying.
Here, then, they reveled and reposed after their hungry and weary travel, hunting and
feasting, and reclining upon the grass. Their quiet, however, was a little marred by
coming upon traces of Indians, who, they concluded, must be Crows: they were
therefore obliged to keep a more vigilant watch than ever upon their horses. For
several days they had been directing their march towards the lofty mountain descried
by Mr. Hunt and Mr. M'Kenzie on the 17th of August, the height of which rendered it a
landmark over a vast extent of country. At first it had appeared to them solitary and
detached; but as they advanced towards it, it proved to be the principal summit of a
chain of mountains. Day by day it varied in form, or rather its lower peaks, and the
summits of others of the chain emerged above the clear horizon, and finally the inferior
line of hills which connected most of them rose to view. So far, however, are objects
discernible in the pure atmosphere of these elevated plains, that, from the place where
they first descried the main mountain, they had to travel a hundred and fifty miles
before they reached its base. Here they encamped on the 30th of August, having come
nearly four hundred miles since leaving the Arickara village.
The mountain which now towered above them was one of the Bighorn chain, bordered
by a river, of the same name, and extending for a long distance rather east of north and
west of south. It was a part of the great system of granite mountains which forms one of
the most important and striking features of North America, stretching parallel to the
coast of the Pacific from the Isthmus of Panama almost to the Arctic Ocean; and
presenting a corresponding chain to that of the Andes in the southern hemisphere. This
vast range has acquired, from its rugged and broken character and its summits of
naked granite, the appellation of the Rocky Mountains, a name by no means distinctive,
as all elevated ranges are rocky. Among the early explorers it was known as the range
of Chippewyan Mountains, and this Indian name is the one it is likely to retain in poetic
usage. Rising from the midst of vast plains and prairies, traversing several degrees of
latitude, dividing the waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific, and seeming to bind with
diverging ridges the level regions on its flanks, it has been figuratively termed the
backbone of the northern continent.
The Rocky Mountains do not present a range of uniform elevation, but rather groups
and occasionally detached peaks. Though some of these rise to the region of perpetual
snows, and are upwards of eleven thousand feet in real altitude, yet their height from
their immediate basis is not so great as might be imagined, as they swell up from
elevated plains, several thousand feet above the level of the ocean. These plains are
often of a desolate sterility; mere sandy wastes, formed of the detritus of the granite
heights, destitute of trees and herbage, scorched by the ardent and reflected rays of
the summer's sun, and in winter swept by chilling blasts from the snow-clad mountains.
Such is a great part of that vast region extending north and south along the mountains,
several hundred miles in width, which has not improperly been termed the Great
American Desert. It is a region that almost discourages all hope of cultivation, and can
only be traversed with safety by keeping near the streams which intersect it. Extensive
plains likewise occur among the higher regions of the mountains, of considerable
fertility. Indeed, these lofty plats of table-land seem to form a peculiar feature in the
American continents. Some occur among the Cordilleras of the Andes, where cities,
and towns, and cultivated farms are to be seen eight thousand feet above the level of
The Rocky Mountains, as we have already observed, occur sometimes singly or in
groups, and occasionally in collateral ridges. Between these are deep valleys, with
small streams winding through them, which find their way into the lower plains,
augmenting as they proceed, and ultimately discharging themselves into those vast
rivers, which traverse the prairies like great arteries, and drain the continent.
While the granitic summits of the Rocky Mountains are bleak and bare, many of the
inferior ridges are scantily clothed with scrubbed pines, oaks, cedar, and furze. Various
parts of the mountains also bear traces of volcanic action. Some of the interior valleys
are strewed with scoria and broken stones, evidently of volcanic origin; the surrounding
rocks bear the like character, and vestiges of extinguished craters are to be seen on
the elevated heights.
We have already noticed the superstitious feelings with which the Indians regard the
Black Hills; but this immense range of mountains, which divides all that they know of
the world, and gives birth to such mighty rivers, is still more an object of awe and
veneration. They call it "the crest of the world," and think that Wacondah, or the master
of life, as they designate the Supreme Being, has his residence among these aerial
heights. The tribes on the eastern prairies call them the mountains of the setting sun.
Some of them place the "happy hunting-grounds," their ideal paradise, among the
recesses of these mountains; but say that they are invisible to living men. Here also is
the "Land of Souls," in which are the "towns of the free and generous spirits," where
those who have pleased the master of life while living, enjoy after death all manner of
Wonders are told of these mountains by the distant tribes, whose warriors or hunters
have ever wandered in their neighborhood. It is thought by some that, after death, they
will have to travel to these mountains and ascend one of their highest and most rugged
peaks, among rocks and snows and tumbling torrents. After many moons of painful toil
they will reach the summit, from whence they will have a view over the land of souls.
There they will see the happy hunting-grounds, with the souls of the brave and good
living in tents in green meadows, by bright running streams, or hunting the herds of
buffalo, and elk, and deer, which have been slain on earth. There, too, they will see the
villages or towns of the free and generous spirits brightening in the midst of delicious
prairies. If they have acquitted themselves well while living, they will be permitted to
descend and enjoy this happy country; if otherwise they will but be tantalized with this
prospect of it, and then hurled back from the mountain to wander about the sandy
plains, and endure the eternal pangs of unsatisfied thirst and hunger.