Townsend's Across the Rockies to the Columbia

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Change in the face of the country - Unpleasant visitation - its effects - North fork of the Platte - A day's journey over the hills - Wormwood bushes, and poor pasture - Marmots - Rattlesnake and gopher - Naturalist's success and sacrifices - A sand storm - Wild horses - Killing of a doe antelope - Bluffs of the Platte - The chimney - "Zip Koon," the young antelope - Birds - Feelings and cogitations of a naturalist - Arrival at Laramie's fork - Departure of two "free trappers" on a summer "hunt" - Black Hills - Rough travelling - Red butes - Sweet-water river, and Rock Independence - Avocets - Wind river mountains - Rocky Mountain sheep - Adventure of one of the men with a grizzly bear - Rattlesnakes - Toilsome march, and arrival at Sandy river - Suffering of the horses - Anticipated delights of the rendezvous.

On the morning of the 24th of May we forded the Platte river, or rather its south fork, along which we had been travelling during the previous week. On the northern side, we found the country totally different in its aspect. Instead of the extensive and apparently interminable green plains, the monotony of which had become so wearisome to the eye, here was a great sandy waste, without a single green thing to vary and enliven the dreary scene. It was a change, however, and we were therefore enjoying it, and remarking to each other how particularly agreeable it was, when we were suddenly assailed by vast swarms of most ferocious little black gnats; the whole atmosphere seemed crowded with them, and they dashed into our faces, assaulted our eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouths, as though they were determined to bar our passage through their territory. These little creatures were so exceedingly minute that, singly, they were scarcely visible; and yet their sting caused such excessive pain, that for the rest of the day our men and horses were rendered almost frantic, the former bitterly imprecating, and the latter stamping, and kicking, and rolling in the sand, in tremendous, yet vain, efforts to rid themselves of their pertinacious little foes. It was rather amusing to see the whole company with their handkerchiefs, shirts, and coats, thrown over their heads, stemming the animated torrent, and to hear the greenhorns cursing their tormenters, the country, and themselves, for their foolhardiness in venturing on the journey. When we encamped in the evening, we built fires at the mouths of the tents, the smoke from which kept our enemies at a distance, and we passed a night of tolerable comfort, after a day of most peculiar misery.

The next morning I observed that the faces of all the men were more or less swollen, some of them very severely, and poor Captain W. was totally blind for two days afterwards.

25th.- We made a noon camp to-day on the north branch or fork of the river, and in the afternoon travelled along the bank of the stream. In about an hour's march, we came to rocks, precipices, and cedar trees, and although we anticipated some difficulty and toil in the passage of the heights, we felt glad to exchange them for the vast and wearisome prairies we had left behind. Soon after we commenced the ascent, we struck into an Indian path very much worn, occasionally mounting over rugged masses of rock, and leaping wide fissures in the soil, and sometimes picking our way over the jutting crags, directly above the river. On the top of one of the stunted and broad spreading cedars, a bald eagle had built its enormous nest; and as we descended the mountain, we saw the callow young lying within it, while the anxious parents hovered over our heads, screaming their alarm.

In the evening we arrived upon the plain again; it was thickly covered with ragged and gnarled bushes of a species of wormwood, (Artemesia) which perfumed the air, and at first was rather agreeable. The soil was poor and sandy, and the straggling blades of grass which found their way to the surface were brown and withered. Here was a poor prospect for our horses; a sad contrast indeed to the rich and luxuriant prairies we had left. On the edges of the little streams, however, we found some tolerable pasture, and we frequently stopped during the day to bait our poor animals in these pleasant places.

We observed here several species of small marmots, (Arctomys) which burrowed in the sand, and were constantly skipping about the ground in front of our party. The short rattlesnake of the prairies was also abundant, and no doubt derived its chief subsistence from foraging among its playful little neighbors. Shortly before we halted this evening, being a considerable distance in advance of the caravan, I observed a dead gopher, (Diplostoma) -a small animal about the size of a rat, with large external cheek pouches, lying upon the ground; and near it a full grown rattlesnake, also dead. The gopher was yet warm and pliant, and had evidently been killed but a few minutes previously; the snake also gave evidence of very recent death, by a muscular twitching of the tail, which occurs in most serpents, soon after life is extinct. It was a matter of interest to me to ascertain the mode by which these animals were deprived of life. I therefore dismounted from my horse, and examined them carefully, but could perceive nothing to furnish even a clue. Neither of them had any external or perceptible wound. The snake had doubtless killed the quadruped, but what had killed the snake? There being no wound upon its body was sufficient proof that the gopher had not used his teeth, and in no other way could he cause death.

I was unable to solve the problem to my satisfaction, so I pocketed the animal to prepare its skin, and rode on to the camp.

The birds thus far have been very abundant. There is a considerable variety, and many of them have not before been seen by naturalists. As to the plants, there seems to be no end to them, and Mr. N. is finding dozens of new species daily. In the other branches of science, our success has not been so great, partly on account of the rapidity and steadiness with which we travel, but chiefly from the difficulty, and almost impossibility, of carrying the subjects. Already we have cast away all our useless and superfluous clothing, and have been content to mortify our natural pride, to make room for our specimens. Such things as spare waistcoats, shaving boxes, soap, and stockings, have been ejected from our trunks, and we are content to dress, as we live, in a style of primitive simplicity. In fact, the whole appearance of our party is sufficiently primitive; many of the men are dressed entirely in deerskins, without a single article of civilized manufacture about them; the old trappers and hunters wear their hair flowing on their shoulders, and their large grizzled beards would scarcely disgrace a Bedouin of the desert.

The next morning the whole camp was suddenly aroused by the falling of all the tents. A tremendous blast swept as from a funnel over the sandy plain, and in an instant precipitated our frail habitations like webs of gossamer. The men crawled out from under the ruins, rubbing their eyes, and, as usual, muttering imprecations against the country and all that therein was; it was unusually early for a start, but we did not choose to pitch the tents again, and to sleep without them here was next to impossible; so we took our breakfast in the open air, devouring our well sanded provisions as quickly as possible, and immediately took to the road.

During the whole day a most terrific gale was blowing directly in our faces, clouds of sand were driving and hurtling by us, often with such violence as nearly to stop our progress; and when we halted in the evening, we could scarcely recognise each other's faces beneath their odious mask of dust and dirt.

There have been no buffalo upon the plain today, all the game that we have seen, being a few elk and antelopes; but these of course we did not attempt to kill, as our whole and undivided attention was required to assist our progress.

28th.-We fell in with a new species of game today; -a large band of wild horses. They were very shy, scarcely permitting us to approach within rifle distance, and yet they kept within sight of us for some hours. Several of us gave them chase, in the hope of at least being able to approach sufficiently near to examine them closely, but we might as well have pursued the wind; they scoured away from us with astonishing velocity, their long manes and tails standing out almost horizontally, as they sprang along before us. Occasionally they would pause in their career, turn and look at us as we approached them, and then, with a neigh that rang loud and high above the clattering of the hoofs, dart their light heels into the air, and fly from us as before. We soon abandoned this wild chase, and contented ourselves with admiring their sleek beauty at a distance.

In the afternoon, I committed an act of cruelty and wantonness, which distressed and troubled me beyond measure, and which I have ever since recollected with sorrow and compunction. A beautiful doe antelope came running and bleating after us, as though she wished to overtake the party; she continued following us for nearly an hour, at times approaching within thirty of forty yards, and standing to gaze at us as we moved slowly on our way. I several times raised my gun to fire at her, but my better nature as often gained the ascendancy, and I at last rode into the midst of the party to escape the temptation. Still the doe followed us, and I finally fell into the rear, but without intending it, and again looked at her as she trotted behind us. At that moment, my evil genius and love of sport triumphed; I slid down from my horse, aimed at the poor antelope, and shot a ball through her side. Under other circumstances, there would have been no cruelty in this; but here, where better meat was so abundant, and the camp was so plentifully supplied, it was unfeeling, heartless murder. It was under the influence of this too late impression, that I approached my poor victim. She was writhing in agony upon the ground, and exerting herself in vain efforts to draw her mangled body farther from her destroyer; and as I stood over her, and saw her cast her large, soft, black eyes upon me with an expression of the most touching sadness, while the great tears rolled over her face, I felt myself the meanest and most abhorrent thing in creation. But now a finishing blow would be mercy to her, and I threw my arm around her neck, averted my face, and drove my long knife through her bosom to the heart. I did not trust myself to look upon her afterwards, but mounted my horse, and galloped off to the party, with feelings such as I hope never to experience again. For several days the poor antelope haunted me, and I shall never forget its last look of pain and upbraiding.

The bluffs on the southern shore of the Platte, are, at this point, exceedingly rugged, and often quite picturesque; the formation appears to be simple clay, intermixed, occasionally, with a stratum of limestone, and one part of the bluff bears a striking and almost startling resemblance to a dilapidated feudal castle. There is also a kind of obelisk, standing at a considerable distance from the bluffs, on a wide plain, towering to the height of about two hundred feet, and tapering to a small point at the top. This pillar is known to the hunters and trappers who traverse these regions, by the name of the "chimney." Here we diverged from the usual course, leaving the bank of the river, and entered a large and deep ravine between the enormous bluffs (These are Scott's Bluffs, so named after an unfortunate trader, who perished here from disease and hunger, many years ago. He was deserted by his companions; and the year following, his crumbling bones were found in this spot).

The road was very uneven and difficult, winding from amongst innumerable mounds six to eight feet in height, the space between them frequently so narrow as scarcely to admit our horses, and some of the men rode for upwards of a mile kneeling upon their saddles. These mounds were of hard yellow clay, without a particle of rock of any kind, and along their bases, and in the narrow passages, flowers of every hue were growing. It was a most enchanting sight; even the men noticed it, and more than one of our matter-of-fact people exclaimed, beautiful, beautiful!. Mr. N. was here in his glory. He rode on ahead of the company, and cleared the passages with a trembling and eager hand, looking anxiously back at the approaching party, as though he feared it would come ere he had finished, and tread his lovely prizes under foot.

The distance through the ravine is about three miles. We then crossed several beautiful grassy knolls, and descending to the plain, struck the Platte again, and travelled along its bank. Here one of our men caught a young antelope, which he brought to the camp upon his saddle. It was a beautiful and most delicate little creature, and in a few days became so tame as to remain with the camp without being tied, and to drink, from a tin cup, the milk which our good missionaries spared from their own scanty meals. The men christened it "Zip Coon," and it soon became familiar with its name, running to them when called, and exhibiting many evidences of affection and attachment. It became a great favorite with every one. A little pannier of willows was made for it, which was packed on the back of a mule, and when the camp moved in the mornings, little Zip ran to his station beside his long-eared hack, bleating with impatience until some one came to assist him in mounting.

On the afternoon of the 31st, we came to green trees and bushes again, and the sight of them was more cheering than can be conceived, except by persons who have travelled for weeks without beholding a green thing, save the grass under their feet. We encamped in the evening in a beautiful grove of cottonwood trees, along the edge of which ran the Platte, dotted as usual with numerous islands.

In the morning, Mr. N. and myself were up before the dawn, strolling through the umbrageous forest, inhaling the fresh, bracing air, and making the echoes ring with the report of our gun, as the lovely tenants of the grove flew by dozens before us. I think I never before saw so great a variety of birds within the same space. All were beautiful, and many of them quite new to me; and after we had spent an hour amongst them, and my game bag was teeming with its precious freight, I was still loath to leave the place, lest I should not have procured specimens of the whole.

None but a naturalist can appreciate a naturalist's feelings his delight amounting to ecstacy when a specimen such as he has never before seen, meets his eye, and the sorrow and grief which he feels when he is compelled to tear himself from a spot abounding with all that he has anxiously and unremittingly sought for.

This was peculiarly my case upon this occasion. We had been long travelling over a sterile and barren tract, where the lovely denizens of the forest could not exist, and I had been daily scanning the great "tent of the desert", for some little oasis such as I had now found; here was my wish at length gratified, and yet the caravan would not halt for me; I must turn my back upon the El Dorado of my fond anticipations, and hurry forward over the dreary wilderness which lay beyond.

What valuable and highly interesting accessions to science might not be made by a party, composed exclusively of naturalists, on a journey through this rich and unexplored region! The botanist, the geologist, the mamalogist, the ornithologist, and the entomologist, would find a rich and almost inexhaustible field for the prosecution of their inquiries, and the result of such an expedition would be to add most materially to our knowledge of the wealth and resources of our country, to furnish us with new and important facts relative to its structure, organization, and natural productions, and to complete the fine native collections in our already extensive museums.

On the 1st of June, we arrived at Laramie's fork of the Platte, and crossed it without much difficulty.

Here two of our "free trappers" left us for a summer "hunt" in the rugged Black Hills. These men joined our party at Independence, and have been travelling to this point with us for the benefit of our escort. Trading companies usually encourage these free trappers to join them, both for the strength which they add to the band, and that they may have the benefit of their generally good hunting qualities. Thus are both parties accommodated, and no obligation is felt on either side.

I confess I felt somewhat sad when I reflected upon the possible fate of the two adventurous men who had left us in the midst of a savage wilderness, to depend entirely upon their unassisted strength and hardihood, to procure the means of subsistence and repel the aggression of the Indian.

Their expedition will be fraught with stirring scenes, with peril and with strange adventure; but they think not of this, and they care not for it. They are only two of the many scores who annually subject themselves to the same difficulties and dangers; they see their friends return unscathed, and laden with rich and valuable furs, and if one or two should have perished by Indian rapacity, or fallen victims to their own daring and fool-hardy spirit, they mourn the loss of their brethren who have not returned, and are only the more anxious to pursue the same track in order to avenge them.

On the 2d, we struck a range of high and stony mountains, called the Black Hills. The general aspect here, was dreary and forbidding; the soil was intersected by deep and craggy fissures; rock jutted over rock, and precipice frowned over precipice in frightful, and apparently endless, succession. Soon after we commenced the ascent, we experienced a change in the temperature of the air; and towards mid-day, when we had arrived near the summit, our large blanket capeaus, which in the morning had been discarded as uncomfortable, were drawn tightly around us, and every man was shivering in his saddle as though he had an ague fit. The soil here is of a deep reddish or ferruginous hue, intermixed with green sand; and on the heights, pebbles of chalcedony and agate are abundant. We crossed, in the afternoon, the last and steepest spur of this chain, winding around rough and stony precipices, and along the extreme verges of tremendous ravines, so dangerous looking that we were compelled to dismount and lead our horses.

On descending to the plain, we saw again the north fork of the Platte, and were glad of an opportunity of encamping. Our march to-day has been an unusually wearisome one, and many of our loose horses are bruised and lame.

7th. -The country has now become more level, but the prairie is barren and inhospitable looking to the last degree. The twisted, aromatic wormwood covers and extracts the strength from the burnt and soil. The grass is dry and brown, and our horses are suffering extremely for want of food. Occasionally, however, a spot of lovely green appears, and here we allow our poor jaded friends to halt, and roam without their riders, and their satisfaction and pleasure is expressed by many a joyous neigh, and many a heart-felt roll upon the verdant sward.

In the afternoon, we arrived at the "Red Butes," two or three brown-red cliffs, about two thousand feet in height." This is a remarkable point in the mountain route. One of these cliffs terminates a long, lofty, wooded ridge, which has bounded our southern view for the past two days. The summits of the cliffs are covered with patches of snow, and the contrast of the dazzling white and brick-red produces a very pretty effect.

The next day, we left the Platte river, and crossed a wide, sandy desert, dry and desolate; and on the 9th, encamped at noon on the banks of the Sweet-water. Here we found a large rounded mass of granite, about fifty feet high, called Rock Independence. Like the Red Butes, this rock is also a rather remarkable point in the route. On its smooth, perpendicular sides, we see carved the names of most of the mountain bourgeois, with the dates of their arrival. We observed those of the two Sublette's, Captains Bonneville, Serre, Fontinelle, &c., and after leaving our own, and taking a hearty, but hasty lunch in the shade of a rock, and a draught from the pure and limpid stream at its base, we pursued our journey.

The river is here very narrow, often only twelve or fifteen feet wide, shallow, and winding so much, that during our march, to-day, we crossed it several times, in order to pursue a straight course. The banks of the stream are clothed with the most luxuriant pasture, and our invaluable dumb friends appear perfectly happy.

We saw here great numbers of a beautiful brown and white avocet, (the Recurvirostra americana of ornithologists.) These fine birds were so tame as to allow a very near approach, running slowly before our party, and scarcely taking wing at the report of a gun. They frequent the marshy plains in the neighborhood of the river, and breed here.

On the 10th, about ninety miles to the west, we had a striking view of the Wind-river mountains. They are almost wholly of a dazzling whiteness, being covered thickly with snow, and the lofty peaks seem to blend themselves with the dark clouds which hang over them. This chain gives rise to the sources of the Missouri, the Colorado of the west, and Lewis' river of the Columbia, and is the highest land on the continent of North America.

We saw, to-day, a small flock of the hairy sheep of the Rocky Mountains, the big horn of the hunters, (Ovis montana.) We exerted ourselves in vain to shoot them. They darted from us, and hid themselves amongst the inaccessible cliffs, so that none but a chamois hunter might pretend to reach them. Richardson says that he has frequently killed them, but he admits that it is dangerous and wearisome sport; and when good beef is to be found upon the plains, men are not anxious to risk their necks for a meal of mutton.

In the afternoon, one of our men had a somewhat perilous adventure with a grizzly bear. He saw the animal crouching his huge frame in some willows which skirted the river, and approaching on horseback to within twenty yards, fired upon him. The bear was only slightly wounded by the shot, and with a fierce growl of angry malignity, rushed from his cover, and gave chase. The horse happened to be a slow one, and for the distance of half a mile, the race was hard contested; the bear frequently approaching so near the terrified animal as to snap at his heels, while the equally terrified rider, who had lost his hat at the start, used whip and spur with the most frantic diligence, frequently looking behind, from an influence which he could not resist, at his rugged and determined foe, and shrieking in an agony of fear, "shoot him, shoot him!" The man, who was one of the greenhorns, happened to be about a mile behind the main body, either from the indolence of his horse, or his own carelessness; but as he approached the party in his desperate flight, and his lugubrious cries reached the ears of the men in front, about a dozen of them rode to his assistance, and soon succeeded in diverting the attention of his pertinacious foe. After he had received the contents of all the guns, he fell, and was soon dispatched. The man rode in among his fellows, pale and haggard from overwrought feelings, and was probably effectually cured of a propensity for meddling with grizzly bears.

A small striped rattlesnake is abundant on these plains: - it is a different species from our common one at home, but is equally malignant and venomous. The horses are often startled by them, and dart aside with intuitive fear when their note of warning is sounded in the path.

12th.- The plains of the Sweet-water at this point,-- latitude 43 deg 6 min, longitude 110 deg 30 min, -- are covered with little salt pools, the edges of which are encrusted with alkaline efflorescences, looking like borders of snow. The rocks in the vicinity are a loose, fine-grained sandstone, the strata nearly horizontal, and no organic remains have been discovered. We have still a view of the lofty Wind-river mountains on our right hand, and they have for some days served as a guide to determine our course. On the plain, we passed several huge rhomboidal masses of rock, standing alone, and looking, at a little distance, like houses with chimneys. The freaks of nature, as they are called, have often astonished us since we have been journeying in the wilderness. We have seen, modeled without art, representations of almost all the most stupendous works of man; and how do the loftiest and most perfect creations of his wisdom and ingenuity sink into insignificance by the comparison. Noble castles, with turrets, embrazures, and loop holes, with the drawbridge in front, and the moat surrounding it: behind, the humble cottages of the subservient peasantry, and all the varied concomitants of such a scene, are so strikingly evident to the view, that it requires but little stretch of fancy to imagine that a race of antediluvian giants may here have swayed their iron sceptre, and left behind the crumbling palace and the tower, to tell of their departed glory.

On the 14th, we left the Sweet-water, and proceeded in a south-westerly direction to Sandy river, a branch of the Colorado of the west. We arrived here at about 9 o'clock in the evening, after a hard and most toilsome march for both man and beast. We found no water on the route, and not a single blade of grass for our horses. Many of the poor animals stopped before night, and resolutely refused to proceed; and others with the remarkable sagacity, peculiar to them, left the track in defiance of those who drove and guided them, sought and found water, and spent the night in its vicinity. The band of missionaries, with their horses and horned cattle, halted by the way, and only about half the men of the party accompanied us to our encampment on Sandy. We were thus scattered along the route for several miles; and if a predatory band of Indians had then found us, we should have fallen an easy prey.

The next morning by about 10 o'clock all our men and horses had joined us, and, in spite of the fatigues of the previous day, we were all tolerably refreshed, and in good spirits. Towards noon we got under way, and proceeded seven or eight miles down the river to a spot where we found a little poor pasture for our horses. Here we remained until the next morning, to recruit. I found here a beautiful new species of mocking bird (This is a mountain mocking bird, (Orpheus montanus)), which I shot and prepared. Birds are, however, generally scarce, and there is here very little of interest in any department of natural history. We are also beginning to suffer somewhat for food: buffalo are rarely seen, the antelopes are unusually shy, and the life of our little favorite, "Zip," has been several times menaced. I believe, however, that his keeper, from sheer fondness, would witness much greater suffering in the camp, ere he would consent to the sacrifice of his playful little friend.

16th. -We observed a hoar frost and some thin ice, this morning at sunrise; but at mid-day, the thermometer stood at 82 deg. We halted at noon, after making about fifteen miles, and dined. Saw large herds of buffalo on the plains of Sandy river, grazing in every direction on the short and dry grass. Domestic cattle would certainly starve here, and yet the bison exists, and even becomes fat; a striking instance of the wonderful adaptation of Providence.

17th. -We had yesterday a cold rain, the first which has fallen in our track for several weeks. Our vicinity to the high mountains of Wind river will perhaps account for it. To-day at noon, the mercury stood at 92 deg in the shade, but there being a strong breeze, we did not suffer from heat.

Our course was still down the Sandy river, and we are now looking forward with no little pleasure to a rest of two or more weeks at the mountain rendezvous on the Colorado. Here we expect to meet all the mountain companies who left the States last spring, and also the trappers who come in from various parts, with the furs collected by them during the previous year. All will be mirth and jollity, no doubt, but the grand desideratum with some of us, is to allow our horses to rest their tired limbs and exhausted strength on the rich and verdant plains of the Siskadee. At our camp this evening, our poor horses were compelled to fast as heretofore, there being absolutely nothing for them to eat. Some of the famished animals attempted to allay their insatiable cravings, by cropping the dry and bitter tops of the wormwood with which the plain is strewed.

We look forward to brighter days for them ere long; soon shall they sport in the green pastures, and rest and plenty shall compensate for their toils and privations.