Chapter Eleven

First Acquaintance with Indians on the Plains

        At West Point we camped on a beautiful rich prairie near the town. Our tent was pitched and I was carried into it, where I remained for two weeks. I must have been quite seriously hurt, and for two or three years afterwards I could feel it every time I took a cold, but finally recovered entirely.

        I had never driven an ox team in my life. We had each taken a man along to drive, while we rode horseback in the rear and kept the cattle together, but this proved an easy job, for after the first few days every cow and calf, when they saw the teams hitched up, would fall into line behind the last wagon and move along when the wagon moved and stop when the wagon stopped. The man I had engaged, I found after the first two days, knew nothing about driving, having been raised a blacksmith, and my wife wanted me with her, so I concluded to try driving, and though I was awkward and came near being killed, I persevered and (except for the ten or twelve miles while I was hurt) I drove every foot of the way, and walked practically from our home, the two thousand miles, to our destination.

        We remained at West Point for two weeks and supplied ourselves with flour and replenished our stock along any lines that we found short, it being the last point where we could procure any supplies until the end of our journey.

        It must have been nearly the first of May when we gathered in our stock, which had become in fine condition on the young grass, and started out away from civilization. I am not exact as to the date, as a little journal which I carried and in which I made some notes of our journey, has disappeared. Yet, as I follow up on our course, it is surprising to myself how much comes back to me that has been lying buried somewhere back in my memory.

        Our route lay a little north of west, across a most beautiful and fertile country, which at that date had never been touched by the hand of labor and whose sod had never been turned by the plow, though in looking over the map today I see it is traversed by two railroads, and towns are so thick that there is hardly room on the map to place their names. Feed was very luxuriant and we made good progress. We ferried over the Republican River and continued up the north bank, on a level road, and rich alluvial bottoms, mostly prairie, but on the river were the largest specimens of black walnut I had ever seen. We averaged a good twenty miles every day without fatigue to ourselves or to our animals. The first prominent landmark we met was Fort Riley, beautifully situated on the north side of the Republican River. We had not seen a house of any kind for so long that the buildings of the fort and officers’ quarters appeared as palaces to our eyes. Leaving the fort on our left, we continued on up the river, passing the reservation and the agency of the Sacs and Fox Indians. We saw a great many Indians here, and they were fine, large, well-built men, and a little later on we passed the reservation of the Pottawattamies, the finest Indians I have ever met. Hardly a man of them was under six feet tall, and well proportioned. These Indians were remnants of some of the old Algonquin tribes. They formerly lived in the lower Peninsula of Michigan, but were later driven to Kansas, where they finally settled. From internal wars they were reduced to about four thousand, but had dwindled at this time to not more than one thousand souls. Later on those of them that were left were included in the Sacs and Fox reservations, where they still live.

        Our route continued up the Republican River until we reached a point almost due south from Fort Kearney on the Platte River. Here we turned directly north and in two days camped on the Platte River, just below old Fort Kearney. The divide between the waters of the Republican and Platte Rivers consists of low hills, and the water and feed were none too abundant. We found a large number of Sioux Indians camped here. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of them. This acquaintance with these Indians was to continue for more than a thousand miles, and from all I saw of them a dirtier, more treacherous, thieving, lying people never existed. You never knew when you were safe, nor did they recognize any right but might. They would come into your camp as innocent as children, and then they had a faculty of picking up a knife, a cup, or anything, and carry it off concealed in their blankets. We soon "got on to them," and though we would follow them around watching every move, yet after they had said "by" and departed, we would be surprised if something were not missing. I still feel hard toward those Indians when I think of how many nights, weary with a day’s travel, with others, I had to stand guard over our cattle and horses to prevent them from being stolen, and perhaps ourselves, with our women and children, being murdered. Our company was not a large one and from this time on one-half of us had to stand guard every night until twelve, then being relieved by the others. The next night we would reverse and those who had been on the first half would take the latter half of the night.

        At Fort Kearney we struck into the old emigrant trail. The principal outfitting place was Independence, Missouri, near where Kansas City now stands. This route was somewhat nearer than the one we took but we figured that by taking the less traveled route up the Republican and across the divide we would have less company and more feed. I think we were correct, for here at Fort Kearney we fell in with hundreds of emigrant trains, some with a great many wagons and large herds of cattle. We avoided those wherever possible and in the afternoon one of us would go ahead on horseback and select a good camping place where there was grass and water, and wherever we could find it a little way from the road. In this way we kept our stock in fair condition, though we never found the grass so fine as on the first part of our journey. For the next thousand miles there was but little &r no timber and the emigrants depended entirely on dry "buffalo chips" for fuel. I must acknowledge that I had a most unreasonable antipathy against this fuel. It made a good fire for cooking, and really in the final analysis was nothing more than condensed grass. However, I do not remember we ever used those "chips" at my fire a single time. All the way up the Platte River there were creeks coming down to the river every fifty or a hundred miles, and sometimes hills on either side on which grew cedar or ash. At such a place I would select a dry tree as much as two of us could carry and sling it under the wagon with spare chains. Such a log would last, with care, for a week.

        At Fort Kearney, we obtained from a trader, the first dried buffalo meat I had ever eaten. It is cut from the animal in thin slices and dried in the sun, without salt or any other flavoring. At first I thought it rather tasteless, but after chewing it long enough I found a rich, gamey flavor, which was delicious after living for weeks on salted meats. We expected after leaving Fort Kearney to soon be living on buffalo and antelope of our own killing, but in this we were disappointed, for we never even saw a buffalo, and while antelope were quite numerous, they were so wild that I believe we only succeeded in killing two on the whole journey.

        Pulling out from Fort Kearney we continued up the south bank of the Platte. The first night, after a long day’s journey, we reached the Plum Creek, where there was good, clear water and some wood. Wherever there was no creek running into the Platte we had to use water from the river and it was about half water and half sand. It had to be taken in a bucket and let stand for an hour before it was drinkable. I preferred milk. I forgot to say that we had several milch cows, and had all the milk we needed. What was left over was put in a jar in the back of the wagon and by night we had a nice plate of butter. The jolting of the wagon all day served the same purpose as a churn.

        The third night out we reached Cottonwood Springs. Here some hills came down to the river and some fine springs bubbled up pure and fresh from near the center of a grove of cottonwoods. At the time we passed there was yet quite a grove of trees standing, though the stumps and half rotten logs told the tale of vandalism. It always seemed to me strange that a man passing through a country should love to destroy or even use more than was necessary when he knew that in the years to follow thousands of people would be passing and need the timber he was ruthlessly destroying.

        On the next day we camped for the night at O’Fallons Bluffs, a well-known landmark where some hills slope down toward the river, ending in precipitous bluffs some hundred feet in height. They looked like mountains after the weeks of almost level plains, over which we had passed. Here, just below the bluffs and about fifteen miles above the junction of the North and South Platte River, the emigrant trail crosses the latter river. It is a treacherous stream with a sandy bottom, continually changing its channel and as there was no way to cross but by fording it, was very dangerous on account of the quicksand and changing bottom. The river is about one half mile wide, and of an average depth of two feet at this time of the year, but the water is so muddy that a man riding across horseback may be going along in water only to his horse’s knees, when suddenly man and horse would disappear, and come up a little farther on, with the water only a foot or two deep. Under those conditions it was absolutely necessary that the wagons in which were stored all of our provisions should be kept out of those holes. On the next morning all of our livestock was rounded up and with every man on horseback, were rushed across without accident. Then we returned, yoked up the oxen, hitched on to the wagons, which were lined up close behind one another. With the women and children inside and two men ahead on horseback to keep us out of the quicksand, we started across. I decided to drive my own team, and as we had traveled so far, I thought I could cross and drive from the seat on the front of the wagon, but we had only proceeded a short distance when my team, as well as the others, seemed to become demoralized, and would pay no attention to the calls of the drivers, and in another minute we were all overboard in the water, using our long ox whips and some words which soon brought the team to their senses, but we did not try to ride again. Anyway, we were as wet as a mixture of water and sand could make us. However, with no mishaps and with nothing wet but ourselves, we reached the other bank and then drove about four miles, pitching our camp on the North Platte. This stream is much larger and deeper than the South Platte and the head waters came from the summit of the Rocky Mountains. Our road lay along or near its banks for the next five or six hundred miles.