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Chambers's miscellany of useful and entertaining tracts (Volume v.5-6) online

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they were travelhng, was exceedingly beautiful. "The little
streams 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 bunting's — 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 caroUing's, and all nature looks
fresh and beautiful. The horses of the camp are lying comfort-
ably 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."

One morning the scouts came in with the intellig'ence that they
had found a larg*e trail of white men bearing north-west. Cap-
tain Wyeth and his party concluded that this was another cara-
van belonging to a rival trading company, and that it had passed
them noiselessly in the course of the nig'ht, in order to be before-
hand with them in traffic with the Indian tribes through which
they were passing. The party g'rumbled a little at the unfriendly
conduct of the rival caravan in stealing- a march upon them ; but
consoled themselves by making the reflection, that competition is
the soul of commerce, and that, in the same circumstances, they
would in all probability have acted in the same way. While dis-
cussing the affair at breakfast, three Indians, of a tribe called the
Ottos, made their appearance. These visitors were suspected of
being concerned in the loss of the three horses mentioned above ;
but as the crime could not be brought home to them by any kind
of evidence, they were received in a friendly manner ; and, as
usual, the pipe of peace was smoked with them.

'•' While these people," says Mr Townsend, " were smoking the
pipe of peace with us after breakfast, I observed that Richard-
son, our chief hunter (an experienced man in this country, of
a tall and iron frame, and almost child-hke simplicity of cha-
racter, in fact, an exact counterpart of Hawk-eye in his younger



days), stood aloof, and refused to sit in the circle, in which iti
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
thoug-ht I perceived him now and then cast a furtive g-lance 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 neighbour ; but expression there was
none. His laroi-e 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 vapour wreathed and curled
around his head, he seemed the embodied spirit of meekness and

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 op-
portunity offers, I will kill that man.' ' But, Richardson, did
they take your horse also V 'To be sure they did, and my blan-
kets, and everything I had, except my clotlies.' ' But how did


you subsist until you readied 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.' " Such
is a trait of human nature in these far western reg'ions.

On the 18th of May the party reached the Platte river, one
of the streams which pour their waters into the Missouri.
Wolves and antelopes were abundant in the neighbourhood of
the river, and herons and long-billed curlews were stalking about
in the shallows, searching for food. The prairie is here as level
as a race-course, not the slightest undulation appearing through-
out the whole extent of vision in a northerly and westerly direc-
tion ; but to the eastward of the river, and about eight miles
from it, was seen a range of hig'h bluffs, or sand-banks, stretching
away to the south-east till lost in the far distance. The travellers
were not less struck with the solemn g'randeur of the apparently
boundless prairie, than with the sig-ht of its surface, which was
in many places encrusted with an impure salt, seemingly a com-
bination of the sulphate and muriate of soda : there were also
seen a number of little pools, of only a few inches in depth, scat-
tered over the plain, the water of which was so bitter and pun-
gent, that it seemed to penetrate into the tongue, and almost to
take the skin from the mouth. Next morning the party were
alarmed with the appearance of two men on horseback, hovering
on their path at a great distance. On looking at them with a
telescope, they were discovered to be Indians, and on their ap-
proach it was found they belonged to a large band of the Grand
Pawnee tribe, who were on a war-excursion, and encamped at
about thirty miles' distance. Having got rid of these suspicious
visitors, the party moved rapidly forward in an altered direction,
and did not slacken their pace till twelve o'clock at night. After
a brief rest, they again went on, travelling steadily the whole
day, and so got quite clear of the Grand Pawnees.

The travellers were now proceeding across one of the large
central prairies of North America, and were, as they reckoned,
within three days' journey of the buffalo region; that is, the
region haunted by herds of buffalo. The uninitiated of the party,
who for a good many days past had been listening to the spirit-
stirring accounts given by the old hunters of their sport in
the buffalo region, began to grow impatient for the first sight
of this animal, the tenant of the prairies. At length, on the after-
noon of the 20th, they came in sight of a large gang of the long-
coveted buffalo. They were grazing on the opposite side of the
Platte, as quietly as domestic cattle ; but as they neared them, the
foremost winded the travellers, and started back, and the whole
herd followed in the wildest confusion, and were soon out of
7 9


sight. There must have been many thousands of them. Towards
evening- a large band of elk came on at full gallop, and passed
very near the party. The appearance of these animals pro-
duced a singular effect upon the horses, all of which became
restive, and about half of the loose ones broke away, and scoured
over the plain in full chase after the elk. Captain Wyeth and
several of his men went immediately in pursuit of them, and re-
turned late at night, bringing the greater number. Two had,
however, been lost irrecoverably. By an observation, the lati-
tude was found to be 40 degrees 31 minutes north, and the com-
puted distance from the Missouri settlements about 360 miles.

The day following, the party saw several small herds of buffalo
on their side of the river. Two of the hunters started out after a
huge bull that had separated himself from his companions, and
gave him chase on fleet horses. Away went the buffalo, and
away went the men, as hard as they could dash ; now the hunters
gained upon him, and pressed him hard ; again the enormous
creature had the advantage, plunging with all his might, his ter-
rific horns often ploughing up the earth as he spurned it under
him. Sometimes he would double, and rush so near the horses
as almost to gore them with his horns, and in an instant would
be off in a tangent, and throw his pursuers from the track. At
length the poor animal came to bay, and made some unequivocal
demonstrations of combat, raising and tossing his head furiously,
and tearing up the ground with his feet. At this moment a shot
was fired. The victim trembled like an aspen leaf, and fell on his
knees, but recovering himself in an instant, started again as fast
as before. Again the determined hunters dashed after him, but
the poor bull was nearly exhausted : he proceeded but a short dis-
tance, and stopped again. The hunters approached, rode slowly
by him, and shot two balls through his body with the most per-
fect coolness and precision. During the race — the whole of which
occurred in full view of the party — the men seemed wild with the
excitement which it occasioned : and when the animal fell, a
shout rent the air which startled the antelopes by dozens from the
bluffs, and sent the wolves howling from their lairs.

This is the most common mode of killing the buffalo, and is
practised very generally by the travelling hunters : many are
also destroyed by approaching them on foot, when, if the bushes
are sufficiently dense, or the grass high enough to afford conceal-
ment, the hunter, by keeping carefully to leeward of his game,
may sometimes approach so near as almost to touch the animal.
If on a plain without grass or bushes, it is necessary to be very
circumspect ; to approach so slowly as not to excite alarm, and
when observed by the animal, to imitate dexterously the clumsy
motions of a young bear, or assume the sneaking prowling atti-
tude of a wolf, in order to lull suspicion. The Indians resort to
another strata^-em, which is perhaps even more successful. The
skin of a calf is properly dressed, with the head and legs left at-



teclied to it. The Indian envelopes himself in this, and with his
short bow and a brace of arrows ambles off into the very midst
of a herd. When he has selected such an animal as suits his
fancy, he comes close alongside of it, and without noise passes an
arrow throug-h its heart. One arrow is always sufficient, and it
is generally delivered with such force, that at least half the shaft
appears through the opposite side. The creature totters, and is
about to fall, when the Indian glides aroimd, and draws the
arrow from the wound lest it should be broken. A single Indian
is said to kill a great number of buffaloes in this way before any
alarm is communicated to the herd.

Towards evening, on ascending a hill, the party were suddenly
greeted by a sight which seemed to astonish even the oldest
amongst them. The whole plain, as far as the eye could discern,
was covered by one enormous mass of buffalo. The scene, at
the very least computation, would certainly extend ten miles, and
in the whole of this great space, including about eight miles in
width from the bluffs to the river bank, there was apparently
no vista in the incalculable multitude. It was truly a sight
that would have excited even the dullest mind to enthusiasm.
The party rode up to within a few hundred yards of the edge
of the herd before any alarm was communicated ; then the bulls,
which are always stationed around as sentinels, began pawing*
the ground and throwing the earth over their heads ; in a few
moments they started in a slow clumsy canter, but as the hunters
neared them they quickened their pace to an astonishingly rapid
gallop, and in a few minutes were entirely beyond the reach of
their guns, but were still so near that their enormous horns and
long shaggy beards were very distinctly seen. Shortly after
encamping, the hunters brought in the choice parts of five that
they had killed.

Of the animals belonging to those vast herds which the hunters
kill, only a small portion is usually taken for food. Mr Towns-
end and two of his associates having* killed a bull buffalo, they
proceeded to cut it up in the following approved manner : — The
animal was first raised from his side where he had lain, and sup-
ported upon his knees, with his hoofs turned under him ; a longi-
tudinal incision was then made from the nape or anterior base of
the hump, and continued backward to the loins, and a large
portion of the skin from each side removed ; these pieces of skin
were placed upon the ground, with the under surface uppermost,
and the fleeces, or masses of meat taken from along the back,
were laid upon them. These fleeces, from a large animal, will
weigh perhaps a hundred pounds each, and comprise the whole
of the hump on each side of the vertical processes (commonly
called the hump ribs), which are attached to the vertebrae. The
fleeces are considered the choice parts of the buffalo, and here,
where the game is so abundant, nothing else is taken, if we ex-
cept the tongue and an occasional marrow-bone. This, it must



be confessed, appears like a useless and unwarrantable waste of
the g-oods of Providence ; but when are men economical, unless
compelled to be so by necessity ? The food of the hunters con-
sists for months of nothing- but this kind of buifalo meat, roasted,
and cold water — no bread of any kind. On this rude fare they
enjoyed the best health, clear heads, and high spirits.

One nig'ht shortly after their first encounter with the buffalo,
Mr Townsend entering* his tent about eleven o'clock, after having-
served as a supernumerary watch for several hours, was stooping*
to lay his gun in its usual place at the head of his couch, when
he was startled by seeing- a pair of eyes, wild and brig-ht as those
of a tiger, gleaming' from a dark corner of the lodge, and evidently
directed upon him. " My first impression," he says, " was that
a wolf had been lurking around the camp, and had entered the
tent in the prospect of finding meat. My gun was at my
shoulder instinctively, my aim was directed between the eyes,
and my finger pressed the trigg-er. At that moment a tall Indian
sprang before me with a loud wah ! seized the gun, and elevated
the muzzle above my head ; in another instant a second Indian
was by my side, and I saw his keen knife glitter as it left the
scabbard. I had not time for thought, and M'as struggling with
all my might with the first savag'e for the recovery of my weapon,
when Captain Wyeth and the other inmates of the tent were
-aroused, and the whole matter was explained, and set at rest in a
moment. The Indians were chiefs of the tribe of Pawnee Loups,
who had come with their young men to shoot buifalo : they had
paid an evening visit to the captain, and as an act of courtesy,
had been invited to sleep in the tent. I had not known of their
•arrival, nor did I even suspect that Indians were in our neigh-
bourhood, so could not control the alarm which their sudden
appearance occasioned me. These Indians," continues Mr Towns-
end, " were the finest looking of any I had seen. Their persons
were tall, straight, and finely formed; their noses slightly
aquiline, and the whole countenance expressive of high and
daring intrepidity. The face of the taller one was particularly
admirable, and Gall or Spurzheim, at a single glance at his
magnificent head, would have invested him with all the noblest
qualities of the species. I know not what a physiognomist would
have said of his eyes, but they were certainly the most wonderful
I ever looked into ; glittering and scintillating constantly, like
the mirror-glasses in a lamp frame, and rolling and dancing in
their orbits as though possessed of abstract volition."


As the party, leaving the Pawnees and the buifalo behind,
began to approach the mountain district, the country altered
its appearance greatly for the worse. They were now on a
great sandy waste, forming a kind of upper table-land of North



America — a region without a single green thing to vary and
enliven the scene, and abounding in swarms of ferocious little
black gnats, which assail the eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth of
the unhappy traveller. It is necessary, however, to pursue a
route in this direction, in order to lind accessible passes through
the Rocky Mountains, which are impenetrable more to the
north-west. Making the best of their way over the inhospitable
desert, and fortunately escaping any roving bands of unfriendly
Indians, the cavalcade struck through a range of stony moun-
tains, called the Black Hills, and in a few days afterwards came
in sight of the Wind River Mountains, which form the loftiest
land in the northern continent, and are at all times covered with
snow of dazzling whiteness. From the great heig-ht above the
level of the sea which the party had attained, the climate was
found to be cold, even althoug'h in summer; the plains were
covered only by the scantiest herbage ; and frequently there was
great difficulty in obtaining a supply of water for the camp. The
painfulness of the journey, therefore, was now extreme, both for
man and beast.

Occasionally, however, a green spot did occur, where the jaded
horses were allowed to halt, to roam about without their riders,
and to tumble joyfully on the verdant sward ; and as these oases
always abounded in birds and plants, our two naturalists were
loath to leave them. Nor was their journey through the inhos-
pitable region of the hills devoid of incidents to vary the mono-
tony of the way, and provoke hearty laughs from the whole
party. One afternoon, one of the men had a somewhat perilous
adventure with a grizzly bear. He saw the animal crouching
his huge frame among' 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 severely 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 a young hunter, 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 pitiable 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 the bear had received the contents of all the guns, he
fell, and was soon despatched. The man rode in among* his
fellows, pale and haggard from overwrought feelings, and was



probably effectually cured of a propensity for meddling with
gxizzly bears.

On the 19th of June, the party arrived on the Green river, or
Colorado of the west, which they forded, and encamped upon
a spot which was to form a rendezvous for all the mountain
companies who left the states in spring, and also the trappers
who come from various parts with furs collected by them during
the previous year.

Our traveller relates a misfortune which happened to him
here. Having* sallied forth with his gun, and wandered about
for several hours shooting birds, he found on returning" to the
camp that his party had quitted the spot. In pursuing their
track, he had to swim his horse across a deep and swift stream.
After coming up with the party, he was congratulating himself
on his escape from being drowned, when he found that he had
lost his coat. " I had felt," he says, " uncomfortably warm when
I mounted, and had removed the coat and attached it carelessly
to the saddle ; the rapidity of the current had disengaged it, and
it was lost for ever. The coat itself was not of much consequence
after the hard service it had seen, but it contained the second
volume of my journal, a pocket compass, and other articles o£
essential value to me. I would gladly ha\'e relinquished every-
thing* the garment held, if I could but have recovered the book ;
and although I returned to the river, and searched assiduously
until night, and offered large rewards to the men, it could not
be found."

The loss of his journal, however, was not the only bad conse-
quence of his river adventure. The ducking he had received
brought on a fever which confined him to his tent for several
days. It was well for him that they had now arrived at the
rendezvous where the caravans always make some stay before
proceeding on the remainder of their journey. Still, according
to Mr Townsend's account of the encampment, it was scarcely
the best hospital for an invalid. As there were several other
encampments stationed on the spot — among others that of the
party of rival traders which had passed Captain Wyeth's party
on the road — the encampment was constantly crowded with a
heterogeneous assemblage of visitors. " The principal of these
are Indians of the Nez Perce, Banneck, and Shoshone tribes,
who come with the furs and peltries which they have been col-
lecting at the risk of their lives during the past winter and
spring, to trade for ammunition, trinkets, and fire-water.
There is, in addition to these, a g'reat variety of personages
amongst us ; most of them calling themselves white men, French-
Canadians, half-breeds, &c., their colour nearly as dark, and
their manners wholly as wild, as the Indians with whom they
constantly associate. These people, with their obstreperous
mirth, their whooping, and howling, and quarrelling, added to
the mounted Indians, who are constantly dashing into and



tliTOUgli our camp, yelling- like fiends, the barking* and baying
of savage wolf-dogs, and the incessant cracking of rifles and
carbines, render our camp a perfect bedlam. A more unpleasant
situation for an invalid could scarcely be conceived. I am con-
fined closely to the tent with illness, and am compelled all day
to listen to the hiccoughing* jargon of drunken traders, and the
swearing' and screaming* of our own men, who are scarcely less
savage than the rest, being heated by the detestable liquor which
circulates freely among them. It is very much to be regretted
that at times like the present there should be a positive necessity
to allow the men as much rum as they can drink ; but this course
has been sanctioned and practised by all the leaders of parties
who have hitherto visited these regions, and reform cannot be
thought of now. The principal liquor in use is alcohol diluted
with water. It is sold to the men at three dollars the pint !

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of useful and entertaining tracts (Volume v.5-6) → online text (page 17 of 59)