Perhaps the most distressing phenomena of the Great Plains were the mirages. These were more noticeable in the south, being particularly vivid in the neighborhood of the Cimarron Desert. In the midst of the gray desolation, would suddenly appear a sparkling river, or a gleaming lake. Everything would seem perfect, a breeze rippling the water, the shores distinctly outlined, yet it all faded away upon approach. Occasionally the mirage would assume other forms — a large caravan, or a splendid city, — but, ever it was a dissolving picture, which tantalized many a wearied traveler.
The Flora and Fauna
The flora and fauna of this vast region during the years of its invasion by the white man may be briefly summarized. The most important and practically the only tree was the Cottonwood. The best-known species was the broad-leaved, found along the lower water-courses, where the trunk occasionally attained to five feet in diameter, with a height of seventy. Higher up in the foothills the leaf became narrower. Cottonwood groves were favorite camping-places on the Long Trail, furnishing fuel, as well as logs for huts, and even food for horses. The bark was nutritious, and the animals not only liked it, but throve upon it as well as upon oats. In some of the valleys the quaking ash was found, usually growing in small compact copses. It was a good wood for fuel. Toward the mountains pine, spruce, balsam, and fir abounded, while cedars were very numerous but generally distorted and misshapen by the never-ceasing winds. Along most of the prairie streams, there were willow growths, often forming extensive thickets, almost impenetrable, and closely crowding the bank.
Although the plains and most of the foothills and badlands were absolutely destitute of trees, there were occasional extensive forests which became celebrated. The country of the Black Hills was heavily wooded. On the head-waters of the Neosho River was the famous forest of Council Grove, a great camping-spot for caravans bound for Santa Fe. The Big Timbers of the Arkansas River consisted of a large grove of cottonwoods extending for several miles along the northern bank of that stream, a little distance below the site of Bent’s Fort, Colorado.
The Cross Timbers, composed mostly of dwarfish, stunted trees, was farther south, extending from the Brazos River in Texas, northwest to the Canadian River. A branch ran westward across the Canadian North Fork. On the more open plains of the north the only growth was sage-brush and grease-wood, while to the south, the cactus and the Spanish bayonet reigned supreme. In Colorado the prickly pear was common, and on the dry plains of New Mexico, the giant cactus took weird, fantastic forms.
But, the most important vegetation of the entire region were the grasses. There were extensive barren spots, dry desolate deserts, but, speaking generally, no region in the world ever excelled the Plains as a grazing country. On the lower prairies and in the stream bottoms the growth was luxuriant, yet even upon the high plains, the table-lands and hills, were found grasses of value. One peculiarity of these grasses is that they retain their nutritive power after the season of growth is over, even under the snow of winter. The three chief ones were the gramma grass, the buffalo grass, and the bunch grass. Of these, the last was most widespread and valuable.
In this extensive region, the most important animals were the buffalo, not only because of their number but also owing to their value to the Indian. The buffalo furnished sustenance for all the tribes of the Plains. Almost everything the Indian required was furnished by the buffalo — his food, his bed, his clothes, his weapons of war and chase, his boats, his saddles, and most of the articles required for domestic use. The story of the buffalo can never be written in its entirety. Beyond doubt, the range of these strange shaggy beasts, called by the first Spanish explorers “deformed cattle,” at one time extended from the Rocky Mountains to the Alleghanies. But, steadily they were forced westward. It is impossible to contend that this retreat was caused by the advance of the white man, for it largely predated white occupancy.
As early as 1807 the range of the buffalo had receded as far as he 97th meridian. When first known to early explorers of the Plains the great herds roamed from the Missouri River to the Rockies, and from near the Gulf to 60 degrees north latitude.
The multitude of these animals, within the memory of men of the time, was almost beyond belief. No enumeration was ever satisfactory, but, it is incontrovertible that they numbered millions upon millions. Railroad trains and steamboats have been held up for hours to permit vast herds to pass. Innumerable trails worn by their hoofs remained visible for years. The slight statistics relating to their slaughter in later years are evidence of the vastness of their original numbers. The American Fur Company in 1840 sent to St. Louis, 67,000 robes, and in 1848, 110,000. Twenty-five thousand buffalo tongues were brought to that city the same year. As early as 1860 it was estimated that at least 250,000 buffalo were being killed yearly. As late as 1871 Colonel Richard Irving Dodge wrote of riding for 25 miles in western Kansas through an immense herd, the whole country about him appearing a solid mass of moving buffalo. In that year the animals moved northward on their annual migration in a column from 25-50 miles wide and of unknown depth from front to rear. In the later migrations, as observed by whites, the buffalo columns usually crossed the Arkansas River somewhere between Great Bend, Kansas<style=”margin-top: 0; margin-bottom: 0″> and Big Sand Creek, Colorado. Colonel Dodge estimated that in the three years between 1872-74, at least five million buffalo were slaughtered for their hides.
Other animals also made their homes on the Great Plains. Along nearly all the streams was to be found the beaver, while out upon the prairies, far from his mountain lair, wandered the ferocious grizzly bear in search of food. The black bear seldom left the foothills. Elk, various species of deer, and antelope were numerous. The wolf was the most ignoble of the inhabitants of the Plains. The gray wolf was largest and most troublesome, although the coyote made the night hideous with its unending yowls. Panthers and wildcats were frequently encountered, while the prairie dog was almost always in evidence in the more desolate regions.
Next to the buffalo, however, the most important animal of the Plains was the wild horse. The horse was a comparatively recent arrival, not native to America, but introduced by the Spaniards into Mexico. It multiplied with great rapidity, overspreading all the southern Plains, where it was captured by the Indians, and gradually taken north. As early as 1700, it was in quite general use. The wild horses ran in droves often of considerable size, under the leadership of a stallion. They were taken usually by the lasso, although occasionally “creasing” was the method employed. This consisted of shooting a rifle ball through the top of the neck so as to cut a nerve, and render the animal for a short time insensible. Thousands were caught for the market in the early days of white occupancy, and as late as 1894, a few bands were still running free in the Texas Panhandle.