Ramblings In the West


By General Randolph B. Marcy, Published in 1888

American Progress by John Gast in 1872.

American Progress by John Gast in 1872.

The rapid and thorough reclamation of our Western possessions from the control and domination of the Indians, and the magical transformation of this vast expanse of wilderness from a theatre of barbarous warfare into thriving cities, villages, and farms, the occupants of which are provided with peaceful and happy homes, are doubtless without a parallel in the annals of civilization.

The purpose of this paper will be to elucidate this subject mainly deduced from personal observations during half a century’s service in the United States Army, for the most part in the wilds of the West.

As during this period I was often called upon to conduct extended explorations, involving long marches and occasional severe hardships and privations, leading me into the most unfrequented recesses of the mountains and plains, it has occurred to me that a succinct narration of some of the most notable incidents attending this era of my somewhat adventurous career might not prove void of interest to the reader, and serve to convey a general idea of the topographical, agricultural, and other characteristic features of that important section of our extensive domain.

In the execution of this purpose, I remark that my military service commenced in Wisconsin when there was not a cultivated farm throughout the entire area of that large and preeminently attractive agricultural territory. Neither was there a road leading from my station at Green Bay in any direction so that the only practicable method of penetrating the adjacent forests was by following crooked and narrow Indian trails. Indeed, the whole country west of Lake Michigan, as far south as Milwaukee, was at that time a vast primeval forest, without a wagon trace, clearing, or house, and the only respectable tenement at the incipient hamlet of Milwaukee was that of Solomon Juneau, a most genial and hospitable French Indian trader, who through preemption secured a patent to a quarter section of ground embracing the present site of that magnificent city.

The Western border settlements when I first reached Wisconsin did not extend beyond the Mississippi River. But from that time to the present a movable cordon of military posts has been kept up in advance of the outer pioneers, thereby interposing an effective barrier against the incursions of blood-thirsty Indians, who have but recently ceased their barbarous efforts to obstruct the advance of civilization. And it is believed that without the protection thus afforded it would have been impossible to have forced our settlements much beyond the Mississippi River for many years to come.

Fort Snelling MN Detroit Pub 1898

Fort Snelling MN Detroit Pub 1898

In 1838 I visited Fort Snelling, Minnesota only five miles from where the proud and beautiful cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis now stand, with a population of 100,000 each, and where there was not then a white human habitation.

Indeed, I saw but three cabins between Fort Snelling and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, a distance of some 300 miles along the Mississippi River, whereas numerous large and flourishing towns and highly cultivated plantations now skirt both banks of the river throughout the entire distance.

In 1848 I was ordered to the Indian Territory, where I served for several years among the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee, numbering in the aggregate about 50,000 souls. They were at that time, through the benevolent efforts of missionaries, considerably advanced in civilization and enlightenment, having abandoned their hunting proclivities, and adopted agricultural avocations. They had churches and schools, which were well sustained, and many of them were fairly educated, living in comfortable houses, and produced abundant crops, and some of them cultivated large and remunerative cotton plantations.

The Choctaw and Chickasaw Reservations, united, are some 300 by 200 miles in extent, embodying woodlands and beautiful prairies, all well watered, and the soil eminently productive and admirably adapted to the requirements of the husbandman. While there in 1849 I was ordered to escort a large party of emigrants from Arkansas to New Mexico, en route to California. Our course, near the 35th parallel of latitude, led us for the first 200 miles through a heavily timbered forest, when we emerged into the Great Plains, and followed the Canadian River Valley for 400 miles over an unexplored, arid, and sterile region, and thence through a mountainous section, until we arrived at Santa Fe, 820 miles from the point of our departure at Fort Smith.

We ascertained here that the emigrants could not take their wagons through to California without turning down the Rio Grande 300 miles to the southern Gila route, the only practicable road then known. It appeared that the authorities at Washington imagined there was a wagon trail from Santa Fe direct to San Francisco, and my orders were issued under that misapprehension.

Texas Frontier

Texas Frontier

As it was evident the road we had made would no longer be traveled by California emigrants, being 200 miles out of the direct course, I resolved to accompany the party to the Gila road, and endeavor to find a practicable wagon route from that point back to Arkansas; and with a Comanche Indian, who assured me he could pilot us through to Texas, I ventured out from Donna Ana, on the Rio Grande, and marked out an excellent road to Fort Smith, a distance of 904 miles, 500 of which was through an unexplored section of country, and this road was afterward traveled by emigrants for several years, and the Texas Pacific Railway passes near the same route now. This road from Fort Smith crosses the Red, Trinity, Brazos, and Colorado Rivers of Texas, traversing a most fertile region as far as the 101st degree of longitude, or about 120 miles beyond the western limits of arable land upon most of the other Pacific roads; but from thence onward, through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the country for the most part is sterile and worthless, except for grazing.

Four different trunk railroads, with numerous auxiliary Eastern branches, have been completed entirely across the continent within the limits of our possessions. Yet it is doubted if the public generally entertains a correct idea of the agricultural capacity of much of the country over which these continental thoroughfares pass. Many seem still to be of opinion that our border territories possess all the elements for making rich grain producing States; but this conclusion is erroneous, as my own observations, while crossing the Rocky Mountain chain at several different points between latitudes 32 and 48 north, conclusively show that near the center of the continent a broad belt of elevated arid tablelands is found extending from latitude 31 to 45, and from longitude 100 to 120, where, on account of the infrequency of summer rains, crops can rarely be produced without artificial irrigation.

And the scarcity of permanent water renders this method of tillage impracticable, except along the few streams from which the water can be turned out over the bottoms, or brought in ditches from adjacent mountains. Besides. there is no woodland throughout this entire tract save narrow fringes of cottonwood skirting the banks of watercourses; in the mountains pine timber is found, some of which makes fair lumber; but there is no hardwood in this belt, except occasionally a few small scrubby oaks are met with. But I have never, while hunting in these mountains during every September for the past 14 years, seen an oak or another hardwood tree sufficiently large, long, and straight to make a decent wagon tongue.

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