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. With a Comanche Indian, who assured me he could pilot us through to Texas, I ventured out from Donna Anna, 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 the 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 the 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.

In view of these facts, it will be apparent that the idea of expanding our Western frontier settlements beyond Texas, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska, in anticipation of making other agricultural states of like productive capacity, is altogether fallacious. The history of New Mexico, which has been occupied by the Spaniards for more than a century, and where nearly all the available land has been continually cultivated ever since gives a forcible illustration of this. Besides, ever since that territory was ceded to the United States in 1848 by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it has been open to occupation by our citizens, yet but very little has been added to its area of cultivation or to its population within that period.

I received orders from the War Department in 1852 to explore the Red River of Louisiana from the upper settlements upon that stream to its sources. There was then no record of any men ever having reached the head of this important tributary of the Mississippi, which is navigable for steamers 1500 miles above its mouth. It was, however, supposed to take its rise in a mountainous region east of New Mexico.

Red River in Texas

Red River in Texas

The navigable part of Red River meanders through heavily timbered alluvial bottomlands of the most prolific character, yielding enormous crops of cotton and cereals without artificial irrigation.  Our explorations commenced above the timbered section, where the soil was not so deep as below, and it became more arid and sterile as we ascended until we reached the point where it debouched from the great Llano Estacado through a gigantic gorge or canon at least 500 feet deep, and here the water was very bitter and unpalatable, resulting from the decomposition of gypsum, through an immense deposit of which the river flowed for seventy miles, and which the eminent geologist Dr. Hitchcock pronounced to be, with one exception, the largest body of that mineral in the known world. As soon as this deposit was passed, the water became pure and free from salts.

While serving in Florida during the Seminole war in 1857, my regiment was ordered to march from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Utah, for the purpose of aiding the authorities in enforcing the laws of the United States against their infractions by the Mormons.

We left the Missouri River, with large trains of ox teams transporting our supplies, on the 22nd of July, and proceeded over the South Pass route at the rate of only 14 miles a day, until we reached the Rocky Mountains, where we encountered cold storms, with so much snow that our wearied cattle, exhausted from overwork and the absence of grass or other forage, soon began to break down and die by the hundreds, which finally compelled us to stop for the winter at Fort Bridger, Wyoming 150 miles short of our original destination at Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Mormons at that time evinced the most implacable hostility toward us, destroying three of our large supply trains, and orders from their highest authorities, which I captured from one of their armed parties, directed them to destroy the roads, burn the bridges and grass in front of us, and impede our movements in every way in their power. They had also fortified the deep mountain gorges through which they expected us to pass, and in their Temple, threatened us with war to the knife should we attempt to approach Salt Lake City.

Mormon Temple grounds, Salt Lake City, Utah

Mormon Temple grounds, Salt Lake City, Utah

I saw in their paper, the Deseret News, the quotation from a discourse delivered about that time in their Temple by Heber Kimball, one of the most belligerent of Brigham Young’s 12 disciples, in which he said: “We are told in the good book that we should love our enemies, but I feel to hate my enemies, and I hate the President of the United States. And, my brethren, they tell us that the President is sending out an army of 2500 men to chastise these people. Good God! I have wives enough to whip out that army.” This did not, however, give us much uneasiness, and if our animals had held out, we would doubtless have pushed forward at once, which might have brought on a sanguinary war with those people.

We reached Fort Bridger about the middle of November, having been nearly four months upon the road. This, with the destruction of our trains, consumed the greater part of our winter supplies, and as they could not be replenished from the Missouri River before the following June, General Johnston, the commander, determined to send a detachment directly over the mountains to New Mexico, from whence it was believed supplies could be obtained earlier than from further east. I was detailed to conduct this expedition, and with an old mountain guide and forty enlisted men, with sixty-six pack-mules, we left Fort Bridger on the 24th of November, and arrived at the base of the mountains near Grand River without difficulty, finding but little snow, and plenty of grass for our animals for the first 200 miles. But in advance of us, the prospect did not appear so encouraging, as the lofty peaks of the Rocky Mountains rising into the clouds directly across our course were covered with snow. From this point onward, we encountered the most formidable obstructions; perhaps the mention of a few incidents relative thereto may not overtax the reader’s indulgence.

We here met with a band of Digger Ute Indians and endeavored to hire their chief to guide us to the summit of the mountains, offering him the price of four horses. But he refused, saying he would not attempt it for everything we possessed; that he crossed these mountains in the autumn and found snow two feet deep then, but it might be six feet now. He would, therefore, advise us to remain with him through the winter or go back where we came from, as we would inevitably perish if we continued on.

Notwithstanding his gloomy prediction, we resumed our march the following day but soon struck snow that materially impeded our progress, and it continued to increase as we advanced, until after a few days it became so deep that our mules could no longer wade through it, and obliged me to place the men in advance to break a track for them.

The snow at this time was five feet deep and so dry and light that a man could not walk upright without sinking to his waist at every step; neither could snowshoes be used; and the only alternative was for the leading men to lie down and crawl over the snow, placing their hands and feet in the same holes, so that when four or five had started in single file the track bore up the others walking up-right, and after all had passed, the snow became sufficiently packed to support the mules. Thus we struggled on at the rate of only three or four miles a day until at length our provisions were consumed, and our poor animals, having no forage but bitter pine leaves, began to falter and die from starvation. But they thus secured us from starvation, as we had no other sustenance for fifteen days save the lean flesh cut from their dead carcasses. We had no sugar, tea, coffee, salt. or tobacco but suffered most for want of the last two.

Fort Bridger, Wyoming

Fort Bridger, Wyoming

While thus forcing our way onward, and encouraged by the confident assurances of our guide that we would soon reach the summit of the mountains, one of our herders, a half-breed Mexican, who was accidentally picked up just as we were leaving Fort Bridger, came to me, and said if I was aiming for the Cochetopa Pass, we were then going directly away from it; that he had been there before, and was familiar with the country.

This startling announcement, as may be imagined, caused me most serious apprehension and alarm, as up to that time I had placed implicit reliance upon the knowledge of our guide, whom I at once called up and questioned closely, and he finally admitted that as he had never passed over these mountains except in summer, their appearance now, enveloped in deep snow, was so different from what it was whenever he had seen them before that he was not altogether certain he was upon the right course; still, he believed lie was correct.

This evidence of a lack of confidence on his part was to me, a matter of the most intense perplexity and anxiety, as I had the best reasons for believing the pass we were aiming for to be the only one for several hundred miles where these mountains could be crossed in midwinter. Indeed, General Fremont, some years before this, in the winter season attempted the passage of this range of mountains forty miles south of the Cochetopa Pass and lost all of his animals and several of his men, obliging him to abandon the enterprise and return to Taos, the point of his departure. In view of the momentous consequences involved in the dilemma, I asked the herder if he was absolutely certain as to the correctness of his statement. If so, and lie was willing to act as a guide, I would give him $50 dollars in addition to his wages. But, I added, if at any time I discover you are not leading us right, I shall hang you to the first tree we come across as certain as you are living. He replied that lie was willing to risk his neck upon it, and he was received as our guide from that time, and doubtless saved all our lives, as without him we would all inevitably have starved to death.

Shortly after this, from the summit of an elevated peak, he pointed out to me a depression in the mountain chain to our left, about thirty miles distant, which lie said was the Cochetopa Pass we had been so anxiously looking for. But it required ten days of the severest labor to reach it. We had not for twenty days seen the least indication of a road or trail, but here we discovered evidence that a white man had been here before us in some distinct blazes smoothly cut by a white man’s ax upon the trees in the pass. In looking east from the summit of the great continental divide at this point, we saw in the distance a vast plain bounded by a chain of lofty mountains, extending south as far as the eye could penetrate, and this our guide informed us was within the valley of the Rio del Norte, now called San Luis Park.