Ramblings In the West

Fort Garland, Colorado by Kathy Weiser.

Fort Garland, Colorado by Kathy Weiser.

He also pointed out a far distant peak, at the foot of which, he said, Fort Massachusetts (now Fort Garland), Colorado was situated; and as this was the first place from which we could expect to procure supplies, I dispatched two men with the only serviceable mules we had, giving them orders to hurry through to the fort, with a note to the commanding officer urging him to send us relief as soon as possible, as we were starving. They started at once, the snow having diminished a little in depth, and we followed on as fast as the crippled condition of our animals would permit, and at length reached the plain we had seen from the top of the mountains.

Ten days had now elapsed since our messengers left for the fort, and as nothing had been heard from them, and fresh snow had obliterated their tracks, I was fearful they had perished or last their way, but about sunset, two horsemen were discovered in the distance rapidly approaching, and to our great relief they soon came galloping into camp on fine fresh horses and proved to be our long-looked-for messengers, and I have never witnessed such an exhibition of joy as was evinced by the party on that occasion.

The ruling propensity of men who are accustomed to tobacco received a forcible illustration at this time, as one of the messengers from the fort, before dismounting, threw a long plug of chewing tobacco into the crowd, where it was soon torn to pieces and demolished; but it so happened that one man who did not succeed in getting a taste offered ten dollars to another for a single quid, which, being about the amount of a months pay of the soldier, was, I thought, quite an extravagant offer.

At another time, while we were in the deepest snow and had stopped for a few minutes to rest and warm, I filled my pipe from a very small piece of tobacco the last remaining fragment in the party and observing the anxious look of one of my very best men who stood near me, I held the precious morsel out to him and asked if he would not take a smoke. He replied, “No, thank you, captain; I never smoke.”

“Well,” I said, “you are fortunate not to indulge in this habit when tobacco is so scarce.” He said nothing for a moment, then added, “I sometimes chew.”

“Help yourself,” said I, which he did, and exclaimed, with a most grateful expression, “I never tasted anything so good in my life, captain.”

We resumed our journey the following morning, and during the day met the supply wagons, which were at once turned into camp, when the soup was made for the party, and a guard placed over the provisions to prevent the men from overeating, which in their famished condition might have serious consequences.

The commanding officer at Fort Massachusetts had kindly sent me a jug of brandy, and as soon as we reached camp, I gave each one of the men a small drink, which in a short time made them very drunk, but the soup soon sobered them.

Notwithstanding my precautions, five of the men got at the provisions during the night and were almost insensible the next morning from excruciating pains in the stomach, the effects of their imprudence. Medicine was given for their relief, but one of them, Sergeant Mortona, most excellent soldier of the 10th infantry, died during the day, and it was with great difficulty that the lives of the other four were saved.

Marcy Expedition

Marcy Expedition

Four days afterward, we marched into Fort Massachusetts, receiving a hearty welcome from the officers and men of the garrison. But, judging from the quizzical expression of their countenances and their manifest efforts to smother their risible impulses, they evidently looked upon us as the leanest, ragged, and untidy uniformed specimens of regulars they had ever encountered, which was not at all surprising, as but few of the party had any caps, their shoes were worn out, and their feet bound with mule hides or fragments of blankets, their trousers worn off below the knees by the snow crust and brush, and the few greatcoats remaining were materially razeed for repairing rents in other garments.

We had been 51 days in making the journey from Fort Bridger, about 500 miles, the greater part of the way over elevated mountains buried in deep snows, without the slightest trace of a road, pathway, or trail, and not a white man or house was met with during the entire trip. We were all greatly emaciated, and twelve of the soldiers had their feet and legs were frozen so badly that they had to be carried upon the poor mules, only eighteen of which remained alive at the terminus of our journey.

From Fort Massachusetts, we proceeded on to Santa Fe, and after securing such supplies as were required for our operations in Utah, set out on our return by a different route, passing through the Raton Mountains, and near Pikes Peak, to the divide of the Arkansas and Platte rivers at Squirrel Creek, where, on the first day of May, we encountered the most terrific storm I ever witnessed.

The wind blew a furious gale for thirty hours, accompanied by a dense, sharp, blinding snow, which fell to the depth of three feet, causing two of our herders to perish but a short distance from the camp and another was found crawling around on his hands and knees, in a state of mental aberration, after the storm ceased.

From there, we followed down Cherry Creek to its confluence with the South Platte River, which we found too deep and rapid for fording, and were obliged to halt for several days and build a boat to make the crossing with safety. While we were here, one of our teamsters and old trapper washed out some gold from the sands of Cherry Creek, and shortly afterward, at his request, he was discharged and left us.

There was not then a white man living within one hundred miles of this place, but in a few weeks miners began to arrive from the East (probably guided by our discharged employee) and pitched their tents upon the same ground we had occupied, and that identical spot is at this time embraced within the limits of a most beautiful and flourishing city of 50,000 inhabitants and is called Denver.

From there we encountered no further obstructions, passing around the foothills, up the Cache la Poudre River, and down Bitter Creek, where no wagon ever passed before and arrived at Fort Bridger on the 2nd of June.

As the different transcontinental railroads that have been completed afford easy access to the greater part of our Western domain, it has occurred to me that a description of the country traversed by these thoroughfares would give the farmer or stock-grower a more accurate knowledge of the comparative advantages of different sections than could be derived from other sources. I, therefore, adopt this method of giving my own views on the subject.

Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railroad

Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railroad

Of the three different railroads extending from the Mississippi River to New Mexico, the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio road, leaving New Orleans, passes Galveston and San Antonio, and runs through southern Texas to El Paso, on the Rio del Norte. It traverses a rich farming section as far as San Antonio, when it enters a more arid and barren region, which for the most part is only adapted to grazing purposes, and thence on to El Paso, but few arable areas are found. The Texas Pacific Railroad connects with Eastern roads at Dallas, Texas, from whence it passes through central Texas to El Paso, near the route explored by me in 1849, some account of which has already been given in this paper.   The third road, called the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, leaves the Missouri River at Topeka and Kansas City, traversing a very rich agricultural district of Kansas that is rapidly filling up with industrious farmers; then it strikes the Arkansas River, and follows up the valley of that stream for several hundred miles, passing over the smooth but narrow bottom, where there is but little wood. The soil, however, is fair and can generally be cultivated without irrigation. On leaving the Arkansas River, the track passes an arid and mountainous section, striking the Rio Grande at Albuquerque, New Mexico, and turns down that stream to El Paso, where it unites with the Texas roads before mentioned.

These three roads, from Deming, New Mexico, pass over the Southern Pacific Railroad to Los Angeles, California, 715 miles, nearly all of which is over an arid undulating prairie region, with but little wood, water, or grass, until arriving at the Gila River, a small stream that sometimes dries up in summer, but whose narrow borders can generally be made productive by taking water from the river in ditches.  Following this stream to its mouth, the road crosses the Colorado River at Yuma, Arizona, and then over the desert and mountains to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Another road connects with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe road at Albuquerque, called the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, which runs almost due west, crossing the Colorado River at the Needles and uniting with the Southern Pacific at Mohave, 815 miles from its eastern terminus. The eastern portion of this road, over which I have passed, traverses the most parched, barren, and worthless section of the universe it has ever been my fate to encounter. There are, however, a few insignificant patches of land along the narrow borders of some diminutive watercourses that can be tilled by artificial irrigation.

Union Pacific Train, late 1800s

Union Pacific Train, late 1800s

The Union Pacific Railroad, leaving the Missouri River at Omaha, traverses the left bank of the Platte River for 250 miles over remarkably smooth and level bottomlands from ten to twenty miles wide, which sustain a dense coating of native grass, affording the occupants an unlimited supply of hay. The soil, although somewhat sandy, is generally fertile and tilled without irrigation. There is no wood upon this part of the Platte River, save a scanty fringe of cottonwood, which makes it necessary for the settlers to burn coal, a heavy tax upon them. These conditions continue- until the road crosses the North Platte and bears to the right up Lodge Pole Creek, and thence onward to Salt Lake, and over the Central Pacific Railway to Carson River a distance of about 1,500 miles, through elevated plains, with no wood excepting pine and cedar in the adjacent mountains, and with but little water outside Salt Lake Valley that is available for irrigation.

Only a minute fraction of this vast area is arable, yet it affords a short grass of the buffalo variety, with here and there some bunch-grass, both highly nutritious, and stock-raising to a considerable extent has been started upon the most favorable localities throughout that section of the country. Several towns and hamlets have been established near railway stations along this arid section, the most important of which, Cheyenne and Laramie, are beautifully located and well built.

The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, extending from Pueblo, Colorado, to Salt Lake City (650 miles), is one of the most signal achievements in engineering skills ever attempted. This road meanders through a country covered by lofty mountains, with narrow valleys and precipitous canons intervening, one of the latter, the Black Canyon of the Arkansas River, being 2000 feet deep, through which the Arkansas River rushes with tremendous velocity over precipitous falls and rapids, and the railroad in its tortuous zigzag course through this wonderful gorge doubles upon itself in numerous short curves directed to all points of the compass, so that the locomotive that invariably precedes the passenger train to clear the track occasionally appears to be thousands of feet directly overhead or underfoot, rendering it difficult to realize the fact that it is upon the same track with the observer. The gradient here is 213 feet to the mile, and at one point, 10,857 feet above the sea has been attained the highest altitude reached by any railway in America.

The scenery is marvelously grand and picturesque upon this road and its branches. Water and grass are abundant throughout this section, and the mountains abound in pine, cedar, and cottonwood. But the altitude of the valleys is so great here, and the summers so short, that grain will not mature with any certainty.

Wahsatch Mountains

Wahsatch Mountains

This part of the country will not, therefore, be likely to attract farmers, but cattle-raisers have commenced driving their herds to this section, and stock-growing has for some years past proved remunerative along the branches of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers as well as in the adjacent Wahsatch Mountains.

The Northern Pacific Railroad from its eastern terminus at Duluth to Portland, Oregon, is 1889 miles in length. This road for the first 120 miles traverses a flat, wet, and sandy pine and tamarack region totally destitute of agricultural requirements to the crossing of the Mississippi River at Brainerd. From there, the character of the country contiguous to the road becomes more attractive. The wet sandy soil disappears and is replaced by fertile glades and prairies, interspersed with groves of hard timber, and is abundantly watered with beautiful lakes and small streams, which characteristics continue to Fargo, a thriving city upon Red River of the North, where the St. Paul branch unites with the main trunk road.

From Fargo, North Dakota, the Red River is navigable for steamers to Lake Winnipeg. Below Fargo, the river finds its narrow, deep, and tortuous channel through bottomlands more level, expanded, and fertile than I have seen upon any other watercourse. This vast prairie bottom is from twenty to 75 miles wide, with a dark soil three feet deep, naturally sustaining a dense coating of luxuriant grass, and with the favorable climatic conditions of this locality, it yields without irrigation large crops of the highest grades of spring wheat, only requiring about three months from planting to maturity, as the products of several great plantations in that section have already illustrated.

The railroad from Fargo continues on over a fertile wheat-growing district that is rapidly filling up with substantial farms as far as Bismarck, where it crosses the Missouri River and enters a more sterile region, following the valley of the Yellowstone 600 miles into Montana, where grain can seldom be raised without irrigation, except in some of the sheltered valleys like the Gallatin. Yet the seasons are so short here that frost occasionally injures the crops before they are matured so that flour is sometimes brought here from Minnesota at considerable expense. I am persuaded that Montana is better adapted to stock-raising than any of the more southerly territories, for the reason that the nutritious bunch-grass, which germinates early in the spring, matures rapidly, and cures like hay before the autumn rainfall washes out its nutritive properties, grows more dense and abundant upon the mountains and valleys in this territory than I have seen it elsewhere.

The snow rarely falls very deep here and is seldom rained upon and frozen so as to form a crust that prevents animals from reaching the grass, as sometimes occurs in Colorado, Wyoming, and other more southern localities. Besides, the winds generally blow off the dry snow from the mountain slopes, exposing the grass, and the herds, as if by instinct, seem to anticipate such contingencies and continue to graze in the valleys until the snow becomes too deep, reserving the mountain pasturage for midwinter consumption. Cattle are said to be remarkably healthy and thrifty in this climate, requiring no other forage but the native grass the year-round.

From Helena, the railroad crosses the great continental divide through a pass about 6000 feet above tide-water, and runs into northern Idaho along the banks of Clarkes Fork of the Columbia for 300 miles, and thence down the Columbia River, through Oregon to Portland, which is one of the most beautiful and prosperous new cities I have ever visited, and from its numerous railway and water communications, and its preeminent natural position and resources, it seems destined to become the most important commercial metropolis in the Northwest.

Randolph B. Marcy

Randolph B. Marcy

By Randolph Barnes Marcy, 1888. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2020,

About the Author:  Randolph Barnes Marcy, (1812-1887) was a United States Army officer and Western explorer.  On December 12, 1878, he was promoted to the regular rank of brigadier general and was named inspector general of the army.  Ramblings In the West appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Volume 76, Issue 453, in February 1888.

Also See:

The American West

Tales & Trails of the American Frontier

Westward Expansion & Manifest Destiny

Historical Accounts of American History