14 December 2007

Western Diary Provides Distinct Birdlore for the 1834 High Plains

By James Ed. Ducey

The diary of William M. Anderson - a mid-20s lawyer from Kentucky - reveals distinct details for the history of birds of the High Plains of the west, and Nebraska.

Notes started on March 13, 1834 with departure from Louisville for a young man on to an adventure.

Departure from St. Louis for the western trails to the Rocky Mountains, was April 20th.

Some of the principals were then delivered by steamboat to Independence. An party of hearty fur-traders being led by William L. Sublette was being gathered. They started west on April 30th, riding along.

"We are encamped at the Sapling grove, about 20 miles from Independence. We are about 37 men strong - 95 horses. I am now out of the US. for the first time," Anderson wrote on May 5, 1834, when nearly daily entries started to be written in his journal.

The force of men and equipment went past tribal lodges and a village near the Kansas River. Vast quiet prairies were traversed. The trace continued along the upper Blue, with the first elk seen, and past the antelope.

In this area, the traders came upon the Nathaniel Wyeth party of 70 men and 250 horses, including zoologist John Kirk Townsend, with his bird watching, and botanist Thomas Nuttall. They were also going to the Green River rendezvous.

Near the Grand Island of the Platte, and the river road, they passed a spot where there had just been 60-70 lodges. The first buffaloe was soon chased, south of the river.

It was beyond the confluence of the South and North Platte where the first notation of a bird was scribed in the journal. Anderson certainly was impressed by the landscape.

"May, 27, 1834 - Of all the landscapes and scenery I ever saw, the view I had this morning was unsurpassed. It is a hill, in the range of those, which skirts the south side of the north fork of the Platte, the appearance of it is that of a castle situated upon a hill & commanding the country for 7 or 10 miles, down the river. The most delightful delusion was kept up until the base was within a very short distance. A most beautiful meadow-like plain was spread out before it. Flowers of every hue & odour bestarred the prairie. It would seem as if some wealthy scotch lord had fixed his aristocratic stronghold in the wilds of the new world. Antelopes and buffaloe were grazing in his extensive parks. To add to the charm and loveliness an active flowing stream broke out from its base and hastened to astonish the Platte with its clear waters. Would to God that I could design or describe well, tho I should then fail to do justice to this fascinating deception, I would nevertheless commemorate this scene for my own gratification! The chimney is a much more notorious point. It is singular truly, rising to an elevation of 150 feet, it is distinctly visible at the distance of thirty miles Tis a pyramid or rather a funnel inverted--"

At Robidoux Springs, beyond this chimney rock, was the night's camp about Scott's Bluff.

"May 29, 1834 - I saw to day, on horse creek for the first time, one manner of disposing of the dead, which was scaffolding - In the top of the tree fastened by chords of buffaloe hide, so firmly as to resist the wind for a long time, a frame upon which the deceased is placed with all of his movables - This body had fallen out, & the vacated place taken possession of by a hawk, who had deposited her eggs in the spot where the head of Sioux warrior lay. At the suggestion of Major Harris, Black H. one of my messmates I record for my future consideration, that on this evening, about 5 o'clock I bestrode a Caiac of my own slaughtering. We are within one days march of Laramy's fork."

In June the men and stuff were at Fitzpatrick's Cache, at the mouth of Sweetwater Canyon. "The different names which the mountain & stream now in sight, are thus translated - Seitski or ka-dee is in the Crow tongue, prairie cock - upon which there are great numbers of that bird," Anderson write in his June 11th diary entry.

The Sublette crew soon joined with men from the Rocky Mountain company. "We are a motley set, Whites, French, Yankees, Nes Perces, Flatheads, and Snakes, or Shoshones," Anderson said.

Everyone then went a few more miles to the confluence of the Hams Fork and the Black River for the grand rendezvous. The journals discuss each day antics, starting with June 19, 1834. On June 26, he mentioned "nothing in the camps, now but drunken songs & brawls night or day -" there on the frontier.

A young eagle then suddenly came on the scene. "My pet, the young eagle grows finely. The young gentleman is possessed of an admirable appetite," Anderson wrote on the 28th in his diary.

Alternate musings are given by a revised narrative for the day.

"June 28,1834 - We moved a few miles up the creek for fresh grass - I believe we have not had even a gentle shower for months - say two - I have a young eagle which I bear about from camp to camp - He rides very majestically on my pack-horse, looking farther into the surrounding prairies than any one else In the company, but whatever he sees or thinks, he sagely keeps to himself - The young gentleman has an excellent appetite and relishes buffaloe meat very much - I commend his taste. It gives me much pleasure to divide my meals with him."

The obvious raptor had to have been a big attraction among the tents, and throng of peoples at the mountain rendezvous. Perhaps it had been bought for a trifle from a voyageur wanting money for gambling games, instead of a needy bird. There was no further mention of the pet eagle.

Onward in the travel miles, notes refer to breeding snowbirds seen on the mountain-side as Anderson debated whether to ascend "Fame's proud temple" to search for horns of the mountain ram. Also the... "bird of the jay species here, resembling strongly the citizen of the states, but of a paler blue - no bands - no top knot - having the head, in front of the eyes & including them above and below, white." They were seen during an outing in the vicinity of the slopes of the Thompson Plateau.

After the Red Buttes, back at the North Platte, Anderson wrote on August 16th: "An anecdote told me to day of the 'blackbird,' chief of the Mohaws - sometime dead, evinces the despotic assuming tyrant as completely as any that history can shew. This chief when asleep, ordered that none should dare awake him save by tickling his nose with a feather. And upon no occasion could his subjects be induced to break this order - even tho an enemy approached." This is Chief Blackbird of the Omaha, upon the Missouri River.

Camp affairs and other affrays were featured in the diary for the interlude the next weeks with stops at Fort William and Fort Laramie. Wolves and wild horses were shot. Many buffalo were shot Ash Hollow, to make provisions. About 30 miles if not 32 or 35, was the average daily distance, typically along Pawnee trails. Anderson wrote that the Grand Island was 90 miles in length, 120 according to the Indians.

"This river, like all natural wonders, is an inscrutable mystery."

The Sublette party eventually reached the Loup Fork on September 8th, then overland a couple of days later, past the ruins of the old Council Bluff. Within two days they were resting at Fontenelle's Belle Vue, a "pretty situation well deserving the name it bears." The locale was on a bluff of the Missouri valley, north from the wide mouth of the Platte.

Sunday. "A large flock of pelicans rose from the river near us, & commenced their spiral ascent, mounting higher & higher as the clouds darkened and the noise increased, until they supposed that their elevation would secure them a passage from the shower of frozen grapeshot - Scarcely had they disappeared from the N.E. horizon when heavens musketry & cannister was fired upon the earth - then I felt indeed grateful that I was not shelterless upon the desert plains of the Platte..."
"September 15, 1834 - Monday. The storm has passed, & our flock of pelicans have returned in increased numbers. Much more numerous than the largest flocks of buzzards in the west."

The remaining party then floated down the Big Water in two canoes, propelled by six rowers.

A final reference to birds was upon a returned to some civilization at Lexington. The scribe mentioned: "the deep mouthed owl in lonely independence hooting to the midnight echoes of these shores, to hear the wolves in rapid discord howling on Missouris avalanching shores."

Anderson reached St. Louis on September 29, 1834, then boated to home, and a marriage to dear Eliza McArthur, the next February. Their first residence was in the mansion at Fruit Hill, outside Chillicothe. Reminiscence of the adventure were published in the American Turf Register in 1937.

After moving to Glen Mary, Mr. Anderson continued his outdoor pursuits, and being a prosperous farmer.

The two items mentioned for Nebraska were not included in Birds of the Untamed West. The History of Birdlife in Nebraska. 1750 to 1875. The lore for the hawk nest is an especially interesting bit of an addition to that history.

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