A military party led by Lieutenant Governeur Kemble Warren, topographic engineer, U.S. Army, was ordered to explore the Nebraska and Dacota territories to devise the best route for a military road from Sioux City to the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains. The explorations started with the Sioux Expedition in 1855 with its summer season expedition along the Missouri River and then southward through the eastern sandhills and west to Fort Laramie, and in 1856 to the Yellowstone River region.
The primary object of the military force reconnaissance in 1857 was to was to examine the valley of the Loup Fork and the Niobrara River to determine their character.
It was an ordeal long remembered by men of the expedition, based on the scribbles of the original journals written by topographer J. Hudson Snowden, Edgar W. Warren, and Lt. Warren. Their comments are actually quite brief in their entirety with typically only a single page or a few sentences written for each entry.
Snowden had the best penmanship, as his journal is the most expansive and descriptive, Mr. Warrens words were brief and provided interesting but mundane details. Lt. Warren's wrote in an small notebook, with the text difficult to read, and there were problems due to fading, which tends to make it less possible to determine what the Lieutenant wrote.
Each of these journals are preserved, and available on microfilm - including those from the sandhills and other places visited - as part of the collection of Lt. Warren's papers at the New York State Library in Albany.
Also of importance, Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden was the expedition's geologist and naturalist, responsible for findings relative to these topics. He prepared summary reports after the expedition was over, with a major portion issued as a "Catalogue of the Collections in Geology and Natural History." This includes details on plants and birds, with specimens of the latter still present in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Further details on the birds were noted by Spencer Fullerton Baird, John Cassin and George N. Lawrence in their 1860 tome, "The Birds of North America; the Descriptions of Species Based Chiefly on the Collections in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution." Two particular highlights along the lower Loup Fork, during July, were collected specimens of the Piping Plover and Vesper Sparrow. The bird specimens document the first ever known occurrence of these two types of birds to the scientific world, neither have ever been previously collected or identified anywhere in the United States, or the world, for that matter.
Other principals of the party included a second topographer, P.M. Engel, the meteorologist W.P.C. Carrington, surgeon Dr. Samuel Moffitt. The Second Infantry escort party was under the command of Lieutenant James McMillan.
Highlights are given in the following account which presents unique history from nearly fifteen decades ago.
An Arduous Journey
At the Loup Fork on July 15th, Lieutenant Warren's group recently arrived from Sioux City, met up with the other contingent of men and equipment that had left Omaha City, the supply depot on the Missouri River, on June 28th. The route crossed the Elk Horn River, on to the Platte River, past Fremont City and Columbus, and northwest along the Loup Fork, as the Loup River was called at the time. They paid to use the ferry crossing of the Loup, with one wagon and its team taken across on each float trip.
The military party "Moved up the Loup Fork with the whole command consisting of the escort from the 2nd Inf. under Lt. James McMillan consisting of 16 men and two noncommissioned officers," Lt. Warren described his July 19th journal entry. "Myself and six assistants before mentioned and 24 employees employed in teamster herd, etc. Five of the latter being employed for the Quarter Master dept to drive the teams of the escort." ... "Mr. Johnson is wagon master, Curtis and Lamoureaux are hunters. The train consists of 11 wagons and an ambulance. There are 77 mules 33 of which are Quarter Master and 23 horses. The loads in the wagons do not exceed 1500 lbs. Our whole number of persons is 51 and we have provisions for about one month."
The days of travel through the area of particular interest in the interior sandhills started on the first days of August, with particular attention being given here to the two weeks from August 1 to 13th. At the end of July, the expeditionary force, traveling along the north side of the Loup, passed the confluence of the Sand Hill Fork, now known as the Dismal River.
While the main group continued along the Loup, exploratory parties went forth to explore other nearby areas.
August 1 - Saturday
Snowden indicated that the military force... "Remained in camp on account of one of the teamsters who has been sick several days with a kind of Billious Typhoid fever which has been gradually getting worse and Dr. Moffet expressed his opinion that the man would die if he was not kept quiet until the crisis of his disease had passed. Dr. Hayden who had been out to N of camp came in and reported having seen fresh Indian and horse tracks about one mile distant which must have been made by a war party."
Birds collected and preserved as specimens by Dr. F.V. Hayden, as noted in the historic record: Brown-headed Cowbird, Lark Bunting and Red-winged Blackbird.
"Mr. Engel went up the river and I proceeded north from the camp," Snowden wrote. "I traveled about 15 miles over sand ridges without seeing any water, when I came to a valley evidently the head of a creek. here I found water in holes. I rode down the valley for about two miles the water holes increasing in number and size and I think I would have soon come to running water when at 2 o'c[lock] pm a violent thunder storm which had been threatening us for some time broke upon us putting an end to the survey, and I returned. I think the valley which I found is the head of the North Fork of the Loup River. Mr. Warren and Dr. Hayden found the fork of Loup River which we passed July 30, about 16 miles south of the camp, running between rocky hills of the Mauvaises terres formation, in which Dr. Hayden found some fossils, Bones turtles etc. Sand hills extend all the way between our camp and this stream. Mr. Engel found wood on Loup F. some 16 miles above. In the valley of the creek which I discovered I found good grass but no wood. I also saw the carcasses of eight or ten buffalo cows, killed within the last ten days some of them were butchered and others seemed not to have been touched. I saw a great many antelope in the Sand hills."
During the day in camp, "it rained and blowed very hard in the afternoon one of the tents was blown down," E.W. Warren noted.
On Monday, the 3rd, Snowden said there was nothing of importance worth mentioning in his daily journal.
Birds collected: Brown-headed Cowbird, Common Yellowthroat, Dickcissel, Grasshopper Sparrow, Western Meadowlark.
Departure was at 6:30 a.m. A wild animal caused trouble in the morning, as described by Snowden: "a jack ass rabbit stampeded the herd and the ambulance, which contained the sick man, they ran down the steep hill and the carriage was in danger of being upset several times. This fortunately did not happen, as it might have killed the sick man in his feeble condition." ... "The river to day was tortuous in its course cutting first the bluffs on the right and then those on the left it is about 35 to 40 yds wide, is about five feet deep in channel, with sand bottom and easy to ford." ... "A great many plum and cherry bushes flourish around our camp, the latter being loaded with fruit."
Lt. Warren noted that the coffee and sugar was gone.
Birds collected: Blue Grosbeak, Burrowing Owl and Lark Sparrow.
"Ascending the bluff we wound around amongst the hills until within 7 miles of our camp where we struck a buffalo trail which led us very straight through a valley between the hills until we came upon the river where a branch comes in from the south," Snowden wrote. "We camped upon the bluffs, not being able to descend into the valley, the hills being very steep and broken of soft clay rock. Some cedar and oak grow in the ravines."
Birds collected: Black-billed Cuckoo, Blue Grosbeak, Common Yellowthroat, Lark Sparrow and Orchard Oriole.
The narrow character of the river valley caused travel troubles as "being unable to follow along the river we made a detour to the right - around the hills, following a buffalo or Indian trail (I do not know which)," Snowden wrote. "This led us through valleys of ranges of sand and gravelly hills covered with course grass and weeds and all presenting the same appearance." ... "The water in the river rapidly failing, not being more than four feet wide and one foot deep at this place."
"To day we travelled 22 7/10 miles," wrote E.W. Warren, "our road was over sand hills in some places where the road was between the hills the road was quite good our camp today is in the valley where the grass is very good but no wood the Loup Fork River is a short distance from camp.
Birds collected: Common Yellowthroat, Brown Thrasher, Lark Bunting, Lark Sparrow and Western Kingbird.
Departure from camp at 6 a.m.
"We travelled one mile up the valley of the river when we were forced to leave it and take to the sand hills on the right hand, through which we travelled for about seven miles, when after crossing a ridge we came into the valley of the river where it turns to the north," Snowden wrote. "Here we found the water had given out and we turned down the valley. After proceeding a half mile in this direction we found water in holes. We camped in good grass but no wood. Mr. Engle and one of the men went ahead in a NW direction for nine miles to see what prospect there was of obtaining water. They found several lakes in the hills."
"We have now traversed the river from end to end and found its impracticability for almost any purpose so marked that," wrote Lt. Warren. "It seems like a great waste of time to have made the exertions we have. Our greatest wish is to get away from it as soon as possible and never return."
After following the dim river for about one-half mile, the military caravan struck through the sandhills, and went in a north, then west direction, preferably following a valley between ranges of sand hills, according to Snowden. They passed a small lake containing fresh water, and from a ridge, saw three lakes in sight in a nearby valley. A few miles further, there were several small lakes scattered about in the valleys, then a pond.
"Passing this we came into a broad opening between the hills following which for six or seven miles without finding water we crossed two ridges and our animals having given out we had to camp without water or wood - grass here is pretty good," Snowden wrote.
They made 29 miles, the greatest distance traveled during a single day while traversing the sand hills, obviously benefiting from the hard ground of the valleys through which they passed.
Birds collected: Black Tern and Solitary Sandpiper.
August 9, Sunday
After indicating a 7 a.m. departure time, Snowden wrote: ..."After proceeding some distance we discovered ahead of us quite a large lake of water. We hastened forward but on arriving at the lake found the water so impregnated with salts as to be unfit for use. One of the men came in here and reported having discovered a lake of fresh water two and half miles to the north. We camped and sent all the animals over to the fresh water lake and one wagon to bring water back for the camp. These salt-water lakes are entirely destitute of vegetation on their banks (except for a salt rush), the water presents a slimy, appearance and the shore for several yards from the water's edge are encrusted with a white deposit of sale. The hills in the vicinity of our camp are sandy containing a growth of scattered course grass, and many sand cherry bushes, which grow to the height of about one foot, and laden with fruit now ripe. The grass in the valley is good, but there is no wood." ... "Many flies and mosquitoes infest these lakes, and they annoy both men and animals a great deal."
The crew sent for water returned with 60 gallons and some bit of ash, found during their foray. They had traveled seven miles for the water and wood.
Bird collected: Sandhill Crane.
Snowden wrote that a short distance west of camp, a ridge of hills was crossed: ... "came into a valley where there was a salt lake, with many rushes growing around the edges and fine grass upon the banks. Crossing another ridge we came into a valley where there were two fresh lakes, a luxuriant growth of grass, rushes, and weed around them and a few stunted ash trees, gooseberry and cherry bushes on the sides of the hills. A little above these we passed a salt lake and crossing a bad ridge of sand hills, came into a valley, which led to the south west, following this direction, occasionally crossing ridges and passing dry beds of lakes."
Camp was ready to be struck at mid-afternoon, near a brackish lake, but by digging, only a little fresh was obtained, so the caravan continued, and camp was instead made at a lake about two miles further along the westward route.
"The route to day was very sandy and hard on the animals," Snowden wrote, "especially when crossing the ridges between the valleys, where the winds cut the sand out of the sides of the hills, and blows away all the vegetation."
"A good idea of the saltiness of these lakes can be had at a distance from the amount of vegetation in them," Lt. Warren wrote, "those with quite salt being well defined and no rushes and the fresh ones being nearly covered with grass, rushes, flags, etc., and their margins badly defined.
Traveled 22 miles.
Birds collected: Red-winged Blackbird and Solitary Sandpiper.
No traveling was done this day, as Dr. Moffitt and others were sick, with bilious remittent fevers. Warren did however ride out to see what was ahead on the route.
Snowden's horse ride for the day was going 18 1/2 miles back along the route of the previous days' travel, to look for his lost watch, according to Warren.
Two Brule Indians were discovered by one of the men out hunting. One was induced to come to camp, and reported that there were "60 lodges of the tribe encamped with two miles." They also mentioned buffalo were plenty on the L'eau qui court.
"He seemed frightened," Snowden wrote, "when he saw soldiers in our camp, and would not have come into our camp but he was assured by the men who brought him in there were none with us - he evidently still retained recollection of Blue Water."
It was a good day to not have to tolerate harshness of travel, as the high temperature for the day was 100o at 2 p.m., this being the highest temperature recorded during the 1857 expedition, according to Hayden's account.
"When a storm brought darkness on us unexpectedly and we could not make our way through the sand hills," Lt. Warren wrote, "so we had to stay out the night. A small shower of rain relieved us from heat but did not drive away the mosquitoes which tormented us all night so that we could not rest at all."
Bird collected: American Bittern.
Expedition remained in camp. Lt. Warren returned in the morning, and reported that the L'eau qui Court was about twenty miles to the northwest.
"They slept near our camp in the hills and in the night a travois and several Indians passed in a very few yards of them evidently frightened by our presence," Snowden indicated, "and were making their escape. The Indian who was in our camp yesterday, came in again bringing two others. We had no good interpreter and could not elicit much information from them, besides they seemed uneasy at to appearance in the country and were reserved. Mr. Warren gave them each a shirt and a knife, when they went upon their way, rejoicing."
Birds collected: Lark Sparrow and Marsh Wren.
Departure was a little before 6 a.m.
"After travelling around a ridge of sand hills about four and half miles we came into a valley of a large lake 2 1/2 to 3 miles long," Snowden wrote. "Wet sandy bottoms surround this lake with fine grass. After traveling eight miles we passed three lodges belonging to the Indians who were in our camp yesterday. The 60 lodges they spoke of having, dwindled down to these three." ... "Bordering the bottom we followed, a small creek flowed from this lake called Pine Cr. called so probably from the fact there is no pine upon it. Leaving this we followed a Indian lodge trail which brought us to L'eau qui court River. The country here assumes quite a different appearance from that through which we have been travelling for some time. The bluffs along the river being composed of soft white rock cut perpendicular in some places by the river which here winds it way," ... "A few cottonwoods fringe the river." Grass was pretty good.
Overnight "it rained quite hard, we passed an Indian camp to day," wrote E.W. Warren, "we also passed one lake to day our camp is by the L'Eau qui court river grass here is quite good and there is some wood a short distance from where we are camped."
An Eastern Meadowlark specimen was collected during the day.
The military command, after going along Pine Creek, followed an Indian trace northwesterly to reach the L'eau qui court River later in the day. The command had traversed slightly fewer than 150 miles in their arduous journey through the unforgiving hills.
The expedition then continued their march westward along the Niobrara, and onward to Fort Laramie. After a brief respite at the Fort on the North Platte River, the caravan continued its travels, going easterly. Lt. Warren and Hayden, plus others went to the Black Hills, while the Snowden group followed the Niobrara River during the autumn days. Their rendezvous was in mid-October at Reunion Creek, now known as Bear Creek. The entire military expedition then continued to Fort Randall, then to Sioux City, ending the three year's of exploration.
In his officially issued government report, Lt. Warren wrote three paragraphs which summarized the reconnaissance travels along the Loup, through the sand hills, and northward to the Niobrara River.
"The united party now set out on their journey westward on the Loup Fork, meeting with no serious difficulties on the route (except the quicksands in crossing the main north branch) till we came to within 50 miles of the source of the stream. Here the river became shut up in a gorge impassable for wagons, and we were forced out among the difficult sandhills which border the bluffs, and which extend north to the Niobrara and south nearly to the Platte. They also extend much further east, but they occasioned us no difficulties till we were forced to leave the bank of the stream.
"We finally came to the source of the Loup Fork, and from this point endeavored to proceed as directly as possible north to the Niobrara, for we were somewhat apprehensive of losing everything, for want of water, by endeavoring to push our way westward through the Sand Hills. These hills, however, were so impracticable for wagons that we were forced much more to the west than we desired, and one day we were unable to find water to camp by. There are numerous lakes in this Sand Hill country, but many of them are too much impregnated with salts to be wholesome. Some of these latter our animals drank out of without injury. On reaching the longitude of 102o 30' we had the good fortune to find an open stretch of country, with a large, well-marked lodge-trail leading between the Platte and Niobrara, which, in one day's travel northward, brought us to the Niobrara. We now proceeded rapidly over an easy route to Fort Laramie.
"During the journey there had been considerable sickness in the camp from fevers, and one of the men was so near the point of death that a halt of several days was made for his benefit. Dr. Moffitt also became so ill as to require a delay of one or two days. These necessary stoppages, the difficulties of the route, rainy weather, together with my being obliged to leave so much of our provisions behind at Sioux City, reduced our supplies to a small amount, and for nearly two weeks we were without sugar or coffee. We had also been very much disappointed in the amount of game; and though the country gave evidence of having recently been occupied by large herds of buffalo, only a few bulls were seen. During the early part of the journey, mosquitoes were abundant, and allowed our animals no rest at night, and immense numbers of flies attacked them by day. These insects, combined, exhausted and worried the animals more than the labor they performed, and the lives of one or two were saved only by covering them with grease and tar to keep the flies and mosquitoes away."
Route in the Western Sandhills
Maps drawn by Mr. Snowden and other historic references can be used to accurately delineate the actual route taken by the military caravan. During the first days of August, the route followed along the main branch of the Middle Loup River, while staying primarily on the north side of the channel, and eventually continuing westward along the North Branch.
On August 2nd, when the exploratory parties went north and south. To the north they reached the lower reaches of Calf Creek, near its confluence with the North Loup River. To the south, they noted the Fork of Loup River as it was then designated, which is now known as the Dismal River.
The next few days, the route of the wagons continued along the valley of the Middle Loup River. Where the North Branch of the Middle Loup, turns northward - about three miles west of civilization's north Whitman Road, the party followed the diminishing prong until it turned westward, and continued northward, winding through the dunes and valleys.
On the 8th, the route had left the Loup branch, moving in a northwesterly direction, trying to follow an optimal route of travel. The first three group of three lakes they went past, were the currently named Carrico Lakes, then west of School Section Lake and near Bristol Lake. Then the party traversed through Survey Valley, and at near the end of the day's travel, went northward across Ideal Valley and into Waupan Valley, where camp was made.
The excursion after water made on the 9th, was north from Big Hill Valley, and in the direction of Osborne Lakes, which may have been the source of the fresh water and bit of wood for a cooking fire.
The flat valley land was followed westward, and on the 10th, went past Big Hill, and the areas of water in the valley on its south side. Further along, they passed Rucker Lake and then in a couple of miles, Sandoz Lake. The flat lands of western Survey Valley provided a suitable route until camp was reached at the end of the day, at a small unnamed lake, which is about four miles east of the southern end of the expansive Twin Lakes.
Leaving camp on the 13th, the wagons rolled on the east side of the Twin Lakes valley, east of Cravath Lake, continuing for a few miles along Pine Creek, passing Smith Lake WMA, and then northwest until reaching the Niobrara River.
The expedition by the men of the Warren expedition is a vividly interesting view of the dune region of nearly 150 years ago. There are obvious indications that the desolate hills were much drier, as lakes noted which were very alkaline and the sparseness of grass. Blowouts were present and waterways which now retain a flow were in the mid-1850s, dry except for small intermittent pools of water. There was obviously less woody growth than the hordes of trees which currently occur.
The August sighting of a sandhill crane indicates its presence during the breeding season, perhaps having nested in the wetlands of what is now Big Hill Valley. This species not currently known to nest in the western sandhills, and probably hasn't for more than a century.
What is especially perplexing - for a researcher interested in the minutiae of history - is that the set of associated journals, for such a well-documented expedition, has not been issued in their entirety with all the ancillary notations, maps, pictures, figures and the other details which would indicate the times and events in all their glorious perspective. Numerous other historic expeditions have benefited from this sort of thorough transcription. There are a myriad of these accounts of the western frontiers to read, yet this pivotal exploration throughout the Nebraska and Dakota territories is seemingly "lost history" not really available to read, ponder and enjoy.
Perhaps some historian might get be captivated by this pivotal history for the region, and resolve to undertake the ordeal to complete such a task to detail the memories of this great adventure for the Great Sand Hills of Nebraska.
The history of the region is conveyed nowhere else for this period, other than in the descriptive set of journals, maps and reports for the expeditionary force which went forth into an unknown realm in the mid-1850s to document a land not at all known to a nation spreading across the western frontier.