14 April 2010

Army March Through the Eastern Sandhills in 1856

In response to his commanding officer, First Lieutenant William D. Smith of the 2nd Dragoons - the leader of the squadron in command - wrote a letter the day after receiving the request for details of journey just completed. His response was posted November 22, 1856 from Fort Kearny, Nebraska Territory.

Smith had just officiated over an Army force that during the few weeks of October just gone by, had moved along a route traversed to determine if the given path was suitable for wagon-road travel between Fort Kearny on the big bend of the Platte River, Nebraska Territory, and Fort Randall, along the mighty Missouri River, where it was going to soon flow beyond the southern edge of Dakota.

October 2nd the expedition left the Missouri River fort. Among the military there a couple of other commanding officers, as well as three laundresses particularly noted, burdened wagons, necessary live stock and others not mentioned. The 105 government horses for the eight wagons, were "all in bad condition," according to the account conveyed by Smith's hand-written journal. Two guides along to identify the route through the country included a "half-breed" and a Ponca Indian, though neither of them, Smith noted, had "ever crossed anywhere near our proposed line of march." Nonetheless, they were dutifully recognized.

The essential distances traveled were measured with a "viameter," the only recording instrument along available to measure anything. Only the mileage figures made it into the narrative, as there was not even a thermometer to denote daily temperatures during the passage over the sands, and across sinuous rivers of fresh, flowing water.

Across Creeks and Rivers

Moving along a vague route, the military force crossed numerous creeks and rivers, each carefully noted. A map issued in association with the Warren Expedition routes, issued a couple of years after the last route traversed in 1857, provides a rendition of the approximate route. The journal has other clues of the places seen, experienced and noted in the report to government officials which has never been published but is conserved in the papers of G.K. Warren, housed at a library in New York state.

On this particular portion of U.S. Army explorations of unsettled lands the first waterway - noted on October 3rd - was Ponca Creek, readily identified than and now. Water and grass was good.

The L Eau qui Court - i.e., the Niobrara River in its lower reaches - was described as a "wide and bold stream with low sandy banks and quick sand bottom a rapid current two feet in depth and a well timbered valley. ... Had much difficulty in crossing wagons on account of quick sands." The day's camp was on the south side of the Running Water.

Boggy banks of Willow Creek were the next crossing, as it was a southerly tributary stream of the prominent Niobrara. This may have been the Eagle Creek, as identified by the place name historians of the modern era.

Onward to the south, the Elk Horn was next along the way. "A beautiful creek of clear water with low well timbered banks and a fine sandy bottom." They passed the flat place where a settlement would be established in a couple of decades, named after an Irish man named O'Neill. The wagon train route went eastward for a few short miles along the river named for the discard of a grazer of the grass, and camped.

"Road good and water good and plenty. Wood plenty - grass good."

With the morning's bustle, the force direction of travel then continued southward.

There were more creeks to get across. The first was the Graham Branch, a tributary among the flat meadow lands. "Water was good and plenty," but wood was scarce, Smith wrote on the 6th of the tenth month in 1856.

Was this Dry Creek, as it is currently identified, the locality. The map for the expedition differs somewhat from the modern map, but in the interest of simplicity, this would be the general vicinity, in the modern Holt County.

"October 7th ... Road very bad passing over a succession of high sandy ridges (perpendicular to its course) and corresponding sandy depressions."

Next along the way was the designated Beaver Creek, which matches well the current channel of the Cedar River.

A couple of day's later, the force crossed the "Little Platte," based on the narrative, a locale on the northern side of the North Loup River, and a tributary of this North Fork. Next was Storm Creek with its "deep, boggy ravine with precipitous banks" that were noted in the Lieutenant's words. On 10 October, it was a rain storm day, so they all remained at Storm Creek all day doing whatever.

During the next day's march, the "North Fork of Pawnee Loup" was crossed. The river was "a wide and handsome stream of clear water, with low banks quick sand bottom and about two feet in depth - water good - wood plenty - good grass." This is the North Loup River, probably in the vicinity of Ord, which was not to occur until many years later in the area's history.

There are few observational details, with the condition of the grass, water and wood noted, but little else. Beyond Buffalo Creek, on October 11th, buffalo were seen for the first time, during the march over a very rugged country.

Southward, were more creeks. Closely looking at available maps does not indicate the precise places mentioned due to sparse notes and profound differences in map detail.

Mean Creek, was noted on the 12th, and crossed the following day. Then a crossing at the "South Fork of Pawnee Loup." Alternative names of "Potato or Hand River" were given for this river, now identified as the South Loup River.

The next channel crossing was at Bog Creek, "with very high precipitous and miry banks a rapid current and a very boggy bottom." It took seven hours to build a suitable bridge.

Spuyter Devil creek was the next challenge. It was like the mire at Bog Creek. There were a few more notable words in the account: "Country extremely rough." And another bridge had to be built which took sweat and toil by many for hours unknown.

In the terse rendition of the voyage, the next landmark was "L'eau qui Bonne" - a very beautiful stream of clear water with such a distinctive French moniker - about sixty feet wide and two feet deep with sandy banks and hard sandy bottom." Here a bridge was constructed to permit an easier crossing for covered wagons loaded with life and its attachments, and the associated herd used to pull the people along to a military fort down on the flat waters.

In the account quickly written more than 150 years ago, two names were given for a waterway still prominent on modern maps. It was designated as "Black Water creek (Wood River)" at the time. The route just to its north was through a "very rough and sandy section of country." Everyone remained encamped the next day as military men built a timber bridge across the waters so everyone could move along safely.

After crossing "Winding Creek (Ash creek?)," the valley lands of the Platte River were next along the route. The entire bunch of the government march crossed to the south bank, and then went westward to Fort Kearny, arriving on October 21st.

The entire route was traveled in less than three weeks, specifically noted as being twenty days on the road, with seventeen days of traveling. Smith did not note in his journal any native residents along the way, and in fact, not even anything about the multitude of the Army force moving along the route. Descriptions of the camps or activities of the people during the march were not noted in Smith's narrative.

Smith did note that some of the creeks were named "by the officers of the squadron as neither of the guides has names for them." Some names provided were based on the place names known by the Ponca guide.

Smith was "fully satisfied that the route we came was about the best that could have been chosen without making detour to the East," the report said.

To summarize the region so many decades ago, these words written by Lieut. Smith will have to suffice:

"Our route at the time of year when we came was almost impassible and I am compelled to believe that it could not be travelled in spring or at any time when the ground is soft or when the waters are up. There are too many points to tempt the squatter along the route were it not for the difficulty of reaching them. The forks of the Loup and the Elk Horn are peculiarly attractive without being particularly difficult of access.
"The entire section of country traversed by my command is wonderfully rugged and uneven but much of it yields fine grass - It is my opinion that it would make one of the finest wool growing regions that could possibly be found.
"Game was quite abundant along the route, Elk, Antelope, Deer, & Buffalo."

There were no notations of migratory birds, despite it being a time of passage for various migratory fowl.

These too brief chronicles convey a simplistic view of a sand hills region at a distinctive time in the regions first history when parties of government-sponsored expeditions were traveling among the dunes. The particular notes by Lieut. Smith notes how the itty-bitty grains of sand and rugged landforms, together, wrought a journey overcome with difficulty, among great and subtle dunes of an unsettled territory in 1856.

Smith's brief jaunt was finished, but the military explorations amongst the sandhills continued. In 1857, the primary party traveled along the Loup Fork and into the desolate hills beyond the river, through the dunes and onward to the Niobrara River, before they went onward to Fort Laramie.

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