12 September 2012

Notes on Nebraska Territory

By Th. Jefferson Sutherland.

Chapter IV. Game - Wild Beasts - Birds - Fishes - Reptiles and Insects.

Of the game which once existed in the territory of Nebraska in abundance, but a mere vestige remains. It has ceased to be in quantity sufficient for the Indians, or to afford profitable sport for the whites. The passage of several thousand emigrants annually through the territory, which has now been continued for four or five years, and they starting from all the different points on the Missouri river, and traversing the country in the months of April, May, and June, the breeding time for the animals, has resulted in a general destruction of the game, both of bird and beast; and at this time the necessities of the Indians drive them to entrap, to charge down, and to kill every animal which remains, of foot and wing. Enough do not escape the chase of the Indians and the hunt of the emigrants for the reproduction and continuance of the species.

During the summer months the buffaloes and the antelopes, in their migration from the south, make their appearance upon the plains in the territory, three or four hundred miles west of the Missouri river; and during that season they are hunted and killed by the Indians. The buffalo do not always appear in great numbers, but when they come in numerous herds, (which is frequently the case) being readily taken, the Indians from all parts of the territory supply themselves liberally with flesh for their winter support, and with hides and robes, which they barter for bread and whiskey. The antelopes are always shy, and they are captured only with difficulty, consequently they furnish but little available means of support for the Indians; and when captured by the better mounted emigrant, or brought down by his surer rifle, it is always at a cost of labor for which the body of the animal affords no appropriate remuneration.

The deer, which were once abundant at all seasons of the year within the territory, are now but seldom met with; and those that remain have been so frequently subjected to the chase of the Indians and the emigrants, that they have become shy and difficult to be brought within the reach of a rifle. A few elk also remain, but they are as difficult to capture as the deer.

Within the timbered lands, raccoons and squirrels of the gray and fox kind, are somewhat numerous. rabbits are common in the cottonwood and patches of hazel bushes, and these are easily captured with dog and gun. But being found only within, or near the timbered lands, they do not exist in such quantities as to add much for the support of the Indians, or often to furnish food for the hunting appetite of the emigrant.

The common little striped ground squirrel exists in considerable numbers upon the prairies; and there are in like numbers a large field mole, called a gopher — which is a very industrious animal. They cut channels or chambers in the soil, under the sod, all over the prairies, and here and there a few feet a part, they pierce the sod and throw up the soil in little heaps, which are called gopher hills. This animal sometimes commits depredations upon the growing potato, and garden vegetables; but it is said, that when castor-oil beans are planted, and grown in a potato field or garden, the gophers will leave.

In a section of the territory far west from the Missouri river, it is said there are many burrows of a little haired quadruped, called the prairie dog; which is unquestionably a species of the rabbit race; though the habits of this animal are quite different from those other members of the pussy family.

Bears, if they have there existed, are now unknown in the territory; and the fox is seldom, if ever seen or heard of in that region. Occasionally, in the timbered lands, a panther and a wild cat is seen; and the fool-hardy courage of these animals, make them at all times easy of capture and destruction. The prairie-wolf exists in considerable numbers throughout the territory, and this is the only animal that is likely to give trouble in the least to the settler. It is a small species of the wolf family, or a gray color, and corresponds in character and habit with the coyote of Mexico. It is a wandering animal — not gregarious — and will prey upon young pigs, lambs, and sometimes upon sheep, but it is a silly animal — without the cunning of the fox, or the courage of the large gray wolf, and may be taken and destroyed with little difficulty. Wherever the settler comes there they soon cease to exist.

It is not known to the writer that either the skunk, woodchuck, or hedgehog, exists within the territory. Yet they may be found in some parts, nevertheless. Or it may be the fact that the ease with which those animals are taken, has led to the entire destruction of their races in that region by the Indians.

In the eastern part of the territory, wild turkeys still remain in considerable numbers. They there grow to an enormous size, and present the finest specimens of their race. But they have been so much hunted by the Indians, and their eggs or late having been so uniformly destroyed by the emigrants, that their numbers have not increased so as to render them a game worthy of any considerable attention.

The prairie hen, though much hunted by the Indians and emigrants, still exists there in considerable numbers; and it is not to be doubted that the numbers of these and the wild turkey would be greatly increased were the Indians removed, and the whole territory subjected to settlement by the whites. When the young of the prairie fowl are from three to four months old, they afford agreeable and profitable sport, and furnish a rich and palatable food. The flesh of the old ones is tough and tasteless. partridges, quails, pigeons, and turtle doves are also, in their season, abundant throughout the eastern part of the territory.

During the months of March and April, in each year, the Missouri river, for the distance of about one thousand miles from its mouth, is found to be literally alive with wild geese, prosecuting their annual migration to the north. A few of these remain and nest in the northern part of the territory. With the great myriads of wild geese which annually follow up the course of the Missouri river, there are occasionally small flocks of swans and pelicans, and considerable numbers of brant. In the autumn, the wild geese and brant return with their young, and spread through the corn and wheat fields along the river in pursuit of food, when they are easily taken; and the young ones, when properly dressed, are fine for the table. Ducks, of several varieties, are not only abundant on the Missouri river, but they inhabit all the streams of the territory, and breed there. The ducks may be reckoned among the most common and available game of the territory.

A crane now and then shows itself on the Missouri river, and turkey buzzards may be seen in considerable numbers throughout the territory. There are also many flocks of sand-hill cranes — a kind of nondescript birds, a seeming cross between a kite and a goose. hawks, ravens, crows, and blackbirds are there in usual numbers. OF the blackbird family, thee is a singular breed, the head, neck, and breast of which are of a beautiful orange color, and in each wing there are three white feathers.

Flocks of paroquets are frequently seen along the shores of the Missouri river, as high up as the mouth of the Nebraska. Within the timbered lands of the territory, birds are very numerous, and of all the varieties and descriptions which are common to corresponding latitudes.

Fish are abundant in all the streams of the territory. Those of the Missouri river are pike, pickerel, bass, perch, buffalo, and a large description of catfish. In the smaller streams suckers, sunfish, perch, and a small kind of catfish are taken, all of which are excellent. In some of the streams north and south of the Nebraska river, trout of a good quality are plentiful.

The annual burnings of the dried prairie grass do not allow the existence of a large number of reptile and insects. Toads are almost as rare in Nebraska as in Ireland; and the big bull-frog is there seldom heard or seen; but along the brooks and smaller streams of water a species of little green frog exists in great numbers.

Snakes are not numerous, and those to be met with are large, and marked with the signs of many years. The snake race inhabiting the territory of Nebraska consists of the bull snake, or American boa, blue racer, and the rattlesnake, of two kinds; the pied or spotted, which is large, and the black, which is of a small size. The bull snake and the racer are entirely harmless. The rattlesnakes are alone venomous; but they never strike without warning, and are continually giving notice of their presence with the shake of their rattles. When the country becomes settled, the rattlesnake soon disappears. The common black snake and the garter snake are not know to exist in the territory, nor are there any of the milk snakes of the east.

The butterfly and the moth exist in considerable numbers throughout the territory. But these are only of the common species. The grasshopper, the spider, and the whole bug race, exists only in diminished numbers — the eggs and young being continually subject to destruction by the burning of the dried grass of the prairies. Those of the insect race which by chance or habit take refuge within the timbered lands, furnish the only reproduction of their species; and if it were not for these, the insect race of the territory of Nebraska would long since have shared the fate of the timber where the prairie grass has taken root. The midge and the gnat are not know in the territory, and mosquitoes prevail only along the rivers and bottoms.

The honey bee is seen in considerable numbers upon the prairies, and in the timbered lands swarms are numerous, from which honey of a good quality may be obtained. The bumble bee is also seen upon the prairies, and hornets and wasps in sparse numbers.

May 20, 1852. New York Herald 7141: 3.

Thomas Jefferson Sutherland apparently was the publisher of the Nebraska Boomer newspaper, having previously published a paper called the Black Dwarf, at Utica, New York.

All of the previous articles in the New York Herald have not been located. Another article in the series does discusses the primary waterways, mostly in Nebraska, but also elsewhere within the territory. A subsequent article issued in June, has details for a trip from Turkey Creek — along the Missouri River in southeast Nebraska — to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Sutherland died October 7, 1852 of typhus fever, with the place of death indicated as the Iowa Mission, Nebraska Territory. An announcement was issued in several eastern newspapers.