28 March 2013

Birds of Early Spring Along Platte River in 1813

During the first days of spring in 1813, a journal kept by leader among a small party of men provides details of a few birds along the Platte River, Nebraska. The accounts are brief, but still exquisite for the era, when survival was of primary importance.

The party was walking overland experiencing every difficulty possible while traveling across a wilderness frontier. They had started their trek from the Pacific Fur Company fort Astoria on the lower Columbia River, by the coast of the Pacific Ocean. After weeks, they were continuing their eastward travel, including a crossing of the Rocky Mountains.

Their were an expeditionary force for mail delivery Company dispatches had to be delivered to John Jacob Astor, president of the company with offices in New York City, on the east coast.

The group started the first day of July, 1812. The party of "Astorians" included Robert Stuart, John Day, Ramsay Crooks, Benjamin Jones, Robert McClellan, Francois LeClerc and Andre Valle.

Along the way, the group interacted with various residents of the local community. On occasion it might have involved a trade, other times it could have been a battle for life, or other sorts of the sublime activities necessary as different cultures met, often in an adversarial manner.

In so far as the particulars of interest for spring on the central plains, they are terse, but significant. After crossing the South Pass of the mountains, and being the first Euro-Americans to traverse the place, the group continued onward, striving to reach a better time and place. Eventually they reached the north fork of the Platte River, and stayed for awhile, starting on January 1, 1813. The first day of the new year was "solely devoted to the gratification of our appetites," Stuart wrote. Several buffalo had been killed in the previous couple of days, so there was meat to eat. Since their tobacco was long-gone, they smoked McClellan's tobacco pouch instead, to commemorate the new year.

This camp was along the bank of the North Platte River, and either in modern-day Wyoming or Nebraska, depending upon the source being considered. Certainly they foraged for edible game among a wide area during their two month encampment, so certainly were amidst both states.

During their sojourn at this seconds winter's quarters among the cottonwoods, they felled a couple of hollow trees to create canoes. They would be useful for floating downriver, the men figured. There were no journal entries for these weeks.

They soon realized the challenges of navigating the slight waters of this prairie river. The troubles started on the first day of their departure, March 8, 1813. A small canoe was tolerable, Stuart indicated. The other one, well consider what was written in the chronicles: "it was with considerable labour in wading and dragging that ours was got down 8 miles by the middle of the afternoon." What followed was a wait of a few days for the "rise of the water."

It was mid-March, when the durable men of the frontier reached the portion of the flat river in what would, more than four decades later, be definitively within the central portion of the state of Nebraska. They wanted to paddle along, but had to make their way over land. Weather conditions were harsh, with severe conditions on the 20th, and on the same day, the group decided to continue travel by foot.

A "very fat goose" was killed on Sunday, March 21st, along with some buffalo, according to the notations in the journal kept by Stuart. The locality was along the North Platte River, many miles west of the confluence of the two forks, as indicated by the essential book prepared and edited by Kenneth A. Spaulding, and issued in 1953.

The original account is most interesting, with excerpts convey only some of the specifics. To realize the particulars, read the book. Reading about the times of these men is a profound glimpse into history of former times.

"Nothing but a boundless plain, plentifully stocked with animals, appears before us ... " are among the words Stuart wrote for the area where they were, which is now in Morrill County, Nebraska.

As the group made their way continually to the east, some events with birds occurred. There were many indicated along the Platte, along with many other unique events.

On March 26th, with cold weather, the group saw 65 wild horses, and the country was "literally covered with buffalo." At this time, the men working so hard to continue onward, were less than ten miles westward of the forks of the Platte.

Mr. Stuart was particularly effusive in his account for the next day, which was a Saturday.

"Some distance above and below last nights station is an extensive swamp, the resort of innumerable numbers of Geese, Brants, a few swans, and an endless variety of ducks; during the latter part of this days march, we found several similar places, all well stocked with water fowl."

It was spring along the river, and the men, moving along, were at a place recognized as the Black River Swamp, where a creek flowed into the Platte. The tributary waterway is now known at Blue Creek.

Later in the day, three swans and a goose were killed with one shot. Later in the day at their camp-site, they group "raised" five pheasants, otherwise known as prairie hens. These might have been either Greater Prairie Chickens or Sharp-tailed Grouse.

At the west end of the big bend, along the western Platte, Stuart commented about the local features, indicating that "prickly pears, antelopes, and wild horses have completely disappeared during within the last 3 days, but our dearly beloved friends the buffalo still remain to comfort our solitary wanderings, and five fallow deer ran across our path some distance above."

This expeditionary force moved eastward on April 1st, and reached the vicinity of the Grand Isle, with its timbered shores and nearby extent of migratory wild birds.

Stuart wrote: "we traversed only one swamp, tho' from the number of Wild Fowl there must have been many in the neighborhood," according the journal entry for the day.

On the 4th, they went past a "Panee" camp, terrifying three "squaws" who were appeased by a gift of some dried meat.

The Pawnee tribe was prevalent in the region.

On the 5th of April, two geese and two swans were killed. An interesting point given in Stuart's journal was that in the "craws" of the swans was found "the identical root dug by the Natives of the Columbia below the Falls of the river, and called by them Wapatoes--"

The game taken might have been a of several sorts of geese, but as for the swans, they were likely Trumpeter Swans.

An especially interesting indication of Platte valley species was expressed in the account of travels on this Tuesday.

The particular words, according to the "Journal of Discovery" were: "of late kurlews and old field larks are the only birds, except water fowl, that we see--."

During subsequent days, the men were focused on getting further down the Platte. There are many words in Stuart's journal, but few in regards to the local avifauna. Larger animals such as elk, especially deer, and beaver were mentioned. The grand isle was estimated as being 72 miles long.

One of the last indications of birds along the lower Platte river was on April 11th when a turkey was killed. It was the first of this species to have been observed, according to Stuart's journal, as edited by Spaulding.

Stuart's chronicle continues, with many more expressive times. There were words about an Otoe village, and in the same words for the day, the Loup Fork was noted. Nearby was the Grand Pawnee Village. During this day, a "turky" was killed.

On their western frontier, indifferent to news stories and more focused upon survival, the Astorians were told it had been a harsh winter in the vicinity of the Missouri River and, "beyond any seen in this country for the last 20 years," according to the journal, with snow depths reaching 4 1/2 feet in depth. They got news of the ware between American and Great Britain.

It snowed during the night of April 14th. A canoe elk and buffalo hides, sewed together with strong sinews, was finished during the evening of the 15th, according to the journal. Stuart's conveyed the details in his verbage for the 16th, as the men went along.

On April 16th, they floated passed the mouth of the Elkhorn River, noting that its "water is exceedingly black." On the 18th, with a set of oars available, they went past the "saline" creek. They soon arrived at the Missouri River confluence, leaving the flat-water behind, and continued their travels, along a river with ample flows, sufficient to float any sort of canoe.

They successfully traversed the Missouri, eventually reaching St. Louis on April 30th, which was the edge of the frontier, and an essential place for the people involved with any journey beyond, and into the relatively unknown western frontier.

Each of the Astorians endured. They had an epic journey, and at least three books have been written about these particular times of adventure on the frontier. Perhaps the accounts, as subsequently published are available at a local library. These personal accounts of former times can best be appreciated in their original, unique detail, without any interpretation.