21 February 2014

Journey Across the Nebraska Plains

Correspondence of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

Elm Creek, Nebraska, Aug. 6, 1865. — When I last wrote you from Elm Creek I was just about preparing for the most disagreeable of all a freighter's duties, night-herding. It is a sort of picket duty, only a good deal worse, especially if the night happens to be dark, as it was when I made my first attempt. The business of the night-herders here is to keep the cattle together during the night and within as short a distance of the corral as possible, and bright and early in the morning, drive them in. Well, "Two-story and a Half" and myself started out in the evening just before dark and took our posts. The oxen were grazing quietly about half a mile from the corral, the evening was clear and cool and every thing favorable for a good night.

We congratulated ourselves on the prospect, but alas! too soon, for about 10 o'clock P.M., it clouded up and soon was very dark. The wind began to blow and the cattle to scatter, and ere long the rain to fall. Oh! but we had a time of it. We kept them together as well as possible, but when morning came only fifteen head remained. "Two Story Brick" is an old teamster, that is he has been across the prairies (I cannot call it the "plains" for to me it seems absurd to call such an uphill and down sort of country as we have passed through ever since leaving Nebraska city a plain) once or twice and of course I put myself under his directions. He suggested that I should start off in a certain direction, while he would take another; and if we found any oxen, drive them in towards corral.

It was very early in the morning, just light enough to see, when I started. I walked on for about an hour, keeping a sharp lookout on every side; but no cattle appearing I bethought me that I had come far enough and that I had better be starting back, as most likely my fellow herdsman had met with better success than I. I turned to start, but which way was back? I looked round but no familiar tree, bush, stone or anything appeared; nothing but the broad rolling prairies. In chasing the cattle in the darkness during the night, I had become completely confused as to my whereabouts. It is true, there was the sun just rising in the east; but was I north or south of the road? I had not the most remote idea; I thought over it a few minutes and resolved to take to the north; a short walk brought me to the top of a swell or hill, and to my joy, within a quarter of a mile on another was the corral. In walking as I had supposed directly away from it when I found myself lost, was nearer the corral than when I started. "Second Story," as I had anticipated, had been more successful than I, and found all the cattle in a mile. The boys had a good breakfast prepared by the time I got in, which I enjoyed hugely and said nothing of my being lost. So ended my first night's herding, and I do not regret the useful lesson it has taught me: to be careful to note the points of the compass and the direction I take when I leave corral again for any purpose. I have often read descriptions of being lost on the prairie, but I never before realized how easily it may be done or what a terrible thing it would be to be lost in reality.

We yoked up and started soon after breakfast, and by sundown reached Salt Creek ford. Here is a small scattering village of the same name. The houses are mean log or wooden structures, and things generally looked scaly; we corralled on the high bluff on the upper side of the creek, and all hands being pretty tired, none of the men went down to town, some half a mile distant, on the opposite side of the creek. We got in motion about sunrise on Sunday morning. The view from our corral (which we could not see the night before), was very fine. The ground being very high it was quite extensive. To the west and below us was the village. To the north, within five miles, the Platte wound glistening in the morning sun; while far away to the southwest, as far as you could see, the Salt creek circled among the hills. The morning was perfect, and the air cool and bracing. I thought what a pleasant place to live when wealth and industry shall have connected it with civilization, or rather when they have civilized it. The creek is a pretty large one. the water, as the name would indicate, being salt, our cattle drank of it greedily as we were crossing.

When we got into the town, although it was Sunday, we found the two or three stores and three or four grop shops it contained open. My boss stopped the teams for more than an hour, to let the men get what they wanted, he said, and they did get it, sure enough, for by the time we were ready to leave most of them were under the influence of liquor. We had to stop about two miles beyond the town and then lay over until late in the afternoon, when, the drunken men having got sobered up, we again started and stopped after sundown. We were today joined by a party of six or more wagons. They are all of the same class of men that I am with; some of them worse. I am beginning to think I've gotten into a hornet's nest, but if the worst comes to worst, I can fight it out. It's hard to sit by and hear these rascals slandering the Government they get a living from, and extolling the rebels and all they have done, and I feel sometimes as if I could not stand it and must let out at them. But when I think the result of a quarrel would be that I would leave my bones to enrich the soil of Nebraska territory and none the wiser, I restrain myself; at least I have so far.

On Monday night we had a very heavy thunder storm; one of the heaviest I remember to have ever witnessed. The rain seemed to come down by buckets full and the wind blew almost a hurricane. The rain continued during the day following, so we did not get started again until Tuesday. We found the roads, when we did mover, very bad. There had been so much rain that the earth was soaked with it and the hollows were filled with water. We made very slow time.

On Wednesday night we reached the Wahoo, a very pretty little creek. We found it quite high from the recent rain, but forded it without difficulty. There was a ranche at the ford — a very miserable one. I have neglected to say that since leaving Salt Creek we have found them at intervals of about ten miles all along the road. They are generally log houses of the poorest description, sometimes with plank and sometimes with sod roofs. They keep on hand a supply of groceries and other necessaries, horse feed of various kinds, and liquors. They charge the most exorbitant prices, and I do not blame them, for it needs a big compensation to make such places at all inhabitable — at least, it would for me. Coming along to-day, one of the boys shot a prairie chicken. We had a stew made of it for supper. It was very good, though the bird was an old one. It is about a month too early for them.

On Sunday, August 6, we reached the Platte Bottom. It is a large valley, on either side of the river, varying from five to ten miles in width, and in most places level as a cricket field. The grass does not appear to be so luxuriant as it was on the higher land, and the level country is far less beautiful. The course of the river can be marked by the timber that lines its banks as far as you can see. It really does one good to see some woodland once more; it has been so long since we have seen any. Coming down the bluffs this morning, we saw a herd of about a dozen antelopes some 800 yards distant. I have strong hopes of getting a shot of one of them ere long. We are camped on Elm Creek, a little stream about a mile in the bottom.

August 30, 1865. A journey across the plains. Philadelphia Daily Evening Bulletin 19(117): 1. This correspondence continued, with several subsequent articles having a title of "A Journey Across the Continent" in the same newspaper. Known dates for articles include September 8 and 18, October 25 and 30, and November 2, 6 and 28. The author was always indicated as "T" which was a moniker.