In response to orders from his commanding officer, First Lieutenant William D. Smith of the 2nd Dragoons of the U.S. Military - the leader of the squadron - wrote a letter the day after receiving the request for details of an overland 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 pasty, had traversed a route to determine if there was an acceptable trail 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 in southern Dakota territory.
On 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 necessities 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, the two hired guides had the responsibility of establishing the route that others would dutifully follow.
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.
Among the Hills and Across Creeks and Rivers
Moving along a vague route, the military force crossed numerous creeks and rivers, each carefully noted. A map issued in several military expeditions shows the route of travel but does not include any dates of occurrence in association with a particular locality.
During this particular portion U.S. Army exploration of unsettled lands the first waterway - noted on October 3rd - was Ponca R., readily recognized then and now. Water and grass was good. At the time, it was the on the north side of the "Ponkas Reservation" lands.
The L Eau qui Court - i.e., the Niobrara River in its lower reach miles east of the Keya Paha river - 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 natural, annual discard of an animal 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 October 6, 1856.
Was this Dry Creek, as this locality is currently identified? The map for the expedition differs somewhat from the modern map, but in the interest of simplicity, this would be the general vicinity, continuing 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 then trended to the southwest. The attribution and cartography matches well the current channel of the Cedar River.
The Calamus river was then crossed. Its name origin is associated with the calamus or "sweet flag" plant as obviously well recognized by people of the Dakota tribe. These are the particulars according to historians: "Calamus, Sinkpetawote (Williamson dictionary); muskrat Sinkpe (Williamson dict.); food woyute (Williamson dict.); of, ta (Williamson dict.). Sinkpe, muskrat; ‘ta’, sign of the genitive (muskrat - his (or its) food. ‘Wate,’ food. Sinkpe ta wote, is the Dakota name of a certain plant which we call calamus or sweet flag. The scientific name is Acorus calamus. Dr. M.R. Gilmore 11-28-29 general letters," based up Link's place name history for Nebraska. Obviously this was an important landmark for the Indian residents as the name had been established so early in the lore of the region.
Next was relatively smaller-sized Storm Creek with its "deep, boggy ravine with precipitous banks" that were noted in the Lieutenant's words. On 10 October, it was a rainy and stormy day, so they all remained at Storm Creek all day resting while endeavoring to stay dry. Perhaps some of the men kept sheltered within a tent and enjoyed some camaraderie while playing cards to fill the idle hours?
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 would be the Middle Loup River, probably in the vicinity of Ord, a settlement which was not to occur until a significant number of years later in the area's history.
There are few observational details, with the condition of the grass, water and wood regularly noted, but little else. Beyond Buffalo Creek, on October 11th, buffalo were seen for the first time, during the march over what was described as a very rugged country.
Southward, were more waterways. Comparing the historic map to current maps may not have the precise places mentioned due to sparse notes and significant differences in map detail, it still allows details for a rough comparison but enough to place correlate the expeditions travel to a modern-era landmark.
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 waterway, now identified as the South Loup River.
The next water channel crossed 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 using locally available timber.
Spuyter Devil creek was the next challenge, and where it was within the local landscape is a mystery. The derivation of the name is even more vague. 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 men for an unknown extent of hours.
In the terse rendition of the voyage, the next landmark was a named derived from French language as indicated many years earlier, as the French presence was long gone in 1856. Smith wrote: "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 another bridge was built 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 so the waterway could be safely crossed.
After crossing "Winding Creek [Ash creek?]," the valley lands of the Platte River were next along the route. The entire government party reached to north bank of the Platte River and followed the river road eastward a few miles to arrive at Fort Kearny on October 21st.
The entire route was traveled in fewer than three weeks, specifically with twenty days noted for being on the road with their stock and wagons. Apparently there were seventeen days of travel through a foreign land. Smith did not note in his journal any native residents along the way, and in fact, not even anything about the entirety 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 rudimentary 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 traveled 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," according to the chronicles.
There were no notations of migratory birds, despite it being a time of passage for various migratory fowl.
These too brief chronicles convey a relativistic, brief perspective 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 and around the western plains. The particular notes by Lieut. Smith indicate how the small, wind-blown 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 party of the Warren Expedition 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, and then subsequently eastward along the Niobrara valley.
Also not to be forgotten is the north to south military expedition in 1855 through the central sandhills. Subsequently there was one of the most significant battles between bands of Indian families and the U.S. Military occurred at Blue Water Creek in the southern extent of the sand hills. This is history that shall never be forgotten because of the enormity of what occurred.
During the middle years of the 1850s – in particular 1855-1857 – three well-known expeditionary forces of the U.S. Military traveled through the Sand Hill region, trying to find a means to establish travel routes from one particular place to another and in the best means possible.
It seems the military forces did not succeed as no obvious trail routes were established across or among the great dunes of sand. Only after many years would commerce establish one route or another to connect the Platte Valley, via the iconic Buffalo Lake place and along a trail to the Black Hills. Soon there would be cattle men pioneers that discover and realized the value of grass for beeves. In a short time, some settlement commenced and railroad routes were built.
The western sandhills were an unorganized territory though the state of Nebraska had been established in 1867. It would take even more years for settlers to recognize the western counties of the region and for which there are many memories of the first years of their struggle to be established as people of a special land of grass.