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- The Great Salt Lake Trail - 6/86 -

keen forethought, taking the choicest parts of the meat, and leaving the late plenteous larder almost bare. Their next request was for a supply of ammunition. They had guns, but no powder and ball. They promised to pay magnificently out of the spoils of their foray. “We are poor now,” said they, “and are obliged to go on foot, but we shall soon come back laden with booty, and all mounted on horseback, with scalps hanging at our bridles. We will then give each of you a horse to keep you from being tired on your journey.”

“Well,” said Mr. Stuart, “when you bring the horses, you shall have the ammunition, but not before.” The Indians saw by his determined tone that all further entreaty would be unavailing, so they desisted, with a good-humoured laugh, and went off exceedingly well freighted, both within and without, promising to be back again in the course of a fortnight.

No sooner were they out of hearing than the luckless travellers held another council. The security of their cabin was at an end, and with it all their dreams of a quiet and cosey winter. They were between two fires. On one side were their old enemies, the Crows; on the other side, the Arapahoes, no less dangerous freebooters. As to the moderation of this war-party, they considered it assumed, to put them off their guard against some more favourable opportunity for a surprisal. It was determined, therefore, not to await their return, but to abandon with all speed this dangerous neighbourhood.

The interval of comfort and repose which the party had enjoyed in their cabin rendered the renewal of their fatigues intolerable for the first two or three days. The snow lay deep, and was slightly frozen on the surface, but not sufficiently to bear their weight. Their feet became sore by breaking through the crust, and their limbs weary by floundering on without a firm foothold. So exhausted and dispirited were they, that they began to think it would be better to remain and run the risk of being killed by the Indians, than to drag on thus painfully, with the probability of perishing by the way. Their miserable horse fared no better than themselves, having for the first day or two no other forage than the ends of willow twigs, and the bark of the cottonwood tree.

They all, however, appeared to gain patience and hardihood as they proceeded, and for fourteen days kept steadily on, making a distance of about three hundred miles.

During the last three days of their fortnight's travel, however, the face of the country changed. The timber gradually diminished, until they could scarcely find fuel sufficient for culinary purposes. The game grew more and more scanty, and finally none was to be seen but a few miserable broken-down buffalo bulls, not worth killing. The snow lay fifteen inches deep, and made the travelling grievously painful and toilsome. At length they came to an immense plain, where no vestige of timber was to be seen, not a single quadruped to enliven the desolate landscape. Here, then, their hearts failed them, and they held another consultation. The width of the river, which was nearly a mile, its extreme shallowness, the frequency of quicksands, and various other characteristics, had at length made them sensible of their errors with respect to it, and they now came to the correct conclusion that they were on the banks of the Platte. What were they to do? Pursue its course to the Missouri? To go on at this season of the year seemed dangerous in the extreme. There was no prospect of obtaining either food or fuel. The country was destitute of trees, and though there might be driftwood along the river, it lay too deep beneath the snow for them to find it.

The weather was threatening a change, and a snow-storm on these boundless wastes might prove as fatal as a whirlwind of sand on an Arabian desert. After much deliberation, it was at length determined to retrace their last three days' journey of seventy-seven miles, to a place where they had seen a sheltering growth of forest-trees, and where there was an abundance of game. Here they would once more set up their winter quarters, and await the opening of navigation to launch themselves in canoes.

Accordingly, on the 27th of December they faced about, retraced their steps, and on the 30th regained the part of the river in question.

They encamped on the margin of the river, in a grove where there were trees large enough for canoes. Here they put up a shed for immediate shelter, and at once proceeded to erect a cabin. New Year's Day dawned when but one wall of their cabin was completed; the genial and jovial day, however, was not permitted to pass uncelebrated, even by this weather-beaten crew of wanderers. All work was suspended, except that of roasting and boiling. The choicest of the buffalo meat, with tongues, humps, and marrow-bones, were devoured in quantities that would have astonished any one who has not lived among hunters and Indians. As an extra regale, having nothing to smoke, they cut up an old tobacco pouch, still redolent with the potent herb, and smoked it in honour of the day. Thus for a time, in present revelry, however uncouth, they forgot all past troubles and anxieties about the future, and their forlorn shelter echoed with the sound of gayety.

The next day they resumed their labours, and by the sixth of the month the cabin was complete. They soon killed abundance of buffalo, and again laid in a stock of winter provisions.

The party was more fortunate in this its second cantonment. The winter passed away without any Indian visitors; and the game continued to be plentiful in the neighbourhood. They felled two large trees, and shaped them into canoes, and, as the spring opened, and a thaw of several days melted the ice in the river, they made every preparation for embarking. On the 8th of March they launched forth in their canoes, but soon found that the river had not depth sufficient even for such slender barks. It expanded into a wide, but extremely shallow stream, with many sandbars, and occasionally various channels. They got one of their canoes a few miles down it, with extreme difficulty, sometimes wading, and dragging it over the shoals. At last they had to abandon the attempt, and to resume their journey on foot, aided by their faithful old packhorse, which had recruited strength during the winter.

The weather delayed them for several days, having suddenly become more rigorous than it had been at any time during the winter; but on the 20th of March they were again on their journey.

In two days they arrived at the vast naked prairie, the wintry aspect of which had caused them in December to pause and turn back. It was now clothed with the early verdure of spring, and plentifully stocked with game. Still, when obliged to bivouac on its bare surface, without any covering, by a scanty fire of buffalo-chips, they found the night-blasts piercingly cold. On one occasion a herd of buffalo having strayed near their evening camp, they killed three of them merely for their hides, wherewith to make a shelter for the night.

They journeyed on for about a hundred miles, and the first landmark by which they were able to conjecture their position with any degree of confidence was an island about seventy miles in length, which they presumed to be Le Grande Isle.[5] They now knew that they were not a very great distance from the Missouri River, if their presumption was correct. They went on, therefore, with renewed hope, and on the evening of the third day met an Otoe Indian, who informed them they were but a short distance from the Missouri. He also told them of the war that had been progressing between the United States and England. This was news to them indeed, for during that whole period they had been beyond the possibility of learning anything of civilized affairs.

The Indian conducted them to his village, where they were delighted to meet two white trappers recently arrived from St. Louis. A bargain was now made with one of them, who agreed to furnish them with a canoe and provisions for the voyage, in exchange for their venerable traveller, the old horse. In a few days they started and arrived at Fort Osage, where they were again received hospitably by the officers of the garrison, and where they enjoyed that luxury, bread, which they had not tasted for over a year. Reëmbarking, they arrived in St. Louis on the 30th of April, without experiencing any further adventure worthy of note.[6]


On the return of Lewis and Clarke's expedition from the Rocky Mountains where they had wintered with the Mandans, a celebrated chief of that tribe, Big White, was induced to accompany Captain Lewis to Washington in order that he might see the President, and learn something of the power of the people of the country far to the East.

The Mandans at that time were at war with the Sioux, and Big White was fearful that on his return to his own tribe some of the Sioux might cut him and his party off, so he hesitated at first to accept the invitation; but upon Captain Clarke assuring him that the government would send a guard of armed men to protect and convoy him safely to his own country, the chief assented, and took with him his wife and son.

In the spring of 1807, Big White set out on his return to the Mandan country. The promised escort, comprising twenty men under the command of Captain Ezekiel Williams, a noted frontiersman, left St. Louis to guard him and to explore the region of the then unknown far West.

Each man of the party carried a rifle, together with powder and lead to last him for a period of two years. They also took with them six traps to each person, for it was the intention of the expedition, after it had seen the brave Mandan safely to his own home, to hunt for beaver and other fur-bearing animals in the recesses of the vast region beyond the Missouri.

Pistols, knives, camp kettles, blankets, and other camp equipage necessary to the success of the expedition and the comfort of the men were carried on extra packhorses. He did not forget to take gewgaws and trinkets valued by the savage, as presents to the chiefs of the several tribes they might chance to meet.

It will be remembered by the student of history that the expedition of Lewis and Clarke was confined to the Missouri River. They went up that stream and returned by the same route, and as Lieutenant Pike started west in 1805, it is claimed that this expedition of Captain Williams, overland to the Rocky Mountains, was the second ever undertaken by citizens of the United States. The difficulties which they expected to encounter, having no knowledge of the country through which they were to pass, as may be surmised, were numerous and trying. When leaving the Mandan chief at his village, near the mouth of the Yellowstone, that excellent Indian gave the party some timely advice, and it prevented their absolute annihilation on several occasions. Captain Williams was especially urged to exercise the greatest vigilance day and night; to pay the strictest attention to the position of his camps and the picketing of his animals. He was told that, although the average Indian generally relied upon surprises on their raids, they were not rash and careless, rarely attacking a party

The Great Salt Lake Trail - 6/86

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