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A journey to the rocky mountains in 1839 By F. A. Wislizenus, M. D

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By F. A. Wislizenus, M.D.



Originally published in German, in 1840

This edition based on the English translation published in 1912, by the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Missouri























THE whole territory of the United States of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean is divisible into two great sections, the eastern and the western. The eastern, which we may also call the cultivated part of the United States, is bounded on the east by the Atlantic ocean, on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, on the north by the British Possessions in North America, and on the west by a line coinciding with civilization's ceaseless westward progress, stretching out from year to year, a line which I would call the boundary of civilization of the United States. This line now about corresponds with the western boundary of the territories, Wisconsin and Iowa, and of the states, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana. The other, the western section of the United States, extends from this boundary of civilization to the coasts of the Pacific. On the south, merely to give general indications, it is separated from Texas by the Sabine River, and from Mexico by a line running along the south bank of the Arkansas in its upper course to its source in latitude 42 , and with that parallel westward to the Pacific ocean. Toward the north this section bounds on the British Possessions. But the northern boundary has been fixed by the treaties of 1818 with England, only so far as concerns the part east of the Rocky Mountains, as running on the 49th parallel from the Lake of the Woods westwardly to the Rockies. Beyond these mountains to the Pacific Ocean the United States claim to the Russian Possessions in latitude 54 10' north by reason of discoveries and ancient treaties. By provisional arrangement, England shares with us the possession of this region, leaving the dispute unsettled. The western portion of the United States, which alone concerns us here, is divided into territories: on this side of the Rockies we have the Northwest Territory, Missouri Territory, Arkansas Territory; while all beyond to the Pacific Ocean is covered by the general name of Oregon Territory. Only along the border of this western section, which in circumference and area is equal to the eastern section, if not greater than it, has civilization struck any roots. That is to say, along the boundary of civilization live various peaceful Indian tribes that have in part accommodated themselves to agriculture, and on the other side, on the Columbia River, near the Pacific Ocean, several, as yet quite unimportant settlements have been made by Americans and Englishmen. The area between these extremes as yet no plow has touched; no homely roof of the settler invites the traveler to rest. The roving Indian alone here puts up his portable tent, and moves daily on with his faithful companion, the buffalo, who, like himself, retreats before the "pale faces." The character of the country favors the hunter's life of these savage bands, and interposes great obstacles to the advance of the settler. For this enormous stretch of country is really only one huge prairie, rolling on in wave-like hills and broad plateaus, plentifully traversed, it is true, by brooks and rivers, but so scantily provided with wood, that even the mere traveler cannot always find the necessary firewood, but must take dried buffalo dung as an inadequate substitute. From north to south this prairie is crossed by the lofty mountain chain which traverses all western America in the direction just mentioned, bearing various names in the different countries it crosses, but known in North America under the general name of Rocky Mountains, and in South America as the Andes. Out of these mountains, whose peaks are covered with everlasting ice and snow, issue the streams which traverse this wilderness, and send their waters to either ocean, the Atlantic and the Pacific. So, in the northeast of this region arises the Missouri with its tributaries, the Yellowstone and the Platte; in the southeast the Green River (Colorado of the West), which empties into the Gulf of California. Toward the west the Columbia has its source, discharging itself into the Pacific Ocean, affording incalculable advantages for commerce. This short geographical survey makes evident the importance of the region in commercial aspects. If we further consider that the country abounds in beavers, and that trading with the Indians is a source of great profit, it need not surprise us that in spite of all obstacles which ignorance of the country, hostile Indians, difficulties of transportation, hunger and thirst oppose to a journey into this region, an enterprising people, such as are the Americans, have turned their attention from an early date in this direction, and have known how to conquer all difficulties with persevering courage.

The first trips of discovery to this Far West are so closely connected with the history of the North American fur trade, that it becomes necessary to refer to it briefly. Even in former centuries, when the eastern coast of North America first began to be peopled, and when the country beyond the Alleghenies abounded in Indians and buffalo, fur trading and bartering with the Indians proved a veritable gold mine. The Canadians, at that time under French rule, especially distinguished themselves in this kind of commerce. The Canadian fur traders boldly pushed into and penetrated a wilderness into which no European had theretofore set foot. Their buoyant French temperament enabled them to make themselves popular even among wild Indian tribes; and so they became pioneers of civilization. Among the trading companies organized for this purpose two are especially prominent, their history running down to our day, namely: the Hudson's Bay Company, chartered by Charles II in 1670, whose headquarters were then in New York, and the North West Company, established at Montreal in 1783. These two rival companies carried on their trade chiefly on the Great Lakes, and later descended from there into the Mississippi Valley. The country further west was as yet unknown. The first fragmentary information about this country we find in the travels of Jonathan Carver of Connecticut, who, about the year 1763, was among the Indians on the Upper Mississippi. He mentions a River Oregon or the River of the West (Columbia). This information he probably received through Indians. The word "Oregon" seems to date from this, its first mention. The first traveler who reached the Pacific Coast by going westward was Sir Alexander Mackenzie, a former British officer. He crossed the Rocky Mountains for the first time in 1793, at 52 20' 48" north latitude, and reached the Pacific Ocean in what is now Caledonia, between latitude 52 and 55 , and consequently north of the Columbia River. Soon thereafter the North West Company erected, on the Pacific Coast, in the region mentioned, two trading posts. In the year 1803 the Government of the United States, recognizing the importance of these western possessions, sent an expedition under Lewis and Clark across the Rocky Mountains to explore this country, and to take possession thereof in the name of the United States. Lewis and Clark ascended the Missouri to its sources; then, battling with many hardships, crossed the Rocky Mountains; reached on the other side the sources of the Columbia, and finally-following that river-the Pacific. With the change in political affairs in North America, the two chief trading companies, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company, had passed into the hands of the English, and steadily maintained their preponderance. But formidable opposition against them arose in 1810 at New York in the Pacific Fur Company, whose financial and intellectual head was John Jacob Astor, a German by birth. A detailed account of this undertaking, so tremendous for a private citizen, is found in Washington Irving's classic, "Astoria." For present purposes it is enough to know that the undertaking consisted of two contemporaneous expeditions, one by sea and one by land. The latter was entrusted to Wilson P. Hunt of New Jersey (now postmaster at St. Louis) . Hunt ascended the Missouri to the village of the Arickaras, and thence continued overland in southwesterly direction. He reached the Rockies at the northwest comer of the Wind River Mountains, crossed the principal range, found on the further side the southern main source of the Columbia, the Snake River, and after incredible sufferings, to which several of the party succumbed, reached the Columbia and the Pacific Ocean. At the same time a ship had been sent around Cape Horn to the Columbia River. It had arrived there, and a trading fort (Astoria) had been built near the mouth of the Columbia River. So far, the undertaking was crowned with success. But several mishaps, especially the faithlessness of one agent, wrecked everything. In 1812 the fort was treacherously sold by the agent to the North West Company, and shortly after, the English, then at war with the United States, took military possession. In 1818 the fort was formally surrendered to the United States, but the North West Company remained in the actual occupation of the country. Its only rival now was the Hudson's Bay Company. For a time these two companies maintained a bloody feud, till finally, in 1821, they amalgamated into one trading company under the valuable franchises of the Hudson's Bay Company. The new company has now drawn to itself all the trade on the Columbia and has actually expelled the United States from this part of its territory.

Such results were not encouraging for the people of the United States; but their spirit of enterprise soon showed itself afresh. In 1820 a new expedition, under Major Long, was sent by the Government of the United States up the Missouri River to explore the country. Private undertakings also were soon organized. So in 1822, General Ashley of Missouri and Mr. Henry established a trading post on the Yellowstone, and made trips through the country on this side of the Rocky Mountains to the Green River. Beaver trapping promised most profit. A peculiar class of men, the trappers, who traversed the country in all directions, were developed by this business. Out of this school arose leaders for subsequent enterprises, such as Smith, Fitzpatrick, Bridger, Robert Campbell, William Sublette, etc., names well known to every mountaineer.

In 1830 two companies organized in St. Louis became active: the American Fur Company, which had been organized as far back as 1809 but had become dormant, and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, founded by Sublette and Campbell. In 1832, two new rivals entered the field, viz.: Captain Bonneville, on behalf of a company in New York, and Captain Wyeth, from Boston. These four parties crossed the country on either side of the Rocky Mountains in every direction, save that the all-powerful Hudson's Bay Company successfully excluded them from the Columbia River. Washington Irving has faithfully described in his "Rocky Mountains" the manner in which competition was carried on by these jealous rivals. Captains Wyeth and Bonneville disappeared from the scene after a few years, because their companies had sustained losses in the enterprise. The American and the Rocky Mountain Companies first came to a friendly agreement, whereunder each occupied a certain district for trading and trapping, and afterwards they amalgamated into a single company, which was carried on under the firm name of Chouteau, Pratte & Co. Several small companies were formed still later, which erected trading forts on the Missouri, on the North and South Platte, on the Arkansas and on the Green River; but none of them attained any marked preponderance.

While the knowledge of the country in general was much enlarged by the trading trips above described, much was also done in a scientific direction by men who had joined such expeditions on account of devotion to the natural sciences. So the well known naturalist, Nuttal, and the botanist, Bradbury, accompanied Hunt's Expedition to the point where it left the Missouri. In Long's Expedition there was Say, who has rendered such services to zoology. The Prince of Neuwied, too, so favorably known for his zeal for the natural sciences, undertook about this time a scientific trip up the Missouri. Finally, Captain Wyeth was accompanied by Nuttal and Townshend. Though these men accomplished much, often at great sacrifices, very much more remains to be done; for the country is rich in treasures for every branch of the natural sciences, and the difficulties and dangers of the journey alone have as yet prevented their exploitation.


SOME human beings, like birds of passage, are ill at ease when kept for a considerable length of time under the same sky. They consider all Nature one great family; the whole world their home. I will not decide whether or not I belong to this class; but I do know that from time to time an irresistible fever for wandering seizes me, and that I find no better remedy against the moods and crochets of hum-drum daily life than change of place and of air.

Chained for several years to an exacting medical practice, in which I had tasted to the full the sorrows and pleasures of the active physician, I felt the need of mental and physical recreation. An excursion to the cultivated part of the United States, through the greater part of which I had already traveled, suited neither my means nor my inclinations. The far West, with its wilderness and its aboriginals, was far more to my liking. Apart from the selfish purpose of personal enjoyment, I had another in view; perhaps I might contribute something, in proportion to my limited knowledge in natural sciences and my narrow means, toward a better understanding of this region, where as yet our information in many respects partakes of the fabulous.

About the middle of April, 1839, I left St. Louis with this purpose. I went up the Missouri on the steamboat St. Peters to Chouteau's Landing. Our trip lasted six days, because the water was at a very low stage; and offered nothing of special interest. The border village, West Port, is six miles distant from Chouteau's Landing. There I intended to await the departure of this year's annual caravan. The village has perhaps thirty or forty houses, and is only a mile from the western border of the State of Missouri. It is the usual rendezvous for travelers to the Rocky Mountains, as is Independence, twelve miles distant, for those journeying to Santa Fe. I bought a horse and a mule, the former to ride, the latter for my baggage; and made other preparations necessary for my journey. On May 4th the different parties who were to join the expedition met for their first night camp at Sapling Grove, about eight miles from West Port. The way thitherward goes through the land of the Shawnees, peaceable Indians who have settled here. Some of them own valuable farms. Their manner of life shows a close approach to that of the white man. Some of them speak English. My first day's journey began under evil auspices, for I had not yet learned to pack my mule. The usual way of doing it is this: The baggage is divided into two equal parts, each part firmly bound up, and hung by loops on either side of the yoke-shaped pack saddle. The whole is further fastened by the so-called "lash rope," of stout buffalo leather, which is first wound around the barrel of the animal, and then in diamond shaped turns as firmly as possible around the pack. My baggage weighed 150 to 200 pounds, a quite ordinary load for a mule; but I had not divided the burden properly, so that I had to repack repeatedly on the road. It was well toward evening when I reached the camp, where the others already had arrived. Our caravan was small. It consisted of only twenty-seven persons. Nine of them were in the service of the Fur Company of St. Louis (Chouteau, Pratte & Co.), and were to bring the merchandise to the yearly rendezvous on the Green River. Their leader was Mr. Harris, a mountaineer without special education, but with five sound senses, that he well knew how to use. All the rest joined the expedition as individuals. Among them were three missionaries, two of them accompanied by their wives, whom a Christian zeal for converting the heathen urged to the Columbia. Some others spoke of a permanent settlement on the Columbia; again, others intended to go to California, and so on. Almost all, however, were actuated by some commercial motive. The majority of the party were Americans; the rest consisted of French Canadians, a few Germans, and a Dane. The Fur Company transported its goods on two-wheeled carts, of which there were four, each drawn by two mules, and loaded with 800 to 900 pounds. The rest put their packs on mules or horses, of which there were fifty to sixty in the caravan. Our first camp, Sapling Grove, was in a little hickory wood, with fresh spring water. Our animals we turned loose to graze in the vicinity. To prevent them from straying far, either the two fore feet, or the forefoot and hindfoot of one side are bound together with so-called "hobbles." In order that they may easily be caught, they drag a long rope of buffalo leather (trail-rope). At night stakes (pickets) are driven into the earth at some distance from each other, and the animals are fastened to them by ropes. After we had attended to our animals, and had eaten our supper, we sprawled around a fire, and whiled away the evening with chatting and smoking; then wrapped ourselves in our woolen blankets,-the only bed one takes with one-and slept for the first time under our little tents, of which we had seven. At dawn, the leader rouses the camp with an inharmonious: "Get up! Get up! Get up!" Every one rises. The first care is for the animals. They are loosed from their pickets and allowed an hour for grazing. Meanwhile we prepare our breakfast, strike our tents, and prepare for the start. The animals are driven in again, packed and saddled. We move off in corpore. We proceed at a moderate pace, in front the leader with his carts, behind him in line long drawn out the mingled riders and pack animals. In the early days of the journey we are apt to lead the pack animals by rope; later on, we leave them free, and drive them before us. At first packing causes novices much trouble on the way. Here the towering pack leans to one side; there it topples under the animal's belly. At one time the beast stands stock still with its swaying load; at another it rushes madly off, kicking out till it is free of its burden. But pauseless, like an army over its fallen, the train moves on. With bottled-up wrath the older men, with raging and swearing the younger ones, gather up their belongings, load the beasts afresh, and trot after the column. Toward noon a rest of an hour or two is made, if a suitable camp can be found, the chief requisites being fresh water, good grass, and sufficient wood. We unload the beasts to let them graze, and prepare a mid-day meal. Then we start off again, and march on till toward sunset. We set up the tents, prepare our meal, lie around the fire, and then, wrapped in our woolen blankets, commit ourselves to our fate till the next morning. In this way twenty to twenty-five miles are covered daily. The only food the animals get is grass. For ourselves, we take with us for the first week some provisions, such as ham, ship-biscuit, tea and coffee. Afterwards, we depend on hunting. Such are the daily doings of the caravan.


IN the first days our journey was straight west. The first day we marched over the broad Santa Fe road, beaten out by the caravans. Then leaving it to our left we took a narrow wagon road, established by former journeys to the Rocky Mountains, but often so indistinctly traced, that our leader at times lost it, and simply followed the general direction. Our way led through prairie with many undulating hills of good soil. The region is watered with a few brooks and rivulets, along whose banks there is usually a narrow strip of deciduous timber. On the prairie itself there is no wood. Several times we had to content ourselves with muddy standing water; but usually we found pleasant, even romantic camping places on clear brooks. We saw no large game as yet. A few prairie chicken was all that we shot. However, a weather-worn buffalo skull and the antlers of an elk, which we found, reminded us of the time when these denizens of the wilderness had dwelt here.

On the fifth day after our start we reached the Kanzas, or, as it is commonly called, Ka River, not deep, but rather broad and swift. Its course is from west to east, and it empties close by the border of the State of Missouri into the river of the same name. We were about a hundred miles above its mouth. To cross us over a canoe had been sent up the river from its mouth, but it had not as yet arrived. So we camped in the meanwhile on an elevation near the river. Some miles from us, on the same side of the river, was a village of the Kas, or Kanzas Indians; across the river, somewhat farther off, were two villages of the same tribe. Near the first village there is a trading house, a smithy, and a Methodist mission. The Kas formerly lived forty miles to the west; but in 1826, in pursuance of treaties, the United States Government assigned them the district which they now inhabit; and has set apart for them for twenty years the annual sum of $3,500.00, which is given them principally in kind. The whole tribe is said to number at present 1,500 souls. The attempt to civilize the Kas and lead them to agriculture as yet has had little success. The Government has sent them some mechanics, has established a sort of model farm, and furnishes them yearly a number of cattle and swine. But they usually burn the fencing of the farm in winter and slaughter the animals. In other respects, they live, like the rest of the Indians, from hunting; and as their country, though containing some deer, and elk, has no buffalo, they go twice a year some hundreds of miles away on a buffalo hunt, and bring the dried meat back with them. A tendency toward civilization, on the other hand, is indicated by their permanent residence in villages. While all wild Indian tribes know no other shelter than their lodges, the Kas have already built villages of permanent houses, in which they spend a great part of the year. They thus form a transition from the agricultural Indians dwelling along the border of the United States and the untamed hunting hordes of the Far West.

We had scarcely arrived at the Ka River when the Indians came to our camp; but only a few, for most of them were off on a buffalo hunt. Their clothing was such as is customary with Indians. Some of them had only an apron around the loins; but most also wrapped themselves in a buffalo robe or woolen blanket. Some in addition wore leather leggings. Almost all wore moccasins. The chief garment of the women is a leather overshirt reaching from breast to knee, in addition to which they usually wear drawers and mocassins, with a woolen blanket, preferably of gaudy colors. Like all Indians, they are fond of painting themselves with vermilion. A red ring around the eyes is considered particularly becoming. To the dressing of the hair the men give more care than the women. While the latter simply part their raven black straight hair, push it back of the ears, and let it hang down behind, the men seek to train theirs in all possible ways. Sometimes they shave away all the hair save a long lock on top; again, they let it grow long, and plait it into a braid; sometimes they shave the hair on either side, and leave in the middle a helmet-shaped comb. The last named style seems especially in fashion with the Kas. Both sexes also adorn themselves with all possible ornaments of beads, coral, brassware, feathers, ribbons, gaudy rags, etc. When lacking ornaments, they often daub the head with clay. The Kas who came to our camp behaved very peaceably. They brought some hides, especially tanned deer hides, for sale, and bartered them for knives and other trifles. Some of them wanted money, and offered the hides for a dollar a piece. But they cared most for flour and bacon, for they were starved out. At night, we set guards for the first time, for although the Ka Indians have committed of late no hostilities against the whites, they do not scruple to steal horses from them when they can do it unpunished. The night was divided into three watches. Two or three men were always on watch together. As the canoe had not arrived the next morning, I made a side trip to the nearest village. The village is on the right of the river, on an elevation from which one can enjoy a pleasant and wide view. From a distance it is not unlike a mass of great mole hills. In the village itself no living being was to be found. The greater part of the inhabitants were hunting buffalo. The rest had gone to our camp. As the houses have neither lock nor bar, I could survey them, inside and out, at leisure. The whole village consists of fifty to sixty huts, built, all in one style, in four somewhat irregular rows. The structure is very simple. On a round, arched frame of poles and bark, earth is placed with grass or reeds; at the top, in the middle, an opening is left for light and smoke; in front, at the ground, a similar opening as an entrance; and the shanty is finished. At the open door there is usually a reed-covered passage, extending a few steps into the street. There are about twelve cut braces inside the house; the fireplace is under the opening in the roof; at the side are some bunks of plaited strips of wood. The whole is rather spacious.

The canoe arrived the same day. The wind had been adverse. The next morning we crossed the river. All our baggage was brought over in the canoe; the carts were driven over empty; the animals were driven or ridden through. Everything went smoothly but for the breaking of an axle that had to be mended. The Indians visited us again, and received some presents, especially tobacco, for which they were very eager. Without further interruption we continued our journey.

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