Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

The Commerce of the Prairies—II

In 1839, after having been only a few months in the "States," Gregg was unable to resist his longing for the free life of the prairies and began to make preparations for another trip to the Mexican settlements. At that time the ports of Mexico were blockaded by French men-of-war, and the demand for goods was great, with a prospect of correspondingly high prices. Late in April the wagon train, loaded with twenty-five thousand dollars' worth of goods, crossed the Arkansas, not far from the mouth of the Canadian fork. They had not proceeded far before they lost a teamster; "a Cherokee shopkeeper came up to us with an attachment for debt against a free mulatto, whom we had engaged as teamster. The poor fellow had no alternative but to return with the importunate creditor, who committed him at once to the care of 'Judge Lynch' for trial. We ascertained afterward that he had been sentenced to 'take the benefit of the bankrupt law' after the manner of the Cherokees of that neighborhood. This is done by stripping and tying the victim to a tree; when each creditor, with a good cowhide or hickory switch in his hand, scores the amount of the bill due upon his bare back. One stripe for every dollar due is the usual process of 'whitewashing'; and as the application of the lash is accompanied by all sorts of quaint remarks, the exhibition affords no small merriment to those present, with the exception, no doubt, of the delinquent himself. After the ordeal is over, the creditors declare themselves perfectly satisfied: nor could they, as is said, ever be persuaded thereafter to receive one red cent of the amount due, offered to them. As the poor mulatto was also in our debt, and was perhaps apprehensive that we might exact payment in the same currency, he never showed himself again."

The leaders of the party just setting out were well armed with Colt's repeating rifles and revolvers, and carried, besides, two small cannon. Among the men were a number of young fellows from the East, most of them quite without prairie experience. They had not been many days out when one of the party, out hunting, became lost, and not returning at night, muskets were fired to guide him to camp; but he imagined that the firing was done by hostile Indians, and fled from the sound. Finally, according to his statement, he was attacked during the night by a panther, which he succeeded in beating off with the butt of his gun. It was imagined, however, from the peculiar odor with which the shattered gun was still redolent when he reached camp, that the "panther" that he had driven off was no many degrees removed in affinity from a skunk.

When the train reached the north fork of the Canadian, they met with a considerable camp of Comanches, with whom they had some friendly intercourse. With them was a body of United States Dragoons, under Lieutenant Bowman, to whom had been intrusted the task of trying to make peace with the Comanches, and so protecting the settlements of the border. Among these Comanches were a number of Mexican captives—women, boys, and small children—of whom Gregg notes that a number of them were still well able to speak Spanish. In other words, their captivity had been so short that they had a clear memory of the events of earlier life. An effort was made to purchase several of these captives, in order to return them to their homes. Most of them, however, were unwilling to go, and for a variety of reasons; one of the lads, only ten or twelve years old, explaining that by his life among the Indians he had become "now too much of a brute to live among Christians." One lad Gregg did purchase, and was repaid by much gratitude.

It was near the Canadian River, which they had now reached, that a small party of Americans experienced terrible suffering in the winter of 1832 and '33. "The party," Gregg says, "consisted of twelve men, chiefly citizens of Missouri. Their baggage and about ten thousand dollars in specie were packed upon mules. They took the route of the Canadian River, fearing to venture on the northern prairies at that season of the year. Having left Santa Fe in December, they had proceeded without accident thus far, when a large body of Comanches and Kiawas were seen advancing toward them. Being well acquainted with the treacherous and pusillanimous disposition of those races, the traders prepared at once for defence; but the savages having made a halt at some distance, began to approach one by one, or in small parties, making a great show of friendship all the while, until most of them had collected on the spot. Finding themselves surrounded in every direction, the travellers now began to move on, in hopes of getting rid of the intruders; but the latter were equally ready for the start, and, mounting their horses, kept jogging on in the same direction. The first act of hostility perpetrated by the Indians proved fatal to one of the American traders named Pratt, who was shot dead while attempting to secure two mules which had become separated from the rest. Upon this, the companions of the slain man immediately dismounted and commenced a fire upon the Indians, which was warmly returned, whereby another man of the name of Mitchell was killed.

"By this time the traders had taken off their packs and piled them around for protection; and now falling to work with their hands, they very soon scratched out a trench deep enough to protect them from the shot of the enemy. The latter made several desperate charges, but they seemed too careful of their own personal safety, notwithstanding the enormous superiority of their numbers, to venture too near the rifles of the Americans. In a few hours all the animals of the traders were either killed or wounded, but no personal damage was done to the remaining ten men, with the exception of a wound in the thigh received by one, which was not at the time considered dangerous.

"During the siege, the Americans were in great danger of perishing from thirst, as the Indians had complete command of all the water within reach. Starvation was not so much to be dreaded, because, in cases of necessity, they could live on the flesh of their slain animals, some of which lay stretched close around them. After being pent up for thirty-six hours in this horrible hole, during which time they had seldom ventured to raise their heads above the surface without being shot at, they resolved to make a bold sortie in the night, as any death was preferable to the death that awaited them there. As there was not an animal left that was at all in a condition to travel, the owners of the money gave permission to all to take and appropriate to themselves whatever amount each man could safely undertake to carry. In this way they started with a few hundred dollars, of which but little ever reached the United States. The remainder was buried deep in the sand, in hope that it might escape the cupidity of the savages, but to very little purpose, for they were afterward seen by some Mexican traders making a great display of specie, which was without doubt taken from this unfortunate cache.

"With every prospect of being discovered, overtaken and butchered, but resolved to sell their lives as dearly as possible, they at last emerged from their hiding place, and moved on silently and slowly until they found themselves beyond the purlieus of the Indian camps. Often did they look back in the direction where three to five hundred savages were supposed to watch their movements, but, much to their astonishment, no one appeared to be in pursuit. The Indians, believing, no doubt, that the property of the traders would come into their hands, and having no amateur predilection for taking scalps at the risk of losing their own, appeared willing enough to let the spoliated adventurers depart without further molestation.

"The destitute travellers, having run themselves short of provisions, and being no longer able to kill game for want of materials to load their rifles, they were very soon reduced to the necessity of sustaining life upon roots and the tender bark of trees. After travelling for several days in this desperate condition, with lacerated feet, and utter prostration of mind and body, they began to disagree among themselves about the route to be pursued, and eventually separated into two distinct parties. Five of these unhappy men steered a westward course, and after a succession of sufferings and privations which almost surpassed belief, they reached the settlements of the Creek Indians, near the Arkansas River, where they were treated with great kindness and hospitality. The other five wandered about in the greatest state of distress and bewilderment, and only two finally succeeded in getting out of the mazes of the wilderness." Mooney, Kiowa Calendar, p. 255, gives the account of this occurrence from Kiowa sources. They say that one Indian, Black Wolf, was killed in the fight.

After many difficulties, Gregg reached Santa Fe again, and prepared to start south for Chihuahua, where a better market for his goods was expected. They crossed the famous Jornada del Muerto, and reached El Paso del Norte, and at last Chihuahua. Here was a country devoted to cattle raising; the herds, according to Gregg, being almost as numerous as those of the buffalo on the northern plains. Some time was devoted to journeying through northern Mexico.

On his return to Santa Fe, Gregg, having ordered his men to "rope a beef" for food, from the herds which covered the plains, got into trouble with the Mexican authorities, and was greatly delayed, being taken back to Chihuahua and tried for his offence, but acquitted on the ground of ignorance of the laws and the customs of the country.

Shortly before they reached the Staked Plains, on their return, they were attacked by a war-party of Pawnees on foot, who succeeded in running off a few of the horses and in wounding two or three men. Their Comanche guide took them safely across the plains, until at last they reached the Canadian River. Gregg relates of the wind of the prairie: "It will often blow a gale for days, and even weeks together, without slacking for a moment, except occasionally at night. It is for this reason, as well as on account of the rains, that percussion guns are preferable upon the prairies, particularly for those who understand their use. The winds are frequently so severe as to sweep away both sparks and priming from a flintlock, and thus render it wholly ineffective."

While following down the Canadian they found buffalo very abundant, and the gentleness and lack of suspicion of the animal is noted. "On one occasion, two or three hunters, who were a little in advance of the caravan, perceiving a herd quietly grazing in an open glade, they 'crawled upon' them after the manner of the 'still-hunters.' Their first shot having brought down a fine fat cow, they slipped up behind her, and resting their guns over her body, shot two or three others, without occasioning any serious disturbance or surprise to their companions; for, extraordinary as it may appear, if the buffalo neither see nor smell the hunter, they will pay but little attention to the crack of guns, or to the mortality which is being dealt among them."

Gregg's praiseworthy reflections on the wanton killing of the buffalo are made in entire good faith, yet only a day or two later he frankly confesses to some unnecessary killing that he did himself. He says of the excessive destruction: "The slaughter of these animals is frequently carried to an excess, which shows the depravity of the human heart in very bold relief. Such is the excitement that generally prevails at the sight of these fat denizens of the prairies, that very few hunters appear able to refrain from shooting as long as the game remains within reach of their rifles; nor can they ever permit a fair shot to escape them. Whether the mere pleasure of taking life is the incentive of these brutal excesses, I will not pretend to decide; but one thing is very certain, that the buffalo killed on these prairies far exceeds the wants of the travellers; or what might be looked upon as the exigencies of rational sport." In a foot-note he adds: "The same barbarous propensity is observable in regard to wild horses. Most persons appear unable to restrain this wanton inclination to take life, when a mustang approaches within rifle shot. Many a stately steed thus falls a victim to the cruelty of man."

In April, 1840, Gregg reached the end of his journey—his last trip upon the plains. He was as susceptible as other men have shown themselves to the attractions of the free life of the prairie, its "sovereign independence"; but acknowledges the disadvantages which follow an almost entire separation from one's fellow-men. Nevertheless, "Since that time," he says, "I have striven in vain to reconcile myself to the even tenor of civilized life in the United States; and have sought in its amusements and its society a substitute for those high excitements which have attached me so strongly to prairie life. Yet I am almost ashamed to confess that scarcely a day passes without my experiencing a pang of regret that I am not now roving at large upon those Western plains. Nor do I find my taste peculiar; for I have hardly known a man who has ever become familiar with the kind of life which I have led for so many years, that has not relinquished it with regret."

In his account of animals of the prairies, Gregg names first the mustang; and here we find one of the earliest mentions of a traditional wild horse, which has come down in many a story.

"The beauty of the mustang is proverbial," he writes. "One in particular has been celebrated by hunters, of which marvellous stories are told. He has been represented as a medium-sized stallion of perfect symmetry, milk-white, save a pair of black ears—a natural 'pacer,' and so fleet, it is said, as to leave far behind every horse that had been tried in pursuit of him, without breaking his 'pace.' But I infer that this story is somewhat mythical, from the difficulty which one finds in fixing the abiding place of its equine hero. He is familiarly known, by common report, all over the great prairies. The trapper celebrates him in the vicinity of the northern Rocky Mountains; the hunter on the Arkansas or in the midst of the plains, while others have him pacing at the rate of half a mile a minute on the borders of Texas. It is hardly a matter of surprise, then, that a creature of such an ubiquitary existence should never have been caught.

"The wild horses are generally well-formed, with trim and clean limbs; still their elegance has been much exaggerated by travellers, because they have seen them at large, abandoned to their wild and natural gaiety. Then, it is true, they appear superb indeed; but when caught and tamed, they generally dwindle down to ordinary ponies. Large droves are very frequently seen upon the prairies, sometimes of hundreds together, gambolling and curvetting within a short distance of the caravans. It is sometimes difficult to keep them from dashing among the loose stock of the traveller, which would be exceedingly dangerous, for, once together, they are hard to separate again, particularly if the number of mustangs is much the greatest. It is a singular fact, that the gentlest wagon-horse (even though quite fagged with travel), once among a drove of mustangs, will often acquire in a few hours all the intractable wildness of his untamed companions."

It is many years since the real mustang has been seen on the prairie. To-day his place is taken by the range horse, an animal of very different character, though of similar habits. Yet, we well recall a time, long before the day of the' range, and its cattle or horses, when journeying through the southern country, little bands of mustangs could sometimes be seen. One such, which passed once close to our command, was noticeable for the presence among its numbers of a gigantic mule, which it had picked up from some travelling party, and which was now as wild as the horses themselves.

Naturally, Gregg has much to say about the buffalo, and he voices an impression which long had currency, and may still be believed by people, that the bulls were sentinels and guards for the cows and calves. Speaking in general terms, he says: "A buffalo cow is about as heavy as a common ox, while a large fat bull will weigh perhaps double as much.

"These are very gregarious animals. At some seasons, however, the cows rather incline to keep to themselves; at other times they are mostly seen in the centre of the gang, while the bulls are scattered around, frequently to a considerable distance, evidently guarding the cows and calves. And on the outskirts of the buffalo range, we are apt to meet with small gangs of bulls alone, a day or two's travel distant, as though performing the office of 'pique guards' for the main herds."

In his remarks about the gray wolf and its habits, he touches on the question as to whether the big wolf of America ever voluntarily attacks man. He says: "I have never known these animals, rapacious as they are, extend their attacks to man, though they probably would, if very hungry, and a favorable opportunity presented itself. I shall not soon forget an adventure with one of them, many years ago, on the frontier of Missouri. Riding near the prairie border, I perceived one of the largest and fiercest of the gray species, which had just descended from the west, and seemed famished to desperation. I at once prepared for a chase and, being without arms, I caught up a cudgel, when I betook me valiantly to the charge, much stronger, as I soon discovered, in my cause than in my equipment. The wolf was in no humor to flee, however, but boldly met me the full half-way. I was soon disarmed, for my club broke upon the animal's head. He then 'laid to' my horse's legs, which, not relishing the conflict, gave a plunge and sent me whirling over his head, and made his escape, leaving me and the wolf at close quarters. I was no sooner upon my feet than my antagonist renewed the charge; but, being without weapon, or any means of awakening an emotion of terror, save through his imagination, I took off my large black hat, and using it for a shield, began to thrust it toward his gaping jaws. My ruse had the desired effect, for, after springing at me a few times, he wheeled about and trotted off several paces, and stopped to gaze at me. Being apprehensive that he might change his mind and return to the attack, and conscious that, under the compromise, I had the best of the bargain, I very resolutely took to my heels, glad of the opportunity of making a draw game, though I had myself given the challenge."

Gregg devotes considerable space to a discussion of the aborigines of America, and among these he mentions most of the prairie tribes. He speaks at some length of what we now call the civilized tribes—that is to say, the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles. He notes the dreadful evil that liquor has created among the Indians, and gives, at the same time, a somewhat amusing account of the Legislative Council among the Choctaws, where whiskey was banished from the nation: "Many and long were the speeches which were made, and much enthusiasm was created against the monster 'whiskey,' and all his brood of compound enormities. Still every one seemed loth to move his arrest and execution. Finally, a captain of more than ordinary temerity arose, and offered a resolution that each and every individual who should thenceforth dare to introduce any of the liquid curse into their country, should be punished with a hundred lashes on his bare back, and the liquor be poured out. This was passed, after some slight changes, by acclamation; but, with a due sense of the injustice of ex-post facto restrictions, all those who had liquors on hand were permitted to sell them. The council adjourned; but the members soon began to canvass among each other the pernicious consequences which might result from the protracted use of the whiskey already in the shops, and therefore concluded the quicker it was drank up the more promptly would the evil be over: so, falling to, in less than two hours Bacchus never mustered a drunker troop than were these same temperance legislators. The consequences of their determination were of lasting importance to them. The law, with some slight improvements, has ever since been rigorously enforced."

It is interesting to note that the Comanches, while bitterly at war with the Mexicans and the Texans, for very many years, nevertheless, cultivated peace with the New Mexicans, "not only because the poverty of the country offers fewer inducements for their inroads, but because it is desirable, as with the interior Mexican tribes, to retain some friendly point with which to keep an amicable intercourse and traffic. Parties of them have therefore sometimes entered the settlements of New Mexico for trading purposes; while every season numerous bands of New Mexicans, known as Comancheros, supplied with arms, ammunition, trinkets, provisions, and other necessaries, launch upon the prairies to barter for mules, and the different fruits of their ravages upon the south."

Gregg's history of these first beginnings of the westward commerce of the United States is a most valuable and interesting repository of the facts of the period. It purports to be only a diary of a trader, but actually it is history.