Produced by Gary Martens and Laurie Saikin
DESCRIPTION OF NEBRASKA IN 1541
"But again, we have the positive declaration of Coronado that he gained the southern boundary of this State. 'I have reached,' says he in his report to the Viceroy, Don Antonio de Mendoza, 'the fortieth parallel of latitude.' It is a fair rule for historical investigators to take as absolutely true the statements of eye-witnesses of a transaction, unless there should be something contradicting their testimony or impeaching their veracity. In this instance, not only is there nothing affecting the credibility of Coronado's assertion, but on the contrary, it is sustained by numerous corroborating circumstances. Among the latter are the descriptions of the soil, the flora and fauna of the land of Quivera, which might now serve for a report of the resources of Nebraska.
"'The inhabitants,' says Coronado in his dispatch already alluded to, 'are good hunters, cultivate corn, and exhibit a friendly disposition. They said that two months would not suffice to visit them entirely. In the whole extent of the province, I have seen but twenty-five villages, and these are built of straw. The natives have recognized your majesty, and are submissive to the puissance of their veritable lord. The men are large and the women well formed. The soil is the best which it is possible to see for all kinds of Spanish fruits. Besides being strong and black, it is very well watered by creeks, fountains and rivers. Here I found plums, such as I have seen in Spain, walnuts and excellent ripe grapes.'
"Jaramillo, one of his Lieutenants, writing some years after the expedition, says of it: 'The country has a fine appearance, such as I have not seen excelled in France, Spain, Italy, or in any of the countries which I have visited in the service of his majesty. It is not a country of mountains, there being but hillocks and plains, with streams of excellent water. It afforded me entire satisfaction. I judge that it must be quite fertile and well suited to the cultivation of all sorts of fruits. For a grazing country, experience proves that it is admirably adapted; when we consider that herds of bisons and other wild animals, vast as the imagination can conceive, find sustenance there. I noticed a kind of plum of excellent flavor, something like those of Spain, the stems and blue flowers of a sort of wild flax, sumach along the margins of the streams, like the sumach of Spain, and palatable wild grapes.'
"Castaneda enumerates, among the fruits, plums, grapes, walnuts, a kind of false wheat, pennyroyal, wild marjoram and flax.
"Gomara, another chronicler, says: 'Quivera is on the fortieth parallel of latitude. It is a temperate country, and hath very good waters and much grass, plums, mulberries, nuts, melons and grapes, which ripen very well. There is no cotton, and they apparel themselves with bison hides and deer skins.'
"It is interesting to compare with these dry catalogues some extracts from Prof. Aughey's recently printed 'Sketches of the Physical Geography and Geology of Nebraska.' He says: 'There are three type species of plums in the State, namely, Prunus Americana, P. chicasa and P. pumila. Of these there is an almost endless number of varieties, the plums being common in almost every county, especially along the water-courses and bordering the belts of timber. These plum groves in spring time present a vast sea of flowers, whose fragrance is wafted for miles, and whose beauty attracts every eye.
"'Two species of grapes, with a great number of hybrids and varieties, abound in Nebraska. It is hard to realize, without seeing it, 'with what luxuriance the vine grows in this State. Some of the timber belts are almost impassable from the number and length of the vines, which form a network from tree to tree. Straggling vines are sometimes found far out on the prairie, where, deprived of any other support, they creep along the ground and over weeds and grass.
"'Along the bluffs of the Missouri and some of its tributaries, the red mulberry (Morus rubra) abounds. Sometimes it reaches the dimensions of a small tree.
" 'Though nuts are not always classed with fruits, it seems proper in this place to mention the few that abound in Nebraska. First in the list is the nut of the noble black walnut (Juglans nigra).
"'Nebraska is remarkable, among other things, for its wild grasses. They constitute everywhere the covering of the prairies. Even where old breaking is left untilled, the grasses vie with the weeds for possession, and often, in a few years, are victorious. Every close observer, passing throughthe State in summer, must notice the great number of species and their vigorous growth. I have in my collection one hundred and fourteen species of grasses that are native to the State.
"'The smooth sumach (Rhus glabra) is common in Nebraska, and the dwarf sumach (R. Copallina) and the fragrant sumach (R. aromatica) are sometimes found'.
"Coincidences so remarkable as these certainly strongly support, if they do not firmly establish, the theory for which I contend.
"Upon this march for the first time, civilized eyes looked upon those two familiar denizens of the plains, the prairie dog and the buffalo. The description of the latter is graphic and quaint.
" 'These oxen are of the bigness and color of our bulls, but their horns are not so great. They have a great bunch upon their fore shoulders, and more hair on their fore part than on their hinder part, and it is like wool. They have, as it were, a horse mane upon their backbone, and much hair and very long from their knees downward. They have great tufts of hair hanging down from their foreheads, and it seemeth that they have beards because of the great store of hair hanging down at their china and throats. The males have very long tails, and a great knob or flock at the end, so that in some respects they resemble the lion, and in some other the camel. They push with their horns, they run, they overtake and kill a horse when they are in their rage and anger. Finally, it is a foul and fierce beast of countenance and form of body. The horses fled from them, either because of their deformed shape or else became they had never seen them. Their masters have no other riches nor substance; of them they eat, they drink, they apparel, they shoe themselves; and of their hides they make many things, as houses, shoes, apparel and ropes; of their bones they make bodkins, of their sinews and hair, thread; of their horns, maws, and bladders, vessels; of their dung, fire and of their calves' skins, budgets, wherein they draw and keep water. To be short, they make so many things of them so they have need of, or as many as suffice them in the use of this life.'
"Here, too, is a description, the accuracy of which some of us may perhaps recognize: 'One evening, there came up a terrible storm of wind and hail, which left in the camp hailstones so large as porringers and even larger. They fell thick as rain-drops, and in some spots the ground was covered with them to the depth of eight or ten inches. The storm caused, says one, many tears, weakness and vows. The horses broke their reins, some were even blown down the banks of the ravine, the tents were torn, and every dish in camp broken.' The last was a great loss, for from the natives they could steal nothing, not even calabashes, inhabitants living on half-cooked or raw meat, which needed no plates.
"Our explorers heard of other countries and tribes further on, and especially of a great river to the eastward of them, which they conjectured must be the river of the Holy Ghost, which De Soto discovered, and which was undoubtedly the Missouri; but they had despaired of finding gold, and so, in August, Coronado, reaching as I think the Platte River, caused a cross to be erected, upon whose base was carved the inscription, 'Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, General of an expedition, reached this place.' Thereupon he set his face southward, rejoined his army and went into winter quarters with the timid and submissive people who had learned from his sharp sword the doctrines of Christianity. He purposed, or at least he pretended that he purposed, to return in the spring and renew his explorations in Quivera, 'but,' says the pious soldier Castaneda 'that was not to take place. God has reserved these explorations for others. To us He gives only the right to boast that we were the first to make the discovery. His will be done.' When the spring opened, Coronado had a fall from his horse, which caused severe injuries, and recalling the predictions of the astrologer of Salamanca, his superstitious fears were so wrought upon that his only desire was to breathe his last in the arms of his beloved wife. But the soldiers, who hated to return and longed to settle on the fertile prairies of Quivera, loudly complained that his sickness was in great part counterfeited, and that it was in truth only the fair wife that drew him homeward from his duty. Fifty years afterward, Bacon, perhaps with Coronado's failure in his mind, wrote, 'He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to Fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, whether of virtue or of mischief.' But, whatever the cause, Coronado returned to Mexico, was ill received by the Viceroy, who had spent more than half a million of dollars on the expedition,8 lost his reputation and his government, and so, with Donna Beatrix, his beautiful wife, passes out of our sight forever.
"One of the discoverers of Quivera, however, lingers within our gaze for a short time longer. A Franciscan friar, John of Padilla, burned to teach these natives the doctrines of Christ in a more humane fashion than they had hitherto been inculcated; and, earnest in his desire to save souls, announced his intention of returning to Quivera as a missionary. He had all the sincere faith, the dauntless courage and the lively enthusiasm of his class; and he would have echoed the pious sentiments of one of his brethren in the New World, whose devout aspirations, after a concealment of more than two hundred years, have just been brought to light. 'America,' says the good father, 9 'is a school where one learns perfectly to seek nothing but God, to desire nothing but God, to have his whole thoughts upon God, and to rely only upon the paternal providence of God. To live among the missions of the New World is to live in the bosom of the Almighty, and to breathe only the air of His divine conduct. How fragrant this atmosphere! How fine the holy horrors of these forests! What lights in the thick darkness of this barbarism! The joy of having baptized one savage, who, dying soon after, may go straight to heaven, surpasses all which one can imagine of joy in this world. He who has once tasted the sweetness of Jesus Christ prefers it to all the empires of the earth. America is not without its sufferings. One is sometimes tortured by so many pains, wasted by such rude labors, environed by so great perils, and so abandoned by human aid, that he finds but God alone. But to lose all to find God is a profitable loss. a holy usury. One never encounters the cross, the clouds and the thorns, but he finds Jesus in the midst of them.'
"Actuated by pious considerations like these Padilla, with a few followers, returned to Nebraska taking with him horses, mules, sheep, fowls and the necessary dresses and ornaments for the celebration of the mass. He was not long in finding the reward he sought. Either to possess themselves of his humble chattels, or because they resented his determination to preach to a tribe with which they were at war, the natives soon bestowed upon him the crown of martyrdom; his companions betook themselves to more civilized regions, and the darkness of barbarism again for more than two hundred years settled down over the lend of Quivera.
"Near the margin of the Pecos River, New Mexico, in a little crevice between the rocks, and among bones gnawed by the wolves, there were found some ten or twelve years since, the helmet, gorget and breastplate of a Spanish soldier. Straying perhaps from his companions, perhaps wounded in a skirmish, perhaps sick and forsaken, he had crawled to this rude refuge; and, far from the fragrant gardens of Seville and the gay vineyards of Malaga, had died alone. The camp fires of Quivera were consumed more than three centuries ago; the bones of the profane Moor and the self-devoted Turk have bleached in the sunshine and decayed; the seven cities of Cibola have vanished; the cross of Coronado has moldered into dust, and these rusted relics are all that remain of that march through the desert and the discovery of Nebraska."
NOTE. -- The student of Spanish conquests in America will, of course, understand that the suggestion that this armor belonged to a soldier of Coronado's expedition is merely fanciful. It is, however, by no means an impossible surmise; though it must be admitted that defensive armor was used in America against the rude missiles of the natives long after the use of gunpowder had banished it from European warfare. Since the delivery of this lecture, an antique stirrup, of the exact shape and character of those used for centuries by the Moorish horseman, has been found near the Republican, at a spot about seven miles north of Riverton, in Franklin County, Neb. It was buried so deep in the ground as to preclude the idea that it had been covered by natural causes, and its presence there may afford a curious subject of conjecture. It is worthy of note, also, that the engineers of the new branch of the Union Pacific Railway, now building northward along one of the forks of the Loup, report numerous ancient mounds along their route, and many evidences of once populous cities. Specimens of the ancient pottery, with the shards of which the ground is thickly strewn, are almost identical with those still to be found at Pecos and other cities in New Mexico. This fact is peculiarly interesting in view of one of the statements of the Turk, just before his execution, to the exasperated Spaniards, that the cities to which he was conducting them "were still beyond."
8Three-score thousand pesos of gold, says Gomara.
9Pere Claude Allouez.
While Coronado was penetrating the unknown region of the West; while the Turk, with heroic devotion to his kindred, was offering himself a martyr to a great purpose, without the hope of a martyr's fame; while the simple people of the plains were receiving their induction into the mysterious processes of Christianization; while these scenes of gorgeous pageantry, noble self-immolation and questionable improvement were opening the drama of Nebraska's life, there was transpiring another event, also under the brilliant folds of the Spanish emblem, which for years has stood undisputed in point of priority. The discovery of the Mississippi by Ferdinand de Soto marks an epoch in American history. And if--as is shadowed vaguely in the preceding chapter--future research among the faded archives, which have so long lain undisturbed but which are now arousing new interest among scholars, through their revelations at the hands of M. Pierre Margry, develops the fact that chance had, prior to 1536, opened before the astonished gaze of those wayfarers from the wreck of a once large force, the "mighty river coming from the North"--if, we say, these men were fated to first see the Mississippi even then their transient sight of it cannot rob De Soto's name of the historical honor of discovery. Tradition has so woven the name of the man and the name of the stream into an imperishable fabric, that the teachings of centuries will not suffice to disengage them in the public mind. The broad bosom which received the remains of that brave man; when, tired beyond recovery, he laid down his earthly armor and entered into rest eternal, must ever bear the impress of his name; nor can the floods of fact erase it from the scroll whereon are blazoned the titles of the great discoverers. His death has fixed the seal of ineffaceability to the act.
The revelations concerning early explorations in America have changed many hitherto accepted theories, and fixed positively dates and events which have been in error. This work, strange as it may seem from its long postponement, is yet but imperfectly accomplished. Only fragments of important truths have been made public, except in the French language, and some months must elapse before the labor of translation and publication by the Government, of so much of M. Margry's editions of the original records as relates to American exploration, is performed. To these volumes will be added, probably, works of similar character furnished by other investigators, and ultimately all that is now hidden will be brought to light.
Leaving the question of the original discovery of the Mississippi as one not strictly relevant to this work, it is noted that 132 years elapsed, from the time of De Soto's discovery, before other adventurers saw the magnificent water-way in which the great leader found his burial place. Its very existence, meanwhile, seems-to have been well-nigh forgotten by the Old World. The suggestions which were made by him went unheeded, amid the complications of political events, among the only nations then disposed to find a new world, and fill it with the spirit of progression in arts and sciences, which, at best, prevailed amid clouds of superstition and bigotry.
But the seventeenth century brought to the St. Lawrence adventurers who began to tread the wilds of the Great West. They explored the lakes and circumjacent regions, planting the seeds of commerce in the earth at the foot of the cross. Hand in hand the worldly and the devout moved toward the legendary realm of the savage, and day by day was presented the spectacle, so common in the parent country, of greed and avarice, counterbalanced by the nobler qualities of self-sacrificing devotion to the cause of Christ.
In 1634, the first white man set foot upon the territory west of Lake Michigan. Jean Nicolet, agent of the Company of One Hundred, an association legalized by the French King, ventured thither on a mission of trade, to induce the Indians of that region to send their furs to the lower country. Here he became advised of the fact that there existed "the country of the Illinois," through which the streams flowed into a mightier river to the southwestward. But the French agent did not, as has been stated, get sight of the Wisconsin; his explorations were confined to a comparatively small area in the vicinity of Green Bay.
The time at length arrived when was to be revealed the mystery which had so long enshrouded the "great water." The existence of the river could no longer be doubted. Its exploration above the uppermost point reached by De Soto was only a question of time. Nicolet heard of the mighty stream, but mistook it for the sea. In 1658, two fur traders, who had reached Lake Superior, were told that the ferocious Sioux dwelt on the banks of a great river to the westward. But as early as 1665, at what is now known as Ashland Bay, in Wisconsin, a Jesuit missionary--Claude Allouez--talked with wild warriors from the mysterious "Messippi." The same priest, four years after, while on a visit to the Indians on Fox River, of Green Bay, was assured that the wide-rolling river was not far away; that it had its source a great way to the north, and flowed southward, they knew not whither. And, in 1667, the intrepid La Salle, if he did not actually see the magnificent stream, floated, it is claimed, down one of its principal eastern tributaries. The exploration, therefore, of the Upper Mississippi could not longer be delayed.
Louis Joliet and James Marquette joined hands to solve the problem of the ocean-river of the West--the one a fur trader of the St. Lawrence, the other, a Jesuit missionary at [old] Point St. Ignace, on the north side of the Strait of Mackinaw. The travelers were provided with a simple outfit--two birch-bark canoes, a supply of smoked meat and Indian corn and a limited amount of baggage. They embarked with five Frenchmen, beginning their voyage May 17, 1673. They paddled along the northern shores of Lake Michigan, then up Green Bay to its head, when they entered the mouth of Fox River. Ascending that stream to Lake Winnebago, they were soon once more in the river they had left, and, on the 7th of June, they reached a village of the Mascoutins, in what is now believed to be Green Lake County, Wis. Here they obtained two savages as guides to the Wisconsin, as no white man had ever penetrated farther westward than the point they had now reached. On the 10th, they again embarked; were, not long after, at the "portage," between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers, which they crossed; they launched their canoes on the last-mentioned stream. Here their Indian guides left them. They could not be induced to venture into a region inhabited by a people, as they believed, the very incarnation of ferocity. With a delight and an exultation which can readily be imagined, the adventurous Joliet, after descending the Wisconsin to its mouth, floated out upon the bosom of the Mississippi!
Down the current of the river journeyed the Frenchmen, passing in succession the mouths of the Rock, the Des Moines, the Illinois, when they were finally "aroused by a real danger, a torrent of yellow mud rushed furiously athwart the calm blue current of the Mississippi, boiling and surging; and sweeping in its course logs, branches and uprooted trees. They had reached the mouth of the Missouri." Then they proceeded on, passing the more placid Ohio, and still onward they paddled their canoes until they reached the mouth of the Arkansas, where they rested. Joliet was satisfied that the Mississippi discharged its waters into the Gulf of Mexico, and he resolved to return. Painfully they made their way back, toiling up the stream until they reached the Illinois. Hoping by this river to find a shorter route to Lake Michigan, the explorers entered it, ascending to a "portage," which took them to the spot on which the city of Chicago now stands, where they beheld with joy the outstretching inland sea, then known to them as Lake Illinois, now Lake Michigan. Down its coasts they wearily paddled their frail canoes, until finally, in September, they again reached the head of Green Bay. Here Marquette remained to recruit his exhausted strength, but Joliet proceeded to the St. Lawrence to make known his important discoveries to Count Frontenac.