COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume II



Travelling out of our Latitude — The Buffalo-gnat — A Kiawa and Squaw — Indian crim. con. Affair — Extraordinary Mark of Confidence in the White Man — A Conflagration — An Espy Shower — Region of Gypsum — Our Latitude — A Lilliputian Forest — A Party of Comanches — A Visit to a 'Dog Town' — Indian Archery — Arrival of Comanche Warriors — A 'Big Talk,' and its Results — Speech of the Capitan Mayor — Project of bringing Comanche Chiefs to Washington — Return of Lieut. Bowman, and our March resumed — Melancholy Reflections — Another Indian Visit — Mexican Captives —Voluntary Captivity — A sprightly Mexican Lad — Purchase of a Captive — Comanche Trade and Etiquette — Indians least dangerous to such as trade with them.

     As it now appeared that we had been forced at least two points north of the course we had originally intended to steer, by the northern bearing of the Canadian, we made an effort to cross a ridge of timber to the south, which, after considerable labor, proved successful. Here we found a multitude of gravelly, bright-flowing streams, with rich bottoms, lined all along with stately white oak, black walnut, mulberry, and other similar growths, that yielded us excellent materials for wagon repairs, of which the route from Missouri, after passing Council Grove, is absolutely in want.


     Although we found the buffalo extremely scarce westward of Spring Valley, yet there was no lack of game; for every nook and glade swarmed with deer and wild turkeys, partridges and grouse. We had also occasion to become acquainted with another species of prairie-tenant whose visits generally produced impressions that were anything but agreeable. I allude to a small black insect generally known to prairie travellers as the 'buffalo-gnat.' It not only attacks the face and hands, but even contrives to insinuate itself into those parts which one is most careful to guard against intrusion. Here it fastens itself and luxuriates, until completely satisfied. Its bite is so poisonous as to give the face, neck, and hands, or any other part of the person upon which its affectionate caresses have been bestowed, the appearance of a pustulated varioloid. The buffalo-gnat is in fact a much more annoying insect than the mosquito, and also much more frequently met with on the Prairies.

     We now continued our line of march between the Canadian and the timbered ridge with very little difficulty. Having stopped to 'noon' in a bordering valley, we were quite surprised by the appearance of an Indian with no other protection than his squaw. From what we could gather by their signs, they had been the victims of a 'love scrape.' The fellow, whom I found to be a Kiawa, had, according to his own account, stolen the wife of another, and then fled to the thickets,


where he proposed to lead a lonely life, in hopes of escaping the vengeance of his incensed predecessor. From this, it would appear that affairs of gallantry are not evils exclusively confined to civilization. Plausible, however, as the Indian's story seemed to be, we had strong suspicions that others of his band were not far off and that he, with his 'better half,' had only been skulking about in hopes of exercising their 'acquisitiveness' at our expense; when, on finding themselves discovered, they deemed it the best policy fearlessly to approach us. This singular visit afforded a specimen of that confidence with which civilization inspires even the most untutored savages. They remained with us, in the utmost nonchalance, till the following morning. Shortly after the arrival of the visitors, we were terribly alarmed at a sudden prairie conflagration. The old grass of the valley in which we were encamped had not been burned off and one of our cooks having unwittingly kindled a fire in the midst of it, it spread at once with wonderful rapidity, and, a brisk wind springing up at the time, the flames were carried over the valley, in spite of every effort we could make to check them. Fortunately for us, the fire had broken out to the leeward of our wagons, and therefore occasioned us no damage; but the accident itself was a forcible illustration of the danger that might be incurred by pitching a camp in the midst of dry grass and the advantages


that might be taken by hostile savages in such a locality.

     After the fire had raged with great violence for a few hours, a cloud suddenly obscured the horizon, which was almost immediately followed by a refreshing shower of rain: a phenomenon often witnessed upon the Prairies after an extensive conflagration; and affording a practical exemplification of Professor Espy's celebrated theory of artificial showers.

     We now continued our journey without further trouble, except that of being still forced out of our proper latitude by the northern bearing of the Canadian. On the 30th of May, however, we succeeded in 'doubling' the spur of the Great North Bend. Upon ascending the dividing ridge again, which at this point was entirely destitute of timber, a 'prairie expanse' once more greeted our view. This and the following day, our route lay through a region that abounded in gypsum, from the finest quality down to ordinary plaster. On the night of the 31st we encamped on a tributary of the North Fork, which we called Gypsum creek, in consequence of its being surrounded with vast quantities of that substance.

     Being compelled to keep a reckoning of our latitude, by which our travel was partly governed, and the sun being now too high at noon for the use of the artificial horizon, we had to be guided entirely by observations of the meridian altitude of the moon, planets, or


fixed stars. At Gypsum creek our latitude was 36° 10' — being the utmost northing we had made. As we were now about thirty miles north of the parallel of Santa Fe, we had to steer, henceforth, a few degrees south of west in order to bring up on our direct course.

     The following night we encamped in a region covered with sandy hillocks, where there was not a drop of water to be found: in fact, an immense sand-plain was now opening before us, somewhat variegated in appearance, being entirely barren of vegetation in some places, while others we completely covered with an extraordinarily diminutive growth which has been called shin-oak, and a curious plum=bush of equally dwarfish stature. These singular-looking plants (undistinguishable at a distance from the grass of the prairies) were heavily laden with acorns and plums, which, when ripe, are of considerable size, although the trunks of either were seldom thicker than oat-straws, and frequently not a foot high. We also met with the same in many other places on the Prairies.

     Still the most indispensable requisite, water, was nowhere to be found, and symptoms of alarm were beginning to spread far and wide among us. When we had last seen the Canadian and the North Fork, they appeared to separate in their course almost at right angles, therefore it was impossible to tell at what distance we were from either. At last


my brother and myself who had been scouring the plains during the morning without success, finally perceived a deep hollow leading in the direction of the Canadian, where we found a fine pool of water, and our wagons 'made port' again before midday; thus quieting all alarm.

     Although we had encountered but very few buffalo since we left Spring Valley, they now began to make their appearance again, though not in very large droves; together with the deer and the fleet antelope, which latter struck me as being much more tame in this wild section of the Prairies than I had seen it elsewhere. The graceful and majestic mustang would also now and then sweep across the naked country, or come curvetting and capering in the vicinity of our little caravan; just as the humor prompted them. But what attracted our attention most were the little dog settlements, or, as they are more technically called, 'dog towns,' so often alluded to by prairie travellers. As we were passing through their 'streets,' multitudes of the diminutive inhabitants were to be seen among the numerous little hillocks which marked their dwellings, where they frisked about, or sat perched at their doors, yelping defiance to our great amusement, heedless of the danger that often awaited them from the rifles of our party; for they had perhaps never seen such deadly weapons before.

     On the 5th of June, we found ourselves once more travelling on a firm rolling prairie,


about the region, as we supposed,* of the boundary between the United States and Mexico; when Lieut. Bowman, in pursuance of his instructions, began to talk seriously of returning. While the wagons were stopped at noon, a small party of us, including a few dragoons, advanced a few miles ahead to take a survey of the route. We had just ascended the highest point of a ridge to get a prospect of the country beyond, when we descried a herd of buffalo in motion and two or three horsemen in hot pursuit. "Mexican Ciboleros", we all exclaimed at once; for we supposed we might now be within the range of the buffalo hunters of New Mexico. Clapping spurs to our horses, we set off towards them at full speed. As we might have expected, our precipitate approach frightened them away and we soon lost sight of them altogether. On reaching the spot where they had last been seen, we found a horse and two mules saddled, all tied to the carcass of a slain buffalo which was partly skinned. We made diligent search in some copses of small growth, and among the adjacent ravines, but could discover no further traces of the fugitives. The Indian rigging of the animals, however, satisfied us that they were not Mexicans.

thin black line
*From subsequent observations, this point appears to have been some miles west of the 100th degree of longitude.

     We were just about giving up the pursuit, when a solitary Indian horseman was espied upon a ridge about a mile from us. My


brother and myself set out towards him, but on seeing us approach, he began to manifest some fear, and therefore my brother advanced alone. As soon as he was near enough he cried out "Amigo!" to which the Indian replied "Comantz!" and giving himself a thump upon the breast he made a graceful circuit, and came up at full speed, presenting his hand in token of friendship. Nothing, however, could induce him to return to his animals with us, where the rest of our party had remained. He evidently feared treachery and foul play. Therefore we retraced our steps to the wagons, leaving the Indian's property just as we had found it, which, we subsequently discovered, was taken away after our departure.

     In the afternoon of the same day, five more Indians (including a squaw), made their appearance, and having been induced by friendly tokens to approach us, they spent the night at our encampment. The next morning, we expressed a desire, by signs, to be conducted to the nearest point on our route where good pasturage and water might be found. A sprightly young chief, armed only with his bow and arrows, at once undertook the task, while his comrades still travelled along in our company. We had not progressed far before we found ourselves in the very midst of another large 'dog-town.'

     The task of describing the social and domestic habits of these eccentric little brutes, has been so graphically and amusingly exe-


cuted by the racy and popular pen of Wilkins Kendall, that any attempt by me would be idle; and I feel that the most agreeable service I can do my readers is to borrow a paragraph from his alluring "Narrative," describing a scene presented by one of these prairie commonwealths."

     In their habits they are clannish, social, and extremely convivial, never living alone like other animals, but, on the contrary, always found in villages or large settlements. They are a wild, frolicsome, madcap set of fellows when undisturbed, uneasy and ever on the move, and appear to take especial delight in chattering away the time, and visiting from hole to hole to gossip and talk over each other's affairs at least so their actions would indicate...... On several occasions I crept close to their villages, without being observed, to watch their movements. Directly in the centre of one of them I particularly noticed a very large dog, sitting in front of the door or entrance to his burrow, and by his own actions and those of his neighbors it really seemed as though he was the president, mayor, or chief — at all events, he was the 'big dog' of the place. For at least an hour I secretly watched the operations in this community. During that time the large dog I have mentioned received at least a dozen visits from his fellow-dogs, which would stop and chat with him a few moments, and then run off to their domiciles. All this while he never left his post for a moment, and I thought I could discover a gravity in his de-


portment not discernible in those by which he was surrounded. Far is it from me to say that the visits he received were upon business, or had anything to do with the local government of the village; but it certainly appeared so. If any animal has a system of laws regulating the body politic, it is certainly the prairie dog."

Camp Comanche     As we sat on our horses, looking at these 'village transactions,' our Comanche guide drew an arrow for the purpose of cutting short the career of a little citizen that sat yelping most doggedly in the mouth of his hole, forty or fifty paces distant. The animal was almost entirely concealed behind the hillock which encompassed the entrance of his apartment, so that the dart could not reach it in a direct line; but the Indian had resort to a manoeuvre which caused the arrow to descend with a curve, and in an instant it quivered in the body of the poor little quadruped. The slayer only smiled at his feat, while we were perfectly astounded. There is nothing strange in the rifleman's being able to hit his mark with his fine-sighted barrel; but the accuracy with which these savages learn to shoot the feathered missiles, with such random aim, is almost incomprehensible. I had at the same time drawn one of Colt's repeating pistols, with a view of paying a similar compliment to another dog; when, finding that it excited the curiosity of the chief, I fired a few shots in quick succession, as an explanation of its virtues, he seemed to


comprehend the secret instantly, and, drawing his bow once more, he discharged a number of arrows with the same rapidity, as a palpable intimation that he could shoot as fast with his instrument as we could with our patent fire-arms. This was not merely a vain show: there was more of reality than of romance in his demonstration.

     Shortly after this we reached a fresh brook, a tributary of the North Fork, which wound its silent course in the midst of a picturesque valley, surrounded by romantic hills and craggy knobs. Here we pitched our camp: when three of our visitors left us for the purpose of going to bring all the 'capitanes' of their tribe, who were said to be encamped at no great distance from us.

     Our encampment, which we designated as 'Camp Comanche,' was only five or six miles from the North Fork, while, to the southward, the main Canadian was but a little more distant.

     After waiting anxiously for the arrival of the Comanche chiefs, until our patience was well nigh exhausted, I ascended a high knob just behind our camp, in company with the younger of the two chiefs who had remained with us, to see if anything could be discovered. By and by, the Comanche pointed anxiously towards the northwest, where he espied a party of his people, though at such a great distance, that it was some time before I could discern them. With what acuteness of vision are these savages endowed! Accus-


tomed to the open plains, and like the eagle to look out for their prey at immense distances, their optical perception is scarcely excelled by that of the king of birds.

     The party, having approached still nearer, assembled upon an eminence as if for the purpose of reconnoitering; but our chief upon the knoll hoisting his blanket, which seemed to say, 'come ahead,' they advanced slowly and deliberately — very unlike the customary mode of approach among all the prairie tribes.

     The party consisted of about sixty warriors, at the head of whom rode an Indian of small stature and agreeable countenance, verging upon the age of fifty. He wore the usual Comanche dress, but instead of moccasins, he had on a pair of long white cotton hose, while upon his bare head waved a tall red plume, a mark of distinction which proclaimed him at once the capitan mayor, or principal chief. We addressed them in Spanish, inquiring if they had brought an interpreter, when a lank-jawed, grum-looking savage announced his readiness to officiate in that capacity.

     "Sabes hablar en Espanol, amigo?" (can you talk Spanish, friend?) I inquired.

     "Si" (yes), he gruffly replied. "Where are your people?"

     "Encamped just above on yonder creek."

     "How many of you are there?"

     "Oh, a great many — nearly all the Comanche nation; for we are en junta to go and fight the Pawnees."

     "Well, can you tell us how far it is to Santa Fe?"

     But the surly savage cut short my inquiries by observ-

Page 39 — THE 'BIG TALK'.

ing — "Ahi platicaremos despues" — "We will talk about that hereafter."

     We then showed them a spot a few rods from us, where they might encamp so as not to intermix their animals with ours; after which all the capitanes were invited to our camp to hold a 'big talk' In a very short time we had ten chiefs seated in a circle within our tent, when the pipe, the Indian token of peace, was produced: but, doubting perhaps the sincerity of our professions, they at first refused to smoke. The interpreter, however, remarked as an excuse for their conduct that it was not their custom to smoke until they had received some presents: but a few Mexican cigarritos being produced, most of them took a whiff; as if under the impression that to smoke cigars was no pledge of friendship.

     Lieut. Bowman now desired us to broach the subject of peace and amity betwixt the Comanches and our people, and to invite them to visit the 'Capitan Grande' at Washington, and enter into a perpetual treaty to that effect; but they would not then converse on the subject. In fact, the interpreter inquired, "Are we not at war? — how can we go to see the Capitan Grande?" We knew they held themselves at war with Mexico and Texas, and probably had mistaken us for Texans, which had no doubt caused the interpreter to speak so emphatically of their immense numbers. Upon this we explained to them that the United States was a distinct govern-


ment and at peace with the Comanches. As an earnest of our friendly disposition, we then produced some scarlet cloth, with a small quantity of vermilion, tobacco, beads, etc., which being distributed among them, they very soon settled down into a state of placidness and contentment. Indeed, it will be found, that, with wild Indians, presents are always the corner-stone of friendship.

     "We are rejoiced," at last said the elder chief with a ceremonious air, "our hearts are glad that you have arrived among us: it makes our eyes laugh to see Americans walk in our land. We will notify our old and young men — our boys and our maidens — our women and children, — that they may come to trade with you. We hope you will speak well of us to your people, that more of them may hunt the way to our country, for we like to trade with the white man."

     This was delivered in Comanche, but translated into Spanish by the interpreter, who, although a full Indian, had lived several years among the Mexicans and spoke that language tolerably well. Our 'big talk' lasted several hours, after which the Indians retired to sleep. The next morning, after renewing their protestations of friendship, they took their departure, the principal chief saying, "Tell the Capitan Grande that when he pleases to call us we are all ready to go to see him."

     The project of bringing some of the chiefs of these wild prairie tribes to Washington city, has been entertained, but never yet car-


ried into effect. The few who have penetrated as far as Fort Gibson, or perhaps to a frontier village, have probably left with more unfavorable impressions than they had before. Believing the former to be our great Capital, and the most insignificant among the latter, our largest cities, they have naturally come to the conclusion that they surpass us in numbers and power, if not in wealth and grandeur. I have no doubt that the chiefs of the Comanches and other prairie tribes, if rightly managed, might be induced to visit our veritable 'Capitan Grande,' and our large cities, which would doubtless have a far better effect than all the treaties of peace that could be concluded with them for an age to come. They would then 'see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears' the magnificence and power of the whites, which would inspire them at once with respect and fear.

     This was on the 7th of June. About noon, Lieut. Bowman and his command finally took leave of us, and at the same time we resumed our forward march. This separation was truly painful: not so much on account of the loss we were about to experience, in regard to the protection afforded us by the troops (which, to say the truth, was more needed now than it had ever been before), as for the necessity of parting with a friend, who had endeared himself to us all by his affable deportment, his social manners and accommodating disposition. Ah! little did we think then that we should never see that gallant officer more!


     So young, so robust, and so healthy, little did we suspect that the sound of that voice which shouted so vigorously in responding to our parting salute in the desert, would never greet our ears again! But such was Fate's decree! Although he arrived safely at Fort Gibson, in a few short weeks he fell a victim to disease.

     There were perhaps a few timid hearts that longed to return with the dragoons, and ever and anon a wistful glance would be cast back at the receding figures in the distance. The idea of a handful of thirty-four men having to travel without guide or protection through a dreary wilderness, peopled by thousands of savages who were just as likely to be hostile as friendly, was certainly very little calculated to produce agreeable impressions. Much to the credit of our men, however, the escort was no sooner out of sight than the timorous regained confidence, and all seemed bound together by stronger ties than before. All we feared were ambuscades or surprise; to guard against which, it was only necessary to redouble our vigilance.

     On the following day, while we were enjoying our noon's rest upon a ravine of the Canadian, several parties of Indians, amounting altogether to about three hundred souls, including women and children, made their appearance. They belonged to the same band of Comanches with whom we had had so agreeable an intercourse, and had brought several mules in the expectation of driving a trade with us. The squaws and papooses


were so anxious to gratify their curiosity, and so very soon began to give such striking manifestations of their pilfering propensities, that, at the request of the chief, we carried some goods at a little distance, where a trade was opened in hopes of attracting their attention. One woman, I observed, still lingered among the wagons, who, from certain peculiarities of features, struck me very forcibly as not being an Indian. In accordance with this impression I addressed her in Spanish, and was soon confirmed in all my suspicions. She was from the neighborhood of Matamoros, and had been married to a Comanche since her captivity. She did not entertain the least desire of returning to her own people.

     Similar instances of voluntary captivity have frequently occurred. Dr. Sibley, in a communication to the War Department, in 1805, relates an affecting case, which shows how a sensitive female will often prefer remaining with her masters, rather than encounter the horrible ordeal of ill-natured remarks to which she would inevitably be exposed on being restored to civilized life. The Comanches, some twenty years previous, having kidnapped the daughter of the Governor-General of Chihuahua, the latter transmitted $1000 to a trader to procure her ransom. This was soon effected, but to the astonishment of all concerned, the unfortunate girl refused to leave the Indians. She sent word to her father, that they had disfigured her by tattooing; that she was married and perhaps en-


ceinte; and that she would be more unhappy by returning to her father under these circumstances than by remaining where she was.

     My attention was next attracted by a sprightly lad, ten or twelve years old, whose nationality could scarcely be detected under his Indian guise. But, though quite 'Indianized,' he was exceedingly polite. I inquired of him in Spanish, "Are you not a Mexican?"

     "Yes, sir, — I once was."

     "What is your name?"

     "Bernardino Saenz, sir, at your service."

     "When and where were you taken?"

     "About four years ago, at the Hacienda de las Ammas, near Parral."

     "Shan't we buy you and take you to your people? —we are going thither."

     At this he hesitated a little and then answered in an affecting tone, "No senor, ya soy demasiado bruto para vivir entre los Cristianos" (O, no, sir I am now too much of a brute to live among Christians); adding that his owner was not there, and that he knew the Indian in whose charge he came would not sell him.

     The Hacienda de las Animas is in the department of Chihuahua, some fifteen miles from the city of Parral, a much larger place than Santa Fe. Notwithstanding this, about three hundred Comanches made a bold inroad into the very heart of the settlements — laid waste the unfortunate hacienda, killing and capturing a considerable number — and remained several days in the neighborhood, committing all sorts of outrages. This occurred in 1835. I happened to be in Chihuahua


at the time, and very well remember the bustle and consternation that prevailed. A thousand volunteers were raised, commanded by the governor himself, who 'hotly pursued' the enemy during their tardy retreat; but returned with the usual report — "No les pudimos alcanzar," — we could not overtake them.

     Out of half a dozen Mexican captives that happened to be with our new visitors, we only met with one who manifested the slightest inclination to abandon Indian life. This was a stupid boy about fifteen years of age, who had probably been roughly treated on account of his laziness. We very soon struck a bargain with his owner, paying about the price of a mule for the little outcast, whom I sent to his family as soon as we reached Chihuahua. Notwithstanding the inherent stupidity of my protege, I found him abundantly grateful — much to his credit be it spoken — for the little service I had been able to render him.

     We succeeded in purchasing several mules which cost us between ten and twenty dollars worth of goods apiece. In Comanche trade the main trouble consists in fixing the price of the first animal. This being settled by the chiefs, it often happens that mule after mule is led up and the price received without further cavil. Each owner usually wants a general assortment; therefore the price must consist of several items, as a blanket, a looking-glass, an awl, a flint, a little tobacco, vermillion, beads, etc.

     Our trade with the new batch of Co-


manches being over, they now began to depart as they had come, in small parties, without bidding us adieu, or even informing us of their intention, it being the usual mode of taking leave among Indians, to depart sans ceremonie, and as silently as possible.

     The Santa Fe caravans have generally avoided every manner of trade with the wild Indians, for fear of being treacherously dealt with during the familiar intercourse which necessarily ensues. This I am convinced is an erroneous impression; for I have always found, that savages are much less hostile to those with whom they trade, than to any other people. They are emphatically fond of traffic, and, being anxious to encourage the whites to come among them, instead of committing depredations upon those with whom they trade, they are generally ready to defend them against every enemy.

southwestern-style woven rope chain

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