WHILE I have endeavored in the preceding pages to give the reader some general idea of life upon the Prairies, I feel that I have wholly failed thus far to convey any adequate notions of their natural history. I propose in the following pages to repair this deficiency as far as I am able, and to present a rapid sketch of the vastness of those mighty territories; of their physical geography; and of the life, as well vegetable as animal, which they sustain. It is to be regretted that this ample field for observation should have received so little of the consideration of scientific men; for there
is scarcely a province in the whole wide range of Nature’s unexplored domains, which is so worthy of study, and yet has been so little studied by the natural philosopher.
If we look at the Great Western Prairies, independently of the political powers to which portions of them respectively belong, we shall find them occupying the whole of that extensive territory lying between the spurs of the Rocky Mountains on the north, and the rivers of Texas on the south — a distance of some seven or eight hundred miles in one direction; and from the frontiers of Missouri and Arkansas on the east to the eastern branches of the southern Rocky Mountains on the west — about six hundred miles in the transverse direction: the whole comprising an area of about 400,000 square miles, some 30,000 of which are within the original limits of Texas, and 70,000 in those of New Mexico (if we extend them east to the United States boundary), leaving about 300,000 in the territory of the United States.
This vast territory is not interrupted by any important mountainous elevations, except along the borders of the great western sierras, and by some low, craggy ridges about the Arkansas frontier — skirts of the Ozark mountains. There is, it is true, high on the dividing ridge between Red River and the False Washita, a range of hills, the southwestern portion of which extends about to the 100th degree of longitude west from Greenwich; that is, to the United States
boundary line. These are generally called the Witchita mountains, but sometimes Towyash by hunters, perhaps from toyavist, the Comanche word for mountain. I inquired once of a Comanche Indian how his nation designated this range of mountains, which was then in sight of us. He answered, “Toyavist.” “But this simply means a mountain,” I replied. “How do you distinguish this from any other mountain?“ “There are no other mountains in the Comanche territory,” he rejoined — ”none till we go east to your country, or south to Texas, or west to the land of the Mexican.”
With these exceptions, there are scarcely any elevations throughout these immense plains which should be dignified by the title of mountains. Those seen by the Texan Santa Fe Expedition about the sources of Red River, were without doubt the cejas or brows of the elevated table plains with which the Prairies abound, and which, when viewed from the plain below, often assume the appearance of formidable mountains; but once upon their summit, the spectator sees another vast plain before him.
These table lands, or mesas, as the Mexicans term them, of which there are many thousands of square miles lying between the frontier of the United States and the Rocky Mountains, are level plains, elevated a considerable distance above the surrounding country, and may be likened to the famous steppes of Asia. They are cut up with numerous
streams, the largest of which are generally bordered for several miles back by hilly uplands, which are for the most part sandy, dry and barren.
The most notable of the great plateaux of the Prairies is that known to Mexicans as El Llano Estacado, which is bounded on the north by the Canadian river — extends east about to the United States boundary, including the heads of the False Washita and other branches of Red River — and spreads southward to the sources of Trinity, Brazos and Colorado rivers, and westward to Rio Pecos. It is quite an elevated and generally a level plains without important hills or ridges, unless we distinguish as such the craggy breaks of the streams which border and pierce it. It embraces an area of about 30,000 square miles, most of which is without water during three-fourths of the year; while a large proportion of its few perennial streams are too brackish to drink of.
I have been assured by Mexican hunters and Indians, that, from Santa Fe southeastward, there is but one route upon which this plain can be safely traversed during the dry season; and even some of the watering-places on this are at intervals of fifty to eighty miles, and hard to find. Hence the Mexican traders and hunters, that they might not lose their way and perish from thirst, once staked out this route across the plain, it is said; whence it has received the name of El Llano Estacado, or the Staked Plain.
In some places the brows of these mesas approach the very borders of the streams. When this occurs on both sides, it leaves deep chasms or ravines between, called by the Mexicans canones and which abound in the vicinity of the mountain. The Canadian river flows through one of the most remarkable of these canones for a distance of more than fifty miles — extending from the road of the Missouri caravans downward — throughout the whole extent of which the gorge is utterly impassable for wagons, and almost so for animals.
Intersecting the direct route from Missouri, this canon was a source of great annoyance to some of the pioneers in the Santa Fe trade. In 1825, a caravan with a number of wagons reached it about five miles below the present ford. The party was carelessly moving along, without suspecting even a ravine at hand, as the bordering plains were exceedingly level, and the opposite margins of equal height, when suddenly they found themselves upon the very brink of an immense precipice, several hundred yards deep, and almost perpendicular on both sides of the river. At the bottom of those cliffs, there was, as is usually the case, a very narrow but fertile valley, through which the river wound its way, sometimes touching the one bluff and sometimes the other.
Ignorant of a ford so near above, the caravan turned down towards the crossing of the former traders. “We travelled fifty miles,”
says Mr. Stanley, who was of the caravan, “the whole of which distance the river is bound in by cliffs several hundred feet high, in many places nearly perpendicular. We at length came to the termination of the table land; but what a scene presented itself! The valley below could only be reached by descending a frightful cliff of from 1200 to 1500 feet, and more or less precipitous. After a search of several hours, a practicable way was found; and, with the greatest fatigue and exertion, by locking wheels, holding on with ropes, and literally lifting the wagons down in places, we finally succeeded in reaching the bottom......How did the Canadian and other streams in New Mexico sink themselves to such immense depths in the solid rock? It seems impossible that the water should have worn away the rock while as hard as in its present state. What a field of speculation for the geologist, in the propositions — Were the chasms made for the streams, or did the streams make the chasms? Are they not of volcanic origin?"
Nor are the flat prairies always free from this kind of annoyance to travellers. They are not unfrequently intersected by diminutive chasms or water-cuts, which, though sometimes hardly a rod in width, are often from fifty to a hundred feet deep. These little canones are washed out by the rains, in their descent to the bordering streams, which is soon effected after an opening is once made through the surface; for though the clayey
foundation is exceedingly firm and hard while dry, it seems the most soluble of earths, and melts almost as rapidly as snow under the action of water. The tenacious turf of the ‘buffalo grass,’ however, retains the marginal surface, so that the sides are usually perpendicular—indeed, often shelving inward at the base, and therefore utterly impassable. I have come unsuspectingly upon the verge of such a chasm; and though, to a stranger, the appearance would indicate the very head of the ravine, I would sometimes be compelled to follow its meandering course for miles without being able to double its ‘breaks.’ These I have more especially observed high on the borders of the Canadian.
The geological constitution of the Prairies is exceedingly diversified. Along the eastern border, especially towards the north, there is an abundance of limestone, interspersed with sandstone, slate, and many extensive beds of bituminous coal. The coal is particularly abundant in some of the regions bordering the Neosho river; where there are also said to be a few singular bituminous or ‘tar springs,’ as they are sometimes called by the hunters. There are also many other mineral, and particularly sulphur springs, to be met with.
Further westward, the sandstone prevails; but some of the table plains are based upon strata of a sort of friable calcareous rock, which has been denominated ‘rotten limestone:’ yet along the borders of the mountains the base of the plains seems generally
to be of trap and greenstone. From the waters of Red River to the southwest corner of Missouri, throughout the range of the Ozark mountains, granite, limestone,. flint and sandstone prevail. But much of the middle portion of the Prairies is without any apparent rocky foundation—we sometimes travel for days in succession without seeing even as much as a pebble.
On passing towards Santa Fe in 1839; and returning in 1840 I observed an immense range of plaster of Paris, both north and south of the Canadian river, and between thirty and fifty miles east of the United States western boundary. The whole country seemed based upon this fossil, and cliffs and huge masses of it were seen in every direction. It ranges from the coarsest compact sulphate of lime or ordinary plaster, to the most transparent gypsum or selenite, of which last there is a great abundance. By authentic accounts from other travellers, this range of gypsum extends, in a direction nearly north, almost to the Arkansas river.
Of metallic minerals, iron, lead, and perhaps copper, are found on the borders of the Prairies; and it is asserted that several specimens of silver ores have been met with on our frontier, as well as about the Witchita and the Rocky Mountains. Gold has also been found, no doubt, in different places; yet it is questionable whether it has anywhere been discovered in sufficient abundance to render it worth the seeking. Some trappers have report-
ed an extensive gold region about the sources of the Platte river; yet, although recent search has been made, it has not been discovered.
The most valuable perhaps, and the most abundant mineral production of the Prairies is Salt. In the Choctaw country, on the waters of Red River, there are two salt-works in operation; and in the Cherokee nation salt springs are numerous, three or four of which are now worked on a small scale; yet a sufficient quantity of salt might easily be produced to supply even the adjoining States. The Grand Saline, about forty miles above Fort Gibson, near the Neosho river, was considered a curiosity of its kind, before its natural beauties were effaced by ‘improvements.’ In the border of a little valley, a number of small salt springs break out, around the orifice of each of which was formed, in the shape of a pot, a kind of calcareous saline concretion. None of the springs are very bold, but the water is strong, and sufficiently abundant for extensive works.
There have been several Salines, or mines (if we may so term them) of pure salt, discovered in different parts of the Prairies. The most northern I have heard of, is fifty or sixty miles west of the Missouri river, and thirty or forty south of the Platte, near a tributary called the Saline; where the Otoes and other Indians procure salt. It is described as resembling the salinas of New Mexico, and the quantity of salt as inexhaustible. South of the Arkansas river and a degree or two further
westward, there are several of these salines, which are perhaps still more extensive.
I have been favored with some extracts from the journal of Capt. Nathan Boone* of the United States’ Dragoons, who made an exploring tour through those desolate regions during the summer of 1843. In his journey, between the Canadian and Upper Arkansas, he found efflorescent salt in many places, as well as a superabundance of strongly impregnated salt-water; but, besides these, he visited two considerable salines.
Of the first, which he calls the ‘Salt Plain,’ he remarks, that “the approach was very gratifying, and from the appearance one might expect to find salt in a solid mass, for the whole extent of the plain, of several feet in thickness.” This is situated in the forks of the Salt Fork of the Arkansas. The plain is described as being level as a floor, and evidently sometimes overflowed by the streams which border it. Yet the extent of salt, it would seem, did not realize Capt. Boone’s anticipations, as he remarks that it was covered “with the slightest possible film of crystallized salt on the surface, enough to make it white.” But he explored only a small portion of the plain, which was very extensive.
However, the most wonderful saline is the great Salt Rock, which he found further to the
southwestward, on the main Red Fork. “The whole cove on the right of the two forks of the river,” says Capt. Boone, “appears to be one immense salt spring of water so much concentrated, that, as soon as it reaches the point of breaking forth, it begins depositing its salt. In this way a large crust, or rock is formed all over the bottom for perhaps 160 acres. Digging through the sand for a few inches anywhere in this space, we could find the solid salt, so hard that there was no means in our power of getting up a block of it. We broke our mattock in the attempt. In many places, through this rock-salt crust the water boiled up as clear as crystal........but so salt that our hands, after being immersed in it and suffered to dry, became as white as snow. Thrusting the arm down into these holes, they appeared to be walled with salt as far down as one could reach. The cliffs which overhang this place are composed of red clay and gypsum, and capped with a stratum of the latter....... We found this salt a little bitter from the impurities it contained, probably Epsom salts principally.” As it is overhung with sulphate of lime, and perhaps also based upon the same, might not this ‘saltrock’ be heavily impregnated with this mineral, occasioning its excessive hardness? Capt Boone also speaks of gypsum in various other places, both north and south of this, during his travel.
Mr. Sibley (then of Fort Osage), who was quite familiar with the western prairies, visit-
ed a saline, over thirty years ago, which would seem to be the ‘Salt Plain’ first mentioned by Capt Boone. The former, it is true, found the salt much more abundant than as described by the latter; but’ this may be owing to Capt. Boone’s not having penetrated as far as the point alluded to by Mr. Sibley, — whose description is in the following language:*
“The Grand Saline is situated about 280 miles southwest of Fort Osage, between two forks of a small branch of the Arkansas, one of which washes its southern extremity, and the other, the principal one, runs nearly parallel, within a mile of its opposite side. It is a hard level plain of reddish colored sand, and of an irregular or mixed figure. Its greatest length is from northwest to southeast, and its circumference about thirty miles. From the appearance of the driftwood that is scattered over, it would seem the whole plain is at times inundated by the overflowing of the streams that pass near it. This plain is entirely covered in dry hot weather, from two to six inches deep, with a crust of beautiful clean white salt, of a quality rather superior to the imported blown salt. It bears a striking resemblance to a field of brilliant snow after a rain, with a light crust on its top.”
This is, in extent and appearance, nearly as described by several hunters and Indian traders with whom I have conversed. Col. Logan, a worthy former agent of the Creek Ind-
ans, visited no doubt the same, not far from the same period; and he describes it in a similar manner — only representing the depth of the salt as greater. Everywhere that he dug through the stratum of earth about the margin, at the depth of a few inches he came to a rock of solid salt, which induced him to believe that the whole country thereabouts was based upon a stratum of ‘rock salt.’ This was of a reddish cast, partaking of the color of the surface of the surrounding country. Mr. Sibley remarks that “the distance to a navigable branch of Arkansas is about eighty miles” — referring perhaps to the Red Fork; though the saline is no doubt at a still less distance from the main stream.
With such inexhaustible mines of salt within two or three days’ journey of the Arkansas river, and again within the same distance of the Missouri, which would cost no further labor than the digging it up and the transporting of it to boats for freighting it down those streams, it seems strange that they should lie idle, while we are receiving much of our supplies of this indispensable commodity from abroad.
Besides the salines already mentioned, there is one high on the Canadian river, some two hundred miles east of Santa Fe. Also, it is said, there are some to be found on the waters of Red River; and numerous others are no doubt scattered throughout the same regions, which have never been discovered.
Many of the low valleys of all the western
streams (Red River as well as Arkansas and its branches), are impregnated with salinous qualities, and, during wet weather, ooze saltish exudations, which effloresce in a thin scum. This is sometimes pure salt, but more frequently compounded of different salts — not only of the muriate, but of the sulphate of soda, and perhaps magnesia; often strongly tinctured with nitre. Some of the waters of these sections (particularly when stagnant) are so saturated with this compound during dry weather, that they are insupportable even for brutes — much to the consternation of a forlorn traveller. In these saline flats nothing grows but hard wiry grass, which a famished beast will scarcely eat.
It is from these exudations, as well as from the salines or salt plains before mentioned, that our western waters, especially from Arkansas to Red River, acquire their brackishness during the low seasons; and not from the mountains, as some have presumed. Such as issue from thence are there as pure, fresh and crystalline as snow-fed rills and icy fountains can make them.
It will now readily be inferred that the Great Prairies from Red River to the western sources of the Missouri, are, as has before been intimated, chiefly uninhabitable — not so much for want of wood (though the plains are altogether naked), as of soil and of water; for though some of the plains appear of sufficiently fertile soil, they are mostly of a sterile character, and all too dry to be cultivated.
These great steppes seem only fitted for the haunts of the mustang, the buffalo, the antelope, and their migratory lord, the prairie Indian. Unless with the progressive influence of time, some favorable mutation should be wrought in nature’s operations, to revive the plains and upland prairies, the occasional fertile valleys are too isolated and remote to become the abodes of civilized man.
Like the table plains of Northern Mexico, these high prairies could at present only be made available for grazing purposes, and that in the vicinity of the water-courses. The grass with which they are mostly clothed, is of a superior quality. The celebrated ‘buffalo grass’ is of two kinds, both of which are species of the grama of New Mexico, and equally nutritious at all seasons. It is the same, I believe, that is called ‘mezquite grass’ in Texas, from the mezquite tree which grows there in the same dry regions with it. Of this unequalled pasturage the great western prairies afford a sufficiency to graze cattle for the supply of all the United States. It is particularly adapted to sheep-raising, as is shown by example of the same species in New Mexico.
But from the general sterility and unhabitableness of the Prairies is excepted, as will be understood, that portion, already alluded to, which borders our western frontier. The uplands from the Arkansas boundary to the Cross Timbers, are everywhere beautifully interspersed with isolated prairies and glades, many of which are fertile, though some are
too flat, and consequently inclined to be marshy. The valleys of the streams are principally of a rich loam, rather subject to inundations, but mostly tillable. The timbered uplands are mostly of fair quality, except on the broken ridges and mountainous sections before referred to. Some of the uplands, however, known usually as ‘post-oak flats,’ like the marshy prairies, seem to be based upon quick-sand. The soil is of a dead unproduclive character, and covered with small lumps or mounds of various sizes, and of irregular shapes.
The country lying west or Missouri, which includes the sources of the Neosho, the Verdigris, the Marais-des-Cygnes and other branches of the Osage, and the lower sections of the Kansas river, vies with any portion of the Far West in the amenity of its upland prairies — in the richness of its alluvial bottoms - in the beauty and freshness of its purling rills and rivulets — and in the salubrity of its atmosphere.
We have here then, along the whole border, a strip of country, averaging at least two hundred miles wide by five hundred long — and even more if we extend it up the Missouri river — affording territory for two States, respectable in size, and though more scant in timber, yet more fertile, in general, than the two conterminous States of Missouri and Arkansas. But most of this delightful region has been ceded to the different tribes of the Frontier Indians.
Concerning that portion of the Prairies which lies south of Red River, in Northern Texas, I learn from some interesting memoranda, politely furnished me by Dr. Henry Connelly, one of the principals of the pioneer expedition from Chihuahua to Arkansas, of which I have already spoken, that, besides some beautiful lands among the Cross Timbers, there is a great deal of delightful country still further west, of a part of which that gentleman holds the following language “Between the Brazos and Red River, there is surely the most beautiful and picturesque region I have ever beheld. I saw some of the finest timber, generally oak — not that scrubby oak which characterizes so much of the Texan territory — but large black and bur-oak; such as would answer all the purposes for which the largest timber is useful. Between those two rivers, no doubt there is destined to be one of the most dense and prosperous settlements. The fertility of the soil is not exceeded by any I have seen; and, from the high and undulating character of the country, there can be no doubt of its being very healthy.”
To the westward of Rio Brazos, and south of some sandy and saline regions which border the upper portions of this stream, the same enterprising traveller represents many of the valleys as rich and beautiful, and the uplands as being in many places sparsely timbered with mezquite trees. This is particularly the case on the sources of the Colorado, where the country is delightfully watered. But im-
mediately north of this sets in that immense desert region of the Llano Estacado.
The chief natural disadvantage to which the Great Western Prairies are exposed, consists in the absence of navigable streams. Throughout the whole vast territory which I have been attempting to describe, there is not a single river, except the Missouri, which is navigable during the whole season. The remaining streams, in their course through the plains, are and must continue to be, for all purposes of commerce, comparatively useless.
The chief of these rivers are the Missouri, the Arkansas, and Red River, with their numerous tributaries. The principal western branches of the Missouri are the Yellow Stone, the Platte and the Kansas. Small ‘flats’ and ‘buffalo boats’ have passed down the two former for a considerable distance, during high water; but they are never navigable to any extent by steamboats.
The Arkansas river penetrates far into the Rocky Mountains, its ramifications, interlocking with some of the waters of the Missouri, Columbia, San Buenaventura, Colorado of the West, and Rio del Norte. The channel of this stream, in its course through the Prairies, is very wide and shallow, with banks in many places hardly five feet above low water. It will probably measure nearly 2000 miles in length, from its source to the frontier of Arkansas. It is called Rio Napeste by the Mexicans; but among the early French voyagers it acquired the name of Arkansas, or rather
Akansa,* from a tribe of the Dahcotah or Osage stock, who lived near its mouth. This river has numerous tributaries, some of which are of great length, yet there is not one that is at all navigable, except the Neosho from the north, which has been descended by small boats for at least a hundred miles.
Red River is much shorter and narrower from the frontier westward than the Arkansas, bearing but little over half the volume of water. Even in its serpentine course it can hardly exceed ‘1200 miles from the Arkansas boundary to its source. This river rises in the table plains of the blano Estacado, and has not, as I have been assured by traders and hunters, any mountainous elevations about its source of any consequence; although we are continually hearing the inhabitants of its lower borders speak of the “June freshets produced by the melting of the snow in the mountains.”
The upper portions of this river, and emphatically from the mouth of the False Washita (or Faux Ouachitta) upward, present little or no facilities for navigation; being frequently spread out over sand - bars to the width of several hundred yards. A very credible Indian trader, who had been on Red River
some two hundred miles above the False Washita, informed me, that, while in some places he found it not over fifty yards wide, in others it was at least five hundred. This and most other prairie streams have commonly very low banks with remarkably shallow channels, which, during droughts, sometimes go dry in their transit through the sandy plains.*
I was once greatly surprised upon encountering one of these sandy sections of the river after a tremendous rain-storm, Our caravan was encamped at the Lower Cimarron Spring:’ and, a little after night-fall, a dismal, murky cloud was seen gathering in the western horizon, which very soon came lowering upon us, driven by a hurricane, and bringing with it one of those tremendous bursts of thunder and lightning, and rain, which render the storms of the Prairies, like those of the tropics, so terrible. Hail-stones, as large as turkeys’ eggs, and torrents of rain soon drenched the whole country; and so rapidly were the banks of the river overflowed, that the most active exertions-were requisite to prevent the mules that were ‘staked’ in the valley from drowning Next morning, after crossing the neck of a bend, we were, at the distance of about three miles, upon the river - bank again; when, to our astonishment, the wetted sand, and an occasional pool. fast being absorbed, were the only vestiges of the recent flood — no water was flowing there!
In these sandy stretches of the Cimarron, and other similar ‘dry streams,’ travellers procure water by excavating basins in the channel, a few feet deep, into which the water is filtrated from the saturated sand.
It would be neither interesting nor profitable to present to my readers a detailed account of all the tributaries of the three principal rivers already mentioned. They may be
found for the most part laid down, with their bearings and relative magnitudes, upon the map which accompanies this work. It is only necessary to say in addition, that none of them can ever be availed of to any considerable extent for purposes of navigation.
With regard to the productions of the soil of these regions, the reader will probably have formed, in the main, a tolerably correct idea already; nevertheless a few further specifications may not be altogether unacceptable.
The timber of that portion of the United States territory which is included between the Arkansas frontier and the Cross Timbers, throughout the highlands, is mostly oak of various kinds, of which black-jack and post-oak predominate, as these, and especially the former, seem only capable of withstanding the conflagrations to which they are exposed, and therefore abound along the prairie borders. The black-jack presents a blackened, scrubby appearance, with harsh rugged branches — partly on account of being so often scorched and crisped by the prairie fires. About the streams we find an intermixture of elm, hackberry, paccan (or pecan), ash, walnut, mulberry, cherry, persimmon, cottonwood, sycamore, birch, etc., with varieties of hickory, gum, dogwood, and the like. All of the foregoing, except paccan, gum and dogwood, are also found west of Missouri, where, although the uplands are almost wholly prairie, the richest growths predominate in the valleys.
In many of the rich bottoms from the Canadian to Red River, for a distance of one or two hundred miles west of the frontier, is found the celebrated bois-d’arc (literally, bowwood), usually corrupted in pronunciation to bowdark. It was so named by the French on account of its peculiar fitness for bows. This tree is sometimes found with a trunk two or three feet in diameter, but, being much branched, it is rarely over forty or fifty feet high. The leaves are large, and it bears a fruit a little resembling the orange in general appearance, though rougher and larger, being four or five inches in diameter; but it is not used for food. The wood is of a beautiful light orange color, and, though coarse, is susceptible of polish. It is one of the hardest, firmest and most durable of timbers, and is much used by wagon-makers and millwrights, as well as by the wild Indians, who make bows of the younger growths.
On the Arkansas and especially its southern tributaries as far west as the Verdigris, and up those of Red River nearly to the False Washita, the bottoms are mostly covered with cane. And scattered over all the south to about the same distance westward, the sassafras abounds, which grows here in every kind of soil and locality.
The celebrated Cross Timbers, of which frequent mention has been made, extend from the Brazos, or perhaps from the Colorado of Texas, across the sources of Trinity, traversing Red River above the False Washita, and thence
west of north, to the Red Fork of Arkansas, if not further. It is a rough billy range of country, and, though not mountainous, may perhaps be considered a prolongation of that chain of low mountains which pass to the northward of Bexar and Austin city in Texas.
The Cross Timbers vary in width from five to thirty miles, and entirely cut off the communication betwixt the interior prairies and those of the great plains. They may be considered as the ‘fringe’ of the great prairies, being .a continuous brushy strip, composed of various kinds of undergrowth; such as black-jacks, post-oaks, and in some places hickory, elm, etc., intermixed with a very diminutive dwarf oak, called by the hunters ‘shin-oak.' Most of the timber appears to be kept small by the continual inroads of the ‘burning prairies;’ for, being killed almost annually, it is constantly replaced by scions of undergrowth; so that it becomes more and more dense every reproduction. In some places, however, the oaks are of considerable size, and able to withstand the conflagrations. The underwood is so matted in many places with grape-vines, green-briars, etc., as to form almost impenetrable ‘roughs,’ which serve as hiding-places for wild beasts, as well as wild Indians; and would, in savage warfare, prove almost as formidable as the hammocks of Florida.
South of the Canadian, a branch of these Cross Timbers projects off westward, and afterwards crosses the stream; and, having continu-
ed up for a hundred miles, it inclines northwest beyond the North Fork, and ultimately ceases, no doubt, in the great sandy plains in that direction.
The region of the Cross Timbers is generally well-watered; and is interspersed with romantic and fertile tracts. The bottoms of the tributaries of Red River, even for some distance west of the Cross Timbers (perhaps almost to the U. S. boundary), are mostly very fertile, and timbered with narrow stripes of. elm, hackberry, walnut, hickory, mulberry, bur-oak and other rich growths.
But further north, and west of the Cross Timbers, even the streams are nearly naked. The Cimarron river for more than a hundred miles is absolutely without timber; and the Arkansas, for so-large a stream, is remarkably scant The southern border, being protected from the prairie fires by a chain of sand-hills, which extends for two hundred miles along it, is not so bare as the northern bank; though even here it is only skirted with occasional sparsely set groves of cottonwood in the nooks and bends. It is upon the abundance of islands which intersperse its channel, that the greatest quantity of timber (though purely cottonwood) is to be found; yet withal, there are stretches of miles without a tree in view. The banks of the Canadian are equally naked; and, having fewer islands, the river appears still more barren. In fact, there is scarce anything else but cottonwood, and that very sparsely scattered
along the streams, throughout most of the far-western prairies.
It is unquestionably the prairie conflagrations that keep down the woody growth upon most of the western uplands. The occasional skirts and fringes which have escaped their rage, have been protected by the streams they border. Yet may not the time come when these vast plains will be covered with timber? It Would seem that the prairie region, long after the discovery of America, extended to the very banks of the Mississippi. Father Marquette, in a voyage down this river, in 1673, after passing below the mouth of the Ohio, remarks: — “The banks of the river began to be covered with high trees, which hindered us from observing the country as we had done all along; but we judged from the bellowing of the oxen [ buffalo] that the meadows are very near.” — Indeed, there are parts of the southwest now thickly set with trees of good size, that, within the remembrance of the oldest inhabitants, were as naked as the prairie plains; and the appearance of the timber in many other sections indicates that it has grown up within less than a century. In fact, we are now witnessing the encroachment of the timber upon the prairies, wherever the devastating conflagrations have ceased their ravages.
The high plains seem too dry and lifeless to produce timber; yet might not the vicissitudes of nature operate a change likewise upon the seasons? Why may we not sup-
pose that the genial influences of civilization — that extensive cultivation of the earth — might contribute to the multiplication of showers, as it certainly does of fountains? Or that the shady groves, as they advance upon the prairies, may have some effect upon the seasons? At least, many old settlers maintain that the droughts are becoming less oppressive in the West. The people of New Mexico also assure us that the rains have much increased of latter years, a phenomenon which the vulgar superstitiously attribute to the arrival of the Missouri traders. Then may we not hope that these sterile regions might yet be thus revived and fertilized, and their surface covered one day by flourishing settlements to the Rocky Mountains?
With regard to fruits, the Prairies are of course not very plentifully supplied. West of the border, however, for nearly two hundred miles, they are covered, in many places, with the wild strawberry; and the groves lining the streams frequently abound in grapes, plums, persimmons, mulberries, paccans, hackberries, and other ‘sylvan luxuries.’ The high prairies beyond, however, are very bare of fruits. The prickly pear may be found over most of the dry plains; but this is neither very palatable nor wholesome, though often eaten by travellers for want of other fruits. Upon the branches of the Canadian, North Fork, and Cimarron, there are, in places, considerable quantities of excellent plums, grapes, chokecherries, gooseberries, and currants — of the
latter there are three kinds, black, red, and white. About the ravines and marshy grounds (particularly towards the east) there are different kinds of small onions,, with which the traveller may season his fresh meats. On the plains, also, I have met with a species resembling garlic in flavor.
But the flowers are among the most interesting products of the frontier prairies. These gay meadows wear their most fanciful piebald robes from the earliest spring till divested of them by the hoary frosts of autumn. When again winter has fled, but before the grassy green appears, or other vegetation has ventured to peep above the earth, they are bespeckled in many places with a species of erythronium, a pretty lilaceous little flower which springs from the ground already developed, between a pair of lanceolate leaves, and is soon after in full bloom. But the fibriferous region only extends about two hundred miles beyond the border: the high plains are nearly as destitute of flowers as they are of fruits.
The climate of most parts of the Prairies is no doubt healthy in the extreme; for a purer atmosphere is hardly to be found. But the cold rains of the ‘wet season,’ and the colder snows of winter, with the annoying winds that prevail at nearly all times, often render it very unpleasant. It can hardly be said, it is true, that the Prairies have their regular ‘dry and rainy seasons;’ yet the summers are often so droughty, that, unless some change should
be effected in nature’s functions, cultivators would generally find it necessary, no doubt, to resort to irrigation. That portion, however, which is conterminous our western border, and to the distance of nearly two hundred miles westward, in every respect resembles the adjacent States of Missouri and Arkansas in climate. The south is a little disposed to chills and fevers; but the northern portion is as healthy as the most salubrious uplands of Missouri.