October 9, 1863 - French's Ranch - Buffalo - Captured a Prairie-Dog - Bought Bugler - A Dry River - The Upland - The Canyons - Indian Grave - Prairie-Fire - Voucher for Beef - The Platte - Chilly Night - Indian Trade - Gilmans' Ranch - Cottonwood Springs - The Island and Canyon - October 11, 1863
OUR course was now west along the south bank of the river. From time to time we passed pools that had sticks driven near them, upon which some person had written "Alkali," meaning that the water was so impregnated with alkali that it might be harmful. The wind seemed to blow constantly from the time that we left Fort Kearney. The road was a broad, smooth, beaten track, fully three hundred feet wide, swept clean by the wind, and along the sides for some distance the grass was pretty well eaten out. We fed our horses morning, noon and night, each time a quart of shelled corn. We had a wagon-load or more of it in sacks; each sack held sixty-four quarts, and was said to weigh one hundred and twelve pounds, net. In the evening of the second day, October 9, 1863, we camped near new cedar ranch, with sod inclosure for stock built, by a man named French. There was some very good grass down near the river. Mr. French had been keeping everybody off from grazing on it, and endeavored to keep us off, but it was Government land, and we were in the service of the Government, and we did not recognize his sovereignty over the broad country. Mr. French became very boisterous, and we had some words with him. Afterwards we were told that he was a Confederate deserter from a Southern regiment, and was not very fond of blue uniforms, and felt inclined to be as disagreeable as possible.
That evening we were overtaken by a stage going through under an escort, and out of the stage jumped a Mr. William Redfield, who notified us that he was one of the Vote Commissioners of Iowa. While the soldiers were away from home the Legislature had given the soldiers the right to vote, so that they could keep down the Copperhead element, which was strong in some portions of the State of Iowa, as also elsewhere. These Vote Commissioners mustered the troops, examined their muster-rolls, and found out who were voters. And having fixed the voting strength of the various companies and regiments, checked up the voting returns afterwards, and delivered them in Iowa. French's ranch was said to be fifty miles west of Kearney.
Buffalo were visible with a field-glass on both sides of the river, but in small numbers, and much scattered. They were not in herds. With a field-glass the antelope could be seen on the north of the river in myriads, and in great numbers towards the hills south and in front of us. In the road I captured a prairie-dog. He was large and fat, and was going from one mound to another. I headed him off, and finally caught him on foot. Our two dogs, "Kearney," owned by Captain O'Brien, and "Lady," owned by me, given to us, as stated, at Fort Kearney, were great companions. They were constantly coursing out and around, and stirring up game; wolves and jack-rabbits were frequent. The dogs gave some beautiful runs after antelope, but the antelope, having much the start, was able to outrun the dogs. Here we found out for the first time that the "jack-rabbit" was swifter than the antelope. A pilgrim on the road who watched our dogs run, told us that if we wanted to have good fun we must get a stag-hound to go with the grey-hounds, because, he said, the greyhound courses by sight, and often misses the game, but the stag-hound by scent will keep the track, and recover the pursuit. So, thereupon, we kept our eyes open, and bought a stag-hound of a passing train, and named him, from his loud, sonorous voice, "Bugler," and with the three afterwards we often caught antelope and jack-rabbits.
From Fort Kearney, for many miles up, there was no water in the river. The water seemed to be in "the underflow." We not infrequently rode down to the river, and with shovels dug watering-places in the sand of the bed. We always found permanent water within eighteen inches of the top, no matter how dry the sand on top appeared to be. We were told that 75 miles of the river were then dry, and that generally about 125 miles of it were dry in the dryest season. At French's ranch the water began to appear on the surface in the shape of damp places and little pools.
The next morning, being the morning of October 10th, another stage with escort passed us, and we were joined by the assistant surgeon of our regiment, who had been ordered to overtake us, and act as our medical attendant at the post which we were about to establish. We started bright and early in the morning, and having made about fifteen miles, halted to rest the horses. Buffalo were noticed over in the hills south of us, and many antelope. The hills were constantly rising higher, and canyons were running into them south from the river. Leaving the company to proceed to a certain designated place seventy-five miles west of Kearney, called Smith's ranch, Captain O'Brien and I and the Doctor and the Vote Commissioner, Mr. Redfield, went out into the hills. Our horses were fresh, and we saw the buffalo scattered seemingly at great distances, as far as the eye could reach, all apparently driving to the south. We had now got into the country where Indians were making occasional raids, stealing horses, and killing heedless travelers. We did not care to pursue the buffalo nor kill them unnecessarily, but we desired to watch their movements, and to view the country. We found a tableland as level as a floor as far as the eye could reach, with buffalo scattered over it, that was ever and anon disappearing. The reason of it was that the canyons were cut down straight from the level of the plain, and showed no signs of existence; nor could the depressions be noticed until arriving almost at their brinks. Then beautiful valleys were seen, narrow and deep, full of enormous cedar trees, box elders, hackberry, plum trees, and shrubbery. There were always places that we could find to descend into the canyons, and come out on the other side. We rode along this plain, over these beautiful valleys, for fully ten miles. Down in the valleys the buffalo were plenty, and there were very many deer; wolves in droves were observed sneaking along the sides. Our two dogs were constantly hunting and developing game. There had never been an ax put into these canyons, except a little at their openings near the river. The cedar trees were as straight as arrows, very numerous, and all sizes up to two feet in diameter. They grew mostly from the bottom of the canyon, yet no tree-tops were seen rising above the level of the plain.
Having killed what buffalo we wanted, and taken the tongues and humps, we turned obliquely towards the river to resume our place with the command. At a point on the corner of a canyon as it opened out into the broad plain of the Platte River we came across a new Indian grave. It was on a scaffold made of four poles. These poles had evidently been lodge-poles, and were set into the ground. About ten feet from the ground, thongs had been stretched across from pole to pole, and a scaffold made; the Indian, wrapped up in a fresh buffalo-hide and bound up with a horsehair lariat, had been left to dry. Some portion of a horse had been tied to each lodge-pole; perhaps the horse had been quartered, and the legs tied up; at any rate, there were the bones off which the wolves had eaten, but they had not been able to get up to disturb the Indian, who had probably been killed soon before in a raid down the road. The Captain and I rode northwest, while the Doctor and Vote Commissioner, separating from us, went north towards the river. We could from our high elevation see our company of cavalry in the rear, miles away, coming slowly and silently up the plain, with a cloud of dust drifting to the north.
The wind had very much freshened, and as we got down into the valley, which was here two or three miles wide on each side of the stream, Captain O'Brien started to light a cigar. This was a great feat for any one to do, in such a wind, on horseback. But the Captain from his former service in the army claimed that he could light a cigar in a tornado. The Captain did light a cigar and threw the match away, which he thought had gone out. In a flash a blaze started up in a northerly course towards the river. The grass was fine and silky; the "prairie-grass" had not got in that country at that time, and there was only short, matted buffalo-grass. The flame went with the speed of a railroad train, enlarging as it went. Towards the river the blaze widened and the fire went with a hoarse rumble. In the track ahead of this fire were some cattle grazing. They immediately took flight, and fled towards the river in front of the fire. The fire soon reached the river in a path about one-half mile wide, and became soon extinguished. Several of the cattle were injured jumping down the river-bank, and a man rode out to us and demanded pay. The Captain told the man that the circumstances were entirely an accident, and sympathized with the man, and drawing up his canteen, which was nearly full of whisky (which the Captain partook very little of), he handed it to the man, who pulled away at it as if he had met an old friend that he had not seen for years. The result was that he rode down with us to the river, and when they saw the cattle there, our teams soon came up, and we got the few injured cattle out, killed and skinned them, hung them up to dry over-night, and Captain O'Brien gave a voucher to the man for so many pounds of beef, averaging five hundred pounds to the animal, at six cents a pound. It turned out all right. They were nice fat cattle, and we needed the meat, and the man got his pay through the department quartermaster.
We camped for the night between seventy-five and eighty miles west of Fort Kearney. At the place where we camped the water was visible in the river, but there was no distinct current. The nights were becoming chilly, the elevation higher, and the wind more constant. About every ten miles from French's ranch west there was a store-building with a high, thick, sodded inclosure used as a corral. These places were also stage stations, and some had sod structures like bastions, built out on the corners, so as to make places of defense. And with each of these places there was generally a herd of cattle, a bunch of Indian ponies, some herders, and a lot of Indian-trading goods; for during the previous summer the Indians had come in to trade all along the line of the Platte valley from French's ranch west. They brought in lots of well-tanned buffalo-robes, quantities of antelope-skins, tanned and untanned, great quantities of buckskin, and many other articles of peltry. But trading with the Indians had stopped, for there was a growing feeling of hostility, although there were still some white men living with the Indians, who had joined them years before, learned the languages and married into the tribes. But unless the white man could speak the language and had lived among them for several years, and had married into the tribe, he was not liked, and his life was in danger. These white men had all come in, and were to be found idling away their time at the various ranches which we passed; some were acting as herders. There were also white hunters and trappers who picked up a great deal of fun, and much money, along the Platte, because at certain places there were beaver and other fur-bearing animals.
We started early on October 11th, and passed Gilmans' ranch, which was built of cedar, and, going fifteen miles farther, camped at a spring called Cottonwood Springs. A man by the name of Charles MacDonald had built a cedar ranch at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon, which canyon came down to the river near Cottonwood Springs. Cottonwood Springs was merely a seep in a gully which had been an old bed of the river, and which had curved up towards Cottonwood Canyon. The water-bed of the river being largely composed of gravel, the water came down in the underflow, and seeped out at a place down in the bank where there had grown a large cottonwood tree. This spring had been dug out, and was the only spring as far as known along the Platte for two hundred miles. It was at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon that we were to build our military post. The place was a great crossing for the Indians going north and south. The valley here was several miles wide. There was a large island in the river of several thousand acres, upon which grew the finest grass to be found in the country, and there were some scrubby willows and cottonwoods; so that the Indians coming from the north found it a good stopping-place to feed their ponies either in summer or winter, because in the winter the ponies could eat the cottonwood brush. In addition to this, Cottonwood Canyon gave a fine passage to the south. A road went up on the floor of the canyon, between the trees, until it rose onto the tableland twenty miles south. The canyon furnished fuel and protection. It was for the purpose of breaking up this Indian run-way that we were ordered to build a post at the mouth of the canyon. We arrived there at eleven o'clock in the morning of October 11, 1863.