The Land We Know
When it was proposed that several pieces of unconnected territory be put together to form the state of Oklahoma, someone noticed that the projected commonwealth was shaped like a butcher’s cleaver. If former Governor Bill Murray’s memory is correct, there were members of the Constitutional Convention determined to adopt the handy utensil as the state seal, and it required shrewd maneuvering to circumvent them. The figure is graphic if not poetical; the long narrow strip on the northwest now known as the Panhandle is the helve of the implement, and the Red River boundary forms its hacked and dented edge.
In measurement Oklahoma is about 470 miles long on the north edge, including the handle (“from tip to tip” as it were), about 320 miles through the greatest length of the blade; its greatest breadth is about 225 miles. It contains about 69,283 square miles, which ranks it seventeenth in area among the forty-eight [contiguous] states. It is about the size of North Dakota, slightly larger than Missouri, almost half again the size of New York, and more than 10 per cent larger than all New England.
Outsiders seem to think every one of the 69,283 miles is exactly like all the others. For example, Kyle Crichton in an excellent article on Oklahoma’s athletic prowess characterized the whole state from the part he happened to see as “a large flat piece of ground covered with oil wells, wheat fields, and a crop of long rangy individuals.” But it probably has more kinds of country, more kinds of weather, and more kinds of flora and fauna than any other area of similar size in the United States.
Geologists have traced these differences to a time remote in the earth’s history. The area was apparently a land surface uncounted millions of years in the dim pre-Cambrian ages. The about the middle of the Cambrian period the sea advanced over much of the region and mile-deep layers of Cambrian, Ordocivian, Silurian, Devonian, and Mississippian rocks were deposited. During the ensuring Pennsylvanian period most of Oklahoma stood near sea level, thus forming great swamps in which plants grew rank; but the sea flooded it from time to time, laying down layers of mud and sand, thus covering the vegetation, which was eventually converted into coal. At or near the close of this period there were great seismic movements that folded all these rocks into corrugations—if one can imagine an elongated layer cake crumpled into washboard folds, upbent anticlines, downbent synclines—or even broke and shoved them over each other forming what the geologists call “faults.” The tops of these folds have long been worn off, but remnants of the more resistant rocks form Oklahoma’s four mountain uplifts: the Ozarks of the northeast and the Ouachitas of the southeast, extensions of similar formations in Missouri and Arkansas; and the Arbuckles and Wichitas of the south central and southwest [respectively], both projections of one great upthrust.
During the succeeding period—the Permian, as geologists reckon time—the sea covered only the western part of Oklahoma, depositing red sands and shales. It is these Permian Red Beds that give the characteristic color to the western half of the state. This about finished the job except for a much later invasion of the sea from the south, and the deposit of Comanchean (Lower Cretaceous) rocks along the southern margin, a continuation of the formation extending through Central Texas and far into Old Mexico. Any subsequent change in the land was the work of wind and streams, except for a lava flow that came over the western border of the Panhandle to form the Black Mesa. The rest of the Panhandle is deeply covered with rock debris washed down from the Rocky Mountains.
So much for the geological history of Oklahoma. But in addition to the local movements with their folding and faulting, the whole state is part of a greater fold that bends the entire area east of the Rocky Mountains into an immense syncline. Strictly speaking one should call it a synclinorium because the whole structure is wrinkled, just as a washboard may have smaller corrugations running parallel to the main folds. The trough crosses western Oklahoma through Alva and Arapaho. (The southeastern end of this “Anadarko Basin” was the scene of the most active geological exploration in the state during the late nineteen forties.) In the wide bottom the rocks lie almost level, but on either side the entire structure rises very gently toward the Rocky Mountains on the west and the Ouachita-Ozark uplift on the east. Remember we are not speaking of the surface, but of the fundamental rock structure.
Thus nearly every rock ledge one sees in Oklahoma is tilted in some direction. In the Arbuckle Mountains this structure is visible on the surface and can be examined by the layman. Here rock layers many thousands of feet in thickness that once lay horizontal have been thrust up into an immense wrinkle, with the pre-Cambrian porphyry and granite at the core and the younger formations arching over it; and the top of the wrinkle has been worn away, leaving the raw edges exposed. If I place a pencil under several pages of this book, it forms a ridge; then if I shear off the top of the ridge, I expose the pencil core and the cut edges of the leaves. Thus one may walk into the heart of the earth by starting at the outer portion of the fold and walking from the younger rocks across the upturned edges of succeeding formations (from Mississippian through Devonian, Silurian, Ordovician, and Cambrian—limestones, sandstones, and shales) until he reaches the ancient mass of porphyry in the center of the uplift. Or he may cross these millions of years in a few minutes by driving north from Ardmore on U.S. Highway 77, where a geology-conscious Lions Club has placed road signs marking the steps in this backward sweep of time. He will see uptilted layers of resistant rock forming conspicuous strips across the hillsides, and he will notice that each formation has its characteristic types of soil, topography, and vegetation.
The variation one sees here in miniature extends throughout the state. In the Ozark region are timbered hills of limestone covered with a loose mantle of chert. These are the “flint hills” of northeastern Oklahoma. In the Ouachitas are shales and sandstones, the most resistant of which form pine-clad mountains rising nearly two thousand feet above their base. West of these uplifts is a prairie region of shale and limestone grading west into a belt of sandstone hills covered with scrub timber. The Arbuckles thrust up their many-folded strata through the south end of these sandstone hills.
Next come the Red Beds along a line roughly dividing the state into eastern and western halves; and strangely enough, the settlement of Oklahoma followed almost exactly that line of cleavage between white pioneers to the west, Indians to the east. Along this Permian boundary the Red Beds have eroded into rugged shapes merging into the older sandstone hills to the east, but through most of the area the soft shales and sandstones have weathered into level prairie. In the southern part of this region the Wichita Mountains obtrude their bare granite masses five hundred to eleven hundred feet above the plain. Their structure is almost certainly identical with that of the Arbuckles, but the Permian deposits have covered all but traces of the older formations on their flanks. Farther west, even the core of the uplift is completely buried; but it continues beneath the surface across the Oklahoma border to form the hidden Amarillo Mountains of the Texas Panhandle oil field. Also under these level central prairies lie the buried Nemaha Mountains, starting near Mill Creek in the Arbuckle region and running north across the state, and bearing the greatest oil fields of Oklahoma on either side of their huge granite axis.
In the western part of the state, ledges of white gypsum alternate with the red soil to form picturesque flat-topped mesas or escarpments along the streams. The most conspicuous are the so-called Glass Mountains near Fairview, where a transparent form of gypsum known as selenite catches the rays of the sun and throws them back with dazzling effect. The surrounding area is wild and barren with the banded red and white soil carved in “bad-land” topography, and the surface strewn with sparkling crystals washed down from the hills. The whole “gyp hills” region rises rapidly toward the west, merging in the northwest into the High Plains.
The High Plains are deeply eroded at the eastern margin and along the streams to form rugged bluffs. Especially picturesque are the barren Antelope Hills, once a landmark for early travelers, near the western boundary of the state on the South Canadian River. But this is only the edge of the High Plains. On top, at some places in the Panhandle they are so level that they have no drainage; not even the smallest rivulet cuts their surface, and surplus rainfall gathers into saucer-like lakes.
Distinct from all this, is the narrow Comanchean strip bordering the Red River. It may once have extended along the full length of the state, but now it appears only along the eastern half. Here the structure dips gently toward the south and southeast, form parallel east-west outcroppings of sand, limestone, and shale. A very sandy belt, once an ancient coastal plain, lies along the northern margin, then a band of black waxy soil like that in North Texas, and to the south another strip of coastal plain.
The whole surface of Oklahoma slopes from northwest to southeast: the altitude on the top of the Black Mesa in the northwestern corner of the Panhandle is 4,978 feet; on the Red River next to the Arkansas line, it is 324. Many long rivers flow in parallel lines southeast across the state. Perhaps one should not say “flow” of these twisting, shallow sheets of water moving lazily over wide beds of sand. In the western half each of these streams is bordered along the northeast by a strip of sand two to eighteen miles wide blown up out of the river by the south wind. It can still be seen rising from the dry bed on any windy day. White and thick it covers the Red Beds, held down by vegetation except where it has been unwisely put in cultivation. In only a few places it forms naked dunes; near Waynoka on the Cimarron River several great wide-rippled drifts are rolling north over the upland, covering elm and cottonwood trees as they advance.
Thus Crichton made a true characterization of all these rivers when he described the Cimarron as a “historic stream” lacking only water. But sometimes they are filled with water, which sweeps down in a swirling torrent bearing soil and uprooted trees, breaking over the low banks, destroying farms and tearing out bridges. In earlier days pioneers trying to cross the treacherous fords were drowned in these sudden rises or engulfed in quicksand.
But it would not be like Oklahoma to have only one kind of river. From the Ozarks and the Ouachitas come clear streams rippling over rocky beds. There are no more agreeable combinations of shad and waterfall and mossy bank than one finds along the Illinois, the Sallisaw, the Poteau, the Kiamichi, or the Mountain Fork.
The rainfall also varies from an average annual precipitation of less than seventeen inches in the western Panhandle to fifty-one inches in the southeast. One can draw parallel lines almost straight north and south across the map to connect the points of equal prescription.
The Oklahoma climate is a of spangled sunshine—with variations. Spring comes early with a flash of mockingbirds’ wings, moving across the land in power like an army with banners. Summer is dry and scorching with cool breezes at night. Autumn is golden and perfect; it begins about the first of September and lasts till after Christmas. Properly speaking, there is no winter; the period is filled with weather left over from the other seasons—spring days alternating with autumn days, an occasional summer day, and once in a great while a howling blizzard. But all the seasons are likely to be jumbled—snow in May, hot winds in March, spring showers in November, with hailstorms or even tornadoes thrown in for good measure. On United States weather maps showing the generalized path of storms, Oklahoma is a little white island surrounded by sweeping black lines—a fortunate isle set in a tempestuous sea. But when a storm strikes, it strikes hard.
At such times the thermometer may drop in twelve hours from eighty degrees to below freezing; and most of the drop comes in the first hour or two after the wind swings to the north. I remember very well a change of that kind that occurred, I believe, about the middle of April in 1938. It was the noon hour of a perfect spring day, and I was sitting under a tree enjoying it all. I happened to be facing the north when I felt—I could almost swear I saw—the wind veer sharply, and an icy blast sweep across the bright landscape. By the middle of the afternoon the snow was whirling, and by night the railroads and the highways were blocked with drifts. Hundreds of school children from three states were at Enid to march in the spring band festival. Even the wires were down so that frantic parents could not communicate with their thinly clad offspring. Enid took them into its homes until the roads were opened. Of course the drifts soon melted, but the trees had to put out a second crop of leaves and spring had to start all over again.
Oklahomans like to tell weather stories. There was the man out in the field with his team, when the sun shone so hot that one of the horses fell and quickly died. While the discouraged farmer was removing the harness, the wind changed to the north; and before he had finished his task, the other horse froze to death. Then there was the drought so severe that when the fish swam up the creek, they raised a dust cloud; but when the rain finally came, the water rose with such fury that it tore the bricks out of the pavement and bore them away on the surface of the flood. And weather proverbs have passed into the common speech: “Anybody who tries to predict the weather in Oklahoma is a newcomer or a fool”; or “If you don’t like this weather, just wait a minute.”
During the [first] fifty-odd years of white settlement there [were] three series dry cycles: there was the one beginning in the fall of 1893, which almost broke the pioneers; there was the terrible summer of 1910, and two or three years following; and there was the drought of the “dust bowl” ill repute in the middle nineteen thirties. Even in normal years the western half of the state has an occasional day when the wind blows hard and the sun is a white ball in a red haze and the air is a lurid darkness. These days are trying, but they come seldom. The sifting dust is not so hard on the temper of housewives as the smoke pall that lies over Eastern cities, and the obscurity is not so depressing as the fogs of less sunny climes.
For Oklahomans like to take their weather straight. They like their clear atmosphere and brilliant sky. The most scorching sunshine suits them better than a cloud; even in times of drought when their very living depends on getting moisture, a half-day’s rain is about all they can take without grumbling. And they have much sunshine. Oklahoma City has an annual average of 166 clear days, and most others are only party cloudy. St. Louis has 139, Chicago 117, Detroit 99, New York 105, Pittsburgh 87, and Washington 128. Even sun-kissed Los Angeles has only 179.
With all kinds of soil and all kinds of weather Oklahoma should—and does—grow many kinds of plants. Botanists say that only about 5 per cent of our species are found in all parts of the state; in other words, nineteen out of twenty reach the limit of their range here. And in unspoiled portions of this still new land the abundance as well as the variety of wild flowers beggars description. Sheets of color blot out the green of the prairie: banks of color glow through the timber. And flowers bloom every month of the year.
The mountainous eastern end of the state is heavily forested. In the northeast is hardwood—oak, elm, hickory, maple—and some pine (southern yellow pine); south of the Arkansas River is hardwood and much pine, and in the extreme southeast along the sparkling steams grow the tulip tree and the cypress. The largest tree in Oklahoma is an ancient cypress near Eagletown; it measures fifty-six feet in circumference and is ninety feet high. Here in the spring is the breath-taking beauty of the flowering dogwood; in the winter, the waxy green leaves and bright red berries of the holly.
West of this, in the great reaches of prairie, the bluestem grass—so say the old-timers—once grew as tall “as a man on horseback.” Washington Irving, who traveled over this park like region in 1832, described it as a land “of flowery plains and sloping uplands, diversified by groves and clumps of trees, and long screens of woodland; the whole wearing the aspect of complete, and even ornamental cultivation instead of native wildness.”
Crossing the state from north to south through the rugged sandstone hills and extending into the eroded margin of the Red Beds lies the belt of tangled blackjacks and post oaks known—and dreaded—by the early travelers as the “Cross Timbers.” Fingers of the same blackjack-post oak jungle extend northwest on the sand hills that flank the rivers. Again quoting Irving: “The Cross Timbers is about forty miles in breadth, and stretches over a rough country of rolling hills . . . very much cut up by deep ravines. . . . The fires made on the prairie by the Indian hunters, had frequently penetrated these forests, scorching and calcining the lower twigs and branches of the trees, and leaving them black and hard, so as to tear the flesh of man and horse that had to scramble through them. . . . It was like struggling through forests of cast iron.”
Through all this land west of the mountains, whether prairie or scrub timber, fine trees formerly grew along the streams (the largest ones are gone now); walnut and oak, cedar—partial to the Cimarron and its branches—and pecan, from which the nuts were gathered and shipped in quantity long before the white man came. Through much of the state these trees are decorated in the winter with green knots of mistletoe, which also is shipped commercially. This plant was loved by the pioneers—it is said because it was used in funerals in bleak days when no other growing plant was available—and it is still the “state flower.” As one follows the streams west and the other timber falls away, the cottonwood becomes increasingly conspicuous. It is poor for fuel and worse for lumber, but how could dwellers in a prairie land live without the beauty of its craggy white branches and its polished, twinkling leaves? Also extending far west are the wild plum—in the spring a white drift of bloom, in the summer good for marmalade—and the redbud, the “state tree,” most popular of all Oklahoma plants. And on the broad flood plains of the rivers, especially the Cimarron and Red, the tamarisk raises its slender gray-green or lavender-pink sprays.
The great continuous plain of the Red Beds once formed a sea of grass starred with flowers. Here, about the center of the state, the rank bluestem of the east began to shade into the short, dense buffalo grass of the west. Most of the grass is gone now, and the prairie is an ocean of wheat. But its green waves still roll to a far horizon, with the curled plumes of timbered streams seeming to float on its restless surface.
As the plains grade west into a drier climate and a ragged land of gyp hills, the grass becomes bunchy and the blackjack thickets on the strips of river-blown sand give place to shinnery oak and sagebrush. Increasingly common is the yucca (“soap weed” or “bear grass”) with its sharp spear-like leaves and its tall stems of fragrant, waxy flowers, and the cactus—especially the prickly pear (“hog-ear” cactus)—with its fleshy, thorny body and fragile blooms. In the southwest grow the tough but delicate-looking desert willow (Chilopsis lineraris) with its lavender flowers, and the mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) with its dainty foliage and hanging pods.
Here is a familiar story about the mesquite—this frail-seeming tree that grows underground. It is a Texas story, but since this part of Oklahoma once thought it belonged to Texas, it is not inappropriate. A tenderfoot ranch hand was directed to climb the windmill tower to turn on water for the stock. Then he was put to digging mesquite roots for fuel. But this time he balked, expressing a fluent opinion of “a -- -- country where you have to climb for water and dig for firewood.”
In the Panhandle, sagebrush and clumps of grass still grow on the sand hills bordering the streams, but the flat top of the plains is indeed the “short-grass country.” In this land of shimmering mirages and overpowering sky the curly buffalo grass once grew as tight and thick as the nap of a carpet. Flowers bloom here, too, mostly yellow flowers; and that strange plant, the locoweed, favorite of “Western” fiction writers, once was a minor hazard to the owner of livestock. The Russian thistle, not a native, but a weed brought in with impure seed, breaks from its roots and tumbles—a great, loose ball—across the fields or drifts high along the fences. On the rugged lava-capped Black Mesa grow piñon trees (Pinus edulis) strayed from New Mexico, and a few western yellow pine. Thus Oklahoma flora runs the gamut from the great cypress of warm, low southeastern valley to the brave piñon of wind-swept height.
Zoologists say that they range in species of native Oklahoma animals is probably greater than that of any equal area in the United States. Denizens of the timbered East were at home in the Ozarks and Ouachitas; Rocky Mountains species strayed to the western sections; Great Plains animals found the prairies their natural habitat.
Most of the wild life is gone now. The bears have been killed, the great herds of buffalo have disappeared except in parks, the panther’s scream is seldom heard in the timber, the fierce gray lobo no longer menaces the cowman’s profit, and the prairie-dog towns are vanishing from the western flats. But as few protected deer still live in the northeast and southeast and one small band of wild antelope fleets across the Black Mesa; the farmers still join together to kill the predatory coyote; the jack rabbit lopes across the wheat fields as once he loped across the grassland; and small game and fur-bearing animals still seek refuge in the timber.
The birds also find Oklahoma a meeting place of North and South, East and West, plain and timber. There are more than 250 varieties, 200 of which stay the year around. Prairie chickens and wild turkeys, once very numerous, have been almost destroyed; quail on their way to extinction have been restocked. Geese and ducks fly over, flocks of sea gulls from the Gulf of Mexico visit the state, and dense clouds of blackbirds wheel and twist, and settle on feedlot and pasture. Meadowlarks and cardinals stay all winter, filling the air with their clear notes on every sunny day. Robins also remain the year around. Every spring some unobservant Oklahoman goes into ecstasies on seeing the “first robin” that hopped around his lawn all winter. Crows also stay all the time, probably in order to plot more meanness. Sometimes they become such a nuisance that they are killed with dynamite in great numbers at their roosting places.
Of the migratory birds, orioles, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, catbirds, kingbirds, and the scissor-tailed flycatcher [the state bird] are among the most common. The mockingbird is the universal favorite. All day and all night he pours out his joy (one wonders when he eats), his slender body atilt on treetop or house roof, or floating up into the air borne by the surge of his song. Once in a while a belated one stays all winter, when he may be heard singing rather sadly on some crisp night.
Oklahoma also has tarantulas with hairy legs spreading to a terrifying distance and hairy body “as big as a hen’s egg.” (I never saw any that big; one is likely to overestimate their size when he is scared.) It has centipedes ten inches long, repulsive looking and really poisonous. It has scorpions, always in a fury, and able to deliver a painful sting with their lashing tails. It has harmless lizards darting about, and innocent horned toads spreading themselves flat and turning their grotesque little heads up wisely.
Oklahoma also has people. They have been greatly written about these later years, and as they have writhed under distorted portrayals, they have developed an abnormal sensitiveness to public opinion. For they are not Wild West characters nor Joads [the famed family of John Stienbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath], but people. And yet they do have traits that set them apart from their fellow Americans. There is a distinctive Oklahoma character—partly the product of physical environment, but even more then result of a peculiar history.
A Tour on the Prairies
By Washington Irving2
The Pawnee Hunting Ground
In the often vaunted regions of the Far West, several hundred miles beyond the Mississippi, extends a vast tract of uninhabited country, where there is neither to be seen the log house of the white man, not the wigwam of the Indian. It consists of great grassy plains, interspersed with forests and groves, and clumps of trees, and watered by the Arkansas, the grand Canadian, the Red River, and their tributary streams. Over these fertile and verdant wastes still roam the elk, the buffalo, and the wild horse, in all their native freedom. These, in fact, are the hunting grounds of the various tribes of the Far West. Hither repair the Osage, the Creek, the Delaware and other tribes that have linked themselves with civilization, and live within the vicinity of the white settlements. Here resort also, the Pawnees, the Comanches, and other fierce, and as yet, independent tribes, the nomads of the prairies, or inhabitants of the skirts of the Rocky Mountains. The regions I have mentioned form a debatable ground of these warring and vindictive tribes; none of them presume to erect a permanent habitation within its borders. Their hunters and “braves” repair thither in numerous bodies during the season of game, throw up their transient hunting camps, consisting of light bowers covered with bark and skins, commit sad havoc among the innumerable herds that graze the prairies, and having loaded themselves with venison and buffalo meat, warily retire from the dangerous neighborhood. These expeditions partake, always, of a warlike character; the hunters are all armed for action, offensive and defensive, and are bound to incessant vigilance. Should they, in their excursions, meet the hunters of an adverse tribe, savage conflicts take place. Their encampments, too, are always subject to be surprised by wandering war parties, and their hunters, when scattered in pursuit of game, to be captured or massacred by lurking foes. Mouldering skulls and skeletons, bleaching in some dark ravine, or near the traces of a hunting camp, occasionally mark the scene of a foregone act of blood, and let the wanderer know the dangerous nature of the region he is traversing. It is the purport of the following pages to narrate a month’s excursion to these noted hunting grounds, through a tract of country which had not as yet been explored by white men.
It was early October 1832, that I arrived at Fort Gibson, a frontier post of the Far West, situated on the Neosho, or Grand River, near its confluence with the Arkansas. I had been traveling for a month past, with a small party from St. Louis, up the banks of the Missouri, and along the frontier line of agencies and missions, that extends from the Missouri to Arkansas. Our party was headed by one of the Commissioners appointed by the government of the United States to superintend the settlement of the Indian tribes migrating from the east to the west of the Mississippi. In the discharge of his duties, he was thus visiting the various outposts of civilization.
And here let me bear testimony to the merits of this worthy lead of our little band. He was a native of one of the towns of Connecticut, a man in whom a course of legal practice and political life had not been able to vitiate an innate simplicity and benevolence of heart. The greater part of his days had been passed in the bosom of his family. And the society of deacons, elders, and select men, on the peaceful banks of the Connecticut; when suddenly he had been called to mount his steed, shoulder his rifle, and mingle among stark hunters, backwoodsmen, and naked savages on the trackless wilds of the Far West.
Departure from Fort Gibson
We now made all arrangements for prompt departure. Our baggage had hitherto been transported on a light wagon, but we were now to break our way through an untravelled country, cut up by rivers, ravines, and thickets, where a vehicle of the kind would be a complete impediment. We were to travel on horseback, in hunter’s style, and with as little encumbrance as possible. Our baggage, therefore, underwent a rigid and most abstemious reduction. A pair of saddlebags, and those by no means crammed, sufficed for each man’s scanty wardrobe, and his great coat were to be carried upon the steed he rode. The rest of the baggage was placed on packhorses. Each one had a bearskin and a couple of blankets for bedding, and there was a tent to shelter us in case of sickness or bad weather. We took care to provide ourselves with flour, coffee, and sugar, together with a small supply of salt pork for emergencies; for our main subsistence we were to depend upon the chase.
Such of our horses as had not been tried out in our recent journey were taken with us as pack-horses, or supernumeraries; but as we were going on a long and rough tour, where there would be occasional hunting and where, in cases of meeting with hostile savages, the safety of the rider might depend upon the goodness of his steed, we took care to be well mounted. I procured a stout silver-gray; somewhat rough, but staunch and powerful; and retained a hardy pony which I had hitherto ridden, and which, being somewhat jaded, was suffered to ramble along with the packhorses, to be mounted only in case of emergency.
An Indian Cavalier
As we were crossing the ford we saw on the opposite shore a Creek Indian on horseback. He has paused to reconnoiter us from the brow of a rock, and formed a picturesque object, in unison with the wild scenery around him. He wore a bright blue hunting-shirt trimmed with scarlet fringe: a gaily colored handkerchief was bound round his head something like a turban, with one end hanging down beside his ear; he held a long rifle in his hand, and looked like a wild Arab on the prowl. Our loquacious and ever-meddling little Frenchman called out to him in his Babylonish jargon, but the savage having satisfied his curiosity tossed his hand in the air, turned the head of his steed, and galloping along the shore soon disappeared among the trees.
Picturesque March It was a bright sunny morning, with a pure transparent atmosphere that seemed to bathe the very heart with gladness. Our march continued parallel to the Arkansas, through a rich and varied country; sometimes we had to break our way through alluvial bottoms matted with redundant vegetation, where the gigantic trees were entangled with grape-vines, hanging like cordage from their branches; sometimes we coasted along sluggish brooks, whose feebly trickling current just served to link together a succession of glassy pools, imbedded like mirrors in the quiet bosom of the forest, reflecting its autumnal foliage, and patches of the clear blue sky. Sometimes we scrambled up broken and rocky hills, from the summits of which we had wide views stretching on one side over distant prairies diversified by groves and forests, and on the other ranging along a line of blue and shadowy hills beyond the waters of the Arkansas.
At one time we passed through a luxuriant bottom of meadow bordered by thickets, where the tall grass was pressed down into numerous “deer beds,” where those animals had couched the preceding night. Some oak trees also bore signs of having been clambered by bears, in quest of acorns, the marks of their claws being visible in the bark. As we opened a glade of this sheltered meadow we beheld several deer bounding away in wild affright, until having gained some distance they would stop and gaze back, with the curiosity common to this animal, at the strange intruders into their solitudes. There was immediately a sharp report of rifles in every direction, from the young huntsmen of the troop, but they were too eager to aim surely, and the deer, unharmed, bounded away into the depths of the forest.
In the course of our march we struck the Arkansas, but found ourselves still below the Red Fork, and, as the river made deep bends, we again left its banks and continued through the woods until nearly eight o’clock, when we encamped in a beautiful basin bordered by a fine stream, and shaded by clumps of lofty oaks.
The Crossing of the Arkansas We had now arrived at the river, about a quarter of a mile above the junction of the Red Fork; but the banks were steep and crumbling, and the current was deep and rapid. It was impossible, therefore, to cross at this place; and resumed our painful course through the forest, dispatching Beatte ahead, in search of a fording place. We had proceeded about a mile further, when he rejoined us, bringing intelligence of a place hard by, where the river, for a great part of its breadth, was rendered fordable by sand-bars, and the remainder might easily be swam by the horses.
Here, then, we made a halt. Some of the rangers set to work vigorously with their axes, felling trees on the edge of the river, wherewith to form rafts for the transportation of their baggage and camp equipage. Others patrolled the banks of the river father up, in hopes of finding a better fording place; being unwilling to risk their horses in the deep channel.
It was now that our worthies, Beatte and Tonish, had an opportunity of displaying their Indian adroitness and resource. At the Osage village which we had passed a day or two before, they had procured a dry buffalo skin. This was now produced; cords were passed through a number of small eyelet holes with which it was bordered, and it was drawn up, until it formed a kind of deep trough. Sticks were then placed athwart it on the inside, to keep it in shape; our camp equipage and a part of our baggage were placed within, and the singular bark was carried down the bank and set afloat. A cord was attached to the prow, which Beatte took between his teeth, and throwing himself into the water went ahead, towing the bark after him; while Tonish followed behind, to keep it steady and to propel it. Part of the way they had foothold, and were enabled to wade, but in the main current they were obliged to swim. The whole way, they whooped and yelled in the Indian style, until they landed safely on the opposite shore.
The Commissioner and myself were so well pleased with this Indian mode of ferriage, they we determined to trust ourselves in the buffalo hide. Our companions, the Count and Mr. L., had proceeded with the horses, along the river bank, in search of a ford which some of the rangers had discovered, about a mile and a half distant. While we were waiting for the return of our ferryman, I happened to cast my eyes upon a heap of luggage under a bush, and described the sleek carcass of the polecat, snugly trussed up, and ready for roasting before the evening fire. I could not resist the temptation to plump it into the river, where it sunk to the bottom like a lump of lead; and thus our lodge was relieved from the bad color which this savory viand had threatened to bring upon it.
Our men having recrossed with their cockleshell bark, it was drawn to shore, half filled with saddles, saddle-bags, and other luggage, amounting to a hundred weight; and being again placed in the water, I was invited to take my seat. It appeared to me pretty much like the embarkation of the wise men of Gotham, who went to sea in a bowl: I stepped in, however, without hesitation, though as cautiously as possible, and sat down on the top of the luggage, the margin of the hide sinking to within a hand’s breadth of the water’s edge. Rifles, fowling-pieces, and other articles of small bulk, were then handed in, until I protested against receiving any more freight. We then launched forth upon the stream, the bark being towed as before.
It was with sensation half serious, half comic, that I found myself thus afloat, on the skin of a buffalo, in the midst of a wild river, surrounded by wilderness, and towed along by a half savage, whooping and yelling like a devil incarnate. To please the vanity of little Tonish, I discharged the double-barreled gun, to the right and left, when in the center of the stream. The report echoed along the woody shores, and was answered by shouts from some of the rangers, to the great exultation of the little Frenchman, who took to himself the whole glory of this Indian mode of navigation.
Our voyage was accomplished happily; the Commissioner was ferried across with equal success, and all our effects were brought over in the same manner. Nothing could equal the vainglorious vaporing of little Tonish, as he strutted about the shore, and exulted in his superior skill and knowledge, to the rangers. Beatte, however, kept his proud saturnine look, without a smile. He had vast contempt for the ignorance of the rangers, and felt that they had undervalued him. His only observation was, “Dey now see de Indian good for something, anyhow!”
The broad, sandy shore where we had landed was intersected by innumerable tracks of elk, deer, bears, raccoons, turkeys, and waterfowl. The river scenery at this place was beautifully diversified, presenting long, shinning reaches, bordered by willows and cotton-wood trees; rich bottoms, with lofty forests; among which towered enormous plane trees, and the distance was closed in by high embowered promotions. The foliage had a yellow autumnal tint, which gave to the sunny landscape the golden tone of one of the landscapes of Claude Lorraine. There was animation given to the scene, by a raft of logs and branches, on which the Captain and his prime companion, the Doctor, were ferrying their effects across the stream; and by a long line of rangers on horseback, fording the river obliquely, along a series of sand-bars, about a mile and a half distant.
Thunderstorm on the Prairies In crossing a prairie of moderate extent, rendered little better than a slippery bog by the recent showers, we were overtaken by a violent thunder-gust. The rain came rattling upon us in torrents, and spattered up like steam along the ground; the whole landscape was suddenly wrapped in gloom; the whole landscape was suddenly wrapped in gloom that gave a vivid effect to the intense sheets of lightning, while the thunder seemed to burst over our very heads, and was reverberated by the groves and forests that checkered and skirted the prairie. Man and beast were so pelted, drenched, and confounded, that they line was thrown in complete confusion; some of the horses were so frightened as to be almost unmanageable, and our scattered cavalcade looked like a tempest-tossed fleet, driven hither and thither, and the mercy of wind and wave.
At length, at half past two o’clock, we came to a halt, and gathering together our forces, encamped in an open and lofty grove, with a prairie on one side and a stream on the other. The forest immediately rang with the sound of the axe, and the crash of falling trees. Huge fires were soon blazing; blankets were stretched before them, by way of tents; booths were hastily reared of bark and skins; every fire had its group drawn close round it, drying and warming themselves, or preparing a comforting meal. Some of the rangers were discharging and cleaning their rifles, which had been exposed to the rain; while the horses, relieved from their saddles and burdens, rolled in the wet grass.