Across the Plains


Ambrose Bierce

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Sat Aug 22 13:41:27 2015.

To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

Across the Plains

That noted pioneer, General John Bidwell, of California, once made a longish step up the western slope of our American Parnassus by an account of his journey “across the plains” seven years before the lamented Mr. Marshall had found the least and worst of all possible reasons for making the “trek.” General Bidwell had not the distinction to be a great writer, but in order to command admiration and respect in that province of the Republic of Letters which lies in the Sacramento Valley above the mouth of the Yuba the gift of writing greatly is a needless endowment. Nevertheless I read his narrative with an interest which on analysis turns out to be a by-product of personal experience: among my youthful indiscretions was a journey over much of the same ground, which I took in much the same way—as did many thousands before and after.

It was a far cry from 1841 to 1866, yet the country between the Missouri River and the Sierra Nevada had not greatly improved: civilization had halted at the river, awaiting transportation. A railroad had set out from Omaha westward, and another at Sacramento was solemnly considering the impossible suggestion of going eastward to meet it. There were lunatics in those days, as there are in these. I left the one road a few miles out of the Nebraskan village and met the other at Dutch Flat, in California.

Waste no compassion on the loneliness of my journey: a thriving colony of Mormons had planted itself in the valley of Salt Lake and there were “forts” at a few points along the way, where ambitious young army officers passed the best years of their lives guarding live stock and teaching the mysteries of Hardee’s tactics to that alien patriot, the American regular. There was a dusty wagon road, bordered with bones—not always those of animals—with an occasional mound, sometimes dignified with a warped and rotting head-board bearing an illegible inscription. (One inscription not entirely illegible is said to have concluded with this touching tribute to the worth of the departed: “He was a good egg.” Another was: “He done his damnedest”) In other particulars the “Great American Desert” of our fathers was very like what it was when General Bidwell’s party traversed it with that hereditary instinct, that delicacy of spiritual nose which served the Western man of that day in place of a map and guide-book. Westward the course of empire had taken its way, but excepting these poor vestiges it had for some fifteen hundred miles left no trace of its march. The Indian of the plains had as yet seen little to unsettle his assurance of everlasting dominion. Of the slender lines of metal creeping slowly toward him from East and West he knew little; and had he known more, how could he have foreseen their momentous effect upon his “ancient solitary reign”?

I remember very well, as so many must, some of the marked features of the route that General Bidwell mentions. One of the most imposing of these is Court House Rock, near the North Platte. Surely no object of such dignity ever had a more belittling name—given it in good faith no doubt by some untraveled wight whose county court-house was the most “reverend pile” of which he had any conception. It should have been called the Titan’s Castle. What a gracious memory I have of the pomp and splendor of its aspect, with the crimson glories of the setting sun fringing its outlines, illuminating its western walls like the glow of Mammon’s fires for the witches’ revel in the Hartz, and flung like banners from its crest!

I suppose Court House Rock is familiar enough and commonplace enough to the dwellers in that land (riparian tribes once infesting the low lands of Ohio and Indiana and the flats of Iowa), but to me, tipsy with youth, full-fed on Mayne Reid’s romances, and now first entering the enchanted region that he so charmingly lied about, it was a revelation and a dream. I wish that anything in the heavens, on the earth, or in the waters under the earth would give me now such an emotion as I experienced in the shadow of that “great rock in a weary land.”

I was not a pilgrim, but an engineer attaché to an expedition through Dakota and Montana, to inspect some new military posts. The expedition consisted, where the Indians preserved the peace, of the late General W.B. Hazen, myself, a cook and a teamster; elsewhere we had an escort of cavalry. My duty, as I was given to understand it, was to amuse the general and other large game, make myself as comfortable as possible without too much discomfort to others, and when in an unknown country survey and map our route for the benefit of those who might come after. The posts which the general was to inspect had recently been established along a military road, one end of which was at the North Platte and the other—there was no other end; up about Fort C.F. Smith at the foot of the Big–Horn Mountains the road became a buffalo trail and was lost in the weeds. But it was a useful road, for by leaving it before going too far one could reach a place near the headwaters of the Yellowstone, where the National Park is now.

By a master stroke of military humor we were ordered to return (to Washington) via Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Panama. I obeyed until I got as far as San Francisco, where, finding myself appointed to a second lieutenancy in the Regular Army, ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms, quite vanquished me: I resigned, parted from Hazen more in sorrow than in anger and remained in California.

I have thought since that this may have been a youthful error: the Government probably meant no harm, and if I had served long enough I might have become a captain. In time, if I lived, I should naturally have become the senior captain of the Army; and then if there were another war and any of the field officers did me the favor to paunch a bullet I should become the junior major, certain of another step upward as soon as a number of my superiors equal to the whole number of majors should be killed, resign or die of old age—enchanting prospect! But I am getting a long way off the trail.

It was near Fort C.F. Smith that we found our first buffaloes, and abundant they were. We had to guard our camp at night with fire and sword to keep them from biting us as they grazed. Actually one of them half-scalped a teamster as he lay dreaming of home with his long fair hair commingled with the toothsome grass. His utterances as the well-meaning beast lifted him from the ground and tried to shake the earth from his roots were neither wise nor sweet, but they made a profound impression on the herd, which, arching its multitude of tails, absented itself to pastures new like an army with banners.

At Fort C.F. Smith we parted with our impedimenta, and with an escort of about two dozen cavalrymen and a few pack animals struck out on horseback through an unexplored country northwest for old Fort Benton, on the upper Missouri. The journey was not without its perils. Our only guide was my compass; we knew nothing of the natural obstacles that we must encounter; the Indians were on the warpath, and our course led us through the very heart of their country. Luckily for us they were gathering their clans into one great army for a descent upon the posts that we had left behind; a little later some three thousand of them moved upon Fort Phil Kearney, lured a force of ninety men and officers outside and slaughtered them to the last man. This was one of the posts that we had inspected, and the officers killed had hospitably entertained us.

In that lively and interesting book, “Indian Fights and Fighters,” Dr. Cyrus Townsend Brady says of this “outpost of civilization”:

“The most careful watchfulness was necessary at all hours of the day and night. The wood trains to fetch logs to the sawmills were heavily guarded. There was fighting all the time. Casualties among the men were by no means rare. At first it was difficult to keep men within the limits of the camp; but stragglers who failed to return, and some who had been cut off, scalped and left for dead, but who had crawled back to die, convinced every one of the wisdom of the commanding officer’s repeated orders and cautions. To chronicle the constant succession of petty skirmishes would be wearisome; yet they often resulted in torture and loss of life on the part of the soldiers, although the Indians in most instances suffered the more severely.”

In a footnote the author relates this characteristic instance of the Government’s inability to understand: “Just when the alarms were most frequent a messenger came to the headquarters, announcing that a train en route from Fort Laramie, with special messengers from that post, was corraled by Indians, and demanded immediate help. An entire company of infantry in wagons, with a mountain howitzer and several rounds of grapeshot, was hastened to their relief. It proved to be a train with mail from the Laramie Commission, announcing the confirmation of a ‘satisfactory treaty of peace with all the Indians of the Northwest,’ and assuring the district commander of the fact. The messenger was brought in in safety, and peace lasted until his message was delivered. So much was gained—that the messenger did not lose his scalp.”

Through this interesting environment our expeditionary force of four men had moved to the relief of the beleaguered post, but finding it impossible to “raise the siege” had—with a score of troopers—pushed on to Fort C.F. Smith, and thence into the Unknown.

The first part of this new journey was well enough; there were game and water. Where we swam the Yellowstone we had an abundance of both, for the entire river valley, two or three miles wide, was dotted with elk. There were hundreds. As we advanced they became scarce; buffalo became scarce; bear, deer, rabbits, sage-hens, even prairie dogs gave out, and we were near starving. Water gave out too, and starvation was a welcome state: our hunger was so much less disagreeable than our thirst that it was a real treat.

However, we got to Benton, Heaven knows how and why, but we were a sorry-looking lot, though our scalps were intact. If in all that region there is a mountain that I have not climbed, a river that I have not swum, an alkali pool that I have not thrust my muzzle into, or an Indian that I have not shuddered to think about, I am ready to go back in a Pullman sleeper and do my duty.

From Fort Benton we came down through Helena and Virginia City, Montana—then new mining camps—to Salt Lake, thence westward to California. Our last bivouac was on the old camp of the Donner party, where, in the flickering lights and dancing shadows made by our camp-fire, I first heard the story of that awful winter, and in the fragrance of the meat upon the coals fancied I could detect something significantly uncanny. The meat which the Donner party had cooked at that spot was not quite like ours. Pardon: I mean it was not like that which we cooked.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005