by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER -- No. 45.


The last Letter was written from my tent, and out upon the wild prairies, when I was shaken and terrified by a burning fever, with home and my dear wife and little one, two thousand miles ahead of me, whom I was despairing of ever embracing again. I am now scarcely better off, except that I am in comfortable quarters, with kind attendance, and friends about me. I am yet sick and very feeble, having been for several weeks upon my back since I was brought in from the prairies. I am slowly recovering, and for the first time since I wrote from the Canadian, able to use my pen or my brush.

We drew off from that slaughtering ground a few days after my last Letter was written, with a great number sick, carried upon litters -- with horses giving out and dying by the way, which much impeded our progress over the long and tedious route that laid between us and Fort Gibson. Fifteen days, however, of constant toil and fatigue brought us here, but in a most crippled condition. Many of the sick were left by the way with attendants to take care of them, others were buried from their litters on which they breathed their last while travelling, and many others were brought in, to this place, merely to die and get the privilege of a decent burial.

Since the very day of our start into that country, the men have been constantly falling sick, and on their return, of those who are alive, there are not well ones enough to take care of the sick. Many are yet left out upon the prairies, and of those that have been brought in, and quartered in the hospital, with the soldiers of the infantry regiment stationed here, four or five are buried daily; and as an equal number from the 9th regiment are falling by the same disease, I have the mournful sound of "Roslin Castle" with muffled drums, passing six or eight times a-day under my window, to the burying-ground; which is but a little distance in front of my room, where I can lay in my bed and see every poor fellow lowered down into his silent and peaceful habitation. During the day before yesterday, no less than eight solemn processions visited that insatiable ground, and amongst them was carried the corpse of my intimate and much-loved friend Lieutenant West, who was aid-de-camp to General Leavenworth, on this disastrous campaign, and who has left in this place, a worthy and distracted widow, with her little ones to mourn for his untimely end. On the same day was buried also the Prussian Botanist, a most excellent and scientific gentleman, who had obtained an order from the Secretary at War to accompany the expedition for scientific purposes. He had at St. Louis, purchased a very comfortable Dearborn waggon, and a snug span of little horses to convey himself and his servant with his collection of plants, over the prairies. In this he travelled in company with the regiment from St. Louis to Fort Gibson, some five or six hundred miles, and from that to the False Washita, and the Cross Timbers and back again. In this Tour he had made an immense, and no doubt, very valuable collection of plants, and at this Place had been for some weeks indefatigably engaged in changing and drying them, and at last, fell a victim to the disease of the country, which seemed to have made an easy conquest of him, from the very feeble and enervated state he was evidently in, that of pulmonary consumption. This fine, gentlemanly and urbane, excellent man, to whom I became very much attached, was lodged in a room adjoining to mine, where he died, as he had lived, peaceably and smiling, and that when nobody knew that his life was in immediate danger. The surgeon who was attending me, (Dr. Wright,) was sitting on my bed-side in his morning call at my room, when a negro boy, who alone had been left in the room with him, came into my apartment and said Mr. Beyrich was dying -- we instantly stepped into his room and found him, not in the agonies of death, but quietly breathing his last, without a word or a struggle, as he had laid himself upon his bed with his clothes and his boots on. In this way perished this worthy man, who had no one here of kindred friends to drop tears for him; and on the day previous to his misfortune, died also, and much in the same way, his devoted and faithful servant, a young man, a native of Germany. Their bodies were buried by the side of each other, and a general feeling of deep grief was manifested by the officers and citizens of the post, in the respect that was paid to their remains in the appropriate and decent committal of them to the grave.

After leaving the head waters of the Canadian, my illness continually increased, and losing strength every day, I soon got so reduced that I was necessarily lifted on to and off from, my horse; and at last, so that I could not ride at all. I was then put into a baggage-waggon which was going sack empty, except with several soldiers sick, and in this condition rode eight days, most of the time in a delirious state, lying on the hard planks of the waggon, and made still harder by the jarring and jolting, until the skin from my elbows and knees was literally worn through, and I almost "worn out", when we at length reached this post, and I was taken to a bed, in comfortable quarters, where I have had the skillful attendance of my friend and old schoolmate Dr. Wright, under whose hands, thank God, I have been restored, and all; now daily recovering my flesh and usual strength.

The experiment has thus been made, of sending an army of men from the North, into this Southern and warm climate, in the hottest months of the year, of July and August; and from this sad experiment I am sure a secret will be learned that will be of value on future occasions.

Of the 450 fine fellows who started from this place four months since, about one-third have already died, and I believe many more there are whose fates are sealed, and will yet fall victims to the deadly diseases contracted in that fatal country. About this post it seems to be almost equally unhealthy, and generally so during this season, all over this region, which is probably owing to an unusual drought which has been visited on the country, and unknown heretofore to the oldest inhabitants.

Since we carne in from the prairies, and the sickness has a little abated, we have had a bustling time with the Indians at this place. Colonel Dodge sent runners to the chiefs of all the contiguous tribes of Indians, with an invitation to meet the Pawnees, &c. in council, at this place. Seven or eight tribes flocked to us, in great numbers on the first day of the month, when the council commenced; it continued for several days, and gave these semi-civilized sons of the forest a fair opportunity of shaking the hands of their wild and untamed red brethren of the West -- of embracing them in their arms, with expressions of friendship, and of smoking the calumet together, as the solemn pledge of lasting peace and friendship.

Colonel Dodge, Major Armstrong (the Indian agent), and General Stokes (the Indian commissioner), presided at this council, and I cannot name a scene more interesting and entertaining than it was; where, for several days in succession, free vent was given to the feelings of men civilized, half-civilized, and wild; where the three stages of man were fearlessly asserting their rights, their happiness, and friendship For each other. The vain orations of the half polished (and half-breed) Cherokees and Choctaws, with all their finery and art, found their match in the brief and jarring gutturals of the wild and naked man.

After the council had adjourned, and the fumes of the peace-making calumet had vanished away, and Colonel Dodge had made them additional presents, they soon made preparations for their departure, and on the next day started, with an escort of dragoons, for their own country. This movement is much to be regretted; for it would have been exceedingly gratifying to the people of the East to have seen so wild a group, and it would have been of great service to them to have visited Washington -- a journey, though, which they could not be prevailed upon to make.

We brought with us to this place, three of the principal chiefs of the Pawnees, fifteen Kioways, one Camanchee, and one Wico chief. The group was undoubtedly one of the most interesting that ever visited our frontier; and, I have taken the utmost pains in painting the portraits of all of them, as well as seven of the Camanchee chiefs, who came part of the way with us, and turned back. These portraits, together with other paintings which I have made, descriptive of their manners and customs -- views of their villages-landscapes of the country, &c., will soon be laid before the amateurs of the East, and, I trust, will be found to be very interesting.

Although the achievement has been a handsome one, of bringing these unknown people to an acquaintance, and a general peace; and at first sight would appear to be of great benefit to them -- yet I have my strong doubts, whether it will better their condition, unless with the exercised aid of the strong arm of Government, they can be protected in the rights which by nature, they are entitled to.

There is already in this place a company of eighty men fitted out, who are to start tomorrow, to overtake these Indians a few miles from this place, and accompany them home, with a large stock of goods, with traps for catching beavers, &c., calculating to build a trading-house amongst them, where they will amass, at once, an immense fortune, being the first traders and trappers that have ever been in that part of the country.

I have travelled too much among Indian tribes, and seen too much, not to know the evil consequences of such a system. Goods are sold at such exorbitant prices, that the Indian gets a mere shadow for his peltries, &c. The Indians see no white people but traders and sellers of whiskey; and of course, judge us all by them--they consequently hold us, and always mill, in contempt; as inferior to themselves, as they have reason to do -- and they neither fear nor respect us. When, on the contrary, if the Government would promptly prohibit such establishments, and invite these Indians to our frontier posts, they would bring in their furs, their robes, horses, mules, &c., to this place, where there is a good market for them all -- where they would get the full value of their property -- where there were several stores of goods --where there is an honourable competition, and where they would get four or five times as much for their articles of trade, as they would get from a trader in the village, out of the reach of competition, and out of sight of the civilized world.

At the same time, as they would be continually coming where they would see good and polished society, they would be gradually adopting our modes of living--introducing to their country our vegetables, our domestic animals, poultry, &c., and at length, our arts and manufactures; they would see and estimate our military strength, and advantages, and would be led to fear and respect us. In short, it would undoubtedly be the quickest and surest way to a general acquaintance -- to friendship and peace, and at last to civilization. If there is a law in existence for such protection of the Indian tribes, which may have been waived in the case of those nations with which we have long traded, it is a great pity that it should not be rigidly enforced in this new and important acquaintance, which we have just made with thirty or forty thousand strangers to the civilized world; yet (as we have learned from their unaffected hospitality when in their villages), with hearts of human would, susceptible of all the noble feelings belonging to civilized man.

This acquaintance has cost the United States a vast sum of money, as well as the lives of several valuable and esteemed officers, and more than 100 of the dragoons; and for the honour of the American name, I think we ought, in forming an acquaintance with these numerous tribes, to adopt and enforce some different system from that which has been generally practiced on and beyond our frontiers heretofore.

What the regiment of dragoons has suffered from sickness since they started on their summer's campaign is unexampled in this country, and almost incredible. When we started from this place, ten or fifteen were sent back the first day, too sick to proceed; and so afterwards our numbers were daily diminished, and at the distance of 200 miles from this place we could muster, out of the whole regiment, but 250 men who were able to proceed, with which little band, and that again reduced some sixty or seventy by sickness, we pushed on, and accomplished-all that was done. The beautiful and pictured scenes which we passed over had an alluring charm on their surface, but (as it would seem) a lurking poison within, that spread a gloom about our encampment whenever we pitched it.

We sometimes rode day after day, without a tree to shade us from the burning rays of a tropical sun, or a breath of wind to regale us or cheer our hearts -- and with mouths continually parched with thirst, we dipped our drink from stagnant pools that were heated by the sun, and kept in fermentation by the wallowing herds of buffaloes that resort to them. In this way we dragged on, sometimes Passing picturesque and broken country, with fine springs and streams, affording us the luxury of a refreshing shade and a cool draught of water.

Thus was dragged through and completed this most disastrous campaign; and to Colonel Dodge and Colonel Kearny, who so indefatigably led and encouraged their men through it, too much praise cannot be awarded.

During my illness while I have been at this post, my friend Joe has been almost constantly by my bedside; evincing (as he did when we were creeping over the vast prairies) the most sincere and intense anxiety for my recovery; whilst he has administered, like a brother, every aid and every comfort that lay in his power to bring. Such tried friendship as this, I shall ever recollect; and it will long hence and often, lead my mind back to retrace, at least, the first part of our campaign, which was full pleasant; and many of its incidents have formed pleasing impressions on my memory, which I would preserve to the end of my life.

When we started, we were fresh and ardent for the incidents that were before us -- our little packhorse carried our bedding and culinary articles; amongst which we had a coffee-pot and a frying-pan -- coffee in good store, and sugar -- and wherever we spread our bear-skin, and kindled our fire in the grass, we were sure to take by ourselves, a delightful repast, and a refreshing sleep. During the march, as we were subject to no military subordination, we galloped about wherever we were disposed, popping away at whatever we chose to spend ammunition upon -- and running our noses into every wild nook and crevice, as we saw fit. In this way we travelled happily, until our coffee was gone, and our bread; and even then we were happy upon meat alone, until at last each one in his turn, like every other moving thing about us, both man and beast, were vomiting and fainting, under the poisonous influence of some latent enemy, that was floating in the air, and threatening our destruction. Then came the "tug of war", and instead of catering for our amusements, every one seemed desperately studying the means that were to support him on his feet, and bring him safe home again to the bosoms of his friends. In our start, our feelings were buoyant and light, and we had the luxuries of life--the green prairies, spotted with wild flowers, and the clear blue sky, were an earthly paradise to us, until fatigue and disease, and at last despair, made them tiresome and painful to our jaundiced eyes.

On our way, and while we were in good heart, my friend Joe and I had picked up many minerals and fossils of an interesting nature, which we put in our portmanteaux and carried for weeks, with much pains, and some pain also, until the time when our ardour cooled and our spirits lagged, and then we discharged and threw them away; and sometimes we came across specimens again, still more wonderful, which we put in their place, and lugged along till we were tired of them, and their weight, and we discharged them as before; so that from our eager desire to procure, we lugged many pounds weight of stones, shells, &c. nearly the whole way, and were glad that their mother Earth should receive them again at our hands, which was done long before we got back.

One of the most curious places we met in all our route, was a mountain ridge of fossil shells, from which a great number of the above-mentioned specimens were taken. During our second day's march from the mouth of the False Washita, we were astonished to find ourselves travelling over a bed of clam and oyster shells, which were all in a complete state of petrifaction. This ridge, which seemed to run from N. E. to S.W. was several hundred feet high, and varying from a quarter to half a mile in breadth, seemed to be composed of nothing but a concretion of shells, which, on the surface, exposed to the weather for the depth of eight or ten inches, were entirely separated from the cementing material which had held them together, and were lying on the surface, sometimes for acres together, without a particle of soil or grass upon them; with the colour, shapes and appearance exactly, of the natural shells, lying loosely together, into which our horses' feet were sinking at every step, above their fetterlocks. These I consider the most extraordinary petrifactions I ever beheld. In any way they could be seen, individually or in the mass together, they seemed to be nothing but the pure shells themselves, both in colour and in shape. In many instances we picked them up entire, never having been opened; and taking our knives out, and splitting them open as we would an oyster, the fish was seen petrified in perfect form, and by dipping it into water, it shewed all the colours and freshness of an oyster just opened and laid an a plate to be eaten. Joe and I had carefully tied up many of these, with which we felt quite sure we could deceive our oyster-eating friends when we got back to the East; yet, like many other things we collected, they shared the fate that I have mentioned, without our bringing home one of them, though we brought many of them several hundreds of miles, and at last threw them away. This remarkable ridge is in some parts covered with grass, but generally with mere scattering bunches, for miles together, partially covering this compact mass of shells, forming (in my opinion) one of the greatest geological curiosities now to be seen in this country, as it lies evidently some thousands of feet above the level of the ocean, and seven or eight hundred miles from the nearest point on the sea-coast.

In another section of the country, lying between Fort Gibson and the Washita, we passed over a ridge for several miles, running parallel to this, where much of the way there was no earth or grass under foot, but our horses were travelling on a solid rock, which had on its surface a reddish or oxidized appearance; and on getting from my horse and striking it with my hatchet, I found, it to contain sixty or eighty per cent of solid iron, which produced a ringing noise, and a rebounding of the hatchet, as if it were struck upon an anvil.

In other parts, and farther West, between the Camanchee village and the Canadian, we passed over a similar surface for many miles denuded, with the exception of here and there little bunches of grass and wild sage, a level and exposed surface of solid gypsum, of a dark grey colour; and through it, occasionally, as far as the eye could discover, to the East and the West, streaks of three and five inches wide of snowy gypsum, which was literally as white as the drifted snow.

Of saltpetre and salt, there are also endless supplies; so it will be seen that the mineral resources of this wilderness country are inexhaustible and rich, and that the idle savage who never converts them to his use, must soon yield them to the occupation of enlightened and cultivating man.

In the vicinity of this post there are an immense number of Indians, most of whom have been removed to their present locations by the Government, from their Eastern original positions, within a few years past; aud previous to my starting with the dragoons, I had two months at my leisure in this section of the country, which I used in travelling about with my canvass and note-book, and visiting all of them in their villages. I have made many paintings amongst them, and have a curious note-book to open at a future day, for which the reader may be prepared. The tribes whom I thus visited, and of whom my note-book will yet speak, are the Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Seminoles, Chickasaws, Quapaws, Senecas, Delawares, and several others, whose customs are interesting, and whose history, from their proximity to, and dealings with the civilized community, is one of great interest, and some importance, to the enlightened world, Adieu.

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