by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER--No. 46.


A few days after the date of the above Letter, I took leave of Fort Gibson, and made a transit across the prairies to this place, a distance of 550 miles, which I have performed entirely alone, and had the satisfaction of joining my wife, whom I have found in good health, in a family of my esteemed friends, with whom she has been residing during my last year of absence.

While at Fort Gibson, on my return from the Camanchees, I was quartered for a month or two in a room with my fellow-companion in misery, Captain Wharton, of the dragoons, who had come in-from the prairies in a condition very similar to mine, and laid in a bed in the opposite corner of the room; where we laid for several weeks, like two grim ghosts, rolling our glaring and staring eyeballs upon each other, when we were totally unable to hold converse, other than that which was exchanged through the expressive language of our hollow, and bilious, sunken eyes.

The Captain had been sent with a company of dragoons to escort the Santa Fee Traders through the country of the Camanchees and Pawnees, and had returned from a rapid and bold foray into the country, with many of his men sick, and himself attacked with the epidemic of the country. The Captain is a gentleman of high and noble bearing, of one of the most respected families in Philadelphia, with a fine and chivalrous feeling; but with scarce physical stamina sufficient to bear him up under the rough vicissitudes of his wild and arduous sort of life in this country.

As soon as our respective surgeons had clarified our flesh and our bones with calomel, had brought our pulses to beat calmly, our tongues to ply gently, and our stomachs to digest moderately; we began to feel pleasure exquisitely in our convalescence, and draw amusement from mutual relations of scenes and adventures we had witnessed on our several marches. The Captain convalescing faster than I did, soon got so as to eat(but not to digest) enormous meals, which visited back upon him the renewed horrors of his disease; and I, who had got ahead of him in strength, but not in prudence, was thrown back in my turn, by similar indulgence; and so we were mutually and repeatedly, until he at length got so as to feel strength enough to ride, and resolution enough to swear that he would take leave of that deadly spot, and reek restoration and health in a cooler and more congenial latitude. So he had his horse brought up one morning, whilst he was so weak that he could scarcely mount upon its back, and with his servant, a small negro boy, packed on another, he steered off upon the prairies towards Fort Leavenworth, 500 miles to the North, where his company had long since marched.

I remained a week or two longer, envying the Captain the good luck to escape from that dangerous ground; and after I had gained strength sufficient to warrant it, I made preparations to take informal leave, and wend my way also over the prairies to the Missouri, a distance of 500 miles, and most of the way a solitary wilderness. For this purpose I had my horse "Charley" brought up from his pasture, where he had been in good keeping during my illness, and got so fat as to form almost an objectionable contrast to his master, with whom he was to embark on a long and tedious journey again, over the vast and almost boundless prairies.

I had, like the Captain, grown into such a dread of that place, from the scenes of death that were and had been visited upon it, that I resolved to be off as soon as I had strength to get on to my horse, and balance myself upon his back. For this purpose I packed up my canvass and brushes, and other luggage, and sent them down the river to the Mississippi, to be forwarded by steamer, to meet me at St. Louis. So, one fine morning, Charley was brought up and saddled, and a bear-skin and a buffalo robe being spread upon his saddle, and a coffee-pot and tin cup tied to it also -- with a few pounds of hard biscuit in my portmanteau -- with my fowling piece in my hand, and my pistols in my belt -- with my sketch-book slung on my back, and a small pocket compass in my pocket; I took leave of Fort Gibson, even against the advice of my surgeon and all the officers of the garrison, who gathered around me to bid me farewell. No argument could contend with the fixed resolve in my own mind, that if I could get out upon the prairies, and moving continually to the Northward, I should daily gain strength, and save myself, possibly, from the jaws of that voracious burial-ground that laid in front of my room; where I had for months laid and imagined myself going with other poor fellows, whose mournful dirges were played under my window from day to day. No one can imagine what was the dread I felt for that place; nor the pleasure, which was extatic, when Charley was trembling under me, and I turned him around on the top of a prairie bluff at a mile distance, to take the last look upon it, and thank God, as I did audibly, that I was not to be buried within its enclosure. I said to myself, that "to die on the prairie, and be devoured by wolves; or to fall in combat and be scalped by an Indian, would be far more acceptable than the lingering death that would consign me to the jaws of that insatiable grave", for which, in the fever and weakness of my mind, I had contracted so destructive a terror.

So, alone, without other living being with me than my affectionate horse Charley, I turned my face to the North, and commenced on my long journey, with confidence full and strong, that I should gain strength daily; and no one can ever know the pleasure of that moment, which placed me alone, upon the boundless sea of waving grass, over which my proud horse was prancing, and I with my life in my own hands, commenced to steer my course to the banks of the Missouri.

For the convalescent, rising and escaping from the gloom and horrors of a sick bed, astride of his strong and trembling horse, carrying him fast and safely over green fields spotted and tinted with waving wild flowers; and through the fresh and cool breezes that are rushing about him, as he daily shortens the distance that lies between him and his wife and little ones, there is an exquisite pleasure yet to be learned, by those who never have felt it.

Day by day I thus pranced and galloped along, the whole way through waving grass and green fields, occasionally dismounting and lying in the grass an hour or so, until the grim shaking and chattering of an ague chill had passed off; and through the nights, slept on my bear-skin spread upon the grass, with my saddle for my pillow, and my buffalo robe drawn over me for my covering. My horse Charley was picketed near me at the end of his lasso, which gave him room for his grazing; and thus we snored and nodded away the nights, and never were denied the doleful serenades of the gangs of sneaking wolves that were nightly perambulating our little encampment, and stationed at a safe distance from us at sun-rise in the morning -- gazing at us, and impatient to pick up the crumbs and bones that were left, when we moved away from our feeble fire that had faintly flickered through the night, and in the absence of timber, had been made of dried buffalo dung.

This "Charley" was a noble animal of the Camanchee wild breed, of a clay bank colour; and from our long and tried acquaintance, we had become very much attached to each other, and acquired a wonderful facility both of mutual accommodation, and of construing each other's views and intentions. In fact, we had been so long tried together, that there would have seemed to the spectator almost an unity of interest; and at all events, an unity of feelings on the subject of attachment, as well as on that of mutual dependence and protection.

I purchased this very showy and well-known animal of Colonel Burbank, of the ninth regiment, and rode it the whole distance to the Camanchee villages and back again; and at the time when most of the horses of the regiment were drooping and giving out by the way -- Charley flourished and came in good flesh and good spirits.

On this journey, while he and I were twenty-five days alone, we had much time, and the best of circumstances, under which to learn what we had as yet overlooked in each other's characters, as well as to draw great pleasure and real benefit from what we already had learned of each other, in our former travels.

I generally halted on the bank of some little stream, at half an hour's sun, where feed was good for Charley, and where I could get wood to kindle my fire, and water for my coffee. The first thing was to undress "Charley" and drive down his picket, to which he was fastened, to graze over a circle that he could inscribe at the end of his lasso. In this wise he busily fed himself until nightfall; and after my coffee was made and drank, I uniformly moped him up, with his picket by my head, so that I could lay my hand upon his lasso in an instant, in case of any alarm that was liable to drive him from me. On one of these evenings when he was grazing as usual, he slipped the lasso over his head, and deliberately took his supper at his pleasure, wherever he chose to prefer it, as he was strolling around. When night approached, I took the lasso in hand and endeavored to catch him, but I soon saw that he was determined to enjoy a little freedom; and he continually evaded me until dark, when I abandoned the pursuit, making up my mind that I should inevitably lose him, and be obliged to perform the rest of my journey on foot. He had led me a chase of half a mile or more, when I left him busily grazing, and returned to my little solitary bivouac, and laid myself on my bear skin, and went to sleep.

In the middle of the night I waked, whilst I was lying on my back, and on half opening my eyes, I was instantly shocked to the soul, by the huge figure (as I thought) of an Indian, standing over me, and in the very instant of taking my scalp! The chill of horror that paralyzed me for the first moment, held me still till I saw there was no need of my moving -- that my faithful horse "Charley" had "played shy" till he had "filled his belly," and had then moved up, from feelings of pure affection, or from instinctive fear, or possibly, from a due share of both, and taken his position with his forefeet at the edge of my bed, with his head hanging directly over me, while he was standing fast asleep!

My nerves, which had been most violently shocked, were soon quieted, and I fell asleep, and so continued until sunrise in the morning, when I waked, and beheld my faithful servant at some considerable distance, busily at work picking up his breakfast amongst the cane-brake, along the bank of the creek. I went as busily to work, preparing my own, which was eaten, and after it, I had another half-hour of fruitless endeavors to catch Charley, whilst he seemed mindful of success on the evening before, and continually tantalized me by turning around and around, and keeping out of my reach. I recollected the conclusive evidence of' his attachment and dependence, which he had voluntarily given in the night, and I thought I would try them in another way. So I packed up my things and slung the saddle on my back, trailing my gun in my hand, and started on my route. After I had advanced a quarter of a mile, I looked back, and saw him standing with his head and tail very high, looking alternately at me and at the spot where I had been encamped, and left a little fire burning. In this condition he stood and surveyed the prairies around for a while, as I continued on. He, at length, walked with a hurried step to the spot, and seeing everything gone, began to neigh very violently, and at last started off at fullest speed, and overtook me, passing within a few paces of me, and wheeling about al a few rods distance in front of me, trembling like an aspen leaf.

I called him by his familiar name, and walked up to him with the bridle in my hand, which I put over his head, as he held it down for me, and the saddle on his back, as he actually stooped to receive it. I was soon arranged, and on his back, when he started off upon his course as if he was well contented and pleased, like his rider, with the manoeuvre which had brought us together again, and afforded us mutual relief from our awkward positions. Though this alarming freak of " Charley's" passed off and terminated so satisfactorily; yet I thought such rather dangerous ones to play, and I took good care after that night, to keep him under my strict authority; resolving to avoid further tricks and experiments till we got to the land of cultivated fields and steady habits.

On the night of this memorable day, Charley and I stopped in one of the most lovely little valleys I ever saw, and even far more beautiful than could have been imagined by mortal man. An enchanting little lawn of five or six acres, on the banks of a cool and rippling stream, that was alive with fish; and every now and then, a fine brood of young ducks, just old enough for delicious food, and too unsophisticated to avoid an easy and simple death. This little lawn was surrounded by bunches and copses of the most luxuriant and picturesque foliage, consisting of the lofty bois d'arcs and elms, spreading out their huge branches, as if offering protection to the rounded groups of cherry and plum-trees that supported festoons of grapevines, with their purple clusters that hung in the most tempting manner over the green carpet that was everywhere decked out with wild flowers, of all tints and of various sizes, from the modest wild sun-flowers, with their thousand tall and drooping heads, to the lilies that stood, and the violets that crept beneath them. By the side of this cool stream, Charley was fastened, and near him my bear-skin was spread in the grass, and by it my little fire, to which I soon brought a fine string of perch from the brook; from which, and a broiled duck, and a delicious cup of coffee, I made my dinner and supper, which were usually united in one meal, at half an hour's sun. After this I strolled about this sweet little paradise, which I found was chosen, not only by myself, but by the wild deer, which were repeatedly rising from their quiet lairs, and bounding out, and over the graceful swells of the prairies which hemmed in, and framed this little Picture of sweetest tints and most masterly touches.

The Indians also, I found, had loved it once, and left it; for here and there were their solitary and deserted graves, which told, though briefly, of former chants and sports; and perhaps, of wars and deaths, that have once rung and echoed through this little silent vale.

On my return to my encampment, I laid down upon my back, and looked awhile into the blue heavens that were over me, with their pure and milk white clouds that were passing -- with the sun just setting in the West, and the silver moon rising in the East, and renewed the impressions of my own insignificance, as I contemplated the incomprehensible mechanism of that wonderful clock, whose time is infallible, and whose motion is eternity! I trembled, at last, at the dangerous expanse of my thoughts, and turned them again, and my eyes, upon the little and more comprehensible things that were about me. One of the first was a newspaper, which I had brought from the Garrison, the National Intelligencer, of Washington, which I had read for years, but never with quite the zest and relish that I now conversed over its familiar columns, in this clean and sweet valley of dead silence!

And while reading, I thought of (and laughed), what I had almost forgotten, the sensation I produced amongst the Minatarees while on the Upper Missouri, a few years since, by taking from amongst my painting apparatus an old number of the New York Commercial Advertiser, edited by my kind and tried friend Colonel Stone. The Minatarees thought that I was mad, when they saw me for hours together, with my eyes fixed upon its pages. They had different and various conjectures about it; the most current of which was, that I was looking at it to cure my sore eyes, and they called it the "medicine cloth for sore eyes!" I at length put an end to this and several equally ignorant conjectures, by reading passages in it, which were interpreted to them, and the objects of the paper fully explained; after which, it was looked upon as much greater mystery than before; and several liberal offers were made me for it, which I was obliged to refuse, having already received a beautifully garnished robe for it, from the hands of a young son of Esculapius, who told me that if he could employ a good interpreter to explain everything in it, he could travel about amongst the Minatarees and Mandans, and Sioux, and exhibit it after I was gone; getting rich with presents, and adding greatly to the list of his medicines, as it would make him a great Medicine-Man. I left with the poor fellow his painted robe, and the newspaper; and just before I departed, I saw him unfolding it to show to some of his friends, when he took from around it, some eight or ten folds of birch bark and deer skins; all of which were carefully enclosed in a sack made of the skin of a pole cat, and undoubtedly destined to become, and to be called, his mystery or medicine-bag.

The distance from Fort Gibson to the Missouri, where I struck the river, is about five hundred miles, and most of the way a beautiful prairie, in a wild and uncultivated state without roads and without bridges, over a great part of which I steered my course with my Docket-compass, fording and swimming the streams in the best manner I could; shooting prairie hens, and occasionally catching fish, which I cooked for my meals, and slept upon the ground at night. On my way I visited "Riqua's Village" of Osages, and lodged during the night in the hospitable cabin of my old friend Beatte, of whom I have often spoken heretofore, as one of the guides and hunters for the dragoons on their campaign in the Camanchee country. This was the most extraordinary hunter, I think, that I ever have met in all my travels. To "hunt", was a phrase almost foreign to him, however, for when he went out with his rifle, it was "for meat", or "for cattle"; and he never came in without it. He never told how many animals he had seen -- how many he had wounded, &c. -- but his horse was always loaded with meat, which was thrown down in camp without comment or words spoken. Riqua was an early pioneer of Christianity in this country, who has devoted many years of his life, with his interesting family, in endeavouring to civilize and Christianize these people, by the force of pious and industrious examples, which he has successfully set them; and, I think, in the most judicious way, by establishing a little village, at some miles distance from the villages of the Osages; where he has invited a considerable number of families who have taken their residence by the side of him; where they are following his virtuous examples in their dealings and modes of life, and in agricultural pursuits which he is teaching them, and showing them that they may raise the comforts and luxuries of life out of the ground, instead of seeking for them in the precarious manner in which they naturally look for them, in the uncertainty of the chase.

It was a source of much regret to me, that I did not see this pious man, as he was on a Tour to the East, when I was in his little village.

Beatte lived in this village with his aged parents, to whom he introduced me; and with whom, altogether, I spent a very pleasant evening in conversation. They are both French, and have spent the greater part of their lives with the Osages, and seem to be familiar with their whole history. This Beatte was the hunter and guide for a party of rangers (the summer before our campaign), with whom Washington Irving made his excursion to the borders of the Pawnee country; and of whose extraordinary character and powers. Mr. Irving has drawn a very just and glowing account, excepting one error which I think he has inadvertently fallen into, that of calling him a "half-breed." Beatte had complained of this to me often while out on the prairies; and when I entered his hospitable cabin, he said he was glad to see me, and almost instantly continued, "Now you shall see, Monsieur Catline, I am not 'half breed', here I shall introduce you to my father and my mother, who you see are two very nice and good old French people."

From this cabin where I fared well and slept soundly, I started in the morning, after taking with them a good cup of coffee, and went smoothly on over the prairies on my course.

About the middle of my journey, I struck a road leading into a small civilized settlement, called the "Kickapoo prairie", to which I "bent my course"; and riding up to a log cabin which was kept as a sort of an hotel or tavern, I met at the door, the black boy belonging to my friend Captain Wharton, who I have said took his leave of Fort Gibson a few weeks before me; I asked the boy where his master was, to which he replied, "My good masse, Massa Wharton, in dese house, jist dead of de libber compliment!"

I dismounted and went in, and to my deepest sorrow and anguish, I found him, as the boy said, nearly dead, without power to raise his head or his voice -- his eyes were rolled upon me, and as he recognized me he took me by the hand, which he firmly gripped, whilst both shed tears in profusion. By placing my ear to his lips, his whispers could he heard, and he was able in an imperfect manner to make his views and his wishes known. His disease seemed to be a repeated attack of his former malady, and a severe affection of the liver, which was to be (as his physician said) the proximate cause of his death. I conversed with his physician who seemed to be a young and inexperienced man, who told me that he certainly could not live more than ten days. I staid two days with him, and having no means with me of rendering him pecuniary or other aid amongst strangers, I left him in kind hands, and started on my course again. My health improved daily, from the time of my setting out at Fort Gibson; and I was now moving along cheerfully, and in hopes soon to reach the end of my toilsome journey. I had yet vast prairies to Pass over, and occasional latent difficulties, which were not apparent on their smooth and deceiving surfaces. Deep sunken streams, like, ditches, occasionally presented themselves suddenly to my view, when I was within a few steps of plunging into them from their perpendicular sides, which were overhung with long wild. grass, and almost obscured from the sight. The bearings of my compass told me that I must cross them, and the only alternative was to plunge into them, and get out as well as I could. They were often muddy, and I could not tell whether they were three or ten feet deep, until my horse was in them; and sometimes he went down head foremost, and I with him, to scramble out on the opposite shore in the best condition we could. In one of these canals, which I had followed for several miles in the vain hope of finding a shoal, or an accustomed ford, I plunged, with Charley, where it was about six of eight yards wide (and God knows how deep, for we did not go to the bottom), and swam him to the opposite bank, on to which I clung; and which, being perpendicular and of clay, and three or four feet higher than the water, was as insurmountable difficulty to Charley; and I led the, poor fellow at least a mile, as I walked on the top of the bank, with the bridle in my hand, holding his head above. the water as he was swimming; and I at times almost inextricably entangled in the long grass that was often higher than my head, and hanging over the brink, filled and woven together, with ivy and wild pea-vines. I at length (and just before I was ready to drop the rein of faithful Charley, in hopeless despair), came to an old buffalo ford, where the banks were graded down, and the poor exhausted animal, at last got out, and was ready and willing to take me and my luggage (after I had dried them in the sun) on the journey again.

The Osage river which is a powerful stream, I struck at a place which seemed to stagger my courage very much. There had been heavy rains but a few days before, and this furious stream was rolling along its wild and turbid waters, with a freshet upon it, that spread its waters, in many places over its banks, as was the case at the place where I encountered it. There seemed to be but little choice in places with this stream, which, with its banks full, was sixty or eighty yards in width, with a current that was sweeping along at a rapid rate. I stripped everything from Charley, and tied him with his lasso, until I travelled the shores up and down for some distance, and collected drift wood enough for a small raft, which I constructed, to carry my clothes and saddle, and other things, safe over. This being completed, and my clothes taken off, and they with other things, laid upon the raft, I took Charley to the bank and drove him in and across, where he soon reached the opposite shore, and went to feeding on the bank. Next was to come the "great white medicine"; and with him, saddle, bridle, saddle-bags, sketch-book, gun and pistols, coffee and coffee-pot, powder, and his clothes, all of which were placed upon the raft, and the raft pushed into the stream, and the "medicine man" swimming behind it, and pushing it along before him, until it reached the opposite Bore, at least half a mile below! From this, his things were carried to the top of the bank, and in a little time, Charley was caught and dressed, and straddled, and on the way again.

These are a few of the incidents of that journey of 500 miles, which I performed entirely alone, and which at last brought me out at Boonville on the Western bank of the Missouri. While I was crossing the river at that place, I met General Arbuckle, with two surgeons, who were to start the next day from Boonville for Fort Gibson, travelling over the route that I had just passed. I instantly informed them of the condition of poor Wharton, and the two surgeons were started off that afternoon at fullest speed, with orders to reach him in the shortest time possible, and do everything to save his life. I assisted in purchasing for him, several little things that he had named to me, such as jellies-acids-apples, &c. &c.; and saw them start; and (God knows), I shall impatiently hope to hear of their timely assistance, and of his recovery.

From Boonville, which is a very pretty little town, building up with the finest style of brick houses, I crossed the river to New Franklin, where I laid by several days, on account of stormy weather; and from thence proceeded with success to the end of my journey, where I now am, under the roof of kind and hospitable friends, with my dear wife, who has patiently waited one year to receive me back, a wreck, as I now am; and who is to start in a few days with me to the coast of Florida, 1400 miles South of: this, to spend the winter in patching up my health, and fitting me for future campaigns.

On this Tour (from which I shall return in the spring, if my health will admit of it), I shall visit the Seminoles in Florida,--the Euchees-the Creeks in Alabama and Georgia, and the Choctaws and Cherokees, who are get remaining on their lands, on the East side of the Mississippi.

We take steamer for New Orleans to-marrow, so, till after another campaign, Adieu.

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