Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians
by George Catlin
(First published in London in 1844)
MANDAN VILLAGE, UPPER MISSOURI.
Soon after the writing of my last Letter, which was dated at the Mouth of Yellow Stone, I embarked on the river for this place, where I landed safely; and have resided for a couple of weeks,
a guest in this almost subterraneous citythe strangest place in the world; where one sees in the most rapid succession, scenes which force him to mirthto pity and compassionto admirationdisgust; to fear and astonishment. But before I proceed to reveal them, I must give you a brief sketch of my voyage down the river from the Mouth of the Yellow Stone river to this place, a distance of 200 miles; and which my little note-book says, was performed somewhat in the following manner:
When I had completed my rambles and my sketches in those regions, and Ba'tiste and Bogard had taken their last spree, and fought their last battles, and forgotten them in the final and affectionate embrace and farewell (all of which are habitual with these game-fellows, when settling
up their long-standing accounts with their fellow-trappers of the mountain streams); and after Mr.
M'Kenzie had procured for me a snug little craft, that was to waft us down the mighty torrent; we
launched off one fine morning, taking our leave of the Fort, and the friends within it; and also, for
ever, of the beautiful green fields, and hills, and dales, and prairie bluffs, that encompass the enchanting shores of the Yellow Stone.
Our canoe, which was made of green timber, was heavy and awkward; but our course being
with the current, promised us a fair and successful voyage. Ammunition was laid in abundancea good stock of dried buffalo tonguesa dozen or two of beavers' tailsand a good supply of pemican. Bogard and Ba'tiste occupied the middle and bow, with their paddles in their hands; and I took my seat in the stern of the boat, at the steering oar. Our larder was as I have said; and added to that, some few pounds of fresh buffalo meat.
Besides which, and ourselves, our little craft carried several packs of Indian dresses and other articles, which I had purchased of the Indians; and also my canvass and easel, and our culinary articles, which were few and simple; consisting of three tin cups, a coffee-potone platea frying-panand a tin kettle.
Thus fitted out and embarked, we swept off at a rapid rate under the shouts of the savages, and the cheers of our friends, who lined the banks as we gradually lost sight of them, and turned our
eyes towards St. Louis, which was 2000 miles below us, with nought intervening, save the widespread and wild regions, inhabited by the roaming savage.
At the end of our first day's journey, we found ourselves handily encamping with several thousand Assinneboins, who had pitched their tents upon the bank of the river, and received us with
every mark of esteem and friendship.
In the midst of this group, was my friend Wi-jun-jon (the pigeon's egg head), still lecturing on the manners and customs of the "pale faces." Continuing to relate without any appearance of
exhaustion, the marvellous scenes which he had witnessed amongst the white people, on his tour
to Washington City.
Many were the gazers who seemed to be the whole time crowding around him, to hear his recitals; and the plight which he was in rendered his appearance quite ridiculous. His beautiful
military dress, of which I before spoke, had been so shockingly tattered and metamorphosed, that
his appearance was truly laughable.
His keg of whiskey had dealt out to his friends all its charmshis frock-coat, which his wife had thought was of no earthly use below the waist, had been cut off at that place, and the nether
half of it supplied her with a beautiful pair of leggings; and his silver-laced hat-band had been
converted into a splendid pair of garters for the same. His umbrella the poor fellow still affectionately held on to, and kept spread at all times. As I before said, his theme seemed to be exhaustless, and he, in the estimation of his tribe, to be an unexampled liar.
Of the village of Assinneboins we took leave on the following morning, and rapidly made our way down the river. The rate of the current being four or five miles per hour, through one continued series of picturesque grass-covered bluffs and knolls, which everywhere had the appearance of an old and highly-cultivated country, with houses and fences removed.
There is, much of the way, on one side or the other, a bold and abrupt precipice of three or four hundred feet in elevation, presenting itself in an exceedingly rough and picturesque form, to the
shore of the river; sloping down from the summit level of the prairies above, which sweep off from
the brink of the precipice, almost level, to an unknown distance.
It is along the rugged and wild fronts of these cliffs, whose sides are generally formed of hard clay, that the mountain-sheep dwell, and are often discovered in great numbers. Their habits are much like those of the goat; and in every respect they are like that animal, except in the horns, which resemble those of the ram; sometimes making two entire circles in their coil; and at the roots, each horn is, in some instances, from five to six incites in breadth.
On the second day of our voyage we discovered a number of these animals skipping along the sides of the precipice, always keeping about equi-distant between the top and bottom of the ledge;
leaping and vaulting in the most extraordinary manner from point to point, and seeming to cling actually, to the sides of the wall, where neither man nor beast could possibly follow them.
We landed our canoe, and endeavored to shoot one of these sagacious animals; and after he had led us a long and fruitless chase, amongst the cliffs, we thought we had fairly entrapped him
in such a way as to be sure to bring him, at last, within the command of our rifles; when he suddenly
bounded from his narrow foot-hold in the ledge, and tumbled down a distance of more than a
hundred feet, amongst the fragments of rocks and clay, where I thought we must certainly find his
carcass without further trouble; when, to my great surprise, I saw him bounding off, and he was
almost instantly out of my sight.
Bogard, who was an old hunter, and well acquainted with these creatures, shouldered his rifle, and said to me"the game is up; and you now see the use of those big horns: when they fall
by accident, or find it necessary to quit their foot-hold in the crevice, they fall upon their head at a
great distance unharmed, even though it should be on the solid rock."
Being on shore, and our canoe landed secure, we whiled away the greater part of this day amongst the wild and ragged cliffs, into which we had entered; and a part of our labours were vainly
spent in the pursuit of a war-eagle. This noble bird is the one which the Indians in these regions,
value so highly for their tail feathers, which are used as the most valued plumes for decorating the
heads and dresses of their warriors. It is a beautiful bird, and, the Indians tell me, conquers all other varieties of eagles in the country; from which circumstance, the Indians respect the bird, and hold it in the highest esteem, and value its quills. I am unable so say to what variety it belongs; but I
am sure it is not to be seen in any of our museums; nor is it to be found in American (I think), until
one gets near to the base of the Rocky Mountains. This bird has often been called the calumet eagle and war-eagle; the last of which appellations I have already accounted for; and the other has
arisen from the fact, that the Indians almost invariably ornament their calumets or pipes of peace with its quills.
Our day's loitering brought us through many a mild scene; occasionally cross the tracks of the grizzly bear, and, in sight merely of a band of buffaloes; "which got the wind of us," and were out of the way, leaving us to return to our canoe at night, with a mere speck of good luck. Just before we reached the river, I heard the crack of a rifle, and in a few moments Bogard came in sight, and threw down from his shoulders a fine antelope; which added to our larder, and we were ready to proceed. We embarked and travelled until nightfall, when we encamped on a beautiful little prairie at the base of a series of grass-covered bluffs; and the next morning cooked our breakfast and ate it, and rowed on until late in the afternoon; when we stopped at the base of some huge clay bluffs, forming one of the most curious and romantic scenes imaginable. At this spot the river expands itself into the appearance somewhat of a beautiful lake; and in the midst of it, and on and about its sand-bars, floated and stood, hundreds and thousands of white swans and pelicans.
Though the scene in front of our encampment at this place was placid and beautiful; with its flowing waterits wild fowland its almost endless variety of gracefully sloping hills and green prairies in the distance; yet it was not less wild and picturesque in our rear, where the rugged and various coloured bluffs were grouped in all the wildest fancies and rudeness of Nature's accidental varieties.
The whole country behind us seemed to have been dug and thrown up into huge piles, as if some giant mason had been there mixing his mortar and paints, and throwing together his rude models for some sublime structure of a colossal city;with its wallsits domesits rampartsits huge porticos and galleriesits castlesits fosses and ditches; and in the midst of his progress, he had abandoned his works to the destroying hand of lime, which had already done much to tumble them down, and deface their noble structure; by jostling them together, with all their vivid colours, into an unsystematic and unintelligible mass of sublime ruins.
To this group of clay bluffs, which line the river for many miles in distance, the voyageurs have very appropriately given the name of "the Brick-kilns;" owing to their red appearance, which may be discovered in a clear day at the distance of many leagues.
By the action of water, or other power, the country seems to have been graded away; leaving occasionally a solitary mound or bluff, rising in a conical form to the height of two or three hundred feet, generally pointed or rounded at the top, and in some places grouped together in great numbers; some of which having a tabular surface on the top, and covered with a green turf. This fact (as all of those which are horizontal on their tops, and corresponding exactly with the summit
level of the wide-spreading prairies in distance) clearly shows, that their present isolated and rounded forms have been produced by the action of waters: which have carried away the intervening
earth, and left them in the picturesque shapes in which they are now seen.
A similar formation (or deformation) may be seen in hundreds of places on the shores of the
Missouri river, and the actual progress of the operation by which it is produced; leaving yet for the
singularity of this place, the peculiar feature, that nowhere else (to my knowledge) occurs; that the
superstratum, forming the tops of these mounds (where they remain high enough to support anything of the original surface) is composed, for the depth of fifteen feet, of red pumice; terminating at its bottom, in a layer of several feet of sedimentary deposite, which is formed into endless
conglomerates of basaltic crystals.
This strange feature in the country arrests the eye of a traveller suddenly, and as instantly brings him to the conclusion, that he stands in the midst of he ruins of an extinguished volcano.
As will be seen in the drawings, (a near view, and, distant view), the sides of these conical
bluffs (which are composed of strata of different coloured clays), are continually washing down by the effect of the rains and melting of the frost; and the superincumbent masses of pumice and basalt are crumbling off, and falling down to their bases; and from thence, in vast quantities, by the force of the gorges of water which are often cutting their channels between themcarried into he river, which is close by; and wafted for thousands of miles, floating as light as a cork upon its surface, and lodging in every pile of drift-wood from this place to the ocean.
The upper part of this layer of pumice is of a brilliant red; and when the sun is shining upon it, is as bright and vivid as vermilion. It is porous and open, and its specific gravity but trifling. These curious bluffs must be seen as they are in nature; or else in a painting, where their colours are
faithfully given, or they lose their picturesque beauty, which consists in the variety of their vivid tints.
The strata of clay are alternating from red to yellowwhitebrown and dark blue; and so curiously arranged, as to form the most pleasing and singular effects.
During the day that I loitered about this strange scene, I left my men stretched upon the grass, by the canoe; and taking my rifle and sketch-book in my hand, I wandered and clambered through the rugged defiles between the bluffs; passing over and under the immense blocks of the pumice, that had fallen to their bases; determined, if possible, to find the crater, or source, from whence these strange phenomena had sprung; but after clambering and squeezing about for some time, I unfortunately came upon the enormous tracks of a grizzly bear, which, apparently, was travelling in the same direction (probably for a very different purpose) but a few moments before me; and my ardour for exploring was instantly so cooled down, that I hastily retraced my steps, and was
satisfied with making my drawings, and collecting specimens of the lava and other minerals in its
After strolling about during the day, and contemplating the beauty of the scenes that were around me, while I sat upon the pinnacles of these pumice-capped mounds; most of which time,
Bogard and Ba'tiste laid enjoying the pleasure of a "mountaineer's nap"we met togethertook our coffee and dried buffalo tonguesspread our buffalo robes upon the grass, and enjoyed during the night the luxury of sleep, that belongs so peculiarly to the tired voyageur in these realms of pure air and dead silence.
In the morning, and before sunrise, as usual, Bogard (who was a Yankee and a "wide-awake-fellow," just retiring from a ten years' siege of hunting and trapping in the Rocky Mountains,) thrust his head out from under the robe, rubbing his eyes open, and exclaiming as he grasped for his gun, "By darn, look at old Cale! will you!" Ba'tiste, who was more fond of his dreams,
snored away, muttering something that I could not understand when Bogard seized him with a grip, that instantly shook off his iron slumbers. I rose at the same time, and all eyes were turned at once upon Caleb (as the grizzly bear is familiarly called by the trappers in the Rocky Mountainsor more often "Cale," for brevity's sake), who was sitting up in the dignity and fury of her sex, within a few rods, and gazing upon us, with her two little cubs at her side! here was a "fix," and a subject for the painter; but I had no time to sketch itI turned my eyes to the canoe which had been fastened at the shore a few paces from us; and saw that everything had been pawed out of it, and all eatables had been without ceremony devoured. My packages of dresses and Indian curiosities had been drawn out upon the bank, and deliberately opened and inspected. Every thing had been scraped and pawed out, to the bottom of the boat; and even the rawhide thong, with which it was tied to a stake, had been chewed, and no doubt swallowed, as there was no trace of it remaining. Nor was this peep into the secrets of our luggage enough for her insatiable curiositywe saw by the prints of her huge paws, that were left in the ground, that she had been perambulating our humble mattresses, smelling at our toes and our noses, without choosing to molest us; verifying a trite saying of the country, "That man lying down is medicine to the grizzly bear;" though it is a well-known fact, that man and beast, upon their feet, are sure to be attacked when they cross the path of this grizzly and grim monster, which is the terror of all this country; often growing to the enormous size of eight hundred or one thousand pounds.
Wellwhilst we sat in the dilemma which I have just described, each one was hastily
preparing his weapons for defence, when I proposed the mode of attack; by which means I was in
hopes to destroy hercapture her young ones, and bring her skin home as a trophy. My plans, however, entirely failed, though we were well armed; for Bogard and Ba'tiste both remonstrated with a vehemence that was irresistible; saying that the standing rule in the mountains was "never to fight Caleb, except in self-defence." I was almost induced, however, to attack her alone, with my rifle in hand, and a pair of heavy pistols; with a tomahawk and scalping-knife in my belt; when Ba'tiste suddenly thrust his arm over my shoulder and pointing in another direction, exclaimed in an emphatic tone, "Voila! voila un corps de reserveMonsr. Catalinevoila sa mari! allonsallons! déscendons la riviére, toute de suite! toute de suite! Monsr." To which Bogard added, "these darned animals are too much for us, and we had better be off;" at which my courage cooled, and we packed up and re-embarked as fast as possible; giving each one of them the contents of our rifles as we drifted off in the current; which brought the she-monster, in all her rage and fury, to the spot where we, a few moments before, had passed our most prudent resolve.
During the rest of this day, we passed on rapidly, gazing upon and admiring the beautiful shores, which were continually changing, from the high and ragged cliffs, to the graceful and green
slopes of the prairie bluffs; and then to the wide expanded meadows, with their long waving grass,
enameled with myriads of wild flowers.
The scene was one of enchantment the whole way; our chief conversation was about grizzly
bears and hair's-breadth escapes; of the histories of which my companions had volumes in store.
Our breakfast was a late onecooked and eaten about five in the afternoon; at which time our demolished larder was luckily replenished by the unerring rifle of Bogard, which brought down a fine antelope, as it was innocently gazing at us, from the bank of the river. We landed our boat, and took in our prize; but there being no wood for our fire, we shoved off, and soon ran upon the head of an island, that was covered with immense quantities of raft and drift wood, where we easily kindled a huge fire and ate our delicious meal from a clean peeled log, astride of which we comfortably sat, making it answer admirably the double purpose of chairs and a table. After our meal was finished, we plied the paddles, and proceeded several miles further on our course; leaving our fire burning, and dragging our canoe upon the shore, in the dark, in a wild and unknown spot; and silently spreading our robes for our slumbers, which it is not generally considered prudent to do by the side of our fires, which might lead a war-party upon us, who often are prowling about and seeking an advantage over their enemy.
The scenery of this day's travel, as I have before said, was exceedingly beautiful; and our canoe was often run to the shore, upon which we stepped to admire the endless variety of wild flowers, "wasting their sweetness on the desert air," and the abundance of delicious fruits that were about us. Whilst wandering through the high grass, the wild sun-flowers and voluptuous lilies were constantly taunting us by striking our faces; whilst here and there, in every direction, there were little
copses and clusters of plum trees and gooseberries, and wild currants, loaded down with their fruit;
and amongst these, to sweeten the atmosphere and add a charm to the effect, the wild rose bushes
seemed planted in beds and in hedges, and everywhere were decked out in all the glory of their delicate tints, and shedding sweet aroma to every breath of the air that passed over them.
In addition to these, we had the luxury of service-berries, without stint; and the buffalo bushes, which are peculiar to these northern regions, lined the banks of the river and defiles in the bluffs, sometimes for miles together; forming almost impassable hedges, so loaded with the weight of their fruit, that their boughs were everywhere gracefully bending down and resting on the ground.
This last shrub (shepperdia), which may be said to be the most beautiful ornament that decks out the wild prairies, forms a striking contrast to the rest of the foliage, from the blue appearance of its leaves, by which it can be distinguished for miles in distance. The fruit which it produces in such incredible profusion, hanging in clusters to every limb and to every twig, is about the size of ordinary currants, and not unlike them in colour and even in flavour; being exceedingly acid, and almost unpalatable, until they are bitten by the frost of autumn, when they are sweetened, and their flavour delicious; having, to the taste, much the character of grapes, and I am inclined to think, would produce excellent wine.
The shrub which bears them resembles some varieties of the thorn, though (as I have said) differs entirely in the colour of its leaves. It generally grows to the height of six or seven feet, and
often to ten or twelve; and in groves or hedges, in some places, for miles in extent. While gathering
the fruit, and contemplating it as capable of producing good wine, I asked my men this question,
"Suppose we three had ascended the river to this point in the spring of the year, and in a timbered
bottom had pitched our little encampment; and one of you two had been a boat-builder, and the other a cooperthe one to have got out your staves and constructed the wine casks, and the
other to have built a mackinaw-boat, capable of carrying fifty or a hundred casks; and I had been a
good hunter, capable of supplying the little encampment with meat; and we should have started off
about this time, to float down the current, stopping our boat wherever we saw the finest groves of the
buffalo bush, collecting the berries and expressing the juice, and putting it into our casks for
fermentation while on the water for two thousand miles; how many bushels of these berries could you two gather in a day, provided I watched the boat and cooked your meals? And how many barrels of good wine do you think we could offer for sale in St. Louis when we should arrive there?"
This idea startled my two men exceedingly, and Ba'tiste gabbled so fast in French, that I could not translate; and I am almost willing to believe, that but for the want of the requisite tools for the enterprize, I should have lost the company of Bogard and Ba'tiste; or that I should have been
under the necessity of submitting to one of the unpleasant alternatives which are often regulated
by the majority, in this strange and singular wilderness.
I at length, however, got their opinions on the subject; when they mutually agreed that they could gather thirty bushels of this fruit per day; and I gave it then, and I offer it now, as my own also, that their estimate was not out of the way, and judged so from the experiments which we made in the following manner:We several times took a large mackinaw blanket which I had in the canoe, and spreading it on the ground under the bushes, where they were the most abundantly loaded with fruit; and by striking the stalk of the tree with a club, we received the whole contents of its
branches in an instant on the blanket, which was taken up by the corners, and not unfrequently would produce us, from one blow, the eighth part of a bushel of this fruit; when the boughs relieved of their burden, instantly hew up to their native position.
Or this beautiful native, which I think would form one of the loveliest ornamental shrubs for a gentleman's park or pleasure grounds, I procured a number of the roots; but which, from the many
accidents and incidents that our unlucky bark was subjected to on our rough passage, I lost them
(and almost the recollection of them) as well as many other curiosities I had collected on our way
down the river.
On the morning of the next day, and not long after we had stopped and taken our breakfast, and while our canoe was swiftly gliding along under the shore of a beautiful prairie, I saw in the grass, on the bank above me, what I supposed to be the back of a fine elk, busy at his grazing. I let our craft float silently by for a little distance, when I communicated the intelligence to my men, and slily ran in to the shore. I pricked the priming of my firelock, and taking a bullet or two in my mouth, stepped ashore, and trailing my rifle in my hand, went back under the bank, carefully crawling up in a little ravine, quite sure of my game; when, to my utter surprise and violent alarm, I found the elk to be no more nor less than an Indian pony, getting his breakfast! and a little beyond him, a number of others grazing; and nearer to me, on the left, a war-party reclining around a little fire; and yet nearer, and within twenty paces of the muzzle of my gun, the naked shoulders of a brawny Indian, who seemed busily engaged in cleaning his gun. From this critical dilemma, the reader can easily imagine that I vanished with all the suddenness and secrecy that was possible, bending my course towards my canoe. Bogard and Ba'tiste correctly construing the expression of my face, and the agitation of my hurried retreat, prematurely unmoored from the shore; and the force of the current carrying them around a huge pile of drift wood, threw me back for some distance upon my own resources; though they finally got in, near the shore, and I into the boat, with the steering oar in my hand; when we plied our sinews with effect and in silence, till we were wafted far from the ground which we deemed critical and dangerous to our lives; for we had been daily in dread of meeting a war-party of the revengeful Riccarees, which we had been told was on the river, in search of the Mandans. From and after this exciting occurrence, the entries in my journal for the rest of the voyage to the village of the Mandans, wore as follows:
Saturday, fifth day of our voyage from the mouth of Yellow Stone, at eleven o'clock.Landed our canoe in the Grand Détour (or Big Bend) as it is called, at the base of a stately clay mound, and ascended, all hands, to the summit level, to take a glance at the picturesque and
magnificent works of Nature that were about us. Spent the remainder of the day in painting a view
of this grand scene; for which purpose Ba'tiste and Bogard carried my easel and canvass to the
top of a huge mound, where they left me at my work; and I painted my picture, whilst they amused
themselves with their rifles, decoying a flock of antelopes, of which they killed several, and abundantly added to the stock of our provisions.
Scarcely anything in nature can be found, I am sure, more exceedingly picturesque than the view from this place; exhibiting the wonderful manner in which the gorges of the river have cut out its deep channel through these walls of clay on either side, of two or three hundred feet in elevation;
and the imposing features of the high table-lands in distance, standing as a perpetual anomaly in
the country, and producing the indisputable, though astounding evidence of the fact, that there has
been at some ancient period, a super surface to this country, corresponding with the elevation of these tabular hills, whose surface, for half a mile or more, on their tops, is perfectly level; being covered with a green turf, and yet one hundred and fifty or two hundred feet elevated above what may now be properly termed the summit level of all this section of country; as will be seen stretching off at their base, without furnishing other instances in hundreds of miles, of anything rising one foot above its surface, excepting the solitary group which is shewn in the painting.
The fact, that there was once the summit level of this great valley, is a stubborn one,
however difficult it may be to reconcile it with reasonable causes and results; and the mind of feeble man is at once almost paralyzed in endeavoring to comprehend the process by which the adjacent
country, from this to the base of the Rocky Mountains, as well as in other directions, could have been swept away; and equally so, for knowledge of the place where its mighty deposits have been
I recollect to have seen on my way up the river, at the distance of six or eight hundred miles below, a place called "the Square Hills," and another denominated "the Bijou Hills;" which are the
only features on the river, seeming to correspond with this strange remain, and which, on my way down, I shall carefully examine; and not fail to add their testimonies (if I am not mistaken in their
character) to further speculations on this interesting feature of the geology of the great valley of the
Missouri. Whilst my men were yet engaged in their sporting excursions, I left my easel and travelled
to the base and summit of these tabular hills; which, to my great surprise, I found to be several miles from the river, and a severe journey to accomplish getting back to our encampment at nightfall. I found by their sides that they were evidently of an alluvial deposite, composed of a great
variety of horizontal layers of clays of different coloursof granitic sand and pebbles (many of
which furnished me beautiful specimens of agate, jasper and carnelians), and here and there large
fragments of pumice and cinders, which gave, as instances above-mentioned, evidences of
The mode by which Bogard and Ba'tiste had been entrapping the timid and sagacious
antelopes was one which is frequently and successfully practiced in this country; and on this day
had afforded them fine sport.
The antelope of this country, I believe to be different from all other known varieties, and forms one of the most pleasing, living ornaments to this western world. They are seen in some places in great numbers sporting and playing about the hills and dales; and often, in flocks of fifty or a hundred, will follow the boat of the descending voyageur, or the travelling caravan, for hours together; keeping off at a safe distance, on the right or left, galloping up and down the hills, snuffing
their noses and stamping their feet; as if they were endeavoring to remind the traveller of the wicked
trespass he was making on their own hallowed ground.
This little animal seems to be endowed, like many other gentle and sweet-breathing creatures, with an undue share of curiosity, which often leads them to destruction; and the hunter who wishes to entrap them, saves himself the trouble of travelling after them. When he has been discovered, he has only to elevate above the tops of the grass, his red or yellow handkerchief on the end of his gun-rod, which he sticks in the ground, and to which they are sure to advance, though with great coyness and caution; whilst he lies close, at a little distance, with his rifle in hand; when it is quite an easy matter to make sure of two or three at a shot, which he gets in range of his eye, to be pierced with one bullet.
On Sunday, departed from our encampment in the Grand Détour; and having passed for many miles, through a series of winding and ever-varying bluffs and fancied ruins, like such as have already been described, our attention was more than usually excited by the stupendous scene, called by the voyageurs "the Grand Dome," which was lying in full view before us.
Our canoe was here hauled ashore, and a day whiled away again, amongst these clay built ruins.
We clambered to their summits and enjoyed the distant view of the Missouri for many miles below, wending its way through the countless groups of clay and grass-covered hills; and we
wandered back on the plains, in a toilsome and unsuccessful pursuit of a herd of buffaloes, which
we discovered at some distance. Though we were disappointed in the results of the chase; yet we
were in a measure repaid in amusements, which we found in paying a visit to an extensive village of prairie dogs, and of which I should render some account
I have subjoined a sketch of one of these sub-terra communities; though it was taken in a former excursion, when my party was on horseback, and near the mouth of the Yellow Stone River; yet it answers for this place as well as any other, for their habits are one and the same wherever they are found; their houses or burrows are all alike, and as their location is uniformly on a level and desolate prairie, without timber, there is little room for variety or dissimilarity.
The prairie dog of the American Prairies is undoubtedly a variety of the marmot; and probably not unlike those which inhabit the vast Steppes of Asia. It bears no resemblance to any variety of dogs, except in the sound of its voice, when excited by the approach of danger, which is something like that of a very small dog, and still much more resembling the barking of a grey squirrel.
The size of these curious little animals is not far from that of a very large rat, and they are not unlike in their appearance. As I have said, their burrows, are uniformly built in a lonely desert; and away, both from the proximity of timber and water. Each individual, or each family, dig their hole in the prairie to the depth of eight or ten feet, throwing up the dirt from each excavation, in a little pile, in the form of a cone, which forms the only elevation for them to ascend; where they sit, to bark and chatter when an enemy is approaching their village. These villages are sometimes of several miles in extent; containing (I would almost say) myriads of their excavations and little dirt hillocks, and to the ears of their visitors, the din of their barkings is too confused and too peculiar to be described.
In the present instance, we made many endeavors to shoot them, but finding our efforts to be entirely in vain. As we were approaching them at a distance, each one seemed to be perched up, on his hind feet, on his appropriate domicil, with a significant jerk of his tail at every bark, positively disputing our right of approach. I made several attempts to get near enough to "draw a bead" upon one of them; and just before I was ready to fire (and as if they knew the utmost limits of their safety), they sprang down into their holes, and instantly turning their bodies, shewed their ears and the ends of their noses, as they were peeping out at me; which position they would hold, until the shortness of the distance subjected their scalps to danger again, from the aim of a rifle; when they instantly disappeared from our sight, and all was silence thereafter, about their premises, as I passed them over; until I had so far advanced by them, that their ears were again discovered, and at length themselves, at full length, perched on the tops of their little hillocks and threatening as before; thus gradually sinking and rising like a wave before and behind me.
The holes leading down to their burrows, are four or five incites in diameter, and run down nearly perpendicular; where they undoubtedly communicate into something like a subterraneous
city (as I have formerly learned from fruitless endeavors to dig them out), undermined and vaulted;
by which means, they can travel for a great distance under the ground, without danger from pursuit.
Their food is simply the grass in the immediate vicinity of their burrows, which is cut close to the ground by their flat, shovel teeth; and, as they sometimes live twenty miles from any water, it is to be supposed that they get moisture enough from the dew on the grass, on which they feed chiefly at night; or that (as is generally supposed) they sink wells from their under-ground habitations, by which they descend low enough to get their supply. In the winter, they are for several months invisible; existing, undoubtedly, in a torpid state, as they certainly lay by no food for that seasonnor can they procure any. These curious little animals belong to almost every latitude in the vast plains of prairie in North America; and their villages, which I have sometimes encountered in my travels, have compelled my party to ride several miles out of our way to get by them; for their burrows are generally within a few feet of each other, and dangerous to the feet and the limbs of our
The sketch of the bluffs denominated "the Grand Dome," of which I spoke but a few moments since, is a faithful delineation of the lines and character of that wonderful scene; and the reader has here a just and striking illustration of the ruin-like appearances, as I have formerly described, that are so often met with on the banks of this mighty river.
This is, perhaps, one of the most grand and beautiful scenes of the kind to be met with in this country, owing to the perfect appearance of its several huge domes, turrets, and towers, which were everywhere as precise and as perfect in their forms as they are represented in the illustration. These stupendous works are produced by the continual washing down of the sides of these clay-formed hills; and although, in many instances, their sides, by exposure, have become so hardened, that their change is very slow; yet they are mostly subjected to continual phases, more or less, until ultimately their decomposition ceases, and their sides becoming seeded and covered with a green turf, which protects and holds them (and will hold them) unalterable: with carpets of green, and enamelled with flowers, to be gazed upon with admiration, by the hardy voyageur and the tourist, for ages and centuries to come.
On Monday, the seventh day from the mouth of the Yellow Stone River, we floated away from this noble scene; looking back again and again upon it, wondering at its curious and endless changes, as the swift current of the river, hurried us by, and gradually out of sight of it. We took a sore of melancholy leave of itbut at every bend and turn in the stream, we were introduced to othersand othersand yet others, almost as strange and curious. At the base of one of these, although we had passed it, we with difficulty landed our canoe, and I ascended to its top, with
some hours' labour; having to cut a foot-hold in the clay with my hatchet for each step, a great part of
the way up its sides. So curious was this solitary bluff, standing alone as it did, to the height of 250
feet, with its sides washed down into hundreds of variegated formswith large blocks of indurated clay, remaining upon pedestals and columns as it were, and with such a variety of tints; that I looked upon it as a beautiful picture, and devoted an hour or two with my brush, in transferring it to my canvass.
In the after part of this day we passed another extraordinary scene, which is denominated "the Three Domes," forming an exceedingly pleasing group, though requiring no further description for the reader, who is now sufficiently acquainted with these scenes to understand them.
On this day, just before night, we landed our little boat in front of the Mandan village; and amongst the hundreds and thousands who flocked towards the river to meet and to greet us, was
Mr. Kipp, the agent of the American Fur Company, who has charge of their Establishment at this place. He kindly ordered my canoe to be taken care of, and my things to be carried to his quarters,
which was at once done; and I am at this time reaping the benefits of his genuine politeness, and
gathering the pleasures of his amusing and interesting society.