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Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians
by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER—No. 33.

FORT LEAVENWORTH, LOWER MISSOURI.

I mentioned in a former epistle, that this is the extreme outpost on the Western Frontier, and built, like several others, in the heart of the Indian country. There is no finer tract of lands in North America, or, perhaps, in the world, than that vast space of prairie country, which lies in the vicinity of this post, embracing it on all sides. This garrison, like many others on the frontiers, is avowedly placed here for the purpose of protecting our frontier inhabitants from the incursions of Indians; and also for the purpose of preserving the peace amongst the different hostile tribes, who seem continually to wage, and glory in, their deadly wars. How far these feeble garrisons, which are generally but half manned, have been, or will be, able to intimidate and controul the warlike ardour of these restless and revengeful spirits; or how far they will be able in desperate necessity, to protect the lives and property of the honest pioneer, is yet to be tested.

They have doubtless been designed with the best views, to effect the most humane objects, though I very much doubt the benefits that are anticipated to flow from them, unless a more efficient number of men are stationed in them than I have generally found; enough to promise protection to the Indian, and then to ensure it; instead of promising, and leaving them to seek it in their own way at last, and when they are least prepared to do it.

When I speak of this post as being on the Lower Missouri, I do not wish to convey the idea that I am down near the sea-coast, at the mouth of the river, or near it; I only mean that I am on the lower part of the Missouri, yet 600 miles above its junction with the Mississippi, and near 2000 from the Gulf of Mexico, into which the Mississippi discharges its waters.

In this delightful Cantonment there are generally stationed six or seven companies of infantry, and ten or fifteen officers; several of whom have their wives and daughters with them, forming a very pleasant little community, who are almost continually together in social enjoyment of the peculiar amusements and pleasures of this wild country. Of these pastimes they have many, such as riding on horseback or in carriages over the beautiful green fields of the prairies, picking strawberries and wild plums—deer chasing—grouse shooting—horse-racing, and other amusements of the garrison, in which they are almost constantly engaged; enjoying life to a very high degree.

In these delightful amusements, and with these pleasing companions, I have been for a while participating with great satisfaction; I have joined several times in the deer-hunts, and more frequently in grouse shooting, which constitutes the principal amusement of this place.

This delicious bird, which is found in great abundance in nearly all the North American prairies, and most generally called the Prairie Hen, is, from what I can learn, very much like the English grouse, or heath hen, both in size, in colour, and in habits. They make their appearance in these parts in the months of August and September, from the higher latitudes, where they go in the early part of the summer, to raise their broods. This is the season for the best sport amongst them; and the whole garrison, in fact are almost subsisted on them at this time, owing to the facility with which they are killed.

I was lucky enough the other day, with one of the officers of the garrison, to gain the enviable distinction of having brought in together seventy-five of these fine birds, which we killed in one afternoon; and although I am quite ashamed to confess the manner in which we killed the greater part of them, I am not so professed a sportsman as to induce me to conceal the fact. We had a fine pointer, and had legitimately followed the sportsman's style for a part of the afternoon; but seeing the prairies on fire several miles ahead of us, and the wind driving the fire gradually towards us, we found these poor birds driven before its long line, which seemed to extend from horizon to horizon, and they were flying in swarms or flocks that would at times almost fill the air. They generally flew half a mile or so, and lit down again in the grass, where they would sit until the fire was close upon them, and then they would rise again. We observed by watching their motions, that they lit in great numbers in every solitary tree; and we placed our selves near each of these trees in turn, and shot them down as they settled in them; sometimes killing five or six at a shot, by getting a range upon them.

In this way we retreated for miles before the flames, in the midst of the flocks, and keeping company with them where they were carried along in advance of the fire, in accumulating numbers; many of which had been driven along for many miles. We murdered the poor birds in this way, until we had as many as we could well carry, and laid our course back to the Fort, where we got much credit for our great shooting; and where we were mutually pledged to keep the secret.

The prairies burning form some of the most beautiful scenes that are to be witnessed in this country, and also some of the most sublime. Every acre of these vast prairies (being covered for hundreds and hundreds of miles, with a crop of grass, which dies and dries in the fall) burns over during the fall or early in the spring, leaving the ground of a black and doleful colour.

There are many modes by which the fire is communicated to them, both by white men and by Indians—par accident; and yet many more where it is voluntarily done for the purpose of getting a fresh crop of grass, for the grazing of their horses, and also for easier travelling during the next summer, when there will be no old grass to lie upon the prairies, entangling the feet of man and horse, as they are passing over them.

Over the elevated lands and prairie bluffs, where the grass is thin and short, the fire slowly creeps with a feeble flame, which one can easily step over; where the wild animals often rest in their lairs until the flames almost burn their noses, when they will reluctantly rise, and leap over it, and trot off amongst the cinders, where the fire has past and left the ground as black as jet. These scenes at night become indescribably beautiful, when their flames are seen at many miles distance, creeping over the sides and tops of the bluffs, appearing to be sparkling and brilliant chains of liquid fire (the hills being lost to the view), hanging suspended in graceful festoons from the skies.

But there is yet another character of burning prairies, that requires another Letter, and a different pen to describe—the war, or hell of fires! where the grass is seven or eight feet high, as is often the case for many miles together, on the Missouri bottoms; and the flames are driven forward by the hurricanes, which often sweep over the vast prairies of this denuded country. There are many of these meadows on the Missouri, the Platte, and the Arkansas, of many miles in breadth, which are perfectly level, with a waving grass, so high, that we are obliged to stand erect in our stirrups, in order to look over its waving tops, as we are riding through it. The fire in these, before such a wind, travels at an immense and frightful rate, and often destroys, on their fleetest horses, parties of Indians, who are so unlucky as to be overtaken by it; not that it travels as fast as a horse at full speed, but that the high grass is filled with wild pea-vines and other impediments, which render it necessary for the rider to guide his horse in the zig-zag paths of the deers and buffaloes, retarding his progress, until he is overtaken by the dense column of smoke that is swept before the fire—alarming the horse, which stops and stands terrified and immutable, till the burning grass which is wafted in the wind, falls about him, kindling up in a moment a thousand new fires, which are instantly wrapped in the swelling flood of smoke that is moving on like a black thunder-cloud, rolling on the earth, with its lightning's glare, and its thunder rumbling as it goes.

When Ba'tiste, and Bogard, and I, and Patrick Raymond (who like Bogard had been a free trapper in the Rocky Mountains), and Pah-me-o-ne-qua (The Red Thunder), our guide back from a neighboring village, were jogging along on the summit of an elevated bluff, overlooking an immense valley of high grass, through which we were about to lay our course.—

"Well, then, you say you have seen the prairies on fire?" Yes. "You have seen the fire on the mountains, and beheld it feebly creeping over the grassy hills of the North, where the toad and the timid snail were pacing from its approach—all this you have seen, and who has not? But who has seen the vivid lightnings, and heard the roaring thunder of the rolling conflagration which sweeps over the deep-clad prairies of the West? Who has dashed, on his wild horse, through an ocean of grass, with the raging tempest at his back, rolling over the land its swelling waves of liquid fire?" What! "Aye, even so. Ask the red savage of the wilds what is awful and sublime—Ask him where the Great Spirit has mixed up all the elements of death, and if he does not blow them over the land in a storm of fire? Ask him what foe he has met, that regarded not his frightening yells, or his sinewy bow? Ask these lords of the land, who vauntingly challenge the thunder and lightning of Heaven—whether there is not one foe that travels over their land, too swift for their feet, and too mighty for their strength—at whose approach their stout hearts sicken, and their strong-armed courage withers to nothing? Ask him again (if he is sullen, and his eyes set in their sockets)—'Hush!——sh!——sh!' (he will tell you, with a soul too proud to confess—his head sunk on his breast, and his hand over his mouth)—'that's medicine!'

I said to my comrades, as we were about to descend from the towering bluffs into the prairie—"We will take that buffalo trail, where the travelling herds have slashed down the high grass, and making for that blue point, rising, as you can just; discern, above this ocean of grass; a good day's work will bring us over this vast meadow before sunset." We entered the trail, and slowly progressed on our way, being obliged to follow the winding paths of the buffaloes, for the grass was higher than the backs of our horses. Soon after we entered, my Indian guide dismounted slowly from his horse, and lying prostrate on the ground, with his face in the dirt, he cried, and was talking to the Spirits of the brave—"For," said he, "over this beautiful plain dwells the Spirit of fire! He rides in yonder cloud—his face blackens with rage at the sound of the trampling hoofs—the fire-bow is in his hand—he draws it across the path of the Indian, and quicker than lightning, a thousand flames rise to destroy him; such is the talk of my fathers, and the ground is whitened with their bones. It was here," said he, "that the brave son of Wah-chee-ton, and the strong-armed warriors of his band, just twelve moons since, licked the fire from the blazing wand of that great magician. Their pointed spears were drawn upon the backs of the treacherous Sioux, whose swifter-dying horses led them, in vain, to the midst of this valley of death. A circular cloud sprang up from the prairie around them! it was raised, and their doom was fixed by the Spirit of fire! It was on this vast plain of fire-grass that waves over our heads, that the swift foot of Mah-to-ga was laid. It is here, also, that the fleet-bounding wild horse mingles his bones with the red man; and the eagle's wing is melted as he darts over its surface. Friends! It is the season of fire; and I fear, from the smell of the wind, that the Spirit is awake!"

Pah-me-o-ne-qua said no more, but mounted his wild horse, and waving his hand, his red shoulders were seen rapidly vanishing as tie glided through the thick mazes of waving grass. We were on his trail, and busily traced him until the midday-sun had brought us to the ground, with our refreshments spread before us. He partook of them not, but stood like a statue, while his black eyes, in sullen silence, swept the horizon round; and then, with a deep-drawn sigh, he gracefully sunk to the earth, and laid with his face to the ground. Our buffalo tongues and pemican, and marrow-fat, were spread before us; and we were in the full enjoyment of these dainties of the Western world, when, quicker than the frightened elk, our Indian friend sprang upon his feet! His eyes skimmed again slowly over the prairies' surface, and he laid himself as before on the ground.

"Red Thunder seems sullen to-day." Said Bogard—"He startles at every rush of the wind, and scowls at the whole world that is about him."

"There's a rare chap for you—a fellow who would shake his fist at Heaven, when he is at home; and here, in a grass-patch, must make his fire-medicine for a circumstance that he could easily leave at a shake of his horse's heels."

"Not sae sure o' that, my hooney, though we'll not be making too lightly of the matter, nor either be frightened at the mon's strange octions. But, Bogard, I'll tell ye in a'ord (and thot's enough), there's something more than odds in all this 'medicine.' If this mon's a fool, he was born out of his own country, that's all—and if the divil iver gits him, he must take him cowld, for he is too swift and too wide-awake to be taken alive—you understond that, I suppouse? But, to come to the plain matter—supposin that the Fire Spirit (and I go for somewhat of witchcraft), I say supposin that this Fire Spirit should jist impty his pipe on tother side of this prairie, and strike up a bit of a blaze in this high grass, and send it packing across this direction, before sich a death of a wind as this is! By the bull barley, I'll bet you'd be after 'making medicine,' and taking a bit of it, too, to get rid of the racket."

"Yes, but you see, Patrick——"

"Neever mind thot (not wishin to distarb you); and suppouse the blowin wind was coming fast ahead, jist blowin about our ears a warld of smoke and chokin us to dith, and we were dancin about a Varginny reel among these little paths, where the divil would we be by the time we got to that bluff, for it's now fool of a distance? Givin you time to spake, I would say a word more (askin your pardon), I know by the expression of your face, mon, you neever have seen the world on fire yet, and therefore you know nothin at all of a hurly burly of this kind—did ye?—Did ye iver see (and I jist want to know), did ye iver see the fire in high grass, runnin with a strong wind, about five mile and the half, and thin hear it strike into a slash of dry cane brake!! I would jist ax you that? By thuneder you niver have—for your eyes would jist stick out of your head at the thought of it! Did ye iver look way into the backside of Mr. Maelzel's Moscow, and see the flashin flames a runnin up; and then hear the poppin of the militia fire jist afterwards? Then you have jist a touch of it! ye're jist beginnin—ye may talk about fires—but this is sich a baste of a fire! Ask Jack Sanford, he's a chop that can tall you all aboot it. Not wishin to distarb you, I would say a word more—and that is this—If I were advisin, I would say that we are gettin too far into this imbustible meadow; for the grass is dry, and the wind is too strong to make a light matter of, at this season of the year; an now I'll jist tell ye how McKenzie and I were sarved in this very place about two years ago; and he's a worldly chop, and niver aslape, my word for that———hollo, what's that!"

Red Thunder was on his feet!—his long arm was stretched over the grass, and his blazing eye-balls starting from their sockets! "White man (said he), see ye that small cloud lifting itself from the prairie? he rises! the hoofs of our horses have waked him! The Fire Spirit is awake—this wind is from his nostrils, and his face is this way!" No more—but his swift horse darted under him, and he gracefully slid over the waving grass as it was bent by the wind. Our viands were left, and we were swift on his trail. The extraordinary leaps of his wild horse, occasionally raised his red shoulders to view, and he sank again in the waving billows of grass. The tremulous wind was hurrying by us fast, and on it was borne the agitated wing of the soaring eagle. His neck was stretched for the towering bluff, and the thrilling screams of his voice told the secret that was behind him. Our horses were swift, and we struggled hard, yet hope was feeble, for the bluff was yet blue, and nature nearly exhausted! The sunshine was dying, and a cool shadow advancing over the plain. Not daring to look back, we strained every nerve. The roar of a distant cataract seemed gradually advancing on us—the winds increased, the howling tempest was maddening behind us—and the swift-winged beetle and heath hens, instinctively drew their straight lines over our heads. The fleet-bounding antelope passed us also; and the still swifter long-legged hare, who leaves but a shadow as he dies! There was no time for thought—but I recollect the heavens were overcast—the distant thunder was heard—the lightning's glare was reddening the scene—and the smell that came on the winds struck terror to my soul! The piercing yell of my savage guide at this moment came back upon the winds—his robe was seen waving in the air, and his foaming horse leaping up the towering bluff.

Our breath and our sinews, in this last struggle for life, were just enough to bring us to its summit. We had risen from a sea of fire!" Great God! (I exclaimed) how sublime to gaze into that valley, where the elements of nature are so strangely convulsed!" Ask not the poet or painter how it looked, for they can tell you not; but ask the naked savage, and watch the electric twinge of his manly nerves and muscles, as he pronounces the lengthened "hush——sh———'' his hand on his mouth, and his glaring eye-balls looking you to the very soul!

I beheld beneath me an immense cloud of black smoke, which extended from one extremity of this vast plain to the other, and seemed majestically to roll over its surface in a bed of liquid fire; and above this mighty desolation, as it rolled along, the whitened smoke, pale with terror, was streaming and rising up in magnificent cliffs to heaven!

I stood secure, but tremblingly, and heard the maddening wind, which hurled this monster o'er the land—I heard the roaring thunder, and saw its thousand lightnings flash; and then I saw behind, the black and smoking desolation of this storm of fire!