Wild Trail, Wild Life

Animals on the range

The great migration west during the middle third of the 19th century was an experience unlike any previously encountered by the population of the rapidly growing United States of America.

Almost everything was new, at least in the sense that it now transpired in an environment that became increasingly alien the further west one traveled. One aspect of that environment was, of course, the animal life which was part of the natural order of things long before humans put in an appearance. Some of the animals were new to emigrant eyes, and even familiar beasts took on new aspects as wagon trains slowly made their way across the high plains and mountains. What impact, if any, did encounters with such animals have on emigrants? Based on emigrant diaries, one easily reaches an unsurprising conclusion – those animals which directly affected emigrants’ lives were mentioned with some frequency and detail while the treatment of others ranged from episodic and casual to non-existent.

Of all animal life resident in the trans-Mississippi west, without question the one creature most commented upon was the buffalo. More obviously numerous because of their impressive size, the numbers of these great beasts almost defied imagination.

O.A. Stearn, who accompanied his aunt Mrs. Velina A. Williams west in 1853, composed the following description of one of the many buffalo herds in existence at the time. After noting that “This whole Platte region is subject to frequent, sudden and frightful thunderstorms. . . generally accompanied or preceded by violent windstorms,” Stearn observed that “the distant gathering of clouds on the horizon and the faint rumble of distant thunder. . . were sufficient warning to enable the trains to get ready to withstand their shock.” On one such occasion Stearn’s party, observing a gathering cloud and hearing a distant rumble “to the south of west on the opposite side of the river,” made ready for a storm. But there was no lightning accompanying this storm, and the thunder “seemed more continuous . . . while increasing in volume” rather than being intermittent, as was usually the case. Furthermore, the cloud “that at first seemed to be coming directly towards us was now seen to be following a course parallel to the river …”. The mystery was soon solved, for as the cloud approached within three or four miles of the train, “the ground seemed to fairly tremble” with the hoofbeats of buffalo.

Soon the dust cloud was opposite us, when a gust of wind from down river lifted the cloud for awhile, and we beheld a compact black mass, extending beyond farther than we could see and coming in unbroken masses from the rear. The quaking of the earth and the rumble of the rushing torrent continued for a long time, many estimated the herd to be from four to eight miles long and of unknown width. Surely many, many thousands of those animals.

The buffalo herds survived during most of the period of emigrant travel on the Oregon-California Trail, even though they were regularly utilized as a source of fresh meat. The demand for buffalo robes and a military decision to eliminate the Indian’s “natural commissary” eventuated in the decimation of the herds in the 1870’s and 1880’s. This is not to say that the average emigrant was somehow a natural “conservationist” with regard to the buffalo. Rather, emigrants, like the Indians themselves, were simply too few in number to have a major deleterious impact on the existence of the great beasts.

An occasional emigrant did decry the wanton and wasteful slaughter of animals. The Reverend Edward Evans Parrish (1844), for example, described “Buffalo racing” as a “business of much diversion.” “A horse of common speed will run upon them immediately. The hunter then dismounts and fires, then loads and mounts again, and soon comes within gunshot. This process is continued until he has taken in this way what he wants.” And how much might such a hunter want? Parrish goes on to report that “Forty thousand pounds of the best beef spoiled in one night. The animals were run through the hot sun a great part of the day, and then shot down and left to lie in the hot sun during the afternoon until near sunset, before they were guted, and then were left through the night with the hide on. . . God forgive us for such waste and save us from such ignorance.”

In a somewhat similar vein, Henry Allyn recorded the following entry in his diary on Thursday, June 9, 1853: “Pass several head of cattle that had given out, and one or two dead, and likewise the carcass of a poor buffalo, I suppose shot needlessly by some emigrant. This is barbarous, it is cruelty and it is robbing the poor Indians.” Eleven years later, at the end of May, 1864, Harriet A. Loughary described the result of buffalo hunting. “While the bleached bones of the buffaloe are strewn all along the road, not an animal seen. The needless and wanten slaughter of these once numerous animals, has almost caused them to be extinct.”

Buffalo may have been the biggest, and thus the most impressive, of nature’s high plains creatures, but they were far from being the only ones encountered by those going “westering.” An occasional effort was made to domesticate/tame a “wild” animal. Harriet Hitchcock (1864) had a pet prairie dog (which did not survive when its cage tumbled down a mountain-side) and Eliza Ann McAuley (1852) was given both a squirrel and a young antelope as pets by male members of her party. The squirrel went to an undesignated fate, while the antelope eventually fell prey to Indian dogs. It was, in any event, unusual to attempt to turn an antelope into a pet.

The experience recounted by Mariett Foster Cummings (1852) represents a much more usual encounter. “An antelope came almost into our noon camp,” she wrote on June 9. “They shot at it but it went bounding off to the hills unharmed.” For most emigrants, such amusement as they might obtain from observing antelopes was far removed from considering them “pets,” potential or otherwise. The Reverend Edward Evans Parrish, whose comments vis-a-vis buffalo were noted earlier, provides a case in point with his diary entry dated Thursday, July 11 (1844). “On our return to camp, Mr. Joseph Caples shot a long distance at an antelope, and broke its hind leg; but the fun began when Samuel Ferguson, on horse back, tried to catch it. After a fine race, he overtook it, dismounted to kill it, when it ran again. They pursued it on foot and finally captured it.” For contemporary readers, the designation of such activity as “fun” might be subject to argument.

The saddling of a snake with the theological responsibility for the human “fall from grace” perhaps indicates the esteem with which this animal has traditionally been viewed. It is not, therefore, surprising that encounters with snakes, which could and did occur episodically throughout the entire trip west, engendered a near universal reaction – a reaction which normally resulted in the demise of the snake.

“Killed a rattlesnake, which is the first snake of any kind we have seen on the waters of Collumbia.” Thus wrote Henry Allyn on July 23, Saturday, 1853. The same year, about a month and a half earlier, Mrs. Velina A. Williams “crossed some steep ravines about 2 o’clock and made our camp early on the bank of a smal stream” near Elm Creek in Nebraska. “Just as we were making our way to the camp,” she wrote in her diary that night, “and I was walking along examining the ground, stooping to look into a hole, I found myself standing on a copperhead snake. He was coiled and my foot was across the coil so that the head was fortunately too nearly under my foot to injure me.” We are, I suspect, justified in assuming that the snake was then dispatched as promptly as could be arranged! Eleven years later, on May 19, 1864, Harriet A. Loughary recorded the fact that “Snakes (are) also numerous in these sandy knowls, but quite harmless. Yet some of our boys who were accustomed to kill copperheads took pleasure in killing them.” One result of such reactions, at least along the Arkansas River, was described by Julia Anna Archibald in 1858 when she noted that “A number of large rattlesnakes were killed along this river. They were formerly very numerous, but have been killed off to a great extent by California emigrants and others.”

Of course, the fatal result of reptile-human encounters did not always afflict the reptile! As is still true today, improperly treated (or untreated) snake bites can kill humans. As Lucretia Lawson Epperson (1864) makes clear, a poisonous snake can also be deadly for other animals. “We had been in camp but a few moments,” she wrote on May 28, “when one of our jennets was bitten on the upper lip by a very poisonous snake, and died in less than twenty minutes. This was the first animal we had lost.”

While virtually all emigrants had little if any use for snakes, several of them described what to them was an apparent relationship between snakes and prairie dogs. Lucretia Lawson Epperson (1864), for instance, noted that “dogs, rattle-snakes, and owls burrow in the ground together,” while Harriet Hitchcock (1864) likewise observed, “The rattle snakes and the white owl live with them [prairie dogs] under the ground.” Jane Kellogg (1852) “heard that rattlesnakes and owls live with them [prairie dogs].” F inally, Harriet A. Loughary (1864) simply pointed out, “Snakes also numerous in these sandy knowls. . .”.

As noted above, Harriet Hitchcock had an unhappy experience in her attempt to tame a prairie dog. Rather than attempting to domesticate them, other diarists were content to describe the activities which marked “prairie dog towns.” Some, like Lucretia Lawson Epperson (1864), “camped near a prairie dog village,” then very cursorily described the inhabitants as being “small and of brownish color.” Harriet A. Loughary (1864) provided more detail. On May 19, she and her party “passed a village of prairie dogs,” which, she observed, was called a village because “The separate little inclined holes in the ground, where each little animal makes his home . . . (are) as thick over the ground as peas in a pod. . . Hundreds of little heads were peeping out of the holes, but they are so quick in their movements that an expert marksman can scarcely kill one.” Jane Kellogg (1852) certainly agreed with the last observation when she reported that “The little mounds covered quite a space of ground. The little dogs would stand on the tope of them and bark at us; if we started toward them they would disappear into their holes.”

When Harriet Hitchcock’s train “Passed through a large settlement of Prairie dogs” in June of 1864, she was impressed by the fact that “the whole country seems full of them.” “These animals,” she continued, “are very shy and keep near their holes and commence barking as soon as they see anyone coming near.” For some reason not explained, “We undertook to get a Prairie dog by pouring water into the hole.” Whatever the girls were attempting, they got a surprise.

After we had poured several pails of water in we heard a great commotion underneath. We were all provided with gloves. Harry held a bag ready to receive the stranger. Lucy was bending over the hole to watch its coming when suddenly she jumped and screamed as a large animal came rushing out with glaring eyeballs looking fiercely at us. We were all frightened and the animal seemed no less so as he slowly walked away the water dripping from his sides, probably he had never received such treatment from girls before. It proved to be a Rocky Mountain Badger a very savage animal when attacked.

Rabbits were so plentiful their presence was not frequently commented upon – unless something out of the ordinary attracted the attention of a passer-by. Near Pawnee Springs, Harriet Loughary’s attention was so attracted late in May of 1864. Noting that “the first jack rabbit was seen, but not captured,” she went on to note that “They have a habit of runing and jumping in a circuitous path that puzzles both dogs and gunners at first.” Twelve years earlier, in mid-September and near the Cascade Mountains practically at the other end of the Oregon Trail, E.W. Conyers (1852) gave a considerably more detailed description of a “very pretty little race between a coyote and a jackrabbit.”

It was either life or death for the rabbit, but not so with the coyote. He entered the race for a nice, good, fresh meal which he expected to receive at the end of the race. The race took place near the summit of a mound and about fifty yards to the right of the road, and was in a circle of about three hundred yards. The rabbit first came in sight from behind the mound, running for dear life. Taking a circle, he soon disappeared from our sight behind the knoll. Just after the rabbit disappeared the coyote came in sight, putting in his best licks to overtake his intended victim. He, too, disappeared behind the knoll. Soon after the coyote’s disappearance, to our surprise here came the rabbit again for another round. Some of the boys declared that the rabbit was after the coyote, and offered to wager that he would catch the coyote on the next round. By this time the excitement was runing high. The whole train was stopped to witness the finish of the race. Before the rabbit disappeared the second time the coyote hove in sight. It was quite plain to be seen that the coyote was gradually closing up the gap between them. At this stage of the race many wagers were offered as to the number of rounds it would take the coyote to close the gap between them. The rabbit made his appearance in the third and the fourth rounds, with the coyote closely following and gradually closing the gap. Finally they both came in sight for the fifth and last round, the coyote about twenty feet behind his victim. At this stage of the race the whole train, with one voice, gave the racers three rousing cheers, but neither rabbit nor coyote flew the track, nor seemed to pay the least attention whatever to the noise, but silently and steadily pursued their course, the rabbit putting in his best licks to save his bacon, and the coyote straining every nerve in his last effort to obtain a good, fresh meal. They quickly passed from sight the fifth time. As they did not appear any more in the race we came to the conclusion that the rabbit had thrown up the sponge.

Mr. Conyers, of course, was hardly the only diarist to remark upon the ubiquitous presence of coyotes and/or wolves. The plaintive night-time call of these animals was a regular feature of trail travel. The May 7 entry in Henry Allyn’s 1853 diary, for example, notes simply that “last night we were serenaded by the wolves.” Two years earlier, in September of 1851, Jean Rio Baker “encamped on Pacific Creek (found) the wolves very troublesome all night, with their howling, which was accompanied by the barking of all the dogs in camp.” Harriet Loughary (1864) was likewise somewhat distressed near the Quaking Asp Grove when “The wolves on the neighboring hells make the night hideous with their howls, but like the Indians are peaceable because they have to be,” and Mary Ringo (1864) was frank to admit that “In the night the wolves come in and howl and scares me a good deal at first.”

But the howling call of the coyote was not the only attribute of the animal which trail travelers found disturbing. Amelia Hadley (1851) noted at least one other reason why these animals were far from popular. The day before her party reached Willow Spring – Friday, June 13- “(we) came to a grave his name Glenette died 1849, was burried in a canoe. The wolves had made a den down in his grave. They dig up everyone that is burried on the plains as soon as they are left. It looks so cruel I should hate to have my friends or myself burried here. which all may be.”

Given such negative reactions, it is hardly surprising that coyotes were, almost as a matter of course, regularly hunted. Camping on the Platte River in May of 1854, for instance, Sarah Sutton reported that “the boys kill’d a young kioto [coyote] wolf with the dogs.” Six days later, coming through Ash Hollow, a member of her party, one Mr. Cook, “wounded a wolf and the dogs caught him.” On occasion, however, more serious [to humans] encounters took place. John T. Kerns was camping with his companions, T.F. James, James McCoy and Samuel, in a tent on Burnt River on Friday, August 27, 1852. According to his own account, Mr. Kerns was “sleeping soundly about 3 o’clock, (when) I got to dreaming of being out on guard, which by the way, we done a great deal of; that I had sat down and was leaning up against a small mound, and whilst in this posture I thought a panther had jumped upon me.” The dream was so real that Kerns woke up with “a half-smothered scream” only to “behold one of those mountain wolves or kiotas. . . upon me sure enough.” “My scream awakened James McCoy,” he continued, “who instantly discovered the contemptible scamp and drew up his legs and gave the gentleman a kick which rolled him out of the tent whirling.”

Ten years after Sarah Sutton’s party had killed a coyote in Ash Hollow, Captain Eugene Ware (1864) noted, “Coming down Ash Hollow we saw a great number of deer, and in the valley were a great number of antelope, and wolves without limit.” And that night the good captain had a most unusual encounter with one of those wolves. “As each wolf can make as much noise as ten wolves ought to make, the chorus, after dark, began. It must have been after ten o’clock before we rolled up on our blankets.” “In order to get a pillow, not having a saddle,” the captain continued, “I went and got a sack of bacon. The bacon had been cut in slabs about eight inches wide, two of them put together, and covered with gunny-sacking.”

So I put my head on this sack of bacon with my blanket over me, and put in my time looking at the stars and listening to the wolves. They kept up the wildest chorus that I ever heard. It seemed as if there were a million around us. . . The men had all gone to sleep. . . when all at once out from under my head went the bacon. I jumped up in a second. There was a wolf backing over the grass, pulling that sack of bacon, and making a sort of low growl. I did not dare shoot him, and he was making small headway with the bacon. But I got my saber out, and made a pass at him without hitting him. He finally let got of the bacon, and lapsed back into the darkness. I then saw that the wolves were very hungry, and that the pillow which I had was not a very secure one. I went to the wagons, and put this bacon upon the rear running-gear of the wagon, and got part of a sack of corn. I was afraid that the wolves would make an attack on the mules and horses. Every once in a while a sort of dusky blur would whisk past the wagons, and as I wanted to keep awake anyhow so as to give the men a good sleep. . . I from time to time, with my drawn saber, walked around the wagons, so as to be sure that the gang of wolves did not pitch onto some animal and have a feast. When morning came I was very tired and sleepy, but felt better after I had drank a quart of hot coffee.

In their own way, beaver have been associated with the Rocky Mountain West as thoroughly as have the buffalo with the high plains. Wagon train emigrants had relatively little occasion to encounter beaver, who for obvious reasons had been much more important to the mountain men of an earlier era. Since the trail followed a series of rivers, however, now and then members of a wagon train might spot one or more of the industrious animals. West of the forks of the Platte, Lucretia Lawson Epperson “visited a grave near our camp, after supper” on the night of May 23, 1864, noting that “On the head board was cut in rude letters Mrs. Mary Brown, buried June, 1853. Oh! what a lonely place to be laid.”

From the grave I went up a little mountain stream, half a mile from camp, to see a beaver dam and house. I never saw anything of the kind before. It was astonishing what skill was displayed in making the dam. No timber being near, they used a species of willow that grows upon the margin of the stream. The pond, formed by damming the river, looked lovely in the bright moon light-quite a “fairy lake,” indeed. Mr. Lawrence cut a hole in the dam, so that the “little workers” would have some “repairs” to make the ensuing day.

Unlike beaver, fish frequently figured in emigrant calculations as a source of food. Fishing as an activity was reported and, particularly during the last third of the journey through Idaho and into the Columbia River country, emigrants frequently traded for salmon with the Indians. Sarah Sutton (1854), for example, reported having “caught some fish in the river” while camped “for the night on a fork of Bear River.” Virginia Ivins’ husband “took out tackle and went fishing” in “a beautiful little stream called Goose Creek.” Mrs. Ivins accompanied her husband, “but talked so much that he became disgusted and sent me off. Not having any more fishing tackle I fixed up a thread and pin hook, and to my great surprise caught a lot of little beauties before he had a bite. We staid some hours, until we had caught a fine fry for supper, and reluctantly left the spot.” Contemporary readers are entitled to wonder whether, since Mrs. Ivins caught the fish, Mr. Ivins cleaned and cooked them! Mrs. Ivins does not tell us what kind of fish were involved in the activities of her husband and herself. Camping on Ham’s Fork of Green River in 1851, John S. Zeiber did convey such information, observing that “A kind of fish caught here called trout.”

During the early part of the journey west, before the trains left or were at least in the vicinity of the “States,” emigrants sometimes encountered domesticated animals. “Encountered” is possibly not the right word with which to refer to the incident reported by Lucretia Lawson Epperson on April 20, 1864 just east of Council Bluffs.

Nothing occurred to break the monotony of rain and muddy roads, until a flock of tame geese came marching along near the road. One of our men thinking no one would see him, seized one of them and threw it into my wagon. Just in the act, he was spied by the owner of the goose, an old Irish woman, who started after our train, minus bonnet or shawl, and vowed she would have the man arrested. Her husband followed and tried to appease her wrath, but all in vain. Mr. Epperson told her he could not help what his man had done, but was willing to make amends by paying for it. She took two dollars and went home. The goose came to life, it being only stunned, so I dropped it in the road after the old lade was out of sight; and no doubt by the time she reached home, the goose had joined the flock and was relating its sad experience to its comrades. Suffice it to say we had the goose for joke all the way across the plains.

Not quite a decade earlier, on Sunday, May 29, 1853, Henry Allyn reached the Platte where he and his companions “Saw many wagons and droves of cattle over on the S. side of Platte, on the St. Joe road, and saw likewise Fort Kearney, as we believe, as we know of no other building this high up on the St. Joe road.” “Not long after we had stopped,” he continued, ” three sheep came up to the camp as if for protection. But after night one of them was doomed to make a supper for a hungry wolf close to the camp. The two others are lingering around the camp, but, poor things, we cannot help them.” Of course, anyone traveling in the vicinity of the wagon of Martha Missouri Moore and her husband in 1860 would likely have seen a lot of sheep. The Moore’s herded a flock all the way to California. Well, not quite all went to California; in addition to natural losses, a thousand head were sold at Fort Laramie for five dollars each!

Among many others, Mrs. Moore also cites the presence of a universally detested life form which was all too frequently encountered on the road west. Within sight of Court House Rock in western Nebraska in late June of 1860, she complained that “The gnats and mosquitoes are innumerable along here.” The experience of Margaret Frink (1850) and her party near Fort Hall ten years earlier was even more pronounced. “Mosquitoes were as thick as flakes in a snowstorm,” she wrote. “The poor horses whinnied all night, from their bites, and in the morning the blood was streaming down their sides.” Little wonder that Edwin Bryant had explained the situation in July of 1846 by observing that “The atmosphere is filled with swarms of mosquitos (which) bite with a fierceness far greater than their civilized brethren of the ‘settlements’.”

No discussion, even one as brief and incomplete as this one, of western animals should be concluded without mention of an animal more normally associated with the deserts of Asia and Africa. Introduced by the military into the Southwest, their use was occasionally attempted by others. Thus, in August of 1864 Lucretia Lawson Epperson camped at Salt Wells, where she reported “From the salt lake here, they make tons of salt which is shipped in great quantities to Austin and Virginia City. The salt is used in the quartz mills. She additionally reported that she “Saw several camels carrying packs of salt.”

From the perspective of humans, the animals described above range the gamut from useful and attractive to useless to dangerous. In view of such variety, it is perhaps well to remember the words of the poet Cecil Frances Alexander:

All Things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all