Miles, Edward A., "Letter from the Plains," The Mormon, 8 September 1855, 3.
Letter from the Plains.
WE give the following letter handed us by Brother Miles of Brooklyn, written by his son on the plains, thinking it may not be uninteresting to many of our readers unaccustomed to those little occurrences incident to a journey across the plains:
NEBRASKA TERRITORY, near Fort Kearney,
Sunday, June 16th, 1855.
We left camp at the Grove on Thursday the 7th of June, at noon, and travelled six miles and camped the next day we made twelve miles, and the next eighteen, when we camped until Monday, since which time we have averaged nearly twenty miles a day. Yesterday we camped at noon, to allow the women to wash. The road we have travelled over is better than any I have seen east, perfectly even; the prairies are not perfectly level, but consist of long stretches, sloping off into valleys every mile or two, sometimes more, and sometimes less; often however, the descents are quite abrupt; this is along the road which generally winds so as to cross as few valleys as possible.
We crossed the Big Blue river on Friday at noon, when we met several Pawnee Indians, they are great beggars. We expect to meet one thousand of them to-morrow; they are preparing to go on a buffalo hunt. The old chief whom we met at Big Blue got five dollars out of the company for crossing his bridge on the creek twelve miles distant, but when we got there no bridge was to be met with; he wanted sixty dollars after the captain paid the five, saying, "Mormon rich."
The arrangements of the camp are as follows: get up at half-past three o'clock; all cows to be milked at four o'clock. The guard over the herd, who are always well armed, take the cattle out for feed and water at six or seven o'clock; the herd is driven inside the corral and yoked up, and we prepare to start. Each company of ten takes its turn to be first, bringing up the rear of the train the next day; at noon we halt for a couple of hours to get dinner and let our cattle rest and drink. We usually hold up at half-past six o'clock; the cattle are herded until nine, when they are driven into the corral. When the night guard comes on, there being two watches of three hours and a half each, three men guards the mouth of the corral, and three are put around the camp, the tents and horses being on the outside of the corral; each man's turn to guard comes every four nights, herding every three days about. Two nights we camped far from wood and water, having to lay in those articles at noon. On Tuesday night I was put on guard over the cattle from nine to half-past twelve o'clock, and they were left outside that they might feed, as we did not arrive until late; when I came on, the cattle were all lying down except two or three. About ten o'clock I caught about twenty oxen going by the lower end of my beat toward the creek a hundred yards distant; I spent considerable time in getting them back, and then found the whole herd in motion, moving outward to every point of the compass, each individual oxen its own hook, which made it more troublesome to drive them back: No. 5 calling Nos. 6 and 4 for help, and they were also calling for aid; after spending a quarter of an hour's time in vain, I called to the serjeant of the guard to rouse the camp; the cattle kept moving away from the camp, eating while going though rapidly; we have chased them two or three miles away, lost sight of the camp, drove the cattle by guess (the sky being obscured by clouds) until we struck the creek when the small portion of the camp which had been roused came to our assistance, and succeeded in getting them inside of the corral by twelve o'clock; not an ox being missing. The next day it rained, and we did not leave until noon. I forgot to mention, that I wondered at first at the cattle moving as they did, but ceased to do so when I learned that they had not been watered; the creek banks being too steep, they were after the dew, which covers the grass in large beads.
Persons belonging to the camp kill one or more rattlesnakes every day; I have not come across any alive yet. The prairie rattlesnakes are spotted different from the other kind (both kinds are found however,) and are smaller, but make less noise; they rattle when they hear anyone approaching, and generally endeavor to move out of the way. The moccasin snakes are just as deadly as rattlesnakes; I have seen two, but both got away; they are very large. We have not seen any game yet, except a few long-legged birds, and a sight by a few persons in camp of a squirrel or two. My rifle is not thought much of in camp, it is said to be for squirrel shooting; they have rifles in camp capable of shooting a large ball five hundred yards, they cost but twelve dollars new, and United States rifles that cost only ten.
Yesterday morning we met a train of about a dozen wagons, with horse teams, five weeks from Salt Lake; they were missionaries, and report very few Indians along the route, buffalo in millions however; report the road safe, but grass and water not so plentiful, and passing the May mail, we will come to Buffalo this week. Our company is mostly from St. Louis, and comprises an equal proportion of English and Americans.
Sunday, 24th.—Last Sunday evening I stood guard from nine o'clock to half-past twelve; I was then serjeant of the guard, my duty being to place and see after the rest of the guard. During the evening a thunder storm hung over our heads, and about twelve o'clock poured down a flood of rain on the high hill upon which we were encamped; and whilst the lightning seemed to rend the heavens, as it were into huge fragments, I happened to be about fifty yards from the outside of the corral, when a dazzling flame played around my rifle barrel which projected groundward from under an India rubber cape, which kept the rain from the lock and the upper part of my body, at the same time forked streaks of lightning crossed each other in every direction, and run along the ground within a foot of me; this was accompanied by thunder, which seemed to burst all around me, and I felt something like a bullet crashing into my brain, in the neighborhood of the organ of ideality, on the left side; I gave one shriek, and unconsciously wheeled around several times, every idea being driven from my brain except the one melancholy though that I had been struck by lightning and must die; at the same time that I felt the blow, everything seemed to grow black before my eyes, which were open; all this occupied but a moment of time. When I had reeled around several minutes, with nerves unstrung, the guard who was nearly behind me came towards me, supposing I had been killed. For two days I felt a stupidity, as if one-half of my life was driven out of me.
I usually drive the team one-half the timed and either get in the wagon and sleep, or walk the rest of the time, help yoke up and unyoke, and assist in other wagon duties. My cheeks look quite filled up; I have had my feet wet for two days at a time, but have felt no bad effects; the dew will wet one's pants halfway above the knees in the morning, so think does it hang to the leaves; the grass on the hills is generally from six to twelve inches high, but in the ravines much higher, and interspersed with bushes.
Last Thursday the company received orders from Elder Snow to await the arrival of three other companies that must be a week behind, in consequence of reports of Indian troubles. We stopped all day on Friday at the Little Blue river, along which we will travel a day or so yet. We only made fourteen miles yesterday, and camped; when we get near Fort Kearney we will stop longer.
We have had two deaths since we started, one the wife of the man that died near us at the Grove.
On Monday we came in sight of buffalo; there were several thousands visible, and hunters were sent out and succeeded in killing one three-year old cow; it was hauled into camp next morning, and divided around. The rule in camp is, that no one shall hunt without permission from the captain, this is to save game from needless destruction.
Two men went out on Monday with a pistol loaded with shot to hunt; shortly afterwards they were seen coming swiftly towards the camp, with a buffalo chasing them. Oxen were seen among Monday's drove, and a buffalo had to be driven from our herd; we have picked up several head of stray cattle already. It is now Saturday, and we are on the Platte within ten miles of Kearney. We travelled thirty five miles from four o'clock, P. M., to five o'clock, A. M. this morning; we travelled all night, it being better for the cattle, as there is no water between this and the last camp.
I will give you some idea of our fare; we have bread and biscuit every day, sometimes pancakes, butter, molasses, sugar, tea and coffee, with applesauce and preserved grapes, for supper, and whenever eggs can be had at the trading posts; cakes, beans, peas, rice, mush, and pusley for greens, and good ones they are too. You know the low running vine—fed to hogs—well, that is it. Ham and buffalo meat—the latter does not taste unlike beef, but is sweeter and juicier. Fish are not plentiful in the streams, but we capture one once in a while.
We shall not get in on account of delays until September; the captain will have to send by mail orders for flour to meet us between Laramie and the valley to supply many who are short in consequence of the dallying of the train.
We have seen no Indians since we left the Big Blue; the thousands we were told we should meet were no doubt scared from their village, which we passed, by the passing of the United States mounted soldiers a couple of days before us. The buffalo are down seventy miles below Kearney, which is lower than they have been for some years; the scarcity of water this year is the reason. A train of mule teams (one wagon of Negroes) containing several families passed our camp on Wednesday morning from Salt Lake, where they had been Mormons, but were leaving for good.
Monday.—We are at Fort Kearney, which is no fortification proper, but a series of barracks, &c. A band of Cheyennes are camped near; they are said to be going to fight the Pawnees below.
EDWARD A. MILES