Geary and Kansas by John H. Gihon, M.D.

H I S T O R Y     O F     K A N S A S.



Description of the Territory,--Its boundaries--rivers--prairies--woodlands--soil--climate--appearance--and general characteristics.

    THE territory of Kansas is a strip of land over two hundred miles in width, extending from the western boundary of Missouri to the highest ridge of the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the territory of Nebraska; on the east by the state of Missouri; on the south by the Indian Territory and New Mexico; and on the west by the territory of Utah.

    Its principal river is the Kaw or Kansas, which empties into the Missouri in latitude 39°, and longitude 94° at the southern point, where that river separates the territory from the state of Missouri. It flows eastward to this point, receiving in its course many tributaries, some of which, the Republican and the Smoky Hill Forks, take their rise in the Rocky Mountains.

    The north-western portion of the territory is watered by the tributaries of the Platte, which flows through Nebraska; and the eastern and southern districts by the Osage and Upper Arkansas and their branches.

    None of these streams are navigable. A light-draught steamboat has passed up the Kansas more than one hundred miles, to Fort Riley; but very few attempts have been made to repeat the experiment. They might be successful, with a boat drawing from twelve to twenty inches of water, two or three months in the year. The bed of this river is wide, and the bottom a quicksand, which is constantly shifting with the current, forming bars and changing the course of the channel. Its water is always muddy, like that of the Missouri, whilst some of the streams that empty into it are remarkable for their clearness and purity. A number of these branches which, during the seasons of freshets, swell to streams of considerable magnitude, are perfectly dry the greater portion of the year, although in many places pure water can be obtained a short distance below the dry surface.

    The only portion of the territory that possesses any peculiar value for agricultural purposes, is the eastern district, extending from the northern to the southern boundary, and varying from one hundred to two hundred miles westward from the Missouri line. This district is remarkable for the exquisite beauty of its scenery, and the unrivalled fertility of its soil. It is a high rolling prairie, covered in the summer months with tall grass, sprinkled with an immense variety of beautiful flowers, and over which the eye has an unbroken prospect for many miles in extent.

    The soil is a rich black loam, several feet deep, with a porous clay subsoil, resting upon a limestone basis, and is capable of producing hemp, maize, wheat, and all the grains, vegetables and fruits common to temperate regions, in vast abundance and in great perfection.

    Timber is confined exclusively to the margins of the numerous rivers and creeks, along the smaller of which it consists chiefly of stunted oaks, cotton-wood, &c., insignificant in quantity and of but little value. But the banks of the Kansas, Osage, Arkansas, Wakarusa, and other of the more important streams, are lined with wide strips of forest, embracing large quantities of heavy and valuable timber, among which are found white and black oak, walnut, hickory, elm, ash, sycamore, maple, cotton-wood, and other useful varieties.

    There is an abundance of excellent stone for building purposes in all this region, and good coal is said to be plentiful.

    The only game worth naming is the prairie-fowl or grouse, and this is not so abundant as in Illinois. But few fish are found in the streams, the varieties being chiefly the buffalo and catfish, the latter attaining an enormous size, and, like those of the Mississippi River, scarcely fit for food.

    The country west of this district, for a number of miles, is well described in a letter dated December 27th, 1856, addressed to Governor Geary by Lieutenant Francis T. Bryan, of the United States corps of Engineers, and furnishing an account of a journey he had just completed.

    "My route," he says, "can easily be followed on the map accompanying Stansbury's report, or, indeed, any other reliable map of the Territory. Leaving Fort Riley, I went up the Republican River for one hundred and five miles. This valley is fertile, and is cut by many creeks, with wooded banks. Out of the valley, or bottom of the river, the country is high and covered with short buffalo grass. The stone of the country is limestone.

    "Leaving the Republican, the route led over the high prairie thirty-five miles to the Little Blue River, crossing several small creeks, with wooded banks. This country, I think, would be too dry for agricultural purposes. Crossing the little Blue, the route lies long its banks for about fifteen miles, and then leaving the river, goes to the Platte, touching several water holes. From the point where the road first touches the Platte to Fort Kearney, is about fifteen miles, and along the valley of the Platte. The distance from Fort Riley to Fort Kearney we made one hundred and ninety-three miles.

    "From Fort Kearney the route lay along the valley of the Platte for about two hundred miles. This valley is too well known to need any description. There is little or no wood, and the soil is sandy. Any attempt at agriculture, I think, would prove a failure.

    "Crossing the South Platte below the mouth of Pole Creek, we followed the creek to its head in the Black Hills. The country is generally high, grass mostly short, and no wood for most of the distance. Buffalo chips are used for fuel. Pole Creek breaks through two ranges of hills, which we called Pine Bluffs and Cedar Bluffs. These are the only points where wood can be obtained along the creek until the Black Hills are reached. Grass can be found in spots.

    "The route then crossed the Black Hills, where was plenty of fuel and water, but very little grass. Leaving these hills, we found ourselves in the Plains of Laramie, and crossed the east branch of the Laramie River at about five miles from the foot of the hills. About four miles further appears the first fork of Laramie River. Both of these streams have good water and good grass, but little fuel.

    "We then struck the emigrant road near the Medicine Bow Mountains, and followed it to the crossing of the South Platte, having wood, water and grass at convenient distances. The road is over a gravelly soil, and is generally very good and hard. Hard stone, such as granites, &c., is found in these parts.

    "Crossing the South Platte, we struck for the head of Sage Creek, over a most barren and desolate-looking country. Very little fuel or grass. Water was in abundance, and small patches of grass and clumps of trees were found in the hills. Coal was found on the South Platte, a few miles from where we crossed it, and in a situation where it could easily be worked.

    "Buffaloes were seen in large numbers, from the Republican over to the Platte, and for some days up the Platte. Then the game consisted almost entirely of deer. In the Black Hills, and through the Plains of Laramie, antelopes, wolves, and elks were seen and killed, besides prairie dogs, hares, sage chickens, &c.

    "The country through which we had passed on the outward route, was, with little exception, sterile, being too high, dry and stony to possess much value in an agricultural point of view. Along the creeks were some small strips of wood land.

    "The return route was over the same country as the outward route until we reached the east fork of the Laramie River. Then turning to the south we followed the Cache-la-Paudre to its mouth in the South Platte, passing over several very pretty valleys, and having plenty of wood and grass. Following down the South Platte for several days, we came to where the river turns to go north. The country is the same as elsewhere on the Platte. Then sixty miles across a barren region of land and hills, with little water or grass, to a creek emptying into the Republican. For the first one hundred miles down the Republican the country is barren and sandy, with little wood. It then improves. The soil is better, and there are numerous creeks with wooded banks. The river bottom is of good soil, and furnishes excellent grass in large quantity, which affords pasturage to immense numbers of buffaloes. This kind of country continues on to Fort Riley.

    "Along the main streams of the Platte, Republican, and Solomon's Fork, the wood is almost entirely cotton-wood. On the creeks which empty into them, it is generally hard wood, such as ash, elm, walnut, &c. On the Solomon's Fork, the soil of the bottom land appears even better than that on the Republican, and the wooded creeks quite as numerous. These bottoms are very wide in places, and covered with excellent grass. Buffaloes and elk are found in this region also, and in great numbers.

    "I have thus given you a hasty view of the country over which we have passed. That along the lower part of the Republican and Solomon's Fork appears to be by far the best that we saw, though there are some very pretty spots on the creeks in the mountains; but there is no good land in large bodies in that region."

    The section beyond that travelled by Lieut. Bryan, embracing the space between the Black Hills and the main chain of the Rocky Mountains, is thus described by another writer:--

    "Here nature has presented us with every variety and aspect of soil. There are stupendous mountains, the grandeur and sublimity of which create mingled emotions of awe and terror. There are beautiful valleys, embosomed by amphitheatres of hills, where Calypso and her nymphs might have delighted to ramble, variegated by hill and dale, traversed by sparkling rivulets, and adorned with placid lakes. Fruits and flowers spangle the green sward; vines hang in festoons from tree to tree; cascades spring in rainbow hues from the cliffs; pines and cedars, the growth of ages, spread their sombre shade upon the mountain sides, and the stupendous peaks, shooting up into the skies, are crowned with a glittering coronet of snow.

    "A few hours' travel leads us out of this scene of primeval beauty into one in intense contrast with it. Here we find a sterile expanse of many miles in extent, covered with waving lines of sand, producing only stunted artemesia and a few other miserable plants. The rivulets are lost as they descend from the bare ridges around; their hollow murmurs may be heard beneath the feet; and the surrounding peaks are immense piles of bare granite, which seem to have been thrown by some great convulsion into inextricable confusion."

    The climate is not so agreeable as in the same latitudes nearer the Atlantic sea-board. It is dry and variable. The changes of weather are frequent, sudden, and severe, the thermometer not unfrequently rising and falling thirty or forty degrees in a few hours. This is specially the case during the winter season. High winds are very prevalent, sweeping fiercely and almost daily over the unbroken prairies.

    Along the banks of the rivers and smaller streams, the only places where settlements to any extent have yet been made, bilious and intermittent fevers are as common as in more southern latitudes on the Mississippi River. The progress of agriculture will not improve the condition of the country in this regard, as an unhealthy miasma must necessarily arise from turning under to any great extent the heavy sod, and exposing the rich soil to the atmosphere and the rays of the sun. This will in a measure be counterbalanced by the erection of more substantial and suitable habitations for the people, the supply of a greater variety of wholesome food, and other sources and means of health and comfort. To the want of these, as well as to the unsteady habits of a large portion of the population, may justly be attributed much of the sickness that has heretofore prevailed.


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