The Prairie Traveler by Randolph Barnes Marcy, Captain, U.S.A.


A. Portable Boat.

     A BOAT has been invented by Colonel R. C. Buchanan, of the army, which has been used in several expeditions in Oregon and in Washington Territory, and has been highly commended by several experienced officers who have had the opportunity of giving its merits a practical service test.

     It consists of an exceedingly light framework of thin and narrow boards, in lengths suitable for packing, connected by hinges, the different sections folding into so small a compass as to be conveniently carried upon mules. The frame is covered with a sheet of stout cotton canvas, or duck, secured to the gunwales with a cord running diagonally back and forth through eyelet-holes in the upper edge.

     When first placed in the water the boat leaks a little, but the canvas soon swells so as to make it sufficiently tight for all practical purposes. The great advantage to be derived from the use of this boat is, that it is so compact and portable as to be admirably adapted to the requirements of campaigning in a country where the streams are liable to rise above a fording stage, and where the allowance of transportation is small.

     It may be put together or taken apart and packed in a very few minutes, and one mule suffices to transport a boat, with all its appurtenances, capable of sustaining ten men.

     Should the canvas become torn, it is easily repaired by putting on a patch, and it does not rot or crack like India-rubber or gutta-percha; moreover, it is not affected by changes of climate or temperature.

B. Winter Traveling.

     In traveling through deep snow, horses will be found much better than mules, as the latter soon become discouraged, lie down, and refuse to put forth the least exertion, while the former will work as long as their strength holds out.

     When the snow is dry, and not deeper than 2 1/2 feet, horses in good condition will walk through it without much difficulty, and throw aside the snow so as to open quite a track. If there are several horses they should be changed frequently, as the labor upon the leading one is very severe. When the snow is deeper than 2 1/2 feet, it becomes very difficult for animals to wade through it, and they soon weary and give out. The best plan, under such circumstances (and it is the one I adopted in crossing the Rocky Mountains, where the snow was from two to five feet upon the ground), is to place all the disposable men in advance of the animals to break the track, requiring them to alternate from front to rear at regular intervals of time. In this manner a track is beaten over which animals pass with comparative ease.

     When the snow increases to about four feet, it is impossible for the leading men to walk erect through it, and two or three of them are compelled to crawl upon their hands and knees, all being careful to place their hands and feet in the same holes that have been made by those in advance. This packs the snow so that it will sustain the others walking erect, and after 20 or 30 have passed it becomes sufficiently firm to bear up the animals. This, of course, is an exceedingly laborious and slow process, but it is the only alternative when a party finds itself in the midst of very deep snows in a wilderness. Animals, in walking over such a track as has been mentioned, will soon acquire the habit of placing their feet in the holes that have been made by the men; and, indeed, if they lose the step or miss the holes, they will fall down or sink to their bellies.

     Early in the winter, when the snow first falls in the Rocky Mountains, it is so light and dry that snow-shoes can not be used to advantage. We tried the experiment when we crossed the mountains in December and January, but found it impossible to walk upon them.

     Should a party, in a country where the snow is deep, have the misfortune to lose its animals by freezing, the journey can not be continued for any great length of time without devising some method of transporting subsistence besides that of carrying it upon the backs of the men, as they are unable to break a track through deep snow when loaded down in this way.

     The following plan has suggested itself to me as being the most feasible, and it is the one I resolved to adopt in the event of losing our mules faster than we required them for subsistence when we passed the Mountains.

     Take willow, or other flexible rods, and make long sleds, less in width than the track, securing the cross-pieces with rawhide thongs. Skin the animals, and cut the hides into pieces to fit the bottom of the sleds, and make them fast, with the hair on the upper side. Attach a raw-hide thong to the front for drawing it, and it is complete. In a very cold climate the hide soon freezes, becomes very solid, and slips easily over the snow. The meat and other articles to be transported are then placed upon the sled so as not to project over the sides, and lashed firmly. Lieutenant Cresswell, who was detached from Captain M'Clure's shop in the Arctic regions in 1853, says his men dragged 200 pounds each upon sledges over the ice. They could not, of course, pull as much over deep snow, but it is believed that they would have no difficulty in transporting half this amount, which would be sufficient to keep them from starvation at least fifty days.

     I am quite confident that a party of men who find themselves involved in deep snows, dependent solely upon their own physical powers, and without beasts of burden, can perform more labor by adopting the foregoing suggestions than in any other way.

C. Indian Signals.

     When Indians are pursued by a large force, and do not intend to make resistance, they generally scatter as much as possible, in order to perplex and throw off those who follow their trail, but they have an understanding were they are to rendezvous in advance. Sometimes, however, circumstances may arise during a rapid flight making it necessary for them to alter these plans, and turn their course in another direction. When this happens, they are in the habit of leaving behind them some well-understood signals to indicate to their friends in the rear the change in their movements.

     For instance, they will sometimes leave a stick or other object to attract attention, and under this bury an arrow pointing in the new direction they intend to take. They will then continue on for a time in the course they have been pursuing, until they get upon hard ground, where it is difficult to see their tracks, then gradually turn their course in the new direction.


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