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


Repairing Broken Wagons. -- Fording Rivers. -- Quicksand. -- Wagon Boats. -- Bull Boats. -- Crossing Packs. -- Swimming Animals. -- Marching with Loose Horses. -- Herding Mules. -- Best Methods of Marching. -- Herding and Guarding Animals. -- Descending Mountains. -- Storms. -- Northers.


     THE accidents most liable to happen to wagons on the plains arise from the great dryness of the atmosphere, and the consequent shrinkage and contraction of the wood-work in the wheels, the tires working loose, and the wheels, in passing over sidling ground, oftentimes falling down and breaking all the spokes where they enter the hub. It therefore becomes a matter of absolute necessity for the prairie traveler to devise some means of repairing such damages, or of guarding against them by the use of timely expedients.

     The wheels should be frequently and closely examined, and whenever a tire becomes at all loose it should at once be tightened with pieces of hoop-iron or wooden wedges driven by twos simultaneously from opposite sides. Another remedy for the same thing is to take of the wheels after encamping, sink them in water, and allow them to remain over night. This swells the wood, but is only temporary, requiring frequent repetition; and, after a time, if the wheels have not been made of thoroughly seasoned timber, it becomes necessary to reset the tires in order to guard against their destruction by falling to pieces and breaking the spokes.

     If the tires run off near a blacksmith's shop, or if there be a traveling forge with the train, they may be tied on with rawhide or ropes, and thus driven to the shop or camp. When a rear wheel breaks down upon a march, the best method I know of for taking the vehicle to a place where it can be repaired is to take off the damaged wheel, and place a stout pole of three or four inches in diameter under the end of the axle, outside the wagon-bed, and extending forward above the front wheel, where it is firmly lashed with ropes, while the other end of the pole runs six or eight feet to the rear, and drags upon the ground. The pole must be of such length and inclination that the axle shall be raised and retained in its proper horizontal position, when it can be driven to any distance that may be desired. The wagon should be relieved as much as practicable of its loading, as the pole dragging upon the ground will cause it to run heavily.

     When a front wheel breaks down, the expedient just mentioned can not be applied to the front axle, but the two rear wheels may be taken off and placed upon this axle (they will always fit), while the sound front wheel can be substituted upon one side of the rear axle, after which the pole may be applied as before described. This plan I have adopted upon several different occasions, and I can vouch for its efficacy.

      The foregoing facts may appear very simple and unimportant in themselves, but blacksmiths and wheelwrights are not met with at every turn of the roads upon the prairies; and in the wilderness, where the traveler is dependent solely upon his own resources, this kind of information will be found highly useful.

     When the spokes in a wheel shrink more than the felloes, they work loose in the hub, and can not be tightened by wedging. The only remedy in such cases is to cut the felloe with a saw on opposite sides, taking out two pieces of such dimensions that the reduced circumference will draw back the spokes into their proper places and make them snug. A thin wagon-bow, or barrel-hoops, may then be wrapped around the outside of the felloe, and secured with small nails or tacks. This increases the diameter of the wheel, so that when the tire has been heated, put on, and cooled, it forces back the spokes into their true places, and makes the wheel as sound and strong as it ever was. This simple process can be executed in about half an hour if there be fuel for heating, and obviates the necessity of cutting and welding the tire. I would recommend that the tires should be secured with bolts and nuts, which will prevent them from running off when they work loose, and, if they have been cut and reset, they should be well tried with a hammer where they are welded to make sure that the junction is sound.


     Many streams that intersect the different routes across our continent are broad and shallow, and flow over beds of quicksand, which, in seasons of high water, become boggy and unstable, and are then exceedingly difficult of crossing. When these streams are on the rise, and, indeed, before any swelling is perceptible, their beds become surcharged with the sand loosened by the action of the under-current from the approaching flood, and from this time until the water subsides fording is difficult, requiring great precautions.

     On arriving upon the bank of a river of this character which has not recently been crossed, the condition of the quicksand may be ascertained by sending an intelligent man over the fording-place, and, should the sand not yield under his feet, it may be regarded as safe for animals or wagons. Should it, however, prove soft and yielding, it must be thoroughly examined, and the best track selected. This can be done by a man on foot, who will take a number of sharp sticks long enough, when driven into the bottom of the river, to stand above the surface of the water. He starts from the shore, and with one of the sticks and his feet tries the bottom in the direction of the opposite bank until he finds the firmest ground, where he plants one of the sticks to mark the track. A man incurs no danger in walking over quicksand provided he step rapidly, and he will soon detect the safest ground. He then proceeds, planting his sticks as often as may be necessary to mark the way, until he reaches the opposite bank. The ford is thus ascertained, and, if there are footmen in the party, they should cross before the animals and wagons, as they pack the sand, and make the track more firm and secure.

     If the sand is soft, horses should be led across, and not allowed to stop in the stream; and the better to insure this, they should be watered before entering upon the ford; otherwise, as soon as they stand still, their feet sink in the sand, and soon it becomes difficult to extricate them. The same rule holds in the passage of wagons: they must be driven steadily across, and the animals never allowed to stop while in the river, as the wheels sink rapidly in quicksand. Mules will often stop from fear, and, when once embarrassed in the sand, they lie down, and will not use the slightest exertion to regain their footing. The only alternative, then, is to drag them out with ropes. I have even known some mules refuse to put forth the least exertion to get up after being pulled out upon firm ground, and it was necessary to set them upon their feet before they were restored to a consciousness of their own powers.

     In crossing rivers where the water is so high as to come into the wagon-beds, but is not above a fording stage, the contents of the wagons may be kept dry by raising the beds between the uprights, and retaining them in that position with blocks of wood placed at each corner between the rockers and the bottom of the wagon-beds. The blocks must be squared at each end, and their length, of course, should vary with the depth of water, which can be determined before cutting them. This is a very common and simple method of passing streams among emigrant travelers.

Illustration: Swimming a Horse.

     When streams are deep, with a very rapid current, it is difficult for the drivers to direct their teams to the proper coming-out places, as the current has a tendency to carry them too far down. This difficulty may be obviated by attaching a lariat rope to the leading animals, and having a mounted man ride in front with the rope in his hand, to assist the team in stemming the current, and direct it toward the point of egress. It is also a wise precaution, if the ford be at all hazardous, to place a mounted man on the lower side of the team with a whip, to urge forward any animal that may not work properly.

     Where rivers are wide, with a swift current, they should always, if possible, be forded obliquely down stream, as the action of the water against the wagons assists very materially in carrying them across. In crossing the North Platte upon the Cherokee trail at a season when the water was high and very rapid, we were obliged to take the only practicable ford, which ran diagonally up the stream. The consequence was, that the heavy current, coming down with great force against the wagons, offered such powerful resistance to the efforts of the mules that it was with difficulty they could retain their footing, and several were drowned. Had the ford crossed obliquely down the river, there would have been no difficulty.

     When it becomes necessary, with loaded wagons, to cross a stream of this character against the current, I would recommend that the teams be doubled, the leading animals led, a horseman placed on each side with whips to assist the driver, and that, before the first wagon enters the water, a man should be sent in advance to ascertain the best ford.

     During seasons of high water, men, in traversing the plains, often encounter rivers which rise above a fording stage, and remain in that condition for many days, and to await the falling of the water might involve a great loss of time. If the traveler be alone, his only way is to swim his horse; but if he retains the seat on his saddle, his weight presses the animal down into the water, and cramps his movements very sensibly. It is a much better plan to attach a cord to the bridle-bit, and drive him into the stream; then, seizing his tail, allow him to tow you across. If he turns out of the course, or attempts to turn back, he can be checked with the cord, or by splashing water at his head. If the rider remains in the saddle, he should allow the horse to have a loose rein, and never pull upon it except when necessary to guide. If he wishes to steady himself, he can lay hold upon the mane.

     In traveling with large parties, the following expedients for crossing rivers have been successfully resorted to within my own experience, and they are attended with no risk to life or property.

     A rapid and deep stream, with high, abrupt, and soft banks, probably presents the most formidable array of unfavorable circumstances that can be found. Streams of this character are occasionally met with, and it is important to know how to cross them with the greatest promptitude and safety.

     A train of wagons having arrived upon the bank of such a stream, first select the best point for the passage, where the banks upon both sides require the least excavation for a place of ingress and egress to and from the river. As I have before remarked, the place of entering the river should be above the coming-out place on the opposite bank, as the current will then assist in carrying wagons and animals across. A spot should be sought where the bed of the stream is firm at the place where the animals are to get out on the opposite bank. If, however, no such place can be found, brush and earth should be thrown in to make a foundation sufficient to support the animals, and to prevent them from bogging. After the place for crossing has been selected, it will be important to determine the breadth of the river between the points of ingress and egress, in order to show the length of rope necessary to reach across. A very simple practical method of doing this without instruments is found in the French "Manuel du Genie." It is as follows:

Illustration: Diagram for Measurements.

     A man who is an expert swimmer then takes the end of a fishing-line or a small cord in his mouth, and carries it across, leaving the other end fixed upon the opposite bank, after which a lariat is attached to the cord, and one end of it pulled across and made fast to a tree; but if there is nothing convenient to which the lariat can be attached, an extra axle or coupling-pole can be pulled over by the man who has crossed, firmly planted in the ground, and the rope tied to it. The rope must be long enough to extend twice across the stream, so that one end may always be left on each shore. A very good substitute for a ferry-boat may be made with a wagon- bed by filling it with empty water casks, stopped tight and secured in the wagon with ropes, with a cask lashed opposite the center of each outside. It is then placed in the water bottom upward, and the rope that has been stretched across the stream attached to one end of it, while another rope is made fast to the other end, after which it is loaded, the shore-end loosened, and the men on the opposite bank pull it across to the landing, where it is discharged and returned for another load, and so on until all the baggage and men are passed over.

     The wagons can be taken across by fastening them down to the axles, attaching a rope to the end of the tongue, and another to the rear of each to steady it and hold it from drifting below the landing. It is then pushed into the stream, and the men on the opposite bank pull it over. I have passed a large train of wagons in this way across a rapid stream fifteen feet deep without any difficulty. I took, at the same time, a six-pounder cannon, which was separated from its carriage, and ferried over upon the wagon- boat; after which the carriage was pulled over in the same way as described for the wagons.

     There are not always a sufficient number of airtight water-casks to fill a wagon-bed, but a tentfly, paulin, or wagon-cover can generally be had. In this event, the wagon-bed may be placed in the center of one of these, the cloth brought up around the ends and sides, and secured firmly with ropes tied around transversely, and another rope fastened lengthwise around under the rim. This holds the cloth in its place, and the wagon may then be placed in the water right side upward, and managed in the same manner as in the other case. If the cloth be made of cotton, it will soon swell so as to leak but very little, and answers a very good purpose.

     Another method of ferrying streams is by means of what is called by the mountaineers a "bull-boat," the frame-work of which is made of willows bent into the shape of a short and wide skiff, with a flat bottom. Willows grow upon the banks of almost all the streams on the prairies, and can be bent into any shape desired. To make a boat with but one hide, a number of straight willows are cut about an inch in diameter, the ends sharpened and driven into the ground, forming a frame-work in the shape of a half egg- shell cut through the longitudinal axis. Where these rods cross they are firmly secured with strings. A stout rod is then heated and bent around the frame in such a position that the edges of the hide, when laid over it and drawn tight, will just reach it. This rod forms the gunwale, which is secured by strings to the ribs. Small rods are then wattled in so as to make it symmetrical and strong. After which the green or soaked hide is thrown over the edges, sewed to the gunwales, and left to dry. The rods are then cut off even with the gunwale, and the boat is ready for use.

     To build a boat with two or more hides: A stout pole of the desired length is placed upon the ground for a keel, the ends turned up and secured by a lariat; willow rods of the required dimensions are then cut, heated, and bent into the proper shape for knees, after which their centers are placed at equal distances upon the keel, and firmly tied with cords. The knees are retained in their proper curvature by cords around the ends. After a sufficient number of them have been placed upon the keel, two poles of suitable dimensions are heated, bent around the ends for a gunwale, and firmly lashed to each knee. Smaller willows are then interwoven, so as to model the frame.

     Green or soaked hides are cut into the proper shape to fit the frame, and sewed together with buckskin strings; then the frame of the boat is placed in the middle, the hide drawn up snug around the sides, and secured with raw-hide thongs to the gunwale. The boat is then turned bottom upward and left to dry, after which the seams where they have been sewed are covered with a mixture of melted tallow and pitch: the craft is now ready for launching.

     A boat of this kind is very light and serviceable, but after a while becomes water-soaked, and should always be turned bottom upward to dry whenever it is not in the water. Two men can easily build a bull-boat of three hides in two days which will carry ten men with perfect safety.

     A small party traveling with a pack train and arriving upon the banks of a deep stream will not always have the time to stop or the means to make any of the boats that have been described. Should their luggage be such as to become seriously injured by a wetting, and there be an India-rubber or gutta-percha cloth disposable, or if even a green beef or buffalo hide can be procured, it may be spread out upon the ground, and the articles of baggage placed in the center, in a square or rectangular form; the ends and sides are then brought up so as entirely to envelop the package, and the whole secured with ropes or raw hide. It is then placed in the water with a rope attached to one end, and towed across by men in the same manner as the boats before described. If hides be used they will require greasing occasionally, to prevent their becoming water-soaked.

Illustration: Crossing a Stream.

     When a mounted party with pack animals arrive upon the borders of a rapid stream, too deep to ford, and where the banks are high and abrupt, with perhaps but one place where the beasts can get out upon the opposite shore, it would not be safe to drive or ride them in, calculating that all will make the desired landing. Some of them will probably be carried by the swift current too far down the stream, and thereby endanger not only their own lives, but the lives of their riders. I have seen the experiment tried repeatedly, and have known several animals to be carried by the current below the point of egress, and thus drowned. Here is a simple, safe, and expeditious method of taking animals over such a stream. Suppose, for example, a party of mounted men arrive upon the bank of the stream. There will always be some good swimmers in the party, and probably others who can not swim at all. Three or four of the most expert of these are selected, and sent across with one end of a rope made of lariats tied together, while the other end is retained upon the first bank, and made fast to the neck of a gentle and good swimming horse; after which another gentle horse is brought up and made fast by a lariat around his neck to the tail of the first, and so on until all the horses are thus tied together. The men who can not swim are then mounted upon the best swimming horses and tied on, otherwise they are liable to become frightened, lose their balance, and be carried away in a rapid current; or a horse may stumble and throw his rider. After the horses have been strung out in a single line by their riders, and every thing is in readiness, the first horse is led carefully into the water, while the men on the opposite bank, pulling upon the rope, thus direct him across, and, if necessary, aid him in stemming the current. As soon as this horse strikes bottom he pulls upon those behind him, and thereby assists them in making the landing, and in this manner all are passed over in perfect safety.


     In traveling with loose horses across the plains, some persons are in the habit of attaching them in pairs by their halters to a long, stout rope stretched between two wagons drawn by mules, each wagon being about half loaded. The principal object of the rear wagon being to hold back and keep the rope stretched, not more than two stout mules are required, as the horses aid a good deal with their heads in pulling this wagon. From thirty to forty horses may be driven very well in this manner, and, if they are wild, it is perhaps the safest method, except that of leading them with halters held by men riding beside them. The rope to which the horses are attached should be about an inch and a quarter in diameter, with loops or rings inserted at intervals sufficient to admit the horses without allowing them to kick each other, and the halter straps tied to these loops. The horses, on first starting, should have men by their sides, to accustom them to this manner of being led. The wagons should be so driven as to keep the rope continually stretched. Good drivers must be assigned to these wagons, who will constantly watch the movements of the horses attached, as well as their own teams.

     I have had 150 loose horses driven by ten mounted herdsmen. This requires great care for some considerable time, until the horses become gentle and accustomed to their herders. It is important to ascertain, as soon as possible after starting, which horses are wild, and may be likely to stampede and lead off the herd; such should be led, and never suffered to run loose, either on the march or in camp. Animals of this character will soon indicate their propensities, and can be secured during the first days of the march. It is desirable that all animals that will not stampede when not working should run loose on a march, as they pick up a good deal of grass along the road when traveling, and the success of an expedition, when animals get no other forage but grass, depends in a great degree upon the time given them for grazing. They will thrive much better when allowed a free range than when picketed, as they then are at liberty to select such grass as suits them. It may therefore be set down as an infallible rule never to be departed from, that all animals, excepting such as will be likely to stampede, should be turned loose for grazing immediately after arriving at the camping-place; but it is equally important that they should be carefully herded as near the camp as good grass will admit; and those that it is necessary to picket should be placed upon the best grass, and their places changed often. The ropes to which they are attached should be about forty feet long; the picket-pins, of iron, fifteen inches long, with ring and swivel at top, so that the rope shall not twist as the animal feeds around it; and the pins must be firmly driven into tenacious earth.

     Animals should be herded during the day at such distances as to leave sufficient grass undisturbed around and near the camp for grazing through the night.


     Among men of limited experience in frontier life will be found a great diversity of opinion regarding the best methods of marching, and of treating animals in expeditions upon the prairies. Some will make late starts and travel during the heat of the day without nooning, while others will start early and make two marches, laying by during the middle of the day; some will picket their animals continually in camp, while others will herd them day and night, etc., etc. For mounted troops, or, indeed for any body of men traveling with horses and mules, a few general rules may be specified which have the sanction of mature experience, and a deviation from them will inevitably result in consequences highly detrimental to the best interests of an expedition.

     In ordinary marches through a country where grass and water are abundant and good, animals receiving proper attention should not fall away, even if they receive no grain; and, as I said before, they should not be made to travel faster than a walk unless absolutely necessary; neither should they be taken off the road for the purpose of hunting or chasing buffalo, as one buffalo- chase injures them more than a week of moderate riding. In the vicinity of hostile Indians, the animals must be carefully herded and guarded within protection of the camp, while those picketed should be changed as often as the grass is eaten off within the circle described by the tether-rope. At night they should be brought within the chain of sentinels and picketed as compactly as is consistent with the space needed for grazing, and under no circumstances, unless the Indians are known to be near and an attack is to be expected, should they be tied up to a picket line where they can get no grass. Unless allowed to graze at night they will fall away rapidly, and soon become unserviceable. It is much better to march after nightfall, turn some distance off the road, and to encamp without fires in a depressed locality where the Indians can not track the party, and the animals may be picketed without danger.

     In descending abrupt hills and mountains one wheel of a loaded wagon should always be locked, as this relieves the wheel animals and makes every thing more secure. When the declivity is great both rear wheels should be locked, and if very abrupt, requiring great effort on the wheel animals to hold the wagon, the wheels should be rough-locked by lengthening the lock-chains so that the part which goes around the wheels will come directly upon the ground, and thus create more friction. Occasionally, however, hills are met with so nearly perpendicular that it becomes necessary to attach ropes to the rear axle, and to station men to hold back upon them and steady the vehicle down the descent. Rough-locking is a very safe method of passing heavy artillery down abrupt declivities. There are several mountains between the Missouri River and California where it is necessary to resort to one of the two last-mentioned methods in order to descend with security. If there are no lock-chains upon wagons, the front and rear wheels on the same side may be tied together with ropes so as to lock them very firmly.

     It is an old and well-established custom among men experienced in frontier life always to cross a stream upon which it is intended to encamp for the night, and this rule should never be departed from where a stream is to be forded, as a rise during the night might detain the traveler for several days in awaiting the fall of the waters


     In Western Texas, during the autumn and winter months, storms arise very suddenly, and, when accompanied by a north wind, are very severe upon men and animals; indeed, they are sometimes so terrific as to make it necessary for travelers to hasten to the nearest sheltered place to save the lives of their animals. When these storms come from the north, they are called "northers;" and as, during the winter season, the temperature often undergoes a sudden change of many degrees at the time the storm sets in, the perspiration is checked, and the system receives an instantaneous shock, against which it requires great vital energy to bear up. Men and animals are not, in this mild climate, prepared for these capricious meteoric revolutions, and they not unfrequently perish under their effects.

     While passing near the head waters of the Colorado in October, 1849, I left one of my camps at an early hour in the morning under a mild and soft atmosphere, with a gentle breeze from the south, but had marched only a short distance when the wind suddenly whipped around into the north, bringing with it a furious chilling rain, and in a short time the road became so soft and heavy as to make the labor of pulling the wagons over it very exhausting upon the mules, and they came into camp in a profuse sweat, with the rain pouring down in torrents upon them.

     They were turned out of harness into the most sheltered place that could be found; but, instead of eating, as was their custom, they turned their heads from the wind, and remained in that position, chilled and trembling, without making the least effort to move. The rain continued with unabated fury during the entire day and night, and on the following morning thirty-five out of one hundred and ten mules had perished, while those remaining could hardly be said to have had a spark of vitality left. They were drawn up with the cold, and could with difficulty walk. Tents and wagon-covers were cut up to protect them, and they were then driven about for some time, until a little vital energy was restored, after which they commenced eating grass, but it was three or four days before they recovered sufficiently to resume the march.

     The mistake I made was in driving the mules after the "norther" commenced. Had I gone immediately into camp, before they became heated and wearied, they would probably have eaten the grass, and this, I have no doubt, would have saved them; but as it was, their blood became heated from overwork, and the sudden chill brought on a reaction which proved fatal. If an animal will eat his forage plentifully, there is but little danger of his perishing with cold. This I assert with much confidence, as I once, when traveling with about 1500 horses and mules, encountered the most terrific snow-storm that has been known within the memory of the oldest mountaineers. It commenced on the last day of April, and continued without cessation for sixty consecutive hours. The day had been mild and pleasant; the green grass was about six inches high; the trees had put out their new leaves, and all nature conspired to show that the somber garb of winter had been permanently superseded by the smiling attire of spring. About dark, however, the wind turned into the north; it commenced to snow violently, and increased until it became a frightful tempest, filling the atmosphere with a dense cloud of driving snow, against which it was impossible to ride or walk. Soon after the storm set in, one herd of three hundred horses and mules broke away from the herdsmen who were around them, and, in spite of all their efforts, ran at full speed, directly with the wind and snow, for fifty miles before they stopped.

     Three of the herdsmen followed them as far as they were able, but soon became exhausted and lost on the prairie. One of them found his way back to camp in a state of great prostration and suffering. One of the others was found dead, and the third crawling about upon his hands and knees, after the storm ceased.

     It happened, fortunately, that I had reserved a quantity of corn to be used in the event of finding a scarcity of grass, and as soon as the ground became covered with snow, so that the animals could not get at the grass, I fed out the corn, which I am induced to believe saved their lives. Indeed, they did not seem to be at all affected by this prolonged and unseasonable tempest. This occurred upon the summit of the elevated ridge dividing the waters of the Arkansas and South Platte Rivers, where storms are said to be of frequent occurrence.

     The greater part of the animals that stampeded were recovered after the storm, and, although they had traveled a hundred miles at a very rapid pace, they did not seem to be much affected by it.

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