“Uncle Frank in Kansas,” by Francis Woodworth (from Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, June 1856; pp. 178-182)
I wonder if my young friends would like to hear a little about my rambles in the far-western Territory of Kansas. If they would, I am the man to gratify them. When I was a little boy nothing pleased me better than to creep up close to a man who had seen a good deal of the world, and to listen by the hour to the stories he had to tell of his travels. Now that I have grown older, and seen something of the world myself, I really believe I love to tell the stories about places I have visited, as well as I used to hear such stories in my boyhood. I don’t know what I should do, after having seen any new country which pleased me very much, if I had n’t some one to listen to my rather rambling account of what I had seen.
I left the busy city of Chicago for St. Louis, on the 7th day of April. My route was by the Chicago, Alton, and St. Louis railroad. An extremely pleasant journey we had to Alton. Nearly the whole distance is over one uninterrupted prairie. I wish you could see a large prairie. Some of you, it is true, have seen such things. Some of you live in a prairie country. But a great many of my readers never saw such a glorious sight; and how they would shout with delight if they could stand on one like this in Illinois, and look around them on every side, and perceive nothing but one vast plain as far as the eye can reach. It reminded me of the view of the ocean I used to have, when I was riding upon its waves. And speaking of waves reminds me of the difference there is in the character of prairies. There are two kinds of prairies, and you will see them both in Illinois and Kansas. One is a level plain, scarcely undulating, though there may be an occasional ravine passing through it, with a little stream, to break the monotony. The other is what is called a rolling prairie, and its surface is not unlike the waves of the ocean. At night—for we did not arrive at Alton before very late at night—we were delighted with the prairie fires which were continually visible. The tall grass, which is very dry late in the autumn or in the spring,
is set on fire and burned; and you can’t imagine what a fine sight one of these large fires makes; and then, when there are half a dozen of them at once, as frequently is the case, the spectacle is charming in the extreme.
From Alton to St. Louis we go down the Mississippi River in a steamer. The steamers in this part of the country are not like ours on Long Island Sound and on the Hudson River. They go on the high-pressure system, while ours are low-pressure boats. The steam is condensed in our boats, and is applied to the machinery without condensing in the Western boats. One of the effects of the high-pressure system is a very constant cough with which each of the steampipes is troubled. You can hear a boat coming a long distance off, by its coughing. It always has a bad influenza. The boats are pleasant and comfortable though, and one gets to liking them soon almost as well as those of the other kind.
At St. Louis, which is the great central point from which emigrants embark for Kansas and Nebraska, we found a perfect crowd of people. It was as much as we could do, at 2 o’clock at night, to find a bed at any of the hotels. I found one at last at the Planter’s Hotel—one of the best houses in the Western country—but it was in a ballroom, where there were some dozen beds besides mine.
The next day after our arrival at St. Louis—strictly speaking, the same day, I suppose—we started up the Missouri River, on our way to the Territory. I was in company all the way with the Kansas Committee of Investigation from Washington. Excellent accommodations had been secured for our party before our arrival, by some kind friend who knew we were coming, on board the steamer David Tatem. I have seldom been more uniformly pleased with a trip of four days than I was with this up the Missouri. We had not only an excellent boat, but an excellent captain and clerk, and every thing was done that could be done to make us comfortable and happy.
The Missouri River has many peculiar attractions connected with it. To be sure, one familiar with the Hudson, and the Connecticut, and the Delaware, feels a little disposed to pick a quarrel with it on account of its muddy water. It is not very clear, that is a fact. In other words, if you should dip up a tumblerful of it, and throw a marble into it, you would not be able to see the marble on the bottom. But for all that, the water is excellent for drinking when it is filtered. The turbid character of the Missouri River, by the way—for I don’t want any of its tributaries to suffer that is innocent—is principally
due to the Yellowstone. If you’ll take a good map of the Western States and Territories, and trace the Missouri up very near where our Territory joins the British possessions, you will see this naughty Yellowstone, with its numerous assistants, all of which are as deep in the mud as the principal itself is in the mire, running from the south-west.
It is a fact which will startle you—and I mention it here because it comes into my mind now, and may not be so accommodating again—that the Missouri River, itself the branch of another river, is navigable by steamers all the way to Fort Union, at the mouth of the Yellowstone, which is said to be, such is the winding course of the river, more than fifteen hundred miles from the junction of the Missouri with the Mississippi.
The banks of the Missouri, especially for the first two hundred miles from its mouth, are far more beautiful than I had been led to believe, from the descriptions of the scenery which I have read. Bold, almost perpendicular bluffs, frequently rise from the margin of the river, to the height of some two hundred feet. The shape of the cliffs—which are of limestone, a material which is always playing some freak or other—is often curious and wonderful. Sometimes they take the form of huge castles. We can see, as we pass along, the appearance of great boulders which have been piled artificially one above another. With a little imagination, one could fancy himself going up the Rhine, and passing feudal castles without number. They present a semi-circular front, and the strata which form them are so clearly discerned, and withal have such an artificial appearance, that we almost involuntarily look for the cannon peeping out of the chinks in the wall.
These high bluffs never occur on both sides of the river at once. When one side is bold and rocky, the other is low and flat. Immense trees grow on the banks of the Missouri, all the way, with an occasional interruption, from St. Louis to Leavenworth, in Kansas. The principal of thse trees, both for size and abundance, are the sycamore and the cotton-wood.
We had passengers from almost every part of the Union on our boat. Some were bound for different places in Missouri; some were going to Nebraska; but the great majority of them were on their way to Kansas.
We arrived at Kansas City, a thriving town just on the border of
the Territory, in four days from the time we left St. Louis. Here we had to crowd into the little hotel, very much as sheep huddle together when the weather is cold, and the snow is blowing furiously. But one gets accustomed to this packing after a while, and it ceases to incommode him much. I succeeded in doing what very few others in the house accomplished. I was furnished with a writing-table all by myself, and in my own room, too—my own room, that is, in company with three other gentlemen, to whose generosity I owed the luxury.
It was several days before we pursued our journey into the Territory. It was not the easiest thing in the world to obtain conveyances. But they were had at last, and very tolerable they were regarded, though it makes me laugh to think what a figure they would make in the vicinity of New York or Philadelphia. For the first forty miles west from the Missouri River, we pass through the lands reserved for the Shawnee Indians. It is a beautiful country. The sun does not often shine upon soil so well adapted for the use of the farmer. It is a rolling prairie the whole distance. Now you see nothing but prairie waves, as far as the vision extends. Then you encounter pleasant ravines, with beautiful streams running through them, crowned with trees on both sides. There are no fences, except those which inclose a little Indian garden, and these are few and far between. The land is all extremely rich. I saw corn-stalks of last year’s growth, at least fifteen feet high. Very little of the Shawnee land is cultivated. Indians are not remarkable for industry, you know. We saw a good many of these Shawnees on our way. They were all dressed fantastically. Red seems to be their favorite color; and whenever they can get a rag of that hue, I judge they lay it under contribution in the adornment of their costume. The men very generally wear feathers in their hats. It makes but little difference, it would seem, from what bird these ornamental feathers are obtained. The turkey and the goose were especially taxed in supplying the feathers which came under my observation; though the prairie-hen must have suffered somewhat, I should think. The women greatly outdid the men in fantasticals. Tin ear-rings as large as a small saucer, were abundant. The most gaudy styles of calico formed their dress, which was invariably set off with the red patches. Many, not all of them, had their faces besmeared with red paint. Their houses are generally built with logs, though some are formed of turf and mud. Every Indian family has a pack of dogs, and at
least one pony. On the whole, what I saw of the Shawnee tribe did not much tend to exalt my opinion of the Indian character. I spoke to two or three of them; but they had nothing to say in return, but some native gibberish. I am informed by those who live among them, that many of them can talk with white people, but that they don’t choose to avail themselves of the privilege.
We stopped to dine at the house of one of these Indians. He gave us a pretty good dinner—I’ll say that for him. Near the hotel was the council house of the nation. It so happened that the council were in session. We were invited to go in. We did so. The council consists of a chief and four or five counselors. They were sitting around a table, on which lay a small book (doubtless for records), a large arrow-head, a cannister of tobacco, and several pipes. The discussions, it may be supposed, were interesting to those concerned in them. To me, they seemed rather dull and sleepy. Indeed, I was afraid that the chief, who was a portly man, would actually drop asleep, and I am not sure but he did nod once or twice.
But I must talk no more about matters and things in Kansas at present. I am afraid I shall tire out your patience.