“The Prairies of Kansas,” by Francis Woodworth (from Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, November 1856; pp. 143-147)
When I returned from my western excursion my mind was full of the things I had seen, and I felt disposed to talk about them incessantly. But remembering that when one’s mind gets filled up in this way, one is apt to wear out people’s patience by this continual stream of talking, I thought I would wind up what I had to say in good time, before any body began to yawn. But it seems that I wound up rather too soon; for a great many of my readers have written to me, begging me to go on with these western sketches. Well, I will tell you a little more about Kansas, I guess. If you are so anxious to hear about the West, does n’t it follow that the farther west my scenes are laid, the better you will like them? I can’t stop now to inquire whether this is good logic or not, but leaving you to determine that matter, I will go on with my rambling sketches.
That was an interesting tour which I made from Lawrence to Leavenworth. It was in the latter part of April. The prairies and woods abounded with beautiful flowers at that time. The weather was so warm, that summer clothing was generally worn. The birds made music for us all the way. There were four in our party, all from different States, and our driver was from Sweden. But we got along very well together. Though we did not agree in every thing, we did agree in many things, and we endeavored not to magnify the points of disagreement, but to make the most of the points in which we could agree.
The route between those two places—Lawrence and Leavenworth—is through a portion of the great rolling prairie which I have before described. Sometimes we rode for an hour or more over a plain but slightly undulated. Then we would cross a stream, the banks of which were fringed with trees. Then, perhaps, the country would assume a rougher aspect, and hills and valleys, on a very small
scale, would appear. The wind we always found very strong on these prairies. The wind and the sun together made sad havoc with my eyes and my lips. I should endeavor to protect my eyes, I think, from the effects of the sun and wind, if I should ever ramble again in prairie land.
I think you would be amused to see a fellow chasing his hat on the prairie, always proved the hat was not your own hat, and the fellow in chase were not yourself. Hazlitt—I think it is Hazlitt, though possibly ’tis Charles Lamb—says that whipping is a very entertaining exercise, though, as to a person’s enjoyment of it, he has noticed that it makes a vast difference at which end of the rod one stands. It is very much the case with this matter of chasing one’s hat. I lost my own hat once on the priaire, with the wind blowing a miniature gale; and though the hat was a soft one, and did n’t travel as fast as some railway locomotives, I was glad enough when the case came to an end. The most amusing race of this kind which I saw while I was in Kansas, was on my route to Leavenworth. Of course I was not the owner of the hat, or the chaser after it. The hat was a very fashionable one, in Mr. Genin’s latest spring style, as stiff as the joint of a stove-pipe, and shaped (as it must be to be fashionable) not unlike the stove-pipe. The wearer—or rather the ex-wearer—was a very well-dressed man, with oceans of dignity about him. I wondered how he kept his linen so clean, we all wondered at the phenomenon; for there is an incalculable amount of free soil blowing about over the prairies, and one who rides all day finds himself of about the color of the ground, whatever that is. Our fashionable gentleman was evidently on a tour of pleasure. He was riding in a light wagon with a friend, as well dressed and as dignified as he. Well, the beaver was blown off by the wind. The gust was very accommodating, I thought, to our party; for it waited until we were within sight before it hurled off the hat. The gentleman alighted with as much dignity and deliberation as he would have employed if he had been going to pay his respects to an emperor. He did n’t mean to be in haste. It is n’t dignified, it is n’t genteel, to be in a hurry. Vulgar people are in a hurry. Our dignified friend alighted and commenced the pursuit of his hat, with a most becoming coolness. The hat, however—could it have been a vulgar hat? it had the air of one of Genin’s—was in haste. It started off before the wind at the rate, I should think, of some ten miles an hour, including stoppages. The gentleman found it necessary to quicken his
speed. So did the hat. Away it went, rolling, tumbling, bounding over that immense plain; and away went the owner after it. Now a clump of grass a little higher than the rest, would stop it for a moment—only a moment— then it would start off again, as if rested by the slight detention. The man in chase, by this time, had forgotten his dignity, his gentility, his respectability, his standing in society—every thing but his bare head and his itinerant hat. On he ran, with the speed of Mazeppa, his long hair streaming in the wind, and the skirts of his fashionable frock-coat at an angle of about eighty degrees with his body. We had stopped to enjoy the amusement. Oh, it was such an entertaining scene! We watched the poor fugitive until we could just discern a dim speck in the distance, and then we went on. Whether the hat was caught or not, we never knew. It may be—though I scarcely think it probable—that the fashionable gentleman is chasing his beaver to this day.
The flowers on the open prairies of Kansas are very abundant; but most of them are large and showy, rather than beautiful. They are like coarse oil paintings. They look very well in the distance, though after a close inspection we can not like them so well. The flowers in the woods, on the margins of the streams, are smaller and more beautiful. I saw many of the faces which have been familiar to me from my childhood, as well as some which were new to me. I found a new species of Asclepias, which was very handsome; also one of the Trillium, which excels in beauty most of its sisters in the Northern States. A species of Phlox was very common. So were two species—new to me—of the Verbena, and one of the Cassia.
There are half a dozen streams, more or less, between Lawrence and Leavenworth, which we have to cross. There are no bridges. We are obliged to ford them, and this is no small matter, after a recent rain. Sometimes the water is so high that the wagon is carried down stream, and the passengers are obliged to swim for their lives. Sicoxie’s Creek is a pretty little brook. It is called by this name from an Indian chief of this name, residing near the ford. The Stranger Creek—the Big Stranger, take notice, for there are two streams of this name—is another beautiful brook. It is about midway between Lawrence and Leavenworth, and on its banks travelers who have any thing to eat, usually stop to dine. My fellow-passengers were not so provident as they might have been. They had not been long in the Territory; and they seemed to have had a sort of notion that there were comfortable inns along the road, where one
might secure a fine dinner. If they were indulging in any such dreams, however, they were woefully disappointed. Not a house is to be seen, except here and there, at very long intervals, an Indian hut, where entertainment is quite out of the question. I had a box of sardines, plenty of crackers and cheese, and a cup for drinking. My companions had nothing of the kind. Famine stared them in the face. I allowed them to sit under the gaze of this haggard monster, long enough to punish them for not being sufficiently thoughtful to bring their own provisions with them, after which I allowed them to share my dinner.
After dinner, I strolled along the banks of the Stranger Creek for a long distance. The water is clear, except soon after a rain, when it is very muddy. Oak and black walnut are the principal trees. I found a bird’s nest on one of these trees, unlike any I had ever seen before. The bird I did not see, and no one could tell me the name of it. The nest was a curious piece of workmanship. The rushes and flexible twigs of which it was composed were woven together, like a basket. There were four eggs in the nest, which were of a dull white color, slightly speckled. I wish I could have seen the bird that made the nest.
We saw a great many snakes on the way. Rattle-snakes—I was told their dispositions were milder than their cousins in Pennsylvania and Virginia possessed—were very abundant. One of our party had a pocket pistol with him, and he shot several of these snakes.
We passed ant-hills of enormous size. Our driver was a very thoughtful man, looking out for the future as well as the present. While we were resting after dinner, he was busy planting watermelon-seeds. He said it would be nice, in the summer, to have plenty of fine watermelons for dinner. I asked him, afterward, how he planted his seed, and intimated to him, that unless the prairie grass was rooted up for some distance around the hill, his melons would not be likely to do very well. “Oh,” he said, “I found just the right sort of
hills already made. There”—pointing to one of the ant-hills—“I planted the seeds in those nice little mounds. The melons will not need any weeding all summer.” The man was right. His melons have n’t given him any trouble during the whole season, I feel sure. The ants have relieved him of any care of them whatever.
Almost every body in Kansas goes armed. It seemed to me a sad state of things which made this almost universal practice necessary. For myself, I carried only the arms which God made for me. I don’t know that it would be very safe for me to carry any other arms. If I should ever have occasion to use them, I am not sure but I should be quite as likely to shoot myself as any body else.