NEGenWeb Project
Resource Center
On-Line Library



"Now let no climb Nebraska's loftiest hill,
And from its summit view the scene beyond.
The moon comes like an angel down from Heaven;
Its radiant face is the unclouded sun,
Its outspread wings the overarching sky,
Its voice the charming minstrels of the air,
Its breath the fragrance of the bright wild flowers.
Behold the prairie, broad and grand and free--
'Tis God's own garden, unprofaned by man,"

Nebraska. A poem: 1854.

   This was Nebraska in the early days. The following expresses the Nebraska of the present:

Alone along the vast and silent plain
   I ride beneath the solemn evening skies;
   In shadowy majesty around me rise
Hay-heaped monuments that now retain
Some semblance of the shapes beside the drain
   Of Egypt's desert where the lotus lies
   Withered upon the tombs, and the proud eyes
Of ancient kings are dust. Dear God! bow vain
The Pharoah's labor and the mighty toil
   Of slaves that built the pyramids of old;
For here are symbols of a nobler spoil
   Won in our battle with the earth. Behold
Man's history! I feel within my breast
The sadness of the East, the glory of the West.

     The invasion of the central portion of this continent came from the South, and long antedated the arrival of explorers in the "Northwest." Although Nebraska forms the geographical centre of the continent, the phenomenon of settlement has made it appear far to the west.
    The march of Coronado from the City of Mexico to the "Valley of the Platte," was one of the marvelous undertakings for which the Spaniards of that age are famed. The region he traversed was not only "undiscovered," but the country, when known by grave experience, proved to possess a constantly varying succession of obstacles. The mountains of Mexico gave place, in the wearisome journey, to the sand plains of New Mexico and the desert of Kansas. Coronado crossed these arid plains, the precipitous mountains and monotonous prairies, which lie between Nebraska and the home of the Montezumas. Coronado's exploit is found fully described in the works of Ternaux-Campans.
    Coronado set out from Mexico in the spring of 1540 with 300 Spaniards and 800 natives, in search of the seven fabled cities of Cibola and the land of Quivera. His march was marked by the worst atrocities towards the aborigines he met than ever were attributed to Cortes' followers, "in the name of God and the Emperor."
    He came as far as the Arkansas River, in southern Kansas. Here he lost all faith in his guide, and finding provisions hard to obtain he sent back the army to wait for him, on the banks of the Pecos River, in New Mexico, and pressed on north with thirty followers and the guide securely bound to a horse. After journeying four or five weeks he reached the fortieth parallel of lattitude (sic) (the southern boundary of the State of Nebraska), sometime in the month of July, 1541
  .   Here in Nebraska they encountered a chief whom they decided was the king, Tartarrax, they sought, and his country the land of Quivera. But alas for the vanity of human greed; the only precious metals they saw was a copper plate, hanging to the old hoary-headed chief's breast, on which he set great store. There were no "musical bells, gilded eagle, silver dishes rosary, image of the Virgin, golden cross, or crown." In the midst of his disappointment Coronado took a melancholy pleasure in hanging the guide who had so egregiously misguided him, and that barbaric Curtius, after boldly avowing that he knew of no gold, that he had brought the invaders into the wilderness to perish with hunger, and he had done this to rid the peaceful dwellers in the Rio Grande and Pecos Valleys of their hated presence, met his fate with that stoicism which the Spaniards called despair and remorse.
    It is judged that Coronado had his headquarters somewhere betwen (sic) Gage and Furnas Counties. He remained here nearly a month, taking observations, making the acquaintance of the Indian tribes and sending out foraging parties to recruit for the return journey.
    Coronado in his dispatches thus describes the people. "The inhabitants are good hunters, cultivate corn and exhibit a friendly disposition. They said that two months would not suffice to visit them entirely. In the whole extent of their province I have seen but twenty-five villages, and these are built of straw. The men are large and the women well formed. The soil is the best possible for all kinds of Spanish fruits. Besides being strong and black it is very well watered by creeks, rivers and fountain. I found plums, such as I have only seen in Spain, walnuts and excellent ripe grapes."
    Jaramillo, one of his lieutenants, writes some years after the expedition: "the country has a fine appearance, such as I have not seen excelled in France, Spain, Italy, or in any of the countries I have visited. It is not a country of mountains, there being but hillocks and plains, with streams of excellent water. It afforded me entire satisfaction. I judge it is very fertile and well suited to the


cultivation of all sorts of fruits. For a grazing country, experience proves it is admirably adapted, when we consider that herds of bisons and other wild animals vast as the imagination can conceive find sustenance there. I noticed a plum of excellent flavor, the stems and blue flowers of a sort of wild flax, sumach along the margins of the streams, like the sumach of Spain, and palatable wild grapes."
    Castenada, another of his lieutenants, enumerates among the fruits, "plums, grapes, walnuts, a kind of false wheat, pennyroyal, wild majoram and flax."
    Another chronicler says: "Quivera is on the 40th parallel of latitude. It is a temperate country with much grass, plums, mulberries. nuts, melons and grapes, which ripen well. There is no cotton and they apparel themselves in bison's hides and deer skins."
    It is interesting to see how these dry catalogues compare with the standard physical geographies of to-day. Prof. Aughey says: "There are three species of plums in the state. Prunus Americana, chicasa and pumila. Of these there is an almost endless variety, the plums being common in almost every county, especially along the water courses and bordering the belts of timber. These plum groves in spring time present a vast sea of flowers, whose fragrance is wafted for miles and whose beauty attracts every eye.
    "Two species of grapes, with a large number of hybrids and varieties abound in Nebraska. It is hard to realize without seeing it, with what luxuriance the vine grows in this state. Some of the timber belts are almost impassable from the number and length of the vines which form a network from tree to tree. Straggling vines are sometimes found far out on the prairie, where, deprived of all other support, they creep along the ground and over weeds and grass.
     "Along the bluffs of the Missouri and some of its tributaries the red mulberry (Morus rubra) abounds. Sometimes it reaches the dimensions of a small tree,
    "The most important of the various varieties of nuts is the noble black walnut (Juglans vigra).
    "The state is also remarkable, for its wild grasses. They constitute everywhere the covering of the prairies. Even where old breaking is left untilled, the grasses vie with the weeds for possession and generally in a few years are victorious. I have in my collection one hundred and fourteen species of grasses that are native to the state.
    "The smooth Sumach (Rhus glabra) is common in Nebraska, and the dwarf sumach (R. Copallina) and the fragrant sumach (R. aromatica) are sometimes found.
    The Spaniards saw for the first time here the prairie dog and buffalo. Their description of the latter is graphic and quaint. "These oxen are of the size and color of our bulls, but their horns are not so great. They have a great hunch upon their fore-shoulders, and more hair on their forepart than on their hinder-part and it is like wool. They have a horse main upon their backbone, and much hair and very long from their knees downwards. They have great tufts of hair hanging from their foreheads and the great store of hair hanging from their chins and throats; makes them look as if they were bearded. The males have very long tails and a great knob a flock at the end, so that in some respects they resemble the lion and in some others the camel. They push with their horns, they run and overtake a horse when they are in a rage. Finally it is a foul and fierce beast in countenance and form of body. Their masters have no other riches or substance; of them they eat, drink, apparel and shoe themselves and of their hides they make many things, as houses, shoes, apparel and ropes; of their bones they make bodkins, of their sinews and hair, thread: of their horns' maws and bladders, vessels; of their dung fire and of their calves' skins, vessels wherein they draw and keep water.
     Here, too, is a scene from Coronado's diary through which many of our States' settlers have themselves gone. "One evening, there came up a terrible storm of wind and hail, which left in the camp hail-stones as large as porringers. They fell thick as rain drops and in some spots the ground was covered with them to a depth of eight or ten inches. The horses broke their rains, some were even blown down the banks of the ravine, the tents were torn and every dish in camp broken. The last was a great loss, for from the natives we could take nothing, not even calabashes, to replace them, the inhabitants living on half-cooked man meat, which needed no plates."
    For nearly 200 years after the Spaniards little record is found of the white man visiting Nebraska. The celebrated missionary explorer Pere Marquette, who navigated the upper Mississippi and discovered the mouth of the Missouri, did not come as far west as Nebraska.
    The first information extant of the tribes of Indians inhabiting the Missouri River is that given by Charlevoix in 1721: "Higher up we find the Cause (Kansas), then the Octotatas (Otoes), then the Ajouez (Iowas) and Panis (Pawnees), a very populous nation divided into several cantons which have names very different from each other. All these live on the west side of the Missouri except the Ajouez, who are on the east side and allies of the Sioux. In the early part of this century nearly the whole Platte Valley was occupied by the Pawnees, the Padoucahs living to the west and the Sioux being their enemies on the east. The former tribe were almost entirely annihilated by the Pawnees while the Sioux were also completely beaten, retiring to the north and east leaving the Pawnees sole possessors of Nebraska till they have been ousted by the white man.
     When the British conquered Canada, in 1760, Louisiana (meaning the whole country from Florida to the Rocky Mountains) remained to France. Two years later, however, she ceded it to Spain. In 1764 Laclede's company founded St. Louis. In 1800 Spain ceded Louisiana back to France. On the 30th April, 1803, Napoleon gave it to the United States.
    On the acquisition of Lousiana the attention


of the government was directed to exploring and improving the newly acquired territory.
    Accordingly in the summer of 1804 an expedition under command of Captains Lewis and Clark, both officers in the army, set out up the Missouri river from St. Louis, in three boats, and with all the necessary ammunition and conveniences.
    They reached, on the 11th of July, and encamped on a large island of sand opposite the mouth of the Nemaha. The following from their daily journal is interesting:
    Thursday, July 12.--The Nemaha empties itself into the Missouri river from the south, and is eighty yards wide at its mouth. Captain Clark ascended it in the pirogue about two miles, to the mouth of a small creek on the lower side. Ongoing ashore he found in the level plain several artificial mounds and on the adjoining hills others of a larger size. This appearance indicates sufficiently the former population of this country, the mounds being certainly intended as tombs, the Indians of the Missouri still preserving the custom of interring the dead on high ground. From the top of the highest mound a delightful prospect presented itself--the level and extensive meadows watered by the Nemahaw and enlivened by the few trees and shrubs skirting the borders of the river and its tributary streams; the lowland of the Missouri covered with undulating grass, nearly five feet high, gradually rising into a second plain, where rich weeds and flowers are interspersed with copses of the Osage plum; farther back were seen small groves of trees, an abundance of grapes, the wild cherry of the Missouri, resembling our own, but larger, and growing on a small bush, and the choke-cherry, which we observed for the first time. Some of the grapes gathered to-day are nearly ripe. On the south of the Nemahaw and about a quarter of a mile from its mouth, is a cliff of freestone, in which are various inscriptions and marks made by the Indians. The sand island on which we are encamped is covered with the two species of willow-broad and narrow leaf.
     "July 13.--We proceeded at sunrise with a fair wind from the south, and at two miles passed the mouth of a small river on the north called Big Torkio. A channel from the bed of the Missouri once ran into this river and formed an island called St. Joseph's, but the channel is now filled up and the island is added to the northern shore. Farther on to the south is situated an extensive plain, covered with a grass resembling timothy in its general appearance, except the seed, which is like flaxseed, and also a number of grape-vines. At twelve miles. we passed an island on the north, above which is a large sand-bar covered with willows, and, at twenty and a half miles, stopped on a large sand-bar in the middle of the river, opposite a high, handsome prairie, which extends to the hills four or five miles distant, though near the bank the land is low and subject to be overflowed.
    "July 14.--We came, at the distance of two miles, to an island on the north, where we dined. One mile above, on the same side of the river, is a small factory, where a merchant of St. Louis traded with the Otoes and Pawnees two years ago. Near this is an extensive lowland, part of which is overflowed occasionally; the rest is rich and well timbered. The wind again changed to northwest by north. At seven and a half miles, we reached the lower point of a large island on the north side. A small distance above this point is a river, called by the Maha [now Omaha] Indians. the Nishnabatona. This is a considerable creek, nearly as large as the Mine River. and runs parallel to the Missouri the greater part of its course, being fifty yards wide at its mouth. In the prairies or glades, we saw wild timothy, lambs-quarter, cuckleberries, and, on the edge of the river, summer grapes, plums and gooseberries. We also saw to-day for the first time, some elk, at which some of the party shot, but at too great a distance. We encamped on the north side of the island, a little above Nishnabotna, having made nine miles. The river fell a little.
     "July 15.--A thick fog prevented our leaving the encampment before 7. At about four miles. we reached the extremity of the large island, and. crossing to the south side of the Missouri, at the distance of seven miles, arrived at the Little Nemaha, a small river from the south. forty yards wide a little above its mouth, but contracting as do almost all the waters emptying into the Missouri at its confluence. At nine and three-quarter miles we encamped on a woody point on the south. Along the southern bank is a rich lowland, covered with pea vine and rich weeds, and watered by small streams rising in the adjoining prairies. They, too, are rich, and, though with abundance of grass, have no timber, except what grows near the water; interspersed through both are grape-vines, plums of two kinds, two species of wild cherry, hazelnuts and gooseberries. On the south there is one unbroken plain: on the north the river is skirted with some timber, behind which the plain extends some four or five miles to the hills, which seem to have little wood.
    "July 16.--We continued our route between a large island opposite to our last night's encampment and an extensive prairie on the south. About six miles we came to another large island called Fairsun Island, on the same side, above which is a spot where about twenty acres of the hill have fallen into the river. Near is a cliff of sandstone for two miles, which is much frequented by birds. At this place the river is about one mile wide, but not deep, as the timber or sawyers may be seen scattered across the whole bottom. At twenty miles distance. we saw on the south an island called by the French l'Isle Chance, or Bald Island, opposite to a large prairie which we called Baldpoint Prairie, from a ridge of naked hills that bound it, running parallel with the river so far as we could see, and from three to six miles distance. To the south, the hills touch the river. We encamped a quarter of a mile beyond this in a point of woods on the north side. The river continues to fell.
    "July 17.--The latitude we found to be 40


degrees 27 minutes 5 seconds. The observation of the time proved our chronometer to be slow by 5 minutes 51 seconds. The highlands bear from our camp north, 25 degrees west, up the river. Capt. Lewis rode up the country and saw the Nishnabotna about ten or twelve miles from its mouth, at a place not more than three hundred yards from the Missouri, and a little above our camp. It then passes near the foot of the Bald Hills and is at least six feet below the level of the Missouri. On its banks are the oak, walnut and mulberry.   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  
    "July 21.--We passed, at about ten miles, a willow island on the south, near highlands covered with timber at the bank, and formed of limestone with cemented shells. On the opposite bank is a bad sand-bar, and the land near it is cut through at high water by small channels, forming a number of islands. The wind lulled at seven o'clock, and we reached, in the rain, at the distance of fourteen miles, the great river Platte."
    On the morning of the 22d of July, the party again set sail, and, having found, at a distance of ten mites from the mouth of the Platte, a high and shaded situation on the north side of the Missouri, they encamped. Two men were dispatched to the Otoe or Pawnee villages with a present of tobacco and an invitation to the chiefs to visit the company at their encampment.
    The Otoes were once a powerful nation, and lived about twenty miles above the Platte, on the southern bank of the Missouri. Being reduced, they emigrated to the neighborhood of the Pawnees, under whose protection they were then living. Their village was on the south side of the Platte, about thirty miles from its mouth, and their number was 200 men, including about thirty families of Missouris (all that were left), who were incorporated with them. Five leagues above them, on the same side of the river, resided the Pawnees. This nation, once among the most numerous of those inhabiting the valley of the Missouri, had gradually been dispersed and broken, until they were now greatly reduced in numbers. They consisted of four bands--the first was the one just mentioned, of about 500 men, to whom of late years had been added the second band called Republican Pawnees, from their having lived previously lived on the Republican branch of the Kansas River, whence they emigrated to join the principal band on the Platte. They amounted to nearly 250 men. The third was the Pawnees Loups, or Wolf Pawnees, who resided on the Wolf Fork of the Platte, about ninety miles from the principal Pawnees. These numbered 280 men. The fourth band originally resided on the Kansas and Arkansas, but, in their wars with the Osages, they were so often defeated that they at length retired to the Red River, where they then formed a tribe of 400 men. To the westward of the Pawnees, upon the Platte. were a number of wandering tribes, supposed to have previously been of the Padoucahs, previously mentioned.
     The expedition again started up the Missouri on the 27th of July. At ten and a half miles, there was seen and examined a curious collection of mounds, on the south side of the river. Not far from a low piece of land and a pond was discovered a tract of about 200 acres covered with these prehistoric earthworks of different heights. shapes and sizes--some of sand and some of both earth and sand, the largest being nearest the river. After making fifteen miles, the party encamped for the night, on the Nebraska side of the Missouri. The next day (July 28.) they reached the place where the Iowa Indians formerly lived. These were a branch of the Otoes, and emigrated thence to the river DesMoines. The hunter of the expedition, in the evening, brought to the camp a Missouri Indian, whom he had found with two others, dressing an elk. They were perfectly friendly, gave him some of the meat, and one of them agreed to accompany him in. He was one of the few remaining Missouris living with the Otoes. He belonged to a small party, whose camp was four miles from the river. He reported that the body of the Otoes were hunting buffalo on the plains. He appeared quite sprightly, and his language resembled that of the Osage, particularly in the calling a chief inca. This name was probably learned from the Spaniards of New Mexico. Captains Lewis and Clark sent the Indian back the next morning, with one of their own party, with an invitation to the Indians to meet them on the river above, and the expedition proceeded on its way.
    "July 29.--We soon came to a northern bend in the river, which runs within twenty yards of Indian Knob Creek, the water of which is five feet higher than that of the Missouri. In less than two miles, we passed Bower's Creek on the north side of the Missouri. twenty-five yards in width. We stopped to dine under a shade near the highland on the south, and caught several large catfish, one of them nearly white, and all very fat. Above this highland, we observed the traces of a great hurricane, which passed the river obliquely from northwest to southeast and tore up large trees, some of which, perfectly sound and four feet in diameter, were snapped off near the ground. We made ten miles to a wood on the north [of the Missouri], where we encamped.
     "July 30-We went early in the morning three and a quarter miles and encamped on the south [Nebraska], in order to wait for the Otoes.   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
    "July 31.--The hunters supplied us with deer, turkeys, geese and beaver; one of the last was caught alive, and, in a very short time, perfectly tamed. Catfish are very abundant in the river, and we have also seen a. buffalo-fish. One of our men brought in, yesterday, an animal called by the Pawnees chocartoosh, and by the French blair eau, or badger.
    "We waited with much anxiety the return of our messenger to the Otoes. The men whom we dispatched to our last encampment returned without having seen any appearance of its having been visited. Our horses, too, had strayed; but we were so fortunate as to


recover them at the distance of twelve miles. Our apprehensions were at length relieved by the arrival of a party of about fourteen Otoe and Missouri Indians, who came at sunset on the 2d of August, accompanied by a Frenchman, who resided among them and interpreted for us. Captains Lewis and Clark went out to meet them, and told them that they would hold a council with them in the morning. In the meantime, we sent them some roasted pork, flour and meal, in return for which they made us a present of watermelons. We learned that our man Liberte had set out from their camp a day before them; we were in hopes that he had merely fatigued his horse or lost himself in the woods and would soon return, but we never saw him again.
      "August 8.--The next morning, the Indians, with their six chiefs, were all assembled under an awning formed with the mainsail, in presence of all our party, paraded for the occasion. A speech was then made announcing to them the change in the Government, our promises of protection and advice as to their future conduct. All the six chiefs replied to our speech, each in his turn according to rank. They expressed their joy at the change in the Government; their hopes that we would recommend them to their great Father (the President of the United States) that they might


obtain trade and necessaries; they wanted arms, as well for hunting as for defense and asked our mediation between them and the Mahas [Omahas,] with whom they were now at war. We promised to do so, and wished some of them to accompany us to that nation, which they declined, for fear of being killed by them. We then proceeded to distribute our presents. The grand chief of the nation not being of the party, we sent him a flag, a medal and some ornaments for clothing. To the six chiefs who were present, we gave a medal of the second grade to one Otoe chief and one Missouri chief; a medal of the third grade to two inferior chiefs of each nation, the customary mode of recognizing a chief being to place a medal around his neck, which is considered by his tribe as a proof of his consideration abroad. Each of these medals was accompanied by a present of paint, garters and cloth ornaments of dress; and to this we added a canister of powder, a bottle of whiskey and a few presents to the whole, which appeared to make them perfectly satisfied. The air-gun, too, was fired, and astonished them greatly.
     The absent chief was an Otoe named Heah-rushhah, which in English degenerates into Little Thief. The two principal chieftains present were Shongotongo, or Big Horse, and Wethea, or Hospitality; Shosguscan, or White

 Prior page
General index
Next page

© 2002 for the NEGenWeb Project by Pam Rietsch, Ted & Carole Miller