Louis Alphonse Bertrand, Memoirs of a Mormon translated by Gaston Chappuis (1960), 146-55.
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I will never forget the sweet emotions I felt at the sight of the vast carpet of green which spread before my eyes as we left Atchison, on the banks of the Missouri, and on which we treaded until we reached Mormon-Grove, a lovely cluster of trees about eleven miles farther into Kansas. It was the first time that I contemplated the American prairies. About three thousand individuals from the most important nations of Europe were gathered there in the same camp, awaiting daylight for the signal of departure to the Great Salt Lake. Per[f]umes of incomparable fragrance scented the air of this enchanted garden of the desert, larger in itself than several of the States of Europe. The whole region appears to the traveler as a living picture of Eden, preserved and rediscovered in the New World. It is especially in the spring that this fairy and almost divine appearance characterises the Kansas and Nebraska plains, when the young and thick grass is full of flowers of various shape and color. This carpet of fragrant green often spreads as far as the eye can see and without the least undulation in it. At other times on the contrary this majestic uniformity is replaced by landscapes of infinite charm and variety. All of a sudden the horizon is raised and narrowed. The terrain offers here and there clusters of trees, of limpid waters which sometimes gather together to form a lake and sometimes diverge into meandering brooks of fresh and mysterious coulees, most alluring to the sight.
When the leader has selected a suitable spot to spend the night, the group immediately proceeds with the organization of the corral, according to the traditional pattern of the land. The corral is really a camp, oval in shape and open at both ends. As the wagons approach the spot chosen they divide into two files and line up on both sides of the camp in such a way as to leave but two feet of space between each. A strong chain then binds them all together and makes of this improvised camp a citadel easily defended against Indians if occasion should arise. This mode of fortified camping was used by the first American settlers. It has been adopted by us at the time of our first migrations and we still conform to it though most of the Indian tribes whose territory we cross are generally peaceful and even friendly.
When freed from their yokes, the oxen seek the high grass. A group of young men armed with carbines stand watch over them in shifts of two hours each. The main purpose of this watch is to prevent what in the language of the Far-West is called a stampede provoked by the Indians. This very technical word merits an explanation.
The Pawnees, Sioux, Crows and other bellicose tribes scattered upon those plains of the West live solely from the products of the hunt and are naturally often in quest of adventures at the expense of the whites. Among the Indian tribes of the Platte basin, the Cheyenne are foremost. Not sufficiently strong to openly assail the numerous caravans of emigrants they resort to cunning. Woe to the company who fails to keep night watches over the animals in certain areas. Two or three Indians can well deprive it of all its means of transportation in just a few hours. It is during the quiet of the night that the Redmen indulge in this type of marauding. One of them creeps unaware in the midst of the herd. With the oxen resting while chewing the cud, he begins to wave a buffalo skin in all directions at the same time uttering the most blood curdling cries. Stricken with fear the oxen rise quickly and flee in all directions with the incredible speed. The next morning it is an easy task for the Indians to gather the scattered herd. And that is what is called a stampede. Mormons pitch their tents outside of the corral in symmetrical fashion. They light their fires on a single line. Cooking and the baking of bread is done by the women. For this purpose each family has a small portable oven of cast-iron. It was on such primitive equipment that I made my own bread each day, and it was fit to be served at the table of a king.
Nothing is more picturesque than a Mormon camp, pitched on the shore of the Platte River, facing a small archipelago of wooded islands. It is especially during rest period that our camps offer such pictures of animation worthy of an artist's brush. Some of the emigrants indulge in fishing and hunting, others visit such islands in quest of wild fruits, especially wild grapes.
It is known that several attempts to introduce European grapes in various parts of America have failed thus far. However,
The caravans can often obtain abundant quantities of fish. Of all the streams along the way, the Sweetwater has the most. In the caravan to which I belonged, my companions took great pains to vary the menu. Fish was so plentiful that in certain areas a mere bed sheet was sufficient to take a large catch. Strangely enough however, the fish thus captured was of one kind only.
The basin of the Platte offers the most picturesque and most rewarding hunting ground that can be found the world over, and that is why it is now frequently visited by Englishman. Innumerable herds of buffaloes can be found there. A natural park of huge proportions spreads itself from the Rocky Mountains to the shores of the Missouri and it is there that these large animals roam over the prairie in unbelievable number. Their flesh is the main fare of the Indians. At times we could see whole armies of them. The earth was literally covered with them as far as the eye could see. To behold this huge mass of beasts, sometimes grazing in peace, sometimes moving in various directions, dividing and subdividing itself into a multitude of herds gal[l]oping in opposite directions in the immensity of the prairie is a more imposing sight, one of the strangest that I have ever witnessed here on earth. One day these hordes of beasts were so numerous and so tame that a superb bull, acting as a scout, came charging full speed and <broke into>
out our convoy after having broken a large chain from the force of the impact. At the time we were in sight of the Platte. Several buffaloes were killed by our party that day. One of them, a young bull weighted approximately from twenty six to twenty eight hundred pounds. We could have killed many more that day but our caravan having been considerably delayed, the leader sought every opportunity to hasten our march and this gave us little leisure to hunt.
The sight of a buffalo with his fearful horns, his ample mane and black rough fur is strange indeed, almost repulsive. When captured young these can be tamed. The flesh is excellent to the taste, but that of the cow much superior to the bull's. The hump, especially, is a delicacy whose reputation has been well established in Europe by American novelists. Let us add that the Indians know how to give the thinly sliced and sun-dried meat a very rare flavor.
Several varieties of deer and antelope can also be found in those areas. They enliven the prairie by their mad dashes. Heard also in the silence of the night is the growling of the grizzly bear, one of the fiercest animals that can be met, and disturbing the peace of the evening is the howling chorus of the coyotes, or prairie wolves, rather puny and cowardly, very different from mountain wolves.
At my first crossing the caravan had three rival choirs of French, Welch and English singers. The latin race, represented by Frenchmen and natives of Jersey, Guernsey, Switzerland and Italy, in all seventy two individuals, valiantly upheld its long established musical reputation. We harbor no illusion about the literary value of the songs improvised during their long march, but for us they had the merit of associating to our impressions of the lofty scenes that surrounded us, to the hopes of a new homeland, the sweet sounds of our mother tongue and the cherished memories of our native land.
It was especially at night that our camp sites were picturesque, the central citadel being surrounded by our tents and a belt of well kept fires. There the house wives baked their daily batch of bread in their small cast-iron ovens; there too their husbands, laying on the grass around a larger fire, told stories each in turn. Farther along the three choruses rivaling with each other, and yet elsewhere numerous groups engaged in dancing. Following the example of the prophet Brigham, whose aptitude for dancing we have already mentioned. Utah Mormons are generally talented dancers. Who would believe it? The tents had barely been erected and the frugal meal dispatched that most of our young people, forgetting the fatigues of the day, engaged in dancing until midnight almost every night.
At break of day the glaring sounds of the bugle awaken everyone; fires are lighted again for the important operation of breakfast, and the oxen, well fed and rested, are led again into the middle of the corral, the two entrances are closed and each man hitches his animals to his wagons whereupon the trip begins anew.
The trail is usually well traced and smooth. It winds along unending plains. The sandy places are those most difficult to cross. Rivers are forded; Green River, as big as the Seine, is the largest of all. The Platte must be crossed four times. We followed the right bank of that stream for about two hundred leagues. Millions of buffaloes come there to water. The teams are doubled when climbing or going through difficult passages. The daily average of progress is from fifteen to twenty miles. Today our experienced men accomplish this long journey just as if it were a mere walk. In order to show the example to our young people, I walked the whole distance of four hundred leagues without ever climbing aboard my wagon, and two young girls traveling with us bravely did likewise. The whole trip takes approximately seventy five days when the wagons are ox drawn. On the return journey we had mules and took but twenty eight days to cover the same distance. The peaceful visits of the Indians are the chief distractions of our caravans in that vicinity. An anecdote will be sufficient to give the reader and idea of those meetings with the children of the desert.
On the 22nd of September 1855, our convoy, numbering five hundred souls and forty five wagons, was proceeding slowly across a vast plain covered with sage brush when a large band of Sioux, all mounted, came proudly to bar the way.
"You can't get through without giving us ten bags of flour, ["] they uttered in faulty English!
…["]I haven't a single ounce of flour to give you,["] replied Charles Harper, our brave captain, but we have an ample provision of ammunitions and are ready to give you a fair share if you wish."
Then, acting upon threat he took his revolver in hand and called all mens to arms! In an instant one hundred and fifty carbines appeared on the shoulders of our men. Our resolute attitude convinced the Red Skins. They immediately withdrew and contented themselves to merely trail us until nightfall. I was therefore at liberty to study them at my leisure, and they are well worth studying. They formed a group of about five to six hundred men with roguish f aces, all mounted on horses and armed with bows or old guns and clothed with the most fantastic assortment of European tinsel and knick-knacks. One of them, a very large man, wore a costume of drum major barely large enough for him with truly pontifical bearing. This uniform, coming to an end in such an unexpected manner in the solitudes of the New World was without a doubt rubbish from our Parisian Temple. Business men who traffic most easily disposed. Grotesque at first sight, this ultimate end of the rags of our civilization had nevertheless its sad and philosophical aspect.
The chiefs and their wives were dressed in glamorous attire, being covered with materials of bright colors and loaded down with toys and copper jewelry from head to foot. No carnival procession in France could render an idea of the comic as well as the stately aspect of their warriors thus clothed. With their mounts they execute various evolutions beyond description. They produced for us a sort of fantasia with a local tint, and heroic comical scenes of amusing wildness. Among their horses they have some steeds very remarkable for their grace and appearance. Light bay is the dominating color.
The most friendly relations soon took place between the emigrants and their savage visitors. One of the chiefs extended his cou[r]tesies so far as to have me mount his steed. In the evening lively trading was carried on around our camp fires. Indian women displayed all the coquetry, all the inborn craftiness of the daughters of Eve in order to obtain favor with our women and dispossess them of this or that knick-knack. With what covetousness they felt the soft dresses, the fine muslims, the downy materials, the silk hats, the fur-lined gloves, the warm sweaters of our young girls. They had to see everything. Sugar, however, is the one article they coveted most. They are extremely fond of it; with a few lumps one can sometimes drive the most astounding bargains.
Before leaving the subject I must say that one of the most ravishing sight that I ever beheld was offered to me by one of these bands of Crow Indians. In order to cross the wide, sand-bottomed Platte, it is necessary to double the teams. Our emigrants were engaged in this difficult operation and I was alone to keep watch over my wagon when about twenty of these savages, richly dressed, streaked across the stream at a mad gal[l]op while greeting me with their joyous acclamations. They passed near me like lightning. Should I live a thousand years I could not forget the rustic beauty of the scenery, the glittering of glass and the waving of feathers caused by this mad rush of young Indians. They were running to the neighboring tribe to announce our arrival.
On that day our camp was ideally situated close to the clear limpid waters of the Platte with excellent grazing and an ample supply of dry wood nearby. Our men quickly gathered a considerable supply of fuel. We also made an important discovery in that I found an old Indian canoe which was immediately converted into a stove for all my cooking uses. Natives of Jersey Island made up the large majority of our French group. Music mad, they were always eager to hear the songs of our great poets and that evening I was compelled to render my complete repertoire. The tune of Ma Republique, from the Girondins of Beranger, and a host of other songs drew laud [loud] applause. The Madman of Toledo, by Victor Hugo was especially relished by them. A very amusing incident occurred on that last session. The well known refrain from the chorus of the Girondins sung by the seventy two voices of the French company, and echoed by the wood, produced a very impressive rendition when suddenly hundreds of wolves mingled heir howlings and thus drove us to silence because of the laughter provoked by this additional harmony. They celebrated their triumph over us all through the night and seemed to communicate from the various points of the horizon. These coyotes are extremely numerous all along the Platte basin and a night seldom passes without their being heard.
Large fires well kept by our night watchers lighted the sky around our corral all through the night. Groups of Crows circulated among us seeking to exchange their dried meat and pelts for our European tinker toys. We made some astounding bargains before our departure. For example, for ten pounds of sugar, purchased at an original cost of three francs, one of our men secured an excellent pony. A young horse for three francs! Such bargains can only be seen in America!
North American Indians constitute yet a large population although sorely afflicted with tribal warfare, small pox, strong liquors and all the vices that Americans have passed on to them. Without attempting to offer an exact figure we know from good source that, united, their tribes could muster more than a hundred thousand horsemen. One of the objectives of Mormonism is to restore all these savages to civilization. A fairly large number of Indians who have become members of the Church have forsaken their nomadic life and now cultivate the social. Many of our young men, sent on missions among the powerful tribes, labor diligently in the interest of their social rehabilitation. One of the strangest things I witnessed in the Tabernacle occur[r]ed when the large Arrapeen, a famous chief of the Utes, member of the Church, was invited to speak by Brigham Young. He gave us a very pathetic address in his native tongue. I was delighted to hear this Demosthenes of the Desert. Never did the oration of King Philip's eloquent adversary produce a more favorable impression upon the Athenians than that of Arrapeen upon the mind of his hearers. This address, accompanied by expressive gestures and closed with a solemn prayer, was interpreted by one of our missionaries for the edification of the faithful.
As we draw nearer the mountain the scenery gradually changes and becomes more bleak and arid. Aside from a few oases here and there the ground is unproductive. It is a succession of vast desolated plains covered with sagebrush and the outlook is rather stern. Tired from the long journey, the caravan now proceeds at a much slower pace. The eastern approaches to the city and the irregular transcontinental road through Echo Canyon are extremely difficult and been dangerous for teamsters unacquainted with the region. The trail climbing up Big Mountain is strewn with big rocks and goes through some very narrow and step places. No less than fourteen oxen were needed to pull the wagon to the top. There, a magnificent panorama spread before our eyes. Towering peaks of varied hues seem to rival in pride with each other. From the top of Big Mountain we perceive plowed fields, the first signs of civilization in that area. Two days later, having reached the city of the saints, The caravan pitches its last camp on Union Square.