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Tenderfoot Days

By George Robert Bird

Going West in 1874

I WAS one of the multitude of young men who heeded Horace Greeley's advice, "Go West, young man, go West!" in the days when he was the ruling spirit of the New York Tribune. Discredited as a prospective president by the people at the polls, he yet was accepted by many as a prophet of agricultural authority on the "Opportunity of the Great West."

To me, from boyhood, the word "Mississippi" had a winsome charm. I had read of De Soto and the Jesuit Fathers as the first voyagers on the great river of the West, of the Lewis and Clark explorations by the pen of Washington Irving in his Astoria: and to go West, was my one aim as conditions were ripe for it. The great lakes to the North and the cane-brakes to the South were not in it with the West as a drawing card to me. I left the charmed scenery of central New York state in the early spring of '74 headed for the wonderful Porkopolis of Chicago. That city was just beginning to rise from the ashes of the terrible fire of '71 when I first set foot in it. Wide areas resembling San Francisco in 1906 were black with the fire's work, and temporary board structures even at the depots were in common evidence. But there was the tang and the vim of the West in the faces of its hustling population that foretold the vigorous growth of after years. Crossing Ohio, I passed through the famous Western Reserve, supposed to be, in its day, the real West. When I saw the orderly neatness of farm, road, and townsite, I smiled at the invitation of an old college chum of the previous year; "When you are in the West be sure to call on me in the Western Reserve. I live at Youngstown, Ohio."

The "Father of Waters," as the Indians so fitly call the Mississippi, was bank-full when I crossed it one Tuesday morning. The prairies of Illinois and Wisconsin were green with the early spring color that also clothed the trees along the borders of this great stream. I was not disappointed, save with the awkwardly built stern-wheel steamers, that were either wildly swinging down or laboriously puffing up its course. When I stepped off the cars at Dubuque, Iowa, at last fairly West, I delighted in the breezy speech and the freedom of the people; men and women of adaptation to circumstances,-of a width of view like the plains that they were subduing.

For a year Iowa with its agricultural beauties along the Mississippi held me prisoner. Then the craving for the far West took hold of me as I heard the accounts of the returning pioneers of Kansas or Nebraska. The plague of locusts had driven them back and they had returned for supplies for another start.

It will be remembered that Uncle Sam was more than generous in his land gifts at this time. The pre-emption laws allowed pioneers to buy outright one hundred and sixty acres of the best level land in Iowa and Minnesota at one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre. Five years' time was given to pay for this, no other obligation was required beyond the settler's own interests to live on it and improve it.

I saw, as I travelled west, hundreds of these pre-emptors at work building small sod or frame houses, and breaking up the heavy grassed prairies. The cars to western Iowa and Minnesota were crowded every day with land seekers. The Danes, Norwegians and Swedes were mainly in evidence; so new to the country that they could not make themselves understood, but had to talk through their agents when inquiring, or buying. These people's descendants of this day are the intelligent and prosperous farmers of the choicest locations in country and town. Beginning with nothing but their brawn and industry, they are independent citizens of the best prairie states.

I crossed another great river at Omaha, the Missouri. With the imagination of youth, I saw the older population of this country of illimitable plains. The Pawnees, the Sioux, the Omahas, whose gatherings gave the name to Council Bluffs, upon the Iowa side. I saw also the black rolling tide of bison racing before the yelling red hunters or before the redder tongues of prairie fires. While I was denied my hope of running down a buffalo, I was able to see several of them in their wild state, as I went farther west. A great and reckless slaughter had thinned them down but one did not then have to visit a government park to see a buffalo.

It was a great event in that day for the overland express to leave Omaha for San Francisco. People made preparation for this pullman ride with all the gravity of a sea voyage. Baskets of supplies, wraps, rugs, and dust coats filled the arms of the passengers boarding the cars.

The express averaged sixteen miles an hour, including stops. The road-bed was of very light caliber and simply spiked down without fishplates, allowing no forty miles an hour speed. We swayed and teetered along some parts of the road in a way that reminded me of a branch line on the Grand Trunk in Canada, where the train dipped and curtseyed in the cuttings like a sail boat on the lakes. No harm came of it. We stopped often for fuel and water, and to oil up the small, wide-funneled engine, or to cool a hot-box in the heavily freighted baggage car.

The winds of Nebraska are worthy of mention for they are in the business of blowing, and if the people are much affected by them, they are certainly in danger of being the biggest boosters of the West. Anyway, I saw the effect of these constant winds on all faces; the men being as red as Indians and the women, despite the long poke bonnets they wore, were almost as brown. Ma-dame Recamier's cream so much advertised then, should have had a great sale in Nebraska, if the women were at all solicitous of their complexions. But they were all of stern stuff and did not mind the Nebraska breezes, whether hot as a blast in summer, or cold as a blizzard in winter. They were a people that moved as briskly as their winds, going at top speed in their buggies and on horseback.

I saw women riding astride and they rode like cowboys. There were villages of marmots or prairie dogs and these little canines shared their earth-holes with both snakes and owls. Once in a while "Lo," the Indian, in his native costume was seen on a hill near-by sitting on his cayuse, stoically viewing the white man's fire wagons as they trailed past. These natives were also in evidence at every eating station, either to sell their bead and buffalo ornaments, or to share in the white man's fire-water.

Those were the days of corn-whiskey, as yellow as gold and as hot as fire, and which keeled over the drinker at "forty rods." The western men aboard the cars, filled up with four fingers of this stuff at every stop. Temperance was not to the fore then and the front streets of railroad towns were given up to saloons of vigorous titles, and they were black with men from the cattle ranges around. These bandy-legged bravos whooped 5 and rode races with the cars and even wasted some ammunition in celebration of the passing express, that scarcely out-speeded their ponies.

Those days are gone. The cowboy is now historic. The open range is now homesteaded or desert-claimed by the nester. The great meat manufactory has passed from the range, and is now in the hands of the farmer, who stall-feeds his cattle on the cultivated roots and grains of the ranches.

With the next morning's sun we saw the faint outline of the Rocky Mountains. We had been slowly climbing and the elevation was sufficient to lower the horizon line of this backbone of the continent. I was interested to see with my own eyes those mountains made famous in my boyhood days by the stories of that writer for boys, Captain Mayne Reid.

Though the scenes that he so graphically described were in the great range farther to the south, and on the Mexican border, yet the name, Rocky Mountains, satisfied me that I was in the neighborhood of those old friends Rube and Geary in Scalp-Hunters, or The War Trail. We are more or less children and beneath the layers of riper years, lie recumbent the old imaginations of youth. So I sat and deamed again my boyhood hours and felt young, though sad, since I could never be a boy again, nor see the boy companions of those book days. Scattered to the four corners of the globe, some at sea, some at antipodes, some citified and thus changed; and one old chum gone away to the far country from which no traveller returns.

What a day that was for the prospector and the cattle man! The sheep-man, so omnipresent in Australia, was despised and seldom seen in this great West. The cattle owner hated the sheepman almost as much as he did the Indian. It was the day of gun rule, for the sheriff and the constable were persons few and far between. The reprobate was in the land by voice and deed. All the dare-devils and the scum of the East drifted this way, and were stranded like river debris, in these little, hideous shanty railroad towns. Ten years earlier these characters ran everything to suit themselves. The war was still raging, and Uncle Sam's hands full, thus giving the rowdy and robber full swing to kill and steal. Some of these gentry were still about, with faces hardened by excess and crime, yet the great majority had gone to the greater majority via the hangman's rope or the hands of the Vigilante Committee and the yet quicker way of the sawed off shot-gun.

Next came the canyons. I had always thrilled at that word; it seemed to suggest roaring waters, Mexican riders and red-men yelling. These canyons were tame, the surveyors had selected the best grades and the engineers had made a level road for the rails. We went orderly along these mountain streets, with little noise beyond the tired asthmatic cough of our over-taxed engines, for we now had two engines to draw us up these heights. How frail they looked, compared with the immense monsters of to-day, dun colored and mighty, without brightness or glitter beyond their headlight! Our engines were gaudy ones, brass bound, bright-painted, polished to the shining point, showing all their works to the onlooker; the cylinder and driving-rods working in full view. We halted at last to change cars; it was Ogden, at the junction of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads.

We saw here, for the first time, the orange-colored cars, which took all over-landers to California. I was not booked for the real sea, but was bound for the Great Salt Lake, or Salt Sea, in Utah Territory. As I looked around I missed the green earth and the wide expanse of the plains. I found that I was among rocks of craggy height, overlooking little narrow valleys, where irrigation was needed to make things grow. I was m the far West at last though I knew that there was a farther West, which some day I meant to see A lazy train soon started with the regulation speed of sixteen miles to the hour and we slowly passed along the south line of the Salt Lake, a sea so dead and dreary that it resembled dead sea of that memorable land, ancient Palestine. Then we came, at last, to the city of the Latter Day Saints.



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