Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “The Journal of Julius Rodman (Chapter 3)” [Text-02], Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine (vol. VI, no. 3), March 1840, 6:109-113


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞



[page 109, unnumbered:]

THE JOURNAL OF JULIUS RODMAN.

BEING AN ACCOUNT OF THE FIRST PASSAGE ACROSS THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS OF NORTH AMERICA EVER ACHIEVED BY CIVILIZED MAN.

—————

CHAPTER III.

HAVING reached the mouth of the river Platte, our voyagers encamped for three days, during which they were busily occupied in drying and airing their goods and provisions, making new oars and poles, and repairing the birch canoe, which had sustained material injury. The hunters brought in an abundance of game, with which the boats were loaded to repletion. Deer was had for the asking, and turkeys and fat grouse were met with in great plenty. The party, moreover, regaled on several species of fish, and, at a short distance from the river banks, found an exquisite kind of wild grape. No Indians had been seen for better than a fortnight, as this was the hunting season, and they were doubtless engaged in the prairies, taking buffalo. After perfectly recruiting, the voyagers broke up their encampment, and pushed on up the Missouri. We resume the words of the Journal.

August 14. We started with a delightful breeze from the S. E., and kept along by the Southern shore, taking advantage of the eddy, and going at a great rate, notwithstanding the current, which, in the middle, was unusually full and strong. At noon, we stopped to examine some remarkable mounds on the south-western shore, at a spot where the ground seems to have sunk considerably to an extent of three hundred acres, or more. A large pond is in the vicinity, and appears to have drained the low tract. This is covered with mounds of various sizes, and shapes, all formed of sand and mud, the highest being nearest the river. I could not make up my mind whether these hillocks were of natural or artificial construction. I should have supposed them made by the Indians, but for the general appearance of the soil, which had apparently been subjected to the violent action of water.* We staid at this spot the rest of the day, having made altogether twenty miles.

August 15. To-day we had a heavy, disagreeable head wind, and made only fifteen miles, with great labor; encamping at night beneath a bluff on the north shore, this being the first bluff on that side which we had seen since leaving the Nodaway river. In the night it came on to rain in torrents, and the Greelys brought in their horses, and ensconced themselves in the cabin. Robert swam the river with his horse from the South shore, and then took the canoe across for Meredith. He appeared to think nothing of either of these feats, although the night was one of the darkest and most boisterous I ever saw, and the river was much swollen. We all sat in the cabin very comfortably, for the weather was quite cool, and were kept awake for a long time by the anecdotes of Thornton, who told story after story of his adventures with the Indians on the Mississippi. His huge dog appeared to listen with profound attention to every word that was said. Whenever any particularly incredible circumstance was related, Thornton would gravely refer to him as a witness. “Nep,” he would say, “don ’t you remember that time?” — or “Nep can swear to the truth of that — can ’t you, Nep?” — when the animal would roll up his eyes immediately, loll out his monstrous tongue, and wag his great head up and down, as much as to say — “Oh it’s every bit as true as the Bible.” Although we all knew that this trick had been taught the dog, yet for our lives we could not forbear shouting with laughter, whenever Thornton would appeal to him.

August 16. Early this morning passed an island, and a creek about fifteen yards wide, and, at a farther distance of twelve miles, a large island in the middle of the river. We had now, generally, high prairie, and timbered hills on the north, with low ground on the south, covered with cotton-wood. The river was excessively crooked, but not so rapid as before we passed the Platte. Altogether there is less timber than formerly; what there is, is mostly elm, cotton-wood, hickory, and walnut, with some oak. Had a strong wind nearly all day, and by means of the eddy and this, we made twenty-five miles before night. Our encampment was on the south, upon a large plain, covered with high grass, and bearing a great number of plum-trees and currant-bushes. In our rear was a steep woody ridge, ascending which we found another prairie extending back for about a mile, and stopped again by a similar woody ridge, followed by another vast prairie, going off into the distance as far as the eye can reach. From the cliffs just above us we had one of the most beautiful prospects in the world.

August 17. We remained at the encampment all day, and occupied ourselves in various employments. Getting Thornton, with his dog, to accompany me, I strolled to some distance to the [page 110:] southward, and was enchanted with the voluptuous beauty of the country. The prairies exceeded in beauty any thing told in the tales of the Arabian Nights. On the edges of the creeks there was a wild mass of flowers which looked more like Art than Nature, so profusely and fantastically were their vivid colors blended together. Their rich odor was almost oppressive. Every now and then we came to a kind of green island of trees, placed amid an ocean of purple, blue, orange, and crimson blossoms, all waving to and fro in the wind. These islands consisted of the most majestic forest oaks, and, beneath them, the grass resembled a robe of the softest green velvet, while up their huge stems there clambered, generally, a profusion of grape vines, laden with delicious ripe fruit. The Missouri, in the distance, presented the most majestic appearance; and many of the real islands with which it was studded were entirely covered with plum bushes, or other shrubbery, except where crossed in various directions by narrow, mazy paths, like the alleys in an English flower-garden; and in these alleys we could always see either elks or antelopes, who had no doubt made them. We returned, at sun-set, to the encampment, delighted with our excursion. The night was warm, and we were excessively annoyed by musquitoes.

August 18. To-day passed through a narrow part of the river, not more than two hundred yards wide, with a rapid channel, much obstructed with logs and drift wood. Ran the large boat on a sawyer, and half filled her with water before we could extricate her from the difficulty. We were obliged to halt, in consequence, and overhaul our things. Some of the biscuit was injured, but none of the powder. Remained all day — having only made five miles.

August 19. We started early this morning and made great headway. The weather was cool and cloudy, and at noon we had a drenching shower. Passed a creek on the south, the mouth of which is nearly concealed by a large sand-island of singular appearance. Went about fifteen miles beyond this. The highlands now recede from the river, and are probably from ten to twenty miles apart. On the north is a good deal of fine timber, but on the south very little. Near the river are beautiful prairies, and along the banks we procured four or five different species of grape, all of good flavor and quite ripe; one is a large purple grape of excellent quality. The hunters came into camp, at night, from both sides of the river, and brought us more game than we well knew what to do with — grouse, turkies, two deer, an antelope, and a quantity of yellow birds with black-striped wings — these latter proved delicious eating. We made about twenty miles during the day.

August 20. The river, this morning, was full of sand-bars and other obstructions; but we proceeded with spirit, and reached the mouth of a pretty large creek, before night, at a distance of twenty miles from our last encampment. The creek comes in from the north, and has a large island opposite its mouth. Here we made our camp, with the resolution of remaining four or five days to trap beaver, as we saw great signs of them in the neighborhood. This island was one of the most fairy-looking situations in the world, and filled my mind with the most delightful and novel emotions. The whole scenery rather resembled what I had dreamed of when a boy, than an actual reality. The banks sloped down very gradually into the water, and were carpeted with a short soft grass of a brilliant green hue, which was visible under the surface of the stream for some distance from the shore; especially on the north side, where the clear creek fell into the river. All round the island, which was probably about twenty acres in extent, was a complete fringe of cotton-wood; the trunks loaded with grape vines in full fruit, and so closely-interlocking with each other, that we could scarcely get a glimpse of the river between the leaves. Within this circle the grass was somewhat higher, and of a coarser texture, with a pale yellow or white streak down the middle of each blade, and giving out a remarkably delicious perfume, resembling that of the Vanilla bean, but much stronger, so that the whole atmosphere was loaded with it. The common English sweet grass is no doubt of the same genus, but greatly inferior in beauty, and fragrance. Interspersed among it in every direction, were myriads of the most brilliant flowers, in full bloom, and most of them of fine odor — blue, pure white, bright yellow, purple, crimson, gaudy scarlet, and some with streaked leaves like tulips. Little knots of cherry trees and plum bushes grew in various directions about, and there were many narrow winding paths which circled the island, and which had been made by elk or antelopes. Nearly in the centre, was a spring of sweet and clear water, which bubbled up from among a cluster of steep rocks, covered from head to foot with moss and flowering vines. The whole bore a wonderful resemblance to an artificial flower garden, but was infinitely more beautiful — looking rather like some of those scenes of enchantment which we read of in old books. We were all in extacy with the spot, and prepared our camp in the highest glee, amid its wilderness of sweets.

[The party remained here a week, during which time, the neighboring country to the north was explored in many directions, and some peltries obtained, especially upon the creek mentioned. The weather was fine, and the enjoyment of the voyagers suffered no alloy, in their terrestrial Paradise. Mr. Rodman, however, omitted no necessary precautions, and sentries were regularly posted every night, when all hands assembled at camp, and made merry. Such feasting and drinking were never before known; the Canadians proving themselves the very best fellows in the world at a song, or over a flagon. They did nothing but eat, and cook, and dance, and shout French carols at the top of their voice. During the day they were chiefly entrusted with the charge of the encampment, while the steadier members of the party were absent upon hunting or trapping expeditions. In one of these Mr. Rodman enjoyed an excellent opportunity of observing the habits of the beaver; and his [page 111:] account of this singular animal is highly interesting — the more so as it differs materially, in some points, from the ordinary descriptions.

He was attended, as usual, by Thornton and his dog, and had traced up a small creek to its source in the highlands about ten miles from the river. The party came at length to a place where a large swamp had been made by the beavers, in damming up the creek. A thick grove of willows occupied one extremity of the swamp, some of them overhanging the water at a spot where several of the animals were observed. Our adventurers crept stealthily round to these willows, and making Neptune lie down at a little distance, succeeded in climbing, unobserved, into a large and thick tree, where they could look immediately down upon all that was going on.

The beavers were repairing a portion of their dam, and every step of their progress was distinctly seen. One by one the architects were perceived to approach the edge of the swamp, each with a small branch in his mouth. With this he proceeded to the dam, and placed it carefully, and longitudinally, on the part which had given way. Having done this, he dived immediately, and in a few seconds re-appeared above the surface with a quantity of stiff mud, which he first squeezed so as to drain it of its moisture in a great degree, and then applied with its feet and tail (using the latter as a trowel) to the branch which he had just laid upon the breach. He then made off among the trees, and was quickly succeeded by another of the community, who went through precisely the same operation.

In this way the damage sustained by the dam was in a fair way of being soon repaired. Messieurs Rodman and Thornton observed the progress of the work for more than two hours, and bear testimony to the exquisite skill of the artizans. But as soon as a beaver left the edge of the swamp in search of a branch, he was lost sight of among the willows, much to the chagrin of the observers, who were anxious to watch his farther operations. By clambering a little higher up in the tree, however, they discovered every thing. A small sycamore had been felled, apparently, and was now nearly denuded of all its fine branches, a few beavers still nibbling off some that remained, and proceeding with them to the dam. In the mean time a great number of the animals surrounded a much older and larger tree, which they were busily occupied in cutting down. There were as many as fifty or sixty of the creatures around the trunk, of which number six or seven would work at once, leaving off one by one, as each became weary; a fresh one stepping in to the vacated place. When our travellers first observed the sycamore, it had been already cut through to a great extent, but only on the side nearest the swamp, upon the edge of which it grew. The incision was nearly a foot wide, and as cleanly made as if done with an axe; and the ground at the bottom of the tree was covered with fine longitudinal slips, like straws, which had been nibbled out, and not eaten; as it appears that these animals only use the bark for food. When at work some sat upon the hind legs, in the posture so conunon with squirrels, and gnawed at the wood; their fore feet resting upon the edge of the cut, and their heads thrust far into the aperture. Two of them, however, were entirely within the incision; lying at length, and working with great eagerness for a short time, when they were relieved by their companions.

Although the position of our voyagers was any thing but comfortable, so great was their curiosity to witness the felling of the sycamore, that they resolutely maintained their post until sunset, an interval of eight hours from the time of ascending. Their chief embarrassment was on Neptune’s account, who could with difficulty be kept from plunging in the swamp after the plasterers who were repairing the dam. The noise he made had several times disturbed the nibblers at the tree, who would every now and then start, as if all actuated by one mind, and listen attentively for many minutes. As evening approached, however, the dog gave over his freaks, and lay quiet; while the beavers went on uninterruptedly with their labor.

Just as the sun began to set, a sudden commotion was observed among the wood-cutters, who all started from the tree, and flew round to the side which was untouched. In an instant afterwards it was seen to settle down gradually on the gnawed side, till the lips of the incision met; but still it did not fall, being sustained partially by the unsundered bark. This was now attacked with zeal by as many nibblers as could find room to work at it, and very quickly severed; when the huge tree, to which the proper inclination had already been so ingeniously given, fell with a tremendous crash, and spread a great portion of its topmost branches over the surface of the swamp. This matter accomplished, the whole community seemed to think a holiday was deserved, and, ceasing work at once, began to chase each other about in the water, diving, and slapping the surface with their tails.

The account here given of the method employed by the beaver in its wood-cutting operations, is more circumstantial than any we have yet seen, and seems to be conclusive in regard to the question of design on the animal’s part. The intention of making the tree fall towards the water appears here to be obvious. Captain Bonneville, it will be remembered, discredits the alleged sagacity of the animal in this respect, and thinks it has no farther aim than to get the tree down, without any subtle calculation in respect to its mode of descent. This attribute, he thinks, has been ascribed to it from the circumstance that trees in general, which grow near the margin of water, either lean bodily towards the stream, or stretch their most ponderous limbs in that direction, in search of the light, space, and air, which are there usually found. The beaver, he says, attacks, of course, those trees which are nearest at hand, and on the banks of the stream or pond, and these, when cut through, [page 112:] naturally preponderate towards the water. This suggestion is well-timed; but by no means conclusive against the design of the beaver; whose sagacity, at best, is far beneath that which is positively ascertained in respect to many classes of inferior animals — infinitely below that of the lion-ant, of the bee, and of the corralliferi. The probability is that, were two trees offered to the choice of the beaver, one of which preponderated to the water, and the other did not, he would, in felling the first, omit, as unnecessary, the precautions just described, but observe them in felling the second.

In a subsequent portion of the Journal other particulars are given respecting the habits of the singular animal in question, and of the mode of trapping it employed by the party, and we give them here for the sake of continuity. The principal food of the beavers is bark, and of this they put by regularly a large store for winter provision, selecting the proper kind with care and deliberation. A whole tribe, consisting sometimes of two or three hundred, will set out together upon a foraging expedition, and pass through groves of trees all apparently similar, until a particular one suits their fancy. This they cut down, and, breaking off its most tender branches, divide them into short slips of equal length and divest these slips of their bark, which they carry to the nearest stream leading to their village, thence floating it home. Occasionally the slips are stored away for the winter without being stripped of the bark; and, in this event, they are careful to remove the refuse wood from their dwellings, as soon as they have eaten the rind, taking the sticks to some distance. During the spring of the year the males are never found with the tribe at home, but always by themselves, either singly, or in parties of two or three, when they appear to lose their usual habits of sagacity, and fall an easy prey to the arts of the trapper. In summer they return home, and busy themselves, with the females, in making provision for winter. They are described as exceedingly ferocious animals when irritated.

Now and then they may be caught upon shore; especially the males in spring, who are then fond of roving to some distance from the water in search of food. When thus caught, they are easily killed with a blow from a stick; but the most certain and efficacious mode of taking them is by means of the trap. This is simply constructed to catch the foot of the animal. The trapper places it usually in some position near the shore, and just below the surface of the water, fastening it by a small chain to a pole stuck in the mud. In the mouth of the machine is placed one end of a small branch; the other end rising above the surface, and well soaked in the liquid bait whose odor is found to be attractive to the beaver. As soon as the animal scents it, he rubs his nose against the twig, and, in so doing, steps upon the trap, springs it, and is caught. The trap is made very light, for the convenience of portage, and the prey would easily swim off with it but for its being fastened to the pole by a chain — no other species of fastening could resist his teeth. The experienced trapper readily detects the presence of beaver in any pond or stream; discovering them by a thousand appearances which would afford no indication to the unpractised observer.

Many of the identical wood-cutters whom the two voyagers had watched so narrowly from the tree-top, fell afterwards a victim to trap, and their fine furs became a prey to the spoilers, who made sad havoc in the lodge at the swamp. Other waters in the neighborhood also afforded the travellers much sport; and they long remembered the island at the creek’s mouth, by the name of Beaver Island, in consequence. They left this little Paradise in high spirits on the twenty-seventh of the month, and, pursuing their hitherto somewhat uneventful voyage up the river, arrived, by the first of September, without any incident of note, at the mouth of a large river on the south, to which they gave the name of Currant River, from some berries abounding upon its margin, but which was, beyond doubt, the Quicourre. The principal objects of which the Journal takes notice in this interval, are the numerous herds of buffalo which darkened the prairies in every direction, and the remains of a fortification on the south shore of the river, nearly opposite the upper extremity of what has been since called Bonhomme Island. Of these remains a minute description is given, which tallies in every important particular with that of Captains Lewis and Clarke. The travellers had passed the Little Sioux, Floyd’s, the Great Sioux, White-Stone, and Jacques rivers on the North; with Wawandysenche creek, and White-Paint river on the south, but at neither of these streams did they stop to trap for any long period. They had also passed the great village of the Omahas, of which the Journal takes no notice whatever. This village, at the time, consisted of full three hundred houses, and was inhabited by a numerous and powerful tribe; but it is not immediately upon the banks of the Missouri, and the boats probably went by it during the night — for the party had begun to adopt this mode of progress, through fear of the Sioux. We resume the narrative of Mr. Rodman, with the second of September.]

September 2. We had now reached a part of the river where, according to all report, a great deal of danger was to be apprehended from the Indians, and we became extremely cautious in our movements. This was the region inhabited by the Sioux, a warlike and ferocious tribe, who had, upon several occasions, evinced hostility to the whites, and were knonvn to be constantly at war with all the neighboring tribes. The Canadians had many incidents to relate respecting their savage propensities, and I had much apprehension lest these cowardly creatures should take an opportunity of deserting, and retracing their way to the Mississippi. To lessen the chances of this, I removed one of them from the piroque, and supplied his place by Poindexter Greely. All the Greelys came in from the shore, turning loose the horses. Our arrangement was now as follows: — In the piroque, [page 113:] Poindexter Greely, Pierre Junôt, Toby, and one Canadian — in the large boat, myself; Thornton; Wormley; John, Frank, Robert, and Meredith Greely; and three Canadians, with the dog. We set sail about dusk, and, having a brisk wind from the south, made good head-way, although, as night came on, we were greatly embarrassed by the shoals. We continued our course without interruption, however, until a short time before day-break, when we ran into the mouth of a creek, and concealed the boats among the underwood.

September 3and 4. During both of these days it rained and blew with excessive violence, so that we did not leave our retreat at all. The weather depressed our spirits very much, and the narratives of the Canadians about the terrible Sioux did not serve to raise them. We all congregated in the cabin of the large boat, and held a council in regard to our future movements. The Greelys were for a bold push through the dangerous country, maintaining that the stories of the voyageurs [[voyagers]] were mere exaggerations, and that the Sioux would only be a little troublesome, without proceeding to hostility. Wormley and Thornton, however, as well as Pierre (all of whom had much experience in the Indian character) thought that our present policy was the best, although it would necessarily detain us much longer on our voyage than would otherwise be the case. My own opinion coincided with theirs — in our present course we might escape any collision with the Sioux — and I did not regard the delay as a matter of consequence.

September 5. We set off at night, and proceeded for about ten miles, when the day began to appear, and we hid the boats as before, in a narrow creek, which was well adapted to the purpose, as its mouth was almost blocked up by a thickly-wooded island. It again came on to rain furiously, and we were all drenched to the skin before we could arrange matters for turning in, in the cabin. Our spirits were much depressed by the bad weather, and the Canadians especially were in a miserable state of dejection. We had now come to a narrow part of the river where the current was strong, and the cliffs on both sides overhung the water, and were thickly wooded with lynn, oak, black-walnut, ash, and chesnut. Through such a gorge we knew it would be exceedingly difficult to pass without observation, even at night, and our apprehensions of attack were greatly increased. We resolved not to re-commence our journey until late, and then to proceed with the most stealthy caution. In the meantime we posted a sentry on shore, and one in the piroque, while the rest of us busied ourselves in overhauling the arms and ammunition, and preparing for the worst.

About ten o ’clock we were getting ready to start, when the dog gave a low growl, which made us all fly to our rifles; but the cause of the disturbance proved to be a single Indian of the Ponca tribe, who came up frankly to our sentry on shore, and extended his hand. We brought him on board, and gave him whiskey, when he became very communicative, and told us that his tribe, who lived some miles lower down the river, had been watching our movements for several days past, but that the Poncas were friends and would not molest the whites, and would trade with us upon our return. They had sent him now to caution the whites against the Sioux, who were great robbers, and who were lying in wait for the party at a bend of the river, twenty miles farther up. There were three bands of them, he said, and it was their intention to kill us all, in revenge for an insult sustained by one of their chiefs, many years previously, at the hands of a French trapper.

[[Continued . . .]]


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


[[Footnotes:]]

[[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 109:]]

*  These mounds are now well understood to indicate the position of the ancient village of the Ottoes, who were once a very powerful tribe. Being reduced by continual hostilities, they sought protection of the Pawnees, and migrated to the south of the Platte, about thirty miles from its mouth. — EDS. G. M.

  The Council Bluffs. — EDS. G. M.



∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


Notes:

The table of contents from the paper wrappers of February 1840 includes:

“THE JOURNAL OF JULIUS RODMAN — being an Account of the First Passage across the Rocky Mountains of North America ever achieved by civilized Man, - - - . . . - -  78”.

The rear cover includes this notice:

“Besides the usual and extensive range of interesting subjects, the volumes for 1840 will contain, in monthly portions,

THE JOURNAL OF JULIUS RODMAN,

The first white Man that ever crossed the Western Wilderness, and passed the barrier of the Rocky Mountains. This extraordinary Journal details events of the most surprising nature, and recounts the unparalleled vicissitudes and adventures experienced by a mere handful of men in a country which, till then, had never been explored by civilized man.”


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

[S:1 - BGM, 1840] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Tales - The Journal of Julius Rodman [Part 3] [Text-02]