Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Prairie Traveller

Review of:
The Prairie Traveller: a Handbook for Overland Expeditions (by Randolph B. Marcy, 1863).

The Roman Emperor who asked for a new pleasure would no doubt have been greatly surprised, and almost scandalized, if any one had, in reply, suggested travelling — especially if he had suggested travelling in the most remote and difficult regions, with the smallest possible amount of provision for comfort or even safety." Yet this pursuit is, beyond all question, the chosen employment of the present day. To run violently up and down steep places, or to go away into the abysses—the desert places of the earth—is the great object of a considerable section of that part of the world which can afford to lay out large sums of money in amusement. It is curious to compare the different styles of literature which this taste has produced. Since the old days of Hakluyt they have gone through an infinity of phases. At one time, travelling was a grave and arduous undertaking, and books of travels—such, for instance, as Bernier's Travels in India, or, at a later date, those of Niebuhr the historian's father—stood next in point of gravity and weight to histories. Indeed, the classification used to run—“History,” “Biography,” “Voyages and Travels.” In that moral tale which sets forth the awful consequences of procrastination, Miss Edgeworth introduces an unhappy man who, amongst other chances of distinction, misses one which consisted in writing “in one folio or two quarto volumes, illustrated with suitable plates,” a full, true, and particular account of Lord Macartney's Embassy to China. Even within the last forty years, Captain Capel de Broke felt that an account of a Norwegian winter and a visit to North Cape required a quarto—not, indeed, so big as it might have been, but still a great deal bigger than any book that expected to be sold would have to be in the present day. Of late years, less serious views have prevailed. It still sometimes happens that a history of an embassy or treaty of peace has to be written in a semiofficial style, like a tremendous volume which some years ago commemorated the United States Embassy to Japan, and another volume, almost more tremendous, which described a mission from the East India Company to Burmah. These, however, are the exceptions. For many years travellers refused to take a serious view of themselves, and, like everyone else, took to being comic with a will. This bad fashion was, as usual, set by good books. Eliot Warburton, whose sad death surrounds his name with a certain pathos, and Mr. Kinglake, were the progenitors of many scores of books which resembled Eothen and the Crescent and the Cross principally in the fashion of their bindings, and a certain pertness of title. For several years criticism has been exceedingly and deservedly severe on this kind of foolery, and has contributed to the production of a curious and noticeable change in the character of slight publications of this sort. They have become far less pretentious and assuming than they used to be. They say what they have to say in a much more business-like and unaffected strain than was at one time customary. This is matter of sincere congratulation as far as it goes, but, side by side with this, another change has come to pass which is not quite so laudable. Travelling is rapidly becoming artificial. It is getting to be a pursuit followed according to a set of quasi-technical rules, and referred to a sort of technical standard, as if it were an athletic game to be rightly appreciated only by habitual players. The Alpine literature, in its endless developments, is open to this criticism. To get up a new mountain is regarded in the light of solving a chess problem, or performing some of the wonderful feats about picking up stones, and walking miles backwards, of which the annals are written in Bell's Life. This, in its way, and as far as it goes, is to be regretted, though it is a great change for the better from the deadly-lively style which was once in fashion.

Books like Captain (now General) Marcy's hold a position distinct both from the old style, which made a traveller write a history, and the last new one, which makes him write a set of memoranda for a sporting journal. They aim at describing as a matter of business what is described by others as matter either of curiosity or amusement. General Marcy was employed for many years in the command of expeditions, by a variety of different routes, over the prairies from the Eastern States to California, and other countries on the Pacific; and he appears to have employed part of his leisure in putting together practical directions for those who might be employed in similar duties. His book seems to be modelled on Mr. Galton's Art of Travel, of which he has made considerable, though not unavowed use, and it has been edited by Mr. Burton, who, however, does not appear to have added very much to it. The bustle, the ingenuity, and that amount of somewhat small adventure and excitement which is inseparable even from the quieter kinds of travelling, must make General Marcy's account of this different expedients to overcome the difficulties which beset him amusing to most of his readers, even if there is little probability that they will ever have occasion to cross a continent and provide for themselves by the way. There is an interest half mathematical, half adventurous, in the contrivances by which he solves problems which do not immediately, suggest themselves as such to people not practically acquainted with the subject. Take, for instance, the following (which, by the way, is quoted from Mr. Galton):-- Given a pool of water, some oxen, an ox-dray, and a light cart drawn by a hardy horse; given also the fact that one hundred and eighteen miles off there is another pool, which may or may not be dry. How are you to find out whether the other pool is dry or not before you march your party there? This is not unlike the puzzles at the end of old-fashioned arithmetic books about people who had to make an equal division of liquids contained in casks of incommensurable sizes. The answer is:— Kill an ox; make his skin into a water-bag which will contain one hundred and fifty gallons; send this by the dray to a point thirty miles from the first pool, and therefore eighty-eight miles from the second, and bury it there; then send a party with the light cart to the skin; let them take from it thirty-six gallons of water, and on that they will be able to travel one hundred and seventy-six miles in six days at about thirty miles a day, which will enable them to see whether or not the pool is dried up. There is some contrivance in this; but, if the light cart could carry twelve gallons more, and go for eight days instead of six on six gallons a day, the ox-hide part might be dispensed with. Probably the eight days on so short an allowance would be too much. One problem of this sort—not noticed by General Marcy—is as neat as Columbus's egg. Given a hatchet, matches, and a wet log of wood, how is a fire to be lighted? Answer—cut off the wet part of the log and light the fire with the dry part inside. The art of lighting a fire is, indeed, a great one. General Marcy gives many directions upon the subject, which all assume the possession of firearms and ammunition. The most ingenious, though not the most original, of his hints is, that if it is raining, a kettle is a good place to light a fire in. The inner bark of particular trees, especially cedars, is, it appears, excellent tinder, or, to use an expressive phrase still current in some parts of England, “kindling.” He also gives an account of the Indian plan of producing fire by friction, the possibility of which he says he used to doubt—really a not very reasonable scepticism.

General Marcy gives many directions on the subject of following trails, but he admits that it is an art in which hardly any white men can hope to attain excellence. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that practice does not seem materially to improve their faculties in this particular. The Indian has passed his whole life in doing nothing else, and may no doubt have acquired hereditary aptitude for the pursuit. Our author's account of the matter, however, shows, if it required proof, that the Indians proceed not by any such mysterious “instinct” as is sometimes ascribed to them, but by processes of reasoning which, when explained, are perfectly intelligible. For instance, an Indian on one occasion told General Marcy that a particular hoof-print must have been made two days before in the morning, and on inquiry he explained, first, that there had been no dew for two nights, though on the previous morning it had been heavy. He then showed that some blades of grass trodden down by the horses' hoofs had sand still sticking to them, which had dried on the grass, and must, therefore, have been wet when the tracks were made. The Indian gift of recognising the small features of a vast open space is similar to their power of observation. It is a gift of which white men seldom partake, and by reason of their want of which they are apt to be very helpless. The sensation of being lost on a prairie appears to destroy a man's presence of mind altogether:--
‘I have known several men, after they had been lost in the prairies, to wander about for days without exercising the least judgment, and finally exhibiting a state of mental aberration almost upon the verge of lunacy. Instead of reasoning upon their situation, they exhaust themselves running ahead at their utmost speed without any regard to direction.’
Perhaps the most curious passage in the book is the description of the way in which signs may be made to do instead of language. Long conversations can be carried on by them, and thoughts can apparently be expressed which are by no means short or simple. For instance, by means of a pantomime which is described, an Indian will say—“I mounted my horse early this morning, galloped across a mountain valley to a plain where there was no water. I saw bison, killed three of them, skinned them, packed the meat on my horse, remounted, and came home.”
‘The signs (says General Marcy) are exceedingly graceful and significant, and what was a fact of much astonishment to me, I discovered they were very nearly the same as those practised by the mutes in our deaf and dumb schools, and were comprehended by them with perfect facility.’
Every tribe and every animal has its peculiar sign, most of which are highly characteristic.

Some odd scraps of etymology are mixed with the other odds and ends which the book contains. For instance, “jerked” meat is the English corruption of the word “charqui,” which is the Spanish corruption of the French “chair cuite.” The Indian name for Americans in particular, and white men in general, is admirable--“Shwop,” from “swop,” the traders.

Several glimpses of Indian life are scattered through the book. They are exquisitely unlike the conventional Indians of Fenimore Cooper. The following account of them given by a Rocky Mountain hunter “corroborates”. General Marcy’s “opinions,” though he adds, “I do not endorse all his sentiments.” They are beautifully expressed:—
‘They are the most onsartainest varmits in all creation, and I reckon tha'r not mor'n half human; for you never seed a human arter you'd fed and treated him to the best fixins in your lodge jist turn round and steal all your horses or any other thing he could lay his hands on. No, not adzaekly. He would feel kinder grateful, and ask you to spread a blanket in his lodge if you ever 'd that away; but the Injun he don't care shucks for you, and is ready to do you a heap of mischief as soon as he gets your feed. . . . . If I wur Governor of these yeer United States I'll tell you what I’d do. I'd invite um all to a big feast, and make b'lieve I wanted to have a big talk, and as soon as I get um all together I'd pitch in and sculp about half of them, and then to other half would be mighty glad to make a peace that would stick.’
In reply to some obvious suggestions about honour, this enlightened philosopher observed that they did not know what it meant. “The only way to treat Injuns is to thrash them well at first, and then the balance will sorter take to you and behave themselves.”

Saturday Review, March 14, 1863.

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