Read CHAPTER V of The Prairie Traveler A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions , free online book, by Randolph Marcy, on

Bivouacs. Tente d’Abri. Gutta-percha Knapsack Tent. Comanche Lodge. Sibley Tent. Camp Furniture. Litters. Rapid Traveling. Fuel. Making Fires. Fires on the Prairies. Jerking Meat. Making Lariats. Making Caches. Disposition of Fire-arms. Colt’s Revolvers. Gun Accidents. Trailing. Indian Sagacity.


In traveling with pack animals it is not always convenient or practicable to transport tents, and the traveler’s ingenuity is often taxed in devising the most available means for making himself comfortable and secure against winds and storms. I have often been astonished to see how soon an experienced voyager, without any resources save those provided by nature, will erect a comfortable shelter in a place where a person having no knowledge of woodcraft would never think of such a thing.

Almost all people in different parts of the world have their own peculiar methods of bivouacking.

In the severe climate of Thibet, Dr. Hooker informs us that they encamp near large rocks, which absorb the heat during the day, and give it out slowly during the night. They form, as it were, reservoirs of caloric, the influence of which is exceedingly grateful during a cold night.

In the polar regions the Esquimaux live and make themselves comfortable in huts of ice or snow, and with no other combustible but oil.

The natives of Australia bury their bodies in the sand, keeping their heads only above the surface, and thus sleep warm during the chilly nights of that climate.

Fortunately for the health and comfort of travelers upon the Plains, the atmosphere is pure and dry during the greater part of the year, and it is seldom that any rain or dew is seen; neither are there marshes or ponds of stagnant water to generate putrid exhalations and poisonous malaria. The night air of the summer months is soft, exhilarating, and delightful. Persons may therefore sleep in it and inhale it with perfect impunity, and, indeed, many prefer this to breathing the confined atmosphere of a house or tent.

During the rainy season only is it necessary to seek shelter. In traveling with covered wagons one always has protection from storms, but with pack trains it becomes necessary to improvise the best substitutes for tents.

A very secure protection against storms may be constructed by planting firmly in the ground two upright poles, with forks at their tops, and crossing them with a light pole laid in the forks. A gutta-percha cloth, or sheet of canvas, or, in the absence of either of these two, blankets, may be attached by one side to the horizontal pole, the opposite edge being stretched out to the windward at an angle of about forty-five degrees to the ground, and there fastened with wooden pins, or with buckskin strings tied to the lower border of the cloth and to pegs driven firmly into the earth. This forms a shelter for three or four men, and is a good defense against winds and rains. If a fire be then made in front, the smoke will be carried away, so as not to incommode the occupants of the bivouac.

This is called a “half-faced” camp.

Another method practiced a great deal among mountain men and Indians consists in placing several rough poles equidistant around in a half circle, and bringing the small ends together at the top, where they are bound with a thong. This forms the conical frame-work of the bivouac, which, when covered with a cloth stretched around it, makes a very good shelter, and is preferable to the half-faced camp, because the sides are covered.

When no cloths, blankets, or hides are at hand to be placed over the poles of the lodge, it may be covered with green boughs laid on compactly, so as to shed a good deal of rain, and keep out the wind in cold weather. We adopted this description of shelter in crossing the Rocky Mountains during the winter of 1857-8, and thus formed a very effectual protection against the bleak winds which sweep with great violence over those lofty and inhospitable sierras. We always selected a dense thicket for our encampment, and covered the lodges with a heavy coating of pine boughs, wattling them together as compactly as possible, and piling snow upon the outside in such a manner as to make them quite impervious to the wind. The fires were then kindled at the mouths of the lodges, and our heads and bodies were completely sheltered, while our feet were kept warm by the fires.

The French troops, while serving in the Crimea, used what they call the tente d’abri, or shelter tent, which seems to have been received with great favor in Europe. It is composed of two, four, or six square pieces of cloth, with buttons and buttonholes adjusted upon the edges, and is pitched by planting two upright stakes in the ground at a distance corresponding with the length of the canvas when buttoned together. The two sticks are connected by a cord passed around the top of each, drawn tight, and the ends made fast to pins driven firmly into the ground. The canvas is then laid over the rope between the sticks, spread out at an angle of about forty-five degrees, and the lower edges secured to the earth with wooden pins. This makes some defense against the weather, and was the only shelter enjoyed by the mass of the French army in the Crimea up to October, 1855. For a permanent camp it is usual to excavate a shallow basement under the tent, and to bank up the earth on the outside in cold weather. It is designed that upon marches the tente d’abri shall be taken to pieces and carried by the soldiers.

A tent has recently been prepared by Mr. John Rider, 165 Broadway, New York, which is called the “tent knapsack.” It has been examined by a board of army officers, and recommended for adoption in our military service.

This tent is somewhat similar to the tente d’abri, and is pitched in the same manner, but it has this advantage, that each separate piece may be converted into a water-proof knapsack.

The following extracts from the Report of the Board go to show that this tent knapsack will be useful to parties traveling on the prairies with pack trains:

“It is a piece of gutta-percha 5 feet 3 inches long, and 3 feet 8 inches wide, with double edges on one side, and brass studs and button-holes along two edges, and straps and buckles on the fourth edge; the whole weighing three pounds; two sticks, 3 feet 8 inches long by 1-1/4 inches in diameter, and a small cord. When used as a knapsack, the clothing is packed in a cotton bag, and the gutta-percha sheet is folded round it, lapping at the ends. The clothing is thus protected by two or three thicknesses of gutta-percha, and in this respect there is a superiority over the knapsack now used by our troops. Other advantages are, that the tent knapsack has no seams, the parts at which those in use wear out soonest; it adapts itself to the size of the contents, so that a compact and portable bundle can be made, whether the kit be entire or not; and, with the cotton bag, it forms a convenient, commodious, and durable receptacle for all a soldier’s clothing and necessaries.

“On a scout a soldier usually carries only a blanket, overcoat, and at most a single shirt, pair of drawers, and a pair of socks, all of which can be packed in the tent knapsack in a small bundle, perfectly protected from rain, and capable of being suspended from the shoulders and carried with comfort and ease during a march.

“2d. As a shelter. The studs and eyelets along two edges of the tent knapsack are for the purpose of fastening a number of them together, and thus making a sheet of larger dimensions.

“A sheet formed by fastening together four knapsacks was exhibited to the Board, stretched upon a frame of wood. When used in service the sheet is to be stretched on a rope supported by two poles, or by two rifles, muskets, or carbines, and pinned down at the sides with six pins, three on each side.

“The sheet of four knapsacks is 10 feet 6 inches long, and 7 feet 4 inches wide, and when pitched on a rope 4 feet 4 inches above the ground, covers a horizontal space 6 feet 6 inches wide, and 7 feet 4 inches long, which will accommodate five men, and may be made to shelter seven. The sheet can also be used on the ground, and is a great protection from dampness, and as a shawl or talma; indeed, a variety of advantageous uses to which the gutta-percha sheet may be put will suggest themselves to persons using it.

“The Board is satisfied with its merits in all the uses to which it is proposed to be put, and is of opinion that the gutta-percha tent knapsack may be adopted in the military service with advantage.”

The usual tenement of the prairie tribes, and of the traders, trappers, and hunters who live among them, is the Comanche lodge, which is made of eight straight peeled poles about twenty feet long, covered with hides or cloth. The lodge is pitched by connecting the smaller extremities of three of the poles with one end of a long line. The three poles are then raised perpendicularly, and the larger extremities spread out in a tripod to the circumference of the circle that is to form the base of the lodge. The other poles are then raised, laid into the forks of the three first, and spread out equidistant upon the circle, thus forming the conical framework of the structure. Nine or ten poles are generally used in one lodge.

The long line attached to the tripod is then wound several times around the top, where the poles intersect, and the lower end made fast at the base of the lodge, thus securing the frame firmly in its position. The covering, made of buffalo hides, dressed without the hair, and cut and sewed together to fit the conical frame, is raised with a pole, spread out around the structure, and united at the edges with sharpened wooden pegs, leaving sufficient space open at the bottom for a doorway, which may be closed with a blanket spread out with two small sticks, and suspended over the opening.

The lower edge of the lodge is made fast to the ground with wooden pins. The apex is left open, with a triangular wing or flap on each side, and the windward flap constantly stretched out by means of a pole inserted into a pocket in the end of it, which causes it to draw like a sail, and thus occasions a draught from the fire built upon the ground in the centre of the lodge, and makes it warm and comfortable in the coldest winter weather. Canvas makes a very good substitute for the buffalo-skin covering.


A tent has been invented by Major H. H. Sibley, of the army, which is known as the “Sibley tent.” It is somewhat similar to the Comanche lodge, but in place of the conical frame-work of poles it has but one upright standard, resting upon an iron tripod in the centre. The tripod can be used to suspend cooking utensils over the fire, and, when folded up, admits the wooden standard between the legs, thereby reducing the length one half, and making it more convenient for packing and traveling.

This tent constituted the entire shelter of the army in Utah during the winter of 1857-8, and, notwithstanding the severity of the climate in the elevated locality of Camp Scott, the troops were quite comfortable, and pleased with the tent.

In permanent camps the Sibley tent may be so pitched as to give more room by erecting a tripod upon the outside with three poles high and stout enough to admit of the tent’s being suspended by ropes attached to the apex. This method dispenses with the necessity of the central upright standard.

When the weather is very cold, the tent may be made warmer by excavating a basement about three feet deep, which also gives a wall to the tent, making it more roomy.

The tent used in the army will shelter comfortably twelve men.

Captain G. Rhodes, of the English army, in his recent work upon tents and tent-life, has given a description of most of the tents used in the different armies in Europe, but, in my judgment, none of them, in point of convenience, comfort, and economy, will compare with the Sibley tent for campaigning in cold weather. One of its most important features, that of admitting of a fire within it and of causing a draught by the disposition of the wings, is not, that I am aware, possessed by any other tent. Moreover, it is exempt from the objections that are urged against some other tents on account of insalubrity from want of top ventilation to carry off the impure air during the night.


The accompanying illustrations present some convenient articles of portable camp furniture.

CAMP CHAIR N is of oak or other hard wood. Fi represents it opened for use; in Fi it is closed for transportation. A is a stout canvas, forming the back and seat; b, b, b are iron butt-hinges; c, c are leather straps, one inch and a quarter wide, forming the arms; d is an iron rod, with nut and screw at one end.

CAMP CHAIR N is made of sticks tied together with thongs of buckskin or raw hide.

CAMP CHAIR N is a very comfortable seat, made of a barrel, the part forming the seat being filled with grass.

CAMP TABLE. Fi represents the table folded for transportation; in Fi it is spread out for use. A is the top of the table; a, a are side boards, and c, c are end boards, turning on butt-hinges, b, b, b.

FIELD COTS. In N, A represents the cot put up for use; B, the cot folded for transportation. The legs turn upon iron bolts running through the head and foot boards; they are then placed upon the canvas, and the whole is rolled up around the side pieces. In N the upper figure represents the cot put up for use; the lower shows it folded for transportation. A is a stout canvas; b, b are iron butt-hinges; c, c, the legs; d, d, leather straps, with buckles, which hold the legs firm; f, f, ends, which fold upon hinges; g, g, cross-bars from leg to leg. This cot is strong, light, and portable.

CAMP BUREAU. This cut represents two chests, A, A, with their handles, a, a; the covers taken off, they are placed one upon the other, and secured by the clamps B, B; d shows the division between the two chests. When it is to be transported, the knobs, c, are unscrewed from the drawers, the looking-glass, f, is removed, the drawers are filled with clothing, etc., and the lids are screwed on.

MESS-CHEST. A represents the chest open for table; B is the same closed; C is the upper tray of tin, with compartments, b, b; E is the lower wooden tray, divided into compartments, a, a, for various purposes, and made fast to the bottom of the chest; d, d are lids opening with hinges; f (in figure B) is a wooden leg, turning upon a hinge, and fitting snugly between two pieces of wood screwed upon the cover.


Should a party traveling with pack animals, and without ambulances or wagons, have one of its members wounded or taken so sick as to be unable to walk or ride on horseback, a litter may be constructed by taking two poles about twenty feet in length, uniting them by two sticks three feet long lashed across the centre at six feet apart, and stretching a piece of stout canvas, a blanket, or hide between them to form the bed. Two steady horses or mules are then selected, placed between the poles in the front and rear of the litter, and the ends of the poles made fast to the sides of the animals, either by attachment to the stirrups or to the ends of straps secured over their backs.

The patient may then be placed upon the litter, and is ready for the march.

The elasticity of the long poles gives an easy motion to the conveyance, and makes this method of locomotion much more comfortable than might be supposed.

The prairie Indians have a way of transporting their sick and children upon a litter very similar in construction to the one just described, excepting that one animal is used instead of two. One end of the litter is made fast to the sides of the animal, while the other end is left to trail upon the ground. A projection is raised for the feet to rest against and prevent the patient from sliding down. Instead of canvas, the Indians sometimes lash a large willow basket across the poles, in which they place the person to be transported. The animals harnessed to the litter must be carefully conducted upon the march, and caution used in passing over rough and broken ground.

A very convenient and comfortable method of packing a sick or wounded man when there are no animals disposable, and which is sometimes resorted to by the Indians, is to take two small poles about ten feet long, and lash three cross-pieces to them, one in the centre, and the other two about eighteen inches from the ends. A blanket or hide is then secured firmly to this frame, and the patient placed upon it under the centre cross-piece, which prevents him from falling out. Two men act as carriers, walking between the ends of the long poles. The patient may be protected against the rain or sun by bending small willows over the frame, and covering them with a cloth.


Small parties with good animals, light vehicles, and little lading, may traverse the Plains rapidly and comfortably, if the following injunctions be observed.

The day’s drive should commence as soon as it is light, and, where the road is good, the animals kept upon a slow trot for about three hours, then immediately turned out upon the best grass that can be found for two hours, thus giving time for grazing and breakfast. After which another drive of about three hours may be made, making the noon halt about three hours, when the animals are again harnessed, and the journey continued until night.

In passing through a country infested by hostile Indians, the evening drive should be prolonged until an hour or two after dark, turning off at a point where the ground is hard, going about half a mile from the road, and encamping without fires, in low ground, where the Indians will find it difficult to track or see the party.

These frequent halts serve to rest and recruit the animals so that they will, without injury, make from thirty to forty miles a day for a long time. This, however, can only be done with very light loads and vehicles, such, for example, as an ambulance with four mules, only three or four persons, and a small amount of luggage.


There are long distances upon some of the routes to California where no other fuel is found but the dried dung of the buffalo, called by the mountaineers “chips,” and by the French “bois de vache,” the argul of the Tartary deserts. It burns well when perfectly dry, answers a good purpose for cooking, and some men even prefer it to wood. As it will not burn when wet, it is well, in a country where no other fuel can be had, when it threatens to rain, for the traveler to collect a supply before the rain sets in, and carry it in wagons to the camp. When dry, the chips are easily lighted.

A great saving in fuel may be made by digging a trench about two feet long by eight inches in width and depth; the fires are made in the bottom of the trench, and the cooking utensils placed upon the top, where they receive all the heat. This plan is especially recommended for windy weather, and it is convenient at all times. The wood should be cut short, and split into small pieces.

It is highly important that travelers should know the different methods that may be resorted to for kindling fires upon a march.

The most simple and most expeditious of these is by using the lucifer matches; but, unless they are kept in well-corked bottles, they are liable to become wet, and will then fail to ignite.

The most of those found in the shops easily imbibe dampness, and are of but little use in the prairies. Those marked “Van Duser, New York,” and put up in flat rectangular boxes, are the best I have met with, and were the only ones I saw which were not affected by the humid climate of Mexico. Wax lucifers are better than wooden, as they are impervious to moisture.

I have seen an Indian start a fire with flint and steel after others had failed to do it with matches. This was during a heavy rain, when almost all available fuel had become wet. On such occasions dry fuel may generally be obtained under logs, rocks, or leaning trees.

The inner bark of some dry trees, cedar for instance, is excellent to kindle a fire. The bark is rubbed in the hand until the fibres are made fine and loose, when it takes fire easily; dry grass or leaves are also good. After a sufficient quantity of small kindling fuel has been collected, a moistened rag is rubbed with powder, and a spark struck into it with a flint and steel, which will ignite it; this is then placed in the centre of the loose nest of inflammable material, and whirled around in the air until it bursts out into a flame. When it is raining, the blaze should be laid upon the dryest spot that can be found, a blanket held over it to keep off the water, and it is fed with very small bits of dry wood and shavings until it has gained sufficient strength to burn the larger damp wood. When no dry place can be found, the fire may be started in a kettle or frying-pan, and afterward transferred to the ground.

Should there be no other means of starting a fire, it can always be made with a gun or pistol, by placing upon the ground a rag saturated with damp powder, and a little dry powder sprinkled over it. The gun or pistol is then (uncharged) placed with the cone directly over and near the rag, and a cap exploded, which will invariably ignite it. Another method is by placing about one fourth of a charge of powder into a gun, pushing a rag down loosely upon it, and firing it out with the muzzle down near the ground, which ignites the rag.

The most difficult of all methods of making a fire, but one that is practiced by some of the Western Indians, is by friction between two pieces of wood. I had often heard of this process, but never gave credit to its practicability until I saw the experiment successfully tried. It was done in the following manner: Two dried stalks of the Mexican soap-plant, about three fourths of an inch in diameter, were selected, and one of them made flat on one side; near the edge of this flat surface a very small indentation was made to receive the end of the other stick, and a groove cut from this down the side. The other stick is cut with a rounded end, and placed upright upon the first. One man then holds the horizontal piece upon the ground, while another takes the vertical stick between the palms of his hands, and turns it back and forth as rapidly as possible, at the same time pressing forcibly down upon it. The point of the upright stick wears away the indentation into a fine powder, which runs off to the ground in the groove that has been cut; after a time it begins to smoke, and by continued friction it will at length take fire.

This is an operation that is difficult, and requires practice; but if a drill-stick is used with a cord placed around the centre of the upright stick, it can be turned much more rapidly than with the hands, and the fire produced more readily. The upright stick may be of any hard, dry wood, but the lower horizontal stick must be of a soft, inflammable nature, such as pine, cottonwood, or black walnut, and it must be perfectly dry. The Indians work the sticks with the palms of the hands, holding the lower piece between the feet; but it is better to have a man to hold the lower piece while another man works the drill-bow.

Inexperienced travelers are very liable, in kindling fires at their camp, to ignite the grass around them. Great caution should be taken to guard against the occurrence of such accidents, as they might prove exceedingly disastrous. We were very near having our entire train of wagons and supplies destroyed, upon one occasion, by the carelessness of one of our party in setting fire to the grass, and it was only by the most strenuous and well-timed efforts of two hundred men in setting counter fires, and burning around the train, that it was saved. When the grass is dry it will take fire like powder, and if thick and tall, with a brisk wind, the flames run like a race-horse, sweeping every thing before them. A lighted match, or the ashes from a segar or pipe, thrown carelessly into the dry grass, sometimes sets it on fire; but the greatest danger lies in kindling camp-fires.

To prevent accidents of this kind, before kindling the fire a space should be cleared away sufficient to embrace the limits of the flame, and all combustibles removed therefrom, and while the fire is being made men should be stationed around with blankets ready to put it out if it takes the grass.

When a fire is approaching, and escape from its track is impossible, it may be repelled in the following manner: The train and animals are parked compactly together; then several men, provided with blankets, set fire to the grass on the lee side, burning it away gradually from the train, and extinguishing it on the side next the train. This can easily be done, and the fire controlled with the blankets, or with dry sand thrown upon it, until an area large enough to give room for the train has been burned clear. Now the train moves on to this ground of safety, and the fire passes by harmless.


So pure is the atmosphere in the interior of our continent that fresh meat may be cured, or jerked, as it is termed in the language of the prairies, by cutting it into strips about an inch thick, and hanging it in the sun, where in a few days it will dry so well that it may be packed in sacks, and transported over long journeys without putrefying.

When there is not time to jerk the meat by the slow process described, it may be done in a few hours by building an open frame-work of small sticks about two feet above the ground, placing the strips of meat upon the top of it, and keeping up a slow fire beneath, which dries the meat rapidly.

The jerking process may be done upon the march without any loss of time by stretching lines from front to rear upon the outside of loaded wagons, and suspending the meat upon them, where it is allowed to remain until sufficiently cured to be packed away. Salt is never used in this process, and is not required, as the meat, if kept dry, rarely putrefies.

If travelers have ample transportation, it will be a wise precaution, in passing through the buffalo range, to lay in a supply of jerked meat for future exigences.


It frequently happens upon long journeys that the lariat ropes wear out or are lost, and if there were no means of replacing them great inconvenience might result therefrom. A very good substitute may be made by taking the green hide of a buffalo, horse, mule, or ox, stretching it upon the ground, and pinning it down by the edges. After it has been well stretched, a circle is described with a piece of charcoal, embracing as much of the skin as practicable, and a strip about an inch wide cut from the outer edge of sufficient length to form the lariat. The strip is then wrapped around between two trees or stakes, drawn tight, and left to dry, after which it is subjected to a process of friction until it becomes pliable, when it is ready for use; this lariat answers well so long as it is kept dry, but after it has been wet and dried again it becomes very hard and unyielding. This, however, may be obviated by boiling it in oil or grease until thoroughly saturated, after which it remains pliable.

The Indians make very good lariat ropes of dressed buffalo or buck skins cut into narrow strips and braided; these, when oiled, slip much more freely than the hemp or cotton ropes, and are better for lassoing animals, but they are not as suitable for picketing as those made of other material, because the wolves will eat them, and thus set free the animals to which they are attached.


It not unfrequently happens that travelers are compelled, for want of transportation, to abandon a portion of their luggage, and if it is exposed to the keen scrutiny of the thieving savages who often follow the trail of a party, and hunt over old camps for such things as may be left, it will be likely to be appropriated by them. Such contingencies have given rise to a method of secreting articles called by the old French Canadian voyagers “caching.”

The proper places for making caches are in loose sandy soils, where the earth is dry and easily excavated. Near the bank of a river is the most convenient for this purpose, as the earth taken out can be thrown into the water, leaving no trace behind.

When the spot has been chosen, the turf is carefully cut and laid aside, after which a hole is dug in the shape of an egg, and of sufficient dimensions to contain the articles to be secreted, and the earth, as it is taken out, thrown upon a cloth or blanket, and carried to a stream or ravine, where it can be disposed of, being careful not to scatter any upon the ground near the cache. The hole is then lined with bushes or dry grass, the articles placed within, covered with grass, the hole filled up with earth, and the sods carefully placed back in their original position, and every thing that would be likely to attract an Indian’s attention removed from the locality. If an India-rubber or gutta-percha cloth is disposable, it should be used to envelop the articles in the cache.

Another plan of making a cache is to dig the hole inside a tent, and occupy the tent for some days after the goods are deposited. This effaces the marks of excavation.

The mountain traders were formerly in the habit of building fires over their caches, but the Indians have become so familiar with this practice that I should think it no longer safe.

Another method of caching which is sometimes resorted to is to place the articles in the top of an evergreen tree, such as the pine, hemlock, or spruce. The thick boughs are so arranged around the packages that they can not be seen from beneath, and they are tied to a limb to prevent them from being blown out by the wind. This will only answer for such articles as will not become injured by the weather.

Caves or holes in the rocks that are protected from the rains are also secure deposits for caching goods, but in every case care must be taken to obliterate all tracks or other indications of men having been near them. These caches will be more secure when made at some distance from roads or trails, and in places where Indians would not be likely to pass.

To find a cache again, the bearing and distance from the centre of it to some prominent object, such as a mound, rock, or tree, should be carefully determined and recorded, so that any one, on returning to the spot, would have no difficulty in ascertaining its position.


The mountaineers and trappers exercise a very wise precaution, on laying down for the night, by placing their arms and ammunition by their sides, where they can be seized at a moment’s notice. This rule is never departed from, and they are therefore seldom liable to be surprised. In Parkyns’s “Abyssinia,” I find the following remarks upon this subject:

“When getting sleepy, you return your rifle between your legs, roll over, and go to sleep. Some people may think this is a queer place for a rifle; but, on the contrary, it is the position of all others where utility and comfort are most combined. The butt rests on the arm, and serves as a pillow for the head; the muzzle points between the knees, and the arms encircle the lock and breech, so that you have a smooth pillow, and are always prepared to start up armed at a moment’s notice.”

I have never made the experiment of sleeping in this way, but I should imagine that a gun-stock would make rather a hard pillow.

Many of our experienced frontier officers prefer carrying their pistols in a belt at their sides to placing them in holsters attached to the saddle, as in the former case they are always at hand when they are dismounted; whereas, by the other plan, they become useless when a man is unhorsed, unless he has time to remove them from the saddle, which, during the excitement of an action, would seldom be the case.

Notwithstanding Colt’s army and navy sized revolvers have been in use for a long time in our army, officers are by no means of one mind as to their relative merits for frontier service. The navy pistol, being more light and portable, is more convenient for the belt, but it is very questionable in my mind whether these qualities counterbalance the advantages derived from the greater weight of powder and lead that can be fired from the larger pistol, and the consequent increased projectile force.

This point is illustrated by an incident which fell under my own observation. In passing near the “Medicine-Bow Butte” during the spring of 1858, I most unexpectedly encountered and fired at a full-grown grizzly bear; but, as my horse had become somewhat blown by a previous gallop, his breathing so much disturbed my aim that I missed the animal at the short distance of about fifty yards, and he ran off. Fearful, if I stopped to reload my rifle, the bear would make his escape, I resolved to drive him back to the advanced guard of our escort, which I could see approaching in the distance; this I succeeded in doing, when several mounted men, armed with the navy revolvers, set off in pursuit. They approached within a few paces, and discharged ten or twelve shots, the most of which entered the animal, but he still kept on, and his progress did not seem materially impeded by the wounds. After these men had exhausted their charges, another man rode up armed with the army revolver, and fired two shots, which brought the stalwart beast to the ground. Upon skinning him and making an examination of the wounds, it was discovered that none of the balls from the small pistols had, after passing through his thick and tough hide, penetrated deeper than about an inch into the flesh, but that the two balls from the large pistol had gone into the vitals and killed him. This test was to my mind a decisive one as to the relative efficiency of the two arms for frontier service, and I resolved thenceforth to carry the larger size.

Several different methods are practiced in slinging and carrying fire-arms upon horseback. The shoulder-strap, with a swivel to hook into a ring behind the guard, with the muzzle resting downward in a leather cup attached by a strap to the same staple as the stirrup-leather, is a very handy method for cavalry soldiers to sling their carbines; but, the gun being reversed, the jolting caused by the motion of the horse tends to move the charge and shake the powder out of the cone, which renders it liable to burst the gun and to miss fire.

An invention of the Namaquas, in Africa, described by Galton in his Art of Travel, is as follows:

“Sew a bag of canvas, leather, or hide, of such bigness as to admit the butt of the gun pretty freely. The straps that support it buckle through a ring in the pommel, and the thongs by which its slope is adjusted fasten round the girth below. The exact adjustments may not be hit upon by an unpracticed person for some little time, but, when they are once ascertained, the straps need never be shifted. The gun is perfectly safe, and never comes below the arm-pit, even in taking a drop leap; it is pulled out in an instant by bringing the elbow in front of the gun and close to the side, so as to throw the gun to the outside of the arm; then, lowering the hand, the gun is caught up. It is a bungling way to take out the gun while its barrel lies between the arm and the body. Any sized gun can be carried in this fashion. It offers no obstacle to mounting or dismounting.”

This may be a convenient way of carrying the gun; I have never tried it. Of all methods I have used, I prefer, for hunting, a piece of leather about twelve inches by four, with a hole cut in each end; one of the ends is placed over the pommel of the saddle, and with a buckskin string made fast to it, where it remains a permanent fixture. When the rider is mounted, he places his gun across the strap upon the saddle, and carries the loose end forward over the pommel, the gun resting horizontally across his legs. It will now only be necessary occasionally to steady the gun with the hand. After a little practice the rider will be able to control it with his knees, and it will be found a very easy and convenient method of carrying it. When required for use, it is taken out in an instant by simply raising it with the hand, when the loose end of the strap comes off the pommel.

The chief causes of accidents from the use of fire-arms arise from carelessness, and I have always observed that those persons who are most familiar with their use are invariably the most careful. Many accidents have happened from carrying guns with the cock down upon the cap. When in this position, a blow upon the cock, and sometimes the concussion produced by the falling of the gun, will explode the cap; and, occasionally, when the cock catches a twig, or in the clothes, and lifts it from the cap, it will explode. With a gun at half-cock there is but little danger of such accidents; for, when the cock is drawn back, it either comes to the full-cock, and remains, or it returns to the half-cock, but does not go down upon the cone. Another source of very many sad and fatal accidents resulting from the most stupid and culpable carelessness is in persons standing before the muzzles of guns and attempting to pull them out of wagons, or to draw them through a fence or brush in the same position. If the cock encounters an obstacle in its passage, it will, of course, be drawn back and fall upon the cap. These accidents are of frequent occurrence, and the cause is well understood by all, yet men continue to disregard it, and their lives pay the penalty of their indiscretion. It is a wise maxim, which applies with especial force in campaigning on the prairies, “Always look to your gun, but never let your gun look at you.

An equally important maxim might be added to this: Never to point your gun at another, whether charged or uncharged, and never allow another to point his gun at you. Young men, before they become accustomed to the use of arms, are very apt to be careless, and a large percentage of gun accidents may be traced to this cause. That finished sportsman and wonderful shot, my friend Captain Martin Scott, than whom a more gallant soldier never fought a battle, was the most careful man with fire-arms I ever knew, and up to the time he received his death-wound upon the bloody field of Molino del Rey he never ceased his cautionary advice to young officers upon this subject. His extended experience and intimate acquaintance with the use of arms had fully impressed him with its importance, and no man ever lived whose opinions upon this subject should carry greater weight. As incomprehensible as it may appear to persons accustomed to the use of fire-arms, recruits are very prone, before they have been drilled at target practice with ball cartridges, to place the ball below the powder in the piece. Officers conducting detachments through the Indian country should therefore give their special attention to this, and require the recruits to tear the cartridge and pour all the powder into the piece before the ball is inserted.

As accidents often occur in camp from the accidental discharge of fire-arms that have been capped, I would recommend that the arms be continually kept loaded in campaigning, but the caps not placed upon the cones until they are required for firing. This will cause but little delay in an action, and will conduce much to security from accidents.

When loaded fire-arms have been exposed for any considerable time to a moist atmosphere, they should be discharged, or the cartridges drawn, and the arms thoroughly cleaned, dried, and oiled. Too much attention can not be given in keeping arms in perfect firing order.


I know of nothing in the woodman’s education of so much importance, or so difficult to acquire, as the art of trailing or tracking men and animals. To become an adept in this art requires the constant practice of years, and with some men a lifetime does not suffice to learn it.

Almost all the Indians whom I have met with are proficient in this species of knowledge, the faculty for acquiring which appears to be innate with them. Exigencies of woodland and prairie-life stimulate the savage from childhood to develop faculties so important in the arts of war and of the chase.

I have seen very few white men who were good trailers, and practice did not seem very materially to improve their faculties in this regard; they have not the same acute perceptions for these things as the Indian or the Mexican. It is not apprehended that this difficult branch of woodcraft can be taught from books, as it pertains almost exclusively to the school of practice, yet I will give some facts relating to the habits of the Indians that will facilitate its acquirement.

A party of Indians, for example, starting out upon a war excursion, leave their families behind, and never transport their lodges; whereas, when they move with their families, they carry their lodges and other effects. If, therefore, an Indian trail is discovered with the marks of the lodge-poles upon it, it has certainly not been made by a war-party; but if the track do not show the trace of lodge-poles, it will be equally certain that a war or hunting party has passed that way, and if it is not desired to come in conflict with them, their direction may be avoided. Mustangs or wild horses, when moving from place to place, leave a trail which is sometimes difficult to distinguish from that made by a mounted party of Indians, especially if the mustangs do not stop to graze. This may be determined by following upon the trail until some dung is found, and if this should lie in a single pile, it is a sure indication that a herd of mustangs has passed, as they always stop to relieve themselves, while a party of Indians would keep their horses in motion, and the ordure would be scattered along the road. If the trail pass through woodland, the mustangs will occasionally go under the limbs of trees too low to admit the passage of a man on horseback.

An Indian, on coming to a trail, will generally tell at a glance its age, by what particular tribe it was made, the number of the party, and many other things connected with it astounding to the uninitiated.

I remember, upon one occasion, as I was riding with a Delaware upon the prairies, we crossed the trail of a large party of Indians traveling with lodges. The tracks appeared to me quite fresh, and I remarked to the Indian that we must be near the party. “Oh no,” said he, “the trail was made two days before, in the morning,” at the same time pointing with his finger to where the sun would be at about 8 o’clock. Then, seeing that my curiosity was excited to know by what means he arrived at this conclusion, he called my attention to the fact that there had been no dew for the last two nights, but that on the previous morning it had been heavy. He then pointed out to me some spears of grass that had been pressed down into the earth by the horses’ hoofs, upon which the sand still adhered, having dried on, thus clearly showing that the grass was wet when the tracks were made.

At another time, as I was traveling with the same Indian, I discovered upon the ground what I took to be a bear-track, with a distinctly-marked impression of the heel and all the toes. I immediately called the Indian’s attention to it, at the same time flattering myself that I had made quite an important discovery, which had escaped his observation. The fellow remarked with a smile, “Oh no, captain, may be so he not bear-track.” He then pointed with his gun-rod to some spears of grass that grew near the impression, but I did not comprehend the mystery until he dismounted and explained to me that, when the wind was blowing, the spears of grass would be bent over toward the ground, and the oscillating motion thereby produced would scoop out the loose sand into the shape I have described. The truth of this explanation was apparent, yet it occurred to me that its solution would have baffled the wits of most white men.

Fresh tracks generally show moisture where the earth has been turned up, but after a short exposure to the sun they become dry. If the tracks be very recent, the sand may sometimes, where it is very loose and dry, be seen running back into the tracks, and by following them to a place where they cross water, the earth will be wet for some distance after they leave it. The droppings of the dung from animals are also good indications of the age of a trail. It is well to remember whether there have been any rains within a few days, as the age of a trail may sometimes be conjectured in this way. It is very easy to tell whether tracks have been made before or after a rain, as the water washes off all the sharp edges.

It is not a difficult matter to distinguish the tracks of American horses from those of Indian horses, as the latter are never shod; moreover, they are much smaller.

In trailing horses, there will be no trouble while the ground is soft, as the impressions they leave will then be deep and distinct; but when they pass over hard or rocky ground, it is sometimes a very slow and troublesome process to follow them. Where there is grass, the trace can be seen for a considerable time, as the grass will be trodden down and bent in the direction the party has moved; should the grass have returned to its upright position, the trail can often be distinguished by standing upon it and looking ahead for some distance in the direction it has been pursuing; the grass that has been turned over will show a different shade of green from that around it, and this often marks a trail for a long time.

Should all traces of the track be obliterated in certain localities, it is customary with the Indians to follow on in the direction it has been pursuing for a time, and it is quite probable that in some place where the ground is more favorable it will show itself again. Should the trail not be recovered in this way, they search for a place where the earth is soft, and make a careful examination, embracing the entire area where it is likely to run.

Indians who find themselves pursued and wish to escape, scatter as much as possible, with an understanding that they are to meet again at some point in advance, so that, if the pursuing party follows any one of the tracks, it will invariably lead to the place of rendezvous. If, for example, the trail points in the direction of a mountain pass, or toward any other place which affords the only passage through a particular section of country, it would not be worth while to spend much time in hunting it, as it would probably be regained at the pass.

As it is important in trailing Indians to know at what gaits they are traveling, and as the appearance of the tracks of horses are not familiar to all, I have in the following cut represented the prints made by the hoofs at the ordinary speed of the walk, trot, and gallop, so that persons, in following the trail of Indians, may form an idea as to the probability of overtaking them, and regulate their movements accordingly.

In traversing a district of unknown country where there are no prominent landmarks, and with the view of returning to the point of departure, a pocket compass should always be carried, and attached by a string to a button-hole of the coat, to prevent its being lost or mislaid; and on starting out, as well as frequently during the trip, to take the bearing, and examine the appearance of the country when facing toward the starting-point, as a landscape presents a very different aspect when viewing it from opposite directions. There are few white men who can retrace their steps for any great distance unless they take the above precautions in passing over an unknown country for the first time; but with the Indians it is different; the sense of locality seems to be innate with them, and they do not require the aid of the magnetic needle to guide them.

Upon a certain occasion, when I had made a long march over an unexplored section, and was returning upon an entirely different route without either road or trail, a Delaware, by the name of “Black Beaver,” who was in my party, on arriving at a particular point, suddenly halted, and, turning to me, asked if I recognized the country before us. Seeing no familiar objects, I replied in the negative. He put the same question to the other white men of the party, all of whom gave the same answers, whereupon he smiled, and in his quaint vernacular said, “Injun he don’t know nothing. Injun big fool. White man mighty smart; he know heap.” At the same time he pointed to a tree about two hundred yards from where we were then standing, and informed us that our outward trail ran directly by the side of it, which proved to be true.

Another time, as I was returning from the Comanche country over a route many miles distant from the one I had traveled in going out, one of my Delaware hunters, who had never visited the section before, on arriving upon the crest of an eminence in the prairie, pointed out to me a clump of trees in the distance, remarking that our outward track would be found there. I was not, however, disposed to credit his statement until we reached the locality and found the road passing the identical spot he had indicated.

This same Indian would start from any place to which he had gone by a sinuous route, through an unknown country, and keep a direct bearing back to the place of departure; and he assured me that he has never, even during the most cloudy or foggy weather, or in the darkest nights, lost the points of compass. There are very few white men who are endowed with these wonderful faculties, and those few are only rendered proficient by matured experience.

I have known several men, after they had become 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 a-head at their utmost speed without any regard to direction. When a person is satisfied that he has lost his way, he should stop and reflect upon the course he has been traveling, the time that has elapsed since he left his camp, and the probable distance that he is from it; and if he is unable to retrace his steps, he should keep as nearly in the direction of them as possible; and if he has a compass, this will be an easy matter; but, above all, he should guard against following his own track around in a circle with the idea that he is in a beaten trace.

When he is traveling with a train of wagons which leaves a plain trail, he can make the distance he has traveled from camp the radius of a circle in which to ride around, and before the circle is described he will strike the trail. If the person has no compass, it is always well to make an observation, and to remember the direction of the wind at the time of departure from camp; and as this would not generally change during the day, it would afford a means of keeping the points of the compass.

In the night Ursa Major (the Great Bear) is not only useful to find the north star, but its position, when the pointers will be vertical in the heavens, may be estimated with sufficient accuracy to determine the north even when the north star can not be seen. In tropical latitudes, the zodiacal stars, such as Orion and Antares, give the east and west bearing, and the Southern Cross the north and south when Polaris and the Great Bear can not be seen.

It is said that the moss upon the firs and other trees in Europe gives a certain indication of the points of compass in a forest country, the greatest amount accumulating upon the north side of the trees. But I have often observed the trees in our own forests, and have not been able to form any positive conclusions in this way.