Life in the Wilds of America

Arapoorish, a Crow chief, in a letter to the well-known fur trader, Robert Campbell, says:

“The Crow country is a good country. The Great Spirit has put it exactly in the right place; while you are in it, you fare well; when ever you go out of it, which ever way you travel, you fare worse. If you go to the south, you have to wander over great, barren plains; the water is warm and bad, and you meet the fever and ague. To the north it is cold; the winters are long and bitter, with no grass; you cannot keep horses there, but must travel with dogs. On the Columbia, they are poor and dirty, paddle about in canoes and eat fish. Their teeth are worn out, they are always taking fishbones out of their mouths. To the east they live well, but they drink the muddy water of the Missouri. A Crow’s god would not drink such water. About the forks of the Missouri is a fine country; good water, good grass, plenty of buffalo. In summer it is almost as good as the Crow country, but in winter it is cold; the grass is gone, and there is no salt weed for the horses. The Crow country is exactly in the right place. It has snowy mountains and sunny plains; all kinds of climates, and good things for every season. When the summer heats scorch the prairies, you can draw up under the mountains, where the air is sweet and cool, the grass fresh, and the bright streams come tumbling out of the snow banks. There you can hunt the elk, the deer and the antelope, when their skins are fit for dressing; there you will find plenty of white bear and mountain sheep.

In the autumn, when your horses are fat and strong from the mountain pastures, you can go down into the plains and hunt buffalo, or trap beaver on the streams. And when winter comes on, you can take shelter in the woody bottoms along the rivers; there you will find buffalo meat for yourselves, and cottonwood bark for you horses. Or you may winter in the Wind River Valley, where there is salt weed in abundance. The Crow Country is exactly in the right place. Everything good is to be found there. There is no country like the Crow Country.”

And Arapooish was about right. His country is a good one, and unless the Crows learn to make a better use of it than at present, they must soon yield it to those who will appreciate it for something besides its game. It is almost the last untrodden wilderness left in the United States; but even that being invaded by advancing civilization, and when we turn to the map of America, ten years hence, names of towns, villages and settlements will dot it so closely, that nowhere, throughout the Great Northwest, will the map-maker find a vacant spot, where he can write the oft-repeated words “Great American Desert.”

From I. Winslow Ayer, Life in the Wilds of America and Wonders of the Far West, p. 347-348.

© Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press

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