Forts on the Plains

IFIRST SAW the gateway to the Great Plains, just as I first saw the gateway to New France, on a day of intense cold. Both gateways stand high above mighty rivers, that of New France above the St. Lawrence at Quebec, that to the Great Plains above the Missouri at Fort Leavenworth. An aeroplane had brought me to Leavenworth from the beginnings of spring in the Carolinas, from Charleston via Charlotte to St. Louis, the old mid-point of the French Empire—whose water routes connect with the Great Lakes and Canada, with the Illinois country, with the Dakotas, and with New Orleans and the Gulf—to Kansas City. There the end of winter showed a bleak and desolate landscape. Patches of tired snow lay about on the eastern banks of the river; the grass which it did not cover was seared lifeless by months of wind from the north. The far bank of the Missouri, rising in a line of low bluffs above the wide flow of leaden water, stared bare and brown at the visitor arriving from the Atlantic side. No shred of vegetation relieved the escarpment to promise any awakening from the iron sleep of winter. There was a hint of building on the skyline. The only other evidence of man’s passage this way was a great incised scar, hundreds of yards wide, climbing the far shore from the water’s edge to the crest.

“That was the way the wagons went” was my host’s answer to my question. Roger Spiller, part-Cherokee, professor of military history at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, had stopped the car on the way from the airport to survey the approach to America’s other half, the half that begins on the Mississippi–Missouri and leads fifteen hundred miles westward to the Pacific Coast of Oregon and California. “They crossed here, the people going west after the Civil War, and hauled their wagons up the bluff to the interior of the fort. Then they set off across the plains, on the Santa Fe Trail to Texas or the Oregon Trail to California and the Northwest. The trails divide about eight miles inland. Either way they had half a continent to cross.”

I stared in bemusement at the scar for a long time. There is such a scar on the western flank of Salisbury Plain, which I can just glimpse a mile away through the beeches and oaks beyond my study window; but it is only a few dozen feet wide and was cut into the chalk by Bronze Age people four thousand years ago to guard the emergence of an ancient pack route from the Somerset Levels through the thickets of Selwood Forest to the dry uplands that lead to Stonehenge. Alfred the Great brought his army that way in the ninth century A.D. to defeat the Danes at the battle of Ethandune. Drovers used it within living memory to herd their flocks of sheep to summer grazing from the wetter ground at the plain’s foot. Today it survives only by careful conservation, and in its heyday it was never more than one link in a route perhaps a hundred miles long. Beside the Leavenworth wagon scar, it is scarcely better than a scratch in a tiny, prehistoric landscape. Its significance is local and now almost forgotten. The Leavenworth scar opens the story of the greatest event in modern American history, the departure of the migrants, from the temperate, forested territory of the Atlantic east to the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Eldorado of the Pacific coast.

It was with the greatest excitement, therefore, that I crossed from the outskirts of Kansas City—by a trick of nomenclature a place in the state of Missouri—to Kansas proper, the territory of the Kansa Indians, via the bridge that now spans the river, and entered the gates of Fort Leavenworth. I had come, inevitably, to give a lecture, to the students of the Staff College, whose buildings have long ago overflowed the boundaries of the original fort. They contain today one of the most magnificent military libraries in the Western world, a thousand earnest students, eager for military advancement, and the School of Advanced Military Studies, training the cream of the crop to be the army’s future thinkers; in 1990, General Schwarzkopf turned over to them the task of outlining the strategy for Operation Desert Storm. It was odd to think of the plan for the most complex air-ground-sea campaign in the history of warfare being hatched eight thousand miles from the scene of action and on the site of an old Indian-fighting fort half a continent distant from salt water. Yet some traces of the old fort remain. It was to these, as soon as my duty was discharged, that I turned my attention.

The fort had been founded in 1827 by Captain Henry Leavenworth as a base for soldiers detailed to protect merchants trading overland from Missouri into Mexico, which then occupied the whole of the modern United States’ Southwest. He had come from Fort Jefferson at St. Louis, where a few of its fine Federal buildings still stand on the high ground of the eastern bank; they make a favourite backdrop for high-school prom photographs. The sight of radiant and extraordinarily good-looking young people in evening dress posing before the Cyclopean masonry of the old magazine remains for me a snapshot of the promise of American life. Leavenworth’s commission had been to find a site at the mouth of the Little Platte on the eastern shore, but he found no suitable place. Twenty miles down the Missouri, however, he was attracted by the bluffs in the west bank, landed, pitched camp, and had a rough stone wall hastily built as a protection against the local Indians.

By one of those now familiar coincidences, he had hit upon a place previously fortified by Europeans. In 1744 a French engineer called Chevalier Pierre René Harpin de la Gautrais had selected the Leavenworth bluffs as a suitable location for a trading post among the Kansa Indians, built a stockade eighty feet square, and named it for the Governor of Louisiana, François Pierre Rigaud de Cavaignal. For a while it flourished as the usual sort of centre for rowdy, fur-seeking voyageurs, but the Indians soon began to drift away to better hunting grounds, while the French garrison departed in 1753 to campaign against the British in the widening war for Canada. By 1764, two years after France had ceded Louisiana to Spain, the fort was abandoned, and it soon fell into decay.

It did not disappear altogether from human ken; in July 1804 the Lewis and Clark expedition, en route to Oregon and the Pacific from St. Louis, camped on an island nearby and a Frenchman in the party—could it have been the legendary Charbonneau, husband of Sacajawea, the Shoshone girl they were to liberate from the Minnetarees the following year?—remembered that there had once been a French fort on the spot; the expedition’s journal of 2 July 1804 records that “the situation of the fort may be recognised by some remains of chimneys, and the general outline.” Thereafter, however, its traces disappeared altogether, taken back to nature, as so much is in America, by the assault of the continent’s climate. Despite searches by the Staff College’s historians, nothing of it has been found again. The congruences remain compelling; France, Spain, the fur business, the migratory Indians, the British war for Canada, the United States’ exploration of its “noble bargain” in the Louisiana Purchase, the trade with Mexico. An American fort is so often a nodal point, both in time and space. Leavenworth, like St. Louis, from which it was founded, knots several regions by water, the Northwest by the Missouri, the Great Lakes and the Gulf by the Mississippi; by land it opened routes to the Great Plains and to the Old Southwest of Mexico and New Spain. In time it connects the government exploration of the Northwest and the region’s penetration by the ungovernable mountain men, the mercantile venture to Mexico, its defeat by the American army in 1846, and the cession of the Southwest to the United States in 1848; the settlement of the Great Plains by wagon train and their opening to worldwide export of grain by the building of the railways—the Kansas Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads start spitting distance away; and, finally, the doleful story of the resettlement of America’s native inhabitants, their desultory resistance to the incoming white hordes, their belated decision to fight for their lands, and their ultimate defeat by the United States Army.

Some, if not all, of this is commemorated within the walls of Fort Leavenworth’s Memorial Chapel, a small, shadowed place of extraordinary poignancy. I entered expecting the undenominational bleakness of military convention. I found a tiny shrine of warriordom, the aisles pillared with the polished bronze barrels of 12-pounder mountain howitzers, the walls covered with tablets commemorating the dead of campaigns far and near. The image of the old chapel at Sandhurst, Britain’s West Point, came instantly to mind. There, in a similarly reverential gloom, brass and marble recall the deaths of officers killed fighting tribesmen on the North-West Frontier of India or the Mahdi’s fanatical followers in the Sudan, or drowned in the attempt to rescue comrades, or lost on imperial exploration, or—there is more than one of these—murdered by treachery on peace-making missions to remote hill villages or desert camps. Leavenworth’s chapel tells much the same story: “Died from wounds received in battle at Santiago de Cuba, July 1, 1898”; “Congressional Medal of Honor for Conspicuous Gallantry. Davenport Bridge, Virginia, July 5th, 1864”; “Killed near Fort Niobrava, Nebraska, while in command of a detachment pursuing horse thieves and deserters”; “Drowned in attempting to save the life of a brother officer, Camp Supply, Arizona, 1872”; “Died at Cape Sabine, Grinness Land, Greely Polar Expedition”; “Killed in action August 4, 1918, near Ville-Savoye, France, while gallantly leading his battalion”; “Died at El Obeid, Egyptian Sudan, April 20th, 1941”; “Killed in action at Carrizal, Mexico, 1916. Engagements Philippine Insurrection, San Miguel, San Isidro-Parañaque, Las Piñas-Santa Cruz, Erected by his classmates”; “Lost in plane crash off Okinawa, Ryuku Islands, 26 August 1946.” These little tablets are a reminder of something a European easily overlooks: that the United States Army, just as much as the imperial armies of France and Britain, has a worldwide history of service in Latin America, China, and Africa, as well as in Europe and the islands of the far Pacific. There is an echo here of “Taps” sounded in distant cantonments, of the rattle of Springfields in the Philippine boondocks, of the creak of saddle leather beyond the Rio Grande, of the muttered complaints of men in campaign hats and canvas leggings settling into their stride on the dusty road from Tientsin to the Forbidden City.

Mentally I saluted them, men whom duty had taken far from home to die in places where George Washington had passionately believed American soldiers had no business; but the principal emotion Leavenworth’s Memorial Chapel left with me was of intimacy with battlefields closer at hand. For every commemoration of a death suffered beyond the seas there were a dozen others inflicted on the Great Plains, along the edge of the Rockies, or on the desert frontiers of Mexico: “Mortally wounded in action near Nacori, Mexico, during an attack on his command of Indian scouts by a force of Mexicans, January 11th, 1886”; “Died of wounds received in action with hostile Indians”; “Killed in action with hostile Apache Indians at Cibicu Creek, Arizona, August 30th, 1887”; “Killed in the line of duty by Apache Indians at San Carlos, Arizona, erected by his classmates of the USMA, and the officers of his Regiment”; “Killed in action with Bannock Indians”; “Died of wounds received in action with Indians”; “Killed while in the field against hostile Indians”; “Killed in action with hostile Indians, Sierra San Mateo, New Mexico”; and, the longest list of all, that beginning “In Memoriam Officers 7th Cavalry, Little Bighorn, Montana, June 25th, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, Brevet Major-General, USA” and ending twelve names later with “2nd Lieutenant William Van W. Reilly.” The U.S. Army’s chief mythic episode in its war with native America has its spiritual consummation under the steep-pitched eaves of the Memorial Chapel. It had had its beginnings nearby also, for the 7th Cavalry had wintered at Leavenworth throughout the 1870s, years when its mission was intimately bound up with the human drama that left the great churned-over scar on the face of the escarpment above which the chapel stands. The scar—will it last as long as the scratchings of the Bronze Age people on the green flank of Salisbury Plain at Whitesheet Hill?—remains as the single most graphic relic of the westward movement, while the saga of the 7th Cavalry is read and read again by Americans as a commentary on the story of emigration, settlement, conflict with, and final victory over, the original inhabitants of the continent in their struggle to preserve a way of life for which the urgent modern world could make no room. What began so tentatively at Fort Leavenworth in the 1820s would be settled for ever fifty years later by the Indians’ doomed act of defiance on the banks of the Little Bighorn twelve hundred miles to the west.

Emigration and the Great Plains

The Great Plains, in the popular imagination, began as an empty land, empty, that is, of anything but buffalo and Indians. The Great American Desert was what two early government explorers, Zebulon Pike—of Pikes Peak—and Stephen Long, called it. Horace Greeley, who urged “Go West, young man!”—he meant California—wrote in 1859 that the Great American Desert was a reality and that “every day’s sun is extending it.” That, alas, was to prove true in the dry years which reached one of their peaks in the 1930s when Steinbeck launched The Grapes of Wrath at the social conscience of America: “ … the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During the night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind. The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.… The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it.… Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break.”

The farmers who were broken by the dustbowl, however, were the victims of eighty years of soil-stirring, during many of which the winds had brought rain and the settlers had flourished. The Norwegians of Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, another great novel of plains life, found “the finest soil you ever dreamed of—a veritable land of Canaan.” It was the promise of “a nameless, blue-green solitude, flat, endless, still” which brought them from Europe, up the St. Lawrence, then to Minnesota, and finally to the Dakotas to make a new life. Yet the plains they found in the 1870s had already ceased to be empty; fingers of settlement were creeping out into the best land, that watered by the rivers which flow into the Missouri and Mississippi; indeed, modern scholars deny that the plains had been “empty” in the European sense even before the promise of “free” land had begun to draw Scandinavians and Germans, Czechs and Russians westward, any more than Canada west of the Great Lakes was empty in the eighteenth century. The coureurs de bois and then voyageurs had already begun to make sense of the wilderness, to form Indian alliances, to interbreed, to overwinter, to spin a filigree of increasingly permanent habitation at a time when French Canada’s centre of gravity remained fixed in the St. Lawrence. In the same way, the region between Spanish America’s Texan and Californian boundaries and Anglo-Saxon America’s frontier on the Mississippi had already been penetrated by the early nineteenth century by transients of many callings, traders, trappers, hunters, proto-ranchers and cattlemen, missionaries, and soldiers. The Great Plains of the buffalo and the Indians who lived in symbiosis with the herds had lost their isolation years before Captain Leavenworth arrived to plant his bridgehead on the west bank of the Missouri; perhaps their isolation had gone two centuries earlier, when the first horse escaped or was stolen or bargained away from its Spanish owner and passed into Indian hands. It was the coming of the horse on to the Great Plains that initiated their opening to the outside world, transformed their age-old culture, and imposed a unity on the vast region not possible of attainment during the millennia when movement by foot, on the trail of the herds, was the only means of traversing its vast distances.

Today the Great Plains are held to lie within the boundaries of all or some of ten states of the Union: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico to the west, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to the east, and the vast expanse of Texas to the south. Geographers discriminate more precisely, particularly between the short-grass and long-grass plains, which lie respectively west and east of the hundredth meridian, a boundary between uncertain rainfall, which may inflict years of drought on the short-grass farmers, destroy their economies, and threaten the destruction of the ecology itself, and the higher and more certain rainfall of the belt nearer the Mississippi–Missouri. The plains together form a zone of high land, raised by the silting of the Continental Divide by aeons of precipitation which has created a west–east gradient, five thousand feet high at the foot of the Rockies and petering out on the Missouri into the bluffs on which Fort Leavenworth stands. The west–east distance across the gradient is some five hundred miles, between Leavenworth and Pikes Peak, but from south to north, comprehending the Great Plains extension into the Canadian prairies, more than fifteen hundred miles. Within this expanse of 750,000 square miles of level and treeless territory—it is the treelessness of the plains that is their distinguishing characteristic—geographers recognise some significant subdivisions. On the west bank of the Mississippi–Missouri, immediately behind Leavenworth, for example, the countryside does not differ significantly from that of the Middle West: rolling hills, belts of forest, smaller and larger river valleys, none of it unfamiliar to the visitor from Western Europe. It is beyond the hundredth meridian, roughly the line of the western boundaries of Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, that the terrain takes on its steppe character. Below the Platte River, which enters the Missouri near Omaha, Nebraska, and forms the north–south division between better and worse farming land, the land falls into three strips—Low Plains, High Plains, and the Upland Trough—which, running east–west, resemble each other in offering grass cover of varying richness to the farmer and rancher in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Above the Platte, in the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana—Montana, one and a half times the size of the United Kingdom, today has only 750,000 inhabitants—climate and soil combine to confront the settler with vast areas of inhospitable land. The high, rich Black Hills of Dakota teem with game which hides in their dense forests; elsewhere there is much badland and barren river valley amid this dry hill territory. Buffalo roamed where it could, and the Indians preyed on it, but the northwestern Great Plains threatened heartbreak to farmers who hacked arable fields from its semi-arid surface.

Many who came that way in the mid-nineteenth century were, of course, bent not on staying but on pressing forward, through the Rockies, to the promised Arcadia of California and Oregon. Geography largely determined the routes they should take. While the Santa Fe Trail was chiefly a human creation, pieced out to connect the Leavenworth bridgehead with the termination of the Old Spanish Trail from California at Santa Fe itself, the line of the California and Oregon trails was fixed by the discovery of the South Pass, the easiest way through the Rockies in what today is southwestern Wyoming. It was only on the other side that they diverged, the Oregon Trail northwestward towards the valley of the Columbia River and Vancouver, the California Trail southwestward along the line of the Humboldt River (today Interstate 80) and so across the Sierra range to San Francisco.

There are many names associated with the penetration and exploration of the plains, the Rockies, and the Pacific coastland, and there must have been many unknown to us who took a hand in the work as well. Some were the leaders of government-sponsored expeditions, some were capitalist entrepreneurs, some missionaries, some bravados or toughs, some unlettered hunters or trappers, some traders, some free spirits who, like Daniel Boone, heeded the call of the wild. First and in many ways most remarkable was Francisco Coronado, who, at the behest of the Spanish governor of Mexico, set out northward in 1539 with a party of several hundred and during the next four years journeyed a thousand miles northward into southern Arizona and then another thousand miles eastward into Oklahoma, probably into Kansas as well and possibly into Nebraska and Missouri. On the Brazos River in Texas his tracks approached those of the marauding Hernando de Soto, who was simultaneously crisscrossing the Southeast and was the first white man to see the Mississippi. Coronado, however, established no permanent line of march inside the American Southwest, nor did Spain appear to want one. Juan de Oñate, who travelled as far as Kansas in 1601, almost single-handedly created New Mexico in the following decade. But the Crown’s efforts were devoted to consolidating and exploiting its empire in Mexico proper. Missionaries—Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits—breached that policy by their efforts, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to convert and civilise the Indians, particularly the sedentary Pueblo Indians, in New Mexico, Arizona, and California, but the extension of the Hispanic cultural frontier into what today is the southwestern United States had no official impetus behind it.

The Spanish colonial government was energised into a more positive policy only by foreign threat, the arrival of Russian traders and trappers on the Pacific Coast, the creation of French Louisiana. Spain’s response to the Russian approach towards California was pre-emptive: to survey its coastline as quickly as possible in 1769–70 and plant forts (presidio was the Spanish term) at the strategic spots, such as Monterey and San Francisco. On the Gulf the Spanish were more timid. The appearance of French traders and explorers in Texas, particularly the Mallet brothers in 1739–40, who got as far as Santa Fe itself, prompted the Spanish Crown to establish fortified settlements and encourage missionary effort. After 1762, however, in which year Louisiana passed from France to Spain, the effort of policing a frontier constantly assailed by warlike, horse-riding Comanche and Apache proved too onerous to be sustained, and in 1772 it was decided to fix the frontier in Texas on a line of new presidios, running from Natchitoches on the Red River (today in the state of Louisiana) across the Saburie River to the Alamo at San Antonio and then to Laredo on the Rio Grande. The royal order was to leave Texas north of the line “to nature and the Indians.”

Exploration of the Great Plains was therefore to be exclusively an Anglo-Saxon enterprise, though a freelance as well as an official one. What the La Vérendryes and Mallets had found on their adventures to the Black Hills and the Rockies did not tell the United States government enough about the land it had bought from France. What Thomas Jefferson, then the President, sought in particular was the discovery of “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent [to the Pacific] for the purposes of commerce.” In May 1804, therefore, he despatched two young officers—Meriwether Lewis, a graduate of the College of William and Mary (so near to Yorktown), who had been his private secretary, and William Clark, brother of George Rogers Clark, who had won the Illinois country for the United States in the year of Yorktown—to ascend the Missouri and find a way into the West. They carried out his instructions to the letter, leaving St. Louis in May 1804, passing the future site of Fort Leavenworth soon afterwards, arriving at the Forks of the Missouri in Montana in July 1805 and on the Pacific, at the mouth of the Columbia River, in November after a terrible passage negotiating the high land above the headwaters of the Columbia and having constantly portaged their canoes to reach their destination. On the way back, they divided their parties, Lewis returning via the upper Missouri, Clark by its tributary the Yellowstone—Custer’s future campaigning ground—rejoining each other in modern North Dakota. Lewis had had a frightening brush with Blackfoot Indians, the most warlike of the Sioux, but their return downriver to St. Louis was largely uneventful; they knew the way and were greeted as familiars by Indians they had met on the outward voyage.

Three other official explorers, Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, and John Frémont, who went respectively to the Rockies in 1805–6, to Texas and Mexico in the years 1817–20, and to Nevada and California in 1846—all started from or near St. Louis—added considerably to knowledge of the geography of the United States. Pike saw and named his peak—that ugly, red, boulder-strewn pinnacle of the Rockies first pointed out to me because the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command lurks in its bowels; Long, who climbed Pikes Peak, which Pike had declared unclimbable, explored the Platte, Arkansas, and Canadian rivers and helped to popularise belief in an overland route from the Mississippi into the Southwest; Frémont, who followed that route in part, is better known not as an explorer—though he captained four expeditions—but as an instigator of the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt in California, which led to the incorporation of the territory as a state of the Union in 1850, and as a leading Civil War general.

Indeed, after Lewis and Clark, it was freelance, not official, explorers who must be accorded the credit for opening up the West. They include John Jacob Astor and the employees of the American Fur Company, who, encouraged by Lewis and Clark’s success, pioneered another overland route to the Northwest which did—by its use of the South Pass through the Rockies—blaze a section of the Oregon Trail the later settlers would use. On the far side of the Rockies, in California and Oregon, which were the objectives of the earliest migrants in the 1840s and 1850s, it was again fur trappers and traders who ranged widest and brought back the most important topographical information. Loosely known as the mountain men, they looked the part, bearded, skin-clad, armed to the teeth. Their numbers in their heyday of 1820–40 never seem to have exceeded six hundred, though they were difficult to count: many, as the coureurs de bois had done, spent a lifetime, commonly a short lifetime, in the wilderness, returning to the settled frontier but occasionally and appearing to view only at the annual rendezvous—equivalent of the old French Canadian fur fairs—where pelts were sold, tales told, and whisky drunk in quantities which often bankrupted and sometimes killed the revellers. The names of the best-known mountain men belong to the Western legends. Some, like Jim Bridger and Old Bill Williams, were fiercely independent, sometimes lending their services to government or fur company, more often wandering where spirit and instinct for profit took them. Others, Jedediah Smith, Peter Skene Ogden, Joseph Walker, were more purposeful in their adventuring, more formally attached to official or commercial expeditions, and better at reporting their discoveries. Ogden submitted detailed reports, while Smith, recognised as the greatest of all explorers of the Far West, pioneered the first practicable routes to California, both beginning at the Great Salt Lake in Utah, one leading to San Gabriel, the other to San Francisco itself.

The mountain men were travellers above all, ever in search of untrapped rivers and then of traders who would purchase their take. In the way of commerce, traders came looking for trappers when they had accumulated enough to make the buyers’ journey worth while. This was the origin of the rendezvous system, flourishing between 1823 and 1839, but reminiscent of similar gatherings on the boundary between wild and tamed land from the beginning of history; Huns, Turks, and Mongols had come to the edge of the steppe to trade with civilisation for a thousand years in the age of Rome and Byzantium. A common place for the mountain men to meet the fur buyers was Green River, a tributary of the Platte in Wyoming, on the way to the South Pass through the Rockies. Ray Allen Billington, the great historian of the West, describes how “shortly after the first of July the caravan of trading goods arrived from St. Louis. The mountain men always rode out to meet the mile-long line of laden mules, yelling like demons as they greeted the merchants who were willing to ensure the wearisome journey for profits of 2,000 per cent on their investments. They asked eagerly for year-old news first, then watched greedily as the merchandise was spread before them. Trading came first … then the flat casks of alcohol were tapped … eventually both the alcohol and the mountain men were exhausted. Those who had gambled away their guns and horses pledged the next year’s catch for new supplies, and all stumbled away into the wilderness, their year’s earnings squandered in a few days of barbaric dissipation.”

Even while the rendezvous system was in full swing, however, some traders were seeking advantage over others by setting up permanent centres of trade out on the plains. Usually simple stockades, but more often sunburnt brick (adobe), for timber was hard to come by outside the river valleys, those posts quickly acquired the name of “fort”—Fort Union, Fort Laramie—and a number were destined to blossom into permanent centres of population. Lewis and Clark had built forts on their way, one at the Mahdan villages on the Missouri near modern Bismarck, North Dakota, and another, Fort Clatsop, at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. The North American Fur Company built Fort Astoria nearby in 1811, while the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the decades when Oregon Territory existed as an uneasy Anglo-American condominium, built Forts Vancouver and Hall. Its example encouraged the construction of Fort McKenzie on the upper Missouri in 1824, of Fort Union at the confluence of the Yellowstone—future Custer country—with the Missouri in 1827, and of Fort Laramie, on the North Platte, in 1828. Foremost among all these private-enterprise forts, however, was Bent’s Fort, later Fort William, built in 1833 on the Arkansas River near modern La Junta, Colorado, a hundred miles east of the Rockies. Between 1834 and 1852, when its owner abandoned it, it was the centre of trade on the southern plains and was visited by such American grandees as Francis Parkman, historian of the French-English struggle for the continent, and President Thomas Jefferson himself.

Bent’s Fort was a rip-roaring place in its day. “In the corral,” wrote an English visitor, George Ruxton, in 1847, “leather-clad mountaineers … gamble away their hard-earned peltries … St. Louis Frenchmen and Canadian voyageurs are pressing packs of buffalo skins. Indian squaws, the wives of mountaineers, strut about in all the pride of beads … happy as paint can make them.… Against the walls groups of Indians too proud to enter without an invitation, lean, wrapped in their buffalo robes, sulky and evidently ill at ease to be so near the whites without a chance of fingering their scalp locks; their white lodges shining in the sun, at a little distance from the river banks; their horses feeding in the plain beyond.” Its day, however, was short. By the 1860s the army had assumed responsibility for fort-building on the plains and was extending chains of posts westward along the river and overland routes pioneered by trappers, traders, explorers, and settlers in the first half of the century. The chains had their lodgements on the Missouri and Mississippi—at Fort Smith, established in 1817, where the Arkansas joins the Red River on their way to the Mississippi; at Fort Atkinson, established in 1819 at Council Bluffs on the Missouri; at Fort Snelling, where the Minnesota joins the Mississippi, also established in 1819; and, of course, at Fort Leavenworth. These were formal government foundations. From them in the years after the Civil War, the army built in the northern plains, along the line of the California and Oregon trails, Forts Kearney, McPherson, and Mitchell, militarised the old Fort Laramie of fur days, and protected the trail northwestward—here known as the Bozeman Trail—by Forts Fetterman, Phil Kearny, and C. F. Smith. On the Santa Fe Trail from Leavenworth the line of forts ran from Fort Riley in Kansas via Fort Dodge to Fort Union in New Mexico, where the way leads under the last outcrop of the Rockies and so to California across the desert. Many other forts were built along the river systems, on trail branches, and near Indian stamping grounds, and, as the railroads began to be built west of the Mississippi, new forts were planted along their tracks to protect engineers and the travellers who followed in their wake. In 1871 the chairman of the Board of Indian Commissioners explained frankly to Red Cloud, the great Sioux chief, that the policy was for “the Great Father to put war-houses all through the Indian Country.” The general commanding the Department of the Platte, Edward Ord, put it more bluntly: “Building posts in their country demoralises them more than anything else except money and whiskey.” By 1881 there were more than a hundred forts in the West, besides many which had been abandoned or had grown into civil settlements.

Some still survive as military centres, Fort Riley, Kansas, home of the 1st Infantry Division, foremost among them. An unprepossessing town clings to its gates. Within the boundaries of the training area, however, some feel of the terrain which the army and the settlers confronted in Indian days persists. This is not yet the Great Plains—too wet, too hilly, too wooded. It had to be crossed, nevertheless, by the pioneers. I wondered, as I went “down range” in a Huey helicopter in 1987 to watch an all-arms exercise, what they made of it. “Remember,” my escorting officer said to the pilot as we clambered aboard, “the idea is to make the number of landings equal to the number of take-offs.” As we swooped and turned, the surface of very rough country passed my field of vision through the open door, yellowy-reddish scrub, small birches and pines, little swampy bottoms. We landed to watch an infantry platoon firing its anti-tank weapons by electronic simulation at a troop of armoured vehicles, and their platoon leader ran up to salute and tell the major delightedly how many hits had been scored. A West Pointer, bristling with the sort of good officer qualities I recognised from my years of teaching at Sandhurst, he was a handsome young black lientenant. A hundred years earlier, the only black soldiers hereabouts were the enlisted men of the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry, the “buffalo soldiers” of the U.S. Colored Regiments. He joined us for a cup of coffee served off the back of a tracked carrier half-bogged by the side of a soggy creek. Inhospitable now, the surroundings must have been even more bleak and inhospitable when the army took up post here for a real military purpose, in 1866. Fort Riley, founded in 1853, was still building, and its first garrison was formed by the newly raised 7th Cavalry, commanded by George Custer.

What brought Custer and his men to Fort Riley was the need to protect the railhead of the Kansas–Pacific railroad, begun near Fort Leavenworth 136 miles to the east in 1863 and now pushing towards Denver, Colorado, at a pace of 90 miles a year. Other railroads were paralleling its progress, notably the Union Pacific from Council Bluffs, while roads which started in California, such as the Central Pacific, were reaching back through the Sierras, to join them. When the Central Pacific met the Union Pacific at Ogden, Utah, in May 1869, the continent was spanned—as it had been by telegraph in 1861—by a continuous system leading, east of the Mississippi–Missouri, to Chicago, Baltimore, and New York.

There is a European misconception, long held by me but shared, I suspect, by many Americans, that the westward expansion of population in the United States, “Manifest Destiny,” was incremental: that it began with the crossing in the eighteenth century of the Appalachians, proceeded to the line of the Mississippi–Missouri, broke that barrier in the mid-nineteenth century, progressed to the Rockies, and ended eventually in California, where the pioneers found no one but some gold-rushers and the scattered Hispanic subjects of New Spain’s missions and presidios. Nothing, of course, could be less true. Like the Russians, who reached the Pacific at Vladivostok long before they had fully explored Siberia and subdued the nomad tribes of Central Asia, the Americans first populated their rich Pacific West—more often by ship to San Francisco than by wagon overland—and then found other reasons to filter back into the Great American Desert. The search for mineral wealth, particularly gold, was one; the need to get cattle north from the open ranges of Texas to the westward-reaching railroads and the stockyards of Chicago which they served was another. Sodbusting on the sea of grass was almost an afterthought. I exaggerate, but there is just enough truth in the thought to bear pondering.

Two experiences in eastern Kansas, on the threshold of the Great Plains, made me ponder. One was a visit to the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, where the victor of the North-West Europe campaign of 1944–45 grew up. I venerate Dwight Eisenhower. He personifies the American army which I remember coming to save my country in 1942. He also personifies to me the ideal of America: a poor boy, born to God-fearing parents in the continent’s heartland, who by hard work and the practice of simple virtue rose to lead his country and eventually the world. Abilene, 164 miles east of Leavenworth on the railroad, is a backwater now; the curators of the presidential papers, kindly offering me lunch, could find nowhere better than the sort of authentically American eating place I remember fondly from my first youthful visit: plastic tabletops, glass sugar-shakers with metal caps, coffee plonked down before orders taken, and a choice of meat loaf or hamburger. What impressed me most about the town was the display of school books on which Eisenhower was raised. In 1904, when the high school was built, it was teaching French, German, and Latin—Eisenhower got a B—as well as algebra and geometry; forty years earlier the place had been wilderness.

What should have impressed me was its history. Between 1867, when it was “a small dead place of about one dozen long huts,” and 1872, it was the cattle capital of America. A cattle dealer called Joseph McCoy, the “real McCoy” of proverb, succeeded in 1867 in clinching a deal with the Kansas Pacific to transport cattle to Chicago. They were driven up from Texas along the Chisholm Trail—three others running parallel would later join the Union Pacific, Missouri Pacific, and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads at Cheyenne, Wyoming, Dodge City, Kansas, and Sedalia, Missouri—corralled, loaded, and railed northward to the meat-packing yards on the Great Lakes. But Abilene was the first of the cow towns. “More than four hundred miles north of the Red River and nearly a thousand miles from the Nueces Country (New Spain’s old northern border), [it] was to become the commercial capital of Texas … to know in prosperity a lustiness and a greed which would make it a legend wherever cattlemen stopped to talk … In Abilene the Texas cowboy was discovered and first became a distinct type, and here he first displayed for a national audience those extremes of temperament that make him a hero.”

Abilene’s cattle glory was long done when Ike grew up there; what he learnt of it he must have done later, much as I did in front of the cinema screen showing Red River or The Plainsman. Yet Abilene and Texas nevertheless connect in Eisenhower’s life, for he was born not in Kansas but near the start of the Chisholm Trail at Denison, on the Red River, where a farm bankruptcy had driven his father to seek work while Ida, the wonderful, sunny, Bible-quoting mother of the extraordinary Eisenhower brood, was pregnant with Dwight. Farm bankruptcy: an introduction to that event in the settlement of the plains was the second experience which made me ponder my mistaken understanding of the movement westward. On a free afternoon at Fort Leavenworth in February 1979, I was taken by a colonel on the faculty, Gordon Rogers, to tour its immediate hinterland. He showed me where, eight miles west of the fort, the California and Oregon trails divided; he showed me white-tailed deer grazing in herds on rough ground exactly as they did when the leader had to keep an ear cocked for Indians; he showed me a rough little rural settlement where every pick-up with a young man at the wheel had a .30/30 slug inside the cab; most important, he showed me the abandoned settlements of those who had moved on.

Colonel Rogers was a farmer himself. He had bought land and planned to retire to it when his thirty years in uniform were up, so he understood the rhythm of ploughing, grazing, and stock-rearing. His farm, nevertheless, would be at best a help to his pension. Stopping by an abandoned church and school, Catholic, American Gothic, clapboard and paint, he told me a story of farming which federal pensions did not subsidise. These, he said, were the relics of settlers of the 1880s. They had bought their sections or quarter-sections, built and ploughed, sowed and harvested. For a while they had prospered, pieced a community together, hoped for the future. Then times had turned against them, or better times had promised elsewhere, and they had left, perhaps for California, perhaps for the Great Plains proper in the years when the winds brought rain. No one had succeeded them: the relics of their little effort at wider culture were crumbling away, while their sections had been bought up and subsumed in larger holdings. Not even here was the land rich enough to bring small men a secure living; out on the plains, in the dry years, if they chanced their second luck there, times must have been worse. I thought of Dwight Eisenhower’s father. He had never got his Abilene farm back after his bankruptcy but taken work in a creamery—what a descent from longhorn, trail-driving cattle days—beaten Latin into his boys with a strap, and barely lived to hear how his hardscrabble life had carried them to the threshold of place and fame in the world. Only Ida, the Bible her rock, had survived to see the homestead virtues she had taught her sons turn them into great men.

A little of what I feel about the Eisenhower epic I was able to transmit in 1986 to an audience at Kansas State University in Manhattan, the stop before Fort Riley on the old Kansas Pacific line. I had been honoured by an invitation to give the Eisenhower Memorial Lecture. Ironically, however, I found that the interests of the history department did not lie with the westward movement at all. The lady who drove me about the campus had succumbed to the fashion for women’s studies, while the chairman was an American member of the great Monumenta Germaniae Historica at Frankfurt-am-Main, the seat of medieval scholarship in the German-speaking lands. It was doubtful whether his interests extended to the Eisenhowers’ origins in the Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite community of the eighteenth century, let alone to the story of their migration to Kansas in the nineteenth. Yet the Eisenhowers epitomise the story of the movement to the plains. Kansas had been legally opened for settlement in 1854. After the Civil War, the Eisenhowers, still German-speaking, decided to take up the promise made by the railroad companies of cheaper land westward for their children, sold up, loaded their goods at Harrisburg, and, with three hundred other Mennonites, crossed the Missouri and bought a quarter-section, 160 acres, in Dickinson County, just where the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas give way to the Great Plains. If they crossed at Leavenworth, as they probably did, their wagon wheels must have deepened the scar on the bluff; there was no bridge for the railroad until 1872.

Yet the Eisenhower story is not truly typical of the settlement. For one thing, Jacob, Ike’s grandfather, came with money. He had sold up in Pennsylvania for $8,500 and bought a full farming outfit; his Mennonite party was described as “one of the most complete and properly organised … that ever entered a new country.” Moreover, Jacob prospered. He gave each of his children on marriage, daughters as well as sons, a farm of 160 acres and $2,000 in cash. Ike’s father’s bankruptcy was the result of a business failure, not of drought. Secondly, the Eisenhowers were ahead of their time. Most of those who crossed the Missouri immediately after the Civil War were bound for California and Oregon, and many of them were gripped not by land hunger but by gold fever. The discovery of gold in California caused the great Forty-nine rush. There were subsequent rushes into Nevada and Colorado in 1859, into Montana and Idaho in the period 1861–66, into Wyoming in 1867, and into the Black Hills of Dakota in 1874; that last gold rush was to precipitate the events that led to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Most of this gold-rushing went westward, but some came back eastward, led by rushers who had tried their luck in California, failed there, and crossed the mountains to try again. Whichever way they came, the numbers involved were enormous, 100,000 in Colorado in 1859, far exceeding those who were beginning to try for a living from the land. Much deterred the early farmers. Until 1862 their access to “free land,” that in the public domain, was limited by the requirements to pay cash either for the whole of a claim or a part of it. After the Homestead Act of 1862, a settler who paid $10, worked his quarter-section of 160 acres for five years, and then made another small payment acquired title to it. The Homestead Act, passed in the same year as that abolishing slavery, founding land-grant colleges and granting rights of way for a Pacific railroad, is rightly regarded as a landmark in making the United States a free and rich country. Nevertheless, there were pitfalls. The Homestead Act favoured, if unintentionally, the rich over the poor, while the railroad legislation took much land coveted by would-be farmers out of the public domain.

There were other deterrents to settlement, intrinsic to the plains themselves. Many who came, particularly those from the temperate, forested states, failed to understand that they were entering territory utterly unlike eastern America. It lacked timber, it lacked water, and it lacked a settled climate, which meant that farmers would lack fences and food, would need to irrigate if they could not acquire bottom land, and could not count—outside the delusive decades of higher rainfall—upon regular crop yields; unless near a railway or navigable river, they would also lack markets and so both supplies of trade goods and the cash to purchase them. The promise of free land was tainted. What it offered the homesteader was not riches—those would come later to the big men with machinery, capital, and the wide spreads wealth could buy—but bare subsistence. Jacob Eisenhower prospered because he came early, brought money, and got land in the Kansas River Valley. Those who came in the next decades and took sections on the high plains had to scratch for existence and often gave up the struggle. It is not surprising that the most successful of the pioneers of 1870–90 were often not native Americans from east of the Mississippi, though these were the majority, but immigrants from Europe’s harsher climates, Scandinavia and the Steppe, who were used to extremes of climate—hot summers, bitter winters—and to tilling difficult soil. Those from Russia, with their experience of ploughing dry grassland, adjusted quickest of all.

America’s industrial genius would eventually offer solutions to most of the problems of plains agriculture. Against cyclical drought—which afflicted the plains from 1881 to 1904 and again from 1917 to 1939—it could offer only palliatives; but barbed wire, invented in 1874, gave the farmer cheap fencing against free-ranging cattle (and provided Hollywood with the plot for dozens of western movies, including Shane, the supreme classic of the genre), while, by the 1890s, tube wells and metal windmills were raising water cheaply even on the high plains, and deep-shared metal ploughs and spring harrows were cultivating the fine dust seedbeds essential to grain-growing in dry conditions.

All these developments lay years in the future, however, when the first settlers chanced the luck offered them by the Homestead Act of 1862. They faced a deterrent to settlement in the Great Plains quite separate from their aridity, tracklessness, intimidating vastness, want of companionship, and extremes of heat and cold; quite separate from the threat of blizzard, drought, and insect plague; quite separate from the threat of difficult childbirth or life-threatening accidents hours, even days, from medical attendance. They faced the threat of death at the hands of the horse-riding High Plains Indians.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!