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Handbook For America's Pioneers
'Prairie Traveler' Was A Vital How-To Guide When Heading West
Hal Schindler
Published: 04/24/1994 Category: Features Page: D1

Families planning a cross-country trip today find it a simple matter to check with the local automobile club for a map and checklist to make the experience as comfortable and pleasant as possible--but in the days of the prairie schooner, circumstances were different--a lot different. For someone then to ignore or overlook a bit of trail advice might cost dearly, perhaps even a life. In today's world, it is still possible to find books trumpeting Enjoy that trip on $5 a day! or Travel made easier: 200 tips to better motoring. But in Great-Grandpa's time, authoritative advice was as scarce as wheels on a snake.

For the most part, overland pioneers such as the Bidwell-Bartleson party of 1841, the Harlan-Young company of 1846, the Donner-Reeds in that same year, even the Mormon pioneers of 1847, paid close attention to experience when it was offered. And they sought out--where possible--guides familiar with the country. It's easy to see, then, why Captain R. B. Marcy proved to be a godsend for overland pilgrims. Marcy was one of the ablest officers in the old frontier army, and he was as handy with a pen as a pistol. During his gloried career, he commanded a number of expeditions in the West; his mission--to discover and chart "what was over the next hill." And more than once his derring-do almost did him in.

In 1859, he wrote The Prairie Traveler: The Classic Handbook for America's Pioneers. It proved to be just what the unskilled wagonmaster needed to take himself and family across the Western plains. And it came from someone who knew of what he spoke; during his career, he had led no fewer than five military explorations. His Prairie Traveler was, hands-down, the best "how-to" of its day and remained so for years. With his handbook, even the most bumbling city-dweller had a chance.

Marcy told emigrants why mules can cross rivers only if they don't get water in their ears. And which tree bark and leaves could be smoked if tobacco ran out. He also offered opinions on the best--and worst--treatments for rattlesnake bites. He drew from many years of frontier life for material, and he was skillful with words. Swimming mules? Oh, it seems if they get water in their ears they usually drown. It has something to do with disorientation and their sense of balance. "Whenever a mule in the water drops his ears, it's a sure sign that he has water in them and should be led out as soon as possible."

As for his writing qualifications, Marcy had hoped "someone more competent than myself" would take on the book job. Ever modest, he did not understand how that restriction would narrow the field of authors. Of his contemporaries among mountaineers, Marcy would say, "Our frontiersmen, although brave in council and action, and possessing an intelligence that quickens in the face of danger, are apt to feel shy of the pen." To them, the field of literature remains a terra incognita. Thus having set himself to the task, Marcy becomes a fount of knowledge ranging from proper trail selection to picking the best and most practical equipment for the journey, and where it could be obtained.

Organization is essential. Without it, he warned, it is impossible for a party of any magnitude to travel together for any great length of time. Discords and dissensions will arise sooner or later. Select a captain, he suggested, and once picked, "he should be sustained in all his decisions unless he commit some manifest outrage." Only then should he be deposed and another more competent leader selected.

The best wagons for overland travel came from Concord, New Hampshire, he said. Used in carrying passengers and the mails on some routes across the plains, they are considered superior to any others, he added. And they were sturdy, made of close-grained oak and well-seasoned. Marcy didn't mention cost, but newspapers of the day in St. Louis and Independence advertised them at $150. He cautioned that wagons with six mules should never on a long journey be loaded with more than 2,000 pounds, unless grain was the cargo, in which case another thousand pounds was permissible, provided it was fed out daily to the team.

For emigrants interested in optional "under-the-hood" specifications, Marcy opined that for a trip of less than 1,000 miles, mules were the preferred power supply, but if the march extended to 1,500 or 2,000 miles, or over rough, sandy or muddy roads, young oxen would endure better than mules. And they were more economical: a team of six mules cost $600, while an eight-ox team on the frontier ran about $200. Oxen were much less liable to be stampeded or driven off by Indians. Besides, in a pinch, if food ran short, they could be used as beef--a bit tough, but better than mule meat.

Under the heading "Stores and Provisions," he had these suggestions: Bacon should be packed in strong sacks of 100 pounds each, or, in very hot climates, put in boxes and surrounded with bran, which in a great measure prevents fat from melting away. Flour should be packed in stout double canvas sacks well-sewed, 100 pounds to each sack. Butter may be preserved by boiling it thoroughly and skimming off the scum as it rises to the top until it is quite clear like oil. It then is placed in canisters and soldered up. "This mode of preserving butter has been adopted in the hot climate of southern Texas, and is found to keep sweet for a great length of time, and its flavor but little impaired in the process," he said.

Marcy was big on dessicated vegetables. "They have been extensively used in the Crimean War and by our own army in Utah." They were prepared by cutting fresh vegetables into thin slices and subjecting them to a powerful press, which removed the juice and left a solid cake. After having been dried, a small piece about half the size of a man's hand, when boiled, swells to fill a vegetable dish, sufficient for four men. A single ration weighs but an ounce. And a cubic yard contains 16,000 rations. "I regard these compressed vegetables as the best preparation for prairie traveling that has yet been discovered."

Marcy also handed out his caveats: "It is true that if persons choose to pass through Salt Lake City, and the Mormons happen to be in an amiable mood, supplies may sometimes be procured from them; but those who have visited them know how little reliance is to be placed upon their hospitality or spirit of accommodation." (Keep in mind that Marcy was a prominent member of the Utah Expedition, which Mormons considered an invading mob in 1857-58, so he had his biases as well.) For the medicine chest, he advised: "A little blue mass, quinine, opium, and some cathartic medicine, put up in doses for adults, will suffice."

As for weapons, he preferred the revolver, to be worn in the belt, ready for instant use, if necessary. "There is a great diversity regarding the kind of rifle most efficient and adapted to Indian warfare. A majority prefer the breech-loading arm; others the old-fashioned muzzle-loader. Border hunters and mountaineers insist on the Hawken rifle." However, "I look upon the Colt's new patent rifle as a most excellent for border service, giving six shots in more rapid succession than any other rifle I know of. If I were alone upon the prairies and expected an attack from Indians, I am not acquainted with any arm I would as soon have in my hands as this."

He placed a stampede of horses and mules high on the list of most dread disasters on the plains. Many animals are irretrievably lost, he said, and the journey thus defeated. Indians were the principal cause of such calamities. "[Indians] approach as near the herds as possible without being seen, and suddenly, with their horses at full speed, rush in among them, making the most hideous and unearthly screams and noises to terrify them, and drive them off before the astonished owners are able to rally and secure them." Marcy also related a number of snakebite cases, with most remedies involving slicing open the wound and sucking out the venom.

His personal preference: "Of all the remedies known to me, I should decidedly prefer ardent spirits. It is considered a sovereign antidote among our Western frontier settlers, and I would make use of it with great confidence." Intoxicants stop the action of the venom, he said. "It must be taken until the patient becomes very much intoxicated, and this requires a large quantity, as the action of the poison seems to counteract its effects." (So much for the notion that whiskey should be poured on the wound, not into the victim.)

And for campfires when wood is unavailable, Marcy is on the side of the French bois de vache, otherwise known as the wood of the prairie, or as the mountain men called it, "buffler chips." "This dried dung of the bison burns well when perfectly dry, answers a good purpose for cooking, and some even prefer it to wood" since it burns evenly and hot. Marcy had much more to say for the benefit of prairie travelers, but the wide-open spaces didn't include newspapers. And so Marcy must be left to history, with his trove of knowledge and decades of plains experience.

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