Analog traveling, Part 2 ~ Landmark and Lifemarks

pawneeblackPawnee Rock ~ George Sibley’s “remarkable rocky point”

Tempting though it may be to imagine early Santa Fe trail surveyors as a grim, distance-obsessed lot, pressing across the plains in sixty-six foot increments while their lagging chainmen whined and complained, there was more to life on the trail than measured miles and weary feet.

Survey parties camped each night by necessity, but occasionally they stayed in the same spot for several days: a decision sometimes dictated by  circumstance — a swollen river, delayed messages, Indian threats — but just as often occasioned by pleasant surprises. Rich grasses, good timber, or an abundance of game were gifts along a dangerous, difficult road, and gifts were not to be received lightly.

When the Sibley expedition, well past Council Grove, Kansas and already across Walnut Creek, made camp about a mile from the Arkansas river, George Sibley took time for a journal entry:

August 24, 1825 ~ Busy all day writing and gathering seeds. Buffalo passing all day near camp. Several fat ones killed. At a short distance from camp, the men get great quantities of very fine plums. Horses doing very well here, and we intend to stay several days. John Walker lost his horse, saddle, and blankets when it ran off with a herd of buffalo.

A few days later, as they neared one of the most important landmarks on the Santa Fe Trail, an enormous, rocky cliff known as Pawnee Rock, Sibley again recorded events in his journal:

August 30, 1825 ~ The morning clear, cool and pleasant, a fine air stirring. After breakfast at 30 minutes past 8, we all started. The wagons and most of the party kept up the river bottom. Mr. Gamble and myself rode out upon the high prairie.
We first rode nearly north about a mile to a remarkable rocky point, which projects into the bottom from a high ridge. These rocks are very large and of a glossy black color; towards the river, the face is nearly perpendicular. We rode upon the top which is probably 50 feet above the plains below, and from whence there is a charming view of the country in every direction.

pawnee3Jacob Fowler, an army surveyor hired in 1821 to accompany Colonel Hugh Glenn up the Arkansas river to the northern Rio Grande, may have seen much the same sight as Sibley, though his journal entry is a marvel of creative spelling:

We set out at the ushal time and at 8 miles West We pased point of red Rocks about 600 yds from the river and at Eleven miles crosed the paney  [Pawnee] River. Some Cottenwood on the Banks and Some Bushis. the Red Rock is evidently a volcanic production is pourous lime onestone but heavier than sand stone.

Perhaps Fowler was confused by the “desert varnish”  which gives the cliffs their black surface, and which could be mistaken for basalt. The “point of red rocks” which both he and Sibley found so remarkable is, in fact, Dakota sandstone: sedimentary rock that lay buried beneath newer deposits of clay, silt, and sand for untold years.

Over time, as erosion stripped away those softer layers, the harder sandstone became exposed, making Pawnee Rock a significant landmark for travelers.

From 1821 until the 1870s, the Santa Fe Trail ran about two hundred yards south of the rock where Sibley and Fowler stood. Any wagons they saw would have taken about three weeks to make the journey from Independence, Missouri to that almost-halfway point on the Trail.

Today, vehicles passing on the highway that parallels the old wagon tracks might have left Independence as few as six hours earlier — or perhaps seven, if the driver stopped for a leisurely lunch. Early travelers rejoiced in their first sight of the rock. Today, most pass by without a thought.

pawneerivervalleyToday’s view to the south from atop Pawnee Rock

How the rock received its name remains a mystery. Some claim the Pawnee considered it sacred, and held tribal councils there. Others suggest the naming occurred after a battle in which a small band of Pawnee was overcome by a combined force of Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho.

During the early 1840s, American trader Josiah Gregg reported the rock had been named after a battle “between the Pawnees and some other tribe,” and in September, 1843, Philip Cooke told of a similar battle between the Pawnee and “Camanche hordes.”

One of the more interesting early travelers, an actor named Matthew C. Field, had his own way of memorializing Pawnee Rock.

After selling his watch and chain and borrowing money from a friend, Field “joined a group of 17 other adventurers and merchants, Mexican and American, intent on a trip to Santa Fe. By steamboat, Field with his companions reached Independence, where they secured passage to Santa Fe with a caravan of 80 wagons.”

In a July 28, 1839 journal entry, Field waxed poetic about his glimpse of the famed Rock:

We passed quite near to “Pawnee Rock”
From hence we saw a young Elk flock,
Rather Some twenty young Does, led
By an Elk with large horns o’er his head.
I lay last night in the fair moonlight
With a clear sky, shining o’er me
And my thoughts went back o’er our dreary track
And forward to that before me.

After his return, Field  became an assistant editor at the New Orleans Picayune and published several articles about his exploits. In November, 1840, he recounted some Pawnee legends attached to the rock:

An evil spirit once roamed the land drinking the rivers dry and tearing up the trees. It was he who created the plains.
In time, the spirit was confined to a cleft in what we now know as Pawnee Rock. There he was pacified by offerings, especially in the hunting season, when huge quantities of buffalo meat were dropped into his gaping jaws.
When the tribe prepared for war or some sickness spread, a pilgrimage would be made to the rock where prayers were said and offerings made. Those who violated tribal taboos were bound hand and foot and placed in the monster’s cavernous mouth. Anyone who dared to rescue such an unfortunate soul was sure to suffer the same punishment.


A less gruesome, if more fanciful, explanation for the rock’s name involves the famous frontiersman, Kit Carson.

In the spring of 1826, the seventeen-year-old Carson joined an expedition led by Colonel Ceran St. Vrain, a fur company agent headed to the Rocky Mountains. Hired as a general hand, Carson’s responsibilities included helping to drive the extra animals, hunting game, standing guard, and fighting Indians if necessary.

Departing from Fort Osage, east of present-day Kansas City, the expedition reached the Walnut Creek crossing between Council Grove and Fort Larned before encountering Indians for the first time. As Henry Inman tells the tale:

They had halted for that day; the mules were unharnessed, the camp-fires lighted, and the men just about to indulge in their refreshing coffee, when suddenly half a dozen Pawnee, mounted on their ponies, hideously painted and uttering the most demoniacal yells, rushed out of the tall grass on the river-bottom, where they had been ambushed, and swinging their buffalo-robes, attempted to stampede the herd picketed near the camp.
The whole party were on their feet in an instant with rifles in hand, and all the Indians got for their trouble were a few well-deserved shots as they hurriedly scampered back to the river and over into the sand hills on the other side, soon to be out of sight.

The next day, the expedition traveled sixteen miles and camped beneath the large, still-unnamed rock, taking every precaution to prevent another surprise attack:

At dark the sentinels were placed in position, and to young Kit fell the important post immediately in front of the south face of the Rock, nearly two hundred yards from the corral; at about half-past eleven, one of the guard gave the alarm, and ran the mules that were nearest him into the corral.
In a moment the whole company turned out at the report of a rifle ringing on the clear night air, coming from the direction of the Rock.
The men had gathered at the opening to the corral, waiting for developments, when Kit came running in, and as soon as he was near enough, the colonel asked him whether he had seen any Indians. “Yes,” Kit replied, “I killed one of the red devils; I saw him fall!”
Early the next morning, before breakfast even, all were so anxious to see Kit’s dead Indian that they went out en masse to where he was still stationed, and instead of finding a [Pawnee] as expected, they found the boy’s riding mule dead, shot right through the head.
Kit felt terribly mortified over his ridiculous blunder, and it was a long time before he heard the last of his midnight adventure and his raid on his own mule.

According to some frontier traditions, his amused companions commemorated his unfortunate experience by naming the location Pawnee Rock.

Whatever his role in the naming of Pawnee Rock, Kit Carson — by all accounts one of most enthusiastic graffiti artists on the frontier — left his mark there, incising his name into the soft sandstone. 

Eventually, Carson’s name was lost when Pawnee Rock was quarried for building stone in the 1870s. Still, hundreds of travelers’ names remained.

In 1848, James Birch, a soldier on his way to the Mexican War, wrote: “Pawnee Rock was covered with names carved by the men who had passed it. It was so full that I could find no place for mine.”

pawneeearlyPawnee Rock ~ Stereograph by J.R. Riddle, 1870-1890
Courtesy, Kansas Historical Society

Mr. Birch might have been surprised to learn that women’s names also appeared on the rock. Susan Shelby Magoffin, grand-daughter of the first Kentucky governor and the wife of a well-to-do merchant, traveled the Santa Fe Trail in relative luxury in 1846, recording her own experience of name-carving in her journal:

We went up and while mi alma with his gun and pistols kept watch (for the wily Indian may always be apprehended here, it is a good lurking place and they are ever ready to fall upon any unfotunate trader behind his company — and it is neccesary to be careful), so while mi alma watched on the rock above, and Jane stood by to watch if any should come up on the front side of me, I cut my name among the many hundreds inscribed on the rock, and many of whom I knew.

Around 1900, after the historical importance of the rock was realized, quarrying ceased, and name-carving was discouraged. Still, the temptation could be strong, and information gleaned from later inscriptions can be fascinating.

pawneesmallwoodIn 1931, Chester Fulton Smallwood, nicknamed “Buster,” carved his name into the rock. He was twenty-four at the time: the youngest of eleven children born to Hezekiah K. and Mary Smallwood. In a neat bit of historical coincidence, his grandfather, also named Hezekiah, was born in Kentucky in 1825: the same year that George Sibley began surveying the Santa Fe trail.

His obituary, published in the Cheyenne [Oklahoma] Star, included these details:

Mr. Smallwood, a former resident of Hammon, was a Tulsa contractor at the time of his death. [He] was killed December 10, 1965, when his car and a cement mixer truck collided head-on. Highway Patrolman George Stratton said Smallwood was dead on arrival at St. Frances Hospital of head and internal injuries. The [driver of the cement mixer truck], James A. Reynolds, was not injured.
Stratton said the truck went out of control on the rain slick road, crossed the center line, and knocked Smallwood’s car 61 feet backward. The two vehicles were welded together by the impact.

No doubt Buster would be surprised to find the world reading again of his death, thanks to his careful carving on the face of Pawnee Rock.

As railroads and settlers in need of building stone reduced the size of Pawnee Rock foot by foot in the 1870s, its eventual disappearance seemed likely. After a long, passionate, and wholly interesting campaign, the Woman’s Kansas Day Club acquired the site in 1908, and arranged for its transfer to the State of Kansas.

No longer a mark for those seeking stone, and no longer an approved surface for graffiti artists, the rock instead began to be marked with a series of plaques and monuments.

On May 24, 1912, a stone monument was dedicated with great celebration before a crowd of some 8,000 onlookers.

pawneemonInscriptions on its base include:

In honor of the brave men and women who passing over the old Santa Fe Trail endured the hardships of frontier life and blazed the path of civilization for posterity
Pawnee Rock, given to the State of Kansas  by Benj. P. Unruh, in the year 1908
Erected by Woman’s Kansas Day Club, Daughters of the American Revolution, Woman’s Relief Corps, Kansas Federation of Women’s Clubs, Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, the site received one additional plaque in 1971: an acknowledgement of William Becknell as the Father of the Santa Fe Trail.

pawneeplaque3Becknell’s plaque embedded in Pawnee Rock

pawneeplaque2Visiting Pawnee Rock still is best done in solitude, on a morning clear, cool and pleasant, with a fine air stirring. At such times, the surveyor’s chain gives way to the poet’s words, and Colonel Henry Inman reminds us of the incomparable beauty of the plains:

 In the early fall, when the Rock was wrapped in the soft amber haze which is a distinguishing characteristic of the incomparable Indian summer on the plains; or in the spring, when the mirage weaves its mysterious shapes, it loomed up in the landscape as if it were a huge mountain, and to the inexperienced eye appeared as if it were the abrupt ending of a well-defined range.
But when the frost came, and the mists were dispelled; when the thin fringe of timber on the Walnut, a few miles distant, had doffed its emerald mantle, and the grass had grown yellow and rusty, then in the golden sunlight of winter, the Rock sank down to its normal proportions, and cut the clear blue of the sky with sharply marked lines.

pawnee4Few write of Pawnee Rock with such eloquence today. Of course, few now cherish the rock as intensely as did travelers on the Trail — as a refuge, a comfort, and a guarantee of the accuracy of their chosen path.

No longer a landmark, no longer visited by  travelers compelled to leave their own, quite human marks upon its face, the rock broods above the plain: neither happy nor unhappy, but secure in the knowledge of its ages-old influence.

This much is true. Beneath the shadow of Pawnee Rock, a passing traveler may yet discover the mark of the rock itself to be powerful and permanent: a reminder of the joys and perils of travel across any of the world’s frontiers.

Comments always are welcome. Unless otherwise noted, photos are mine, and can be enlarged  for more detail.

87 thoughts on “Analog traveling, Part 2 ~ Landmark and Lifemarks

    1. In the same way, “You’re welcome” doesn’t quite express my pleasure that you read them, Brig. As for joy — I do take joy in the writing, so it makes me happy that you enjoy reading them. In an age where “history” seems to mean what happened last Tuesday, it’s more than worth stretching back just a bit farther.

  1. I like the photos very much since I’m a fan of rocks and anything rocky. The colors of nature are so beautiful. The colors would be wonderful in tile flooring and other places.

    I enjoyed the stories very much. I went to Pawnee, Oklahoma with my parents, when I was about 10 years old. We visited my dad’s sister and her family. I have relatives in Oklahoma but we are not in touch. Time changes many things. .

    1. Those rocks are beautiful, aren’t they? These photos are from my most recent trip. Three years ago, the tree still was green and there was a good bit of other growth around, which led to a somewhat different feel — but still very pretty. Here’s a photo from that trip.. See the plaque in the side of the rock? I climbed up to get a closer view, and learned about stick-tights in the process. I was wearing jeans and a sweater, and ended up just covered with those sharp, sticky seeds — hundreds of them. I couldn’t pull them all out, and I couldn’t get in the car that way, so there was only one thing to do. I changed clothes right there in the parking lot, giving thanks as I did that not many tourists show up at Pawnee Rock.

      I’ve passed Pawnee to the west and the east, but never have been there. It’s interesting that it’s named for the Pawnee tribe, but that just to the northeast is Osage territory — including Pawhuska, where “August: Osage County” was filmed. It would be fun to dig into that a bit, to see if there was conflict between the tribes, or if they were there at different times.

      1. That lone tree is absolutely beautiful. Yes, the stick tights are horrendous. I’ve been in caught in those things more times than I care to remember. I’m glad you were able to change clothes. Your car would have “suffered” a lot. :-)

  2. This is a fascinating tale, that reminded me of our visit to Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock, in Australia. There is something incredibly commanding about a rock jutting out of the plain. Uluru has been protected and is considered a sacred space by the Aborigines. Folk, while we were there, seemed very respectful. The colour of the rock was unbelievable during sunset, changing by the minute. A most memorable occasion. Thanks for sparking it again!

    1. I didn’t know Uluru, but it certainly is a commanding presence. What a wonderful experience it must have been to see it. I read some descriptions, and every one mentioned the need to be there at sunrise or sunset because of the changing colors. It’s interesting that both Uluru and Pawnee are sandstone, and some of the same forces were involved in their formation.

      I was especially taken with this page, which presents traditional and geological explanations of the formation in a way that’s respectful and almost on a par. Choose your myth!

      Farther down the Santa Fe Trail, almost into New Mexico, there’s a place called Point of Rocks that’s even more dramatic. In the Cimarron grasslands, it can be seen for many miles, and functioned in the same way as Pawnee: a sign of assurance that, yes — you’re still on the right path!

    1. What fascinated me, as I started collecting those entries, was that everyone seemed to keep a journal: men, women, well-educated, barely literate. They were observers, and keen ones at that.

      In some of the journals, the amount of detail about the rocks, the plants, the customs of the Indians, the weather, is astounding. That’s part of what makes them so valuable — that, and the fact that the people keeping those journals were so firmly grounded in the world they traveled though. Being grounded while traveling — that reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s “still point of the turning world.”

  3. Really interesting tale, and I love how you wove in these interesting people.

    I hadn’t heard of Col. Henry Inman before — if your sample is any indication, a good writer, and from his mini-bio sounds like a strange and interesting man (a fellow New Yorker to add to my list).

    And I’m glad Buster was remembered, and his terrible end: a mention in your essay is a kind of memorial, even if not something tangible, or, so to speak, concrete.

    1. When I was re-reading this after I published it, a detail from Susan Magoffin’s journal caught my eye. She said, “I cut my name among the many hundreds inscribed on the rock, and many of whom I knew.” It’s easy to imagine each convoy across the plains as a discrete, disconnected group, but that clearly wasn’t so. They may have lacked texting and email, but they kept in touch: they knew who had made the trip, and who was yet to come. I still marvel at the thought of the post office tree in Council Grove, where travelers left letters for those coming after them.

      Col. Inman was a delight to discover. I started reading his book one night, and hardly could make myself stop — it’s linked up there in the post. The introduction to the book was written by none other than Buffalo Bill Cody.

      I was astonished to find so much information about Buster. There seem to be active genealogists among his descendents, so it’s possible I could get this post to them. They may even discover it themselves. That’s happened several times over the years — family members of someone I’ve written about finding the post, and getting in touch. It’s always fun.

      1. Inman and Cody both sound fascinating – – I’ve been told, one of my grandfathers worked years ago, with a very old gentleman, who as a small boy, had seen the Wild West show, sometime before WWI. I think the idea of having a traveling company with real cowboys and native warriors mixing together, sounds like imaginative fiction, but it was all true. Must have been an interesting dynamic.
        During a couple of hikes in high school, we did “geocaching,” where you can leave messages or even little tokens, for other people, if they can follow the directions to locate a mail canister in the forest. It’s fun hunting, and you can sometimes flip back ten years, to see who came that way before.
        I once went in a cave in Holland, actually an underground stone quarry, where Napoleon took the time to scratch his name on the wall and it’s still there. That was ok, people left inscriptions from Roman times to WWII, but the locals were still mad he also swiped a cool dinosaur fossil and took it back to France with him. The Dutch have long memories!

  4. Thank you for all of the effort that went into researching this and for your skill writing the compelling story. Reading this, I felt as though I was seeing and feeling the events as they played out over that period of history and that was a very satisfying experience.

    1. Terry, I can’t think of a better compliment. Of course I did a good bit of “book research,” but I think my three trips to Pawnee Rock played a part in my being able to share something of the spirit of the place. It’s one of my Kansas favorites, and I wanted to be able to communicate something of its importance to the Santa Fe Trail and the opening of the West generally. To the degree that I did that for you, I’m really pleased.

    1. And so many of them so young — not to mention inexperienced, as in the case of the actor-turned-pioneer. But they accomplished a good bit despite the occasional misstep — like Kit Carson’s poor mule. On the other hand, Carson clearly was a good shot, even if he was a little over-anxious that night, and he made up for that youthful mistake a hundred times over.

  5. When one considers the massive mountain ranges that stripe the West, replete with lookouts, tall precipices, and towering ledges–as we see in the Rockies and Sierras–this sweet story causes pause. Out there in the Plains, where the horizon is broken only by a delusion, Pawnee Rock must have been a welcome site, not only to weary travelers looking for a marker but also to the eye in need of variation. I enjoyed this story, Linda. Most of all, I enjoyed the lovely quotations that you included.

    1. You’re exactly right, Cheri. Pawnee Rock, Point of Rocks, Teter Rock, Monument Rocks — the names all point to that basic high plains reality: there’s a whole lot of nothing out there. Of course, there is “something,” but it’s mostly horizon, and plenty of empty. I absolutely love this photo, which makes the point fairly well.

      A side note: I found and purchased an original copy of “Echoes of Pawnee Rock,” the book the women of Kansas sold to raise money to save their landmark. Published in 1908, it has gold leaf on the cover, and its original onion-skin jacket is intact. One of the essays, titled “Monuments and Things,” was written by William Allen White. The book, and its story, are as interesting as the Trail and its travelers. One day I’ll write about it, but I don’t want to wear people out with rocks.

      1. Pierre’s help has been invaluable.
        By the way, the WWII sheet stamps that you sent me will be part of the National WWII Museum’s collection in New Orleans after my passing. Hopefully that won’t be too soon, but I wanted to be certain that they and the other pieces of my collection would be cared for after I’m gone.

  6. I enjoyed the journal entries. Loved the one about Kit Carson shooting his mule. LOL You know the men must have teased him for a long time over that. It’s a shame Pawnee Rock was quarried for building stone. I remember being surprised at how small Plymouth Rock was when we saw it. It’s now protected because people were chipping off bits of it for souvenirs. Of course, whether or not it is the true place upon which the first Pilgrims first stepped is up for debate.

    1. My gosh. I just read some of the history of Plymouth Rock. The most amusing bit was about them bringing the pieces back together, somehow attaching them, and then inscribing the date on the thing. It’s like the true cross — it sounds like there are pieces of that rock all over Colonial New England. I love the image of them toting that old guy down to “give testimony” about how things really happened, too. We know how that goes. Ask any family member what “really” happened when Uncle Cyrus hit Grandma with that turkey leg at Thanksgiving, and there will be differing reports.

  7. You create such beautiful images in my mind with your words. Thank you so much for this article. I too have been to the Rocks on a morning clear, cool and pleasant, with a fine air stirring. Air stirring, what a beautiful way to think of the Kansas winds!! How wonderful to imagine the elk flock, (haven’t heard them referred to as that) Would make for an awful day to shoot your own mule. And “thank you” to the Women’s Kansas Day Club for their vision to preserve Pawnee Rock!!
    Now if the north air stirring today would calm down…
    Have a wonderful day.

    1. I remember trying to get out of the car in Sublette back in 2013, and hardly being able to do so. Sometimes those winds stir, and sometimes they’re moving like a freight train trying to make up time. I’d never thought of it until now, but surely those wagon trains experienced those winds, too. There wasn’t anyone to warn high-profile “vehicles” to stay off the road in those days. I wonder if they stopped and parked, headed into the winds, to avoid being blown over. They may have appreciated those days of “fine air stirring” in ways we don’t.

      I wondered if anyone would notice the reference to an “elk flock.” Isn’t that interesting? I remembered Wylie’s birthday cake made of elk, and thought that you might — and you did.

      I have an original copy of the book the Kansas Women’s Day Club sold to raise funds. It’s titled “Echoes of Pawnee Rock,” and it’s a gem. The cover is protected with old-fashioned onion skin, and some of the pages remain uncut. I didn’t mention it in this piece, because it deserves a post of its own. I’ll probably do one or two other posts first, but I’ll definitely go back to it. There’s an essay by William Allen White in it: a name we were taught to revere in my high school journalism classes.

  8. Interesting post: I am reading old diaries, farm wives and midwives and enjoy studying what was important to people at different times…

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I also enjoy reading journals and collections of letters. One thing I noticed when comparing some of the more famous journals with secondary sources that quoted them is how often parts were left out. In some cases, space clearly was at issue, but still — there was no indication that whole sentences (or parts of sentences) were missing. I was glad to find some that reproduced the original spellings and other errors. Those should be part of the record, too.

    1. To be honest, there still is a good bit of Kansas that’s enough in the middle of nowhere to make me happy. Farther down the Santa Fe Trail, nearly out of Kansas, stands Point of Rocks, another significant landmark for those early travelers. It’s part of the Cimarron National Grasslands now, thanks in part to the Dustbowl, but it’s an equally interesting — and even less populated — place. You can walk along the Santa Fe Trail for miles without seeing another human being. It’s not impossible to begin feeling as though you’re being followed: though by whom, I wouldn’t venture to say.

        1. I don’t think what remains of the Santa Fe Trail is like the Appalachian trail. The “trail” itself is a disconnected series of locations where wagon ruts can be seen. Some are on federal land, some on private. Some counties have driving tours of historically important locations, but many of them are on gravel roads that take you to a sign that says something like “Santa Fe Trail — 1/4 mile” with an arrow pointing that-a-way.

          The possibilities do vary according to the section of the trail. It may be different in Colorado and New Mexico — I’ve not followed the trail into those states. But in Kansas, some driving tours include forts, various river and creek crossings, places like Pawnee Rock — things you can see that are mentioned in the journals. In places like the Cimarron grasslands, there are miles of hiking trail, but you’re mostly cutting across open range, and the trail markers look like this. Of course, with Point of Rocks so visible, it would be hard to get lost.

          You did notice alternate routes. There were so-called wet and dry routes. Here’s an article that describes their differences. It goes into considerable detail, but it does include this wonderful concluding line: “The rivalry between the Wet and Dry Routes became academic in the Fall of 1867 with the arrival of the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division at Hays City.”

  9. Great read, Linda. Your style of mixing history, geography, geology and modern tales brings to mind my all time favorite book: Basin and Range by John McPhee. I do not know if you have read anything by McPhee, but if you have, being compared to him is the highest compliment a writer can receive.

    1. Let me put it this way. The fact that something I wrote even reminded you of McPhee is enough encouragement to keep me going for another decade.

      I “met” McPhee in 2011, during that year’s Mississippi flood, when his piece on the Atchaflaya, written for “The New Yorker,” was brought out from behind their paywall as a public service. I was hooked. It wasn’t long before I read “The Control of Nature.” Next came “The Pine Barrens.” I haven’t read “Basin and Range,” but last night, when I re-read his interview for “The Paris Review” “Art of Non-Fiction” series, I noticed that something he did with “Basin and Range” is something I did with another geology piece yet to come. I couldn’t believe it.

      In short, as I once told someone, “When I grow up, I want to be John McPhee.” I’m still working on that, but he’s served me well through his articles on the writing process for “The New Yorker” and other publications. Some people spend multiple thousands to get a graduate degree in writing. I read this McPhee gem on at least a weekly basis:

      “What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”

      And then there’s this, also from McPhee: “You learn to write by writing.” I agree.

  10. How overwhelming the sights must have been from the rock to the early travelers. Can you just imagine it before all the crowds? (Laughed over the horse that ran off sadly and all with the buffalo herd. Not tying up/hobbling your horse/source of life and transportation well or shooting your mule probably was one of those events that you never lived down.).
    We should take up a collection and send you out on more travels – you come back with such intriguing stories that come so alive.

    1. The scene with the horse does leave room for imagination, doesn’t it? The fact that it was added to the journal entry almost as an afterthought made me wonder if the fellow had prepared his horse for the day’s ride while Sibley was writing, and then turned his back. Filling in the gaps certainly is fun.

      I came across some entries that described the scene from the top of the rock: particularly, the buffalo. It seems there were days when the entire plain, all the way to the horizon, was filled with the animals. Their wholesale slaughter was a tragedy, but it’s heartening to remember the individuals who were determined to keep them from disappearing completely.

      I’ve still got a story or two (ten, actually) from this trip. One, of course, involves a tornado. You can’t write about Kansas without including tornadoes! (No, I wasn’t in one, but I heard the stories.)

        1. True, that they didn’t rush like we do. On the other hand, who’s to say they didn’t accomplish more? Sometimes I get the sense that they were able to accomplish a dozen impossible things before breakfast. But, as our grandparents often mentioned, they worked from “kin to cain’t” — and probably slept the sleep of the just: at least, when the coyotes or Indians weren’t waking them up.

          1. Oh, they worked much harder and accomplished more – and were proud of their efforts. Much more able to prioritize what had to be done; much less leisure time. But they did it for themselves /their own survival or improvement of their lot in life rather than for alarm clocks, rat race, time sheets or society mandates. You got out what you put in…no free ride – but no frantic race (maybe desperate one at time, but environment does play a real hand at the table)

            1. You’ve just reminded me of that old saying about sailing: “Days of boredom, interspersed with minutes of sheer panic.” I suspect our forebears weren’t bored, but they no doubt had long stretches of routine, interspered with everything from storms to horse thievery. Don’t you think part of the difference is that so much of what passes for “work” today doesn’t produce anything? It’s paper shuffling, and meeting those artificial metrics for success.

              It’s one of the things that’s got me considering whether to continue with the naturalist program. It feels a lot like being back in corporate life, which is not something I’m interested in, and the time commitment is cutting into my pleasures as well as my work. One of these days we’ll have a coffee and chat.

            2. I was wondering how it was going. People seem to be able to complicate the most simple and in the process lose sight of what started it all and the importance of that.
              Those pioneers and settlers knew the value of quiet time and doing “nothing” when there was a chance. So much to learn, observe, enjoy when sitting still.
              Yep – definitely time for coffee

  11. Enjoyed this long read very much, imagining along the way how many people passed by and inscribed a bit of their lives on the rock. Images of soft humans working away to leave a reminder of their existences that probably survived their short life spans also rose as I read. Good stuff.

    1. Everyone hopes to leave a mark, I suppose. I smiled when I read how many examples of Kit Carson’s carving still exist. One was on a tree whose growth actually expanded the script, which I thought was interesting.

      I enjoyed your juxtaposition of soft humans and a hard world. Isn’t it interesting that the phrases “hard man” or “hard woman” generally aren’t complimentary? On the other hand, calling someone “soft” isn’t necessarily a compliment, either. The truth is that different circumstances call for different qualities — something the pioneers no doubt were reminded of from time to time.

  12. Land marks are important. They mean you’re on the right road, going in the right direction, You’re not lost. You’re where you’re supposed to be. You’re OK. They must have been immeasureably more important in those trackless days before the long ribbons of roads laced over the Great Plains. In these days of paved highways and good maps, both paper and virtual, and well-known, well defined landscapes, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to set out cross country. Having ridden in a horse-drawn wagon myself, I know from very personal experience that most of the people traveling the great overland trails walked beside the wagon or rode horseback for the very reason I would have.

    1. It’s true, isn’t it? Ask me how to get to Kansas City, and I could write out directions for you, including highway numbers. Make it harder — Casper, say — and while I couldn’t tell you, I could get there without any sort of planning, or even a map. It’s easy now to get on the freeways and follow the signs. Anyone with a sense of direction and a knowledge of geography would know that Casper is north and west — and away you go.

      It was interesting, when I was poking around Arkansas, to begin depending again on landmarks. Especially when driving the unnumbered, unlettered dirt roads, it was important to notice the barns, the church, the pump house, the Forest Service markings, just so I could get myself back to my starting point.

      I read about the joys of 1800s wagon travel in several sources, and I’ve heard tales about wagons and mules here in Texas. Suffice it to say there was a lot of walking going on.

  13. One of my grandsons is named after Kit Carson, his brother after another scout or “mountain man.” I wonder if he knows the story of the Indian that was actually a mule. No doubt his history-buff father does.

    I have never been to this part of the country or heard of the landmark before. I admire Buster his perseverance in carving bold and regular block letters that speak well of him. I think I will add this spot to the itinerary of my (likely purely fantasy) road trip. Thank you, Linda!

    1. Aren’t those block letters something? I’ve thought so much about him, wondering what brought him from Oklahoma to Kansas. He was young, after all, and it was 1931. Perhaps he was on the road, looking for employment. He certainly took pride in his work.

      How interesting that you have grandsons named after mountain men. When I went to look at a list of mountain men between 1807-1848, I was surprised to see how many were listed, and how few I’d heard of. One name that did stand out was William Sublette. Sublette, Kansas, where I saw some of those beautiful piles of corn and milo, is named after him.

      Other names helped to tell the men’s stories: Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, Liver-Eating Johnson, James “Bear” Moore, Thomas “Pegleg” Smith. Gracious.

      One of the wonderful things about the Santa Fe Trail is the mix of landmarks, natural beauty, and historical sites that lie along its length. I’m still amazed that I’ve spent so much time in Kansas City, and never knew that the Trail began there. Some of my relatives are living in Independence now. On my next visit, I may try to drag them to some historic sites.

  14. It’s always lovely to see this area where my grandfather and grandmother and her family lived and worked. In the not too distant future I should choose a few days so I can walk these places.

    These days I attempt to stop myself from being too romantic about or attached to any place of natural beauty. Nothing is “protected” anymore.

    1. There’s so much to love about Kansas. Even someone like me, who’s lived without familial ties, can develop a real affection for the place. Of course, I’ve found the same thing true of other places — Texas, for one. A little time, a little patience, and a little willingness to let a place speak for itself does wonders.

      It startled me to hear you say that “nothing is protected” anymore. Perhaps it’s because I’m surrounded by individuals and organizations (which are, after all, large groups of people) who are dedicated to protecting everything from prairies to coastland to historic buildings. Not everything can be protected, and not everything should be saved. But humans can make a difference. The brown pelicans come to mind, and the Kemp’s Ridley turtle. Just wait until I’m giving you reports from Turtle Patrol!

      1. Just reading the careless talk of the national parks being assaulted flattened me. Some of that talk has been walked back, but the suggestions and implied threats remain. There is protection done legally and protection undone by land misuse, poisons/chemicals, etc. I’d be a lot more upbeat if Standing Rock was left in peace.

        Of course there are successes all over the country. Wisconsin is brimming with them.

        1. That’s it, exactly: protection both done and undone. I was at a presentation last night about monarchs and other pollinators, and the need to increase habitat for them. I’ve always seen the suburbs as visually boring, but the more I learn, the more I’m coming to see them as their own kind of subtle threat to nature — an undoing that few seem to see.

  15. When reading things like this, I often wonder if I’d have had the fortitude to make a trek like that. Somehow, I doubt it.

    All this talk of Council Bluffs and Walnut Grove bring to mind a young girl who did make that trek with her family: Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wonder if she ever climbed up on Pawnee Rock? Today (Feb 10th) is the anniversary of her death in 1957.

    How odd it is to think about Mr. Smallwood and Mrs. Wilder bridging such different times.

    1. I’m lousy as a genealogist, Gué, but I think I’ve solved a little mystery I found while I was roaming a cemetery in Bazaar, Kansas. Two gravestones caught my attention: one for Flora Ingalls, and one for George “Ed” Ingalls.

      Thanks to the dates on the stones, and some really great genealogy pages like this one, I figured out the connection.

      George “Ed” Ingalls seems to be part of the line descending from George Whitting Ingalls, who was born in 1851 to Lansford Whitting Ingalls and Laura Louisa Ingalls (born Colby).

      George Whitting Ingalls had one brother — Charles Phillip Ingalls, who was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father.

      So, my suspicion that there had to be a family connection somewhere seems to have basis in fact. Even if Laura Ingalls Wilder never climbed Pawnee Rock, she very well may have met the Ingalls buried there on the Kansas prairie, and apparently was a cousin.

      Don’t you just love this stuff? Now, I need to make a call to the historical society in Cottonwood Falls, to see if they can confirm and clarify this. Both the cemetery and Cottonwood Falls are in Chase County — which is, of course, the setting for William Least Heat-Moon’s book, “PrairyErth.” The more we dig, the more we find.

      1. I’d bet there’s a connection, too. That’s just too much to be simple coincidence.

        Is it any wonder so many of us folks on the ‘net suffer from * BSO Syndrome?

        *Bright Shiny Object

    1. It’s quite remarkable, really. At first, it seems empty, but the more you look around, the more interesting things there are to see — just like any place in the world.

  16. I love the concept of Kit Carson as grafitti artist. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, how important marking yourself, leaving something behind can be. It reminds of our old Union Building at MSU — when started schools the grill had these wooden tables, some round, some in booths. They were filled with the scratched in names of students from decades before. Some with hearts connecting initials, sometimes just a name or short phrase. But a record that this person was HERE. When they redid the grill, those tables went by the wayside (a few hung on the walls as art, but I suspect now they’ve been replaced with TVs.) And I thought of those people who had left behind their name, their record of presence. No more.

    Another thought provoking post, always filled with wonderful new things to learn.

    1. There was a pizza place in the town where I first attended college that had the same sort of tables: heavy, and well-marked. They were fun to read, because more than names were inscribed. Today, if that even happens, I wonder what the tone is? I’d be almost afraid to read today’s carved tables. There’s no telling what you’d find. Wouldn’t it be fun to do a study of table and desk inscriptions over time? If you could find examples, I’ll bet it would tell a lot about changes in society.

      When I was in grade school, we still had the old-fashioned wooden desks with lids that lifted up (and, yes — inkwells!). If you were caught carving, there was a date with the principal added to your calendar — so creativity was called for. If you lifted up some of those lids, you’d find some highly skilled upside down carvers had been at work.

  17. What a fascinating story! I never heard of Pawnee Rock until I read about it on this blog. Over the years, I have found that some of my most memorable visits to historic sites and museums were on occasions when I took the time to stop at a small out-of-the-way site.

    1. I’m the same way with spots in New England and the east coast generally. I’m constantly coming across places that are important historically, but I’ve never heard the name.

      I still haven’t made it to a few Kansas spots that sound intriguing, like the Barbed-Wire Museum. Friends who’ve visited say they meant to cruise through in a half-hour, but ended up staying an entire afternoon. The whole country’s covered with such places. One of my all-time favorites was the Spam Museum in Minnesota — it wasn’t at all a joke, and was really interesting.

  18. I enjoyed this post–and interesting history of this area. Beautiful photos–you captured the personality of the rock–through text and photos–well: its enduring qualities and as witness to migration and human imprint.

    1. Thanks, Tina. It’s such a fascinating and complex history, especially since it all took place within a very short time. Well, at least the Santa Fe Trail portion of the rock’s history was short. Native Americans, Spaniards, and others had been around for a good while, but if you add them in, you’re headed toward book-length.

      It really was fun to see the rock at different times. Not only were the seasons different, I had much more knowledge about its history each time I visited, and that different context shaped my seeing.

  19. Any tale about early mountain men and trail blazing is bound to catch my attention, Linda. I’ve often wished I could have lived back in those days with nothing but unknown territory ahead of me. Alaska is as close as I have come.
    I think you would enjoy the book by Rinker Buck about his modern journey by covered wagon over the Oregon Trail. It’s well-written, full of history, and fun. At one point he describes how the travelers along the trail also carved their names on a prominent landmark. It was in Mormon country and the Mormons changed for carving the pioneers names. Once the pioneers left, the Mormons would chisel off the names and be ready for the next group of travelers.
    I posted a blog about the Fur Rendezvous gatherings in Wyoming when I was backpacking in the area. They were wild! Here’s the address:
    Interesting and entertaining post! Thanks. –Curt

    1. Now that’s entrepreneurship. Those canny Mormons knew a good thing when they saw it. As for traveling uncharted territory, I’d think your trips to Burning Man would fulfill that need! (I know, I know — but from what you’ve written, I’d say there still isn’t an adquate map to that place, although many claim to be guides).

      A couple of people have mentioned Buck’s book, and it’s on the list. I’ve never heard of the Fur Rendezvous. Of course, I know almost nothing about Wyoming, generally. It did remind me of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which just took place in Elko, Nevada. If I’d known Dom Flemons was going to be there, I might have given it a go. I’m a great fan of his previous work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and need to see if he or Rhianne Gibbons are going to be in Texas.

      Now? Off to read about the Rendezvous.

      1. There are places at Burning Man where I haven’t traveled, Linda. And probably won’t. Learning how to properly tie knots for bondage isn’t a skill I need. :) Others have mentioned the Elko gathering to me. It sound like fun. A friend had a book of cowboy poetry and another on cowboy wisdom. One thing I remember from the wisdom book is ‘never squat with your spurs on.’ Seems like good advice. Sublette was a key player in the Rendezvous business. –Curt

  20. I loved the mule story. I suspect we’ve all done something we couldn’t believe we’d done, and wished we hadn’t. It’s always better if it happens without a crowd around to witness it, but poor Kit didn’t have that privilege.

    Whatever downsides the internet has (and there are a few), the wonderful things it can provide more than balance out the bad. Being able to access some of these journals so easily is just marvelous. They’re often quoted in secondary sources, but I’ve found that some of the real riches are still in the journals — plus hours of just fun reading.

    1. Me, too. Every now and then someone finds out I went to Kansas on vacation, and gives me a look that clearly says, “You poor, unfortunate soul.” The myth that there’s nothing to see on the prairies and plains still endures. I intend to do my part to correct that misunderstanding.

  21. Better late than not at all — what a great conclusion to this tale! It strikes me as most interesting how our language has “evolved.” Picturesque descriptions like those from early days have been replaced by abbreviations and other considerations in our digital world. I understand how prone we are today to want instant communication, but gee, reading words like Inman’s reminds us to stop and smell the roses, don’t they?!

    1. Never worry about “late,” Debbie. I know you’ve been busy. In fact, when I realized you hadn’t surfaced for a while, I went over to Twitter and checked for puppy posts. There they were — so I knew you were fine.

      I’m not sure I’d say our language has evolved. “Devolved” might be a better word. A combination of emojis, initialisms, and crass four (or more) letter words can’t even begin to compete with something like Inman’s journal. For that matter, they can’t compete with the letters my parents and I exchanged when I was at camp. It’s really a shame.

      I keep thinking about these simple words from Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” That works both ways. Expanding our vocabulary and our ability to use those words expands our ability to experience the world; intentionally hollowing out our language also reduces the size of our world, and our possibilities for experience. When Mark Zuckerberg started waxing enthusiastic about a wholly-emoji language, I just shook my head. Go down that path, and we’ll find ourselves back in the caves: grunting and carving on walls. Of course, there are days I think we’re already there.

  22. Lovely well-written history, once again. Thank you. I was especially taken with the journal entries; as you said, those early pioneer travelers were keen observers of their environment and were willing to write it down for posterity. I wonder if they had any idea that we would be reading 150-200 years later. Remarkable.
    I am curious to know how much editing went into transcribing those early journals. Sibley appears highly educated, but in 1825, I didn’t think the language was so precise.”These rocks are very large and of a glossy black color; towards the river, the face is nearly perpendicular. We rode upon the top which is probably 50 feet above the plains below, and from whence there is a charming view of the country in every direction.”
    And then Fowler couldn’t spell usual, but could spell evidently. Curious.
    But in any event, fascinating piece of history, made all the more compelling by your McPhee style of writing as one commenter said. I have not read McPhee, but absolutely will. That paragraph you quote is an education on non-fiction writing in itself, (as is your writing) and since I’m out and about now trying to write about the natural world, it sounds like that is my next read after I finish “The Son,” a historical fiction piece about a family in Texas from 1830s to present day.

    1. I’m sure that when journals and such were published, there was editing that took place. But it’s also true that in all of the journals, letters, papers, and such that I’ve read from this time, there’s an abundance of clear, even precise language that veers off into poetry more often than I would have guessed. Reading the naturalists and explorers, particularly, is a wonderful experience. Even in their most casual correspondence with one another, the language is often felicitous.

      Of course, they only had words and sketches to describe their world. They had to push their language, and polish it, to be able to convey the reality of mountains or prairies to people back home. They couldn’t just walk about, smart phone in hand, snap a few pics and call it good. Language was their tool, and they honed it. (Yes, there’s a lesson there…)

      I wondered if Fowler wasn’t transcribing words as he heard them. I’ve heard “usual” pronounced “ushal” many times, just as I’ve heard “barbed wire” get transformed into “bobwahr.” On the other hand, “evidently” is a word that almost pronounces itself, and it would be easier to spell.

      As for McPhee, here’s another article that I re-read from time to time. It describes McPhee as teacher, and always makes me wish I could be in his class.

    1. Those old explorers and naturalists were quite a crew. But not long after they made their treks across the frontier, the photographers followed. One of most famous was Solomon Butcher, who was active in Nebraska. One of my favorites of his photos is on this page. Scroll down to the 8th photo, and you’ll find the David Hilton family, who had their pump organ dragged out from the “parlor” to prove they still were civilized, even there on the prairie.

  23. The incised names caught my attention due to the recent spate of defacings done in national parks for internet fame. Obviously two different situations, but it was brought to mind.

    I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy your writing. I just finished a book, “The Hidden Lives of Owls” which, although of an entirely different topic, reminded me of your writing. If nothing else it provides an interesting account of owl study, but you might enjoy the author’s style as well.

    1. I remember you mentioning that graffiti — and some of the other obnoxious behavior that takes place, like rock removal. I don’t get the “internet fame” thing, and quite honestly, I don’t understand why some people enjoy publilcizing online the stupid or illegal things they do. But there’s a lot I don’t understand about people, so there we are.

      Since I can’t seem to find owls in nature, maybe I’ll read the book. Of course, I’d probably find more owls if I were more of a night owl myself, and outdoors at night. I do have friend who’s seen a great horned owl on her property, and another friend who thinks she’s hearing one. Do you have snowy owls up there? Of all the creatures I’d like to see, they’re near the top of the list. Of course, I might have to make for snow country to see them.

      It makes me happy that you enjoy my writing. I certainly enjoy the process. I suppose if I didn’t, I would have closed up shop long before this!

  24. A lot of what people do astounds me. Recently someone live-streamed a rape. Rape is reprehensible and the act is beyond my imagination. Putting the act up on the internet…I just don’t know what to say. That’s bad enough…I won’t mention any of the other things that have been reported. Some people just are sick in the head.

    Snowy owls do come south occasionally. Mostly into New Hampshire and Maine and Northeastern Massachusetts. Once in a while here in WMass. The same is true for the Great Gray Owl, which recently made an appearance in NH. Yeah, visiting snow country would help, but be aware…when they are here it is cold. :)

    Being out at night is helpful for seeing many owls but the snowy and great gray can be seen during the day and some of the other species around dawn or dusk. Some folks go on “owl prowls” after dark with flashlights. You might find such an outing through one of your local nature centers.

    1. I remember cold. That’s why my romantic fantasies about re-visiting snow haven’t yet been turned into reality. There is a nature center here which has owl prowls, and I’d forgotten about it. I intended to give it a try once, and then — well, life is full of good intentions. I’m glad you mentioned it. The next one’s April 8th. If I’m not off chasing wildflowers, I might go.

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