To undertake a westward journey on any early American trail — to begin life on the Oregon or Santa Fe, the Mormon or Gila — necessarily demanded the acceptance of difficulties.
From accounts in pioneer diaries, scientific notebooks, and letters written to family and friends, it seems that Indian raids, horse rustling, gunfights, and buffalo stampedes were the least of it. More often, quotidian challenges became the undoing of even the strongest traveler. Mired wagons; swarming insects; meal after meal of crackers and tea; the combination of overpowering thirst and stagnant, disease-ridden water; all these demanded remarkable levels of commitment and persistence.
Still, the diaries and letters contain more than complaints about inevitable annoyances and disasters. Verdant hills, unfamiliar flowers, cottonwood, walnut, and ash trees lining the rivers and filling their bottoms all served — to one degree or another — to compensate for pioneer trials.
As they sailed toward the horizon, images of life on a metaphorical sea permeated their descriptions: the rising and falling of wagons on the gently undulating land; the grasses opening, then closing behind them as they passed through prairie swells; wave upon wave of dragonfly and bird, and the unpredictable flotsam of blossoms. The prairie schooner became their ship, the rock promontory their lighthouse, and the starlit sky above a confirmation of their course.
Even as they sailed across the grasslands, remnants of another vast, primordial sea lay stretched beneath their feet. Geologists and paleontologists had not yet described in detail the remarkable Western Interior Seaway that formed and dissipated millennia before the prairies and plains were born, but they knew of its existence.
During the Cretaceous Period (a span of geologic time extending from about 144 to 66 million years ago, defined in 1822 and named for the chalk which formed from shells of marine invertebrates), Kansas was under water. Unlike the relatively shallow seas of the Pennsylvanian and Permian periods, the waters that advanced and retreated during the Cretaceous were deeper and more widespread.
The Kansas Geological Survey, an affiliate of the University of Kansas, describes conditions in that sea:
The seawater was relatively deep, slightly less salty than normal, and had a temperature characteristic of mild-temperate to subtropical climates. The sea floor was almost perfectly flat, and the materials being deposited on it were soft and watery. The deposition of this material took place at a rate of approximately 0.036 mm per year.
Bottom currents were weak and bottom waters were poor in oxygen. The scene at the bottom of the ocean was dark, monotonous, and hostile to many groups of marine organisms.
Today, traces of that sea have been preserved in three types of rock found in an area of Kansas known as the Smoky Hills: Dakota Formation sandstone, Greenhorn Formation limestone, and Niobrara chalk.
Niobrara chalk resembles the White Cliffs of Dover, a similar soft and porous limestone formed during the Cretaceous period. As marine organisms living near the surface died and fell into the depths of the sea, their shells dissolved into a thick, soup-like mixture that surrounded and preserved the remains of other prehistoric creatures as it solidified.
Along with the fish, sharks, and turtles we easily recognize, there also were mosasaurs (a swimming, meat-eating lizard), plesiosaurs (another swimming reptile), and pterosaurs (flying reptiles sometimes called pterodactyls).
The calm, stable waters also allowed for the preservation of giant clams (Inoceramus) and small oysters from the genus Ostrea, as well as other lesser creatures who attached themselves to the clams. Museums around the world contain examples of these Niobrara Chalk fossils; their abundance helped to bring about the designation of the area as one of our first National Natural Landmarks.
After tectonic forces lifted the Smoky Hills region and exposed the seabed, wind and rain began eroding the sandstone and chalk.
Because harder layers within the chalk offered some protection from erosion, distinctive formations — the pillars, cliffs, and pyramids we know today as Castle Rock, Monument Rocks, and the Kansas Badlands — began to emerge.
After my first visit to Kansas, a friend who roams the state on a regular basis said, “Next time, you’ll have to go west, to Monument Rocks. They’re in the middle of nowhere, and if it rains the roads’ll be a mess. But you’ll probably have them to yourself, and you won’t believe you’re in Kansas.”
He was right on three of four counts. In the absence of rain, the roads were passable, but Monument Rocks certainly was isolated and tourist-free. I had them to myself, and I couldn’t believe I was in Kansas.
Some say the Smoky Hills region and its river are named for the early morning haze that forms in the area. As the day wears on, the haze can become almost smoke-like, obscuring the horizon and washing out the colors of the landscape.
But at sunrise, grasses and rocks alike glow golden in the light.
As the sun rises farther above the horizon, the natural grays, yellows, and whites of the chalk became more evident.
Wandering through the old seabed, I found myself entranced by its details, and amused by the fanciful shapes erosion had created.
In some formations, the various layers are obvious.
In others, a single moment in the process of erosion is suspended in time.
Or to imagine the rock offering a doorway to the past.
Patches of red scattered across the surface of the rocks probably are iron sulfide. Concretions caused by the precipitation of sulfides within the chalky ooze before it solidified are fairly common, and the role of iron sulfides in fossil preservation is well documented.
Since the chalk formations are composed primarily of fossils, even an inexperienced searcher can find a few. Here, oyster shells near the top of the photo are obvious. The smooth, linear objects beneath are the edges of giant clam shells.
Of all the remarkable things I’ve learned about the Niobrara chalk, one of the most interesting is that the earliest good description of the formations was provided by Henry Engelmann¹, youngest sibling of famed botanist George Engelmann.
Before becoming Assistant State Geologist in Illinois, and later overseeing the ore department for Matthiesen and Hegeler Zinc Company, Henry joined General James Harvey Simpson’s 1858 Expedition to the Southwest. It was during those travels that he described the chalk beds along the Kansas-Nebraska border.
Of course, the area contains more than rocks, and George Engelmann probably would have enjoyed the expedition as well. Another George, George M. Robertson, published a survey of the flora and fauna of the Monument Rocks area in a 1939 issue of the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. After noting that areas some distance from the monoliths are characterized by buffalo grass and blue grama grass, he adds:
The ground lying immediately around the pyramids, however, is rough, and the mantle of black soil characteristic of the better land in this region has, in most cases, been completely eroded away, leaving only badly disintegrated fragments of limestone to support the bunchy, sparse vegetation.
The landscape from a distance reminds one of the sagebrush farther west. Closer examination, however, reveals the shiny, bunch condition to be caused by occasional plants of four wing saltbush, (Atriplex canescens) and eriogonum (Eriogonum effusum). These bunches of xeric forbs are intermixed with individual plants of side-oats grama, hairy sporobolus, wire grass, and little bluestem.
Many of the flowers and plants Robertson recorded are familiar: broomweed, blazing star (Liatris punctata), many-flowered aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), yucca (Yucca glauca), narrow-leaved tetraneuris (Tetraneuris scaposa), purple prairie clover, scarlet gaura, prairie false boneset, and spiny sideranthus (now renamed Xanthisma spinulosum).
Robertson noted an abundance of rattlesnakes — the only reptile he mentioned — as well as coyotes, skunks, ground squirrels, jack rabbits, cottontails, and kangaroo rats.
His list of birds is interesting both for the species it includes — golden and American eagles, assorted owls and hawks, the meadow and prairie horned larks, the great blue heron — and for one it fails to mention: the cliff swallow.
Today, every nook and cranny of the rocks is filled with old swallow nests. By the time I arrived, the young had fledged and the birds had flown, but it was possible to imagine them fluttering and calling among the cliffs: grateful, perhaps, to have found such suitable and safe lodgings in the midst of the interminable plains.
Had I not arrived just after sunrise, I might have lingered until sunset, to catch the fading light against the rocks. But like the birds, I had places to go, and so I flew. Perhaps next year I’ll return with the birds: seeking the solace of solidified seas.