Life in the Far West

Life in the Far West
Title: Life in the Far West
Release Date: 2017-07-11
Type book: Text
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The Project Gutenberg eBook, Life in the Far West, by George FrederickAugustus Ruxton

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Title: Life in the Far West

Author: George Frederick Augustus Ruxton

Release Date: July 11, 2017 [eBook #55093]

Language: English

Character set encoding: UTF-8



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[Pg iii]


The London newspapers of October 1848 containedthe mournful tidings of the death, at StLouis on the Mississippi, and at the early age oftwenty-eight, of Lieutenant George FrederickRuxton, formerly of her Majesty's 89th regiment,the author of the following sketches.

Many men, even in the most enterprising periodsof our history, have been made the subjects ofelaborate biography, with far less title to thehonour than this lamented young officer. Timewas not granted him to embody in a permanentshape a tithe of his personal experiences and strangeadventures in three quarters of the globe. Considering,indeed, the amount of physical labour heunderwent, and the extent of the fields over whichhis wanderings spread, it is almost surprising hefound leisure to write so much. At the early age[Pg iv]of seventeen, Mr Ruxton quitted Sandhurst, tolearn the practical part of a soldier's profession inthe civil wars of Spain. He obtained a commissionin a squadron of lancers then attached to the divisionof General Diego Leon, and was activelyengaged in several of the most important combatsof the campaign. For his marked gallantry onthese occasions, he received from Queen Isabellthe cross of the first class of the order of St Fernando,an honour which has seldom been awarded toone so young. On his return from Spain he foundhimself gazetted to a commission in the 89th regiment;and it was whilst serving with that distinguishedcorps in Canada that he first becameacquainted with the stirring scenes of Indian life,which he has since so graphically portrayed. Hiseager and enthusiastic spirit soon became weariedwith the monotony of the barrack-room; and,yielding to that impulse which in him was irresistiblydeveloped, he resigned his commission, anddirected his steps towards the stupendous wilds,tenanted only by the red Indian, or by the solitaryAmerican trapper.

Those familiar with Mr Ruxton's writings cannotfail to have remarked the singular delight with[Pg v]which he dwells upon the recollections of this portionof his career, and the longing which he carriedwith him, to the hour of his death, for a return tothose scenes of primitive freedom. “Althoughliable to an accusation of barbarism,” he writes, “Imust confess that the very happiest moments of mylife have been spent in the wilderness of the FarWest; and I never recall, but with pleasure, theremembrance of my solitary camp in the BayouSalade, with no friend near me more faithful thanmy rifle, and no companions more sociable than mygood horse and mules, or the attendant cayutewhich nightly serenaded us. With a plentifulsupply of dry pine-logs on the fire, and its cheerfulblaze streaming far up into the sky, illuminatingthe valley far and near, and exhibiting the animals,with well-filled bellies, standing contentedly at restover their picket-fire, I would sit cross-legged,enjoying the genial warmth, and, pipe in mouth,watch the blue smoke as it curled upwards, buildingcastles in its vapoury wreaths, and, in the fantasticshapes it assumed, peopling the solitude withfigures of those far away. Scarcely, however, didI ever wish to change such hours of freedom for allthe luxuries of civilised life; and, unnatural and[Pg vi]extraordinary as it may appear, yet such is thefascination of the life of the mountain hunter, thatI believe not one instance could be adduced of eventhe most polished and civilised of men, who hadonce tasted the sweets of its attendant liberty, andfreedom from every worldly care, not regrettingthe moment when he exchanged it for the monotonouslife of the settlements, nor sighing and sighingagain once more to partake of its pleasures andallurements.”

On his return to Europe from the Far West, MrRuxton, animated with a spirit as enterprising andfearless as that of Raleigh, planned a scheme forthe exploration of Central Africa, which was thuscharacterised by the president of the Royal GeographicalSociety, in his anniversary address for 1845:—“Tomy great surprise, I recently conversed withan ardent and accomplished youth, LieutenantRuxton, late of the 89th regiment, who had formedthe daring project of traversing Africa in the parallelof the southern tropic, and has actually startedfor this purpose. Preparing himself by previousexcursions on foot, in North Africa and Algeria, hesailed from Liverpool early in December last, in theRoyalist, for Ichaboe. From that spot he was to[Pg vii]repair to Walvish Bay, where we have alreadymercantile establishments. The intrepid travellerhad received from the agents of these establishmentssuch favourable accounts of the nations towards theinterior, as also of the nature of the climate, thathe has the most sanguine hopes of being able topenetrate to the central region, if not of traversingit to the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique. Ifthis be accomplished, then indeed will LieutenantRuxton have acquired for himself a permanent nameamong British travellers, by making us acquaintedwith the nature of the axis of the great continentof which we possess the southern extremity.”

In pursuance of this hazardous scheme, Ruxton,with a single companion, landed on the coast ofAfrica, a little to the south of Ichaboe, and commencedhis journey of exploration. But it seemedas if both nature and man had combined to bafflethe execution of his design. The course of theirtravel lay along a desert of moving sand, where nowater was to be found, and little herbage, save acoarse tufted grass, and twigs of the resinous myrrh.The immediate place of their destination was AngraPeguena, on the coast, described as a frequentedstation, but which in reality was deserted. One[Pg viii]ship only was in the offing when the travellersarrived, and, to their inexpressible mortification,they discovered that she was outward bound. Notrace was visible of the river or streams laid downin the maps as falling into the sea at this point, andno resource was left to the travellers save that ofretracing their steps—a labour for which theirstrength was hardly adequate. But for the opportuneassistance of a body of natives, who encounteredthem at the very moment when they were sinkingfrom fatigue and thirst, Ruxton and his companionwould have been added to the long catalogue ofthose whose lives have been sacrificed in the attemptto explore the interior of that fatal country.

The jealousy of the traders, and of the missionariessettled on the African coast, who constantlywithheld or perverted that information which wasabsolutely necessary for the successful prosecutionof the journey, induced Ruxton to abandon theattempt for the present. He made, however,several interesting excursions towards the interior,and more especially in the country of the Bosjesmans.

Finding his own resources inadequate for theaccomplishment of his favourite project, Mr Ruxton,[Pg ix]on his return to England, made application forGovernment assistance. But though this demandwas not altogether refused, it having been referredto the Council of the Royal Geographical Society,and favourably reported upon by that body, somany delays interposed that Ruxton, in disgust,resolved to withdraw from the scheme, and to abandonthat field of African research which he hadalready contemplated from its borders. He nextbent his steps to Mexico; and, fortunately, has presentedto the world his reminiscences of that country,in one of the most fascinating volumes which,of late years, has issued from the press. It would,however, appear that the African scheme, the darlingproject of his life, had again recurred to himat a later period; for, in the course of the presentspring, before setting out on that journey whichwas destined to be his last, the following expressionsoccur in one of his letters:—

“My movements are uncertain, for I am tryingto get up a yacht voyage to Borneo and the IndianArchipelago; have volunteered to Government toexplore Central Africa; and the Aborigines ProtectionSociety wish me to go out to Canada to organise[Pg x]the Indian tribes; whilst, for my own part andinclination, I wish to go to all parts of the world atonce.”

As regards the volume to which this notice servesas Preface, the editor does not hesitate to expressvery high opinion of its merits. Written by a manuntrained to literature, and whose life, from boy-hoodupwards, was passed in the field and on theroad, in military adventure and travel, its style isyet often as remarkable for graphic terseness andvigour, as its substance every where is for greatnovelty and originality. The narrative of “Life inthe Far West” was first offered for insertion inBlackwood's Magazine in the spring of 1848, whenthe greater portion of the manuscript was sent, andthe remainder shortly followed. During its publicationin that periodical, the wildness of the adventuresrelated excited suspicions in certain quartersas to their actual truth and fidelity. It may interestthe reader to know that the scenes describedare pictures from life, the results of the author'spersonal experience. The following are extractsfrom letters addressed by him, in the course of last[Pg xi]asummer, to the conductors of the Magazine abovenamed:—

“I have brought out a few more softening traitsin the characters of the mountaineers—but not atthe sacrifice of truth—for some of them have theirgood points; which, as they are rarely allowed torise to the surface, must be laid hold of at oncebefore they sink again. Killbuck—that 'old hos'par exemple, was really pretty much of a gentleman,as was La Bonté. Bill Williams, another 'hardcase,' and Rube Herring, were 'some' too.

“The scene where La Bonté joins the Chasefamily is so far true, that he did make a suddenappearance; but, in reality, a day before theIndian attack. The Chases (and I wish I hadnot given the proper name[1]) did start for thePlatte alone, and were stampedoed upon the watersof the Platte.

“The Mexican fandango is true to the letter.[Pg xii]It does seem difficult to understand how they contrivedto keep their knives out of the hump-ribs ofthe mountaineers; but how can you account forthe fact, that, the other day, 4000 Mexicans, with13 pieces of artillery, behind strong entrenchmentsand two lines of parapets, were routed by 900 rawMissourians; 300 killed, as many more wounded,all their artillery captured, as well as several hundredprisoners; and that not one American waskilled in the affair? This is positive fact.

“I myself, with three trappers, cleared a fandangoat Taos, armed only with bowie-knives—somescore Mexicans, at least, being in the room.

“With regard to the incidents of Indian attacks,starvation, cannibalism, &c., I have invented notone out of my own head. They are all matters ofhistory in the mountains; but I have, no doubt,jumbled the dramatis

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