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Breaking the Wilderness

Breaking the Wilderness
Title: Breaking the Wilderness
Release Date: 2018-12-01
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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Transcriber's Note:

Inconsistent hyphenation and spelling in the original document have been preserved. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected.

The following alternate spellings may be typos, or refer to different places or people.

  • Willamet and Willamette
  • Choteau and Chouteau
  • Mohave and Mojave
  • Pratt and Pratte
  • Purisima and Purissima
  • Radisson and Raddison

The photograph of "Navajo Silver Beads" shown in the list of illustrations as being on page 72 does not appear in the book.

Duplicated advertisements in the front and back matter of the book have been removed from the front.


Blanca Peak, 14,390 feet.Baldy Peak, 14,176 feet.

Blanca Peak is the Third Highest in Colorado.

The point of view is on Trinchera Creek looking north from an altitudeof about 8000 feet. To the left is the San Luis Valley through whichflows the Rio Grande, and to the right are the two high passes knownas Veta and Sangre de Cristo. The Sierra Blanca forms the southern endof the Sangre de Cristo Range and was one of the great landmarks ofthe Wilderness.

Sketch in oils made at the place by F. S. Dellenbaugh.

Breaking the

The Story of the Conquest of the Far West, from the Wanderings
of Cabeza de Vaca, to the First Descent of the Colorado by
Powell, and the Completion of the Union Pacific
Railway, with Particular Account of the
Exploits of Trappers and Traders

Frederick S. Dellenbaugh
Member of the Powell Colorado River Expedition; Author of "The Romance ofthe Colorado River," "The North Americans of Yesterday," etc.

"Accursèd wight!

He crowds us from our hills. He hacks and hews,

Digs up our metals, sweats and smelts and brews."

Hauptmann, The Sunken Bell.


G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press

Copyright, 1905

The Knickerbocker Press, New York


1871 AND 1872




In this volume I have endeavoured to present a review inchronological order of the important events which contributedto breaking the Wilderness that so long lay untamedwest of the Mississippi, mentioning with as much detail aspossible in a single popular volume the principal persons andhappenings in proper sequence, but paying special attention tothe trapper and trader element, which, more than any other,dispelled the mysteries of the vast region.

I believe this to be the first book so fully to treat the subjectas a consecutive narrative. By means of it, not only maythe story of the struggle to master the Wilderness be examined,but the place of the trapper and trader in the work of its reduction,and that of Coronado, Mackenzie, Lewis and Clark,Frémont, Powell, and similar explorers, may be determinedwith reference to each other as well as with reference to thegeneral order.

Many people seem to know little about Western history;about Coronado, Cabeza de Vaca, or even about Mackenzie;and others are by no means clear as to where in the historicalscale these characters belong. While the name of DanielBoone is familiar to every child, names of men equally eminentin the same pursuits, like Jedediah Smith, Bridger, Fitzpatrick,etc., are scarcely known at all. Nor have many persons a justappreciation of the numerous attempts that were made to explorethe Western Wilderness, or of the extremely early periodin the history of North America when these attempts began.Many are surprised, therefore, to learn that the first Europeanentrance into the western part of the United States occurredover three and a quarter centuries ago. At least partly, thisvagueness is due to the one-sidedness up to the present of theusual works dealing with American history, most of which areonly histories of the eastern part of the country, with mereoffhand references to the important events of the region beyondvithe Mississippi. Numerous details are presented of early Virginiaand of New England, but the happenings in New Mexicoand in California, and the great West generally, are dismissedwith a few superficial notes.

Within the last year or two much has been written aboutLewis and Clark, and consequently their grand exploit is wellknown, but its relation in the popular mind as to accomplishmentand position with reference to other explorations isoften quite uncertain. It therefore appeared to me that asingle volume which should tell the Wilderness story in unbrokensequence, with special emphasis on the trapper andtrader, would be of value. I have consequently shown the firstattacks by sea and land, and the gradual closing in on all sides,through the matchless trail-breaking of the trappers and traders,down to the year when Powell practically finished this particularwhite man's task by his bold and romantic conquest of theColorado,—the year when the first railway trains crossing thecontinent began a new era. In order that the subject mightbe still clearer and more comprehensive, I have gone fartherand have told the story of the chief denizens of the pristineWilderness: the beaver, the buffalo, and their close associates,those indomitable, iron-nerved people, the Amerinds; theNorth-Americans of yesterday.

Sometimes it is difficult to describe with precision the routeof an explorer without searching his original story, and, in mystudies, this has not always been practicable. For example, Ido not know where the journals of Hunt and Bonneville noware, if extant. Irving's interpretation seems fairly accurate,but as he was entirely unfamiliar with the region west of theRocky Mountains, his description is not always clear. Inother cases, especially in that of Verendrye, I have relied onthe transcripts of others. The trail of Coronado I have longstudied with special care, and I have reached the conclusionsembodied in the map on page 115,—conclusions entirely atvariance with all accepted authorities, but which I feel confident,nevertheless, are in the main correct.

One early explorer in the Minnesota and Hudson Bayregions I have not mentioned. This is Radisson, who, it isviiclaimed, saw the upper Mississippi before Marquette. Theomission was an oversight. Miss A. C. Laut has given a convincingaccount of his travels in her Pathfinders of the West, towhich I take pleasure in referring the reader for informationon this point.[1]

A completed book is the mirror of the writer's shortcomings.I hope the reflections which may fall to my lot in thisone will not be too painful, for I have had in contemplationothers to fill in a general scheme. One starts with a desire forperfection, but without the resources of a Carnegie he is aptto fall so far short of the mark that he fears to look in the glassat all.

With the Wilderness, however, I can claim some degree offamiliarity, for I may be said to have been "in at the death,"as I was one of Powell's companions down the Colorado on hissecond voyage, 1871-72, and have been over portions of almostevery one of the principal historical trails. I have travelledthere on foot, on horseback, by boat, by waggon, and by railway,—evenby Pullman "Palace" car. I have lived under itsopen sky through summers and through winters; its snows, itsrains, its burning heat, have baptised me one of its children.In some cases my footsteps have been among the first of ourrace to break the surface; and if I have not visited every nookand corner of it during the last thirty four years it is the faultof my purse, not of my spirit.

My remarks on supplying whiskey to the natives may bysome be deemed too severe, but in my own opinion there is noexpression of condemnation adequate to denounce the debauchmentof the American tribes by this foul means. It was a crimeagainst civilisation, against humanity; a cruel, dastardly outrageagainst these people who by its means largely have beenreduced to the lowest degree and are sneered at by those whohave profited by their debasement. In the final chapter I havethought it desirable to add a footnote to the effect that I amneither a teetotaler nor a prohibitionist for the reason that myviiicondemnatory remarks might otherwise be attributed to theprejudice of zeal, rather than to indignation at the low devicesresorted to by white men to work the Amerinds for their ownprofit. A great deal that is base and mean is now excused onthe ground that this is a commercial age, but I can only remarkthat if there is to be no standard for measuring modernconduct but financial profit, the white man's footsteps aresurely on the wrong trail.

The reader in following these pages must remember thatcomfort is generally relative, and that what appears hard fromthe chimney corner may have been comparative luxury. Ihave never slept more comfortably anywhere than under a footof snow.

I have had much kind assistance and am grateful for it. Iam particularly obliged to Mr. William J. Schieffelin for thegenerous and unlimited use of valuable books from his library;to Mr. E. H. Harriman for transportation favours; also for thesame to Mr. S. K. Hooper; to Mr. F. M. Bishop for theloan of a volume on Jacob Hamblin not otherwise obtainable;to Mr. O. D. Wheeler and the Montana HistoricalSociety for cuts; to Captain E. L. Berthoud, Edgar A. Rider,and Jack Sumner for manuscript notes; to Mr. L. H. Johnsonfor manuscript notes and photographs; to Mr. B. L. Youngfor a special drawing of the rock pecking of a buffalo insouthern Utah; to Mr. R. H. Chapman, Mr. J. B. Lippincott,Mr. J. K. Hillers, Mr. E. E. Howell, Mr. Delancy Gill, forphotographs; and to the United States Bureau of Ethnologyfor the use of illustration material. I would also here thankmy publishers for their constant consideration, for presents ofbooks pertaining to my subject, and for the loan of others; andMr. H. C. Rizer, chief clerk of the United States GeologicalSurvey, for assistance and courtesies extending over a longseries of years. Finally I wish to express my renewed thanksfor many favours to the veteran geographer and explorer,A. H. Thompson, of the United States Geological Survey, towhom I have the honour of dedicating this book.

Frederick S. Dellenbaugh.

New York, December 7, 1904.




Extent of the Wilderness—The First White Man—The Backbone of theContinent—A Vanished Sea and a Petrified Ocean—The Biggest Trees—TheSpike of Gold1
The Intelligent Beaver, Chief of the Rodents—A Four-footed Engineer—ABuilder of Houses, Artificial Canals, Dams, Ponds, and Lakes—BeaverMeadows—A Masterful Woodchopper—A Tail for the Epicure—Muskbogs—The Fatal Trap13
A Monarch of the Plains—The Hunchback Cows of Cibola—A Boon to theFrontiersman—Wide Range of the Bison—Marrow Bones for the Epicure—WashingtonIrving a Buffalo Hunter—The Rushing Run of theBison Herd—The Sacred White Buffalo Cow Skin—A Calf with a BullHead—Wolves and White Bears32
The People of the Wilderness—Men without Rights—Killing by Alcohol—Changein the Character of the Native—Growth of the War Spirit—Classificationby Language—Dwellers in Tents and Builders of Houses—Farmersand Hunters—Irrigation Works—The Coming of the Horse54
Three Conditions of Wilderness Life—Farming in the Driest Country—TheCache—The Clan, the Unit of the Tribe—Hospitality—Totems andTotem Marks—Dress—An Aboriginal Geographer—The Winter Life—TheWar-path, the Scalp-lock, and the Scalp-dance—Mourning the LostBraves—Drifting75x
Lost in the Wilderness—Cabeza de Vaca, Great Medicine Man—The WildernessTraversed—Spanish Slave Hunters—The Northern Mystery—TheMonk and the Negro—The Great Coronado Expedition—The Settlementof New Mexico and the Pueblo
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