Back to the past on the prairies
Following a 19th-century adventurer's journey among the prairies and Plains Indians.
The New York Times
To the prairiePick up a rental car in Omaha, Neb., or Kansas City, Mo. Although the distances are long (I clocked up about 1,200 miles), the driving is easy, especially if you avoid the anonymous Interstates and cruise the back roads, which are usually ruler-straight and truck-free.
What to see
— The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kan., nps.gov/tapr/index.htm.
— Joslyn Museum, 2200 Dodge St., Omaha; 402-342-3300; joslyn.org
— The Pawnee Arts Center, Dannebrog, Neb.; 308-226-8286, thepawneeartscenter.com; open Thursdays from 4-8 p. m. and by appointment.
Where to stay
Every town has its familiar supply of Comfort Inns and motels, but historic hotels do exist. In Cottonwood Falls, Kan., four miles from the Tallgrass Prairie Reserve, the Grand Central Hotel is at 215 Broadway; 620-273-6763; grandcentralhotel.com, $160.
In Oberlin, Kan. the antiques-filled Landmark Inn is in a renovated 1884 bank; landmarkinn.com; 785-475-2340; $120.
Where to eat
Hays House, in Council Grove, Kan., @says it is the oldest continually operating restaurant west of the Mississippi; 620-767-5911; hayshouse.com.
One of the best meals I had was in tiny Dannebrog, Neb., where the Danish Baker stays open for pizza on Thursday nights. Diners had traveled from all over Nebraska to cluster around the half-dozen formica tables and eat a pie so heavy with toppings that it should be in the Guinness World Records; 114 Mill Street North; 308-226-2208.
One of the most adrenaline-fueled vacations in American history took place in August 1872, when a young New Yorker named George Bird Grinnell boarded a train at Grand Central Depot for the era's hot new travel destination — Nebraska.
While most Gilded Age travelers preferred to immerse themselves in the Old World pleasures of Paris and Venice, the 22-year-old Grinnell was one of a new breed of nature-lovers who chose to take rugged, and often dangerous, excursions into the Western wilderness, usually for the purpose of hunting and fishing. Now Grinnell was taking America's first "adventure travel" trend to a new cultural level: In order to experience firsthand the most romantic image of the Western frontier, he intended to join the Pawnee Nation of Plains Indians on their summer buffalo hunt through the prairies.
Thanks to the new Union Pacific rail line, Grinnell and a fellow Yale graduate, Jim Russell, were able to nip away from the cultured parlors in Manhattan to the raucous saloons of Plum Creek (now Lexington, Neb.) in a matter of days. From there, guided by a man named Luther North, who had led teams of Pawnee scouts for the Union Army during the Civil War, they rode south to join a small army of Pawnee as they traveled into Kansas. While the Pawnee have been portrayed as Mad Max-style villains in Hollywood movies like "Dances With Wolves" and "Little Big Man," they were consistently allied with the United States, and when North arrived with his group, he was greeted as an old friend.
For the next week, the travelers took part in rituals unchanged since the Plains Indians had first acquired horses, around 1700, joining Pawnee warriors as they attacked enormous buffalo herds in the traditional style, dining afterward on roasted buffalo tongue and liver. They observed ancient religious ceremonies. And for a dramatic finale on their way back to Plum Creek, they were chased by the Pawnees' enemies, the Cheyenne.
I first stumbled across this alluring story at the New York Public Library while leafing through a yellowed 1873 volume of "Forest and Stream," a pioneer outdoor magazine in which Grinnell published a vivid account of his adventures. Further research unearthed other reports from Eastern travelers enjoying similar trips with friendly American Indians in Nebraska and Kansas — enough to show that the practice was not uncommon in the early 1870s.
Grinnell's trip, however, was more than a youthful jaunt. His name is largely forgotten today, but during his lifetime he became one of the first campaigners for Western wildlife and national parks, and a pioneer ethnographer. On his death at age 88, in 1938, The New York Times described him as "the father of American conservation."
Following Grinnell's route
With all the changes in the West over the last 140 years, I wondered if following Grinnell's route would offer any glimpses of the 1872 frontier. I had one thing in common with Birdie, as he was called by fellow Yalies: I too was a New Yorker longing for empty horizons and open skies. (And most of my city friends still belong to the Europhile camp, the prospect of a trip to Nebraska or Kansas being on a par with an exile to Pago Pago). In the past I'd always been drawn to the marquee national parks. But while the impact of the prairies is more subtle than mega-spectacles like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, as Walt Whitman himself wrote, they "fill the aesthetic sense fuller" and haunt the memory longer. What's more, I've often found, it's in America's neglected corners that the past most endures.
Even the modern metropolis of Omaha took me back in time more quickly than I could have hoped. After waking to the lonely whistle of a freight train at dawn, I strolled through the 19th-century warehouses of the Old Market district a stone's throw from the muddy Missouri River to an appointment in, of all places, the public library.
"Are you ready for the scalping party?" Lynn Sullivan, a librarian, asked cheerily as she handed me a pair of archival cotton gloves. In a neon-illuminated room, she unwrapped layers of protective foam to reveal a thick mat of golden brown hair. The glossy locks were attached to an oval of human hide, cured like old leather.
I carefully picked up the grisly relic, weighing it in my hands. I wasn't prepared for such lustrous healthy hair on a Wild West character, let alone one nearly a century and a half old.
The scalp once belonged to William Thompson, an English-born railway worker who was surprised in Nebraska in 1867 by Cheyenne raiders. Wounded by a tomahawk, Thompson feigned death while a warrior took his scalp, a sensation he later described as having the whole top of his head torn off. After the Cheyenne rode off, he retrieved his scalp, which had fallen from a warrior's belt, put it in a pail of water and took it to a doctor in Omaha in hopes that it might be sewn back on. (Astonished locals compared the item to "a drowned rat.") Surgery proved impossible, but Thompson recovered. He even took the scalp with him back to England, where he showed it off as a carnival attraction. At the end of his life, for reasons unknown, Thompson sent the hairpiece to the Omaha Public Library, where for many years it was displayed, thrilling generations of Nebraskan schoolchildren. These days it is kept more discreetly in storage.
Along the Platte
Inspired, I cruised out of Omaha the next day, tracing Grinnell's route along the old Highway 30, which follows the Platte River. As I was fresh from the East Village of Manhattan, the profligate sense of space had a hypnotic effect. I wound down the window, smelling "the wild lyrical drizzling air of Nebraska," as Kerouac rhapsodized in "On the Road." Under the midday sun the landscape can seem bleached and monotonous, but when the golden dusk catches the sunflowers, the setting is as sublime as Provence.
Admittedly, it was an effort to visualize the landscape of 1872, amid the spider web of roads and patchwork of farms. But things improved when I visited the Platte River Preserve south of Grand Island. It's one of a half-dozen pieces of Nebraska now owned by the Nature Conservancy, mostly former cattle ranches that ecologists are returning to a semblance of their state before European settlement.
"We can't quite get the prairie back to its original condition here," said Nannette Whitten, a project manager I met at the conservancy's small office. "It's really impossible today. There's no regular burning of the grass. The rivers are dammed, so there is no natural flooding. But we can get the prairie back to a healthy condition by managing the seasonal plants and removing invasive species."
The conversation turned, as it often would, to the addictive beauty of the grasslands. It wasn't quite the landscape of 1872, but I was already hooked.
When Grinnell, Russell and North caught up with the Pawnee near the Kansas border, they were awe-struck by the spectacle of 4,000 men, women and children camped with their horses and ponies. After greeting the elderly chief, Peta-la-shar, they were invited to join the tribe the next day on their buffalo hunt. It began as a brilliant parade, led by eight warriors, "their saddles glittering with silver ornaments," Grinnell wrote, "and their bridles tinkling with little bells." Grinnell described a "surround" he participated in that same afternoon in which Pawnee warriors, still riding bareback and using traditional bows and arrows, silently encircled a herd then charged to the shrill cry of "Loo'ah"! "What had been only a wild gallop became a mad race."
Grinnell noted that the Indians — unlike Western hunters — used every fragment of the buffalo, even recycling their sinews as bowstrings and bladders for water bags. "We feasted on roast ribs, ka'wis (chopped pieces cooked in intestine) and dried meat, and really had a delightful time ... smoking and chatting in after-dinner fashion."
Today such scenes are preserved, in two dimensions at least, in the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha where the meticulous paintings of George Catlin and Karl Bodmer are the pride of the newly renovated Western Gallery. Unknown to the breathless Grinnell, he was witnessing the last successful buffalo hunt of the Pawnee Indians. The next year, the tribe would be attacked in midhunt by the Sioux in a place aptly called Massacre Canyon. White settlers were already flooding Nebraska, wiping out the buffalo herds and eyeing the fertile native lands. By 1875, the Pawnee would be forced to leave for a dismal reservation in Oklahoma.
Still, the Pawnee, like other Indian nations, are culturally resilient. In the old lush and verdant Pawnee homeland I called at Dannebrog, a riverside hamlet where an Indian campsite used to be, to visit the Pawnee Arts Center. Here I met the Nebraskan writer Roger Welsch, a Falstaffian figure who became involved with the Pawnee in the late 1980s, when the tribe wanted bones from the Smithsonian reburied in the local cemetery. In 2006, he and his wife, Linda, donated their 57-acre property to the Pawnee — the first land the nation has owned in Nebraska since it left in 1875. Since then, another 22-acre property just south has been donated, along with the commercial building for the arts center.
"It's like refounding the state of Israel," Welsch said with a smile. "The Pawnee are coming back! It's a homecoming."
Later, I spoke to the president of the Pawnee Nation, Marshall Gover, about his people's reaction to the move. "It's hard to put into words," he said, his voice cracking. "We were ecstatic. We were overwhelmed. We adopted Roger into the tribe, and held a dance in his honor." Plans are now evolving to create a Pawnee cultural center there.
As I drove south into Kansas, even the remotest towns revealed their passion for history. In the one-horse town of Oberlin, the old bank had been turned into a hotel for the few passing tourists, and the locals all seem to be in the same business: antiques. In Lacrosse, I was the only visitor in the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, where the attendant enthused that "we have over 2,400 types of barbed wire on display!" Like the best of America's quirky museums, it had a serious message: the proliferation of barbed wire in the 1880s guaranteed the end of the Old West, spelling doom for the romanticized era of cowboys and wandering herds of cattle.
In northwestern Kansas, Grinnell, Russell and North said farewell to the Pawnee and rode back to the railway line, pursued part of the way by 15 armed Cheyenne, who forced the travelers to use their horses for cover when fired upon. ("The song of each bullet created an extraordinary commotion in my mind," Grinnell wrote, "and I experienced the sensation commonly described as'having your heart in your throat."')
Today, the most vivid glimpse of 1872 lies farther south. Of the 170 million acres of prairie that once covered the West, only 4 percent survives — most it in the Flint Hills of Kansas, where the limestone bedrock has ensured that no plow has ever turned the soil.
Here, oceans of undulating grass extend to the horizon, and strange little townships sit decaying on lonely crossroads. Now, instead of outlaws and cowboys, motorbike enthusiasts roar up and down the roads. Their gleaming machines were lined up neatly outside the Hays House in Council Grove, an 1857 trading post that says it is the oldest continually operating restaurant west of the Mississippi, and where enormous steaks are still the most popular item on the menu.
Nearby, the town of Cottonwood Falls is like a classic Western film set. The 1871 courthouse, which looms in surreal French Renaissance style, still contains the original dark lockup. I took a room in the town's only hotel, the Grand Central, which has operated since 1884.
Early the next morning I arrived at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, nearly 11,000 acres of grassland owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed by the National Park Service. The area is large enough to allow regular controlled burning of the land every April, which renews the vegetation as it did in presettlement days. The headquarters are in a stately 19th-century mansion and stone barn, beautifully designed for the cattle baron who once owned the land with every modern convenience for the family. Not many visitors come out here — rangers say around 23,000 a year, which is about 1 percent of Yellowstone's throngs — and I was entirely alone as soon as I headed along a hiking trail.
For me, there was a compelling symmetry to the visit. Thirteen buffalo were reintroduced to the preserve in 2009, which have now bred to 21 — the first born in the area for 140 years. And it would probably never have happened without the efforts of the young adventurer, George Bird Grinnell.
After his 1872 trip, Grinnell became one of the most vocal conservationists of the Gilded Age. Living in a town house on East 15th Street in New York, he took over as editor of Forest and Stream for 35 years, founded the first Audubon Society, authored 29 books, befriended John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt and campaigned for the expansion of the national park system. Traveling with the Pawnee, he had his first glimpse that the buffalo were already in danger. In 1894, his magazine exposed the poaching of the last wild herd of buffalo in Yellowstone — numbers had been reduced to less than 200 — and he took the lead in pushing for the first federal law to properly protect the species. The National Park Protective Act pulled the animals back from the brink of extinction.
Today, in the Tallgrass Preserve, the buffalo gather in the backcountry, which has been open to the public for two years — and, improbably, you can simply set out to see them on foot. When I did, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the stroll was eerily idyllic, with butterflies flittering among the bluestem that line the trail. I had a moment of doubt about the safe viewing distance when I reached the gate to the bisons' pasture. "DO NOT APPROACH BISON," read a yellow sign. "Bison are wild animals and best viewed from afar." A drawing showed an angry buffalo chasing a hapless human. I cautiously pushed the gate open and scanned the hills. There, about 300 yards away, a string of dark, shaggy forms were visible, half-hidden in the folds of the land. Still, after traveling for so long with the ghost of Birdie Grinnell, I wanted a closer look.
I stepped warily forward through the rustling, thigh-high grass. The largest bull stood up and watched me approach. Two of the young were rolling around playing. It was strange to think that after the slaughter of untold millions of buffalo that once roamed this country, these chosen few would live out their days here without a care in the world.
When I got to within about 50 yards, the bull started stepping slowly toward me. I slowly backed away.
That was as close to 1872 as I was prepared to get.