December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
If one were to start making a list of things that unmistakably say “America”—things such as the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, and Mount Vernon—one would come very soon to the old buffalo nickel. This handsome five-cent piece with a buffalo on one side and an Indian on the other was unquestionably one of the most American of all United States coins. Its designer, James Earle Fräser, was born in Winona, Minnesota, in 1876, but when he was four his family moved to Dakota Territory where his father, a civil engineer, was in charge of building a railroad. Fraser became a student at the Art Institute of Chicago at the early age of fifteen, went on to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, was an assistant to the great Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and eventually became one of America’s most famous sculptors. But always his early years on the Dakota prairie exerted a powerful influence over his imagination. This influence is reflected in Eraser’s most famous works—the statue of an Indian warrior called The End of the Trail , the statue of Theodore Roosevelt as a Rough Rider in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and, of course, the design for the buffalo nickel. When Fraser died in 1953 he left a huge collection of statues, models, letters, sketches, books, papers, photographs, and manuscripts, which last year was given to Syracuse University by his sister-in-law, Mrs. Oliver H. Sawyer. Among the manuscripts was an unpublished autobiography, and from this document A MERICAN H ERITAGE is proud to present for the first time the chapter that covers Eraser’s formative years in Dakota Territory. In the original manuscript, which has been edited here, the chapter opens in 1880 with the Eraser family newly arrived in the territory and living in a boxcar near the town of Mitchell in what is now South Dakota. After a few months they move to an unfinished ranch house where they manage to survive a typically ferocious northern Plains winter. After such an experience, the coming of the prairie spring makes a deep impression on the young boy. — The Editors
Late March found the sun climbing the sky and shedding its warm direct rays on the prairie’s hard, crusted snow. In the early spring, latecomers to the plains were surprised at the changed look of the country—the melting snow formed great lakes, which covered much of the landscape. These so-called lake beds were a great convenience for the wildlife, and on windy days or dark nights geese and ducks flying toward the north would settle on them by the thousands to rest and feed. In the calm moonlight they would fly in V formation and their guiding honking could be heard through the night. In heavy weather I have seen great flocks settle down and walk on the open prairie.
There was a vast variety of waterfowl besides geese—black and white swans, brants, teals, mallards, canvasbacks, and numerous other species.
I can’t recall seeing a crow, a buzzard, or a robin while I lived in Dakota, but the bobolink with his gay song and bright yellow and white markings was everywhere, as was the meadow lark, the sweetest songster of that region, with possibly the most beautiful song of any bird of the plains. Later, great flocks of blackbirds came when grain had been grown.
Some of the deeper lake beds retained water the year round. These were filled with cattails and flags, and made an ideal spot for the nesting of many kinds of birds, particularly wild ducks, rail, and other waterfowl.
As the shallower lake beds dried and the tender grass shoots and myriads of insects came up from the ground, prairie chickens would gather in thousands to feed. Their chattering produced a strange hum when heard from a distance, much like the sound of a large city. It puzzled us greatly when we first heard it early one spring morning. The curious sound came from the south, beyond a slight ridge where there was a flat strip of moist lake bed about half a mile long and rather wide. My aunt and I followed the sound, which grew louder and louder as we crawled to the top of the rise. There, to our astonishment, on the flat surface of the drying lake bed, we could see prairie chickens racing back and forth in such numbers that it seemed impossible for them to find space to avoid one another in their wild rush. We were amazed to learn that birds were making the strange noise that puzzled us so much—certainly only thousands of them could have produced such a volume of sound.
In spite of the incessant chatter of the hens we could hear the booming of the cocks and see them standing on separate clumps of earth or on a lone rock, each proudly watching his particular flock. The cock seemed like an actor wanting to impress by his vivid presence and strange antics. It was surprising to find that a bird so small could make a booming sound that could be heard for miles. The notes were boom-ah-boom , ending with a curious elongation of the same note. During the booming, large orangecolored sacs on either side of his neck would swell and the feathers on the back of his head would rise and stand straight up like horns, giving him a gorgeous and aggressive appearance. And he was ready and eager for a fight. Any other cock coming near would cause a fierce battle.
These gathering flocks with their chatter and dervishlike dances fascinated me, and I crawled up the ridge to watch whenever I heard them—usually it was during a bright sunrise, but it was more beautiful in a hazy morning mist. After an hour of play and feeding, the prairie chickens would begin to fly; at times a huge flock would rise, making a thunderous sound. They never flew far, but would scatter, land, and run.
The primitive character of the plains distressed my mother, and for the first months in our new ranch house she was intensely lonely. Grandfather was in charge of the ranch, and Father was so busy with railroad affairs that he was unable to see us more than twice a week. The powerful prairie winds whistling around the house corners and under the eaves added to her feeling of loneliness. More and more the wind on the gravel paths in front of the door annoyed her—it was so gusty and violent that it picked the pebbles from the path and blew them against the door unceasingly. Finally Grandfather stopped it by laying down some boards on the path to keep the pebbles in place. Nevertheless, in after years she remembered and spoke often of the gravel peppering the door of our prairie home.
When the spring came, plowing or “breaking” began, and the virgin sod was turned by die plowshare. The sod was so tough that from two to three yoke of oxen were used to pull the plow. The straining oxen, the strong men guiding the plow, the calls of the drivers, and the brilliant sunlight all made a picture of power which I remember vividly. The first breaking was done to build sod barns and to form a ring around the buildings as a prairie firebreak. Later, hay and straw were stacked inside the circle, but more important still, it made possible the cultivation and planting of the very necessary garden. The fertile undersoil, I heard men say, was four feet deep.
As the furrow was cut, it produced a constant cracking sound like a volley of pistol shots, caused by the breaking of incredibly tough roots, or spurs. Some of these spurs were three or four inches long and a half inch through the top, perfectly straight and tapering to a needle point; they were the color of ivory and nearly as hard. The spurs made a fascinating plaything for a small boy, even though they were dangerously sharp.
The new sod was solid and easily cut into two-foot lengths, the size used to build the sod buildings. The walls were constructed by laying two sods lengthwise and the next layer crosswise, so as to make a two-foot-thick bonded wall around the building. The walls were built to a height of about seven or eight feet. The windows were small and near the thatched roof.
As for me, my childhood was virtually without the company of other children and their usual playthings. I was not conscious, however, of missing anything, for I caught frogs and toads, and Grandfather aided my interest by adding several kinds of gophers, jack rabbits, and a badger. As I think of it now, these living playthings were much more fun than the usual inanimate toys, and certainly more of an education.
I soon discovered that toads liked attention, became quite tame, and enjoyed having their backs scratched; that jack rabbits fought one another, kicking and biting; and that the badger was vicious—he hated his corral and finally dug his way out, to everyone’s relief. But all of those pets paled in comparison to my greatest prize—a baby antelope.
Old Bob, our top cowboy, rode in one day tenderly holding the little creature in his arms. He was very tiny —I should say about twenty inches tall. His beautiful color was a pattern of tawny brown and creamy white, and his delicate body was exquisite. He seemed so lost and helpless that we all wanted to do something for him. Grandfather built him a movable cage, and after Mother showed me how to feed him out of a bottle he became quite content. Everyone loved the little fellow, and he was the pet of the ranch and the star of my small menagerie.
With the advance of summer my pet antelope grew from a baby into a good-sized boy, but he still followed me around and I had no idea that he might change.
Toward fall, when he was threequarters grown, a small herd of antelope came by. Before this he had paid no attention to their passing, but he was interested now when he saw these and left the yard like a shot in pursuit. He caught up and joined the herd, much to a small boy’s despair. They all disappeared in the distance and that was the last sight I had of my little pet “Lope.” Nevertheless, whenever I saw any antelope, I would go out and call “Lope, Lope,” but they all flew like the wind. If he was among them he had forgotten his name. Once in the winter when three or four of the little fellows came by close to the house, I thought I recognized him and ran out, but he showed no sign of knowing me. During my years on the prairie, I never saw a buck antelope brought in by a hunter without wondering, Could this be my little “Lope”? I am sure I could never have killed an antelope.
Often a few families of Indians were allowed to leave the reservation, and many times we would wake up in the morning and find that they had set up a camp of eight or ten tepees close to our ranch house. On one of these occasions Grandfather thought it might be a good opportunity to get me a pony, so we went to look them over. I found one in the Indians’ herd that I liked. He was small and young and I certainly wanted him. My grandfather knew that money wasn’t of much value to the Indians, so he had taken along an empty silver watch case attached to a long silver chain. Its covers snapped shut with a click. He showed it to the chief, who was delighted with it, and after a conversation in sign language we made an easy trade. The chief liked opening the case and snapping the covers shut. After searching in a pouch, he found something to put in his new possession. My grandfather said it was probably a sacred charm. The chief strode away waving his hand toward the herd. After much running about, we got my pony and took him home. For the watch case my grandfather thought we might have had a number of ponies! I named the pony “Billy.” He was small, even for a bronco, but he was tough and strong. He was a bay color, but his long mane and tail were black. In the winter the hair under his neck and belly grew to be five inches long. I had experiences of all kinds with him, and some of them were not too happy. He was very nice arid gentle at times, but, as is the case with most broncos, he was very temperamental.
He wanted to remain in the Indian camp with the other ponies, for which I couldn’t blame him, and he wouldn’t stay home, so I had to keep him on a picket line. An iron stake with a swivel around its top was driven into the ground and attached to a rope long enough to give him plenty of chance to feed. When he wanted to get away he would go to the end of the rope, lean away from the stake, and walk around in a circle, leaning harder with each step. When the stake was loosened to his satisfaction, he would run as hard as he could straight across the circle, the picket pin would fly into the air, and he would be off. He usually did this when there were Indians near. How he knew, we never discovered, but when we found the camp, there in the herd, with the picket pin and rope dragging, would be my pony. The Indians were amused, and the Indian boys usually helped catch him.
There were many kinds of snakes on the prairie, ranging all the way from rattlers to garter snakes. One kind was exceedingly disagreeable. My grandfather called it a “blow snake.” I have no idea what kind it really was, but it was a dark, earthy color, and the one I recall most distinctly had a blunt tail. It turned its head toward us and emitted a foglike vapor which my grandfather said would make us deathly sick. Then there was the prairie bull snake, which looked very much like a rattlesnake. It would enter the holes in a prairie dog village, possibly to eat the young prairie dogs.
And, by the way, it is true, as has been said, that owls fly out of holes. I have seen them. Maybe they were on the same mission as the bull snake, although they were very small; nor did they confine themselves to prairie dog holes, as I have seen them fly from holes belonging to other animals. They may have wanted a dark place to stay in during the day, or possibly they were looking for leftover food.
One of my many pleasures was to watch a prairie dog village, which was an actual village because the mounds were close together and sometimes covered half a mile or more in one direction and a little less in the other. Each mound was about two feet high, and the hole which was at its center was quite deep. It was amusing to see a large number of prairie dogs sitting on top of these hivelike mounds, to watch their antics and see them fall into their holes when frightened. Probably their snappy bark is the reason for their being called dogs. They were easily scared and would dash for the hole, barking noisily, if anyone came near. They are very difficult to shoot, and a hunter rarely knew whether he had hit one or not because of their habit of straddling the hole and dropping into it. There was very little grass near the village as the dogs ate up the supply as fast as it grew, and they had to cover quite an expanse of prairie to get enough food.
Then there was fishing, another of my pleasures—such remarkable fishing. The rivers teemed with pike, bullheads, catfish, and perch, although there were other kinds less frequently caught. While fishing in the spring, I often saw the trappers in their canoes come down the Jim River—that’s what we called the James, which was the biggest river near Mitchell. The trappers were very picturesque in their buckskins and their beaver caps. They must have had great success, because their canoes were always well filled with pelts.
The mill dam on the Jim River was a wonderful place to fish, so I liked going there. The mill was on the east bank, and the trappers were forced to make their portage around the dam to the west. They would carry their packs and their canoes down the path, repack them, and be on their way again. I have modelled a statue of Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition from my memory of a trapper I saw at this place. He was a magnificent figure as he stood against the sky at the top of the dam.
These were legitimate hunters and trappers, but there was the other kind —the pot hunters. They were hated by both the settlers and the cowboys. They hunted on the prairie with doubleboxed lumber wagons. Six or eight men walked in front of the wagons with dogs to flush the prairie chickens, which they shot by the hundreds. Within half a day the wagons were filled, the hunters having moved only five or six miles. It was a daily occurrence as they went from one locality to another.
As time passed there were more sod cabins and wood shanties put up here and there to hold claims. The most unsuccessful of these claims were tree claims. Thousands of trees were set out only to have their bark stripped and eaten during the winter by the animals.
It may have been because there were no trees that the grass was so luxuriant. The blue joint grass in particular grew so tall in late summer that it was over my head. When I went to higher ground and looked across the prairie, the view was beautiful. The wind on the grass produced billowing waves that looked like a green-blue sea; that, combined with the wonderful clouds, made an unforgettable picture.
I liked, always, to investigate the lake beds, and once while riding around the edge of one looking for wild ducks, muskrats, or anything interesting, I was startled by the unusual appearance of a young man who came galloping toward me. He was riding a wonderfullooking horse, but what astonished me was that he actually glittered as he rode. His saddle and bridle were decorated with silver and gold; his black velvet clothing was embroidered with intricate designs in gold; and to top it all, he had an embroidered sombrero on his head covering his shoulderlength hair, and he carried a beautiful rifle. The bright sunlight on his gold trimmings made him more dazzling than any person I had ever seen.
I suppose the glittering young man was also surprised to meet a small boy alone on the prairie. When he came up, he said: “Hulloa—what are you doing out here? Anyway, I am glad to see you. There are some ducks on the water over there and I want to get one. Would you mind holding my horse?” I looked at his gun and said: “It won’t be much good if you shoot it with that rifle.” He replied: “Oh yes, it will—if I can see it, I’ll only knock its head off.” After a good deal of maneuvering so as not to get his beautiful highheeled boots wet, he got near enough to shoot. Many ducks flew. Then he said: “Now, let me hold the ponies, and get me the duck.” I kicked off my moccasins and waded in, expecting to see a badly mutilated duck; but on the contrary, I found two shot through the head. He had got two in line and knocked both heads off with one shot. I hadn’t seen that trick before and thought it was wonderful. He didn’t seem to think that his shooting was extraordinary, but he was pleased. He put the ducks into his saddlebags, said “Thanks,” and held out his hand to shake mine. I felt something in my hand as he turned, and I let it drop. “Pick it up,” he said, “and now you can say that you shook the hand of Diamond Dick.” He jumped on his horse and galloped away before I could return the coin. It turned out to be a ten-dollar gold piece. Diamond Dick was certainly picturesque; he became a famous wild west showman.
Seeing Diamond Dick’s gun made me want one like it, but my mother thought that at the age of nine I was too young to have one so dangerous. She didn’t know I already had an old musket hidden away. Whenever I did manage to get a discarded gun, it was so old and powerful that when I fired it, it nearly knocked me over. I was very careful of a fairly good one that I got and managed to smuggle it into the house and put it under my mattress, because I wanted it near at hand. But one night, before I could remove the rifle, a visitor was given my room and the gun under the mattress made a very poor, if deep, impression. The guest thought there was something wrong and on investigation found the object. So I lost my rifle.
Uncle Gene had given me very strict instructions on how to handle a gun, and I have always been very thankful to him. He said: “When not in use, a gun should be pointed down to the earth or straight up in the air.”
There were many things to fear on that primitive plain—wolves, snakes, and cyclones—but my greatest fear was of a vicious bull in a herd belonging to a Bohemian family about two miles from where we lived. I had to pass near their place on my way to my Uncle Gene’s house. The bull was so ferocious that they had attached a board to his horns. It hung down below his eyes so that he couldn’t see directly toward the front. That helped, but he was clever enough to turn his head so that he could see with one eye, or toss his head and flip up the board.
I would skirt the rises whenever I saw a herd of cattle on that range, and I never dared walk in that direction. I always rode my pony. On one or two occasions the bull chased after the pony and me, but we were usually so far away when he spied us that we were able to outdistance him.
The Bohemians’ house was really just a cellar. The walls were of stone and extended about two feet above the ground. On these walls there was a gable roof, rather steep, with windows under the eaves.
On one of my visits, as we were going by the house I noticed that there were some cattle in the yard. One of them turned around. It had a board over its face. It was my netnesis the bull. When he saw me he wheeled like a flash and came for me. Without the slightest hesitation I went up the sloping roof of the house like a wreath of mist and stayed there until the bull was out of the way. For some reason lie never bothered the Bohemian children. I still believe it would have been only a matter of time until he turned on them. That bull was not to be trusted.
Finally he decided to tear down Uncle Gene’s house. It was not very big. He came raging into the yard and began charging against it. Then he went into my aunt’s favorite flower bed bellowing und snorting. We watched him from the windows as my aunt’s flowers were being tossed skyward by his crazy pawing. He couldn’t see too well with the board over his head, and my uncle stepped out of the door with a gun in his hand, ready to do away with him if necessary, but hoping he wouldn’t have to, for the Bohemians were his friends. He picked up a goodsized cobblestone from the flower bed and, taking deliberate aim, threw it with all his strength. It hit squarely in the middle of the board on the bull’s head. The shock of the impact sent the bull sprawling on his knees; the board was split in two, and for the first time in several years the bull was able to see clearly. His eyes rolled from side to side showing the whites. He struggled to his feet just in time to receive another cobblestone in the ribs, and instead of attacking as expected, he decided to leave for home. Probably his mind was slightly blurred. My uncle told the Bohemian family of the ferocious efforts to tear down his house. This time the bull had gone too far, and he was killed. After that the prairie seemed a pleasanter and far safer place for me and, I am certain, for everyone else who lived near the Bohemian family.
The prairie always held me fascinated; it was serene at certain periods and tempestuous at others. In the late summer the threat of a cyclone was always in our minds. Many times when heavy storms came my mother took us into our cyclone cellar, but we never had a cyclone come straight over our ranch, although once a very vicious one cut a path through the countryside just north of us. The open prairie made it seem very near. I remember it as a huge bluish-black cloud in the northwest; beyond it the sky was bright and clear. The center of the great cloud began to whirl and lower from the main body. It kept lowering, lengthening, twisting, and bending this way and that until the black funnelshaped mass against the clear sky became very distinct. Then it moved swiftly toward the east, the funnel twisting and turning and getting nearer the earth until finally it touched and then clouds of dust rose around it. Shortly afterward it crossed the Jim River. Then the rain came, and it was lost to sight.
Stories were often told of the danger of Indians, and with such tales very much in mind, I recall how startled I Was when while fishing below a lonely cliff I suddenly noticed some moving shadows cast across the water at my feet. I looked up and there on the edge of the cliff stood seven or eight Indian braves silhouetted against the sky, some of them with bodies bare, others dressed in their buckskins. There was no evidence of their families and that frightened me. I was all alone and at least three miles from any house. Instead of coming down to where I was fishing, they silently disappeared. Where they went I didn’t know and I didn’t care to find out, but I decided I had fished long enough, got my pony, and rode home at the best possible speed. I looked closely all around me but didn’t see them again; probably they were on a hunting trip.
Certain groups of Indians were allowed to come back to the old hunting ground when they became too restless, and, as I have said, they often camped near our ranch. I liked that, for it gave me a chance to play with the Indian boys. They showed me how to make shafts for arrows out of the stalks of cattails. The stalks were so straight and true and, when tipped with a tiny flint arrowhead, evidently made for shooting birds, were very good. They would last a long time; besides, there were so many cattails that when one shaft was used up, another could be made in a few minutes.
One of the sports of the Indian boys which they taught me was the use of those arrows to shoot frogs as they stuck their heads out of the water. It was really quite a mark to try for, but the Indian boys were extraordinarily adept. I learned that Indians used the frogs for their soup pots, which always seemed to be simmering either inside or outside the flap of their tepees. Any passing person was welcome to stop and take a gourd of soup.
All Indians who came to their old hunting ground without leave would be found, and the soldiers would come and urge them to return to the reservation. In most cases it was done very amicably—they seemed satisfied after a few days of hunting.
I had so often heard people say that the poor Indians would be driven into the Pacific Ocean that one day it sparked in my mind the idea for an equestrian statue— The End of the Trail . The buffalo nickel was also the product of those early years.
I also have another Indian statue which was inspired by the same period — The Buffalo Prayer . In the early morning just at sunrise I saw a medicine man, or counselor of the tribe, make his prayer. It was for the return of the buffalo. His prayer to the Great Spirit was made after a night in a sweat lodge, having partaken of no food. He went to the creek, bathed himself, put on a few strips of buffalo hide, placed in front of him a buffalo skull, then built a fire of buffalo chips toward the east. A thin column of smoke lifted to the sky and the rising sun shed a glow over the whole scene. The bronze color of the man, his black hair with bits of red wound into his braids, and his religious attitude made an indelible picture in my mind. The Indian boys and I watched from a respectful distance.
For some time after our ranch house was built, we had to carry water from Mitchell, and finally it was decided that we must have a well. It was a long deep dig, but when water was struck, we had great difficulty keeping the well bailed out so that we could wall it.
Stones were scarce on the prairie and it would take a day to pick up one small wagon-box full. Fortunately, this had been foreseen and the prairie had already been searched for stones suitable for walling the well. When it was completed, we had a great supply of water, but it had a strong alkali flavor that I came to like after the first distaste had worn off. I remember distinctly that whenever we went East, I was always surprised at the insipid taste of the water.
This well was the scene of an almostfatal accident to my three-year-old sister. It was fifty feet deep, held twenty feet of water, and was surrounded by a wellhead of boards with four upright posts supporting the roof, which held a wheel through which a rope ran. One day my sister was standing on the coil of rope beside the wellhead and pulling the rope attached to a bucketful of water which was resting on an inside shelf. The bucket fell and the coil of rope pulled her over the top of the wellhead. My mother, hearing the unusual sound, ran out of the house, and to her horror saw her child slipping over the edge into the well. My sister fell thirty feet, hitting the stones on the way down, severely cutting her head. Unfortunately, there were no men around, so my mother, resisting the efforts of my aunt to prevent her, climbed over and went down the rope, hand over hand, and pulled my sister out of the water. Standing on the stone walling of the well, she took off the child’s wet clothes, stopped the flow of blood as best she could, and in some way got off her own skirt to wrap around her. My sister was seriously ill for a long time. Many people came to congratulate my mother for her courage, and a committee from Mitchell presented her with an inscribed silver dish. Where they were able to obtain it puzzled us, for Mitchell, at that time, was a primitive town.
When I was about eight, a little schoolhouse was built a mile or so away from our ranch, and when it was finished, settlers from twenty miles around were invited to a dance in celebration of its completion. This was one of those western dances with fiddlers and a man to call the various moves. It was gay and very noisy. There were quite a few children and plenty of good things to eat. The dinner began late at night with an oyster stew. In those days oysters were shipped to Dakota in oblong tin cans. The oysters were excellent and made what seemed to be the favorite soup of most westerners.
This school was the first that I attended. On particularly cold days, when the thermometer was around fifteen or twenty below zero, it was arranged that the children would be picked up by a team of horses with a bobsled and a hayrack full of hay for warmth. I thought it a very satisfactory and delightful vehicle for carrying children in any kind of weather.
In the fall, terrible storms came, and we often thought that the little schoolhouse was on the point of being blown away. It quivered and shook and the lightning glinted and the thunder reverberated through the small building. On one of these occasions, when we children were all very scared, there were simultaneously a terrible flash and a crash. The chimney had been hit by lightning. A great ball of blue-green fire rolled along the top of the iron stovepipe to the stove in the middle of the room and down into the stove with a tremendous crash, leaving us children with our heads on our desks and semiconscious. There were many other storms while I was at school but none quite like that one.
Also, the school must have been built in the runway of timber wolves, because very often we children would be startled and greatly agitated by seeing these great animals trot by, usually going south. We would crowd (I say “crowd”—there were about seven or eight pupils) around the windows, the teacher included, to watch them pass, one or two at a time. I don’t recall ever seeing three together. They trotted along, never looking right or left, often within yards of the schoolhouse.
Whenever we took a train journey it was with some difficulty, as there were no sleeping cars in those early days in Dakota. The coaches were heated by small stoves at each end of the car, which the brakeman had to take care of. It seemed like an adequate arrangement then, but now it would certainly be thought primitive.
Often we would ride all night sitting up, sleeping if possible, so that we would arrive in the morning and have the full day in either Sanborn or Chamberlain, and sometimes in Mason City. There were no dining cars, so the trains stopped for half an hour for meals. The station lunchroom served a breakfast, a huge meal—soup or oyster stew followed by steak or fish, vegetables, and two or three kinds of pie—all in thirty minutes. This generous meal cost thirty-five cents.
Occasionally scientists, or relic seekers—which they were, we never knew —came to our ranch. They would ask whether or not we had noticed any mounds. They appeared very anxious and would investigate any place that we could mention. Usually I was persuaded to ride along and show them where such places were. They would dig up any hillock on the prairie’s surface and were usually disappointed, although near our ranch they did find a few burial mounds.
The graves sometimes had walls of flat stone, with the floor and ceiling constructed in the same way. One that they found was very old, so they said. It was made like a small stockade with wooden poles about four inches thick lining the walls. The ceiling and floor were made with flat stones such as did not exist in the vicinity. The extraordinary thing about the grave was that the poles in the side walls were petrified; they had become solid stone. The grain of the wood was clearly visible. I had found many pieces of petrified wood, but this was decidedly more remarkable than anything I had ever seen. On the floor were many articles— numerous flint arrowheads, pots, and other things. These were gathered along with the petrified poles, put into the wagon, and taken away. The Indian chief must have been a great man to have received such a burial and to have his afterlife so well supplied.
Winter on the prairie usually was intense with high winds and heavy snow. The blizzards were so severe, the snow so thick and blinding, that one could see no more than a few feet, nor could he keep his eyes open long.
At those times it was necessary to hold on to long ropes attached to the house when going to the barns and various cribs for feeding the animals. After a great blizzard the buildings, except our two-story house, were entirely snowed under; the drifts covered the thatches. Steps had to be cut into the snow down to the doors. The packed snow was so hard that it was strong enough to carry the weight of a man. When the sun came out and melted the surface of the snow slightly, it would freeze and form a thick crust, solid enough to support a yoke of oxen drawing a load of hay. During the blizzard herds of ponies or cattle would be left to take care of themselves. We always knew where they could be found. They drifted with the wind and snow and we would find them fifteen or twenty miles away in a direct line with the blizzard.
During one blizzard we spent a terrible night waiting for the return of my grandfather, who had gone to Mitchell to get a doctor for my sister. The doctor came out on his pony but my grandfather had walked. It was early in the evening, and the doctor reached our house just as the blizzard arrived over the prairie. (The doctor was forced to stay with us for two days.) When my grandfather failed to reach the ranch, the night was spent watching and putting candles and lamps in all the windows. It seemed impossible for anyone to live through such a night on the prairie. We knew he had started home because the doctor had passed him just before the snow began to fall. Grandfather told us later that he had stumbled through the blizzard from evening until two o’clock in the morning, when he came to the railroad track some miles west of Mitchell. He knew that he must be west of the town so he followed the tracks east and came into the roundhouse an hour later, more dead than alive. Most of the time he had been trailed by prairie wolves, which he could see dimly. He knew they were waiting for him to fall. He kept them off by shooting at them from time to time. He certainly was strong, as many a younger man might have died in such a blizzard.
After I learned that we were leaving Dakota—which had been a place of wonderful adventure for me—I became very lonely and sad. I dreaded going away, and from my final days on the prairie I have a vivid memory of a spring morning on Firesteel Creek.
A strong desire to go fishing for the last time in my favorite haunt got me up at daybreak. I went to a beautiful turn in the creek where I co-aid usually catch large black-barred perch. I rode there, as I often did, on my little Billy—the last time I ever rode him. The fresh morning air was soft with a scent of earth and water such as comes only in the early spring. It was completely silent—the silence of a primitive prairie. Suddenly above me I heard a breath-taking bird song. Then silence for a long pause, then the song again, repeated at regularly spaced intervals—always the same limpid melody. The beauty of its sound, intensified possibly by my lonely feelings, raised the hair on the back of my neck and ran chills down my spine. It left such an impression that ever since I have listened for that particular song and have heard it occasionally during the years. Now, strangely enough, for the past few springs I have been thrilled by the song near my studio in the country—the same haunting melody. An ageless continuity of tiny creatures singing the same God-given song, always the same perfect notes and beautiful variations, known only to its kind. From what far time, no one knows, nor to what distant end.
It is a long jump in years, feelings, and experiences from the time when I first heard that bird song to now. I can hardly believe I am the same being. Life has brought so many changes to the son of a roving builder of railroads, who has lived so much in other worlds, that the boy I was seems like another person who has told me the story of his pioneer youth.