Wednesday, December 01, 2010

First United Stated Dragoons

In the early part of the 19th century, what would later be commonly referred to as the U.S. Cavalry, were known as the U.S. Dragoons.

In 1849, the First United States Dragoons would play a part in our area. According to an introduction to first-hand accounts documented in the book, "Minnesota as Seen By Travellers"...
...Too frequently reports of exploring expeditions are written only by the leaders...It is interesting, therefore, to get an intimate account of one of these expeditions as it appeared to an underling. The writer was a member, very probably a sergeant, of Company D, First United States Dragoons.
The writer had an appealing writing style, with much dry wit and not a little sense of humour; nothing much has changed since that time either, since he often mentioned... mosquitoes! In fact, he wrote:
"Poor hungry things! How would they have been saved from starvation, but for this expedition of ours to the North?"
This recollection is too good simply to refer to, quote from, or even serialize in entire.  Instead I bring to you in-whole, the writings of a Sergeant from Company D, describing their coming up from Fort Snelling to the Pembina/St. Vincent area to survey and establish the U.S. Boundary. I have a hunch you'll find it as fascinating as I have.

Please note that inconsistencies in spelling are from the original, and are left intact on purpose so you can experience how people wrote at this time.  It does not necessarily reflect inferior education, but rather was more common among all levels of society and rank during this time period; in general, English has been and continues to be a rather fluid and fascinating language...but that is a topic for another time!

Also, the spring/summer of 1849 was an unusually cold and wet time period - be aware of these extraordinary conditions as you read this account.

And now, "Canteen Sketches", by an unknown soldier of the ranks...

Of an expedition to the Red River of the North, in the summer
of 1849, commanded by Maj. Woods of the 6th Infantry, to
mark our northern boundary line & accompanied by Capt.
Pope of the Top. Eng., Lieut. Nelson 6th Infantry, A.A.,
Q.M. and A.A.C.S., Lieut. Castor, 1st Dragoons, Dr. Sykes,
(citizen) Mr. Stilley, merchant, with nine wagons, two
carriages and one mountain howitzer, escorted by Co. D. 1st
Dragoons commanded by Lieut. J. W. T. Gardiner.

On the 12th June a part of the Company ferried the Mississippi at Sauk Rapids, and encamped one mile above, and occupied the next day in assisting the rest of the Company to cross the river at Sauk Rapids, which was accomplished at 6 o'clock P.M. We lay encamped on the 14th, providing further rations and remained also through the 15th experiencing frequent showers. On the 16th the weather seeming more favorable we marched to Cold Water Creek, 18 miles, which being unable to ford, we made a bridge across by dusk, 150 feet long, all hands at work, but one man of each mess. Wasn't that as wonderful as Bacon's Abridgment of the whole ocean of Common Law? On the morning of the 17th, early reveille, we crossed the bridge in single file each leading his horse, picketed our ponies on the opposite bank, and returned to help the wagons over. All was accomplished with safety; after which, we rode 6 miles, to the second creek above Sauk Rapids, where we found it necessary to build another bridge, 120 feet long, which we could no doubt have built, like a fox, before dark; but cui bono? Uncle Sam does not expect his beloved troops to work miracles every day, so we encamped; but after breakfast on the 18th every man was in the swamp preparing  materials for the bridge! Presto change! In 4 hours it is completed — every thing hustled over and — hold — only one mile and here we are in a swamp — a dismal swamp. Off, every man! Your shoulders to the wagon wheels and every thing moves through. Thus does American energy, pass under, pass over, or pass through, whatever opposes. 

Another mile takes us to Sauk River. Dislocate, dismember and unlimber every thing, to be ferried over in the pontoon wagon beds, which being water proof, serve for boats. All over now but the animals. In trying to drive them over, 7 horses, 9 mules and 1 pony escaped and turned back — actually deserted the American flag! A non-commissioned officer and a private were sent in pursuit of them; but their horses fagged out before they could overtake the runaways. Those animals know perfectly well, that they had got north of the oat fields. On the evening of the 19th a sergeant and 4 privates were detailed to pursue the deserters; they met the animals coming into camp, in the custody of two citizens who had arrested them at Sauk Rapids. Poor Uncle Samuel had to pay the men $5.00 for their trouble; but Uncle took it patiently.

Pontoon Wagons came in very handy in 'wet' Minnesota!
[Click to enlarge...]

On the 20th we left camp early and after a march of only 6 miles, night caught us encamping on the prairies; for having had heavy rains, the wagons mired horribly. Three times, we had to put 4 mules to each wagon and all our shoulders to the wheels, to get out of the mud. The next morning at 8 o'clock, we left with our wagons half loaded, and after going a mile returned for the rest of the loads; fully loaded, we got another mile — now in the mud again — double teams — out again; now breaks a picket rope — now the chain of a mule harness — until we struggle through 5 miles and encamp at David's Lake3,  having left half our load a mile back. Oh! retrogression I It is as bitter as repentance! Men, horses, every body tired and no wood near for fuel. On the 22d we lay encamped, fighting musquitoes and flies. What an intolerable army of bores! How annoying! They shed more of our own and horses' blood in this expedition, than enough to shed glory upon a whole army of Mexicans. Now and then a horse or mule breaks his lariat. Let every man, then see to his own beast! Now comes up a rattling thunder storm. There comes the guide and interpreter with fresh venison. So it goes. The insect feeds upon man and man "takes a tear" at the quadruped — hunger makes destruction. We remained in camp on the 23d, bitten as bad as ever; the back-biting of a Sewing Society is nothing to it. On the 24th, martyrs in the same camp Lieut. Castor with a sergeant and one private, starts for Ft. Snelling to get another wagon. The weather is fine again.

Quiet on the 25th. Weather hot — musquitoes annoying, expressive word, is it not?

Well may each soldier bless his stars,
Who brought along mosquito bars;
And bids defiance while he lies,
To gallinippers and to flies.
Kind old uncle of ours! Good uncle Samuel! Thou art willing that our blood should be drawn, if need be, in fighting the Musquito king, George Frederick Augustus Clarence Sambo Samosa, and his British allies, but not in an inglorious fight with the ignoble musquitoes themselves.4 On the 26th we were off at sunrise — mired twice in going 6 miles — lift, lug, tug, now we move out again; timber in sight, distant from it half a mile, and here we encamp again. Off at sunrise on the 27th, for the guide reported a bad route. Officers Woods, Pope, Nelson, our Doctor and Mr. Stilley, went ahead of us and encamped four hours before we came up; distance 16 miles. Coming in, we heard with regret of the heavy blow which Lightning had struck Lieut. Nelson — hitting him, no doubt unawares, although an officer of much presence of mind, while unguarded in his tent. Nothing but prompt assistance recovered him. Next to Lieut. Nelson's tent was pitched Lieut. Gardiner's; the Lieut, being out with his men — Lightning then cracked down on the poles of his tent and shivered them most shamefully.5 We were stuck many times that day; in fact we went along like a brace of chain bearers, stick! stuck! stick! stuck! as if struggling along in the bed of the river Styx, which they say ran turpentine. Our wagons left half their load 3 miles back on the prairie, and returned for the surplus the same night.

This was all — not altogether unalloyed happiness, you had better believe. On the 28th we remained in camp; we did. Uncle! We had light showers; but took the opportunity to fish in a lake near by. We caught enough for "the cook and all hands." On the 29th we went out to the lake and fished with a seine. The fish were "monstrously taken in," say about 100 or 150 or 200 or may be 3 or 400 pounds of them, or thereabouts. Charming fine, warm weather; the boys lie basking about the tents, like snakes in the sunshine. On the 30th stirring at reveille — out again fishing — in this, imitating the disciples. A glorious day—-fish, any quantity and a fine breeze to sweep away flies and musquitoes. We remained in camp, except those who chose to go and catch fish on the 1st day of July; quite a cool, fresh breeze stirring all day, so as to make fires comfortable. Again we have abundance of fish from the lake; affording us the double delight of catching and devouring the scaly victims. On the 2d we renewed our war upon the fishes, flanking the lake right and left, and could have taken all the fish by a coup de main, if we had had a seine long enough, the wind blowing fresh, and every man being full of courage. Oh, Uncle Samuel! It takes us boys in military gray to slay your fishes upon the public domain. On the morning of the 3d, we were off, bag and baggage and marched 15 miles, the first day's march without miring; and at night we encamped on a fine ridge of prairie, one quarter of a mile from the timber and about one mile from White Bear Lake. Snugly in our tents, down came a thundering shower of rain. The lake — well — you may as well go and see it for yourselves. On its placid bosom you will see squadrons of geese and ducks, and whole navies of the wild, white swan leisurely evolutionizing.

On the glorious 4th, Uncle, we lay in camp, out of respect to your Eagle. Lieut. Castor, Serg. Rummell and Priv. Finley, came in with the extra wagon. At half past ten, up rolled a booming thunder shower pouring and rattling down for four hours, like the storming of Vera Cruz. Rain through the night, so that we could not march on the 5th; but a small party went to White Bear lake and caught fish, pike, flapping, great fellows, such as it would drive the Spirit of the Times crazy, to feel at the end of a fish-rod, drawing it down like a switch into the water. For variety, a small party of Winnebago hunters came into camp with an elk just killed, most of which was bought of them by our command. On the 6th, reveille at half past 3 o'clock in the morning— off at 6, miry every few hundred yards, in the mud 34 times, before we encamped, near a large lake at 5 or 6 o'clock P.M. having struggled through 6 miles. We were compelled to make a monstrous circumbendibus to progress at all, and were at night only 8 miles from our morning camp! That day, every man had to get into the mud and water waist deep — and men were sent forward constantly to make "cross bridges," that is, to make a turnpike of hay across bottomless quagmires. Mr. Stilley left us the next morning for Saint Louis. He certainly found more fatigue with us than he will upon the cool, shady lounges, in front of the Planter's House. We caught some fine pike in the lake, and fished on the 7th again. Good by Mr. Stilley. He will remember this excursion, "Oft in the stilly night." The weather is fine, fish plenty, but game scarce. On the 8th the day opened boisterous, high wind, cleared off at 10 A.M., so we "embraced this opportunity," Uncle, to go a fishing; caught about 120 pounds of pike averaging 4 pounds each. Men all healthy and lively as corks, after all our wading in mud and water to extricate Uncle's wagons. Rain again at 1 o'clock P.M. until 3, when it cleared off. On the 9th we marched at 6 o'clock A.M., crossed the Chippewa river, weather hot, mired only 4 times, encamped 3 miles west of the Chippewa, having made 15 miles and a mess of delicious duck for our mess. Off at 6 on the morning of the 10th — march rather favorable, met a War party of Chippewas hunting for Sioux; Major Woods bought of them some elk meat — Snap! An axle-tree broken. A few remain to mend it, and on we go, all getting into camp before dusk, having marched 20 miles. On the 11th we marched at 5 o'clock A.M. 26 1/2 miles, to Otter Tail river, a swift stream 100 feet wide, having met the Red River train, on their way to Saint Paul, 98 carts, laden with buffalo robes, furs, pemmican, buffalo tongues, & bought of the Indians.6 The day was warm, but with a fine breeze. Poor fellows! They look remarkably sober for men so long "on a train." On the 12th we reached and crossed Red river and encamped, making 20 miles, ten of it over a swampy prairie, which but for a day or two preceding, of favorable weather, would have been impassable. We had a cool umbrella of clouds over us; all was pleasant but the ground, if that may be called ground which is more than half water, over, under and through which we wriggled, like a school of stranded perriwiggles. One of the two-horse teams, being fagged out, we shifted the load to another wagon. Plenty of wood and water at camp, to save us from soul-carting. Good. About half past 7, on the 13th, we were off again, worlds of pigeons flying, fine day and after 4 miles of progress, we encamped again on the bank of Red river. The 14th brought us one of those sultry, cloudy mornings, in which the musquitoes go it with a looseness, dropping their bills in with as much facility as old army surgeons do their lancets. Here Maj. Woods had a guide post erected, marked, " 163 miles to Sauk Rapids." There is plenty of timber, and the site being favorable, it is probable that Uncle will make a fort at this place. On the 15th, we marched 2114 miles, crossing Rice creek and encamped on the bank of the Chienne river. What fine weather we have up here toward the Arctic circle! The 16th was a day of labor; for to cross the Chienne, taking every thing to pieces to ferry across in pontoon wagons, took 8 hours; and much fatigued we encamped amidst clouds of musquitoes, blustering like Mexicans, on the opposite bank.

Here 11 of our horses broke away from picket and left. Fifteen men went in pursuit, who shot a buffalo, a part of which was taken into camp in a light wagon. At about 1 o'clock, P.M., we encamped, detachment returned with 10 horses (the 11th probably a dead loss to Uncle;) about 4 miles of prairie, we crossed, almost swimming, the water 3 or 4 feet deep; one of the wagons failing, we launched a canoe which we had on the wagon, changed the load into that and were off again, to where land was visible. Two mules were sent back after the wagon and we all got into camp, after a march of 15 miles, on the bank of Maple river. We noticed several musquitoes that day.  On the 18th in the morning, a rope was extended across Maple river, to aid in ferrying; and in 6 hours, we were encamped opposite, bag and baggage, with some loss of blood by musquitoes. A booming thunder shower last night and this morning. Here we caught abundance of fish. On the 19th we marched 15 miles and encamped near Rush river, having unloaded once to cross a slough and having crossed 4 miles of prairie covered with a foot and a half of water. We had a fine morning on the 20th; the river had fallen 2 feet. We crossed in our pontoon wagons and encamped opposite. Having 2 days march across the prairies, before us, we had to wood up here, as the steamboats express it.

The 21st took us 20 miles, weather bad, and water much of the way a foot deep, some of the teams petering. We encamped upon a woodless expanse of prairie. The 22d fetched us up after 23 miles, at the first branch of Goose river. That fine, warm day, we spent an hour in the agreeable work of ferrying over a slough. You were very kind Uncle, to furnish us these pontoon wagons. On the 23d we came in view of buffalo, pursued them, in small parties, killed a dozen or so and encamped near Salt lake, say 3 miles from timber; here we smoked some buffalo meat; it was a good day for musquitoes. Our detail with 3 teams, brought in about four buffaloes. The whole herd numbered only about 100. Uncle, the stock in your great pasture, is getting thinned out. We marched that day about 8 miles. On the 24th, we marched 15 miles and encamped expressly for the convenience of smoking buffalo meat. We marched 22 miles on the 25th, our teams growing weaker every day; but then we had a fine breeze to blow away the musquitoes. Here we are, on the 26th, after 20 miles march, encamped on the west side of Big Salt river, 341 miles from Sauk Rapids. Uncle's mules are getting very feeble. Carrying fuel along, we marched 19 miles on the 27th, crossing the Little Salt and Cart rivers, and encamped on a ridge of prairie, 2 miles from timber.

We marched 20 miles on the 28th, through rain, with a considerable mixture of musquitoes. Poor hungry things! How would they have been saved from starvation, but for this expedition of ours to the North ? On the 27th, we had a severe march, although but 4 miles, and encamped on Poplar island. The rain started just after we did and a Northwester, cold enough for January; and just after we got in camp, one of our mules up and died. Death appears to be after some of the rest of them with a sharp stick. Poor mule! What does ancestry avail him now? "Sic transit gloria Mundi," (though I think it happened on Sunday instead of Monday, but we must use our Latin when we have a chance.) On the 30th we marched, much of the way through water, 13 miles, and encamped in a dry spot, 5 miles from the woods, having to bring fuel on horseback. Here one of our teams knocked under and we left it and one wagon in charge of 3 men until we could send back for it from Pembina. Near camp, we found a dug-out canoe which was carefully distributed pro rata to the messes. If there was any trespass or damage done. Uncle, you must foot the bill. On the 31st, we had a hard march to make 12 miles, through mud and water, which took us within 6 miles of Pembina, in good timber. The weather was fine again for a new country; and we met 3 or 4 carts which were going after the load of the wagon we left behind.

On the first day of August, we crossed the Pembina river in canoes, leaving our wagons on the south side, and encamped on the prairie north side of the river, within 60 miles of the Selkirk settlement. About dusk, a drenching thunder storm came booming up, continuing 4 hours, water in the tents 6 inches deep. The  morning of August 2d, found us, drenched as we were, wide awake; we had to move our tents to higher ground, about 150 yards, where we found the grazing scanty on account of its having been fed down by the beeves of the Pembinese; but the sun was warm and kindly dried our blankets. Although the 3d of August opened up fine, we had rain and very respectable thunder from 4 to 5 o'clock in the afternoon and rain again in the night. Our guide left yesterday for the Selkirk settlement to buy provisions for us and our beasts. We lay in camp on the 4th, slight rain in the morning, but pleasant afterward. Last night the musquitoes attacked our horses in de-tail and probably all over, making them break their lariats! The 5th was a regular musquito day. We had to build smudges around the picket line, to save our horses from being carried off, many of them being thin enough to be easily translated — a good team for Enoch's coach. The musquitoes were overwhelming. Thanks, Uncle, for those musquito bars! We had another "desperate musquitoey" day on the 6th.

We practiced some at target-shooting and struck our tents to let the sun dry the ground under them and then pitched them again. On the 7th, the musquitoes bit so that we had to hold our horses until we could raise a breeze, before picketing. Uncle's mountain howitzer was allowed to break silence here, with a few discharges of grape and shells. Mr. Bull, over the line, "never said nufin." On the 8th, we remained in camp, having hereafter one regular morning and evening gun fired. Pembina river has fallen 9 feet since we crossed it. The 9th was a rainy, dismal day. Fine again on the loth, the river still falling; plenty of fresh beef at $4,00 per hundred; plenty of wild ducks, pigeons, cat-fish and other quadrupeds. The 11t h raining and wet and a heavy rain in the night with a few touches of thunder. The morning of the 12th cloudy, the camp a perfect mud-hole, horses turned out to feed and caught up and tied at night to the picket line. The singing and the drum of the Indians, a band of Chippewas returning from a fight, with six Sioux scalps, assist the musqitoes in making night hideous. The 13th was a fine day. On the 14th we planted a post 1 1/2 miles from Pembina, to mark our boundary line with Great Britain, which bears date August 14, 1849. John, if you even dare! — but no matter — you know enough to keep your own side of the hedge; don't he. Uncle? On the 15th our guide returned from Selkirk with provisions, except flour, which was not to be had, there being no wind to turn their flour mills, which, like our 4th of July orators and Congress men, go by wind, it seems.

On the 16th, the weather being fine we sent down the river again to get flour, if to be had, any how. The 17th was a warm breezy day; but that night it rained and the thunder was No. 1; so we kept quiet on the i8th, experiencing the same showery kind of weather through the 19th, 20th, and 21st of August. On the 22d more half-breed Indians arrived from the buffalo plains with their winter's meat. The  23d was a fine day, on which the Chippewas at Pembina held an election for Chief, but adjourned to the 24th, when they chose a Chief and two sub-Chiefs. The Half-breeds held a council and were advised by Maj. Woods to organize and elect their rulers, before we left and not to interfere in any way with the Indians.7 Our teams were to-day all crossed over the Pembina river. On the 25th, we remained quiet in camp. On the 26th, Capt. Pope wishing to survey Red river with Lieut. Gardiner and the 1st Serg. of Dragoons, left Pembina in a canoe 31 feet long, manned by 15 half-breeds and made Fort Gaines, about 1200 miles by water, in 28 days. On
the 26th of August, we left Pembina on our way back again made 8 miles, of our course through mud. We found some buffalo in our way back; but nothing of particular interest occurred, until we reached Sauk Rapids and encamped on the bank of the Mississippi river, on the 14th day of September. Did we do that expedition up about right, Uncle?

1 - Samuel Woods, Report of Major Wood[s], Relative to His Expedition to Pembina Settlement, and the Condition of Affairs on the Northwestern Frontier of the Territory of Minnesota (31 Congress, 1 session, House Executive Documents, no. 51 — serial 577). Woods' report is in the form of a letter to the adjutant general of the army. General R. Jones, and is dated November 10, 1849.

2 - Dr. William W. Folwell in his History of Minnesota, 1: 129, states that Pope was the leader. No one reading Pope's lengthy report of the expedition would doubt that this officer was the chief of the party, although he does not specifically assert that such was the case. He apparently does not mention his commanding officer in a report of thirty-nine printed pages, and Major Woods reciprocates by not including Pope among the officers and men commended by name or in general for their services. Indeed in Major Woods' printed report a line of asterisks indicating an omission follows a paragraph devoted to complimenting officers, and it is probable that something derogatory about Pope was included at this point in the document as originally written. At Pembina the commander intervened in a correspondence between Captain Pope

3 - Dr. Warren Upham, in his Minnesota Geographic Names, 525 (
Minnesota Historical Collections, vol. 17), identifies this as Lake Henry in Stearns County.

4 - During 1848 and 1849 the matter of the British settlements on the Mosquito Coast in what is now Nicaragua was a subject of vigorous diplomatic discussion between the United States and England since control of possible isthmian canal routes was involved. The Clayton-Bulwer treaty of 1850 afforded a modus vivendi and passed the matter along to later generations. George P. Garrison, Westward Extension, 1841-1850, 285-293 (New York and London, 1906).

5 - Lieutenant Nelson was badly injured by this bolt of lightning. When 
he was restored to consciousness it was found that his right side was partially paralyzed, but he recovered after a few weeks. The expedition was held in camp five days because of this accident to the Quartermasterand the bad condition of the prairies. Woods, Pembina Settlement, 12.

6 - This Red River train was in charge of Norman W. Kittson, Pembina agent for Pierre Chouteau, Jr., and Company. See Woods, Pembina Settlement, 14. For a discussion of the fur trade in the Red River region 
see John P. Pritchett, "Some Red River Fur-trade Activities,'' ante, 5:401-423. A map showing the various routes followed by the Red River trains in their annual trips to the mouth of the Minnesota River and St. Paul is published ante, 6: 278, to accompany the article by Grace Lee Nute on "The Red River Trails."

7 - Major Woods devotes nearly four pages of his printed report to a discussion of the half-breeds at Pembina. He informed these people that as persons of Indian extraction they were regarded under American law as component parts of the Indian tribes. He advised them, therefore, to organize themselves as a separate band with chiefs or governing council which should have the necessary authority to represent them on all matters. The next day the half-breeds presented the names of nine men as council members for this governing body. Woods, Pembina Settlement, 26-30.

[First published by Minnesota Pioneer (St. Paul), March 6 & 13, 1850]