Print
Category: The Ranche On The Oxhide
Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 

In 1865-66, immigrants began to rush into the new state of Kansas which had just been admitted into the Union. A large majority of the early settlers were old soldiers who had served faithfully during the war for the preservation of their country.

To these veterans the Government, by Act of Congress, made certain concessions, whereby they could take up "claims" of a hundred and sixty acres of the public land under easier regulations than other citizens who had not helped their country in the hour of her extreme danger.

Many of them, however, were forced to go out on the extreme frontier, as the eastern portion of the state was already well settled. On the remote border several tribes of Indians, notably the Cheyennes, Kiowas, Comanches, and Arapahoes, still held almost undisputed possession, and they were violently opposed to the white man's encroachment upon their ancestral hunting grounds, from which he drove away the big game upon which they depended for the subsistence of themselves and their families. Consequently, these savages became very hostile as they witnessed, day after day, the arrival of hundreds of white settlers who squatted on the best land, felled the trees on the margin of the streams to build their log cabins, and ploughed up the ground to plant crops.

Late in the fall of 1866, Robert Thompson, a veteran of one of the Vermont regiments, having read in his village newspaper such glowing accounts of the advantages offered by Kansas to the immigrant, decided to leave his ancestral homestead among the barren hills of the Green Mountain State, and take up a claim in the far West. The family, consisting of father, mother, Joseph, Robert, Gertrude, and Kate, after a journey by railroad and steamboat without incident worth recording, arrived at Leavenworth on the Missouri River, the general rendezvous in those early days for all who intended to cross the great plains, through which a railroad was then an idle dream. In that rough, but busy town, Mr. Thompson purchased two six-mule teams, two white-covered wagons called "prairie schooners," together with sufficient provisions to last a month, by which time he thought he should find a suitable location on the vast plains whither he was going.

A few cooking-utensils of the simplest character, together with a double-barrelled shot-gun and a Spencer rifle, constituted the entire outfit necessary for their lonely trip of perhaps three hundred miles, before they could hope to find unoccupied land on which to settle.

One Monday morning, bright and early, the teams pulled out of the town, Mr. Thompson driving in the lead, and Joe, who was the elder of the boys, in the other. Gertrude rode with her father and mother, and Kate and Rob with their brother Joe. Their course ran over the broad trail to the Rocky Mountains, on which were then hauled by government caravans, all the supplies for the military posts in the Indian country.

Their route for the first two weeks passed through deep forests extending for a long distance from the bank of the great river. The whole family were charmed with the new and strange scenes they passed as they rode slowly on day after day, scenes so different in their details from those to which they had been used in the staid old region they had left so far behind them. The boys and girls, particularly, were in a constant state of excitement. They marveled at the immense trees as they passed through groups of great elms and giant cottonwoods. The gnarled trunks were vine-covered clear to their topmost branches by the magnificent Virginia creeper, or woodbine, as it is called, the most beautiful of the American ivies, and which grows in its greatest luxuriance west of the Missouri River. On the ends of the huge limbs of the lofty trees as they branched over the trail, the red squirrels sat, peeping saucily at the travelers as they drove under them, and the blue jay, the noisiest of birds, screeched as he darted like lightning through the dark foliage. The blue jay is the shark of the air; he kills, without any discrimination, all the young fledglings he can find in their nests while their parents are absent. Although his plumage is magnificent in its cerulean hue as the sun glints upon it, and he has a very sweet note when sitting quietly on the limbs of the oak, which he loves, yet his awful screaming as he flies--and he is ever on the wing--is far from pleasant to ears not trained to listen to his harsh voice.

Occasionally a gaunt, hungry wolf--they are always hungry--would skulk out of the timber and then run across the trail, with his tail wrapped closely between his legs. He would just show a mouth full of great white teeth for a moment, as he sneaked cowardly off, the rattle of the wagons having, perhaps, disturbed his slumbers on some ledge of rock near the road.

Prairie chickens, or pinnated grouse, were seen in large flocks as soon as the open country was reached. They were far from wild in those days; you could approach near enough always to get a good shot at them, for civilization was to them almost as strange an experience as it was to those beasts and birds on Robinson Crusoe's island. Joe was already quite proficient with the shotgun, and he often handed the lines to Rob, and stopping the team, got out and walked ahead of the wagons to stalk a flock of the beautiful game, which had been frightened away from their feeding-ground by the rattle of the teams. For a long time grouse was a part of every meal until the party became really tired of them. Mrs. Thompson was a famous cook, and they were served up in a variety of ways, but the favorite style of all the family was to have them broiled before the camp-fire on peeled willow twigs. Rob always regarded it as part of his duty to procure these twigs, as he was the handiest with a jack-knife or hatchet.

The weeks passed pleasantly for the children, but the old folks were becoming very anxious to settle somewhere, for the winter, as they thought, would soon be coming on. They did not know then that that season in Kansas is usually short, and that the three or four months preceding it is the most delightful time of the whole year. So after travelling nearly two months on the broad trail to the mountains, examining a piece of land here and another there, they camped early one afternoon on the bank of Oxhide Creek, in what is now Ellsworth County, and so delighted were they all with the charming spot, that they made up their minds to seek no further.

Their "claim," as the possession of the public land is called, included a beautiful bend of the little stream which flowed through the one hundred and sixty acres to which they were entitled by being the first to settle on it. They discovered in the very center of a group of elms and cottonwoods a large spring of deliciously cool water, and the trees which hid it from view were more than a century old. The magnificent pool for untold ages had evidently been a favorite resort of the antelope and buffalo, if one could so judge from the quantity of the bones of those animals that were constantly plowed up near by when the ground was cultivated. No doubt that the big prairie wolf and the cowardly little coyote hidden in the long grass and underbrush surrounding the spring got many a kid and calf whose incautious mothers had strayed from the protection of the herd to quench their thirst.

The beautiful creek flowed at the base of a range of low, rocky hills, while two miles northward ran a magnificent stretch of level prairie, beyond which ran the Smoky Hill River.

To their ranche, as all homes in the far West are called, the Thompsons gave the name of Errolstrath. It had no special significance; it was so called merely because "Strath" in Scotch means a valley through which a stream meanders. It comported perfectly with the situation of the place, and "Errol" was added as a prefix for euphony's sake. In this picturesque little valley Mr. Thompson, with the assistance of his boys, began at once the construction of a rude but comfortable cabin, fashioned partly out of logs and partly of stone. The house outside gave no hint of the excellence of its interior, or the cosy rooms which a refined taste and culture had felt to be as necessary on the remote frontier as in the thickly settled East. The largest division of the house was an apartment which served as the family sitting-room. In one corner of this, they built diagonally across it, after the Mexican style, an old-fashioned fireplace, patterned like one in the ancestral homestead in Vermont. Up its cavernous throat you could see the sky, and in the summer, when the full moon was at the zenith, a flood of bright light would pour down on the broad hearth. In the winter evenings the family gathered around the great blazing logs, whose yellow flames roared like a tornado as they shot up the chimney. The mother sewed, the girls were engaged with their studies, and the boys either listened to their father as he told of some experience in his own youthful days, played chess, or were busied with some other intellectual amusement.

This large room was also furnished with a small but well-selected library. It was a source of much pleasure to the family, as the country was not settled up very rapidly, and the members were thrown entirely upon their own resources for amusements. The following spring and summer many newcomers arrived and took up the choicest lands in the vicinity, until there were several families within varying distances of Errolstrath. Some were only three miles away, others twelve, but in that region then, all were considered neighbors, no matter how far away.

The children had lots of fun, for the rare sport differed entirely from that which their former home in the old East had furnished. The dense timber which grew by the water of the Oxhide like a fringe, was the home of the lynx, erroneously called the wild cat, squirrels, badgers, and coons. The wolf and the little coyote had their dens in the great ledges of rock that were piled up on the hilly sides of the valley. The great prairie was often black with vast herds of buffalo, or bison, which roamed over its velvety area at certain seasons. The timid antelope, too, graceful as a flower, and gifted with a wonderful curiosity, could be seen for many years after the Thompsons had settled on the creek. They moved in great flocks, frequently numbering a thousand or more, but now, like their immense shaggy congener, the buffalo, through the wantonness of man, they have been almost annihilated.

Joe Thompson, the eldest child, about fourteen, was a rare boy, strongly built, and possessed of a mind that was equal to his well-developed body. He was a born leader, and became one of the most prominent men on the frontier when the troublous times came with the savages, some years after the family had settled on Oxhide Creek. Robert, the second son, was a bright, active, muscular fellow, two years younger than Joe, but he lacked that self-reliance, energy, and coolness in the presence of danger which so strikingly characterized Joe. Gertrude and Kate were respectively ten and seven years old, and were carefully instructed by their estimable mother in all that should be known by a woman whose life was destined, perhaps, to the isolation and hardships of the frontier. They were both taught to cook a dinner, ride horseback, handle a pistol if necessary, or entertain gracefully in the parlor. To employ a metaphor, theirs was a versatility which "could pick up a needle or rive an oak!" In some of her characteristics Gertrude resembled her brother Joe; she was braver and cooler under trying circumstances than Kate, who was more like Rob. Both were rare specimens of noble girlhood, and their life on the ranche, as will be seen, was full of adventure and thrilling experiences.

It may seem strange that a stream should be called Oxhide, but, like the nomenclature of the Indians, the name of every locality out on the great plains is based upon some incident connected with the scene or the individual. As this is a true story, it will not be amiss to tell here why the odd-sounding name was given to the creek on which the Thompsons had settled. Some years before the country was sought after by emigrants, the only travelers through it were the old-time trappers, who caught the various fur-bearing animals on the margins of its waters, and the miner destined for far-off Pike's Peak or California. A party camping there one day, on their way to the Pacific coast, discovered a yoke of oxen, or rather their desiccated hides and skeletons, fastened by their chains to a tree, where they had literally starved to death. It was supposed that they had belonged to some travelers like themselves, on their way to the mines, who had been surprised and murdered by the Indians. The savages must have run off the moment they had finished their bloody work, without ever looking for or finding the poor animals. Thus it was that the stream was given the name of Oxhide, which it bears to this day.

powered by social2s