In 1819, the United States government sent an expedition under Major Stephen H. Long to explore the Platte River and the mountain region beyond. This expedition is famous because it brought the first steamboat to the Nebraska shores and placed the great American Desert on the map. The steamboat was named the Western Engineer, and left Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 5,1819, for the long journey down the Ohio, then up the Mississippi to St. Louis, and thence up the Missouri River to the old Council Bluff of Lewis and Clark. The Western Engineer was well calculated to strike terror into the hearts of the western Indians who had never seen a steamboat. The bow of the boat rose in the form of a huge, black, scaly serpent with open mouth, from which poured smoke and steam when the boat was under way. The Indians who saw this boat said, "White man, bad man, keep Great Spirit chained, build fire under him to make him paddle the boat."
This serpent steamboat arrived at Fort Lisa, ten miles above the present site of Omaha, on September 17th. The party under Major Long at once began to prepare cabins for winter quarters. The spot they chose, with plenty of wood and stone near at hand for building and for fuel, may still be found between the high bluff and the Missouri River.
There were twenty people in Major Long's party, some of them engineers, some scientists in botany, geology and zoölogy, and one artist. The fall and winter were spent in study of the animals, plants and rocks, in holding councils with the Indians, learning their language and customs, and in keeping record of the weather.
There were many meetings with the Indians, and many very interesting speeches made. On October 4th one hundred Otoes, seventy Missourias and sixty Ioways gave a dance. On October 9th seventy Pawnees did the same. On October 14th four hundred Omahas assembled and a great speech was made by their chief, Big Elk, who said, among other things:
Council with Otoes by Major Long's Expedition..
(From Thwaites's "Early Western Travels." Arthur H. Clark Co., Cleveland, Ohio.)
"Here I am, my Father; all these young people you see around here are yours; although they are poor and little, yet they are your children. All my nation loves the whites and always have loved them. Some think, my Father, that you have brought all these soldiers here to take our land from us but I do not believe it. For although I am a poor simple Indian, I know that this land will not suit your farmers. If I even thought your hearts bad enough to take this land, I would not fear it, as I know there is not wood enough on it for the use of the whites."
White Cow, another Omaha chief, said: "Look at me, my Father, look at my hands. I am a wild man born on the prairie. Look at me and see if there is any blood of your people upon me. Some whose hands are red with blood, try to wash it off, but it still remains.
In the council with the Pawnees, speeches were made by Long Hair, Knife Chief, Fool-Robes-Son, Petalesharu. This last one was father of the famous chief of the same name. He spoke thus: "Father, I am not afraid of these people, these Pawnees you see here. I have seen people travel in blood, I have traveled in blood myself, but it was the blood of redskins, no others. Father I have no longer a desire for war, I desire to eat in peace. I am glad to see you write down all that has been said. When a man dies his actions are forgotten; but when they are written down it is not so. When I have seen a person poor and I had a horse to spare, or a blanket, I have given it to them. From this time I undergo a change. I am now an American and you shall hear that this is true."
On June 6, 1820, Major Long with twenty-one men mounted on horses left the winter quarters on the banks of the Missouri for the head of the Platte River. They followed the Indian trail across the prairie to Papillion Creek, where they made their first camp. Keeping on the north side of the Platte, the party crossed the Elkhorn River, Shell Creek, and Beaver Creek, arriving on June 11th at the Pawnee villages on the Loup.
The villages stretched along the Loup for a distance of ten miles and held about six thousand Pawnees. Eight thousand Indian ponies fed on the grass of the Loup valley about the villages. The Pawnees tried to persuade Major Long to go no farther, telling him that the fierce tribes of the upper Platte would eat up his little band. Major Long secured as guides two French trappers who were living with the Pawnees, and pushed on.
June 21st the Long expedition arrived at the junction of the North Platte and South Platte. Crossing both streams the party continued for several days up the south bank of the South Platte, making its last stop in what is now Nebraska on the 26th of June near the corner of Deuel and Keith counties. The expedition marched to where the South Platte issues from its canyon in the Rocky Mountains, then turned south and returned to the Mississippi River by way of the Arkansas.
Map of the Great American Desert as made by Major Long, 1820.
(Drawing by Miss Martha Turner.)
There were two principal results from Major Long's expedition. The first was a very accurate description of Indian customs and Indian life as they existed among the Omahas, Otoes, and Pawnees a hundred years ago. This series of stories of Indian life covers several hundred pages of his report. They were obtained through Indian traders and interpreters who had spent their lives with these tribes, and are to-day one of the best sources of information upon them.
The other result of Major Long's expedition was that all the country west of the Missouri River got a bad name, which stuck to it for fifty years. Upon the map prepared for Major Long appears the words "Great Desert" stretching from the Platte valley to the Red River in Texas. In his report upon the country, Major Long said: "It is almost wholly unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable for people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.''