Prince Maximilian was born in Germany in 1782. His full title was Maximilian, Prince von Wied. He was born with a fortune as well as a noble title and might have wasted his life in idleness and luxury like many other princes. But Prince Maximilian from childhood loved study. More than anything else he loved the study of nature. The new world across the ocean, with its unexplored wilderness, drew him to its wilds. He spent two years in the forests of Brazil and wrote several volumes upon that then unknown region.
In 1833, Prince Maximilian made his famous journey up the Missouri River on the second voyage of the steamer Yellowstone. With him were skilled artists and scientists from Europe who gathered specimens and painted pictures of the country through which they traveled. The next year Prince Maximilian returned to Europe and four years later published at Coblentz, Germany, a story of his travels in North America in three volumes, one of which is an art portfolio filled with sketches and pictures of western life.
Nebraska owes a great deal to Prince Maximilian. He made our country and its people known in Europe. Of all the writers on early Nebraska he seems the most charming. He had the trained eye of the German scientist and the imagination of a poet. Reading his stories and looking at his pictures the Nebraska of 1833 rises before us. The steamer Yellowstone comes again from St. Louis, beating its way up the Missouri River against the swift yellow current in late April and early May. The leaf buds break, the birds salute the silences, the flowers bloom, all the way along the Nebraska coast. He names each of them in both the German and Latin tongues with loving attention and praise. He saw and felt the spirit of the West. The eagle's nest above the river, the ruined cabin in a dark valley, the angry wind storm, the moonlight on the Missouri, the faces and manners of the Indians and fur traders, the rich soil, the flowing streams, the forests where the steamer stopped to cut wood for its furnace, are all fresh and real in his stories and in his pictures. Some of the things which he saw in Nebraska are best given in his own words:
"In a dark valley of the forest we saw a long Indian cabin which reached nearly across the vale and must have been built for a large number of men. The location was wild and beautiful. The bald-headed eagles nest everywhere in the top of the high trees along the shore. One of them was shot with a rifle. In places smoke rose out of the depths of the forest, in others the wood and the ground were black from fires. Sometimes the Indians start these fires in order to destroy their trail when followed by enemies, at other times they arise from campfires of fur traders on the river banks.
We saw wild geese with their downy young goslings. The old birds would not desert their children even when our people shot among them.
In a beautiful wild region we reached the mouth of the great Nemaha River. The hunting huts of the Indians stood in the forest, but nowhere was man to be seen. One travels hundreds of miles on this river without seeing one human being.
In the evening the sun, as it sank below the treetops, gave the region a glow of parting light. We enjoyed a view of the violet, red and purple tinted hills while the wide mirror of the Missouri and surrounding forests glowed as though on fire. Quiet reigned in this remote scene of nature for the wind had lulled and only the puffing and rushing of the steamboat broke the sublime silence.
At night we lay by near Morgan 's Island. The whip-poor-wills, one of the birds we had not met before, here filled all the forests with their voices.
On the left bank where the wide prairie clasped a wood in its embrace the little Nemaha River broke through. At its mouth the Missouri is very shallow. A great wind blew our steamer upon the sand. One of our smoke stacks was blown down. Crows flew over us screaming and a sand-piper with dark red legs ran about on the sandbar near the ship. We saw the different kinds of grackle (blackbirds) flying together, the beautiful yellow-headed ones, the red-shouldered ones, and the bronze variety.
Toward night a great flight of more than 100 pelicans went over us in a northerly direction. Their formation was wedge shaped, at times a half circle. We could clearly see the black wing feathers, the pouch of the throat and the long slanting bills. Our hunters killed some wild turkeys in the twilight. A beautiful flower (phlox) colors great fields with blue and the blue-birds' quiet little song was heard.
Our hunters brought on board a raccoon, a rattlesnake and black snake, and found a wild goose nest with three eggs. Near by we saw trails of Indians, great wolf tracks in the sand, and on the trees the places where the stags had rubbed their growing antlers.
A hunter broke off a poison vine. His hands and face are badly swollen to-day.
We reached the mouth of Weeping Water creek. In the bushes above us the birds sang a little soft song or twittering. The fox-colored thrush (brown thrasher) trilled in the tops of the cottonwoods where he loves to sit. Here were many plants such as columbine, maiden-hair fern, red mulberry, blue-eyed grass, puccoon and purple vetch.
At two o'clock in the afternoon of May 3rd we reached Mr. Fontenelle's house at Bellevue. The land is here very fruitful and a poorly cultivated acre yields one hundred bushels of Indian corn. It would return much more if carefully worked. Cattle also succeed here splendidly, give much milk but require salt from time to time. Mr. Fontenelle thought he would have five thousand head of swine in a few years if the Indians did not steal too many from him.
We lay by for the night a few miles above Bellevue (probably near where Omaha now is). Ducks and shore birds covered the banks about us. Stillness reigned in the wide wilderness. Only the whip-poor-will's voice was heard while the moon mirrored itself in the river where some of our young people were bathing. In the morning our ship, like a smoke-vomiting monster, frightened all living creatures. Geese and ducks flew in all directions.
We landed at Mr. Cabanne's trading post (ten miles above Omaha) and to our joy we saw a crowd of Otoe and Omaha Indians. Many of them were marked with smallpox, some had only one eye or a film over the other eye. Their faces were striped with red. Their hair was hanging disorderly down to the neck. A small brook with steep banks flows down to the river from a pleasant little side valley in which are the corn plantations. Mr. Cabanne had planted here fifteen acres of maize which produces yearly two thousand bushels of this grain, for the yield is very great.
Missouri, Oto and Puncah Indians, 1833.
(From Thwaites's "Early Western Travels." Arthur H. Clark Co., Cleveland, Ohio.)
Sitting upon the balcony of Mr. Cabanne's house we enjoyed a wonderful evening. The proud Missouri glistened with splendor in the glory of the full moon. Quiet reigned about us, only the frogs croaked and the whip-poor-wills called continually in the forest nearby. Twenty Omahas appeared before us. The chief dancer, a large tall man, wore on his head a high feather helmet, made of the long tail and wing feathers of owls and eagles. In his hand he carried a bow and arrows. The upper half of his body was naked except for a white skin which hung over his right shoulder and was decorated with tufts of feathers. He was painted with white spots and stripes and looked wild and warlike. Another younger man with him bore in his hand a war club with white stripes and a skunk skin at the handle. They formed a line while in front of them a drum was beaten with rapid stroke. Several men beat time with war clubs and all of them sang "Hei, hei, hei," or else "Heh, heh, heh," between times shouting loud yells. The dance was like this: springing with both feet, a short leap into the air, with the body bent forward while the drum was struck a sharp blow and their weapons were lifted and shaken. In this manner they jumped about with great force for over an hour, the sweat flowing from their bodies. A clear moonlight lit up the wide still wilderness; the savage tumult of the Indian bands and the call of the night birds made this a scene to be long remembered."
Prince Maximilian died at New Wied, Germany, February 3,1867, less than a month before this part of the wilderness he so well described became a state. He left a great museum to his home city. To the world he left the record of a busy life well spent and to Nebraska the best stories and the best pictures of her early days. His name deserves to be better known in our state where now live nearly one hundred thousand Germans, rejoicing in the speech and traditions of their fatherland and rejoicing no less in their homes and freedom found in the West whose great fortune Prince Maximilian foretold.