This remarkable book, which we have reissued in its 1863 British edition, annotated by Sir Richard Burton the famous/notorious British explorer, was first published in 1859, having been commissioned by the War Department of the United States government. Its subtitle, A Hand-Book for Overland Expeditions, with Illustrations, and Itineraries of the Principal Routes between the Mississippi and the Pacific, and a Map, is its mission statement.
Its author, Randolph B. Marcy (1812–77) was a career soldier (he graduated from West Point in 1832) at a time when the career would be likely to involve exploration. In the 1840s, part of his role was the escorting of emigrant wagon trains through Oklahoma and Texas, and mapping their routes. In 1857, he was involved in the expedition against the Mormons in Utah, leading his men in a forced march through the Rocky Mountains in winter. In 1852, he was commander of an expedition to find the headwaters of the Red River (we have also reissued the account of a similar Canadian expedition).
All this experience meant that he was the ideal author for a book on how to survive in the wilderness. As he says in his preface: ‘A quarter of a century’s experience in frontier life, a great portion of which has been occupied in exploring the interior of our continent, and in long marches where I have been thrown exclusively upon my own resources, far beyond the bounds of the populated districts, and where the traveler must vary his expedients to surmount the numerous obstacles which the nature of the country continually reproduces, has shown me under what great disadvantages the voyageur labors for want of a timely initiation into those minor details of prairie-craft, which, however apparently unimportant in the abstract, are sure, upon the plains, to turn the balance of success for or against an enterprise.’
The abstracts for each chapter reveal the nature of the content: here is Chapter III: ‘Repairing broken Wagons – Fording Rivers – Quicksand – Wagon Boats – Bull Boats – Crossing Packs – Swimming Animals – Marching with loose Horses – Herding Mules – Best Methods of Marching – Herding and guarding Animals – Descending Mountains – Storms – Northers.
Among recommended supplies (in Chapter I) is clarified butter in soldered tins (which, as Burton points out in a footnote, ‘is the Ghi of India, the Raughan of Persia, the Samm of Arabia, and the “one sauce” of the East. It is preserved for any [!!] length of time in leather bottles; and habit soon makes it as palatable as butter’. Compressed dried vegetables are almost equal to fresh, and take up less space than tinned: ‘The desiccated vegetables used in our army have been prepared by Chollet and Co., 46 Rue Richer, Paris. There is an agency for them in New York. I regard these compressed vegetables as the best preparation for prairie traveling that has yet been discovered. A single ration weighs, before being boiled, only an ounce, and a cubic yard contains 16,000 rations.’
Marcy provides a recipe for pemmican made from buffalo meat, ‘which constitutes almost the entire diet of the Fur Company’s men in the Northwest’. He also describes ‘cold flour’, ‘made by parching corn, and pounding it in a mortar to the consistency of coarse meal; a little sugar and cinnamon added makes it quite palatable. When the traveler becomes hungry or thirsty, a little of the flour is mixed with water and drunk. It is an excellent article for a traveler who desires to go the greatest length of time upon the smallest amount of transportation. It is said that half a bushel is sufficient to subsist a man thirty days’.
He is aware of the danger of scurvy: ‘I would advise all persons who travel for any considerable time through a country where they can procure no vegetables to carry with them some antiscorbutics, and if they cannot transport desiccated or canned vegetables, citric acid answers a good purpose, and is very portable. When mixed with sugar and water, with a few drops of the essence of lemon, it is difficult to distinguish it from lemonade. Wild onions are excellent as antiscorbutics; also wild grapes and greens. An infusion of hemlock leaves is also said to be an antidote to scurvy.’ (Socrates would recommend that you don’t overdo it.)
But he also has advice on living off the land: in the Rocky Mountains, 18 days from safety with no supplies left, he and his men substituted red willow bark for tobacco (a major need), and a decoction of horse mint for coffee, and ate their pack-mules. ‘We suffered greatly for the want of salt; but, by burning the outside of our mule steaks, and sprinkling a little gunpowder upon them, it did not require a very extensive stretch of the imagination to fancy the presence of both salt and pepper.’
And so on, and so continually fascinating, through water supplies, marching, camping, hunting game, and ‘Tracking and pursuing Indians – Method of attacking them’. Perhaps inevitably for a man of his time, Marcy is somewhat racist in his attitude to the Native Americans, while Burton, of course, is more than somewhat racist in his attitude to anyone non-British.
But both, equally of course, make exceptions for individuals they have encountered personally. Marcy recommends as a guides ‘the Delawares and Shawnee Indians … I have invariably found them intelligent, brave, reliable, and in every respect well qualified to fill their positions’. He also provides a useful chart of sign language for communication, including the signs for the different tribes:
‘The Comanche is represented by making with the hand a waving motion in imitation of the crawling of a snake.
The Cheyenne, or “Cut-arm,” by drawing the hand across the arm, to imitate cutting it with a knife.
The Arapahoes, or “Smellers,” by seizing the nose with the thumb and fore-finger.
The Sioux, or “Cut-throats,” by drawing the hand across the throat …’
The Prairie Traveler remained a best-selling book throughout the century, and must have saved hundreds of lives. It has been described as ‘perhaps the single most important work on the conduct of frontier expeditions published under the aegis of the War Department’, though this does make you wonder how many others there were. But if you need to know how to cure rattlesnake bites, make a lariat, or ‘telegraph by smokes’, you can find out how to do it here.