Posts Tagged ‘Cougar kills wolf and dog’

Thomas Nuttall’s Journey through Arkansas during 1819

July 9, 2017

What did landscapes in southeastern North America look like before man modified them?  This question has long fascinated me, and it is the primary focus of my blog.  The Paleo-Indians who first invaded this region about 14,000 years ago left no written records, so the best available source of information are the journals written by early European naturalists including John Lawson and William Bartram.  Though Indians had already impacted the landscape for millennia, southeastern landscapes were  still much closer to the natural state when they saw them than they are today.  Lawson’s New Voyage to the Carolinas and Bartram’s Travels are well known works that I have read so often I’ve almost memorized every passage.  But I just recently discovered a lesser known journal of comparable value–Thomas Nuttall’s Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the Year 1819.  I don’t understand why this journal isn’t as famous as the other 2.  I couldn’t even find a map of his route when I searched google.  I don’t know of any professor who has undertaken an exhaustive study of his journal.  It deserves more attention from academia.

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Portrait of Thomas Nuttall, a 19th century naturalist.

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Early map of Arkansas.  Thomas Nuttall mostly traveled by river boats because there were few roads.

Thomas Nuttall was an English citizen and naturalist who lived in the U.S. from 1808-1841.  He went on many plant collecting expeditions including his trip through Arkansas when the region was still mostly wilderness.  Incidentally, at the time of the expedition he lived in Philadelphia and was friends with William Bartram.  He began his journey by traveling on a stage coach for 63 miles before setting out on foot toward Pittsburgh, a town already so polluted  he described it as “filthy” and “smoky.”  He proceeded down the Ohio River on a skiff all the way to the Mississippi River.  The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 made passage down the Mississippi dangerous because of all the floating logs and snags uprooted by the moving earth.  Nuttall hired river boat guides but they weren’t always reliable.  On 1 occasion his boat was stuck against the current in a bad situation and some passing river pilots offered to help, if he paid them.  They took his money and left without helping.  Eventually, he made it to the Arkansas River and travelled to the interior of the territory through this route, exploring many of the tributaries of the river as well.

Fort Smith, Arkansas is a good-sized town today but was a small military garrison when Thomas Nuttall stayed there.  From here, he joined overland expeditions.  While wandering around looking for novel plant species, he got separated from his expedition and was forced to live with a pioneer family until he arranged to travel with someone familiar with the country.  He joined another overland expedition and explored eastern Oklahoma–Indian territory then.  By the end of his journey he was so stricken with malaria he could barely ride his horse through the untracked wilderness.  Nevertheless, he traveled for over 100 miles while suffering from malaria.  He ended his journey floating down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

The people Nuttall encountered resembled the rough stereotypical characters from an old western movie.  He met thieving Indians who always wanted to steal his horse.  (The Cherokee and Osage Indians were at war with each other.)  He later learned that 1 of his guides murdered a man and stole the deed to his land.  He was stuck for weeks in a poorly constructed tavern where men gambled and drank whiskey day and night while the cold January winds blew through the huge cracks between the logs of the walls.

Nuttall doesn’t mention food much in his journal, perhaps because it was bad.  The people who lived along the Ohio and Mississippi River subsisted on corn meal mush and milk.  Indians ate lotus seeds, and meat stews made from dried green corn and whatever animals they could catch and throw in the pot.  They also ate boiled corn and pumpkin.  In the woods he lived on poorly made jerky that rotted quickly.

I searched google images in vain to find the kinds of landscapes Nuttall described in his journal.  Probably, the scenes he saw no longer exist or are very rare today.  He saw virgin river bottomland forests consisting of pecan, hackberry, black walnut, ash, sweetgum, swamp chestnut oak, scarlet oak, red oak, honey locust, mimosa, sycamore, and cottonwood with an undergrowth of Texas frogfruit, false daisy, Virginia buttonwood, and grass.  Cottonwoods were the largest trees.  Canebrakes extended for miles on some sides of the rivers, while other sides had sandy bare beaches where members of his party often searched for turtle eggs.  Hackberry and Foresteria shrubs stood as isolated trees in cane brakes.  Acres of nettles grew in 1 bottomland forest along the Verdigris River.   Nuttall found stands of Osage orange trees with trunks 12 inches in diameter growing in grasslands.

Cypress/tupelo swamps existed adjacent to extensive prairies where the grass grew taller than Nuttall’s head.  The prairies were beautiful interspersed with thin fingers of forest alongside streams and covered with wildflowers of many different colors–Indian pinks, azure larkspur, yellow tickseed and Rudbeckia, phlox, false indigo, and blue-eyed grass.

Another interesting natural environment Nuttall often traversed were cedar glades (or cedar prairies as Nuttall referred to them). Cedar glades grow on thin soils and have exposed bedrock.  They are open communities where grass and flowers grow between widely spaced cedar, winged elm, and post oak trees.  Cedar glades alternated with the pine/oak woodland that covered hills.  Shortleaf pine and post oak dominated these ridges.  Indians frequently set fire to these environments.  On 1 day Nuttall couldn’t collect any plant specimens because the land all around him had been burnt over.  Canebrakes, prairies, cedar glades, and oak/pine woodland are all communities dependent upon fire.  Abandoned Indian villages were surrounded by fields of Chickasaw plums and peaches, but a late frost had wiped out most of the fruit the year of Nuttall’s expedition.

Nuttall explored several salt springs.  Some salt springs supported colonies of glasswort (Salicornia sp.), a salt-tolerant species (halophyte) commonly found growing in coastal salt marshes.  Other salt springs were devoid of saltwort.  I wonder how this species colonized inland sites.

Nuttall didn’t see much wildlife until he reached the Mississippi River because hunters had long before decimated game in Pennsylvania and Ohio.  But after he reached the Mississippi River and entered Arkansas, he began to see deer, bear, turkey, geese, ducks, swans, Carolina parakeets, and white pelicans.  Bald eagles nested on the Mississippi River.  On the prairies he saw bison and elk and large herds of feral cattle.  Wild horses were so abundant on 1 prairie it was named “horse prairie.”  Nuttall never saw a collared peccary, but 1 of his guides said they lived nearby.  Nuttall was aware of fossil peccary skulls collected from the Big Bone Fossil Site in Kentucky.  During 1 night Nuttall heard wolves howling, bullfrogs croaking, and whip-poor-wills serenading his campsite.

Nuttall never saw a cougar but a member of 1 of his expeditions recounted an interesting incident.  A cougar killed a deer and rested in a nearby tree.  It killed a wolf that came to scavenge the deer.  Then, it killed a dog that also came to the carcass.  The dog’s owner went looking for his dog and found it alongside the wolf and deer surrounded by cougar paw prints.  That forlorn scene of nature can be found in old journals like this, but not in present day Arkansas.

Reference:

Nuttall, Thomas

Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the year 1819

Thomas Palmer 1821