They Saw the Elephant 33
sand-hills bordered the valley of the Platte as you moved toward Fort
Childs. The valley itself was level as a floor and through it flowed
the mile-wide, muddy river with Grand Island threading down its middle.
Moving westward along the river, or encamped in the bottoms, were the
gold-seekers, united at last in one striving multitude. When Alonzo
Delano, nineteen days out from the Missouri, first saw the long line of
trains in motion he noted: "We could scarcely realize that we were in
an Indian country from the scene of civilized life before us; and this
was all caused by the magic talisman of gold! What will be the end? Who
can foresee our future destiny?" And he went on, with less of oratory,
"We felt a great change in the atmosphere. From being warm it became
so cold that overcoats were necessary for comfort."
the Fort itself, there was only a cluster of one-story, adobe barracks,
surrounded by a wall still in process of construction. Small comfort
there! Wood was scarce for fires. Small willow branches and buffalo
chips were the best you could do. And winds and torrential rainstorms
began to beat down on the emigrants as the trail moved on from the Fort
toward the Forks, where the river divided into the North and South
Platte. Water drove in through tent flaps and wagon-covers; by day the
skies were overcast "with the gloom and air of November rather than the
genial warmth of spring." The cattle would not drink the river water;
under the pelting rain they broke from the corral or from their tethers
and wandered away.
great adventure had ceased to be fun. All along the way, you began to
notice the bits of plank that stood up from cleared spots beside the
road—headstones of a sort over new-made graves.
At the crossing of the South Platte (below), the bottom was treacherous and the current brisk. Teams were doubled and no time was lost in fording the river.