An Assessment of the Llano Estacado, and a Little About the Dangers of Prairie Travel

A hilly portion of the northern Llano Estacado.  37,500 square miles (97,000 km2) of short grass cold, semi-arid prairie scrub.

In his report to the Secretary of War, after making a survey of the Southern Plains in 1849, Captain Randolph B. Marcy described the lands of the Llano Estacado in less than enthusiastic light.  “Not a tree, shrub, or any other object, either animate or inanimate, relieved the monotony…” It is “the great Zahara (sic) of North America.”  Furthermore, it is “a land where no man, either savage or civilized, permanently abides,” and it “always has been, and must continue, uninhabited forever.”


It’s a tough ride from Fort Smith to Santa Fe on the southern route.

Marcy was no greenhorn or soft skinned parade soldier.  In his 49 year career, he did much to aide American settlers heading west through his immensely popular book: The Prairie Traveler. A Hand-Book For Overland Expeditions, available online HERE.  It reminds us that most people heading west were blundering well outside their element and skillsets, and were likely to suffer and die by running off half-cocked across 3,000 miles of wilderness.  This book is a must-read for any scholar of the historic west. PTMarcy’s Prairie Traveler quickly became an indispensable guide to thousands of American overlanders in their arduous treks to California, Oregon, Utah, and other western destinations. It was a best-selling book for the remainder of the century. Andrew J. Birtle, author of U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, has described The Prairie Traveler as “perhaps the single most important work on the conduct of frontier expeditions published under the aegis of the War Department.”

Marcy provided the overland pioneer with advice on packing, choosing the best routes to California, wagon maintenance, and the selection and care of horses, which had life-or-death consequences. His advice covered food supplies, packing, and traveling: including the fording of rivers, tracking, and bivouacking on the Great Plains, finding and treating water, building a fire, and avoiding quicksand. His first-aid procedures included treating snakebites, and common injuries and risks to travelers. He also provided material “concerning the habits of Indians,” including Native American tracking and hunting techniques, smoke signals and sign language, and battle tactics.

This book was a best seller for half a century for seekers heading west on the Oregon trail, to the California gold mines, or following Brigham Young to the Great Salt Lake.  More to come on this fascinating place.

American circa 1875

American cavalry soldier ca. 1875.


About George Crawford

archaeologist, archer, primitive technologist, and wannabee musician ... mostly
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