Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier

Robert Ranstadler - September 3, 2017

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
The Staked Plains. Pinterest

The Staked Plains Horror

Around the time Buffalo Bill took his “first scalp for Custer,” another great drama unfolded near the Texas Panhandle. Indian raiders stormed across the Great Plains, emboldened by stunning Sioux and Cheyenne victories at Rosebud Creek and Little Big Horn. In northwest Texas, a large group of Comanches followed suit by going off the reservation in December 1876. These raiders clashed with a party of encroaching buffalo hunters during the winter of 1877, igniting a protracted and bloody conflict. The army sent Captain Nicolas Merritt Nolan and the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th U.S. Cavalry in pursuit of these renegades.

Nolan and about 60 men departed Fort Concho on July 10, 1877 for the Llano Estacado region of the Staked Plains. At 30,000-square miles, the mesa is brutal and unforgiving. Although home to over one million people today, the “Great American Desert” was a literal no man’s land during the late nineteenth century. Nolan encountered a group of vengeful bison hunters on the way to the plateau, who ambivalently agreed to join his column. The next two weeks were a disaster. Alcohol, poor planning, and supply shortages—along with a mutual mistrust between the two groups—proved their ultimate undoing.

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
Buffalo Soldier Tragedy Memorial, Morton, Texas.

After a night of hard drinking, the men departed from camp on July 19, 1877. Most of the wool-clad Buffalo Soldiers suffered under the relentless Texas sun, while the seasoned hunters and civilian scouts derided the green troopers for not rationing their water in the triple-digit heat. Members of the latter group grew restless and abandoned the column after several days of futile scouting. Nolan, wanting to prove himself a capable frontier commander, recklessly pushed forward. The company eventually started to run low on water, foreshadowing what would be recounted as the “Thirsting Time,” a five-day struggle for life and death on the Staked Plains.

On July 26, the soldiers and hunters marched seventeen miles in pursuit of the Comanches. They searched for water, only to find one dry lakebed after another. Desperate, the column stopped to suck the dew from small plants or fruitlessly dig shallow wells along the way. Over the next three days, distressed men drank their own urine or the blood of fallen horses. Some thirst-crazed soldiers even slashed open their own wrists to obtain refreshment. Amazingly, search parties located and the column a few days later. Newspapers later dubbed the ordeal, which claimed the lives and minds of several men, as “The Staked Plains Horror of 1877.”

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
Sketch of the Great Flood of 1862. View of the corner of L and Fourth Streets, Sacramento.

The Great Flood of 1862

The final entry to make our list of harrowing tales is another horrific act of nature. Still considered one of the greatest natural disasters in the history of the American West, the Great Flood of 1862 remains the largest flood on record for the states of California, Oregon, and Nevada to this day. Precipitated by unprecedented amounts of rain, snow, and a freakishly warm storm during the winter months of 1861/1862, the flood washed away dozens of towns along the swelling Columbia River. From as far north as Oregon, all the way southern reaches of New Mexico, rushing waters devastated anyone or anything that stood in their path.

Recent studies reveal that a powerful weather pattern, like an El Niño type of jet stream, propelled a mile-high ribbon of heavy water vapor down through California from regions further north, such as modern-day Washington and parts of British Columbia. This 250-300 mile-wide “atmospheric river” played havoc with conventional weather patterns in the region, causing major precipitation across the Pacific Northwest and parts of northern California.

The unusual and unpredictable nature of the event, coupled with a lack of modern weather advisories and disaster relief agencies, complicated the catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of Americans endured over forty days of heavy rainfall and ceaseless floodwaters while fighting for their very survival.

Overall effects of the flooding varied by region but few were left unscathed. Steamboats in Oregon could run Willamette Falls, which normally stood over forty feet high. Linn City, Champoeg, and Orleans were completely wiped off the map and never rebuilt. Trapped miners faced starvation in parts of Idaho. California’s Central Valley was completely submerged under raging waters that swallowed entire towns. Although total deaths only numbered in the double digits, local infrastructure, livestock, and economies were completely rocked by the event. Recovering from the disaster took well over a decade and left thousands impoverished or desolate for generations after the flood.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Net – Hugh Glass: The Truth Behind the Revenant Legend

Telegraph – The Revenant: What Was Real and What Was Fake?

The Hollywood Reporter – The Real Story of ‘The Revenant’ Is Far Weirder (and Bloodier) Than the Movie

Natchez MS – The Great Natchez Tornado of 1840

American Heritage – Who Invented Scalping?

History Net – In 1876 George Custer Was Not Scalped, But Yellow Hair Was the ‘First Scalp for Custer’

JSTOR – The Truth Behind Buffalo Bill’s Scalping Act

Wikipedia – Buffalo Soldier Tragedy Of 1877

History Collection – The Notorious Men of the Wild West

History Collection – 12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws