According to Rufus Sage, Scottsbluff, Nebraska was heaven on earth in 1841.
Do you ever find yourself gazing at our Nebraska prairies, dreaming of what they looked like in the days of old? Before civilization, before telephone poles, and before fences, what was it all like? For some of us, that dreaming is near constant. These days, the search for unadulterated landscapes can seem a bit like catching the wind with a net, hopeless. Although the land has changed, it still lies beneath our feet and retains the bulk of its original features. We can better see through the shroud of modernity if we understand what it looked like in the past. One man who gave a vivid account of the native Nebraska landscape was Rufus Sage.
Rufus Sage was an adventurous soul, who drifted west in 1841. He pitched in with a group of mountaineers who departed out of Westport, Missouri headed for the Rocky Mountains. Sage left with only one purpose in mind, the slate his “innate curiosity, and fondness for things strange and new.” Fortunately for us, Sage documented his three year expedition through The West of the early 1840’s in his journal.
By this time the first wagons had already passed over South Pass, the blessed gap in the Rockies that made mass migration possible. Not only that, but the height of the mountain man rendezvous period had passed. True enough, missionaries and families had passed over the land before Rufus Sage laid eyes on it. Even so, he gives us a glimpse into what the world looked like in days long ago.
Within his journal Sage notes many of the amusements and amazements The West of 1841 still had to offer. He notes giant herds of buffalo, unmolested rivers meandering across a vast grassland, and unforgiving elements of Mother Nature. Sage had a keen eye for beauty, and his words still convey the sense of breathlessness he must have felt when traveling under the grand skies of The West. He notes early and often about various flora and fauna, displaying his keen awareness of the subtitles of life. One place Rufus Sage left no doubt as to his feelings of awe, was his camp at Scottsbluff.
In his journal he describes Scottsbluff as, “a most romantic and picturesque scenery.” He goes on the describe the area as such.
“The spectacle was grand and imposing beyond description. It seemed as if Nature, in mere sportiveness, had thought to excel the noblest works of art, and rear up a mimic city as the grand metropolis of her empire.”
He goes on to describe the rock formations around Scottsbluff as if it were a small city. Stones were work-shops and ware-houses. Parks and pleasure grounds abounded in this venue shaped by heat, rain, and incessant wind. While on Scottsbluff’s summit, he describes the vista still afforded from this tower of the prairie as, “Command(ing) a view of the whole country, lending enchantment to the neighboring scenes”. You can still get this same commanding view from the summit today.
One point of interest Sage notes in his journal, is the wildlife that abounded in and around the bluff. He describes the area at “the favorite home of the mountain sheep, where she breeds and rears her young, secure in her inaccessible fastnesses.” Not long after he notes:
“Most of the varieties of wild fruits indigenous to the mountains are found in this vicinity, and also numerous bands of buffalo, elk, deer, sheep, and antelope, with the grizzly bear. In the summer months the prospect is most delightful, and affords to the admiring beholder an Eden of fruits and flowers.”
Near the end of his entry on the Scottsbluff area, he records the feeling of one voyageur of his party.
“I could die here, then, -certain of being not far from heaven!”
As you can see, the men were certainly impressed with this unique landscape of western Nebraska.
These days it can be hard to visualize the wild land Sage is documenting. Today this landscape is concealed beneath the varnish of civilization. Roads, buildings, farms, and railroads now dominate the scene. Even in the mostly unknown region of western Nebraska, human development now reigns supreme over the wildness that once was. We have overcome the obstacles Rufus Sage thought impossible, and settled the prairie.
Gone are the sheep in great numbers. Gone are the elk and the blackening herds of buffalo. Gone too are the grizzly bears, for bad or for good. People are now the omnipresent force shaping the land, also for bad or for good. Where once bands of sheep reared their young, we now have bustling communities where children are raised. Where once an Eden of fruits and flowers sprang up, we have fields of abundant grain and family gardens. Herds of wild buffalo have been replaced by herds of relatively tranquil cattle. The once hushed and timeless prairie, has transformed into a bustling and busy locale. These changes have improved our lives, but make envisioning the world it was seem impossible.
Although our impact has greatly shaped the land Rufus Sage witness, its has not buried it. Those equipped with a keen eye and a sense of history, may still be able to tease out a vision of the past. You can still see the bluff rising above the surrounding prairie. Many of the same native plants set their roots in its soil. A sunrise today still sets the white sandstone ablaze along with the golden prairie grasses. Mule deer today still perk their ears with the alertness they have for thousands of years. In fact, the wildness of the past may not be as far gone as we think.
Those of us who seek a window into the past may find traces of it still around. It may require some digging, some sifting, and some imagination, but the core of what Rufus Sage recorded still remains. For all of us in western Nebraska, we can learn from his journals that our lands were as inspiring as any to the adventurers of the past. Although they stayed only temporarily, their fondness for the region stuck with them. In a world where men were free to trespass across the expanse of The West and explore the lofty mountains, clear streams, and grassy meadows, the rising bluffs of western Nebraska were as much God’s Country as any of it.
Thanks for taking the time to read this essay on western Nebraska and Rufus Sage. If you enjoy learning about the past and the mountain men, you might enjoy this article with video of a vintage mountain man journey that is sure to impress.