Irving on the Prairie — A two-century-old tale of the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ author in Oklahoma
by Nina Flannery
In a recent conversation with my old friend Tod Langford, I learned that the Cleveland County Teachers Association the Daughters of the American Revolution had erected a monument in 1932 commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Washington Irving’s trip through Little Axe. The famous author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” passed through the spot on October 31, 1832, during his tour of the prairies. In all the years I’ve lived here, I had never known of this historical marker about seven or eight miles east of Norman. My friends and I couldn’t resist making a caravan to the location to toast the 177th anniversary of Irving’s presence on the plains.
The earlier party who found themselves among the “tangled, stunted forests” of the Oklahoma Cross Timbers had come together haphazardly: Irving was at the end of his 17 years in Europe and England, where he was employed during some of that time as Secretary of the United States Legation (before World War II, a legation was a kind of lesser embassy). On his voyage home, he met a pair of young European adventurers, and the three of them decided to continue their friendship in further travels across North America. After trips around New York state, the company went to Niagara and then boarded a Lake Erie steamer bound for Detroit.
There was some dispute about a destination — Irving wanted to explore Kentucky while his companions, Count Albert de Pourtales (sent from his home in Switzerland, some have written, to cool an inappropriate romance) and the Englishman Charles Latrobe, a “cosmopolitan” and travel writer, were attracted to the wilds of French Canada.
Shortly before Irving was to depart for Kentucky alone, they happened to meet another of the steamer’s passengers, Judge Henry Ellsworth of Connecticut. He had been appointed by President Andrew Jackson to a board of commissioners whose duty was to make arrangements for the removal of native tribes from the southern states, and he was journeying to “the interior wilderness” to meet with leaders of the Plains tribes. Their territory would soon be occupied by the removed Southeastern tribes (the dark subplot of this story). When Ellsworth invited the three friends to join him, they immediately decided to do so, abandoning their other plans on the spot.
It’s remarkable how many famous figures in regional history the party encountered during the brief tour – their names tumble out of the narrative like cameo appearances in a movie: Gen. William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition meets with them in St. Louis; Auguste Chouteau travels with them from a Mississippi steamboat to his Indian Territory fur trading post, and Sam Houston accompanies them from Fort Gibson to Chouteau’s post, not far from the Neosho home that he shared with his Cherokee wife Tiana Rogers (an ancestor of Will Rogers). General Matthew Arbuckle greeted them at Fort Gibson, which was, I was astounded to learn, the farthest western post of the U. S. Army at the time.
Irving encountered Osage and Creek at Chouteau’s trading post, whom he described with a keen eye:
They wore no ornaments; their dress consisted merely of blankets, leathern leggings and moccasins. Their heads were bare; their hair was cropped close, except a bristling ridge on the top, like the crest of a helmet, with a long scalp-lock hanging behind. They had fine Roman countenances, and broad, deep chests; and, as they generally wore their blankets wrapped round their loins, so as to leave the bust and arms bare, they looked like so many noble bronze figures. The Osages are the finest looking Indians I have ever seen in the West. They have not yielded sufficiently, as yet, to the influence of civilization to lay by their simple Indian garb, or to lose the habits of the hunter and the warrior; and their poverty prevents their indulging in much luxury of apparel.
In contrast to these was a gaily dressed party of Creeks. There is something, at the first glance, quite oriental in the appearance of this tribe. They dress in calico hunting shirts of various brilliant colours, decorated with bright fringes and belted with broad girdles, embroidered with beads: they have leggings of dressed deer-skins or of green or scarlet cloth, with embroidered knee-bands and tassels: their moccasins are fancifully wrought and ornamented and they wear gaudy handkerchiefs tastefully bound round their heads.
Capt. Jesse Bean, a famous rifle marksman, soldier, and one-time Mountain Man, joined the tour at the head of l7 troops whose scruffy appearance and clothing are described by Irving in some detail:
Here was our escort awaiting our arrival; some were on horseback, some on foot, some seated on the trunks of fallen trees, some shooting at a mark. They were a heterogeneous crew; some in frock coats made of green blankets; others in leathern hunting-shirts, but the most part in marvellously ill-cut garments, much the worse for wear and evidently put on for rugged service.
And rugged service it proved to be. By the time the expedition had reached Little Axe on October 31, both men and horses were tired and hungry. J. Thoburn, whose essay is the source of most of my information, described one experience of the travelers on October 30:
A notable incident of this hunting camp was the mishap of the young Count de Pourtales, who, in the excitement of the chase, had passed out of the valley of Little River over a low divide into that of a neighboring creek to the westward, which is directly tributary to the South Canadian. Without realizing that he was in a different stream valley, he vainly sought for the camp and his friends. Night came on and he was lost. His friends and companions sought for him but could not find him. After a dreary night in which he and his horse were almost continuously serenaded by wolves, he found his friends as they were searching for him, the next morning. And that little stream where he spent a lonely night is still called Lost Creek to this day!
On October 31st, the expedition descended the Little River valley to a point about eight miles east of Norman. The whole valley was flooded, and it was difficult to find a safe spot to cross the river. After finally crossing on the morning of November 1st, they swung northeast to a spot near Tecumseh and then proceeded through northwestern Seminole County.
By this time, the last of the provisions were exhausted and game was scarce. Moreover, the horses were becoming weak as the result of insufficient feed. To an extent, the command became more or less scattered during the day and, more and more, it became every man for himself, to struggle through to the end of the journey.
The “hunger camp” of November 6th was made in the far eastern part of Okmulgee County. On the 7th, the starving travelers found the first Creek settlements, where they secured desperately needed food for themselves and for their horses. Irving arrived back at Fort Gibson on November 8th, just one month after his first arrival there. Two days later, he departed on a small steamboat delivering supplies to the Fort.
A map of the full route made in 1955 can be seen here.
This 30-day trek produced Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies and Charles J. Latrobe’s The Rambler in North America, both published in 1837. A book-length letter/journal by Henry Ellsworth titled Washington Irving on the Plains was finally published in 1937 after spending a hundred years in the Yale University archives.
The journey provided the young aristocrat the hunting of elk, deer, antelope, buffalo, bear, turkey and waterfowl, as well as the sight of capturing wild horses. But as a commissioner, Ellsworth was unsuccessful in finding and meeting Plains Indian leaders. That would wait for an expedition of Dragoons in 1834.
Joseph Thoburn also describes the festivities marked by the monument in Little Axe:
With the joint assistance of the Oklahoma Historical Society and of the Oklahoma State Department of Education, it is planned to celebrate the centennial anniversary, or rather, the succession of centennial anniversaries, of Washington Irving’s Tour on the Prairies, progressively, from day to day. Neither the Department of Education nor the Historical Society wishes to play an officious part in these successive local celebrations. Rather, they wish only to extend such assistance and encouragement as may be desired by those in charge of the local celebrations. [...] The active co-operation of county and city superintendents of schools, of principals and teachers, of local school boards, of publishers of local newspapers, of chambers of commerce or commercial clubs, of civic clubs, of women’s clubs and of patriotic societies is bespoken and will be appreciated.
I found most of this information in the Chronicles of Oklahoma, and I encourage anyone interested in reading further to search them online. Also online is a great site with several proposed maps of the party’s daily progress: http://www.trailsofindianterritory.com/index_Irving.htm. Jon Dresser is its principal investigator, to whom many thanks.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story left out the Daughters of the American Revolution as a co-sponsor of the Washington Irving monument.Tags: history