Wednesday, March 30, 2011

White Gold: The Amazing Story of Thomas Jefferson's Mountain of Salt and the Discovery of the Great Salt Plains of Oklahoma

The Great Salt Plains Just Northwest of Enid
Salt is the only edible rock in the diet of humans. When a volatile metal (sodium) mixes with a poisonous gas (chlorine) the resulting rock formed is what we know as salt. The ancient Romans gave this white rock its Latin name "salt." In centuries past salt was deemed as valuable as gold. Some even took to calling it "white gold."

 The ancient Romans built great roads, the first of which they called the Via Salaria (Salt Road), in order to transport salt throughout their kingdom. The words soldier and salary have their roots in the Latin word salt. The Roman soldiers were paid in measurements of salt, giving us the background for our English saying "That man is not worth his salt."  The ancient Romans also labeled someone in love salax, or a person "in a salted state, " giving us the origin of the English word salacious. Likewise, the Romans, like the ancient Egyptians, thought there was no food better than salted vegetables, thus our word salad.

Comanches Hunting Buffalo
The importance of salt among ancient civilized agrarian nations cannot be overestimated. Vegetable growing civilizations existed before the Romans in places like China, Egypt, and the Middle East (the Jews), and they all considered salt as important to life as water.  City dwellers need rock salt, while nomadic carnivorous hunters do not. Nomadic hunters receive all the sodium they needed through eating freshly killed meat. S.C. Gwynne in his book Empire of the Summer Moon describes how the native Comanche Indian children would "would rush up to a freshly killed animal, begging for its liver and gallbladder. They would then squirt the salty bile from the gallbladder onto the liver and eat it on the spot, warm and dripping blood." With the diets of nomadic hunters like the Comanches loaded with sodium from fresh animal blood and meat, there was little need for supplementary rock salt.

Salt is an absolute essential for the human body. The body grows weak and unable to resist disease when there is a sodium deficiency. The scientific knowledge of the chemical processes triggered by salt would not be discovered until the 20th century, but people instinctively and intuitively have known for centuries that salt acted as a medicine to the body. When agrarians settled into farm living and ceased their nomadic hunts, rock salt was needed to preserve meat. The rock salt used to preserve meat became the source of sodium the human body needed to sustain health. When salt was in short supply, it did not take long for people to succumb to death. Thousands of Napoleon's troops died during the French retreat from Moscow in 1812 due to poor wound healing and lowered disease resistance caused by their salt deficiencies. Just as the deer and other herbivores gravitate to salt licks, so humans intuitively understand their need for salt. The monetary value of salt increased throughout the world as time marched on, and during the height of the British Empire in the 1700s, England's control and financing of the world's salt supply became the means by which England's power was sustained. In the New World, salt was a precious commodity, and colonial Americans either paid dearly for imported salt, or worked long hours to produce salt by boiling water obtained from brine wells, scraping the leftover salt from the bottom of the boiling pots, and storing the salt in salt sheds.

After the American Revolution (1776-1783), the English blockaded trade with the United States and this led to salt shortages throughout America. White gold became more scarce. One of the top priorities for the first three American Presidents--George Washington, Johna Adams, and Thomas Jefferson--was to increase the salt supply within the United States. President George Washington petitioned Congress to offer a treasury bonus of 33 cents per bushel to salt producers. Washington's successor John Adam's worked hard to increase salt production as well, but Thomas Jefferson did something even more amazing.

President Thomas Jefferson's Mountain of Salt

The Louisiana Purchase
Thomas Jefferson was elected the third President of the United States in 1800. On April 30, 1803 the United States purchased from France and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte the Louisiana Territory for fifteen million dollars. This 828,000 square mile acquisition, land that encompassed all or part of fourteen future states, more than doubled the land size of the United States overnight. The price was only .4 cents per acre, but Jefferson's political opponents, mostly Federalists from northeastern states, were furious at the Democratic President for the Louisiana Purchase. They publicly castigated President Jefferson for purchasing this "vast desert," land mostly unknown and unexplored, and alleged the transaction was "unconstitutional" because Congress had not given their approval for the purchase.

President Jefferson, realizing he had to win over public approval, as well as obtain the necessary votes to uphold the purchase in Congress, went before a combined legislative assembly in November 1803 and gave his rationale for buying Lousiana. Within this amazing speech Thomas Jefferson sought to increase the excitement over, and approval for, the Louisiana Purchase by raising the prospect that a massive amount of "white gold" would be found within the newly acquired territory. Jefferson said:

"One extraordinary fact, relative to salt, must not be omitted. There exists (within the Louisiana Territory), about one thousand miles up the Missouri, and not far from that river, a salt mountain.... This mountain is said to be one hundred and eighty miles long, and forty-five in width, composed of solid rock salt, without any trees, or even shrubs upon it. Salt springs are very numerous beneath the surface of this mountain, and they flow through the fissures and cavities of it."

President Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was not intentionally deceiving the country. Reports from French and Spanish fur trappers from within the Louisiana Territory, as well as reports from Osage Indians, indicated that there did exist a mountain of salt within the land newly acquired by the United States. When President Jefferson secretly commissioned Lewis and Clark in late 1803 to explore the Louisiana Territory, his written orders did not include a search for this salt mountain, but it cannot be imagined that Lewis and Clark were not verbally told by the President to search for it, nor could the explorers have been unexcited by the prospects of its discovery. Were they to find it they could lay claim to a vast treasure of rock as valuable as gold.

Two and a half years later, upon Lewis' and Clark's return to civilization, a gala dinner was held in Washington D.C. in honor of the valiant explorers. Pro-Federalist newspapers ridiculed Jefferson again. A Massachusetts paper reminded its readers of the speech Jefferson had given to Congress in November 1803 and then gleefully, if not sarcistically, reported on the speech that Lewis gave at the banquet: "We do not learn that he (Lewis) confirms the account given by the president a few years since, of the huge mountain of salt, therefore we conclude it has dissolved."

Thomas Jefferson's Desire to Discover the Mountain of Salt Continues

Thomas Jefferson left the office of President of the United States in March 1809. He would die on July 4, 1825. During the intervening fourteen years, President Jefferson would correspond with friends on the American frontier regarding the Louisiana Purchase, claiming toward the end of his life it was the most significant accomplishment of his Presidency. In some of his early letters upon leaving the Presidency, Jefferson urged a few of his explorer friends to continue searching for the elusive mountain of salt. One of those with whom Jefferson corresponded was his good friend John Sibley, father of Indian agent and American explorer George Champlin Sibley of Fort Osage on the Missouri River. John Sibley would in turn correspond with his son regarding the unknown Louisiana territory that lay just to the west of Fort Osage, including the possibility of a great salt mountain.

Major George C. Sibley
Major George C. Sibley had been appointed by Thomas Jefferson as the head Indian trader and factor at the newly opened Fort Osage in 1808. This fort had been the second U.S. frontier outpost constructed following Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase. The fort was built on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River just east of present-day Kansas City. Fort Osage would become the important jumping-off point for explorers who were heading west. In 1810 correspondence with former President Thomas Jefferson, Major Sibley began considering an attempt to explore the rumors that the much-discussed mountain of salt was actually quite far south of the Missouri River.

Major George C. Sibley was a Christian man who loved logic and possessed a rational faith. He grew up in the home of his maternal grandfather, the famous Puritan Congregational minister Samuel Hopkins. Sibley's great uncle was theologian Jonathan Edwards. Major Sibley's Christian faith would have been comprised of consistent Calvinism, meaning Sibley believed that God had a purpose for his life, and that God would fulfill that purpose through providential goodness and supernatural guidance.

Major George C. Sibley would discover Jefferson's elusive mountain of salt during a sixty-day exploratory journey that historians now call Sibley's Expedition. Major Sibley set out from Fort Osage on May 11, 1811, with one of his goals being the discovery of the rumored mountain of salt. Sibley's traveling companions included two other white men who acted as interpreters and several Osage Indians who served as guides.

Sibley first led his party of interpreters and Osage Indians to a Kansa village on the Kansas River near present-day Manhattan, Kansas. The group proceeded further north and met with some Pawnee Indians on the Platte River. Sibley's expedition then journeyed south at a rapid pace, finally stopping at some Osage Indian villages near the Arkansas River in what is now northern Oklahoma. From here, Sibley led his party to take a brief excursion to the west.

It was on this brief trip through northwestern Oklahoma in June of 1811 that Major George Champlin Sibley discovered what the Indians and French traders had long spoken of and what had become known as "Jefferson's mountain of salt." Along the Salt Fork River, a tributary of the Arkansas River, Major Sibley came across 11,000 acres of land that gleamed in mid-day with shimmering white brilliance. Major Sibley called it "The Grand Saline." It later came to be called "The Great Salt Plains."

Sibley wrote in his journal that he was impressed by the vast sheets of salt that glistened "like a brilliant field of snow" and by rocks of salt sixteen inches thick, Sibley also reported that there was in an "inexhaustible store of ready-made salt" just waiting to enter "into channels of commerce." Major Sibley had struck gold.

The Great Salt Plains
Thomas Jefferson's "Mountain of Salt" had been found. The mountain, however, was a "plain of salt." It it is possible that Jefferson's understanding of a literal "mountain" was an unfortunate translation of what the Indians and French allegorically called "a mountain (a massive amount) of salt." Or, it could be the actual "Mountain" of salt was the bluff that Sibley discovered further west of the Great Salt Plains during the same excursion. The bluff, on the south side of the Cimarron River near the mouth of the Buffalo River, overlooked great deposits of rock salt that could be found just underneath the surface of the dry river bed. Though there was no literal "mountain" of salt, Sibley was excited by his discovery of the vast storehouses of salt. He wrote to his father in 1811 detailing his wonderful find, and his father forwarded the information to Thomas Jefferson. For the next century, the Great Salt Plains acted as a magnet for settlers and entrepreneurs, with wagon loads of salt being extracted from the plains for resale to others. The commercial success of the Great Salt Plains was limited by its location in the heart of Comancheria. Any white man who detoured from the Santa Fe trail or other east/west trails to obtain the valuable salt at faced constant Plainsmen Indian attacks. Even so, many wagon trains risked the danger of Indian attack and made their way to the Great Salt Plain to load up on valuable salt. A few attempted to construct a commercial saltwork, including Nathan Boone (Daniel Boone's youngest son) in 1843, but the isolation and risks associated with living on the Indian controlled plains made short order of all such attempts.

The Indians and the Great Salt Plains

For centuries the native Indians themselves had fought wars over the Great Salt Plains of northwestern Oklahoma. The Indians deemed rock salt "medicine" and refused to eat any meat sprinkled with rock salt. The Plainsmen Indians, who were all nomadic hunters, preferred their meat fresh and raw.  The Indians treasured the Great Salt Plains for a different reason. The lands around the Salt Plains teemed with deer, bear, buffalo, elk, and other game. The Great Salt Plains acted as a natural salt lick for the animals, and nomadic Indians made this area part of their yearly hunting grounds. Twenty-five years after Major Sibley discovered the Great Salt Plains, the federal government gave to the Cherokee Indians, one of the tribes the U.S. forcibly moved from the east into "Indian Territory," a claim for all the land that surrounded the Great Salt Plains, land that became known as "The Cherokee Outlet." The Outlet was to provide the Cherokees  "an outlet to the hunting grounds of the west." However, the U.S. government excluded from Cherokee possession the thousands of acres of salt in the middle of the Cheroke Outlet. The United States government specifically stated in treaties with the Cherokees that saline areas were to remain accessible for use by other tribes.  The official position of the U.S. government regarding Indian possession and use of the Great Salt Plains was recorded as follows: "The right is reserved to the United States to allow other tribes of red men to get salt on the Great Salt Plains in common with the Cherokee Tribe."

Indian bloodshed played a part in the history of the Great Salt Plains both before and after Sibley's discovery. Because of the excellent hunting around the natural salt licks, any tribe that controlled the Great Salt Plains had to contend with intrusions by other tribes. Fierce intertribal Indian battles raged over control of the Great Salt Plains, and the white man's discovery of Jefferson's "mountain of salt" did little to reduce this violence and bloodshed. One of the Indian tribes that regularly hunted the Great Salt Plains was the Comanches, and the Comanches fought all other Indian tribes, including the Cherokees,  for control of the Great Salt Plains.

Comanche Indian Camp
Cynthia Ann Parker was a nine-year-old daughter of a Baptist preacher in Texas when she was kidnapped by Comanche Indians on May 19, 1836 at Fort Parker, thirty miles east of present Waco, Texas. For the next twenty-five years Cynthia would live among the Comanches, eventually assimilating her entire life to the ways of the Comanches. Cynthia married Peta Nocona, a Comanche brave, and she gave to him three children, one of whom was a son they named Quanah. Quanah Parker would become the last great chief of the Comanche Indians. Quanah remembers how his entire tribe, including his Comanche father, his white mother, and his two siblings would settle for months near the Great Salt Plains as they hunted the roving plains buffalo and other game. Again, it was the presence of the fierce Plainsmen warriors and the isolation from other civilizations that kept the Great Salt Plains from becoming a great commercial enterprise in the 1800s for the white man.
In Celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Sibley's Discovery of the Great Salt Plains

Salt is no longer as valuable as it once was. The process by which salt is produced has been refined, and the world's supply and distribution of salt is no longer limited by technology or travel. For that reason, the modern reader may not understand the historical significance of Jefferson's "mountain of salt." Who's to say how much of a role the prospects of discovering such a vast and valuable treasure within the Louisiana Territory played in Congress eventually ratifying the Louisiana Purchase? George C. Sibley's 1811 discovery of the Great Salt Plains gave to Jefferson a sense of personal vindication, and though there are hundreds of other reasons why the modern American would echo Jefferson's opinion that the Louisiana Purchase was Jefferson's greatest presidential accomplishment, the Great Salt Plains takes its place beside other national landmarks of historical significance in the colorful history and exploration of the Louisiana Purchase.

The Great Salt Plains Near Enid, Oklahoma (photo courtesy SRT)
For those of you who have never had the privilege of traveling just a few miles north and west of Enid, Oklahoma to see the Great Salt Plains for yourself, it would well be worth the day trip to enjoy one of the natural wonders of the great state of Oklahoma.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This was fascinating to read (I enjoy reading your posts) and now I have the itch to drive from NW AR to see your salt plains. If and when I do, I hope to be able to meet you, too, if it's during your "working hours."