Heritage, Volume 5, Number 2, Summer 1987 Page: 24
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The Message in the Diary
by Richard B. Hughes
with research assistance from Tom Chisholm
(C1 e2squinted as he held the milky
z./ C/yellow bottle between his eyes
and the sun. It was empty of the allpurpose
elixir he had brought from the
commissary at Fort Smith. It would do.
He reread the message he had written and
carefully poked it through the small neck.
"There!" And just as carefully he pushed
the blackened cork into the neck. He was
He then put the bottle upright in the
hole he had dug four feet from a tall
cottonwood and nudged it against a root.
Exactly four feet. He was an exact man.
He packed the sandy clay over the bottle,
leaving a mound like a tiny grave. He
picked up his hand axe and, with a halfdozen
crisp strokes against the cottonwood,
marked his campsite and its buried
bottle. His deputy, George B. McClellan,
looked on with approval.
He picked up a leatherbound diary, a
good-bye gift from his wife. It read,
"R. B. Marcy, Capt. USA." He turned to
the first blank page and wrote: "June
16th, 1852." He dipped his pen in the
ink again and wrote-his penmanship
and his ideas both exact-that his exploring
expedition of soldiers and wagons
"encamped here" and had this day "traced
the north branch of the Red River to its
Captain Randolph Barnes Marcy
(1812-1887) proved that some of the
wet and dry creekbeds just south of
present-day Pampa are the headwaters of
the North Fork, a major branch of the
Red River, one of the nation's longest. At
the farthest point upstream, Marcy buried
the bottle. A historical marker stands
near there, but unfortunately, Marcy's intention
that posterity know the exact spot
was frustrated, since time has eroded both
the bottle and the notched cottonwood.
Captain Marcy then took a detail
northward to the Canadian River, showing
the Canadian and the North Fork of
the Red were different rivers, thus clearing
up some confusion on the part of earlier
explorers. Returning to the North
Fork encampment, he moved men and
wagons due south, where they found a
stream of sweet water, always a cause for
This map shows the route which Marcy and
McClellan took while searching for the source of
the Red River.
rejoicing to men often nauseous from
drinking mineralized water. Marcy named
the stream "McClellan Creek," believing
Captain McClellan to be the first white
man to see it.
Moving further south across the Salt
Fork of the Red River in what is now Donley
County, the wagon train reached the
South or Prairie Dog Town Fork of the
Red River, which with the North Fork
forms the two major arteries of the river.
Maps reflecting these discoveries now
show that from slow and meandering
rivulets in the Texas Panhandle, the Red
River is born and runs east and south for
some 1,200 miles before it empties into
the even mightier Mississippi.
One thing remained to complete his
mission: to find the source of Prairie Dog
Town Fork. Again selecting a small detail,
Marcy and McClellan forged their
way into Palo Duro Canyon, that marvel
for scientist and poet alike. Marcy was
some of both. The scientist and the poet
speak in this response to Palo Duro, in
which the explorers felt as though they
had entered a giant tunnel whose walls
were worn away, by the lapse of time and
the action of the water and the weather,
into the most fantastic forms, that required
but little effort of the imagination
to convert into works of art....
Such ornate prose made avid readers in
the East; more practical passages gave indispensable
information to the Congress,
and later to the Supreme Court, in the
settlement of a long dispute over the legal
boundary between Texas and Oklahoma.
Back in 1819 a boundary had been set
by the United States and Spain, to whom
Texas then belonged, in relation to the
Red River. Marcy's writings had complicated
the matter by showing there were
two main branches; could they now be
used to show which branch the 1819 negotiators
had intended? In his exposition
of his works before the Texas Boundary
Commission in Washington in 1886, an
aged Randolph Marcy argued that the
Prairie Dog Town Fork was the major
source of the Red River. "This testimony,
perhaps more than anyone else's," writes
Eugene Hollon, "eventually caused the
United States Supreme Court in 1896 to
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 5, Number 2, Summer 1987, periodical, Summer 1987; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45437/m1/24/: accessed March 25, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.