PRINTED FOR PRIVATE CIRCULATION
I have often been asked to write an account of my Pike's Peak Expedition in search of gold. The following attempt has been made up partly from memory and partly from old letters written at the time to my sister in the east.
C. J. H.
Early in the summer of 1860 I had a bad attack of gold fever. In Chicago the conditions for such a malady were all favorable. Since the panic of 1857 there had been three years of general depression, money was scarce, there was little activity in business, the outlook was discouraging, and I, like hundreds of others, felt blue.
Gold had been discovered in the fall of 1858 in the vicinity of Pike's Peak, by a party of Georgian prospectors, and for several years afterward the whole gold region for seventy miles to the north was called "Pike's Peak." Others in the East heard of the gold discoveries and went West the next spring; so that during the summer of 1859 a great deal of prospecting was done in the mountains as far north as Denver and Boulder Creek.
Those who returned in the autumn of that year, having perhaps claims and mines to sell, told large stories of their rich finds, which grew larger as they were repeated, amplified and circulated by those who dealt in mining outfits and mills. Then these accounts were fed out to the public daily in an appetizing way by the newspapers. The result was that by the next spring the epidemic became as prevalent in Chicago as cholera was a few years later.
Four of the fever stricken ones, Enos Ayres, T. R. Stubbs, John Sollitt and myself, formed a partnership, raised about $9,000 and went to work to purchase the necessary outfit for gold mining. Mr. Ayres furnished a larger share of the capital than any of the others and was not to go with the expedition, but might join us the following year. Mr. Stubbs and I were both to go, while Mr. Sollitt was to be represented by a substitute, a relative whose name was also John Sollitt, and who had been a farmer and butcher and was supposed to know all about oxen. Mr. Stubbs was a good mechanic, an intelligent, well-read man, and ten years before had been to California in search of gold.
Our outfit consisted of a 12-stamp quartz mill with engine and boiler, and all the equipments understood to be necessary for extracting gold from the rock, including mining tools, powder, quicksilver, copper plate and chemicals; also a supply of provisions for a year. The staple articles of the latter were flour, beans, salt pork, coffee and sugar. Then we had rice, cornmeal, dried fruit, tea, bacon and a barrel of syrup; besides a good supply of hardtack, crackers and cheese for use while crossing the plains, when a fire for cooking might not be found practicable. These things were all purchased in Chicago, together with the fourteen wagons necessary to carry them across the plains. Then all were shipped by rail to St. Joseph, Mo., where the oxen were to be purchased. The entire outfit when loaded on the cars, weighed twenty-four tons.
I stayed in Chicago till the last to help purchase and forward the outfit and supplies, while Stubbs and Sollitt (the substitute) went to St. Joe to receive and load them on the wagons and to purchase the oxen.
On the 1st day of August, all was ready, and we ferried our loaded wagons and teams across the Missouri River into Kansas to make a final start next morning into regions to us unknown. Stubbs started the same day by stage for the mountains, to prospect and look out for a favorable location and then to meet the train when it arrived at Denver. Sollitt was to be trainmaster, which involved the oversight and direction of the teams and drivers, and the duty of frequently going ahead to pick out the best road and select a favorable place to camp at night, where water and grass could be had. I was the general business man of the expedition, had full power of attorney from Mr. Ayres to represent and manage his interest, and hence I had the control and responsibility in my hands and practically decided all important questions relating to the business.
The fourteen ox-drivers were all volunteers, who drove without pay—except their board—for the sake of getting to the gold regions to make their fortunes there. Most of them were from Chicago—three married men who left families behind, and one a young dentist. Another was the son of a prominent public woman who was a rigid Presbyterian, and when I left Chicago his father gave me a satchel full of religious books to give to him in St. Joe to read on the plains. He deliberately pitched them into a loft, where they were left. Another was a young Illinois farmer, named Tobias, a splendid fellow. Among those we secured in St. Joe were one German and two Missourians.
The principal article in the outfit of each individual, aside from his ornaments in the shape of knives and pistols, was a pair of heavy blankets. One of the Missourians first appeared without any, but next morning he had a quilted calico bed cover, stuffed with cotton, borrowed probably from a friendly clothesline, and which, at the end of the journey, presented a very dilapidated appearance.
Early in the morning of August 2d all were busy yoking oxen and hitching them to the wagons, but as most of the drivers were green at the business and did not know "haw" from "gee," and a number of the oxen were young and not well broken, it was several hours before our train was in motion and finally headed for "Pike's Peak." The train consisted of fourteen wagons, a driver for each, forty yoke of oxen, one yoke of cows and one pony with a Mexican saddle and a rawhide lariat thirty feet long, with an iron pin at the end to stick in the ground to secure the animal.
For the first two or three miles, while crossing the level valley, all went well, but when we reached the bluffs and ravines that bounded the river valley on the west, the green oxen began to balk and back and refused to pull their loads up the hills, and the new drivers were nonplused and helpless. The better teams went ahead and were soon out of sight, while the poorer ones had to double up, taking one wagon up a hill and then going back for another, and consequently made slow progress. Instead of riding or walking along like a "boss" at ease, I soon found myself fully occupied in whipping up the poorly broken oxen on the off side, while the green drivers whipped and yelled at those on their side of the team. It was surprising how soon the nice city boys picked up the strong language in use by teamsters on the Western plains. The teams got separated, and the train stretched out two or three miles long. Then Sollitt rode ahead, picked out a camping place, and directed the drivers to halt and unyoke as they reached it; but when it became dark three or four teams were still from a quarter of a mile to a mile behind, and in trouble, so they unhitched the oxen and let them run in their yokes for the night. Our lunch and our supper that day consisted of crackers and cheese, as we had no time to cook.
About dark a shower came up, and it drizzled a good part of the night—the last rain we met with for many weeks. We rolled ourselves up in our blankets on the ground, under the wagons or in a small tent we had, for sleep. At daylight next morning we all started in different directions through the wet bushes that filled the ravines to find the scattered oxen, and before noon they were all collected at camp. We had hot coffee and some cooked things for breakfast. But several accidents had occurred. The cows had fallen into a gully with their yoke on and broken their necks, one load of heavy machinery had run down hill and upset, one axle, two wagon tongues, one yoke and some chains were broken. Sollitt, with two or three of the drivers who were mechanics, went to work to repair damages. As we seemed short of oxen, I rode back to St. Joe and bought two yoke more, spending the last of our money except about fifty dollars.
By next morning we were ready for a new start. Experience had already taught us something, and we adopted more system and some rules. All the teams were to keep near together, so as not to leave the weaker ones behind in the lurch. Our cattle were to be strictly watched all night by two men on guard at a time—not together, but on opposite sides of the herd. Two would watch half the night and then be relieved by two others who stood guard till morning. We all took our turns except the cook, who was relieved from that duty and from yoking and hitching up his own team, as cooking for sixteen men while in camp was no sinecure. The man chosen for cook was one of the drivers from Chicago named Taylor, who had cooked for campers and for parties at work in the woods. He was really a good plain cook. His utensils consisted of some large boiling pots and kettles, a tin bake oven, two or three frying pans, a two-gallon coffeepot and a few other usual articles.
Each person had a tin plate, a pint tin cup with a handle, and an iron knife, fork and spoon. The food was placed in the dishes and cups on the ground, and while eating we stood up, sat on the ground or reclined in the fashion of the ancient Romans, according to our individual tastes. The article of first importance at a meal was strong coffee and plenty of it. Next came boiled beans with pork, whenever there was time to cook them; and that could generally be done during the night. Then we had some kind of bread, cake or crackers, and sometimes stewed dried fruit.
About the third day out our open air prairie appetites came, and it seemed as if we could eat and digest anything. I had been a little out of health for some time, was somewhat dyspeptic, and had not tasted pork for years. Soon I could devour it in a manner that would have shocked my vegetarian friends; and for the next two years I was conscious of a stomach only when hungry.
The third day the teams went a little better, but we had to double up sometimes to pull the wagons up the hills and out of the deep gullies we had frequently to cross, so we only made seven or eight miles. In a few days we got out on the level prairie and went along faster. But every morning for a week, one or more of our cattle would be lost from the herd. They would sneak away during the night and hide in the bushes and ravines, or start back toward home. As I had no special duties in camp, or in yoking up in the morning, hunting them fell to my lot. If not found in the first search before starting time, I would ride back on the pony for miles, scour the country and hunt through the gullies and bushes for hours till the lost animal was found; then drive him along until the train was overtaken. That could easily be followed by the tracks of the wheels on the prairie. Hiawatha, Kansas, and a few scattered cabins some miles to the west of it were about the last signs of settlement and civilization that we saw.
That season was a very dry one in Kansas and on the Western plains. The prairies were parched and looked like a desert, except a fringe of green along the water courses. The heat was intense and the distant hills and everything visible seemed quivering from its effects. The dry ground and sand reflected the sun's rays into our faces, till a few with weak eyes were seriously affected. The iron about the wagons, and the chains were blistering to the touch. The southwest wind was like a blast from a heated furnace. It was worse than stillness, and I frequently took shelter behind a wagon to escape its effects.
This heat was very trying and debilitating to the oxen. They would pant, loll their tongues out of their mouths, refuse to pull, and lie down in their yokes. Sometimes we were compelled to keep quiet all day, and drive in the early evening and morning, and during the night when we could find the way. The most important thing was to find water near which to camp. Wolves began to surround our camp and the herd of oxen at night, and break the silence by their piercing howls. After we had gone to sleep, they would sneak into camp to pick up scraps left from supper, then come within a few feet of some one rolled up in his blanket and startle him with a howl. But with all their noise these prairie wolves were great cowards, and would run from any movement of a man.
Soon after starting out one evening for a night drive, after a very hot day, one of the weak oxen lay down and refused to go. That the train might not be delayed, they tied his mate to a wagon, and I concluded to stay behind with him till morning to see if he would recover. Soon after dark the wolves seeming to divine his condition and the good meal in store for them, collected around us a short distance off, and seated on their haunches, with howls of impatience waited for the feast. They were plainly visible by their glaring, fire-like eyes. I varied the monotony of the long night by walking around, sitting down, lying upon the ground, and occasionally falling asleep beside the sick ox. Then the wolves emboldened by the stillness, would sneak up close to us and break out in piercing howls, but they would instantly vanish when I got up and threw something at them.
Daylight came at last; the ox had grown worse instead of better, and I left him to his fate and the wolves, and followed the wagon tracks till I overtook the train in camp, early in the day, with an appetite for a quart of strong coffee and something to eat.
In this hot weather the oxen with their heavy loads did not make more than a mile an hour when on the march, so with the numerous delays it was nearly two weeks before we reached Marysville on the Big Blue River. This was a small settlement on the verge of civilization, with a few ranches, saloons and stores, situated on that branch of the old Oregon trail which started northward from Westport, Mo., and passed near Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The inhabitants had the reputation of being mostly outlaws, blacklegs and stock thieves. Their reputation inspired us with such respect for them that we kept extra watch over our cattle and possessions while in the vicinity.
About a week after starting, one of the drivers got homesick, discouraged and disgusted with the trip, left us and started back home on foot. This compelled Sollitt and me to drive his team. One of our wagons not being made of properly seasoned wood, became shaky from the effects of the heat and dry air of the plains. At Marysville I traded it off to a ranchman for a yoke of oxen and had the load distributed on the other wagons so that again we had as many drivers as teams. I also traded some of our younger, weaker oxen for old ones that served our purpose better, though they were of less market value.
We learned that between this place and the Little Blue, there was no water to be found to enable us to camp for a night, so we were compelled to make the trip—some twenty miles—at a single drive. As the weather was hot we started late in the afternoon, drove all night, and arrived early next day, at that small river, where we found water and grass. Sollitt rode ahead much of the time to pick out the road.
Our course for several days was now along the Little Blue in a northwest direction, toward Fort Kearney on the Platte. To avoid the side gullies and ravines, which were water courses in the spring, though now dried up, we frequently circled off two or three miles on to the level prairie, but had to return near the stream when we camped, in order to get water.
One day, off to the west, a mile or two away, we saw a single buffalo which had probably been outlawed and driven from the herd to wander in solitude over the plains. Our pony had crossed the plains before and was well used to buffalo. Sollitt mounted him, and, rifle in hand, rode for the lone beast. When approached he began to run, but the horse soon overtook him, and he received a bullet. Then he turned savagely on the horse and rider, and, with head down, chased them at high speed before trying to escape. The horse overtook him a second time and he received another bullet. Then he charged after the horse and rider again. When the horse's turn to chase came next, the buffalo received a third shot and soon fell dead. This was quite exciting sport for us "tenderfeet" who had never seen a buffalo hunt.
Sollitt, who was a butcher by trade, was now in his glory. He rode back to camp, sharpened his knives and with the help of one or two of the men carved up the animal and brought back a supply of fresh meat. This proved rather tough as the animal was an old bull, nevertheless the tongue and the tenderloin were relished, after having eaten only salt pork for three weeks.
The small stream of water in the Little Blue grew less and less as we approached its source, and the last night that we camped near it, there was no running water at all. The little that was to be seen stood in stagnant pools in the bottom of the river bed. When we would approach these pools, turtles, frogs and snakes in great variety, that had been sunning themselves on the banks, would tumble, jump and crawl into the water, and countless tadpoles wiggled in the mud, at the bottom, so that the water was soon black and thick. Its taste and smell were anything but appetizing. The oxen, though without water since morning, refused to drink it, even after we had dipped it up in pails and allowed it to settle. We boiled it for the coffee, but the odor and flavor of mud still remained. The situation had become serious and our only hope was to reach the Platte river before the oxen were famished from thirst. Earlier in the season, before the streams dried up, this was a favorite route of travel, but it was not so at this time of year and we saw very few passing teams.
By daylight next morning the oxen were yoked and hitched up and we commenced a forced march for water and salvation. The old trail seemed still to follow the course of the dried-up stream, bearing much to the west. We concluded to leave it and steer more to the north with the hope of striking the Platte at the nearest point. The prairie was hard and level, the day not excessively hot, and everything was favorable for a long drive. The rule for keeping together was ignored and each team was to be urged to its best speed, in the hope that the strong and the swift would reach the goal though the weak and the weary might fall by the way.
Before noon the teams were much separated. They halted for a nooning; the oxen browsed a little on sage brush and dried grass; the men lunched on crackers, cold coffee and the remnants of breakfast, but our water keg was empty. By the time the last team was at the nooning place, the head ones were ready to start on.
Sollitt rode ahead to explore and pick out the road, carrying his rifle on the saddle, as we were liable at any time to meet bands of treacherous, pillaging Pawnees, whose haunts were on the lower Platte. I formed the rear guard with the hindmost wagon, so that it would not be deserted and alone in case of accident. Each team was always in sight of the next one ahead of it, though the train was stretched out some three miles long. Late in the afternoon Sollitt rode back with the cheering news that he had seen the Stars and Stripes waving over Fort Kearney to the west and that he had picked out a camping ground near the river a few miles below. Soon after dark the last team was in camp and the men and beasts were luxuriating in the clear running water of the Platte.
The next forenoon we drove on to the fort and camped a mile or two west of it for a day's rest. This was on the 20th of August, so we had been out twenty days on the road from St. Joe. At the fort was a postoffice and here we received letters from our friends in the East, and spent a good part of the day in writing, in response to them. Letters were brought here by the coaches of the overland express which carried the United States mail to California.
The fort consisted of a few buildings surrounded by a high adobe wall for protection; and adjoining was a strong stockade for horses and oxen. There were a few United States troops here. Just outside the fort grounds were some ranches, stores, saloons and trading posts. The two Missourians proceeded forthwith to get dead drunk and it took them till next day to sober up. By way of apology they said the whisky tasted "so good" after being so long without it. We had no whisky on our train. It was one of the very few that crossed the plains in those days without that, so considered, essential article in frontier life.
Personally, through the entire period of my "Pike's Peak" experience, I adhered strictly to my custom of not tasting spirituous or malt liquors, nor using tobacco in any form.
We were now on the main central route of travel from the States to the mountains, Salt Lake, California and Oregon. We saw teams and trains daily going in both directions, and Kearney was a favorite place for them to stop over a day and rest. Our course now lay along the south side of the Platte, clear to Denver; and with the prospect of level roads and plenty of grass and water, we looked forward hopefully to a pleasant trip the rest of the way. The valley of the Platte is a sandy plain, nearly level, extending westward for hundreds of miles from Kearney, bounded on the north and the south by low bluffs, some four or five miles apart. Back of these lie the more elevated, dry plains extending to great distances.
Winding through this valley is the Platte river, a half a mile or more wide, with water from an inch to two feet deep, running over a sandy bottom and filled with numberless islands of shifting sand. The banks were lined with willows and cottonwood bushes and bordered in many places by green, grassy meadows, but trees were a rarity and for some two hundred miles we did not see one larger than a good sized bush.
The day we camped near Kearney we began to see buffalo in small groups off a few miles to the south and west. When I awoke next morning, soon after daylight, I saw a lone one quietly eating grass about half a mile from camp. I got out a rifle and went toward him, stooping or going on my hands and knees through the wet grass, till within good rifle shot. I then stood up, took deliberate aim just behind the shoulder, and fired. He gave a quick jump, looked around and started toward me on the run with head down, in usual fashion, for a charge. My thought was that I had hit, but not hurt him. I dropped into the grass and made my way on hands and knees as fast as possible toward camp, a little agitated. Losing sight of me the animal soon stopped, stood still a few minutes and then suddenly dropped to the ground. He had been shot through the heart.
This was my first and last buffalo, as sneaking up to them and shooting them down did not seem much more like sport than shooting down oxen. I was neither a sufficiently expert rider nor hunter to chase and shoot them on horseback. The one I shot was carved by Sollitt and one of the men, and furnished us fresh meat for breakfast and several meals thereafter.
During the day we passed a ranch, occupied by a man and his son, twelve or fourteen years old. The boy had eight or ten buffalo calves in a pen, which he said he had caught himself and intended to sell to parties returning to their homes in the East. He had a well-trained little pony, which he would mount, with a rope in hand that had a noose at the end, and ride directly into the midst of a small drove of buffalo, and while they scattered and ran would slip his rope about the neck of a calf and lead it back to the ranch. The calf would side up to the pony and follow it along as if under the delusion that it was following its mother. The man traded in cattle by picking up estrays and buying, for a song, those that were footsore and sick, keeping them till in condition and then selling them to passing trains that were in need.
We now began to see buffalo quite plentifully off to the southwest, in small groups, and in droves of twenty or more. Sometimes hunters on horseback, who had camped near Kearney, were indulging in the excitement of the hunt, chasing and shooting, and in turn being chased by the enraged animals. That evening we camped on the verge of the great herd that extended some sixty or seventy miles to the westward, and blackened the bluffs to the south, and the great plains beyond as far as the eye could reach. This great herd was not a solid, continuous mass, but was divided up into innumerable smaller herds or droves consisting of from fifty to two hundred animals each. These kept together when grazing, marching or running, the bulls on the outside and the cows and calves in the center. Sometimes these small herds were separated from each other by a considerable space.
This great herd had probably started northward from the Arkansas in the spring and had now reached the Platte, where they lingered for water and the better grass that was found along the river. Following in the wake and prowling on the outskirts of this slowly moving host, were thousands of wolves, collected from the distant plains, to feast upon the young and the weakly, and the carcasses of those that were killed by accident or the hunter's gun.
The turn for watching the cattle the first half of that night fell to the lot of two of the boys from Chicago. The cattle were grazing in a good meadow off toward the river, half a mile from camp. At dusk the boys went off to take charge of them. After dark the wolves began to howl in all directions and sometimes it sounded as if a hundred hungry ones were fighting over a single carcass. Then the buffalo bulls chimed in with the music and bellowed, apparently by thousands, at the same time. Pandemonium seemed to reign. The two boys got nervous, then frightened and finally panic-stricken, and long before midnight came rushing into camp declaring that they were surrounded by droves of hungry wolves and furious buffalo. The cattle were also disturbed and inclined to scatter and wander off.
Next morning early, all of us, except the cook, started off to hunt them up. Some went up stream, some down, and some back along the road we had come. Tobias and myself waded the river to the north side to hunt them there, but we found neither cattle nor cattle tracks. We did find a huge rattlesnake, which we killed. The river was about three-quarters of a mile wide, and in no place over two feet deep. Wading it was easy enough if one kept moving, but if he stood still he would gradually sink into the quicksand till it was difficult to extricate his feet.
By noon, after this thorough search, we had collected all of our oxen but two, which could not be found. Sollitt was very suspicious of cattle thieves, and, whenever an ox was lost, his first opinion was that it had been stolen. Mine was that it had strayed off and hidden in some ravine or clump of bushes. He decided that these two lost ones had been taken by some ranchman or passing train. I believed they had gone off with the buffalo and that when they wanted drink badly they would come back to the river. I therefore concluded to let the train go on, while I, with the pony and some food, would stay behind and patrol the river for a day or two. I rode back eastward along the river's edge, searching in the bushes, and at night came to a ranch, near which I picketed the pony and slept on the ground. Next morning, after first examining the ranchman's cattle, I started westward again, making another thorough search as I went along. In the afternoon I found the stragglers quietly eating grass near the river, and then drove them along as fast as possible till the train was overtaken.
We were now right in the midst of the great herd, through which we journeyed for nearly five days. The anxiety they gave us was greater than that of any of our previous troubles. To avoid having the oxen stampeded, or run off with the buffalo at night, we wheeled our wagons into a circle when camping at the end of a day's drive, and thus formed a corral, into which we put as many oxen as it would hold, for the night, and chained the rest in their yokes to the wagon wheels on the outside. This was hard on the oxen, as they could not rest as well as when free, nor could they graze a part of the night, as was their habit. Whenever we looked off to the south or southwest, we would see dozens and dozens of the small droves of one or two hundred buffalo moving about in all directions. Some of the droves would be quietly eating grass, some marching in a slow, stately walk, and others on the run, going back and forth between their grazing grounds and the river. But each separate drove kept in quite a compact body.
Sometimes they would keep off from the trail along which we traveled, for several hours at a time and not trouble us. At other times they would be going in such great numbers across our route, passing to and from the river, that we had to wait hours for them to get out of our way. Often a drove would get frightened at a passing wagon, the report of a gun, the barking of a dog, or some imaginary enemy, and would start on a run which soon became a furious stampede, the hindermost following those before them, and in their blind fury crowding them forward with such irresistible force that the leaders could not stop if they would. If they came suddenly to a deep gully the foremost would tumble in till it was full, and thus form a bridge of bone and flesh over which the rest would pass. Several times these frightened droves passed so near our wagons as to be alarming.
One drove came within a few yards of one of our wagons, and some of the drivers peppered them with bullets from their pistols. Though these frightened droves could not be stopped, they would shy to the right or left if an unusual commotion was made in time in front of them. When a drove, at some distance, seemed to be headed toward our train, we often ran toward it, yelling, firing guns, and waving articles of clothing. The leaders would shy off, and that would give direction to the whole body, and thus relieve us from danger for the time being.
Every teamster, traveler and hunter that crossed the plains felt that he must kill from one to a dozen or more buffalo. The result was that the plain was dotted and whitened with tens of thousands of their carcasses and skeletons. With this general slaughter and the increase of travel induced by the discovery of the Pike's Peak gold fields, no wonder that this was the very last year that these animals appeared in large numbers in the Platte valley. We always estimated their numbers by the million. For some years after they appeared in large numbers in some parts of the great plains of the West, but they rapidly declined in number till they became extinct in their wild state.
 The estimate was probably not an exaggeration.
In a late work it is stated on the authority of railroad statistics that in the thirteen years from 1868 to 1881 "in Kansas alone there was paid out two millions five hundred thousand dollars for their bones gathered on the prairies to be utilized by the various carbon works of the country, principally in St. Louis. It required about one hundred carcases to make one ton of bones, the price paid averaging eight dollars a ton; so the above quoted enormous sum represented the skeletons of over thirty-one millions of buffalo."—The Old Santa Fe Trail, by Col. Henry Inman p. 203.
The author further says, "In the autumn of 1868 I rode with Generals Sheridan, Custer, Sully and others for three consecutive days through one continuous herd, which must have contained millions. In the spring of 1869 the train on the Kansas Pacific railroad was detained at a point between Forts Harker and Hays from nine o'clock in the morning until five in the afternoon in consequence of the passage of an immense herd of buffalo across the track."
Horace Greeley crossed the plains in 1859 in a stage coach, and as stated in his published letters, he saw a herd of buffalo that he estimated to contain over five millions.
While in their midst we not only had fresh meat at every meal, but we cut the flesh in strips and tied it to the wagons to dry and thus provided a small supply of "jerked" meat. In the dry, pure air of this region, though in the heat of August, fresh meat did not spoil but simply dried up, if cut in moderate sized pieces. This was also found to be the case with fresh beef in the mountains. We felt relieved and heartily glad when the last drove of buffalo was left behind. Familiarity with them, as with the Indians, destroyed all the poetry and romance about them. They were not a thing of beauty. An old buffalo bull with broken horns and numerous scars from a hundred fights, with woolly head and shaggy mane, his last year's coat half shed and half hanging from his sides in ragged patches and strips flying in the breeze, the whole covered over with dirt and patches of dried mud, presented a picture that was supremely ugly.
On the journey from St. Joe to Kearney we found, along the water courses and ravines, enough of dry wood and dead trees to supply us plentifully with fuel for cooking and occasionally to light up the camp in the evening. To make sure of never being entirely out of wood, a small supply was carried along on the wagons. Along the Platte there was practically no wood to be had. For one hundred and fifty miles we did not see a single tree, but the buffalo supplied us with a good fuel called "buffalo chips," which was scattered over the plains in abundance, and which in this dry country, burned freely and made a very hot fire. When approaching camp in the evening, the drivers would pick up armsfull of fuel for the use of the cook and for the evening camp fire, and place it in a pile as they came to a halt.
As soon as we reached camp and while others were taking care of the oxen, the cook built a fire, drove two forked sticks into the ground, one on each side of the fire, placed a cross stick on them, and then hung his pots and kettle over the blaze. A big pot of beans with pork was boiled or warmed over. Coffee was prepared, and dough made of flour and baking powder was baked either in the tin oven or a Dutch oven. Frequently some of the men were seated on the ground around the fire, stick in hand with a piece of pork on the end of it, held near the coals to toast. While eating and during the early evening, talking, story telling and ironical remarks about the prolonged picnic—as the trip was called—were indulged in.
We were now on the main route of travel between the East and the Pike's Peak gold fields. Horse and mule teams going West, and traveling faster than our ox train could go, passed us frequently, and gave us the latest general news from the States. We also began to meet the vanguard of the returning army of disappointed gold seekers. They came on foot, on horse back and in wagons drawn by horses, mules and oxen, and many of them were a sorry, ragged looking lot. Judging from their requests from us, their most pressing wants were tobacco and whisky. In those days Western towns were full of enthusiastic, sanguine, roving men who were ever ready for any new enterprise, and they were the first to rush to the gold regions in the spring. But lacking pluck, perseverance and the staying qualities, they were the first to rush back when the difficulties and discouragements of the undertaking appeared in their way.
These returners told sad stories about life in the mountains, the prospects and the danger from Indians on the road. They said that there was but little gold to be found, that very few of the miners were making expenses, that food was scarce, and that before we reached our destination, nearly everybody there would be leaving for home. Besides, they said, there were hundreds of Indians along the route, robbing and murdering the whites. Such stories had a discouraging effect on some of our drivers and I was very fearful that a few of them would leave us and join the homeward procession.
Some of these chaps showed a humorous vein in the mottoes painted on the sides of their wagons. On one was "Pike's Peak or bust," evidently written on going out; under it was written, "Busted." On another was, "Ho for Pike's Peak;" under it was, "Ho for Sweet Home."
Each exaggerated account of the Indians made by these people, brought us nearer and nearer to them and made them seem more and more dangerous. Finally one morning as we reached the top of a gentle swell in the plain, a large band of them suddenly appeared in full view, camped at the side of our road about half a mile ahead of us. From all appearances there were five or six hundred or more of them. They belonged to the western branch of the Sioux tribe. We stopped a few minutes to consider the situation. We had heard and read enough about Western Indians to know that the safest thing to do was to appear bold and strong, while a show of weakness and timidity was often dangerous. So we placed in our belts all our ornaments in the shape of pistols and ugly looking knives, and those who had rifles carried them. Then we drove boldly forward toward the camp. I rode the pony beside the driver of the foremost wagon with my old shot gun in hand. Soon two or three of their mounted warriors or hunters rode at full speed toward us and then without stopping circled off on the plain and back to their camp. They were evidently making observations.
Off to the north several hundred shaggy ponies were grazing in a green meadow near the river, and the greater part of their men seemed to be there with them. The camp was made up of some forty lodges, which looked like so many cones grouped on the plain.
These lodges were formed of poles, some fifteen feet long, the larger ends of which rested on the ground in a circle, while the smaller ends were fastened in a bunch at the top, with a covering of dressed buffalo skins stitched together. On one side was a low opening, which served for a door.
As we approached we were first greeted by a lot of dirty, hungry looking dogs, which barked at us, snarled and showed their teeth. Then there was a flock of shy, naked, staring children who at first kept at a safe distance, but came nearer as their timidity left them. The boys with their little bows and arrows were shooting at targets—taking their first lessons as future warriors of the tribe.
When we got near the edge of the camp several of the old men came forward to greet us with extended hands, saying "how! how! how!" and we had to have a handshake all around. Some of them knew a few words of English. They asked for whisky, powder and tobacco. Instead, we gave some of them a little cold "grub." They looked over all the wagons and their contents, so far as they could, and were particularly interested in the locomotive boiler which was placed on the running gear of a wagon without the box, and with the help of a little rude imagination, somewhat resembled a huge cannon. I told them it was a "big shoot," and that seemed to inspire them with great respect for it. They looked under it and over it and into it with much interest.
The greater part of the squaws were seated on the ground at the openings of their lodges, busily at work. Some were dressing skins by scraping and rubbing them, some making moccasins and leggings for their lazy lords, some stringing beads and others preparing food. The oldest ones, thin, haggard and bronzed, looked like witches. The young squaws, in their teens, round and plump, their faces bedaubed with red paint toned down with dirt, squatted on the ground and grinned with delight when gazed at by our crew of young men. We all traded something for moccasins and for the rest of the trip wore them instead of shoes.
Curious to see inside of the lodges, I took a cup of sugar and went into two or three under pretence of trading it for moccasins. Their belongings were lying around in piles, and the stench from the partly prepared skins and food was intolerable.
One old Indian seemed to think that I was hunting a wife, for he offered to trade me one of his young squaws for the pony. A pony was the usual price of a wife with these Western Indians. They exhibited no hostility whatever toward us. It might have been otherwise, had we been a weak party of two or three possessing something that they coveted.
They asked us if we saw any buffalo. When we told them that at a distance of two or three days' travel the plains were covered with them, they seemed greatly interested and before we got away began to take down some of their lodges and start off. They were out for their yearly buffalo hunt to supply themselves with meat for the winter. In moving they tied one end of their lodge poles in bunches to their ponies and let the other ends spread out and drag upon the ground, and on these dragging poles they piled their skins and other possessions. The young children and old squaws would often climb up on these and ride.
Cactus plants in hundreds of varieties grew in great abundance on these dry plains. They were beautiful to the eye, but a thorn in the flesh. As we walked through them their sharp needles would run through trousers and moccasins and penetrate legs and feet. We often ate the sickishly sweet little pears that were seen in profusion.
Prairie dogs by the million lived and burrowed in the ground over a vast region. The plains were dotted all over with the little mounds about two feet high that surrounded their holes. On these mounds the little animals would stand up and bark till one approached quite near, then dart into the holes. In places the ground was honeycombed with their small tunnels, endangering the legs of horses and oxen, which would break through the crust of ground into them. I shot at many of them, but never got a single animal, as they always dropped, either dead or alive, into the hole and disappeared from sight.
Many small owls sat with a wise look on top of these little mounds, and rattlesnakes, too, were often found there. When disturbed the owls and snakes would quickly fly and crawl into the holes. It was a saying that a prairie dog, an owl and a rattlesnake lived together in peace in the same hole. Whether the latter two were welcome guests of the little animal, or forced themselves upon his hospitality, in his cool retreat, I never knew.
One day we came to a wide stretch of loose dry sand, devoid of vegetation, over which we had to go. It looked like some ancient lake or river bottom. The white sand reflected the sun's rays and made it unpleasantly hot. The wheels sank into the sand and made it so hard a pull for the oxen that we had to double up teams, taking one wagon through and going back for another, so we only made about three miles that day.
The unexpected was always happening to delay us. The trip was dragging out longer than was first reckoned on, and the early enthusiasm was dying out. Walking slowly along nine or ten hours a day grew monotonous and tiresome. Then, after the day's work, to watch cattle one-half of every third night was a lonely, dreary task, and became intolerably wearisome. Standing or strolling alone, half a mile from camp, in the darkness, often not a sound to be heard except the howling of the wolves, and nothing visible but the sky above and the ground below, one felt as if his only friends and companions were his knife and his pistol.
In the early part of September violent thunderstorms came up every evening or night, with the appearance of an approaching deluge. Very little rain fell, however, but the lightning and thunder were the most terrific I ever saw or heard. There being no trees or other high objects around, we were as likely to be struck as any thing. For a few wet nights I crawled into one of the covered wagons to sleep, where some provisions had been taken out, and right on top of twelve kegs of powder. I sometimes mused over the probable results, in case lightning were to strike that wagon. We passed one grave of three men who had been killed by a single stroke of lightning. Graves of those who had given up the struggle of life on the way, were seen quite frequently along the route. They were often marked by inscriptions, made by the companions of the dead ones on pieces of board planted in the graves.
Now we came to extensive alkali plains, covered with soda, white as new fallen snow, glittering in the sunshine. No vegetation grew and all was desolation. An occasional shower left little pools of water here and there, strongly impregnated with alkali, and from them the oxen would occasionally take a drink. From that cause, or some other unknown one, they began to die off rapidly, and within three days one-third of them were gone. The remainder were too few to pull the heavy train. The situation was such that it gave us great anxiety.
What was to be done? Either leave part behind and go on to Denver with what we could take, or else keep things together by taking some of the wagons on for a few miles and then go back for the rest. The conclusion was to leave four loads of heavy machinery on the plains and go on with the other wagons as fast as possible. I asked the drivers if any of them would stay and guard those to be left. Tobias and the German volunteered to stay.
We selected a camping spot a mile away from the usually traveled road so as to avoid the scrutiny of other pilgrims and look like a small party camping to rest. Then we left them provisions for two or three weeks and went ahead. We guessed that we were then about 150 miles from Denver. The two left behind had no mishaps, but found their stay there all alone for two weeks very dreary and lonesome.
Tobias was for over a year one of my most valuable and agreeable assistants. The German, when in the mountains a short time, lost his eyes by a premature blast of powder in a mining shaft. I helped provide funds to send him East to his friends.
A few days before this misfortune of the death of our oxen and when the drivers were in their most discontented mood, Sollitt, ever suspicious, came to me quite agitated with a tale of gloomy forebodings. He said he had overheard fragments of a talk between the Missourians and some others who were quite friendly with them, which convinced him that a conspiracy was hatching to terminate the tiresome trip, by their deserting us in a body, injuring or driving off the oxen, or committing some more tragic act. He thereupon armed himself heavily with his small weapons, and advised me to do the same.
Instead of following the advice, I became more chatty and friendly with the men and talked of our trials and our better prospects. I discovered in a few a bitter feeling toward Sollitt, occasioned by some rough words or treatment they had received. Sollitt was honest and faithful and in many things very efficient, but was devoid of tact and agreeable ways toward those under his control, especially if he took a dislike to them. One man urged me to assert my reserved authority and take direct charge of the whole business of the train to the exclusion of Sollitt. I had no longings for the disagreeable task of a train master, and simply poured oil on the troubled waters, and went ahead.
When the oxen began to die off, Sollitt told me that he thought one of the Missourians had poisoned them and he disemboweled a number of the dead animals to see if the cause of death could be discovered. He found no signs of poison and nothing that looked suspicious in the stomachs; but he said, the spleens of all of them were in a high state of inflammation. I did not, however, understand that the oxen got their ailment from the Missourians.
One evening we saw the clear cut outline of the Rocky Mountains, including Long's Peak. We differed in opinion, at first, as to whether it was mountain or cloud and could not decide the question till next morning, when, as it was still in view, we knew it was mountain. For several days, though traveling directly toward the mountains, we seemed to get no nearer, which was rather discouraging.
Small flocks of antelope, fleet and graceful, were frequently seen gliding over the plain. They were very shy, and kept several gunshots away. But their curiosity was great, and if a man would lie down on the ground and wave a flag or handkerchief tied to a stick till they noticed it, they would first gaze at it intently and then gradually approach. In this way they were often enticed by hunters to come near enough for a shot.
Forty or fifty miles below Denver we came in view of one picturesque ruin—old Fort St. Vrain—with its high, thick walls of adobe situated on the north side of the Platte. It was built about twenty-five years before, by Ceran St. Vrain, an old trapper and Indian trader. These adobe walls, standing well preserved in this climate, it seemed to me, would be leveled to the ground by one or two good eastern equinoxial storms.