Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 2/Reminiscences of Honorable John Minto, Pioneer of 1844
Reminiscences of Honorable John Minto, Pioneer of 1844.
The following reminiscences of Hon. John Minto of his experiences on the Oregon Trail in 1844, were prepared only after long urging from many of his friends, among whom ex-Governor William P. Lord was probably the most influential. Mr. Minto held out against the suggestion for some time, believing that besides being laborious to himself, such a task was unnecessary, as many able writers had furnished histories of Oregon, and there was a great quantity of original matter already in print. He also said that present events were so much more important that the story of old times, besides being threadbare, would not be even interesting. He also thought that anything like a detailed account of his experiences might seem egotistical or trivial.
But against all these reasons for personal disinclination he finally yielded to importunity, and out of a life still active he has taken his time and made the effort to recall the daily incidents of the journey to Oregon in the immigrant train. Being asked how he should write it, he was answered "In such a way that if an artist desired he might reconstruct the scenes; or that the writer who may, and will some time, wish to give a vital description of the Oregon immigrant's life across North America would find there all that is necessary to create it again in literature; or, just as you would tell it to your grandchildren, so that they could see it." How faithfully he has followed this advice will be seen. Here is potentially material for the historian, the artist, and the novelist; and any child could read Mr. Minto's account with the same intelligence and interest he would Gulliver's travels or Robinson Crusoe's adventures.
It is not necessary here to discuss the value of such a contribution to the annals of Oregon. Any one acquainted with its history, and the better acquainted the more so, will find here matter and descriptions and feelings that he would not readily give up. History is derived from both documentary and from reminiscent sources. He who stops to argue which is the more valuable in determining exactly occurrences of the past can not claim to historical acumen. The historian will try to get both. It is of almost infinite importance to our history to secure, in their own language and conceptions, and even with their own predilections or prejudices from pioneers still living, all the reminiscent history available. Mr. Minto has performed his task most bravely, resolutely confining himself to simply such events as came within his own observation during one year, and giving no conclusions or theory of our history—matters upon which in other places he has expressed very positive and philosophical opinions.
In his statement of the incidents and the situations which led to the breaking up of the immigrant organization,—almost the usual history on the plains,—he shows the estimate almost instinctively made of a military man by the American pioneer who is easily amenable to civil but not to military organization. General Gilliam was a brave and headlong leader, and where violent impact against a foe was required, would rank along with the many dashing officers of the South or West. These qualities were required by the little Republic of Oregon in 1847, and Gilliam was the man chosen to lead the column against the Cayuses. He was a striking figure in our history, but military methods or manners, especially of the impetuous stamp, had to be abandoned in bringing families to Oregon. We hope to place in order all that may be remembered of this officer of the Provisional Government, who was also known as the dispenser of a most generous hospitality at his home in Polk County.These reminiscences of Mr. Minto are here given as written, except with some alterations of captions and paragraphing. We consider it of almost priceless value to thus secure and preserve the literal expressions and grammatical construction in use by the self-made Oregon pioneer, and this will be still more appreciated by the critical student of the future.
H. S. LYMAN.
THE OREGON TRAIL IN 1844.
ON TO THE FRONTIER.
"Oh! many years have flown since the news of Oregon
Reached our homes beyond the mountains far away;
Since we harnessed up the teams, when the springtide's sunny beams
Showed the paths across the plains and mountains grey."
About the middle of February, 1844, the writer left his father's home at Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, intending to reach the frontier of Iowa, near Dubuque; his purpose being to seek opportunity to learn to earn his livelihood on the land. He was leaving the occupation of coal miner his brother miners being on a strike, caused by a glutted market for coal. From the coal mining district of Newcastle on Tyne his family had reached New York June 6, 1840, and had reached Pittsburg in October following, when he was eighteen years of age. By means not now remembered he had heard of the Rocky Mountains, and of Oregon, and the subject coming up between his father and a few friends at their first Christmas dinner together, he rather surprised his elders at the table by remarking, "If I live, I will go across the Rocky Mountains."
The idea never left me for long, but furnished me dreams by night and thoughts by day, and finally caused me to seek information from the few books and papers coming within reach of the foreign-born miners, in my Pittsburg home, and to break away from the clannishness of my class, and to determine to observe American country life.
In 1844 a deck passage on a steamer was the cheapest and most common way for people of moderate means to reach any point of the frontier drained by the Mississippi system, and that means I adopted. Observing, however, that the boat was short-handed I offered to ship as a deckhand, and after a few questions by the mate, I was accepted. An extraordinary storm of wind and rain set in soon after starting, and continued until we reached the mouth of the Ohio, at which time half the crew were sick, and the rest nearly so from overwork. In this condition we arrived at Saint Louis, and in order to get a good night's sleep, away from the disturbance of the boat, two of us went far back in the city to a lodging house. I had a bed, the top cover of which was a fine buffalo robe, which carried me in fancy to the top of the Rocky Mountains, when the mate of another steamboat came in, known to my comrade, who asked him on what boat he was and its destination. The mate named his boat, and said he, she was "bound up the Mississippi;" but he was sorry it was not the Missouri instead, as there was a party assembling at Weston intending to cross the Rocky Mountains to Oregon, and if he could join such a party he would bid good-bye to steamboating for awhile. My fate had found me. I was taken by surprise. The mate being asked how others going to Oregon would help him on that trip, replied, "There are men with families and means who need help, and will furnish board to single men for their work."
I did not sleep much that night; but was up and searching the business places as they opened for my outfit for the trip. Got me a nice new rifle. By my father, who was a self-made gunsmith, I had been given a fine double-barreled fowling piece. I also laid in a supply of ammunition, purchasing five pounds of powder, twenty-five pounds of lead, one dozen boxes of percussion caps, five pounds of shot, and one gross of fishhooks, and lines to match; also, I bought two pocketknives, two sheath knives, a hatchet to answer for a tomahawk, and an axe. This left me hardly enough money to pay my passage to Weston, Missouri. But wages and return of my passage money was due me from the steamboat. To that I returned and asked a settlement. My wages to Saint Louis from Wheeling amounted to the same I had paid for my deck passage from Pittsburg to Dubuque. I got my wages, but the clerk would not alter the books as to passage money received. I did not haggle, but hurried to a Missouri-river steamer, and was aboard before noon.
There I met men, with guns and beaver traps, who could talk of nothing but Oregon. I passed some of my time helping the deckhands, and was urged to ship with them but declined. I also listened, as we steamed along, to the fascinating descriptions of life in Texas by a young man from that then rising republic; but he said "No, stranger; don't you go to Texas. They have slaves there, and you could not hold your tongue on that subject, and that is dangerous there.' Manly fellow. We parted friends. At Weston I was offered a position as tin peddler—not an unpromising prospect. But I said "No "again; Oregon before that, and that in a slave state, too. I therefore proceeded with my arrangements, hiring, along with four others, our baggage hauled to Saint Joseph, then but a mere village of two or three stores and one hotel. There I met an intending Oregon immigrant, who gave me confirmation of the steamboat man's report as to men of means needing single men to help them on the journey. I whirled my cap up and said, "Boys, here is the fellow that goes to Oregon, or dies in a sand bank."
At Weston I had my first personal impressions of the North American Indians. The Iowa tribes, the Sacs and Foxes, had recently been placed upon a reservation on Wolf River, some thirty miles west, and had come to town to receive their annuities. They were performing their war dances in front of the few business houses, and asking small contributions in return, wherewith to get whiskey. They were large, powerful men, and one of the biggest and oldest hugged me, and planted a slobbery kiss on my cheek in requital for a dime. This took out of me a great lump of Fennimore Cooper's ideal Indian—which I had previously imbibed. The following night these Indians broke into a shack used as a saloon, and had a great debauch. Next morning, however, I went across the river to the camps of the Indians to inspect their manner of life, but there were few of them to be seen; one man I found alone in the camp. He was a strongly formed .person, and seemed to make as much a study of me as I of him; a man, apparently of great self-control. I was to see him again as chief of his rough and reckless young men.
Next morning one of the young men who had traveled on the same boat with me from Saint Louis, Willard H. Rees, joined me on the way in a journey to reach the emigrant camps. We arrived about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and were introduced by C. M. Saxen, a man from New* York, to Col. Michael T. Simmons—his title being bestowed later by the emigrants, who had placed him second in command to Gen. Cornelius Gilliam. A meal was hospitably set before us, and while we were eating my comrade and Colonel Simmons talked of the probable reward in land that those who reached Oregon would be given by national grant. This was the first I had ever heard of such inducement. Of the Linn bill, Simmons said: "It has passed the senate, but failed in the house;" but he was satisfied that it, or a bill like it, would ultimately be passed by congress. However, I had little care, or, indeed, comprehension, of the subject at the time . I wished to learn if any in camp were needing assistance. It was thought not, but a man named Morrison, living three miles from the river, and who planned to join the emigration, was reported as requiring two men.
We spent the night in the camp, but stirred early next morning, and were across the river and at the Morrison farm just as the owner left the breakfast table. Being informed what we wanted, he said, "Yes; I supposed I had my help engaged, but one young man has concluded to get married, and has put off going to Oregon until next year; and the father of the other is very old, and sick now, not likely to recover, so he thinks it his duty to stay at home. I can furnish you," he continued, "bed and board, and have your washing and mending done; and you shall give me your help, as I require, to get my family and effects to Oregon. I have four guns, and two wagons, and after we are fairly started my oldest children will be able to keep up the loose stock; so that one of us can be spared to hunt every day, if we choose, and you shall have your turn at that."
These conditions were agreed to as soon as stated, and we were seated to breakfast. This finished, we found Mr. Morrison at the door with a horse, saddled. He addressed Rees, saying, "Take this money and ride to the mill at Saint Joe and buy nine barrels of flour, and Nancy, how much corn meal have we in the house?—"Oh, a right smart chance," was the answer of the person addressed, Mrs. Morrison. "Well," continued our new employer, "get three hundred pounds of corn meal; I reckon that will last as long as it will keep good."
He then gave Rees directions how to find the nearest way to Saint Joseph, and Rees started. He then asked me to go with him, and taking an axe led the way to some young oak trees a long rifle shot from the house. He cut a selected young tree, and taking the clean stem of good length for a wagon pole, took the butt end on his shoulder and asked me to take the other, and we carried it near the front of the residence. Here he set me to work taking the bark off with a dress knife. He was yet watching my efforts to follow directions when Mrs. Morrison, from the door of the kitchen end of the double cabin, said, "Wilson, you will feel mighty queer if that man serves you a Yankee trick and goes off with your horse and money." Mr. Morrison paused a little and replied, "Well, if he does, he'd better not let me overtake him; that's all I've got to say." She laughed, and retired within. He seemed satisfied I could do this first assistance in preparing for the Oregon Trail, and left me at the pole while he attended to other matters; but there was a warming sensation around my heart, as something almost forced me to say, "Trusting, and therefore trusty." The wife's laugh was still sounding something like that.
I worked assiduously for a few minutes, but happening to look in the direction whence we had brought the young oak, saw a girl of twelve or thirteen going from the house to a near by spring for water. If my thought had been given voice it would have been, "There, Johnny Minto; there goes your wife that is to be." I felt something akin to shame at my prompt thought, but the reader must understand that my mind had been nurtured on a diet of Scotch and English ballads, the lines of one of which moved it now:
"The farmer's boy grew up a man, and the good old farmer died,
And left the lad the farm he had, with the daughter for his bride."
"Evil to him who evil thinks." The girl lived in perfect freedom and was not asked in marriage until late in May of 1847. In July of that year we were married. The boy, though he had worn the declaration of his intention to become a citizen near his heart for some months, felt this day for the first time that he was an American, and among Americans who did not question his right to be one of them.
The Oregon trail, over which I shall attempt to conduct my readers, was much more than the wheel tracks of laden wagons. It was made, at first, and is yet worth writing about on account of the spirit and object of the people who traveled it. It will be my purpose to give incidents illustrating this spirit as we traveled. However, I will give first a little side light on the life at home of those with whom it was my good fortune to be cast—the old and the young of the family seeming already something like father and mother and brothers and sisters to me. From Mrs. Morrison's own lips I learned that the journey for which she was bending all her energies in preparation, was not in her judgment a wise business movement; but "Wilson wished to go," and that settled the question with her.
Late upon this first day of my introduction to the family and its enterprise, the sheriff of the county, with his wife and grown daughter, came to pay a visit of friendship and farewell; Mrs. Morrison's youngest brother with a grown daughter also came. Neighbors, too, helpful and otherwise, had been going and coming all day. In arranging accommodations for the night, the oldest children were sent to sleep with kindred near by, to make room for the visiting friends from a distance. Rees returning made six adults where the normal conditions were for six children, from an infant up to the age of thirteen. There were four beds made in the room, screened by homemade blankets, or quilts; and a shakedown was placed in the middle of the floor for Rees and myself. The two girls were keeping up a playful titter somewhere out of sight, and I confess that I got into my couch with some feeling of constraint. But the sheriff relieved the situation, when all were placed, by asking from his perch, "Can either of you young men sing?" Rees replied, "Yes, John has lots of songs." Of course, John was pressed to begin, and the girls unseen were making a lively merriment which converted John's bashfulness into a spirit of mischief, and he sang to them:
"Will you go, lassie, go to the braes of Balquihidder,
Where the blaeberries grow, mang the bonny highland heather;
Where the deer and the roe, lightly bounding together,
Spend the lang summer day 'mid the braes of Balquihidder."
In front of the house we had that day begun to change a large four-horse wagon, to be drawn by yokes of heavy oxen. Its last use had been to bring in a full load of venison and wild honey, results of a three weeks' outing of Morrison and his wife's brothers, Robert and James Irwin; the latter, a listener to my song. He said, after I had finished, "Well, there is surely more where that came from; sing us another, young man." Recollecting that this audience represented a breaking of strong family ties and friendly ties, I sang Tom Moore's hymn to friendship:
There's not in this wide world a valley so sweet
As the vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet;
The last ray of feeling, even life, shall depart
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart.
Yet it was not that nature had spread o'er the scene
Her purest of crystal and brightest of green;
'T was not her soft magic of streamlet or rill,
Oh! no,—it was something more exquisite still:
'T was that friends, the beloved of my bosom, were near;
Who made every dear scene of enchantment more dear;
And who has felt how the best charms of nature improve
When we see them reflected from looks that we love?
Sweet vale of Avoca! how calm could I rest
In thy bosom of shade, with the friends I love best,
Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease,
And our hearts, like the waters, be mingled in peace.
As to Mr. Morrison, the man with whom I had made the verbal agreement, which was not fully filled in less than one year, I had found before the day was out, that he was one of the foremost and most trusted men, and a pioneer of Andrew County, Missouri. He had sold his farm for cash and was investing the most of its price in his outfit. For the three weeks prior to his vacating his premises there was an increasing stream of friends and family connections, or persons on business, visiting his place. Some were parties with articles to sell, which they considered specially fit for the trip to Oregon. This increased so much that on the last Sunday, as mentioned above, the family were hardly able to occupy their home.
I think the tables were set four times for dinner that day, the oldest men—according to the prevailing custom—being served first. After dinner, as the day was warm, these ranged themselves on extemporized seats on the shady side of the house. I had taken a stroll in the woods with a youth of about my own age, a cousin of the family. He seemed unable to talk of any other subject than the number of Indians in Oregon, and the danger we should be in of losing our scalps. Somewhat disgusted with his loquacity I led the way to where the elders were seated and found them also talking upon the estimates of the number of Indians in Oregon; Judge Irwin evidently taking his sister's view of the journey as an unnecessary search for toil and danger. Finally turning to Mr. Morrison, he said, "Well, Wilson, why are you going, anyhow?"
Mr. Morrison, who was naturally slow of speech, hesitated a moment, and then said: "Well, I allow the United States has the best right to that country, and I am going to help make that right good. Then I suppose it is true, as you have been saying, there are a great many Indians there that will have to be civilized, and though I am no missionary, I have no objection to helping in that. Then, I am not satisfied here. There is little we raise that pays shipment to market; a little hemp and a little tobacco. Unless a man keeps niggers (and I won't) he has no even chance; he can not compete with the man that does. There is Dick Owens, my neighbor, he has a few field hands, and a few house niggers. They raise and make all that the family and themselves eat and wear, and some hemp and tobacco besides. If markets are good, Dick will sell; if not, he can hold over, while I am compelled to sell all I can make every year in order to make ends meet. I'm going to Oregon, where there'll be no slaves, and we'll all start even."
It was some time after this (very long speech for Mr. Morrison) before any one ventured to break the silence; and then none in controversy. They all knew that he would live up to his own ideas, come what might. As for me, my heart warmed to the quiet fearlessness of the words. If I now had any definite purpose in being there with him, beyond the desire for action—the adventure natural to youth,—it was for the freedom, the self-ownership, the self-reliant self-direction the words implied.
CROSSING THE FRONTIER.
The next day we crossed the Missouri River, and camped outside the state. Some friends and relatives went to the bank and bid good-bye at the ferryboat. Mr. James Irwin came across and stayed all night. He had solicited the singing of the "Meeting of the Waters" several times since our first meeting, and after supper begged for it again. I was in a mood to give pathos to the verses, for I was about to lengthen the one thousand miles I was already separated from my own loved friends. As I finished I noted that the kind old man's face bore ample evidence that he thought it was a parting never to meet again on earth.
Next morning all was bustle. I went to get up the cattle, while Rees used a natural talent for order in putting the camp equipages in the wagon. I went to every cow and ox to make sure whether they carried our brand. Within three weeks I could tell any one of ours as far as I could distinguish the form or movement. We drove off the bottom lands toward the Indian agency on Wolf River, but were stopped several hours in making a small stream passable, its banks being low and soft. We passed within sight of the buildings occupied by the Iowas, and camped on Wolf River. This stream was so near the surface that wagons went down to the hubs in the rich soil. Assistants were numerous but unorganized—got into each other's way.
I took a few hours to go with Captain Morrison to the barrack-like building of the Iowas to purchase some of their dried corn. The house was some one hundred and twenty feet long by twenty-four feet wide. A space of eight feet wide was sunk to within ten feet of each end, and within this sunken space the family fires were built. A strong shelving about four feet wide and three feet above the general floor ran along each side. This could have been used for family beds, but was used for food stuffs, among which the dried corn was in evidence, both by sight and odor. The kernels were in great variety of color, and we found this grain a pleasant substitute for vegetables on the way. It was hard to say from the manner of the Indian women, who sold small amounts of this corn, whether the offers to purchase were considered intrusive or not. I think the Indian must get his unsurprisable nature from his mother. I also got a few hours of looking for prairie chickens and flushed a few. The noise they made in getting to wing was indication that their nesting season was on, and where the last season's grass had not been burned the cover was excellent.
After making the crossing of Wolf River we were detained for some days near the agency by the almost constant rains. The weather, however, was so warm that I had become indifferent to being wet. A nice gentleman, named Bishop, beginning his second trip to secure the life-preserving quality of the arid country air, here died of the continued dampness. He had a costly and complete outfit, the care of which, together with his burial, delayed us somewhat. The missionary preached to those who would listen, and gave bibles to those who would take them; while at no great distance others were noisily racing horses with Indians of their sort. This occurred Sunday, May 12.
We calculated that we were now. thirty miles west of Saint Joseph, and, leaving on the fifteenth, we drove out on the divide between the drainage to Wolf River and to the Nimahaw. On the twentieth we effected a military and civil organization, not more than eight miles from the agency. It was then a spirit-stirring sight to see eighty-four white covered wagons moving along the top of the highest land westward. On the twenty-first occurred the first wedding on the way—for be it remembered we were a fully equipped American community, with all the incidents of orderly community life. On the morning of the twenty-second we had our first Indian trouble. It was found then that six cattle, all first class, had been cut out and driven towards the agency. The flush young grass afforded a trail that we followed at a brisk trot. The Indians had killed and divided four of our animals before we overtook them; then they ran to the agency, leaving two more killed. The agent compelled restoration from the choicest oxen recently purchased for the Indians. He and the chief—the only man I had seen awake in their camp the morning I visited it near Saint Joseph, after they had rifled the saloon—visited our camp and made a compromise. This chief was evidently a man of great natural power, to endure the freaks of his grown-up children, several of whom I judged over six feet high. However, they got small courtesies from us, coming in a heavy rain. One tent was furnished them. It was very difficult to start a fire. One of the youngest had secured a coon, and, thrusting a stick lengthwise through the body, turned it in the struggling blaze so as to burn the hair off. The chief only sat; the others stood stoically in a close group, while the coon was still further turned over the fire until roasted, and then divided, though still rare. The arms borne by these Indians were bows and steel-tipped arrows, with belt knives in a few instances. Their faces showed little concern over any danger they might be in; though in an adjoining tent some of our boys—not the bravest, I think—were expressing eagerness for the general's permission to "kill the —— Injuns." The latter departed early, and, I think, hungry, next morning; and so ended the first and only trouble we had with Indians till the scattered trains got among expert horse thieves and petty pilferers on the Umatilla and Columbia Rivers.
We followed the Nimahaw divide to near the southern head, where we came to the main Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, on the drainage into the Blue Fork of the Kansas. Colonel Ford's company had just passed westward, and had driven across a small stream called the Black Vermillion.
The nearest I can now trace the route by names or position is by towns on or near the route. Leaving the agency of Sacs and Foxes, we passed via Hamlin, Fairview, Woodlawn, and Centralia, crossing Black Vermillion River near Bassett; thence to crossing of Big Blue, north of its junction with Little Blue; thence west and north to Hanover, and followed the line of the Saint Joseph and Grand Island Railroad into Nebraska, east of Fairburg, and thence up the north side of Little Blue, near the Union Pacific Railroad to Hastings, striking the main Platte River about six miles west of Prosser, then following its south bank to west of Big Spring, and crossing the South Platte, and striking the North Platte nearly opposite Oshkosh. Along the North Platte the trail was by the south bank via Chimney Rock, Scott's Bluff, and Horse Creek, into the present State of Wyoming; thence it continued on the same side to near the mouth of Camp Creek, and crossed, leaving North Platte near Altona, and making a very dry drive to Sweetwater, near Independence Rock, and thence up the Sweetwater, to its chief sources, keeping generally near its north bank, to the South Pass. Such was our route of travel up to the east slopes of the Rocky Mountains, covering fully, in actual travel, one thousand miles, but not over nine hundred miles air line.
OF DELAYS AND DISSATISFACTION.
Returning now to a detail of the journey, and its early vicissitudes.
Neal Gilliam, an intrepid and well known soldier of the South had been elected general, and the whole company had been divided up into three bands, with a captain for each, Morrison being one of the three captains. At Black Vermillion, owing to some little indisposition of one of the general's married daughters, we camped a day and a half within two miles of the stream, during which time Col. Nat Ford's company crossed it with ease. From the time of leaving the Missouri River till reaching the Vermillion we had been receiving showers of rain,—often copious ones, too,—almost every day.
At this point, in order to refresh my recollection, or perhaps to avail myself of the language of another participant in the troubles of our train, I take recourse to the journal of Rev. E. E. Parrish, and find the following entry for May 31: "The first birth occurred in our camp. Much lightning, wind, and rain is noted; the extreme south branch of the Nimahaw River is bridged and next morning the train passed over but camped for two days out of respect and care for motherhood"—dates and entries of E. E. Parrish. (I kept a journal myself during the first two months, but the only points I now venture to quote from mine is that during that time there were only eight days marked fair.)
As one of my own tasks for June 5 I find that a young man was ordered staked out as a punishment for making a threat to shoot another with whom he had quarreled, and the duty of guarding the culprit devolved upon me as junior officer. This was in itself very disagreeable, but rendered doubly so by the young fellow trying to quarrel with me, while I acted as guard.
June 6.—"We were on the Burnett Trail of 1843, which started from near Independence. There were hints of dissatisfaction at our delays for what were deemed insufficient reasons.
"Somewhat cloudy this morning. Camp remains stationary to-day on account of the illness of Mrs. Gage, the general's daughter. Yesterday we were much cheered and revived on striking the Burnett Trace."
June 7.—"Made a good start and came to a creek in a distance of about one and a half miles. We found the creek up and rising, and are water-stayed until we can build a boat. This causes some dissatisfaction in camp, as they think they might have gone over yesterday."—Parrish's Journal.
The first wagon arrived at the Bank at 1 o'clock P. M., and some of the wagons might have gone over then, though the stream was rising rapidly. Next day it was bank full and still rising. Then we were sixteen days at or near this stream.
On June 13, all except four families were compelled to break camp and move on to higher ground, the bottoms becoming flooded. It rained every day from the seventh to the seventeenth, inclusive, and sometimes very heavy. Had we moved as we should on the sixth, we should have crossed the Big Blue with or before Ford's company. Instead, we did not get away from the Big Blue till June 25. Our delay was a grave misfortune. Our men all did everything better when traveling every day. Even one day's idleness made them slack in starting the next morning. Neither would it be possible for any man, whatever his title, to retain long his control over free men, if it is suspected that he cares first for his own.
Our difficulties here were somewhat mitigated. The rains, although almost incessant, were warm, and youngsters, like the writer, were out with their guns nearly all the time we were water-stayed at Black Vermillion. The passenger pigeons were flying in flocks southward. It was the last time I ever saw that wonderful sight. Some of the boys (this means all the unmarried men) tried to get some with the rifle, but the birds rarely alighted. A German and myself had fowling guns; he killed many and I some. My special delight was in roaming the country by myself. Among other things I made a very thorough examination of the Blue Mound, and if it had not been such an immense mass should have left it believing that it was the work of man. In one of my rambles I started a couple of red deer, but found no sign of having hit either of them. They were the only deer I saw on the trip. On the whole the country was remarkably clear of game, and I found that my destructiveness was very much lowered by the effect of the surroundings—the joy of freedom in the rich and beautiful country making me indifferent about killing things. On the Nimahaw bottoms, for instance, I saw at a distance a very large turkey run from cover to cover. I did not attempt to beat the thicket I had seen the turkey enter. Later I came to a beautiful grove, mostly iron wood, and stopping to enjoy the scene, flushed a hen turkey (as I suppose), and shot carelessly with one barrel with small shot, which I hoped had not touched the bird the moment I lowered my gun. We were then near the most western range of this royal game bird.
At length, determining to get ahead, we took our axes and waded into the timber lining the stream, while the water was still knee deep, and cut down the largest cotton wood trees we could find. These we shaped into large canoes, and lashed two together so that the center of the bottom of each would just receive the wheels of the respective sides of a wagon. This was expeditiously accomplished, and the wagons were loaded on easily by the men of the company applying their own arms and broad shoulders; but as the stream fell rapidly, the bank on the further side became exposed, and in order to bring the loaded wagons to firm land beyond it was necessary to use oxen and log chains up the bank.
This Black Vermillion Creek was a small impediment in ordinary seasons, and it was not difficult to make the cattle swim it. Indeed, most of them had had some practice before. But at the Big Blue, our next crossing, the case was different. Here it was difficult and not free from danger to swim the loose stock, the river being high, yet about five feet within its banks. Here I had an adventure. Early in the morning of June 22 we attempted to swim the horses of Morrison's train. Being a fair swimmer, I rode in at the ferry landing a large finely bred four-year-old filly, with only a bridle on. She went in out of sight, carrying me down by my hold on her mane. I let go instinctively and came up before her; but as she rose, as the nearest object in sight, she came directly toward me, striking with her fore feet on the water. I instantly threw myself over on my back to save my head and face, but for several strokes she pawed the water away from my breast. It was a close call.
After some search a favorable place to swim the cattle was found about three miles down the river, and there we drove them accordingly. The water was here ten feet below the bank, but the current was very strong, and the point we were to leave projected sharply into the stream, causing a large and strong eddy below, along the course of which were formed funnel-shaped whirls as large as a barrel head upon the surface. The plan of swimming the cattle was for the guides—four or five—to go in ahead, each with a strong ox, and take the lower side of the animal, holding to him with the hand by the withers, and cuff his cheek if necessary to guide him to the going out place. But this proved hazardous. Without thinking of the string of suck holes, I went in with the lead ox, but before I had time to get to his head, he was taken right down by one of the whirlpools. Thinking I could save myself and not hinder the beast, I took my hand from him. Then the water clutched and pulled me under. By a desperate effort, I kept my eyes out, so that I could see the boys and men on the bank. But far quicker than it can be told, I was carried down to another swirl, and again taken down, without being able to take breath; and as I went I saw a boy start for camp. I was struggling with all my might, and fully realized my danger. No, I did not pass in review my sins, as I have read of; I did seem to see my mother weeping for me. Yet there was another thought with me: If I did not get a breath until the third swirl took me, I would go down and dive for the main current. As this passed like a flash, I felt something touch my right side, and put out my hand finding the object to be the back of an ox, which by superior strength had overtaken and was passing me. This enabled me to get to surface and breathe. How restful it was to just keep my hold. He was aiming for the proper point, and after resting a little further, I swam back, below the eddy, thinking I would trust the courage and strength of an ox in the future. I was twice reported drowned that day.
The night of June 22 we were all across, and camped under large cottonwood trees on the west bank of the Big Blue. Here a small cyclone struck us in the night. It blew the most of the tents loose and cast water down upon us in sheets rather than drops. Its roaring through the trees, and casting down branches from them, was fearful for a few minutes, and after it was over the fact that neither man nor beast was hurt, though thoroughly drenched, was truly wonderful. Near this camp a human skeleton was found, concealed in a thicket; and a broken arrow, indicating the mortal wounding of a warrior, red or white. In the timber belts of this stream the last signs of wild bees were seen by us.
Some signs of dissatisfaction with General Gilliam's leadership are manifest. We travel westward, indeed, but there is not the general eagerness to do and help that there was before we were stopped on the east side of the stream so often for so slight apparent reasons.
On June 30 we stopped for washing and drying out purposes, and in the afternoon the boys and young men went down stream a little way and bathed and played as though danger from any source were not thought of. That night a gun was fired by a guard, and a call to arms rang out. Rees succeeded in waking me as he finished dressing, and left me yet rather dazed. I then heard a conversation between the tent and the big wagon, out of which Captain Morrison was taking his rifle and accoutrements. Mrs. Morrison was asking to know where her gun was. He replied, "Oh, you will not need a gun." "Well, Wilson, I hope not I am sure, but I want to be ready in case there is need." He replied, "Rees has taken the little rifle, and yours is hanging to the bows of the little wagon, the pouch and powderhorn with it. I am going to the guard tent."
I got into my clothes as quickly as possible, passing Wash Shaw, the captain's second son, outside the tent, trying to load his gun, but having not fully completed his dressing, his pants being drawn over only one leg. He was not acting a part either. Captain Shaw was "the officer of the day," and could not act well. He remarked to me as I went past his tent, "The boys are getting very careless, John; somebody has fired a gun outside the cattle.' I was ignorant, but not deceived then. It makes my flesh creep even now to think of the undrilled condition we were in. This Captain Shaw, whose wife was a sister of General Gilliam, was by nature much more capable of generalship than her brave, impulsive brother, who from the day we voted him his title had never got his head down to the importance of drill, or even a plan of defense in case of a sudden attack; and we were now just entering the great game range, and liable to such an attack any day or night. I saw the funny side of the false alarm then, but now I do not wonder at the unrest Mr. Parrish's journal betrays.
SUMMER AND THE PLAINS AT LAST.
On July 2 the first antelope was brought into camp. We are now following up the Little Blue, the drainage of the west branch of the main stream. We followed out thence to the divide between that and the Platte, and struck that remarkable stream about twelve miles east of where Fort Kearney was subsequently built.
On July 4 the general's orders were: "A rest for the cattle, wash day for the women, and a day to hunt for the men."
This writer, under a news tip, left camp alone early, his burning desire being to kill an antelope. The extraordinary rains of the season had produced a corresponding growth of grass. There was here only a light fringe of timber on the largest creeks; outside of that all was an ocean of lush green grass, most of which was then in heavy seed stem. Walking in this luxuriance became as laborious as wading in water. I failed of seeing any game, but produced a little scare by being myself seen and mistaken for an Indian, on account of being observed alone. One of the men who had seen me read me rather a sharp lecture for going so far thus; and it was imprudent. Taking this reproof in good part, I soon found myself listening to a group of old men at Colonel Simmons' camp discussing the active business conditions some of them supposed to exist in Oregon. As it existed to my mind as a totally new country, I ventured to reply to the opinion expressed by one that we should find money very plenty in Oregon. I said that there would be no money there; that we should have to depend upon what we raised from the soil and the wild game we killed. An old Virginian, in protest, replied: "No money there, John? Why, man alive, John, money grows thar!' and Simmons, in quite fun, added: "Yes, and feather beds grow on the bushes."
This was the sociable camp of a coterie of friends who became the first American settlers north of the Columbia River. They were G. W. Bush, M. T. Simmons, David Kindred, and Gabriel Jones. Mr. Bush was understood to be assisting Messrs. Kindred and Jones with necessary means. That night Mr. Kindred's youngest son was to be married by Rev. R. Cave, contrary, however, to the father's consent or wishes. The ceremony was not consummated, because the quiet, kindly old man sat up all night with a brace of old-time flintlock cavalry pistols to enforce his opposition.
On July 5 we made our last camp on the waters of the Little Blue, and on July 6 drove up onto the divide between this stream and the Platte. Near noon we were halted by one of those sudden downpours of rain which seem to be characteristic of this region. We were traveling on the highest land in sight, but were nearing a depression leading down to the stream we had left in the morning. The water came down so suddenly that the depression became in a few minutes a raging flood. All the drivers were soaked, but the families had the shelter of the wagon covers. The shower stopped as suddenly as it had started, and in order to let the surface water drain away we unhitched the teams and let the oxen in the yokes feed from the lush grass. The sun came out hot and bright, and we were all as gay and cheerful as the light about us. Not a tree or bush was in sight, but a boundless view of grass-covered country. There was a considerable variety of wild flowers, and many of the mothers and daughters amused themselves gathering them. Mrs. Morrison came toward our wagon with some, where a lot of us youngsters were swapping yarns, and said: "Here, you young men, is something that will tell whether you are straight or not. If any of you have left girls behind you you should have treated better, just touch this weed and it will tell on you by wilting. John, you try it first." I stepped toward her and did as she required. The plant wilted, and, figuratively speaking, I wilted, too. It was my first sight of the sensitive plant, and the experiment with it afforded great fun for those present.
We camped that night on the divide between the waters of the west fork of the Little Blue and the Platte. "The distance across is thirty-five or forty miles. The bottoms of the Platte Valley are estimated at eight miles wide. It is now thirteen days since we crossed the Big Blue. We laid by two days in all. This has been a cloudy day and cool. Two antelopes were killed to-day, one by the general, and the other by Louis Crawford (the general's brother-in-law). ——— This camp is six miles up the Platte from where we struck the bottom about six miles east of where Fort Kearney was built. Here are bones of buffaloes and other animals in abundance, so I have called it 'The Valley of Dried Bones.' To-day a man having seen us from the river, called on us as we passed. He was going down the river with three flatboats from the upper country, laden with furs. Captain Saunders talked with him." So reads the aged preacher's journal, which I depend on for dates.
Here I had an experience with antelopes. My detail for hunting fell on that day and I left camp early, just as the trains started. I was soon among the sand hills bounding the south edge of the Platte bottom. Antelopes I saw in plenty, but always running. Several times I tried to get a shot by riding one side of a hill while the game passed on the other, but repeatedly failed. I finally followed one at sight till it seemed to get over its alarm, and tied my horse so as to approach it on foot cautiously around a hill, but higher up than the game. Getting around the hill and cautiously looking where I expected to see the one, I was surprised to see eight instead. But they were too far off for a successful shot. I only took a glimpse, then dodged back and got my horse, and quickly made my way as far as I dared, not to disturb my splendid game, on horseback. There I tied my animal, and carefully made my approach, expecting every moment to meet the wary creatures and have a point blank shot—certain out of the eight antelopes of getting one, or perhaps more. I was a little past where I expected to see my game, when an added step brought in view eight white moving objects. A second steady look and they were clearly defined; eight white-topped wagons of our train, fully two miles distant! The intensity of the hunter's passion had blinded the hunter. I had little doubt of that then, and I have none now. This was on July 7. We left the Missouri May 9, so that we were sixty-one days making two hundred miles, as the bird flies. Rain and bad generalship were responsible for this.
"July 8.—A cloudy morning, with prospect of clearing away; cattle much scattered; river rising so that we have to wade waist deep to get wood. It cleared off and was warm, and hard on the oxen in our journeyings up the Platte. We were most of the day passing the island. It is said to be thirty miles long. Four antelopes brought in to-day.
"July 9.—clear, fine morning; a little cool. It is the warmest day we have had, and will soon dry up the mud. We had to drive slow, but made a fine day's drive. Our road lay up the river, near the bank. The Platte is very wide for the quantity of water. It is full of small islands. The hunters brought in nine antelopes and saw one buffalo this afternoon. The night is cool and pleasant.
"July 10.—little cloudy this morning. One antelope before breakfast and one after noon. Nothing strange occurred, except [sight of] the prairie dog towns; they are singular animals. It has been a warm day.
"July 11.—fine, clear morning; made an early start, and traveled four or five miles, and then stopped to kill buffalo. They are found here in vast numbers. They were first discovered by Mr. George Nelson, who gave notice, when all who could raise a horse and gun were after them. Fourteen were killed. It is difficult to form an estimate of the number to be seen at a look. This afternoon, after Nelson came for horses to pack in the meat, nine horses and mules were sent out. I went with them and saw four buffalo lying within a short distance. The general was one of the hunters who killed them. He advised getting wagons to haul in the meat, instead of packing. Some returned for wagons, and got a fine wetting, for a thunder shower came over, and from the clouds torrents of rain descended, with wind, and gave us a mighty wetting. On our return to camp, Mr. Joseph Caples shot a long distance at an antelope, and broke its hind leg. But the fun began when Samuel Ferguson, on horseback, tried to catch it. After a fine race, he overtook it and dismounted to kill it, when it ran again. They pursued it on foot and finally killed it. Some reached camp a little before dark through a hard storm of wind and rain.
"July 12.—Cloudy; dense fog this morning. The camp is a scene of confusion. Part of the company want to be off, and the other part want to stay and save meat. We are preparing to send out wagons for the meat killed yesterday. Our journey for the last four and one half days has been up the Platte. The game has been antelope until yesterday. Then the fun began. Buffalo racing is a business of much diversion, indeed. A horse, of common speed will run up on them immediately. The hunter then dismounts and fires, then loads and mounts again, and soon comes within shot once more. The process is continued in this way until he has taken all he wants. Now, while I am writing, it is half-past 8 o'clock. The cool, brisk wind is pleasant and we have a prospect of clear weather. The general has met and stopped the wagons, as the meat killed yesterday spoiled, although most of the buffaloes were gutted and left unskinned through the night. So much for ignorance or want of information on these matters. Forty thousand pounds of the best beef spoiled in one night. The animals were run through the hot sun the greater part of the day and then shot down and left to lie in the hot sun during the afternoon until near sunset before they were gutted, and then left through the night with the hide on. Nearly all was lost, except what Captain Saunders brought in. Now, about the rest. We are still in camp, waiting to see if the hunters will kill any more of these useful animals. ——— Since writing the above I have estimated the weight of these fourteen buffaloes, which is one hundred pounds per head [of the emigrants] all of which except three or four hundred pounds is lost. God forgive us for such waste and save us from such ignorance. The hunters have returned and brought with them one buffalo and one deer, the first that has been killed on the road, except a small fawn which was killed on the Nimahaw. Now, it is pretty certain that we shall move from this place early in the morning. To-day Colonel Simmons resigned and the general ordered a new election, which resulted in the choice of Jacob Hoover for lieutenant-colonel and Alec McGinn as first lieutenant instead of Hoover, promoted." Rev. E. E. Parrish's Journal.
I will now tell the story of the foregoing two dates,—for though they cover two dates of wonderful hunting scenes, which were much like mimic war on these plains, nearly every actor saw only different parts of the general action.
On July 11 General Gilliam's train, reduced to three companies, by the going off of Woodcock's command the morning after the military organization, was moving up the south side of the main Platte, in the order agreed upon by the leading officers: Captain Morrison's teams in the lead and setting the pace, and Captain Morrison himself in advance some four or five miles in performance of the duties which had been made permanently his, of selecting the places to camp, for grass, water, and fuel as requisites.
The writer was driving the lead team when the cry of "Buffalo" came from Mr. Nelson's wagon, behind and next to Gilliam's, and the latter next ours. I think the general may have been asleep, as when he got out of the wagon he rubbed his eyes to look at the vast herds from one to three miles off moving from the bottom up the hills. When he took in the scene he called loudly for his horse, and one of his younger daughters, who had perhaps seen the moving herds sooner than he, rode up quickly with the animal. His saddle was hurriedly taken out of the wagon, and by the time he adjusted it his gun and accoutrements were ready to his hand. He flung himself into the saddle, and turning his face to the train called in a raised voice, "You boys with the teams, camp where there is wood and water; and you that can get horses and guns mount and follow me." He did not speak to any particular officer, and in the ardor of the hunter seemed to have forgotten the responsibility of the general. He had no information as to what was starting those immense numbers of buffaloes to the hills, blackening the face of the country for miles of distance. I stood with my whip in the middle of the roadway, seeing a few young hunters gallop after their leader as they got mounted, feeling I had as much right to be in that chase as the general himself; but seeing the need of attending to the selection of a camp, and finding a fairly good one close at hand, drove to the river bank and unyoked.
This had been done perhaps an hour or more, when Captain Morrison, who had selected a camping place about five miles further in advance, had there approached a band of buffalo and got a killing shot, which was perhaps what started the run, and he now came back to see what had become of the train. He told us that he had killed a large buffalo, and called for volunteers to go with him and bring in the meat. Seven returned with Captain Morrison, among them being George Waunch, who boarded with Colonel Simmons. He had a high mettled, fleet mare under him on this occasion, and as we got near the dead game an antelope came down the plain in a direction to pass us one fourth of a mile southward. Mr. Waunch started his mare, to get a shot, and was running at full speed when his mare went into a fresh-made buffalo wallow with her fore feet, and turned a somersault over him. The antelope stopped, and the man rose to his feet and fired. Both game and sportsman fell, and riding up we found the little mare trembling and her rider unable to rise without assistance. The gunstock was broken off at the trigger guard, but the antelope was dead, the distance of the shot being fully one hundred yards. We paid no more attention to this, however, having found that the mare's limbs were all right, and assisting the German into the saddle when he was enough recovered to be able to cling, then went for the larger game. We found that Morrison's buffalo had settled down with the fore feet under the body, and before we began to skin the carcass a careful estimate was made of its weight, two thousand pounds being the average estimate. We split the skin up and down the back, and taking out the hump, ribs, and loin meat, had more than we could conveniently carry, as one of our saddle nags, a mule, too, became stubborn and broke away, refusing to be caught. We had been in the edge of the thunderstorm and got wet, but the night was warm, even sultry. We made a jolly party going back to camp, as the man who led the way, walking beside his mule, Joseph Watt, started us singing, song about. We arrived at camp about 11 P. M., and had the first taste of buffalo meat that night. Many of Gilliam's party came in later. Some of them reported forty-five head as the estimate of their killing; but they had separated a good deal in the chase, and some had gone a long way from camp before they cooled down to reflect what they were doing. The most of the game that was drawn was of the latest killing. Mr. Parrish's estimate of forty thousand pounds of the best beef was probably much under the destruction, as it is reasonable to suppose many wounded animals got away.
There was much confusion as the result of this chase, and there was a growing dread of the consequences of being under such a man's orders, as Mr. Gilliam had shown himself to be—a headlong leader of unreflecting and wasteful slaughter. Colonel Simmons, whom I had never seen with a gun in his hand, was right in refusing to share longer the responsibility with a man who at rest would stop the train at the convenience of his own child, but did literally nothing to help along, or prepare the men and boys from whom he should have expected obedience how to carry into effect his orders. There was more than an election necessary to fill Colonel Simmons' place. The general took the course such a man might be expected to follow to allay the dissatisfaction which the resignation now made plain to every one. He made a threatening declaration as to the punishment he would inflict on any one who presumed to leave camp without his permission; and his hand was raised to emphasize his declaration that he would "hang upon the nearest tree the man who dared to leave the company." Daniel Clark, riding by at this time, broke in on the general's tirade, crying out, "If any of you men or boys intend going to Oregon, come on; I'm going." General Gilliam stopped, saying, "That's all the sense he has." Yet Clark had been the most efficient of any man of the train in passing the swollen streams.
It must have been the result of a family council, the way the general was let down off of his high horse. Our camp fires were near together the second morning after these threats were made. Breakfast was about ready when the general came out of his tent. There was then a man with a rifle on his shoulder in plain sight about half a mile away, making for the foothills. The general's eye caught the movement, and he roared out "Who are you? Going hunting without leave? I'll ——" "Now, Neal, be careful," interjected Mrs. Gilliam in a low, trembling voice. I stood nearer to her than he did, but he heard, and what he would do to the culprit was never said. He flung his body around towards the camp fires and said: "They may all get to Oregon as they can, without me. I'll have nothing more to do with them." The hunter was Louis Crawford, his brother-in-law. Rev. Mr. Parrish's remarks about the general's conduct (cantankerousness) that day I suppose is a moderate statement of a disagreeable family trouble, which I heard nothing of. However, his action or virtual resignation, gave great relief to others. His close friend, B. F. Nichols, also resigned at the same time.
The original organization was thus broken up, but the three divisions proceeded each on its own account. That of Capt. William Shaw, the general's brother-in-law, and that of Captain Morrison, in whose service I was, and who cautioned me to say nothing to increase the trouble, kept within supporting distance of each other. Mr. Rees fell sick, and I did duty of keeping the records and placing guards until we crossed the South Pass of the Rockies. The train broke up, so that from this date forward Mr. Parrish's notes are of value chiefly for the dates of deaths, births, and marriages, and for fixing day of arrivals at prominent points, and for this purpose I shall use them as I proceed; the language, however, under the dates as given, being mine. I will, however, here insert a few more entries of his journal, showing situations and progress at this time. In his notes of July 15, following the formal resignation of Messrs. Gilliam and Nichols, Mr. Parrish proceeds: "This is a gloomy day to my mind. I pray to the Lord to grant that it may be overruled for the best of all concerned. We are no win companies. This company is called the California Company: Captain, Saunders; Mitchell Gilliam, the general's brother, Lieutenant; James Marshall, First Sergeant; Gamaliel Parrish, Second Sergeant; William Gilliam, the general's nephew, Second Corporal; Solomon Shelton, First Corporal, and E. E. Parrish, Judge. S. Shelton left the company some time ago. An order by Captain Saunders to hitch up and roll away was quickly obeyed. After traveling some miles on the best kind of a road we again camped on a high bank near the river.
"July 16.—A clear sunrise, but soon became cloudy and looks like rain. It cleared off and we had a brisk wind, with a cool, pleasant day. We got along finely to-day. Three hunters gone out to kill buffalo. We are now camped near a small pond at the foot of the bluff, with no wood except what we brought with us, and buffalo chips, which make a good fire. The general, his son-inlaw, Grant, and his son-in-law, Gage, with their families, are in this company. We have in all seventeen wagons and a carriage. The hunters, Captain Saunders and two others, came in late this afternoon, having killed two buffaloes and brought in as much meat as they could carry. This evening a thunder gust passed over us with a little rain, then cleared off, but did not stay clear till daylight.
"July 17.—Quite cloudy and cool. We are preparing for an early start and hope we shall have a fine day for traveling. It has been cool and pleasant, and we have made a good day's travel, and are now camped on the bank of the South Fork of the Platte. This has been a day of events. Wolves, antelopes, and buffalo during the day. In the afternoon a herd of buffalo were seen in the forks between the south and north branches. Hunters went over and gave them a start, which brought them over near where we were, when our boys with guns soon brought down three or four. The scene was so interesting that some of our women actually joined ip. the chase. This evening a thunder gust came over, but did not rain very much."
ON TO THE ROCKIES—THIRTY-FIVE MILES A DAY.
The ford of the South Platte was now reached, and Saunder's company crossed on the eighteenth. We followed on the nineteenth. The ford was four or five miles from the junction of the two branches. The bottom of the river was a moving mass of sand, and the wheels of the wagons, hauled by the oxen, sunk in this so quickly that they rattled and shook as though passing over rough rounded bowlders. To stop in the stream was for the wagon to begin to sink immediately, and to halt half a minute was exceedingly dangerous. The depth of water was nearly two and a half feet where we crossed. The writer crossed and recrossed six times, the last time to bring over a bull team which drew a wagon containing a woman (sick to death), her son, a lad of sixteen, being afraid to attempt the crossing for fear his team would stop. It must be that this South Platte carries millions of cubic feet of sand annually into the Missouri.
On July 19 the road led up the north bank of the South Platte. Here is the best game park in the world. I believe that fifty men, properly organized, could have herded a portion of the immense droves of buffalo and kept one hundred men busy dressing and preparing beef enough in three or four days to reload every wagon heavier than when we started. It was no great hardship to make a meal on buffalo beef alone. Some of the sick, who were traveling with us under the guidance of William Sublette, rapidly improved. They ate lean buffalo meat. It may have been that the air of this region was their principal medicine. It was wonderful how far one could see.
July 20 our course still led up the north bank of the South Platte. On the twenty-first we started across to the North Platte. About 10 o'clock in the forenoon we could see immense herds of buffalo on slopes the sun strikes. They seemed resting after their morning feed, like domestic cattle in good pasture, which the wild beeves have here constantly. Just about 12 o'clock, noon, we were met by the heaviest hailstorm I ever saw or felt. The teams could not be kept with their faces toward it. Luckily they were turned without accident, and prevented from running before it. Some of the hailstones were as large as pigeon eggs, and gave a smart blow. The shower did not last five minutes, I think.
As we took the decline toward the North Platte we passed trunks and big limbs of cedar trees, which would seem to have been buried, as there was no green timber in sight. We chopped some of this and laid it into the wagons for use in case we did not find wood camps. We struck North Platte about twelve miles west of Ash Hollow, according to our guide, Black Harris.
On July 25 we could see Chimney Rock, and passed Castle Rock, apparently two and a half miles off. I hunted that day, and started off to see the rock; walked fully three miles, and yet was more than a mile from it. I came to a place where either snow-melt floods, or wind, had broken and undermined the sandy sidehill, and jumped down about nine feet just missing a big wolf, who appeared to have been shading himself. I was so startled at my "find" that he was a long shot off before I got aim, and did not shoot, because he ran as if worse scared than I. Castle Rock, at a mile distance ^ showed up too big for human use, and I turned my course so as to hunt along the sand hills parallel to the train's movement, and came upon a single buffalo's track winding among the hollows wounded probably; or a bull defeated and lost his leadership. I also passed a large rattlesnake; any snake is repulsive to me, but I do not shoot this, reflecting that it may live out its own life here and never again be seen by a human eye. Looking up the valley the top of Chimney Rock seems suspended in the sky, as the light seems to join between the top and base. Effect of this light, or the subtle transformations of the mirage.
July 27 we were traveling fast, and the road was good. I am to-day hunting on horseback. I pass the morning going around the base of Chimney Rock. This, and the bluffs here, which at a distance look so like large city buildings, are all of soft stone formation, and are evidently wearing away fast. The days are bright now, and movement raises the dust. Some of the families are drying buffalo meat by tacking the steaks together and hanging them over their wagon covers outside. Gritty? Yes, but not worse than Platte water.
July 30 we reached Fort Laramie late and camped just west of the line between Indian camps and the fort. Companies of Shaw and Morrison together. Captain Shaw was officer of the day, and myself acting as first sergeant, for Rees was yet on the sick list. Under orders, I placed all the guard except one—the man married on the night of July 4, but prevented from fulfilling his contract by his father's old flintlock pistols. Now hid in fear, and screened by his old mother insisting "it is not John's turn to stand guard to-night"—
"A laggard in love, and a dastard in war,
Unworthy the Helen of young Lockinvar."
I returned to report this to Captain Shaw at the guard tent, passing on the way the spot where I had a few minutes before placed a man of a family, around whose name hung hints of membership in John A. Merrill's gang. His wagon was in sight, and there was light enough for me to see a movement in the opening of the cover of the hind end of the wagon, which was toward me. In disgust, but not understanding the meaning, I got to the guard tent just as Captain Shaw came from being around the cattle. I told him with some heat of both of these skulks, and he replied, "Well, John, I expect they're afeared. But let's not say anything about it; let's you and me take their places." Brave and true, patient, carefully watchful, Uncle Billy Shaw.
July 31 I started out after breakfast to look at the camp of the Sioux Indians. There were here some twenty lodges, or tepees. There were not many men in sight. One group of three or four, and two or three walking about singly, were all that appeared. I met one that looked as though he were on dress parade. I have never seen a man walk more proudly. He was well dressed, too. At the tepee which he had left, I noticed the spear or lance, and shield near the opening, which was the best of its kind I ever saw, being ornamented with nude figures of men and horses and buffalo. The skin was of buffalo skin, as I judged, though I did not touch it, or any of the other things I saw. At several of the tepees groups of children were playing, tumbling about with the dogs; at some, old women were at work dressing skins. I did not look inside or see inside any tepee, nor did I see any girl or young women to note as such. I say this in connection with what occurred at our camp within two hours after I made my round of curiosity. I was then at work behind our wagon, I don't remember at what, when Mrs. Morrison called out, "John, John, come here!" from the camp fire in front. I went; she was holding her sides to repress laughing, and three Indian women were standing side by side on the opposite side of the fire. Mrs. Morrison then said, "John, if I understand these women's signs, they think you belong to me, and want to buy you for a husband for that one in the middle; they offer six horses." I left the sign business mainly to Mrs. Morrison, feeling a little sorry, though, for the young Indian women, who did not look to be over twenty-two to twenty-four years of age.
The three friends went away in seeming disappointment, leaving me mystified as to whether they had not made a mistake about the young man wanted as husband by adoption, and the proper place in the camp in which to find him. There was an air of hesitancy and confusion about them as they looked at me, while Mrs. Morrison was trying to convey to them that I was not her property,—which led me to believe that they had made a mistake. This incident occurred just two years prior to Francis Parkman's joining a camp of Sioux at Fort Laramie in order to learn their customs, and finding adoption to be one of them . The matter is only worthy of note here as suggesting the question of Indian women under tribal relations being free to attain husbands in that way. I can only say these three seemed to be in serious earnest, and were dressed with more than ordinary care in goods of white man's manufacture—an indication that the two friends were probably wives of white men at the fort.
On the same day we also moved out from the fort about two miles, and the Indians paid the train a visit of ceremony, which they seemed to seriously enjoy. General Gilliam also took part. The pipe of peace was smoked, and short speeches professing friendly disposition made; and small presents of tobacco were given to the Indians. We had a beautiful camp on the bank of the Laramie, and both weather and scene were delightful. The moon, I think, must have been near the full, to give us light; at all events we leveled off a space and one of the young men played the fiddle and we danced well into the night.
August 1 we made a good drive, but did not reach the point selected by Captain Morrison, and there was some nervousness and complaint at camping time. In the words of Captain Shaw some of the men gave out signs of being "afeared" the Indians would follow and attack us. We followed thence, as the days glided by, the south side of the North Platte to a point near the mouth of Bates Creek. The country all the way is a rich game park, and swarming with the animals that prey upon game, the large wolf and grizzly bear being most seen.
On August 15 we camped at the crossing of the North Platte, and when I was ready to go to bed Mrs. Sally Shaw and Mrs. Morrison came to me and told me they needed my help very much. They said John Nicholsdaughter was dying, and it would be necessary to bury her during the night. Mrs. Shaw was chief speaker. She said she was aware that all the men and boys were probably tired; but there was a great difference between them when asked to dig a grave, when they needed sleep. They told me where to find a pick and shovel, and to bring them near Nichols' wagon, as they must go there now. I did so, and found a girl, just budding into womanhood, drawing her last breath. Four or five good mothers were around the rear end of the wagon. Through the space between I saw the calm, pure, marble-like face, as the last breathings, with a slight struggle, left the upper portion of the breast and neck motionless. From my eight years in the coal mines, I had seen men and boys maimed, crushed, or burned by machinery, falling roofs, or fire damp, but nothing of that kind affected me like this death scene.
My opinion as to the causes of the death of this girl and Mrs. Seabren, who died on August 4, and Mrs. Frost, who died on the twelfth, was not worth much then or now, but by the aid of Rev. Mr. Parrish's dates, I am giving it fifty-six years after the event, which is, that exposure to the almost constant rains the twenty days and nights we were held by the swollen Black Vermillion and Big Blue, was the cause. In our traveling family of ten, Rees and Captain Morrison's oldest daughter had severe attacks of "camp fever," as it was called.
We dug Miss Nichols' grave in loose soil and stones, near where she died, and buried the body. As dead brush and wood were plentiful near, we burned some over it to kill evidence of what we had done, that the grave might not be violated.
On August 16 we did not reach the Sweetwater, as some anticipated, but camped early on a small stream bed called the Sandy. Here I had a hunt. With a few hours of leisure I went down the stream nearly two miles, and was about to turn toward the camp again, when I saw dust arising beyond a rise southward, and soon a little band of seventeen buffalo came in sight under their peculiar gallop. As they were coming in my direction I chose a situation to hide myself if necessary. Their speed seemed to increase as they came to the stream bed, which was quite narrow and nine to twelve feet deep to the little water it contained. They made no stop until they got to the water. I could not see them, but could hear their splashing and short bellows as though they might be hurting each other, though it might be satisfaction for water. It was more than five minutes before one of them got up on my side of the bank of the branch, and others followed. They were in no hurry now, and I could note and take my choice for a shot, which I did at a dark-colored yearling, and hit it behind the shoulders. The buffaloes did not start off, and I, in great hurry to drop my game, dropped a naked bullet on the powder and fired again a weak, ineffective shot. Then the herd started, but the yearling was too badly wounded to run. I started, trying to load as I went, watching the herd at the same time. It strung out nearly or quite one hundred yards, a large bull keeping between me and my quarry behind. The bull stopped and turned round still till the herd and wounded calf passed him, and then turned and followed. It looked to me like the bull was intelligently acting as rear guard. I followed, hoping they would stop and give me another chance to make a sure shot, as the last bullet from my pouch was in my gun. But darkness fell quite suddenly on the wide plain, and I turned campward without game, but felt I had seen some of the home habits of the buffalo.
On the seventeenth of August we passed Independence Rock and nooned on the Sweetwater near by; then drove on to a point nearly a mile west of the Devil's Gate, where the Sweetwater passes through what seems a cleft, made by weight of the east spur of the Rocky Mountains settling away from the main chain, and throwing off Independence Rock from its north point. We camped here one day. Mountain sheep is the attractive game of the region. Captain Morrison, I note, wishes to bring one in; and I, finishing camp duty early, took my fish gig and passed most of the day chasing fish in a deep hole within the west end of the big cleft of the Devil's Gate. It varies in width, I think, from fifty to one hundred feet or more; and the walls, I should estimate, at four hundred or five hundred feet high. I did not attempt to go through this gateway. The water was not sufficient to prevent, but the hole I mentioned contained many fish and gave me a fine day's sport. The deepest place was the north side of the pool, and by going into that I scared out the largest fish to the shallows, and then threw my three-tined gig or fish spear. For the first hour I had little success, but at length I could throw it from twenty to thirty feet and strike a fish from ten to fifteen inches long. I got a fine lot, besides a day of boyish sport.
On August 19 we start early up the north bank of the Sweetwater, with stupendous rocks on the right of our course and the rounded hills south of the stream flattened into plains, in places.
It is not possible to avoid being impressed by our surroundings. I am in charge of the lead team. I am walking along talking with the two oldest girls of Captain Morrison in front of the wagon, answering their questions about the mountains; drinking in the joy of it all myself, while keeping my cattle steady. Looking forward a little I see by a bend in the road I can save some distance by driving straight across the bend, scatteringly set with sage brush. The leaders see the road ahead, and I am idly swinging my whip, w^hen my eye catches sight of a hare (sacriligiously called a jackrabbit) covering its form in the shade of a sage brush. I never stopped the motion of my whip, but put more strength into it, and brought the lash across the head, back of the long ears, and the game little animal is quivering in death. The grand landscape is out of mind as quick as a pistol shot, and I am glowing with interest in my own feat. It is not far below the skin of any youth to where the man that kills other animals for a living, still is. I put my game into the wagon to be dressed for supper, but when we got to the camping place which Captain Morrison had selected, found he had there a full-grown wild mutton and my dead hare was not thought of, but was left for the wolves next morning.
August 26 we drive from the drainage of the Sweetwater, leaving at last the waters of the Mississippi drainage, and camp late at Pacific Springs, which belong to those of the Green River. We also saw the day before the last buffalo, as we rose rapidly out of the Sweetwater Valley—some dozen or more came from the north and passed between the wagons of the train, seeming to have been chased.
At Pacific Springs I placed the last guard, and the last person I appealed to was a young man named J. S. Smith. He had reached our company that morning as we passed Colonel Ford's company. He plead inability to perform the service on account of sickness, and his appearance fully justified his statement. I was to see him again as sail maker, teacher, preacher, merchant, hotel keeper, lawyer, member of congress, and first lay member of the general conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
From July 8 to August 26, inclusive, we made a distance across one hundred and six townships west—six hundred and thirty-six miles, or probably fully seven hundred miles, including the meander of the Platte River water, in fifty days, counting stoppages also.
A single hunter, I. W. Alderman, from Ford's company, overtook and lunched with us. He talked hunting with Captain Morrison, and said he had laid out the night before and killed a buffalo cow for breakfast. There was something I distrusted in his looks, and he seemed to talk for effect.
At this camp I was again called upon for extra duty on account of the sick. About bedtime I was appealed to by Mrs. Shaw to sit up part of the night with Mr. Sager, who was very ill; and she said that Mrs . Sager was nearly down sick herself, but would see to giving her husband medicine, if I would watch in his tent and inform her at the time, to administer it. The sick man was either wholly or partly unconscious from high fever, and did not during the night ask for anything. On the two or three times I wakened her, his wife responded each time as though she was in fear that he was dead. She would call him byname and he would receive the medicine, yet seem hardly conscious. There was no one to relieve me, and I kept vigil all night, suffering from inability to help this life, which seemed to be burning away.
August 28 we made a short drive and crossed Green River. Mr. Sager died on the western bank, and we camped for the day and buried the body. The young man Smith, who had been with us but three days, left us here and went down the river to "Brown's Hole" with the party who had come from Saint Louis with William Sublette.
On the twenty-ninth we make a good drive to the vicinity of Port Bridger. We find here a considerable number of mountain men, and some professional gamblers, who went from place to place, from one rendezvous to another to prey upon the trappers and hunters. These latter generally have native women, and their camps are ornamented with green boughs and flowers. In some we find men playing cards; near others shooting matches are in progress; all seem enjoying themselves. A small party is here from Oregon, and one of the number, named Smith, passes from camp fire to camp fire to tell us that he dislikes Oregon so much that he can hardly tell the truth about it. He is known to many in our train, however, and his voluble talk is not much heeded. In one point we found him sustained by others, namely, that we were then only about halfway of our journey.
There was one thing extraordinary about the eleven hundred or twelve hundred miles we had driven: In that great distance our wheels had not touched stone but twice or thrice; once in driving across North Platte, and a short distance on the Sweetwater side of the South Pass. The bottom of Green River, where we forded, was fine gravel, and smooth, as compared with the moving sand bottom of the main and South Platte. The famous Blue Mound was not rock, but simply rounded gravel and soil. Independence Rock was the first real rock formation we came to; as that which looks to the eye as Castle Rock, Scott's Bluff, and Chimney Rock is too young as a formation to deserve the name of stone.
By this time we were undergoing and performing what Oregon's poet has since sung:
"On the Rocky Mountains' height their watch fires shone by night,
Or upon the savage plains brightly gleam;
They the dreary deserts cross, where the frowning canyons mass,
Or they swim and ford the swiftly running stream.
"Tramp, tramp, tramp, the trains keep marching
Westward, still westward, day by day;
Standing guard the livelong night, ever ready for the fight,
Here to plant the flag, three thousand miles away."
August 30 we lay over for the day at Fort Bridger, and I became somewhat unsettled. My clothing was now beginning to show worse for the wear, and I mentioned this to Mrs. Morrison, who is gathering up articles to wash. She says, "Yes, John; and if you can trade anything at the fort here, and get some deerskins, I'll fix your pants for you.' Seeing me look a little bewildered, she went on, "That means sewing buckskin over a pair of old pants before and behind. One big skin will be enough, and it will be almost as good as a new pair. But if you can get three skins I'll make you a new pair, of skins only, besides."
The best of my now worn clothing was the only suit I had ever bought for myself. Miners' wives and mothers about Newcastle-on-Tyne did all that kind of business for their families. I had thus to learn to think for myself a little. Looking over the things I might have to trade, I concluded to try if I could get a few dressed deerskins for my little double-barreled gun; though the piece was now somewhat impaired, the hammer having been lost off of the right cock. I went to the wagon where my trunk was to get it, and found Captain Morrison getting his plow irons out. He had traded one of the cows and the plow irons for flour brought here from Taos. The man he was dealing with was very different from those here apparently on show. He was receiving the different parts of the plow from Morrison and talking to him about its now being late in the season for us to get to Oregon, and said he had been in the country about Salt Lake the preceding fall (1843), and thought it would be a good country to settle in. While he was thus talking and tying up the plow irons, a party passing stopped and asked what he was going to do with them. He replied, "I am going to try farming a while down at Taos."
This man, whom I afterwards identified from his photos as Kit Carson, interested me. He was a man five feet nine or ten inches at the most, but strongly framed in breast and shoulders; light brown hair, flaxy at the ends; eyes steel blue, or gray. I watched him ride away, while I told Captain Morrison I was going up to the fort to try to trade my shotgun.
I saw the man throw the plow irons down at a camp close by the trail and continue on up to the stockade, whither I followed him. James Bridger was doing his own trading—a powerful built man about the height of the one I have described, but coarser made and coarser minded, as I thought. Quick and sharp at a bargain, he said, as soon as I had shown him the gun and stated that I wanted deerskins for it, "Young man, I can't do it; we get few deerskins here. I'll give you ten goat (antelope) skins; that's the best I can do." I took him at his word, not knowing the difference between dressed unsmoked antelope and good dressed smoked deerskins. I started to camp satisfied with my purchase. I passed the camp where I had seen the plow irons thrown down, and a very comely woman, evidently not full Indian, was saddling and packing two of the finest mules I ever saw. (Many years afterwards I concluded this was the Mexican wife of Kit Carson, recently married, and they were now going to farm on her inheritance near Toas, New Mexico, where he resided until gold was discovered in California.)
I was unsettled part of this day, and in the evening I asked Captain Morrison if he could now dispense with my assistance, telling him that I felt inclined to try a year or two of this trapper's life. He said, "John, they tell me we are past the game country and that seemed dangerous for Indians, and I suppose I could do without you from this on, but I would advise you not to stop here. These men you see here are little account either to themselves or their country; they will do you no good, and the time you stay here will be lost out of your life, if you do not lose life itself; I wouldn't stop if I was you." My father could not have bettered this counsel.