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Death Valley in '49


Mr. Buck and myself concluded we would try our luck at lead mining for the summer and purchased some mining tools for the purpose. We camped out and dug holes around all summer, getting just about enough to pay our expenses--not a very encouraging venture, for we had lived in a tent and had picked and shoveled and blasted and twisted a windlass hard enough to have earned a good bit of money.

In the fall we concluded to try another trapping tour, and set out for Prairie du Chien. We knew it was a poor place to spend money up in the woods, and when we got our money it was all in a lump and seemed to amount to something. Mr. Brisbois said that the prospects were very poor indeed, for the price of fur was very low and no prospect of a better market. So we left our traps still on storage at his place and went back again. This was in 1847, and before Spring the war was being pushed in Mexico. I tried to enlist for this service, but there were so many ahead of me I could not get a chance.

I still worked in the settlement and made a living, but had no chance to improve my land. The next winter I lived with Mr A. Bennett, hunted deer and sold them at Mineral Point, and in this way made and saved a few dollars.

There had been from time to time rumors of a better country to the west of us and a sort of a pioneer, or western fever would break out among the people occasionally. Thus in 1845 I had a slight touch of the disease on account of the stories they told us about Oregon. It was reported that the Government would give a man a good farm if he would go and settle, and make some specified improvement. They said it was in a territory of rich soil, with plenty of timber, fish and game and some Indians, just to give a little spice of adventure to the whole thing. The climate was very mild in winter, as they reported, and I concluded it would suit me exactly. I began at once to think about an outfit and a journey, and I found that it would take me at least two years to get ready. A trip to California was not thought of in those days, for it did not belong to the United States.

In the winter of 1848-49 news began to come that there was gold in California, but not generally believed till it came through a U.S. officer, and then, as the people were used to mines and mining, a regular gold fever spread as if by swift contagion. Mr. Bennett was aroused and sold his farm, and I felt a change in my Oregon desires and had dreams at might of digging up the yellow dust. Nothing would cure us then but a trip, and that was quickly decided on. As it would be some weeks yet before grass would start, I concluded to haul my canoe and a few traps over to a branch of the Wisconsin, and make my way to Prairie du Chien, do a little trapping, get me an Indian pony on which to ride to California. There were no ponies to be had at Mineral Point. Getting a ride up the river on a passing steamboat I reached Prairie La Crosse, where the only house was that of a Dutch trader from whom I bought a Winnebago pony, which he had wintered on a little brushy island, and I thought if he could winter on brush and rushes he must be tough enough to take me across the plains. He cost me $30, and I found him to be a poor, lazy little fellow. However, I thought that when he got some good grass, and a little fat on his ribs he might have more life, and so I hitched a rope to him and drove him ahead down the river. When I came to the Bad Axe river I found it swimming full, but had no trouble in crossing, as the pony was as good as a dog in the water.

Before leaving Bennett's I had my gun altered over to a pill lock and secured ammunition to last for two years. I had tanned some nice buckskin and had a good outfit of clothes made of it, or rather cut and made it myself. Where I crossed the Bad Axe was a the battle ground where Gen. Dodge fought the Winnebago Indians. At Prairie du Chien I found a letter from Mr. Bennett, saying that the grass was so backward he would not start up for two or three weeks, and I had better come back and start with them; but as the letter bore no date I could only guess at the exact time. I had intended to strike directly west from here to Council Bluffs and meet them there, but now thought perhaps I had better go back to Mineral Point and start out with them there, or follow on rapidly after them if by any chance they had already started.

On my way back I found the Kickapoo river too high to ford, so I pulled some basswood bark and made a raft of a couple of logs, on which to carry my gun and blanket; starting the pony across I followed after. He swam across quickly, but did not seem to like it on the other side, so before I got across, back he came again, not paying the least attention to my scolding. I went back with the raft, which drifted a good way down stream, and caught the rascal and started him over again, but when I got half way across he jumped and played the same joke on me again. I began to think of the old puzzle of the story of the man with the fox, the goose and a peck of corn, but I solved it by making a basswood rope to which I tied a stone and threw across, then sending the pony over with the other end. He staid this time, and after three days of swimming streams and pretty hard travel reached Mineral Point, to find Bennett had been gone two weeks and had taken my outfit with him as we first planned.

I was a little troubled, but set out light loaded for Dubuque, crossed the river there and then alone across Iowa, over wet and muddy roads, till I fell in with some wagons west of the Desmoines River. They were from Milwaukee, owned by a Mr. Blodgett, and I camped with them a few nights, till we got to the Missouri River.

I rushed ahead the last day or two and got there before them. There were a few California wagons here, and some campers, so I put my pony out to grass and looked around. I waded across the low bottom to a strip of dry land next to the river, where there was a post office, store, and a few cabins. I looked first for a letter, but there was none. Then I began to look over the cards in the trading places and saloons, and read the names written on the logs of the houses, and everywhere I thought there might be a trace of the friends I sought. No one had seen or knew them. After looking half a day I waded back again to the pony--pretty blue. I thought first I would go back and wait another year, but there was a small train near where I left the pony, and it was not considered very safe to go beyond there except with a pretty good train. I sat down in camp and turned the matter over in my mind, and talked with Chas. Dallas of Lynn, Iowa, who owned the train. Bennett had my outfit and gun, while I had his light gun, a small, light tent, a frying pan, a tin cup, one woolen shirt and the clothes on my back. Having no money to get another outfit, I about concluded to turn back when Dallas said that if I would drive one of his teams through, he would board me, and I could turn my pony in with his loose horses; I thought it over, and finally put my things in the wagon and took the ox whip to go on. Dallas intended to get provision here, but could not, so we went down to St. Jo, following the river near the bluff. We camped near town and walked in, finding a small train on the main emigrant road to the west. My team was one yoke of oxen and one yoke of cows. I knew how to drive, but had a little trouble with the strange animals till they found I was kind to them, and then they were all right.

This was in a slave state, and here I saw the first negro auction. One side of the street had a platform such as we build for a political speaker. The auctioneer mounted this with a black boy about 18 years old, and after he had told all his good qualities and had the boy stand up bold and straight, he called for bids, and they started him at $500. He rattled away as if he were selling a steer, and when Mr. Rubideaux, the founder of St. Jo bid $800, he went no higher and the boy was sold. With my New England notions it made quite an impression on me.

Here Dallas got his supplies, and when the flour and bacon was loaded up the ferryman wanted $50 to take the train across. This Dallas thought too high and went back up the river a day's drive, where he got across for $30. From this crossing we went across the country without much of a road till we struck the road from St. Jo, and were soon on the Platte bottom.

We found some fine strawberries at one of the camps across the country. We found some hills, but now the country was all one vast prairie, not a tree in sight till we reached the Platte, there some cottonwood and willow. At the first camp on the Platte I rolled up in my blanket under the wagon and thought more than I slept, but I was in for it and no other way but to go on. I had heard that there were two forts, new Ft. Kearny and Ft. Laramie, on the south side of the river, which we must pass before we reached the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, and beyond there there would be no place to buy medicine or food. Our little train of five wagons, ten men, one woman and three children would not be a formidable force against the Indians if they were disposed to molest us, and it looked to me very hazardous, and that a larger train would be more safe, for Government troops were seldom molested on their marches.

If I should not please Mr. Dallas and get turned off with only my gun and pony I should be in a pretty bad shape, but I decided to keep right on and take the chances on the savages, who would get only my hair and my gun as my contribution to them if they should be hostile. I must confess, however, that the trail ahead did not look either straight or bright to me, but hoped it might be better than I thought. So I yoked my oxen and cows to the wagon and drove on. All the other teams had two drivers each, who took turns, and thus had every other day off for hunting if they chose, but I had to carry the whip every day and leave my gun in the wagon.

When we crossed Salt Creek the banks were high and we had to tie a strong rope to the wagons and with a few turns around a post, lower them down easily, while we had to double the teams to get them up the other side.

Night came on before half the wagons were over, and though it did not rain the water rose before morning so it was ten feet deep. We made a boat of one of the wagon beds, and had a regular ferry, and when they pulled the wagons over they sank below the surface but came out all right. We came to Pawnee Village, on the Platte, a collection of mud huts, oval in shape, and an entrance low down to crawl in at. A ground owl and some prairie dogs were in one of them, and we suspected they might be winter quarters for the Indians.

Dallas and his family rode in the two-horse wagon. Dick Field was cook, and the rest of us drove the oxen. We put out a small guard at night to watch for Indians and keep the stock together so there might be no delay in searching for them. When several miles from Ft. Kearney I think on July 3rd, we camped near the river where there was a slough and much cottonwood and willow. Just after sundown a horse came galloping from the west and went in with our horses that were feeding a little farther down. In the morning two soldiers came from the fort, inquiring after the stray horse, but Dallas said he had seen none, and they did not hunt around among the willows for the lost animal. Probably it would be the easiest way to report back to the fort--"Indians got him." When we hitched up in the morning he put the horse on the off side of his own, and when near the fort, he went ahead on foot and entertained the officers while the men drove by, and the horse was not discovered. I did not like this much, for if we were discovered, we might be roughly handled, and perhaps the property of the innocent even confiscated. Really my New England ideas of honesty were somewhat shocked.

Reaching the South Platte, it took us all day to ford the sandy stream, as we had first to sound out a good crossing by wading through ourselves, and when we started our teams across we dare not stop a moment for fear the wagons would sink deep into the quicksands. We had no mishaps in crossing, and when well camped on the other side a solitary buffalo made his appearance about 200 yards away and all hands started after him, some on foot. The horsemen soon got ahead of him, but he did not seem inclined to get out of their way, so they opened fire on him. He still kept his feet and they went nearer, Mr. Rogers, being on a horse with a blind bridle, getting near enough to fire his Colt's revolver at him, when he turned, and the horse, being unable to see the animal quick enough to get out of the way, suffered the force of a sudden attack of the old fellow's horns, and came out with a gash in his thigh six inches long, while Rogers went on a flying expedition over the horse's head, and did some lively scrambling when he reached the ground. The rest of them worried him along for about half a mile, and finally, after about forty shots he lay down but held his head up defiantly, receiving shot after shot with an angry shake, till a side shot laid him out. This game gave us plenty of meat, which though tough, was a pleasant change from bacon. I took no part in this battle except as an observer. On examination it was found that the balls had been many of them stopped by the matted hair about the old fellow's head and none of them had reached the skull.

A few days after this we were stopped entirely by a herd of buffaloes crossing our road. They came up from the river and were moving south. The smaller animals seemed to be in the lead, and the rear was brought up by the old cows and the shaggy, burly bulls. All were moving at a smart trot, with tongues hanging out, and seemed to take no notice of us, though we stood within a hundred yards of them. We had to stand by our teams and stock to prevent a stampede, for they all seemed to have a great wonder, and somewhat of fear at their relatives of the plains. After this we often saw large droves of them in the distance. Sometimes we could see what in the distance seemed a great patch of brush, but by watching closely we could see it was a great drove of these animals. Those who had leisure to go up to the bluffs often reported large droves in sight. Antelopes were also seen, but these occupied the higher ground, and it was very hard to get near enough to them to shoot successfully. Still we managed to get a good deal of game which was very acceptable as food.

One prominent land mark along the route was what they called Court House Rock, standing to the south from the trail and much resembled an immense square building, standing high above surrounding country. The farther we went on the more plentiful became the large game, and also wolves and prairie dogs, the first of which seemed to follow the buffaloes closely. About this time we met a odd looking train going east, consisting of five or six Mormons from Salt Lake, all mounted on small Spanish mules. They were dressed in buckskin and moccasins, with long spurs jingling at their heels, the rowels fully four inches long, and each one carried a gun, a pistol and a big knife. They were rough looking fellows with long, matted hair, long beards, old slouch hats and a generally back woods get-up air in every way. They had an extra pack mule, but the baggage and provisions were very light. I had heard much about the Mormons, both at Nauvoo and Salt Lake, and some way or other I could not separate the idea of horse thieves from this party, and I am sure I would not like to meet them if I had a desirable mule that they wanted, or any money, or a good looking wife. We talked with them half an hour or so and then moved on.

We occasionally passed by a grave along the road, and often a small head board would state that the poor unfortunate had died of cholera. Many of these had been torn open by wolves and the blanket encircling the corpse partly pulled away. Our route led a few miles north of Chimney Rock, standing on an elevated point like a tall column, so perfect and regular on all sides, that from our point it looked as if it might be the work of the stone cutters. Some of the party went to see it and reported there was no way to ascend it, and that as far as a man could reach, the rocks were inscribed with the names of visitors and travelers who passed that way.

At Scott's Bluffs, the bluffs came close to the river, so there was considerable hill climbing to get along, the road in other places finding ample room in the bottom. Here we found a large camp of the Sioux Indians on the bank of a ravine, on both sides of which were some large cottonwood trees. Away up in the large limbs platforms had been made of poles, on which were laid the bodies of their dead, wrapped in blankets and fastened down to the platform by a sort of a network of smaller poles tightly lashed so that they could not be dragged away or disturbed by wild animals. This seemed a strange sort of cemetery, but when we saw the desecrated earth-made graves we felt that perhaps this was the best way, even if it was a savage custom.

These Indians were fair-sized men, and pretty good looking for red men. Some of our men went over to their camp, and some of their youths came down to ours, and when we started on they seemed quite proud that they had learned a little of the English language, but the extent of their knowledge seemed to be a little learned of the ox-drivers, for they would swing their hands at the cattle and cry out "Whoa! haw, g--d d--n." Whether they knew what was meant, I have my doubts. They seemed pretty well provided for and begged very little, as they are apt to do when they are hard pressed.

We saw also some bands of Pawnee Indians on the move across the prairies. They would hitch a long, light pole on each side of a pony, with the ends dragging behind on the ground, and on a little platform at the hind end the children sat and were dragged along.

As we passed on beyond Scott's Bluff the game began to be perceptibly scarcer, and what we did find was back from the traveled road, from which it had apparently been driven by the passing hunters.

In time we reached Ft. Laramie, a trading post, where there were some Indian lodges, and we noticed that some of the occupants had lighter complexions than any of the other Indians we had seen. They had cords of dried buffalo meat, and we purchased some. It was very fat, but was so perfectly cured that the clear tallow tasted as sweet as a nut. I thought it was the best dried meat I had ever tasted, but perhaps a good appetite had something to do with it.

As we passed Ft. Laramie we fell in company with some U.S. soldiers who were going to Ft. Hall and thence to Oregon. We considered them pretty safe to travel with and kept with them for some time, though their rate of travel was less than ours. Among them were some Mormons, employed as teamsters, and in other ways, and they told us there were some Missourians on the road who would never live to see California. There had been some contests between the Missourians and the Mormons, and I felt rather glad that none of us hailed from Pike county.

We turned into what they called the Black Hills, leaving the Platte to the north of us. The first night on this road we had the hardest rain I ever experienced, and the only one of any account on our journey. Our camp was on a level piece of ground on the bank of a dry creek, which soon became a very wet creek indeed, for by morning it was one hundred yards wide and absolutely impassible. It went down, however, as quickly as it rose, and by ten o'clock it was so low that we easily crossed and went on our way. We crossed one stream where there were great drifts or piles of hail which had been brought down by a heavy storm from higher up the hills. At one place we found some rounded boulders from six to eight inches in diameter, which were partly hollow, and broken open were found to contain most beautiful crystals of quartz, clear as purest ice. The inside was certainly very pretty, and it was a mystery how it came there. I have since learned that such stones are found at many points, and that they are called geodes.

We came out at the river again at the mouth of Deer Creek, and as there was some pretty good coal there quite easy to get, we made camp one day to try to tighten our wagon tires, John Rogers acting as blacksmith. This was my first chance to reconnoiter, and so I took my gun and went up the creek, a wide, treeless bottom. In the ravines on the south side were beautiful groves of small fir trees and some thick brush, wild rose bushes I think. I found here a good many heads and horns of elk, and I could not decide whether they had been killed in winter during the deep snow, or had starved to death.

There was a ferry here to cross the river and go up along north side. Mr. Dallas bought the whole outfit for a small sum and when we were safely over he took with him such ropes as he wanted and tied the boat to the bank The road on this side was very sandy and led over and among some rolling hills. In talking with the men of the U.S. troops in whose company we still were, I gathered much information concerning our road further west. They said we were entirely too late to get through to California, on account of crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains, which, they said would be covered with snow by November, or even earlier, and that we would be compelled to winter at Salt Lake. Some of the drivers overheard Mr. Dallas telling his family the same thing, and that if he should winter at Salt Lake, he would discharge his drivers as soon as he arrived, as he could not afford to board them all winter.

This was bad news for me, for I had known of the history of them at Nauvoo and in Missouri, and the prospect of being thrown among them with no money to buy bread was a very sorry prospect for me. From all I could learn we could not get a chance to work, even for our board there, and the other drivers shared my fears and disappointment. In this dilemma we called a council, and invited the gentleman in to have an understanding. He came and our spokesman stated the case to him, and our fears, and asked him what he had to say to us about it. He flew quite angry at us, and talked some and swore a great deal more, and the burden of his speech was:--"This train belongs to me and I propose to do with it just as I have a mind to, and I don't care a d--n what you fellows do or say. I am not going to board you fellows all winter for nothing, and when we get to Salt Lake you can go where you please, for I shall not want you any longer." We talked a little to him and under the circumstances to talk was about all we could do. He gave us no satisfaction and left us apparently much offended that we had any care for ourselves.

Then we had some talk among ourselves, at the time, and from day to day as we moved along. We began to think that the only way to get along at all in Salt Lake would be to turn Mormons, and none of us had any belief or desire that way and could not make up our minds to stop our journey and lose so much time, and if we were not very favored travelers our lot might be cast among the sinners for all time.

We were now on the Sweetwater River, and began to see the snow on the Rocky Mountains ahead of us, another reminder that there was a winter coming and only a little more than half our journey was done. We did not feel very happy over it, and yet we had to laugh once in a while at some of the funny things that would happen.

The Government party we were with had among them a German mule driver who had a deal of trouble with his team, but who had a very little knowledge of the English language. When the officers tried to instruct him a little he seemed to get out of patience and would say something very like _Sacramento_. We did not know exactly what this meant. We had heard there was a river of that name or something very near like that; and then again some said that was the Dutch for swearing. If this latter was the truth then he was a very profane mule driver when he got mad.

The Captain of the company had a very nice looking lady with him, and they carried a fine wall tent which they occupied when they went into camp. The company cook served their meals to them in the privacy of their tent, and they seemed to enjoy themselves very nicely. Everybody thought the Captain was very lucky in having such an accomplished companion, and journey along quietly to the gold fields at government expense.

There seemed to be just a little jealousy between the Captain and the Lieutenant, and one day I saw them both standing in angry attitude before the Captain's quarters, both mounted, with their carbines lying across their saddles before them. They had some pretty sharp, hot words, and it looked as if they both were pretty nearly warmed up to the shooting point. Once the Lieutenant moved his right hand a little, and the Captain was quick to see it, shouting;--"Let your gun alone or I will make a hole through you," at the same time grasping his own and pointing it straight at the other officer. During all this time the Captain's lady stood in the tent door, and when she saw her favorite had the drop on the Lieutenant she clapped her delicate, little hands in a gleeful manner:--"Just look at the Captain! Ain't he spunky?" and then she laughed long and loud to see her lord show so much military courage. She seemed more pleased at the affair than any one else. I don't know exactly what the others thought, but I never could believe that the lady and the Captain were ever married.

The Lieutenant was no coward, but probably thinking that prudence was the better part of valor, refrained from handling his gun, and the two soon rode away in opposite directions.

We passed a lone rock standing in the river bottom on the Sweetwater, which they named Independence Rock. It was covered with the names of thousands of people who had gone by on that road. Some were pretty neatly chiseled in, some very rudely scrawled, and some put on with paint. I spent all the time I could hunting Mr. Bennett's name, but I could not find it anywhere. To have found his name, and thus to know that he had safely passed this point would have been a little re-assuring in those rather doubtful days. Some had named the date of their passing, and some of them were probably pretty near the gold fields at this time.

All along in this section we found alkali water near the road, some very strong and dangerous for man or beast to use. We traveled on up the Sweetwater for some time, and at last came to a place where the road left the river, and we had a long, hard hill to pull up. When we reached the top of this we were in the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, the backbone of the American continent. To the north of us were some very high peaks white with snow, and to the south were some lower hills and valleys. The summit of the mountains was not quite as imposing as I expected, but it was the summit, and we were soon surely moving down the western side, for at Pacific Springs the water ran to the westward, toward the Pacific coast. The next day we came to the nearly dry bed of the river--the Big Sandy. The country round about seemed volcanic, with no timber, but plenty of sage brush, in which we were able to shoot an occasional sage hen. The river bed itself was nothing but sand, and where there was water enough to wet it, it was very miry and hard traveling over it. There are two streams, the Big Sandy and Little Sandy, both tributaries to Green River, which we soon reached and crossed.

It was a remarkable clear and rapid stream and was now low enough to ford. One of the Government teams set out to make the crossing at a point where it looked shallow enough, but before the lead mules reached the opposite shore, they lost their footing and were forced to swim. Of course the wagon stopped and the team swung round and tangled up in a bad shape. They were unhitched and the wagon pulled back, the load was somewhat dampened, for the water came into the wagon box about a foot. We camped here and laid by one day, having thus quite a little chance to look around.

When we came to the first water that flowed toward the Pacific Coast at Pacific Springs, we drivers had quite a little talk about a new scheme. We put a great many "ifs" together and they amounted to about this:--If this stream were large enough; if we had a boat; if we knew the way: if there were no falls or bad places; if we had plenty of provisions; if we were bold enough set out on such a trip, etc., we might come out at some point or other on the Pacific Ocean. And now when we came to the first of the "ifs," a stream large enough to float a small boat; we began to think more strongly about the other "ifs".

In the course of our rambles we actually did run across the second "if" in the shape of a small ferry boat filled up with sand upon a bar, and it did not take very long to dig it out and put it into shape to use, for it was just large enough to hold one wagon at a time. Our military escort intended to leave us at this point, as their route now bore off to the north of ours. I had a long talk with the surgeon who seemed well informed about the country, and asked him about the prospects. He did not give the Mormons a very good name. He said to me:--"If you go to Salt Lake City, do not let them know you are from Missouri, for I tell you that many of those from that State will never see California. You know they were driven from Missouri, and will get revenge if they can." Both the surgeon and the captain said the stream came out on the Pacific Coast and that we had no obstacles except cataracts, which they had heard were pretty bad. I then went to Dallas and told him what we proposed doing and to our surprise he did not offer any objections, and offered me $60 for my pony. He said he would sell us some flour and bacon for provisions also.

We helped them in crossing the river, which was somewhat difficult, being swift, with boulders in the bottom but we got all safely over and then made the trade we had spoken of. Dallas paid me for my pony and we took what flour and bacon he would let go. He gave us some ropes for head and stern lines to our boat and a couple of axes, and we laid these, and our provisions in a pile by the roadside. Six of us then gave up our whips. Mr. S. McMahon, a driver, hesitated for some time, but being pressed by Dallas for a decision, at last threw down his whip and said:--"I will go with the boys." This left Dallas with only one driver, but he took a whip himself, and with the aid of the children and his wife who drove the two-horse wagon, they got along very well. I paid for such provisions as we had taken, as the rest of the fellows had almost no money.

So we parted company, the little train slowly moving on its way westward. Our military captain, the soldier boys, and the gay young lady taking the route to Oregon, and we sitting on the bank of the river whose waters flowed to the great Pacific. Each company wished the other good luck, we took a few long breaths and then set to work in earnest to carry out our plans.

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