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Death Valley in '49
CHAPTER IX. The Southern Route.--Off in Fine Style.--A Cut-off Proposed.--Most of Them Try it and Fail.--The Jayhawkers.--A New Organization.--Men with Families not Admitted.--Capture an Indian Who Gives Them the Slip.--An Indian Woman and Her Children.--Grass Begins to Fail.--A High Peak to the West.--No Water.--An Indian Hut.--Reach the Warm Spring.--Desert Everywhere.--Some One Steals Food.--The Water Acts Like a Dose of Salts.--Christmas Day.--Rev. J.W. Brier Delivers a Lecture to His Sons.--Nearly Starving and Choking.--An Indian in a Mound.--Indians Shoot the Oxen.--Camp at Furnace Creek.
We moved off in good style from this camp. After a day or two and before we reached what is called Little Salt Lake, an attempt was made to make a short cut, to save distance. The train only went on this cut off a day or two when Capt. Hunt came back from the front and said they had better turn back to the old trail again, which all did. This was a bad move, the train much broken and not easy to get them into regular working order again. We were now approaching what they called the Rim of the Basin. Within the basin the water all ran to the north or toward Great Salt Lake, but when we crossed the rim, all was toward the Colorado River, through which it reached the Pacific Ocean. About this time we were overtaken by another train commanded by Capt. Smith. They had a map with them made by one Williams of Salt Lake a mountaineer who was represented to know all the routes through all the mountains of Utah, and this map showed a way to turn off from the southern route not far from the divide which separated the waters of the basin from those which flowed toward the Colorado, and pass over the mountains, coming out in what they called Tulare valley, much nearer than by Los Angeles.
This map was quite frequently exhibited and the matter freely discussed in camp, indeed speeches were made in the interest of the cut-off route which was to be so much shorter. A clergyman, the Rev. J.W. Brier, was very enthusiastic about this matter and discoursed learnedly and plausibly about it. The more the matter was talked about the more there were who were converted to the belief that the short road would be the best. The map showed every camp on the road and showed where there was water and grass, and as to obstacles to the wagons it was thought they could easily be overcome. A general meeting was called for better consideration of the question. Capt. Hunt said: "You all know I was hired to go by way of Los Angeles, but if you all wish to go and follow Smith I will go also. But if even one wagon decides to go the original route, I shall feel bound to go with that wagon."
1848 map of Upper California from the Surveys of John Charles Fremont
A great many were anxious to get the opinion of Capt. Hunt on the feasibility of the new route for he was a mountain man and could probably give us some good advice. He finally consented to talk of it, and said he really knew no more then the others about this particular route, but he very much doubted if a white man ever went over it, and that he did not consider it at all safe for those who had wives and children in their company to take the unknown road. Young men who had no family could possibly get through, and save time even if the road was not as good as Los Angeles road. But said he "If you decide to follow Smith I will go will go with you, even if the road leads to Hell."
On the route from near Salt Lake to this point we found the country to grow more barren as we progressed. The grass was thinner, and sage brush took the place of timber. Our road took us in sight of Sevier Lake, and also, while going through the low hills, passed Little Salt Lake, which was almost dry, with a beach around it almost as white as snow. It might have had a little more the dignity of a lake in wet weather, but it was a rather dry affair as we saw it.
At one point on this route we came into a long narrow valley, well covered with sage brush, and before we had gone very far we discovered that this was a great place for long eared rabbits, we would call them Jack Rabbits now. Every one who had a gun put it into service on this occasion, and there was much popping and shooting on every side. Great clouds of smoke rolled up as the hunters advanced and the rabbits ran in every direction to get away. Many ran right among the horses, and under the feet of the cattle and under the wagons, so that the teamsters even killed some with a whip. At the end of the valley we went into camp, and on counting up the game found we had over 500, or about one for every person in camp. This gave us a feast of fresh meat not often found.
It was on this trip that one of Mr. Bennett's ox drivers was taken with a serious bowel difficulty, and for many days we thought he would die, but he eventually recovered. His name was Silas Helmer.
It was really a serious moment when the front of the train reached the Smith trail. Team after team turned to the right while now and then one would keep straight ahead as was at first intended. Capt. Hunt came over to the larger party after the division was made, and wished them all a hearty farewell and a pleasant happy journey. My friend Bennett whose fortune I shared was among the seceders who followed the Smith party. This point, when our paths diverged was very near the place afterward made notorious as Mountain Meadows, where the famous massacre took place under the direction of the Mormon generals. Our route from here up to the mountain was a very pleasant one, steadily up grade, over rolling hills, with wood, water and grass in plenty. We came at last to what seemed the summit of a great mountain, about three days journey on the new trail. Juniper trees grew about in bunches, and my experience with this timber taught me that we were on elevated ground.
Immediately in front of us was a caņon, impassible for wagons, and down into this the trail descended. Men could go, horses and mules, perhaps, but wagons could no longer follow that trail, and we proposed to camp while explorers were sent out to search a pass across this steep and rocky caņon. Wood and bunch grass were plenty, but water was a long way down the trail and had to be packed up to the camp. Two days passed, and the parties sent out began to come in, all reporting no way to go farther with the wagons. Some said the trail on the west side of the caņon could be ascended on foot by both men and mules, but that it would take years to make it fit for wheels.
The enthusiasm about the Smith cut-off had begun to die and now the talk began of going back to follow Hunt. On the third morning a lone traveler with a small wagon and one yoke of oxen, died. He seemed to be on this journey to seek to regain his health. He was from Kentucky, but I have forgotten his name. Some were very active about his wagon and, some thought too much attention was paid to a stranger. He was decently buried by the men of the company.
This very morning a Mr. Rynierson called the attention of the crowd and made some remarks upon the situation. He said: "My family is near and dear to me. I can see by the growth of the timber that we are in a very elevated place. This is now the seventh of November, it being the fourth at the time of our turning off on this trail. We are evidently in a country where snow is liable to fall at any time in the winter season, and if we were to remain here and be caught in a severe storm we should all probably perish. I, for one, feel in duty bound to seek a safer way than this. I shall hitch up my oxen and return at once to the old trail. Boys (to his teamsters) get the cattle and we'll return." This was decisive, and Mr. Rynierson would tarry no longer. Many others now proceeded to get ready and follow, and as Mr. Rynierson drove out of camp quite a respectable train fell in behind him. As fast as the hunters came in and reported no road available, they also yoked up their oxen and rolled out. Some waited awhile for companions yet in the fields, and all were about ready to move, when a party came in with news that the pass was found and no trouble could be seen ahead. About twenty-seven wagons remained when this news came, and as their proprietors had brought good news they agreed to travel on westward and not go back to the old trail.
Mr. Bennett had gone only a short distance out when he had the misfortune to break the axle of his wagon and he then went back to camp and took an axle out of the dead man's wagon and by night had it fitted into his own. He had to stay until morning, and there were still a few others who were late in getting a start, who camped there also. Among these were J.B. Arcane, wife and child; two Earhart brothers and sons and some two or three other wagons.
When all was ready we followed the others who had gone ahead. The route led at first directly to the north and a pass was said to be in that direction. Of the Green River party only Rodgers and myself remained with this train. After the wagons straightened out nicely, a meeting was called to organize, so as to travel systematically. A feeling was very manifest that those without any families did not care to bind themselves to stand by and assist those who had wives and children in their party and there was considerable debate, which resulted in all the family wagons being left out of the arrangements.
A party who called themselves "The Jayhawkers" passed us, and we followed along in the rear, over rolling hills covered with juniper timber, and small grassy valleys between where there was plenty of water and went well, for those before us had broken out the road so we could roll along very pleasantly.
At the organization Jim Martin was chosen captain. Those who were rejected were Rev. J.W. Brier and, his family, J.B. Arcane and family, and Mr. A. Bennett and family, Mr. Brier would not stay put out, but forced himself in, and said he was going with the rest, and so he did. But the other families remained behind. I attended the meeting and heard what was said, but Mr. Bennett was my friend and had been faithful to me and my property when he knew not where I was, and so I decided to stand by him and his wife at all hazards.
As I had no team to drive I took every opportunity to climb the mountains along the route, reaching the highest elevations even if they were several miles from the trail. I sometimes remained out all night. I took Mr. Arcane's field glass with me and was thus able to see all there was of the country. I soon became satisfied that going north was not taking us in the direction we ought to go. I frequently told them so, but they still persisted in following on. I went to the leaders and told them we were going back toward Salt Lake again, not making any headway toward California. They insisted they were following the directions of Williams, the mountaineer; and they had not yet got as far north as he indicated. I told them, and Mr. Bennett and others, that we must either turn west, or retrace our steps and get back into the regular Los Angeles road again. In the morning we held another consultation and decided to turn west here, and leave the track we had been following.
Off we turned at nearly right angles to our former course, to the west now, over a piece of table land that gave us little trouble in breaking our own road. When we camped, the oxen seemed very fond of a white weed that was very plenty, and some borrowed a good deal of trouble thinking that perhaps it might be poison. I learned afterwards that this plant was the nutritious white sage, which cattle eat freely, with good results. We now crossed a low range and a small creek running south, and here were also some springs. Some corn had been grown here by the Indians. Pillars of sand stone, fifteen feet high and very slim were round about in several places and looked strange enough. The next piece of table land sloped to the east, and among the sage grew also a bunch grass a foot high, which had seeds like broom-corn seeds. The Indians had gathered the grass and made it in piles of one hundred pounds or so, and used it for food as I found by examining their camps.
One day I climbed a high mountain where some pine grew, in order to get a view of the country. As I neared its base I came to a flat rock, perhaps fifty feet square. I heard some pounding noise as I came near, but what ever it was, it ceased on my approach. There were many signs of the rock being used as a camp, such as pine burrs, bones of various kinds of animals, and other remains of food which lay every where about and on the rock. Near the center was a small oblong stone fitted into a hole. I took it out and found it covered a fine well of water about three feet deep and was thus protected against any small animal being drowned in it. I went on up the mountain and from the top I saw that the land west of us looked more and more barren.
The second night the brave Jayhawkers who had been so firm in going north hove in sight in our rear. They had at last concluded to accept my advice and had came over our road quite rapidly. We all camped together that night, and next morning they took the lead again. After crossing a small range they came to a basin which seemed to have no outlet, and was very barren. Some of the boys in advance of the teams had passed over this elevation and were going quite rapidly over the almost level plain which sloped into the basin, when they saw among the bunches of sage brush behind them a small party of Indians following their road, not very far off, but still out of bow and arrow range. The boys were suddenly able to take much longer steps than usual and a little more rapidly too, and swinging round toward the teams as soon as possible, for they already had some fears that an arrow might be sticking in their backs in an unpleasantly short space of time, for the Indians were good travelers. When they came in sight of the wagons, the Indians vanished as quickly as if they had gone into a hole, with no sign remaining, except a small dog which greatly resembled a prairie wolf, and kept a safe distance away. No one could imagine where the fellows went so suddenly.
We drove to the west side of this basin and camped near the foot of a low mountain. The cattle were driven down into the basin where there was some grass, but at camp we had only the water in our kegs.
Some of the boys climbed the mountain on the north but found no springs: Coming down a caņon they found some rain water in a basin in the rocks and all took a good drink. Lew West lay down and swallowed all he could and then told the boys to kill him for he never would feel so good again. They finished the pool, it was so small, before they left it. In going on down the caņon they saw an Indian dodge behind some big rocks, and searching, they found him in a cave as still as a dead man. They pulled him out and made him go with them, and tried every way to find out from him where they were and where Owen's Lake was, as they had been told the lake was on their route. But he proved to be no wiser than a man of mud, and they led him along to camp, put a red flannel shirt on him to cover his nakedness, and made him sleep between two white men so he could not get away easily. In the morning they were more successful, and he showed us a small ravine four miles away which had water in it, enough for our use, and we moved up and camped there, while the boys and the Indian started over a barren, rocky mountain, and when over on the western slope they were led to a water hole on a steep rocky cliff where no one but an Indian would ever think of looking for water. They took out their cups and had a good drink all around, then offered the Indian some, but he disdained the civilized way, and laying down his bow and arrows took a long drink directly out of the pool. He was so long in getting a good supply that the boys almost forgot him as they were gazing over the distant mountain and discussing prospects, till attracted by a slight noise they looked and saw Mr. Indian going down over the cliffs after the fashion of a mountain sheep, and in a few bounds he was out of sight. They could not have killed him if they had tried, the move so sudden and unlooked for. They had expected the fellow to show them the way to Owen's lake, but now their guide was gone, and left nothing to remember him by except his bow and arrows. So they returned to their wagons not much wiser than before.
All kinds of game was now very scarce, and so seldom seen that the men got tired of carrying their guns, and grew fearless of enemies. A heavy rifle was indeed burdensome over so long a road when there was no frequent use for it. The party kept rolling along as fast as possible but the mountains and valleys grew more barren and water more scarce all the time. When found, the water would be in hole at the outlet of some caņon, or in little pools which had filled up with rain that had fallen on the higher ground. Not a drop of rain had fallen on us since we started on this cut-off, and every night was clear and warm. The elevated parts of the country seemed to be isolated buttes, with no running streams between them but instead, dry lakes with a smooth clay bed, very light in color and so hard that the track of an ox could not be seen on its glittering surface. At a distance those clay beds looked like water shining in the sun and were generally about three times as far as any one would judge, the air was so clear. This mirage, or resemblance to water was so perfect as often to deceive us, and almost to our ruin on one or two occasions.
I took Arcane's field glass and took pains to ascend all the high buttes within a day's walk of the road, and this enabled me to get a good survey of the country north and west. I would sometimes be gone two or three days with no luggage but my canteen and gun. I was very cautious in regard to Indians, and tried to keep on the safe side of surprises. I would build a fire about dark and then travel on till I came to a small washed place and lie down and stay till morning, so if Mr. Indian did come to my fire he would not find any one to kill. One day I was going up a wide ravine leading to the summit, and before I reached the highest part I saw a smoke curl up before me. I took a side ravine and went cautiously, bowed down pretty low so no one could see me, and when near the top of the ridge and about one hundred yards of the fire I ventured to raise slowly up and take a look to see how many there were in camp: I could see but two and as I looked across the ravine an Indian woman seemed looking at me also, but I was so low she could only see the top of my head, and I sank down again out of sight. I crawled further up so as to get a better view, and when I straightened up again she got a full view of me. She instantly caught her infant off its little pallet made of a small piece of thin wood covered with a rabbit skin, and putting the baby under one arm, and giving a smart jerk to a small girl that was crying to the top of her voice, she bounded off and fairly flew up the gentle slope toward the summit, the girl following after very close. The woman's long black hair stood out as she rushed along, looking over her shoulder every instant as if she expected to be slain. The mother flying with her children, untrammeled with any of the arts of fashion was the best natural picture I ever looked upon, and wild in the extreme. No living artist could do justice to the scene as the lady of the desert, her little daughter and her babe, passed over the summit out of sight. I followed, but when I reached the highest summit, no living person could be seen. I looked the country over with my glass. The region to the north was black rocky, and very mountainous. I looked some time and then concluded I had better not go any further that way, for I might be waylaid and filled with arrows at some unsuspected moment. We saw Indian signs almost every day, but as none of them ever came to our camp it was safe to say they were not friendly. I now turned back and examined the Indian woman's camp. She had only fire enough to make a smoke. Her conical shaped basket left behind, contained a few poor arrows and some cactus leaves, from which the spines had been burned, and there lay the little pallet where the baby was sleeping. It was a bare looking kitchen for hungry folks.
I now went to the top of a high butte and scanned the country very carefully, especially to the west and north, and found it very barren. There were no trees, no fertile valleys nor anything green. Away to the west some mountains stood out clear and plain, their summits covered white with snow. This I decided was our objective point: Very little snow could be seen elsewhere, and between me and the snowy mountains lay a low, black rocky range, and a wide level plain, that had no signs of water, as I had learned them in our trip thus far across the country. The black range seemed to run nearly north and south, and to the north and northwest the country looked volcanic, black and desolate.
As I looked and thought, I believed that we were much farther from a fertile region then most of our party had any idea of. Such of them as had read Fremont's travels, and most of them going to California had fortified themselves before starting by reading Fremont; said that the mountains were near California and were fertile from their very summits down to the sea, but that to the east of the mountains it was a desert region for hundred of miles. As I explained it to them, and so they soon saw for themselves, they believed that the snowy range ahead of us was the last range to cross before we entered the long-sought California, and it seemed not far off, and prospect quite encouraging.
Our road had been winding around among the buttes which looked like the Indian baskets turned upside down on the great barren plain. What water we found was in small pools in the wash-out places near the foothills at the edge of the valley, probably running down the ravines after some storm. There were dry lake beds scattered around over the plain, but it did not seem as if there had ever been volume of water enough lately to force itself out so far into the plain as these lakes were. All the lakes appeared about the same, the bed white and glistening in the sun, which made it very hard for the eyes, and so that a man in passing over it made no visible track. It looked as if it one time might have been a smooth bed of plastic mortar, and had hardened in the sun. It looked as if there must have been water there sometime, but we had not seen a drop, or a single cloud; every day was clear and sunny, and very warm, and at night no stars forgot to shine.
Our oxen began to look bad, for they had poor food. Grass had been very scarce, and now when we unyoked them and turned them out they did not care to look around much for something to eat. They moved slowly and cropped disdainfully the dry scattering shrubs and bunches of grass from six inches to a foot high. Spending many nights and days on such dry food and without water they suffered fearfully, and though fat and sleek when we started from Salt Lake, they now looked gaunt and poor, and dragged themselves slowly along, poor faithful servants of mankind. No one knew how long before we might have to kill some of them to get food to save our own lives.
We now traveled several days down the bed of a broad ravine, which led to a southwest direction. There seemed to be a continuous range of mountains on the south, but to the north was the level plain with scattered buttes, and what we had all along called dry lakes, for up to this time we had seen no water in any of them. I had carried my rifle with me every day since we took this route, and though I was an experienced hunter, a professional one if there be such a thing, I had killed only one rabbit, and where no game lived I got as hungry as other folks.
Our line soon brought us in sight of a high butte which stood apparently about 20 miles south of our route, and I determined to visit and climb it to get a better view of things ahead. I walked steadily all day and reached the summit about dusk. I wandered around among the big rocks, and found a projecting cliff where I would be protected from enemies, wind or storm, and here I made my camp. While the light lasted I gathered a small stock of fuel, which consisted of a stunted growth of sage and other small shrubs, dry but not dead, and with this I built a little fire Indian fashion and sat down close to it. Here was a good chance for undisturbed meditation and someway I could not get around doing a little meditating as I added a new bit of fuel now and then to the small fire burning at my side. I thought it looked dark and troublesome before us. I took a stone for a pillow with my hat on it for a cushion, and lying down close under the shelving rock I went to sleep, for I was very tired, I woke soon from being cold, for the butte was pretty high, and so I busied myself the remainder of the night in adding little sticks to the fire, which gave me some warmth, and thus in solitude I spent the night. I was glad enough to see the day break over the eastern mountains, and light up the vast barren country I could see on every hand around me. When the sun was fairly up I took a good survey of the situation, and it seemed as if pretty near all creation was in sight. North and west was a level plain, fully one hundred miles wide it seemed, and from anything I could see it would not afford a traveler a single drink in the whole distance or give a poor ox many mouthfuls of grass. On the western edge it was bounded by a low, black and rocky range extending nearly north and south for a long distance and no pass though it which I could see, and beyond this range still another one apparently parallel to it. In a due west course from me was the high peak we had been looking at for a month, and lowest place was on the north side, which we had named Martin's Pass and had been trying so long to reach. This high peak, covered with snow, glistened to the morning sun, and as the air was clear from clouds or fog, and no dust or haze to obscure the view, it seemed very near.
I had learned by experience that objects a day's walk distant seemed close by in such a light, and that when clear lakes appeared only a little distance in our front, we might search and search and never find them. We had to learn how to look for water in this peculiar way. In my Wisconsin travel I had learned that when I struck a ravine I must go down to look for living water, but here we must invariably travel upward for the water was only found in the high mountains.
Prospects now seemed to me so hopeless, that I heartily wished I was not in duty bound to stand by the women and small children who could never reach a land of bread without assistance. If I was in the position that some of them were who had only themselves to look after, I could pick up my knapsack and gun and go off, feeling I had no dependent ones to leave behind. But as it was I felt I should be morally guilty of murder if I should forsake Mr. Bennett's wife and children, and the family of Mr. Arcane with whom I had been thus far associated. It was a dark line of thought but I always felt better when I got around to the determination, as I always did, to stand by my friends, their wives and children let come what might.
I could see with my glass the train of wagons moving slowly over the plain toward what looked to me like a large lake. I made a guess of the point they would reach by night, and then took a straight course for it all day long in steady travel. It was some time after dark, and I was still a quarter of a mile from the camp fires, where in the bed of a caņon I stepped into some mud, which was a sign of water. I poked around in the dark for a while and soon found a little pool of it, and having been without a drop of it for two days I lay down and took a hasty drink. It did not seem to be very clear or clean, but it was certainly wet, which was the main thing just then. The next morning I went to the pond of water, and found the oxen had been watered there. They stirred up the mud a good deal and had drank off about all the clean part, which seemed to refresh them very much. I found the people in the camp on the edge of the lake I had seen from the mountain, and fortunately it contained about a quarter of an inch of water. They had dug some holes here, which filled up, and they were using this water in the camp.
The ambitious mountain-climbers of our party had by this, time, abandoned that sort of work, and I was left alone to look about and try to ascertain the character of the road they were to follow. It was a great deal to do to look out for food for the oxen and for water for the camp, and besides all this it was plain there were Indians about even if we did not see them. There were many signs, and I had to be always on the lookout to outgeneral them. When the people found I was in camp this night they came around to our wagons to know what I had seen and found, and what the prospects were ahead. Above all they wanted to know how far it was, in my opinion to the end of our journey. I listened to all their inquiries and told them plainly what I had seen, and what I thought of the prospect. I did not like telling the whole truth about it for fear it might dampen their spirits, but being pressed for an opinion I told them in plain words that it would at least be another month before their journey would be ended. They seemed to think I ought to be pretty good authority, and if I was not mistaken, the oxen would get very poor and provisions very scarce before we could pull through so long. I was up at day break and found Mr. Bennett sitting by the fire. About the first thing he said:--"Lewis, if you please I don't want you hereafter to express your views so openly and emphatically as you did last night about our prospects. Last night when I went to bed I found Sarah (his wife) crying and when pressed for the cause, she said she had heard your remarks on the situation, and that if Lewis said so it must be correct, for he knows more about it than all of you. She felt that she and the children must starve."
In the morning Jayhawkers, and others of the train that were not considered strictly of our own party, yoked up and started due west across the level plain which I had predicted as having no water, and I really thought they would never live to get across to the western border. Mr. Culverwell and Mr. Fish stayed with us, making another wagon in our train. We talked about the matter carefully, I did not think it possible to get across that plain in less than four or six days, and I did not believe there was a drop of water on the route. To the south of us was a mountain that now had considerable snow upon its summit, and some small pine trees also. Doubtless we could find plenty of water at the base, but being due south, it was quite off our course. The prospects for reaching water were so much better in that way that we finally decided to go there rather than follow the Jayhawkers on their desolate tramp over the dry plain.
So we turned up a caņon leading toward the mountain and had a pretty heavy up grade and a rough bed for a road. Part way up we came to a high cliff and in its face were niches or cavities as large as a barrel or larger, and in some of them we found balls of a glistening substance looking something like pieces of varigated candy stuck together. The balls were as large as small pumpkins. It was evidently food of some sort, and we found it sweet but sickish, and those who were so hungry as to break up one of the balls and divide it among the others, making a good meal of it, were a little troubled with nausea afterwards. I considered it bad policy to rob the Indians of any of their food, for they must be pretty smart people to live in this desolate country and find enough to keep them alive, and I was pretty sure we might count them as hostiles as they never came near our camp. Like other Indians they were probably revengeful, and might seek to have revenge on us for the injury. We considered it prudent to keep careful watch for them, so they might not surprise us with a volley of arrows.
The second night we camped near the head of the caņon we had been following, but thus far there had been no water, and only some stunted sage brush for the oxen, which they did not like, and only ate it when near the point of starvation. They stood around the camp looking as sorry as oxen can. During the night a stray and crazy looking cloud passed over us and left its moisture on the mountain to the shape of a coat of snow several inches deep. When daylight came the oxen crowded around the wagons, shivering with cold, and licking up the snow to quench their thirst. We took pattern after them and melted snow to get water for ourselves.
By the looks of our cattle it did not seem as if they could pull much, and light loads were advisable on this up grade. Mr. Bennett was a carpenter and had brought along some good tools in his wagon. These he reluctantly unloaded, and almost everything else except bedding and provisions, and leaving them upon the ground, we rolled up the hills slowly, with loads as light as possible.
Rogers and I went ahead with our guns to look out the way and find a good camping place. After a few miles we got out of the snow and out upon an incline, and in the bright clear morning air the foot of the snowy part of the mountain seemed near by and we were sure we could reach it before night. From here no guide was needed and Rogers and I, with our guns and canteens hurried on as fast as possible, when a camp was found we were to raise a signal smoke to tell them where it was. We were here, as before badly deceived as to the distance, and we marched steadily and swiftly till nearly night before we reached the foot of the mountain.
Here was a flat place in a table land and on it a low brush hut, with a small smoke near by, which we could plainly see as we were in the shade of the mountain, and that place lighted up by the nearly setting sun. We looked carefully and satisfied ourselves there was but one hut, and consequently but few people could be expected. We approached carefully and cautiously, making a circuit around so as to get between the hut and the hill in case that the occupants should retreat in that direction. It was a long time before we could see any entrance to this wickiup, but we found it at last and approached directly in front, very cautiously indeed: We could see no one, and thought perhaps they were in ambush for us, but hardly probable, as we had kept closely out of sight. We consulted a moment and concluded to make an advance and if possible capture some one who could tell us about the country, as we felt we were completely lost. When within thirty yards a man poked out his head out of a doorway and drew it back again quick as a flash. We kept out our guns at full cock and ready for use, and told Rogers to look out for arrows, for they would come now if ever. But they did not pull a bow on us, and the red-man, almost naked came out and beckoned for us to come on which we did.
We tried to talk with the fellow in the sign language but he could understand about as much as an oyster. I made a little basin in the ground and filled it with water from our canteens to represent a lake, then pointed in an inquiring way west and north, made signs of ducks and geese flying and squawking, but I did no seem to be able to get an idea into his head of what we wanted. I got thoroughly provoked at him and may have shown some signs of anger. During all this time a child or two in the hut squalled terribly, fearing I suppose they would all be murdered. We might have lost our scalps under some circumstances, but we appeared to be fully the strangest party, and had no fear, for the Indian had no weapon about him and we had both guns and knives. The poor fellow was shivering with cold, and with signs of friendship we fired off one of the guns which waked him up a little and he pointed to the gun and said "Walker," probably meaning the same good Chief Walker who had so fortunately stopped us in our journey down Green River. I understood from the Indian that he was not friendly to Walker, but to show that he was all right with us he went into the hut and brought out a handful of corn for us to eat. By the aid of a warm spring near by they had raised some corn here, and the dry stalks were standing around.
As we were about to leave I told him we would come back, next day and bring him some clothes if we could find any to spare, and then we shouldered our guns and went back toward the wagons, looking over our shoulders occasionally to see if we were followed. We walked fast down the hill and reached the camp about dark to find it a most unhappy one indeed. Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Arcane were in heart-rending distress. The four children were crying for water but there was not a drop to give them, and none could be reached before some time next day. The mothers were nearly crazy, for they expected the children would choke with thirst and die in their arms, and would rather perish themselves than suffer the agony of seeing their little ones gasp and slowly die. They reproached themselves as being the cause of all this trouble. For the love of gold they had left homes where hunger had never come, and often in sleep dreamed of the bounteous tables of their old homes only to be woefully disappointed in the morning. There was great gladness when John Rogers and I appeared in the camp and gave the mothers full canteens of water for themselves and little ones, and there was tears of joy and thankfulness upon their cheeks as they blessed us over and over again.
The oxen fared very hard. The ground was made up of broken stone, and all that grew was a dry and stunted brush not more than six inches high, of which the poor animals took an occasional dainty bite, and seemed hardly able to drag along.
It was only seven or eight miles to the warm spring and all felt better to know for a certainty that we would soon be safe again. We started early, even the women walked, so as to favor the poor oxen all we could. When within two miles of the water some of the oxen lay down and refused to rise again, so we had to leave them and a wagon, while the rest pushed on and reached the spring soon after noon. We took water and went back to the oxen left behind, and gave them some to drink. They were somewhat rested and got up, and we tried to drive them in without the wagons, but they were not inclined to travel without the yoke, so we put it on them and hitched to the wagon again. The yoke and the wagon seemed to brace them up a good deal, and they went along thus much better than when alone and scattered about, with nothing to lean upon.
The warm spring was quite large and ran a hundred yards or more before the water sank down into the dry and thirsty desert. The dry cornstalks of last years crop, some small willows, sagebrush, weeds and grass suited our animals very well, and they ate better than for a long time, and we thought it best to remain two or three days to give them a chance to get rest. The Indian we left here the evening before had gone and left nothing behind but a chunk of crystallized rock salt. He seemed to be afraid of his friends.
The range we had been traveling nearly parallel with seemed to come to an end here where this snow peak stood, and immediately north and south of this peak there seemed to be a lower pass. The continuous range north was too low to hold snow. In the morning I concluded to go to the summit of that pass and with my glass have an extensive view. Two other boys started with me, and as we moved along the snow line we saw tracks of our runaway Indian in the snow, passing over a low ridge. As we went on up hill our boys began to fall behind, and long before night I could see nothing of them. The ground was quite soft, and I saw many tracks of Indians which put me on my guard. I reached the summit and as the shade of its mountain began to make it a little dark, I built a fire of sage brush, ate my grub, and when it was fairly dark, renewed the fire and passed on a mile, where in a small ravine with banks two feet high I lay down sheltered from the wind and slept till morning. I did this to beat the Indian in his own cunning.
Next morning I reached the summit about nine o'clock, and had the grandest view I ever saw. I could see north and south almost forever. The surrounding region seemed lower, but much of it black, mountainous and barren. On the west the snow peak shut out the view in that direction. To the south the mountains seemed to descend for more than twenty miles, and near the base, perhaps ten miles away, were several smokes, apparently from camp fires, and as I could see no animals or camp wagons anywhere I presumed them to be Indians. A few miles to the north and east of where I stood, and somewhat higher, was the roughest piece of ground I ever saw. It stood in sharp peaks and was of many colors, some of them so red that the mountain looked red hot, I imagined it to be a true volcanic point, and had never been so near one before, and the most wonderful picture of grand desolation one could ever see.
Toward the north I could see the desert the Jayhawkers and their comrades had under taken to cross, and if their journey was as troublesome as ours and very much longer, they might by this time be all dead of thirst. I remained on this summit an hour or so bringing my glass to bear on all points within my view, and scanning closely for everything that might help us or prove an obstacle to our progress. The more I looked the more I satisfied myself that we were yet a long way from California and the serious question of our ever living to get there presented itself to me as I tramped along down the grade to camp. I put down at least another month of heavy weary travel before we could hope to make the land of gold, and our stock of strength and provisions were both pretty small for so great a tax upon them. I thought so little about anything else that the Indians might have captured me easily, for I jogged along without a thought of them. I thought of the bounteous stock of bread and beans upon my father's table, to say nothing about all the other good things, and here was I, the oldest son, away out in the center of the Great American Desert, with an empty stomach and a dry and parched throat, and clothes fast wearing out with constant wear. And perhaps I had not yet seen the worst of it. I might be forced to see men, and the women and children of our party, choke and die, powerless to help them. It was a darker, gloomier day than I had ever known could be, and alone I wept aloud, for I believed I could see the future, and the results were bitter to contemplate. I hope no reader of this history may ever be placed in a position to be thus tried for I am not ashamed to say that I have a weak point to show under such circumstances. It is not in my power to tell how much I suffered in my lonely trips, lasting sometimes days and nights that I might give the best advice to those of my party. I believed that I could escape at any time myself, but all must be brought through or perish, and with this all I knew I must not discourage the others. I could tell them the truth, but I must keep my worst apprehensions to myself lest they loose heart and hope and faith needlessly.
I reached the camp on the third day where I found the boys who went part way with me and whom I had out-walked. I related to the whole camp what I had seen, and when all was told it appeared that the route from the mountains westerly was the only route that could be taken, they told me of a discovery they had made of a pile of squashes probably raised upon the place, and sufficient in number so that every person could have one. I did not approve of this for we had no title to this produce, and might be depriving the rightful owner of the means of life. I told them not only was it wrong to rob them of their food, but they could easily revenge themselves on us by shooting our cattle, or scalp us, by gathering a company of their own people together. They had no experience with red men and were slow to see the results I spoke of as possible.
During my absence an ox had been killed, for some were nearly out of provisions, and flesh was the only means to prevent starvation. The meat was distributed amongst the entire camp, with the understanding that when it became necessary to kill another it should be divided in the same way. Some one of the wagons would have to be left for lack of animals to draw it. Our animals were so poor that one would not last long as food. No fat could be found on the entire carcass, and the marrow of the great bones was a thick liquid, streaked with blood resembling corruption.
Our road led us around the base of the mountain; There were many large rocks in our way, some as large as houses, but we wound around among them in a very crooked way and managed to get along. The feet of the oxen became so sore that we made moccasins for them from the hide of the ox that was killed, and with this protection they got along very well. Our trains now consisted of seven wagons. Bennett had two; Arcane two; Earhart Bros. one. Culverwell, Fish and others one; and there was one other, the owners of which I have forgotten. The second night we had a fair camp with water and pretty fair grass and brush for the oxen. We were not very far from the snow line and this had some effect on the country. When Bennett retired that night he put on a camp kettle of the fresh beef and so arranged the fire that it would cook slowly and be done by daylight for breakfast. After an hour or so Mr. Bennett went out to replenish the fire and see how the cooking was coming on, and when I went to put more water in the kettle, he found that to his disappointment, the most of the meat was gone. I was rolled up in my blanket under his wagon and awoke when he came to the fire and saw him stand and look around as if to fasten the crime on the right party if possible, but soon he came to me, and in a whisper said: "Did you see anyone around the fire after we went to bed?" I assured him I did not, and then he told me some one had taken his meat. "Do you think," said he "that any one is so near out of food as to be starving?" "I know the meat is poor, and who ever took it must be nearly starving." After a whispered conversation we went to bed, but we both rose at daylight and, as we sat by the fire, kept watch of those who got up and came around. We thought we knew the right man, but were not sure, and could not imagine what might happen if stealing grub should begin and continue. It is a sort of unwritten law that in parties such as ours, he who steals provisions forfeits his life. We knew we must keep watch and if the offense was repeated the guilty one might be compelled to suffer. Bennett watched closely and for a few days I kept closely with the wagons for fear there might be trouble. It was really the most critical point in our experience. After three or four days all hope of detecting the criminal had passed, and all danger was over out of any difficulty.
One night we had a fair camp, as we were close to the base of the snow butte, and found a hole of clear or what seemed to be living water. There were a few minnows in it not much more than an inch long. This was among a big pile of rocks, and around these the oxen found some grass.
There now appeared to be a pass away to the south as a sort of outlet to the great plain which lay to the north of us, but immediately west and across the desert waste, extending to the foot of a low black range of mountains, through which there seemed to be no pass, the distant snowy peak lay still farther on, with Martin's pass over it still a long way off though we had been steering toward it for a month. Now as we were compelled to go west this impassable barrier was in our way and if no pass could be found in it we would be compelled to go south and make no progress in a westerly direction.
Our trail was now descending to the bottom of what seemed to be the narrowest part of the plain, the same one the Jayhawkers had started across, further north, ten days before. When we reached the lowest part of this valley we came to a running stream, and, as dead grass could be seen in the bed where the water ran very slowly, I concluded it only had water in it after hard rains in the mountains, perhaps a hundred miles, to the north. This water was not pure; it had a bitter taste, and no doubt in dry weather was a rank poison. Those who partook of it were affected about as if they had taken a big dose of salts.
A short distance above this we found the trail of the Jayhawkers going west, and thus we knew they had got safely across the great plain and then turned southward. I hurried along their trail for several miles and looked the country over with field glass becoming fully satisfied we should find no water till we reached the summit, of the next range, and then fearing the party had not taken the precaution to bring along some water I went back to them and found they had none. I told them they would not see a drop for the next forty miles, and they unloaded the lightest wagon and drove back with everything they had which would hold water, to get a good supply.
I turned back again on the Jayhawker's road, and followed it so rapidly that well toward night I was pretty near the summit, where a pass through this rocky range had been found and on this mountain not a tree a shrub or spear of grass could be found--desolation beyond conception. I carried my gun along every day, but for the want of a chance to kill any game a single load would remain in my gun for a month. Very seldom a rabbit could be seen, but not a bird of any kind, not even a hawk buzzard or crow made their appearance here.
When near the steep part of the mountain, I found a dead ox the Jayhawkers had left, as no camp could be made here for lack of water and grass, the meat could not be saved. I found the body of the animal badly shrunken, but in condition, as far as putrefaction was concerned, as perfect as when alive. A big gash had been cut in the ham clear to the bone and the sun had dried the flesh in this. I was so awful hungry that I took my sheath knife and cut a big steak which I devoured as I walked along, without cooking or salt. Some may say they would starve before eating such meat, but if they have ever experienced hunger till it begins to draw down the life itself, they will find the impulse of self preservation something not to be controlled by mere reason. It is an instinct that takes possession of one in spite of himself.
I went down a narrow, dark caņon high on both sides and perpendicular, and quite so in many places. In one of the perpendicular portions it seemed to be a varigated clay formation, and a little water seeped down its face. Here the Indians had made a clay bowl and fastened it to the wall so that it would collect and retain about a quart of water, and I had a good drink of water, the first one since leaving the running stream. Near here I staid all night, for fear of Indians who I firmly believe would have taken my scalp had a good opportunity offered. I slept without a fire, and my supply of meat just obtained drove hunger away.
In the morning I started down the caņon which descended rapidly and had a bed of sharp, volcanic, broken rock. I could sometimes see an Indian track, and kept a sharp lookout at every turn, for fear of revenge on account of the store of squashes which had been taken. I felt I was in constant danger, but could do nothing else but go on and keep eyes open trusting to circumstances to get out of any sudden emergency that might arise.
As I recollect this was Christmas day and about dusk I came upon the camp of one man with his wife and family, the Rev. J.W. Brier, Mrs. Brier and two sons. I inquired for others of his party and he told me they were somewhere ahead. When I arrived at his camp I found the reverend gentleman very cooly delivering a lecture to his boys on education. It seemed very strange to me to hear a solemn discourse on the benefits of early education when, it seemed to me, starvation was staring us all in the face, and the barren desolation all around gave small promise of the need of any education higher than the natural impulses of nature. None of us knew exactly where we were, nor when the journey would be ended, nor when substantial relief would come. Provisions were wasting away, and some had been reduced to the last alternative of subsisting on the oxen alone. I slept by the fire that night, without a blanket, as I had done on many nights before and after they hitched up and drove on in the morning I searched the camp carefully, finding some bacon rinds they had thrown away. As I chewed these and could taste the rich grease they contained, I thought they were the sweetest morsels I ever tasted.
Here on the north side of the caņon were some rolling hills and some small weak springs, the water of which when gathered together made a small stream which ran a few yards down the caņon before it lost itself in the rocks and sand. On the side there stood what seemed to be one half of a butte, with the perpendicular face toward the caņon. Away on the summit of the butte I saw an Indian, so far away he looked no taller than my finger, and when he went out of sight I knew pretty well he was the very fellow who grew the squashes. I thought it might be he, at any rate.
I now turned back to meet the teams and found them seven or eight miles up the caņon, and although it was a down grade the oxen were barely able to walk slowly with their loads which were light, as wagons were almost empty except the women and children. When night came on it seemed to be cloudy and we could hear the cries of the wild geese passing east. We regarded this as a very good sign and no doubt Owen's Lake, which we expected to pass on this route, was not very far off. Around in those small hills and damp places was some coarse grass and other growths, but those who had gone before devoured the best, so our oxen had a hard time to get anything to eat.
Next morning I shouldered my gun and followed down the caņon keeping the wagon road, and when half a mile down, at the sink of the sickly stream, I killed a wild goose. This had undoubtedly been attracted here the night before by the light of our camp fire. When I got near the lower end of the caņon, there was a cliff on the north or right hand side which was perpendicular or perhaps a little overhanging, and at the base a cave which had the appearance of being continuously occupied by Indians. As I went on down I saw a very strange looking track upon the ground. There were hand and foot prints as if a human being had crawled upon all fours. As this track reached the valley where the sand had been clean swept by the wind, the tracks became more plain, and the sand had been blown into small hills not over three or four feet high. I followed the track till it led to the top of one of these small hills where a small well-like hole had been dug and in this excavation was a kind of Indian mummy curled up like a dog. He was not dead for I could see him move as he breathed, but his skin looked very much like the surface of a well dried venison ham. I should think by his looks he must be 200 or 300 years old, indeed he might be Adam's brother and not look any older than he did. He was evidently crippled. A climate which would preserve for many days or weeks the carcass of an ox so that an eatable round stake could be cut from it, might perhaps preserve a live man for a longer period than would be believed.
I took a good long look at the wild creature and during all the time he never moved a muscle, though he must have known some one was in the well looking down at him. He was probably practicing on one of the directions for a successful political career looking wise and saying nothing. At any rate he was not going to let his talk get him into any trouble. He probably had a friend around somewhere who supplied his wants. I now left him and went farther out into the lowest part of the valley. I could look to the north for fifty miles and it seemed to rise gradually in that direction. To the south the view was equally extended, and down that way a lake could be seen. The valley was here quite narrow, and the lofty snow-capped peak we had tried so hard to reach for the past two months now stood before me. Its east side was almost perpendicular and seemed to reach the sky, and the snow was drifting over it, while here the day sun was shining uncomfortably hot. I believe this mountain was really miles from its base to its summit, and that nothing could climb it on the eastern side except a bird and the only bird I had seen for two months was the goose I shot. I looked every day for some sort of game but had not seen any.
As I reached the lower part of the valley I walked over what seemed to be boulders of various sizes, and as I stepped from one to another the tops were covered with dirt and they grew larger as I went along. I could see behind them and they looked clear like ice, but on closer inspection proved to be immense blocks of rock salt while the water which stood at their bases was the strongest brine. After this discovery I took my way back to the road made by the Jayhawkers and found it quite level, but sandy. Following this I came to a campfire soon after dark at which E. Doty and mess were camped. As I was better acquainted I camped with them. They said the water there was brackish and I soon found out the same thing for myself. It was a poor camp; no grass, poor water and scattering, bitter sage brush for food for the cattle. It would not do to wait long here, and so they hurried on.
I inquired of them about Martin's Pass, as they were now quite near it, and they said it was no pass at all, only the mountain was a little lower than the one holding the snow. No wagon could get over it, and the party had made up their minds to go on foot, and were actually burning their wagons as fuel with which to dry the meat of some of the oxen which they had killed. They selected those which were weakest and least likely to stand the journey, and by drying it the food was much concentrated. They were to divide the provisions equally and it was agreed thereafter every one must lookout for himself and not expect any help from anyone. If he used up his own provisions, he had no right to expect anyone else to divide with him. Rice, tea and coffee were measured out by the spoonful and the small amount of flour and bacon which remained was divided out as evenly as possible. Everything was to be left behind but blankets and provisions for the men were too weak to carry heavy packs and the oxen could not be relied on as beasts of burden and it was thought best not to load them so as to needlessly break them down.
When these fellows started out they were full of spirit, and the frolic and fun along the Platte river was something worth laughing at but now they were very melancholy and talked in the lowest kind of low spirits. One fellow said he knew this was the Creator's dumping place where he had left the worthless dregs after making a world, and the devil had scraped these together a little. Another said this must be the very place where Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt, and the pillar been broken up and spread around the country. He said if a man was to die he would never decay on account of the salt. Thus the talk went on, and it seemed as if there were not bad words enough in the language to properly express their contempt and bad opinion of such a country as this. They treated me to some of their meat, a little better than mine, and before daylight in the morning I was headed back on the trail to report the bad news I had learned of the Jayhawkers.
About noon I met two of our camp companions with packs on their backs following the wagon trail, and we stopped and had a short talk. They were oldish men perhaps 50 years old, one a Mr. Fish of Indiana and another named Gould. They said they could perhaps do as well on foot as to follow the slow ox teams, but when I told them what those ahead of them were doing, and how they must go, they did not seem to be entirely satisfied, as what they had on their backs would need to be replenished, and no such chance could be expected. They had an idea that the end of the journey was not as far off as I predicted. Mr. Fish had a long nicely made, whiplash wound around his waist, and when I asked him why he carried such a useless thing, which he could not eat, he said perhaps he could trade it off for something to eat. After we had set on a sand hill and talked for awhile, we rose and shook each other by the hand, and bade each other good bye with quivering lips. There was with me a sort of expression I could not repel that I should never see the middle aged men again.
As my road was now out and away from the mountains, and level, I had no fear of being surprised by enemies, so walked on with eyes downcast, thinking over the situation, and wondering what would be the final outcome. If I were alone, with no one to expect me to help them, I would be out before any other man, but with women and children in the party, to go and leave them would be to pile everlasting infamy on my head. The thought almost made me crazy but I thought it would be better to stay and die with them, bravely struggling to escape than to forsake them in their weakness.
It was almost night before I reached our camp, and sitting around our little fire I told, in the most easy way I could the unfavorable news of the party in advance. They seemed to look to me as a guide and adviser, I presume because I took much pains to inform myself on every point and my judgment was accepted with very little opposing opinion, they moved as I thought best. During my absence from camp for the two days the Indians had shot arrows into three of our oxen, and one still had an arrow in his side forward of the hip which was a dangerous place. To be sure and save him for ourselves we killed him. Some were a little afraid to eat the meat thinking perhaps the arrow might be poisoned, but I agreed that they wanted meat themselves and would not do that. I told them if they got a shot themselves it would be very likely to be a poisoned arrow and they must take the most instant measures to cut it out before it went into the blood. So we ventured to dry the meat and take it with us.
Now I said to the whole camp "You can see how you have displeased the red men, taking their little squashes, and when we get into a place that suits them for that purpose, they may meet us with a superior force and massacre us, not only for revenge but to get our oxen and clothing." I told them we must ever be on guard against a surprise, as the chances were greatly against us.
We pulled the arrows out of the other oxen, and they seemed to sustain no great injury from the wounds. This little faint stream where we camped has since been named as Furnace Creek and is still known as such. It was named in 1862 by some prospectors who built what was called an air furnace on a small scale to reduce some ore found near by, which they supposed to contain silver, but I believe it turned out to be lead and too far from transportations to be available.
Death Valley in '49 - Table of Contents - Chapter 9 - Previous < > Next