Including an account of three brothers making their way to the gold fields of California, with ghastly results...hardships and sufferings of the pioneers, described in the story of Mrs. Augusta Tabor...the fate of the buffalo, and the depredations of the Indians...and a description of the Pony Express and freighting teams.
.......No longer ago than 1854 Colonel Thomas H. Benton, of national reputation, and his son-in-law, John C. Fremont, whose explorations from the Missouri River to the Pacific coast had made him known world-wide, became enthusiastic over the project of building a railroad over the Rocky Mountains. Fremont's last two expeditions were undertaken, at his own and Colonel Benton's expense, for the purpose, mainly, of settling, the question whether it would be practicable to run cars over the Rocky Mountains in the winter, when storms are terrific and snows deep.
It was necessary for Fremont to undertake his expeditions in winter-time, in order to test the question satisfactorily. We need scarcely say that the hardships and perils of such an enterprise were many and great. Fremont and his men never learned more of cold and hunger by experience than they did in that expedition. At one time, as news from the explorers had not been received for several weeks, the public feared that the whole party had perished. The National Intelligencer of April 12, 1854, said:
"It gives us great pleasure to insert the subjoined letter from Colonel Fremont, not only because it contradicts the exaggerated reports of deaths sustained by his party, and assures us of the intrepid explorer's own safety, after his two months' bold journey through the mountain wilds in midwinter, but because his success seems fully to have established the favorable nature of the central route for a railroad, in winter as well as summer."
Bear in mind, reader, that our purpose is to show the marvel of enterprise in the New West, which can be done well only by a clear and distinct understanding of the condition of the country west of the Missouri physically, as well as socially and morally, less than forty years ago. Such experience as that of Fremont seems scarcely possible to the tourist now, who travels from the Missouri River to San Francisco in a Pullman car in four days.
Before the discovery of gold in California, in 1848, few but explorers, fur-traders, trappers, and hunters, ventured to cross the Missouri River into the wilderness. The discovery of gold, however, on the Paicific Slope, created the wildest enthusiasm throughout the land, and a tide of emigration to California set in. Hundreds and thousands of ill-fated adventurers crossed the Missouri, to die by savage violence or starvation on the "Great Plains" or in the mountains. The tragic end of individuals and companies who miserably perished on their way to the "Golden Gate," less than forty years ago, would fill volumes with tales more harrowing than fiction. The known starvation or massacre of one company of emigrants did not deter another from the hazardous undertaking. A continuous stream of men, wild with the gold-mania, poured over the plains and through the mountains, -- some of them to success, but more to death.
Freighters called these baggage-wagons "prairie-schooners." Oxen, mules, and horses were used to draw them, from two to ten to each team. It was not unusual for oxen, horses, and mules to be hitched to the same "schooner." Emigrants travelled in caravans as much as possible, well armed, to protect themselves when savages attacked them. Wild beasts, wilder Indians, and "Latter-Day Saints" made the journey extremely perilous.
The discovery of gold in Colorado, in 1858, created even greater excitement throughout the country than did its discovery ten years before in California. Emigration rolled towards the new Eldorado with unexampled rapidity. A more motley tide of humanity never set in, north, south, east, or west. The year 1859 will ever be memorable for the number and miscellaneous character of travellers to Pike's Peak. Old men and mere boys, educated and ignorant, saints and sinners, philanthropists and robbers, professional and lay, -- all defied hunger, cold, nakedness, and Indians, in their red-hot enthusiasm for gold-digging. The "Great Plains" swarmed with all sorts of animals and vehicles, conveying men, and some women, with goods and chattels, to the gold region. It was not unusual for an ox, mule, donkey, and even cow, to appear in the motley cavalcade, heavily loaded with the property of its enthused proprietor. The illustration is no fancy sketch: it represents what many men now living beheld on the Plains. It is claimed, even, that one party crossed the Plains carrying his outfit on a wheelbarrow; and others drew hand-carts.
Many of the white-topped wagons bore amusing inscriptions, as follows: on a wagon drawn by two yoke of oxen, moving at a snail's pace, appeared in large letters, "Lightning Express"; on another wagon, "Pike's Peak or Bust"; on another, "Root Hog or Die"; and so on ad infinitum.
Few imagined what sufferings they might experience in their new adventure; most of them had their only laugh in the early part of their journey. The ox-team conveyed them to disappointment, hunger, and death in a briefer period than they dreamed of. Miss Hill, in her "Tales of Colorado Pioneers," has the following, which she received from one Mrs. Barney: --
"I was in the first coach of the 'Leavenworth and Pike's Peak Express Company' which arrived in Denver on the seventh day of May, 1859. The supply wagons were sent on ahead, locating the stations, and every twenty- five miles they would drop a tent, a stove, and a cook. At that season of the year the twilight is short, so when we drew up at the station for supper it was quite dark. When I entered the tent I saw the most soul-sickening sight that my eyes ever rested upon, and the flickering light of the candle added intensity to the horror. . . . The poor man, from starvation, was reduced to a living skeleton. He was in the last stages of exhaustion when a an Indian found him and brought him to the tent. After he was refreshed with food and stimulants he told his sickening story.
"Three brothers set out from Illinois in a one-horse cart for the gold region. From Leavenworth they took the Smoky Hill route. Guided by incorrect ideas of the distance, they were poorly prepared for the hardships of the journey, and their provisions gave out before they were half way. They killed their horse for food and loaded their cart with it, taking turns in the harness of the slaughtered animal. It was tedious, and their strength was rapidly going. When the last piece of flesh was gone, they sat down in despair to die, for they had wandered away from the trail in search of water, and had no hope of being found by a human being. One sank faster than the others, and when dying requested the surviving brothers to live upon his flesh and try to get through. He died, and they commenced their cannibalistic feast -- ate the body, and again saw starvation staring them in the face. Another died, which furnished food to the remaining brother.
"Mr. Williams, conductor of the Express, after hearing the story, had the Indian pilot him to the spot, where he found the bones of the one who died last, and buried them.
"We took the miserable famished creature in the coach to Denver. His body regained health and strength, but his mind was gone. He remained always an imbecile. The citizens of Denver made up a purse and sent him to his friends in 'the States.'"
A story stranger than fiction has just been told us by a gentleman who reached Denver early in the spring of 1859. With two companions he drew a hand-cart, containing their effects, from Leavenworth, Kan., to Denver, Col., a distance of six hundred miles. On the way they crossed the route of a team from Texas, laden with flour and other stores. This gentlemen purchased a sack of flour of the teamster, and transferred it to the hand-cart. On reaching Denver, where some thirty men had wintered, he found a scarcity of provision, and the Cherry Creek gold mania a delusion. There was not a spoonful of flour in the camp; and as the search for gold had proved vain, there was a general desire among the men to escape from their dilemma. Our informant was offered a "corner lot" for one-half of his sack of flour, and two other lots in addition, for the whole of it. He refused the offer, thinking that he might need it to keep his own soul and body together. Neither he nor any one else dreamed of the influx of people, in six weeks from that time, when they came by the thousand; otherwise he would have parted with the flour. Had he sold it for the three "lots," he would have realized, within three to six months, from eight thousand to ten thousand dollars for his sack of flour.