Fort Kearney - Dobytown - Shooting Telegraph Poles - Quartermaster Stores - Commissary Stores - Post Buildings - The Chimney Register - Post Garden - The Buffer Strip - Greyhounds - To Start a Frontier Post - Supplies - The Buffalo Hunt - The Poker Game - The Start
FORT KEARNEY at that time was an old frontier post. It was said to have been established in 1848. It was situated south of the river, and somewhat east from the crossing of the Platte, so that the trains going west, and crossing the river, would not come past the post, but would cross above and west of it. There was a tough collection of frontier habitations just on the west edge of the reservation; this place, called Dobytown, was two miles west of the Fort. All of the buildings, so far, west of Columbus, had been covered with clay roofs. We first noticed them at Columbus. The roofs were made of poles, in the interstices of which willow brush had been placed, over these swale-grass from the bed of the river, and on top of it all from six to ten inches of hard clay dug out from the lower portion of some of the gullies. This clay had been tamped and pounded down, forming a complete shelter from rain and cold. It was almost like cement. In fact, there was nothing in the country to make any other kind of a roof out of. There were no shingle machines, or wood from which shingles could be made. Dobytown was a collection of adobe buildings of Mexican style, containing the toughest inhabitants of the country, male and female.
Fort Kearney was at the junction of the two regular roads, one coming west from Omaha, and the other up to the Platte from Fort Leavenworth, the trail being augmented by roads from Weston and St. Jo. These all united at Dobytown and went together in one track west. The volume of travel was much the larger on the southern prong, and these two great currents of overland commerce meeting at Dobytown fixed the spot there where the toughs of the country met and had their frolics. Large quantities of the meanest whisky on earth were consumed here, but, strange as it may appear, there were also quantities of champagne sold and drunk here. Persons suddenly enriched, coming from the west and the mines, met here with old chums and cronies and with them drank champagne; or met old enemies, and with them fought a duel to the death. The cemetery was larger than the town. Three of the men of my company disappeared immediately upon our arrival, and it was suggested that I would find them in Dobytown. The next morning a man who lived in Dobytown being down at the Fort, offered to go up with me and go around, as he was acquainted with the places, and help me find the men. There was a row of telegraph poles between the Fort and Dobytown, and after we had started, this new acquaintance of mine, who had on two Colt's pistols, told me he could ride the line as fast as his horse would run, and put six bullets out of each revolver into successive telegraph poles; that is to say, he could hit a telegraph pole with every shot. Being somewhat experienced myself from a couple of years' service in the cavalry, I did not think he could do it, but I rode along with him, and he did it with the missing of only one telegraph pole in twelve shots. The road along was about eighteen feet from the poles. He afterwards told me he had practiced on it hundreds of times. I often practiced on it myself after that, but never could quite attain so good an average. His name was Talbot.
There was at Fort Kearney a vast warehouse in which supplies for the west were stored in great quantities. In this big warehouse were rations enough for an army. And this at that time was needed, because under the law as it then stood, the commissary had the right to sell provisions to indigent and hungry persons who made a requisition approved by the Post Commander, and these sales were made at the Government cost price. There were a great many people who through accidents and improvidence ran out of provisions in the wild barren country, and there was a constant sale by the post commissary. Post commanders were very particular in these matters, and quite frugal in their way of giving orders, yet nevertheless in the aggregate the sales were large, and it was necessary that large storehouses of provisions should be kept, so that Fort Kearney and other frontier posts west of it could be supplied in cases of emergency. In addition to that, a post commander always had the right to gratuitously feed the Indians, and the Indians were very prone to come in and see, in their way of expressing it, "What the white brother would do for them." These stores were all rated at cost according to a schedule prepared by the assistant quarter-master-general at Leavenworth. When we went there this great warehouse was almost full. And in the warehouse there was a large room almost as big as a small house, which was built up with heavy planks. The commissary unlocked it one day to show me, and there he had racks in which barrel upon barrel of liquor was stored. He said that there had been liquor piled in there since 1849, and that owing to the difficulties and troubles which ensued from its sale and use, it was carefully handled and only used for issue to fatigue parties. He then said, "The report is that you are going west to build a fort, and if so I will let you have a barrel, at cost price." He then kicked the head of a barrel in one of the lower racks, and said: "Here is a barrel that has been here since 1849, as you see by that mark. That is rye whisky, invoiced at twenty-six cents a gallon." It was fully fifteen years old. He said, "There must have been considerable evaporated out of it, so you will have to buy it at what its marked capacity is." Thereupon I told him to save it for me in case the time came. There was also a large quartermaster depot for everything in the shape of necessary tools, and frontier utensils. There were axes, whip-saws, anvils, blacksmith and carpenter tools, shovels, spades, plows, and almost everything that would be needed at a frontier post.
The post itself was a little old rusty frontier cantonment. The buildings were principally made out of native lumber, hauled in from the East. The post had run down in style and appearance since the regulars left it. The fuel was cottonwood cordwood, cut down on the island of the Platte. The parade-ground was not very large, and had around it a few straggling trees that had evidently been set out in large numbers when the post had been made; a few had survived, and they showed the effect of the barrenness and aridity of the climate. They looked tough. On the south side of the square was the largest building, and on the second floor of it was a large room which seemed as if it had at one time been used as a sort of officers' club. There was a large brick fireplace, and above it the masonry of the chimney had been plastered with a hard, smooth finish. Upon this white surface on the breast of the chimney were written a large number of names. It looked as if it had been a sort of register of all the officers who from first to last had ever visited the post. Each one had taken a little space and written his name. And it was one of the most interesting experiences of my stay there that I put in the afternoon reading the names of Captain So-and-so, Lieutenant So-and-so, and Major So-and-so, who since that time had become well-known celebrities in the military service, North or South, in the civil war then pending. It seems as if about all the officers then being distinguished in the war from the regular army, had at one time registered their names upon that chimney-front. Among them was Lieut. R. E. Lee. I will speak more particularly of Fort Kearney further on.
There was no cultivation whatever in and around Kearney. It was too desolate and arid. A little garden was in use, down a distance from the post, surrounded with some barriers made of post and brush. The refuse of the stable had been spaded under, a shallow well dug, and soldiers from time to time on fatigue duty had been put to work in those gardens. But the result was very feeble, and outside of that nothing was raised. I remember during the few days that we were at Fort Kearney there came up a violent wind-storm which carried the sand and gravel freely, and the next morning I was up at Dobytown, and saw them shoveling away from the doors the accumulated drifts. In some places the sand and gravel had piled up against the doors fully a foot high. Out on the tableland the sand was on the surface, except that in the swales there was grass. I was told that Fort Kearney marked the western line of the rights of the Pawnee Indians; that they were forbidden by either military order or treaty from going any farther west than the line of Fort Kearney. There was also said to be a buffer territory, and that the western Indians were not allowed to come east within forty miles of Fort Kearney; so that there ran a strip north and south of forty miles wide upon which no Indians by right could go. But it was only a talking point. As a matter of fact, the Indians went where they pleased. The travel from the west at this time was very great, and the trains were full of armed men, and they all reported that rumors of Indian trouble were prevailing all through the west towards Denver.
Around Fort Kearney at that time was a large number of splendid greyhounds. Major Wood, of our regiment, to whom I have heretofore referred, was directed to take command of Fort Kearney. He did so, and acted as post commander until further orders. The greyhounds around the post seemed to be sort of common property, and Major Wood gave Captain O'Brien one, and me one -- two of the most beautiful animals of the kind I ever saw, and to which the Captain and I became very much attached. The origin of these greyhounds was as follows, which I give as it was told to me: sometime back in the '50s an English nobleman by the name of Lord George Gore came to this country for the purpose of hunting big game. As one person described it to me, Lord George Gore came with forty horses, forty servants, forty guns, forty dogs and forty of everything else. He stopped at Fort Kearney and hunted, and several litters of those greyhounds, and some of the original bunch, were left at the post, and became sort of public property, subject to the direction of the post commander.
The moment of our arrival at the post we had all our horses re-shod, and were told we would be sent to build a fort at Cottonwood Canyon, one hundred miles farther west. We drew from the post quartermaster axes, saws, augers, chisels, bar iron for horseshoes, anvils and bellows, and all the necessary paraphernalia to start housekeeping out in the wild country. And I had the commissary take the barrel of whisky which he had promised, fill it from another barrel, and box it up as hardware. It was loaded in the wagon with our other stuff, so that when we moved we started with eight large Government wagons piled high with rations, supplies, corn, ammunition, and tools for the creation of a frontier post.
On October 7th Major Wood, the post commander, desired to bid us adieu by having a buffalo-hunt. Large quantities of buffaloes were over in the hills south of the post. So, at noon, Captain O'Brien and I and the Major, with a scout, went out to look for the buffalo, but were charged to be careful, because Indians from the west might be following the buffalo, and they might take advantage of the situation and get us before we got back. But we never saw any Indians. We went out with nothing but Colt's revolvers, calibre .44, and we had a very exciting afternoon. The buffalo had a strange way of moving across the country. The bulls would be together in large flocks off on one of the wings of the moving herd. They were the most exciting game. They were savage, and often put up a good fight. Our horses were much scared, and it was with great difficulty we could get anywhere near the buffalo. During the afternoon, while we killed several buffaloes, it is a fact that the buffaloes chased us as much as we did them. Captain O'Brien had a very ornamental "McClellan cap," as it was called, an officer's cap embroidered with a gold corps badge, and cross-sabers, and on the inside of it in the top was a piece of red patent leather. The Captain picked out the biggest buffalo of the bull herd as they were going, and managed to get near enough to hit the buffalo, and slightly wound it, not seriously. The buffalo started after the Captain, and his horse became frantic. In the jolting that ensued the Captain's cap fell off, and the red top showing up attracted the eye of the buffalo. He got down on his front elbows and bored his horn right through the top of that cap and pranced off with it on his left horn. The Captain was unable with his revolver to bring him down. We cut out the tongues of the buffaloes we killed, and brought them back after sunset. Swarms of wolves were seen in every direction, hanging on the flanks of the buffalo herd.
All arrangements having been made to start west, we bade adieu to the officers of the various companies after supper, and went to our tents, which were pitched near the Fort, ready to start early in the morning. In a little while an officer came out to us, and told us they wanted to have some ceremonies before we started, as we would not meet again soon, and we went with him to the quartermaster's office and a jollification began. Among those present was an officer of a Missouri regiment. I do not now remember his regiment, but he was a First Lieutenant. He had been sent with dispatches through to Colorado, and was on his way back. This officer along during the evening suggested a game of poker; to use his language, "ten cents ante and one dollar limit"; and he said, "I'll be banker." Soon a party of six were engaged with this Missouri officer, who acted as banker; he issued the grains of coffee which were used upon the occasion. About one o'clock the party broke up, and lo and behold the banker had had bad luck and was unable to redeem the chips. He had gone broke, and more too -- he owed everyone around the board. Being unable to pay out he was asked why he had suggested a game like this when he bad no money to go into it, and he said that he was going back to St. Louis and he thought he could make enough to pay his expenses. Thereupon Captain O'Brien took out his pocket-knife and cut one of the buttons off of the officer's coat. "I will take this in full of what you owe me."
The buttons on the officer's coat, although he was in the United States service, were not United States buttons, but were gilt buttons of the State of Missouri. The arms of the State were on them; they were such as had been used by the officers of the National Guard of the State. But State pride of this officer had caused him to use these buttons on his United States uniform. In about two minutes the officer had very few buttons on his uniform. Each one of us took a large one from the front row, and gave a verbal receipt in full. We never heard of him afterwards. I sent the button home by mail for preservation, and owing to its ridiculous history have preserved it ever since and still have it.
The next morning, October 8th, we left Fort Kearney, and went west to a fortified ranch called Gardner's Ranch, which was kept by a Mr. James Heemstreet.