The Settlement at Cottonwood Springs - MacDonald's Ranch - Cutting Trees - October 31, 1863 - Building Barracks - Building Quarters and Stables - November 3, 1863 - The Election - Thanksgiving - The Gilmans - Indian Names - Masonic Ceremonies - Skunks - Artillery and Indians - Indian visitors - Loyal League - December 15, 1863
COTTONWOOD SPRINGS, when we arrived there, was one of the important points on the road. MacDonald, who had a year or so before our arrival, built, as stated, a cedar-log store-building. The main building was about twenty feet front and forty feet deep, and was two stories high. A wing 50 feet extended to the west. The latter was, at the eaves, about eight feet high and fifteen feet deep in the clear. Around it in the rear was a large and defensible corral, which extended to the arroyo coming out of the canyon. It had been a good trading-point with the Indians, and there was a stage station there, and a blacksmith shop kept by a man named Hindman. In the stage station was a telegraph office. There was also on the other side of the road a place where canned goods and liquors were sold, kept by a man named Boyer, who had lost a leg, and whom the Indians called "Hook-sah," which meant "cut leg." MacDonald had dug, in front of his store, and cribbed up, an inexhaustible well, which was said to be forty-six feet deep; it was rigged with pulley, chain, and heavy oaken buckets. MacDonald and those at the place had formerly had a good trade with the Indians, but now it was all ended, and they were in danger.
We immediately pitched our tents, and marked out the quadrangle for company quarters, officers' quarters, and guard-house. The next day was spent in unloading our supplies, putting them under shelter, and organizing the squads for going up into the canyon for cedar logs. We had only about seventy-five men that were really effective for hard work, but many of them were very skillful in the use of the ax, and many knew how to handle tools. The end room of the wing of MacDonald's cedar structure was used as "pilgrim quarters." It had a heavy clay roof, and a large simple cast-iron cook stove, with sheet-iron stovepipe running up through the roof. Our "Post Headquarters" used that room for office and mess, but we slept in our tents. On October 13th we started up the canyon; six of our men had worked in the pineries, and were expert axmen. They went to work as three couples to fell the trees. Their axes were sharp, the weather stimulating, and they tumbled the trees rapidly. Other squads trimmed the branches; others with a crosscut saw worked in constant reliefs, cutting the logs the right length. Our quarters had been planned to be built of twenty-foot logs. These logs were about a foot in diameter. We had our pick. After getting down a lot of the logs, we organized squads with our team mules to snake them out of the canyon. The men made rapid work, and every night every man who had worked in the canyon got a good snifter from my barrel of 1849 whisky. We were racing against the weather, and I never saw men work with more activity. The main barracks for the men were designed as six square rooms, which made a long building one hundred twenty feet long by twenty feet wide on the outside. Among our number were those who had built log cabins, and knew how to "carry up a corner," as the expression was. So the logs were snaked down, and with assistance the men at the corners notched them up, and it was but a few days before the cabins seven feet high in the clear were ready for the roof. The best logs were kept out to build Company Headquarters with. In a little while we had the pole roof on, with the interstices filled with cedar boughs, and about ten inches of good hard clay tamped down; but we were still without doors and windows, although we had places for them sawed out in the log walls. The large logs, of which there were many over twelve inches in diameter, were reserved for lumber. We dug out a place on the bank of the arroyo as a saw-pit, and having two whip-saws, the men were started sawing out lumber one inch in thickness. The men took turns at the top, and the bottom, with the saw, sawing the length of a log. Then they were relieved by two others, so that the whip-saws were kept running all the time, but no one had more than one round a day at that particular work. With smaller cedar poles cut, and used as joists, we soon had bunks made in each of the rooms of our company's quarters. We had drawn "hay bags" from the quartermaster at Fort Kearney. These we used as straw-ticks, and filled with whatever the soldiers wanted to put in. The boys chose partners, and began to occupy the bunks. We had drawn a lot of sheet-iron for the purpose of making stoves, and stovepipes. Our blacksmith rapidly fixed the company up with sorts of funnel-shape sheet-iron stoves, in which the cedar chips burned like tinder. These company quarters were rather close, there being no communication between the different rooms. Sixteen men occupied a room, and between the bunks was a space where they had their mess-cooking, and their mess-eating. With the whipsaw, lumber enough was got out for a door in front of each room, and a window shutter in the rear.
One or more non-commissioned officers were established in each room, and the north end room was a non-commissioned officers' mess. In our kits were two broadaxes, and there were men who knew how to use them, so the Company Headquarters building was made of logs that had been "scored and hewed." The scoring was a simple process. The man stood on the top of the log, and chopped into a line through the whole length of the log, and then the man with the broadax hewed in and straightened it. By working in reliefs, in a few days the Company Headquarters building, eight feet high and twenty feet square, with a puncheon floor and cedar door, and with an oil-paper window, was ready. Then we put up a house in which to store supplies. This was forty by twenty. Then across the road -- for we had built alongside of the road and quite near to MacDonald's ranch -- across the road we put up a hospital building of twenty-foot square-hewed logs, with a sort of porch. These buildings were all "chinked and daubed." That is, blocks and chips were driven in between the logs, and clay was mixed into mortar by the wagon-load down near the springs, and hauled up, and the walls plastered up inside and out so that they were air-tight. Afterwards, the roof having become settled, the clay was dampened and plastered with a trowel. Then we built a guard-house twenty feet square, divided across the middle so that the back half of it was as dark as a dungeon, with a big heavy plank door with hinges extending across, which our blacksmith had made. Then it became necessary to look after our horses, and to build a stable to protect them. These were built upon the palisade principle. We made the outline of our stable just about two hundred feet long, although it bent with an angle so that we could fill in the other angles, and have a square with an open interior. We dug a trench three feet deep. We cut the posts only twelve feet long, and putting them on end in the trench, we filled the trench, leaving the posts standing side and side. When the walls were up, which did not require very long time, the tops of the posts were sawed off level, and a plate-rail spiked on top of them, with spikes made by the blacksmith, one to a log. Upon this we placed a roof, and then fitted up the interior with poles, and got our horses under cover. Between these upright palisades we drove blocks, put in filling, and on the west and north plastered them up. It was very interesting to watch work go forward in such a case as this. There were men in the company who collectively knew how to do everything, and do it well. Everyone was desirous of getting fixed before the cold weather, and there was no laziness or shirking.
Upon Tuesday, November 3, 1863, the election came off. A strong Copperhead and "peace-at-any-price" party had grown up in Iowa, and the election was centered upon the governorship. The National Democratic party had McClellan for a nominal head; it was trying to bring the war to a close, and was propounding all kinds of arbitrations and compromises. The only position for the soldiers to take was that of fighting the thing right straight through to the bitter end, and making the United States, in the language of Lincoln, "All slave or all free." Such was the grim determination of the men in the field, and in the ranks; such was the sentiment of most of the officers. There were several in the company of whom I had begun to have suspicions, but I think by desertion afterward they mostly eliminated themselves, and their influence, from the company. Capt. O'Brien got the company together at noon on election day, and made them a speech. So did I. It wasn't very much of a speech, only I told them we couldn't afford to let Iowa get into the hands of the Copperheads, because then they would stop recruiting, and try to bring the war to a close. We made the speeches a little bit bitter, and got the men worked up pretty thoroughly. I was the election officer who was to receive and count and forward the ballots. The Captain was as ardent as I was, and a better talker. I was pleasantly surprised that the men stayed with us; only eight voted the opposite ticket. Capt. O'Brien was much delighted. I made every effort to find out from among the boys who it was that voted those eight votes. It was, of course, somewhat difficult to find out, but I think five of the eight became deserters, and of the other three one was killed by whisky, and two had poor military records. Assisted by the soldier vote, the State of Iowa was saved, and retained in the ranks of loyal States. On looking back it seems to me strange how hard we had to fight and yet how much exertion we had to put forth to control those in the rear so that we could be permitted to put down the Rebellion. As I look back on it I don't see how it was that the Union was saved; and I cannot comprehend, although I was in the middle of it, how it was that we managed to keep things going until the end came, in a satisfactory manner.
At a ranch below us, where there was a good valley in the Platte, a man had brought out a mowing-machine, and had put up for the use of the overland travelers about two hundred tons of hay. After we arrived, he came to see us, and told us that although grass was dead, and dry, that he could still cut considerable more of it, and that horses could live upon it. We made arrangements with him for some of this poor hay, and also enough of the other to carry us through. In addition to this, squads of horses tied together by the halter, two and two, were sent out under charge of a soldier to allow them to graze and frolic day by day; and our horses, having nothing else to do at the time, improved and kept in excellent condition.
On November 28th we were all under cover, and although there was still much to do, we determined to celebrate Thanksgiving, supposing that to be the day. Down at Gilmans' Ranch, fifteen miles east of the post, they wanted to furnish us some fat cattle, and some additional hay. Captain O'Brien and I rode down there, and found the "Gilman Brothers." There were two of them. They had been engaged in the Indian trade. They told us that the Indians were liable at any time to make a lot of trouble, and they told us much about Indian character, disposition, and methods. The elder of the two had a strange history. He had joined the Walker filibustering expedition which went to Cuba years before, in which so many were garroted. He said that he was a young man, and was from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and understood the sea and understood the Cubans. And instead of going ashore in Cuba, he got onto a piece of wood or wreckage and stayed out in the Gulf Stream until he was picked up by a freight vessel. He said that if he had gone ashore the Spanish officers would have executed him. After that he started for California with his brother. Their team got wrecked, and they stopped, got to trading with the Indians, and finally built their ranch. They now had a very fine built and defensible ranch. They told us how they made their money. They said that the train oxen not being generally shod, their feet on the overland travel finally became sore, and the oxen became unable to pull, and that the ranchmen traded one well animal for two footsore animals -- even trade, two for one. Then they kept the footsore animal for a time until their hoofs grew out, and traded again. By keeping a supply of well-broken oxen which could be put right under the yoke, they had managed to build up a large business, and occasionally to sell yokes of oxen at large prices for cash, and they had made considerable money. They had a large stock of goods.
There was an Indian sitting down in front of this ranch when we went there, but the Gilmans said that the Indian was a poor, worthless and harmless fellow, who would do nobody any injury. The Indian name of the elder brother, J. K. Gilman, was We-chox'-cha, and of the younger, Jud Gilman, the Indian name was Po-te'-sha-sha. I was told that the first name meant "the old man with a pump," and the other, "red whiskers." There was an iron pump out in front of the house, and the younger had red whiskers. The Indians gave every white man a name. They could not understand why a white man should have a name that did not mean anything. We made arrangements with the Gilmans for beef for the post, subject to the approval of the district quartermaster. And we also arranged that they should not sell all of their hay, so that in case we needed some in the spring we could have it. The Gilmans told us that the Indians would not begin their depredations until the grass was high enough for their ponies. That we might expect trouble about the first of June next. All the prophecies J. K. Gilman made came true, and the information which he gave proved to be sound and sensible. He was a very capable, intelligent man, as was also his brother, although the older was better informed. They were men who would make good citizens anywhere, and how they should be out there in that lone ranch trading with Indians and pilgrims, was a great deal of a mystery, unless it could be explained by the profits of their business. The older Gilman told me that their stuff there around them was worth more than $50,000, and that they had large quantities of supplies in back rooms for the purpose of handling the trade. They also said that they had gotten acquainted with all the chiefs of the Sioux and Cheyennes, and had induced men as agents to go out and live with them, and sort of take orders; that is, to influence trade to come to them, the Gilmans, on a percentage.
Gold was discovered in Colorado May 7, 1859, at Idaho Springs, by a man, it was claimed, named George Washington Jackson. Soon afterwards a heavy emigration from the States to there set in.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, about the first of December, a large train came down from the west. There must have been fully two hundred persons in it, and about the same time some travelers came up from the east, so that one evening MacDonald, the owner of the ranch, announced that they were going to have Masonic services in the second story of his ranch building. I was not a member of that organization, but I saw a number going there, and it was a surprise to me how all of the persons of that congregation could get into that one upper room. I afterwards spoke of it to MacDonald, and he went and got out his Masonic apron and a lot of paraphernalia, and said that he had been at the head of a lodge in the East, and was going to establish one as soon as enough people in the country could come to it.
One thing that was remarkable was the number of skunks in the Platte valley. They were playing hide-and-seek all over Fort Kearney while we were there, and ranchmen said that they were plentiful, and a great nuisance. We had hardly got established before they were in and out the floors and the stables, and other places where they could hide, and they appeared to be as tame and playful as kittens. It was not long before in our new post they became an insufferable pest.
We still kept on at work improving our quarters. We dug and curbed up a well. We made a flag-pole out of cedar trees trimmed down, and joined up by the blacksmith. It was a great occasion. It was a beautiful tall and slender pole, and we set it deeply in the ground. We needed some more supplies; and were told that we could have two twelve-pound mountain howitzers from Fort Kearney. So we sent down our teams with an escort of a sergeant and ten men that brought us back the two howitzers, a lot of artillery ammunition, new tools, rations, and supplies. These two howitzers we mounted on the parade-ground. Captain O'Brien had belonged to the artillery early in the war, and thoroughly understood the handling of these light guns. Squads were put to work drilling on these howitzers, so that in course of time every man in the company could fill any place on a gun squad. About the fifteenth of December, while drilling the squad, some Indians were seen over on the island of the Platte north of the post. It was thought best to give them a scare; so the two pieces were run to a good place north of the post, near the river, and fired at the Indians. Our shells fell short, but the Indians scampered to the north bank, and were soon out of sight. In a day or two afterwards there suddenly appeared in the post an old Indian, together with a young buck of about twenty. He came up to me, saying, "How-cola, How-cola," the word "Cola," in the Sioux language, meaning "friend." He made a sign that he wanted something to eat, so I took them both to the storehouse, and told the commissary sergeant to draw out a quart of molasses into a mess-pan, and give it to the Indians with a box of hard-tack and let them eat what they wanted. The amount which they consumed was enormous. I went out to inquire how these Indians got in, and where they were from. Some civilian whom I didn't know, talked with the Indians, and they said they were with their tribe a long distance south, but had come north to see their white brother, and see what their white brother would do for them. They were probably spies. Several of the boys stood around in wonderment, watching these Indians eat. Each one of them ate as much as five men ought to be able to hold. The weather was cold, and they were not very warmly clad, but each one had a fine tanned buffalo-robe as soft and flexible as velvet. I wanted to find out something from them, but while I was hunting for the man that knew, these Indians started on a trot, and went up the canyon one behind the other, and were seen no more. We ought to have put them in the guard-house and held them.
Ever since I came to the post I had made it a custom to give the Loyal League hailing-sign to the men who were passing in the trains, but I rarely got a response. Not one man in five hundred knew what it meant. Not one in five hundred seemed to care whether the Government won or lost in the Civil War. They were either deserters from the army, North or South, or were out for cash only.