July 20, 1864 - Trains Corralled - The Indian Peace Proposition - General Mitchell's Disappointment - O'Fallon's Bluff - The Pinchbeck Watch - Smoke Signals - Howling of Wolves - The Plateaus - The Ash Hollow Route - Jules' Ranch - Flour-and-Whisky Mortar - The California Crossing - The Mormon Crossing - The Stroke of Lightning - July 22nd - Major Wood - The Crossing - The Last Wagon
THE NEXT DAY, July 20, 1864, Major Woods, of our regiment, in command, we marched west. The weather was hot, and the wind from the south came over the baked plains dry and lifeless. A cloud of dust floated to the north. The trains, what few there were, were all corralled at stations, waiting for escorts. They were waiting to fall in with any escorted train going their way. General Mitchell was urging his men forward, and we were going west at a pretty rapid rate, so fast that no train could long keep in sight of us. There were rumors of herders being killed, and of Indians being in the hills along our route. Wherever we saw a train corralled, the pilgrims had stories of seeing Indians in the hills and of seeing Indians crossing the river stealthily. But no Indians were yet visible to us. During the day Lieutenant Rankin came and rode with me, and we talked over the Indian council. Rankin said the General was angry and mortified over it; that if it had been successful it would have been a great achievement and much to his reputation and credit; that it was not Mitchell's idea, but that a lot of preachers had got at President Lincoln and insisted that the preachers should have the control of the Indian situation, and that the various sects should divide the control among themselves -- that is to say, the Methodists should have so much jurisdiction, the Catholics so much, the Baptists so much, and so on, and that they were worrying Lincoln a good deal, and that they wanted him to take immediate steps to have an universal Indian peace between all the Indians. Lincoln yielded to much of it and had sent for Mitchell and told him to take up the matter and see what he could do. Mitchell did his best, but failed, and was now studying up, as he rode along, what his report and recommendations should be. He was telling Rankin from time to time how to prepare the report and what to put in it, and was adding here and there an occasional malediction on the preachers.
On the evening of July 20, 1864, we reached O'Fallon's, where there had been a ranch kept by Bob Williams. O'Fallon's Bluffs was about 50 miles west of Cottonwood Springs, and was another of the great crossing-places for the Indians going north and south, and General Mitchell afterwards ordered it to be fortified and guarded by a company of cavalry. At this point I made a discovery of a mistake, which I think I ought to record here. The evening before I left Fort Kearney, a young man came to me and said he wanted to have a little private talk. We went off to one side, and he said he was in a train that was camped near there that evening, and was going back to the States. He said his father was a wealthy man, and had made him a present on his birthday of a very fine gold watch which cost $200; that as a pilgrim he had been out west, and had had bad luck, and was now trying to get home. That he had run out of money entirely, and had nothing left but his father's present to get him back home to Indianapolis. He said he hated to part with the watch very greatly; that it was endeared to him by many associations, but that he had to have something to eat, and he had to get back home, and that his health was not very good anyway, and he wanted me to let him have money enough to get home, and I hold the watch. I asked him how much he wanted, and he said $50. He said that he had inquired about me, and found that I was all right, and that he wanted the privilege of sending me by express the money for the watch, and getting it back again as soon as he could get home. That as I was in the army he could always find me, while these other people were so light-footed that they were here today and somewhere else tomorrow. He told me that the watch was an elegant timekeeper, and he hoped that I would take good care of it until he sent for it. In the light of a solitary candle the watch was very beautiful and polished, and I handed the man $50, and he grasped my hand with emotion, and bade me an affectionate good-by. The latter part of the transaction was in the presence of two or three others, and while they did not know the facts, they knew that I had got the watch. I had not given the watch any examination until I got up the morning at Jack Morrow's, and it somehow or other had tarnished considerably since I got it, three or four days before, and I gave a good look at it, and saw that I had been fooled. I showed it to Lieutenant Rankin, and he said it was a "pinchbeck" watch. "Pinchbeck" was a compound metal made to resemble gold, and in those days was the synonym for bogus gold. I saw in a moment that I had been badly fooled, and fearing that it might get out, and be a good joke on me, I called up the First Sergeant of my company and told him that I had had opportunity of buying a cheap watch for him it which I desired to make him a present of, and I succeeded in escaping the ridicule which otherwise might have followed me for quite a while. I told nobody anything, but I afterwards heard of several similar circumstances. The watches were worth $48 a dozen, and this man or a body of men had scattered them along the road to ranches and pilgrims, from Denver to Omaha. It was in those days a new industry, and the right kind of man could make $1,000 a month at it in the Western country, until discovered.
On July 21, 1864, we went about twenty-five miles, and camped at an abandoned ranch which had belonged to a man named Jereux. Ben Gallagher remained at O'Fallon's Bluffs, but our scout "John Smith" went with us. On the march up the river we met several large caravans of wagons, all armed. None of them bad less than one hundred armed men, together with a squad of cavalry and from three to half a dozen stages loaded with passengers.
All day long on both sides of the river we saw smoke signals. In the evening at Jereux ranch the wolves howled around us in great numbers. We generally got up early, went into camp early in the afternoon, and grazed our horses until sundown. The grazing of horses was very hazardous. we took our horses and hobbled them by the left fetlock with the halter-strap, tying their left hoof within eighteen inches of their heads, so that when the horse lifted up his head he pulled his foot up from the ground. They were hobbled in that manner successfully, and then the whole company was detailed out between them and the hills on foot, armed, remaining on guard until sundown, when the horses were brought in and tied half-and-half on each side of the picket-rope; then each of the horses was fed a quart of corn, and a guard was stationed out to prevent a run or a stampede.
During the howling of the wolves at night, every once in a while John Smith would say, "Do you hear that wolf?" pointing in a certain direction, and would say, "That isn't a wolf -- that is a Cheyenne," and he told us that the Cheyennes by their wolf-calls had a method of signaling or communicating to those far back or in the distance, and communicating many things, such as the number of soldiers which they saw, and whether it was dangerous to attempt an attack or not, and so forth. He said he did not understand the signals, because they were agreed upon for the occasion only, and differed with the occasion.
We noticed while marching that the ground rose in sort of steps on the plateaus and that we were getting up to a higher altitude. These steps were many miles apart, and the surface was getting, if possible, more dry, and desolate than it had been.
The Salt Lake trail went by Fort Laramie. The old route crossed the South Platte a considerable distance east of Julesburg, and went over the dividing ridge to Ash Hollow, and down Ash Hollow to the North Platte. But the hills of Ash Hollow were very steep, and another road had been laid out.
On the south side of the South Platte, perhaps about a mile east of the mouth of "Lodgepole Creek," a Frenchman by the name of Jules had started a trading-post. The place was a great Cheyenne crossing-ground going north and south, and a frequent place of Cheyenne rendezvous. It was also much used by the Sioux. The Cheyennes had a great liking for the country on the South Platte at the mouth of Lodgepole, and had had camps there for many years. Jules was said to be a half-breed French-and-Indian trader, and to have established this post for the purpose of trading with the Cheyenne Indians. It was said his name was Jules Beni but everybody called him "Jules." He was a man of keen native shrewdness, an exceedingly dangerous man, with a peppery, fierce disposition. He had killed several persons, and had become a great deal of a character in the country. A man who had known him several years told me that Jules once killed two persons of local celebrity, cut off their ears, dried them, and carried these four ears in his pockets. That every once in a while he would take them out and show them to somebody. They were great trophies, as he thought. He kept supplies for the pilgrims, and at one time had a large stock. An old pioneer told me that one time Jules got half drunk, and brought out several sacks of flour which he was selling for a dollar a pound, made a mortar-bed out of it in front of his store, knocked in the bead of a barrel of whisky which he was selling for $10 a quart, got a hoe, poured in the whisky, and got to making mortar in a manner as, he said, he had just seen a fellow doing down at Omaha, where he had been getting a stock of goods. This drunken freak represented the waste of several hundred dollars' worth of his stock. He got to be so bad and dangerous that Slade, the superintendent of the stage company, had to kill him.
At the time of which I write, nothing was left of the Jules ranch; it was gone, but the stage company had a large stable there, and a large boarding-house a blacksmith shop, a telegraph station, a large sod corral, a wareroom built of cedar logs, and about eighty tons of shelled corn in sacks stored therein. There were quite a number of men there -- blacksmiths, relays of telegraph operators, perhaps a dozen stage-drivers, and men who were taking care of horses. I would say there were fifty men there, all armed to the teeth, and with everything arranged so they could fight behind sod walls, and make a desperate resistance.
Ben Holladay claimed to be the owner and proprietor of all of this stage line and property, clear through to the Pacific Coast. He was a great celebrity. He was reputed to be very rich, and yet he had a reputation for great daring and a love for wild and dangerous life. His organization of this stage line across the continent in its then unsafe and lawless condition was a wonderful achievement. I saw him twice, passing on the road -- once at Fort Kearney and once at Julesburg, and he impressed me as a man of restless and untiring vigor.
"Julesburg Station," as it was then called, was situated well down on the flats near where the course of the river then turned, and the main wagon-road ran alongside of the houses. There is a present town Julesburg, but it is on the other side of the river, and several miles farther down. The wood that was used was most of it cedar, hauled from Jack Morrow's canyon, and the balance of the building material was sod.
Near this place, which I will call Old Julesburg, the river-crossing started in a little east of the station, not very far down the river, and went around in a curve, coming out say a quarter or half a mile farther up the river. There was another crossing farther up the river, that crossed over west of the mouth of Lodgepole; the two trails went up Lodgepole Creek on opposite sides, until they joined several miles farther up. Those present at that time were in the habit of calling the lower one the "California crossing," and the west one the "Mormon crossing," because it appears that the Mormon trains crossed there and went quite a distance up the west side of Lodgepole.
The fact that General Mitchell was coming up the Platte to make an inspection, and organize military protection, and visit Fort Laramie, was noised around in advance, a great deal, and before we got to Julesburg wagons for the Salt Lake route had congregated in great numbers at Julesburg, and wanted to go up the road behind General Mitchell. As we approached near Julesburg, we came to a place where the river had at one time flowed close to the bank. There was a long stretch of dry sandy arroyo about eight feet below the sharp edge of the perpendicular bank. Along this bank ran the telegraph line.
Before we reached the place a heavy storm was lowering. The air swirled around, and a cool wave descended. All at once a terrific storm broke in upon us from the southwest. We could hear it coming with continual resounding peals of thunder. Crash was following crash so loud, heavily and quickly that, fearful the horses would become terrified and break away, General Mitchell ordered the horses all to be taken down on the sand under the bank. Finally the General's horse, and the mules from the ambulance, and all were taken down under the bank. The storm at first went over our heads without rain, and furnished us a grand electrical display. The noise finally ceased for a little while, and there came a calm, and the boys got up on the edge of the bank above the horses, sitting down and holding their horses below them in the arroyo by the bridle-rein. We all thought the matter was about over, and were congratulating ourselves that we had not been soaked with a rain. We watched the electric storm roll over on the North Platte bills, when all at once came a flash of lightning and shock of thunder that knocked almost the entire company over. Several were stunned, several fell over the bank, and the balance jumped down. The lightning had struck one of the telegraph poles not far from us, and splintered the poles or damaged them for a great distance on each side. It was such an astonishing peal that it was a little while before anybody spoke. As we saw the wire lying on the ground, and the neighboring poles shattered, General Mitchell ordered two of the soldiers to go each way, and see how many poles were affected by that blow of lightning. The men reported that, taking the poles that were shattered or to some extent visibly damaged, there were thirty-three in number, which was nearly a half-mile on each side of us.
In a little while it began a drizzling rain, and after it had rained enough to wet us all through, we arrived, July 22, 1864, at Julesburg, and found nearly three miles of wagons there. They wanted to go through on the Salt Lake Trail. They were camped along the line of the river; the grass had been pretty well eaten out; everybody in the pilgrim trains was mad, and most of them quarreling. Having no organized head, they did not intend to go across the river until they knew that General Mitchell had crossed the river with his soldiers, and had started up. They wanted to feel safe. Major Woods of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry was with us; he was a most active, daring and capable man. I have spoken of him herein before.
The crossing of Platte River in those days with a train was a matter of very serious moment; but we had got used to the theory, and knew how to do it. It was to find a route that was the most firm, and then puddling it by marching one horse back of another until the quicksand became settled; then the road became firmer. The horses sometimes floundered greatly, but that served to settle the road. They were ridden across about ten feet apart.
So the first thing to be done on this occasion was to pick out a road for the crossing of the present train. The action of the water in the river was such that a good crossing today might be a poor one next week if untraveled, and so each crossing was a matter of its own. There was at this time plenty of water in the river at Julesburg.
On this occasion Major Woods started out with his horse to pick out a road across the river. He laid it out in a general way, so that he knew where he had been, and could see his own tracks. Then he came back, and the line of soldiers went over again right after him, and back, and made the road. In the mean time the wagons were ready, and the Major at the head of the wagon train, each wagon about one hundred feet behind the other, started across, with men of the train along the line standing in the water on both sides with whips to keep the horses stepping fast. If a horse should stop he would in course of time sink down in the quicksand, and the object was to have each wagon, one right behind the other, go as fast as the horses could pull it. The wagons started, and it was a roar of yelling from the time the first one went in, during all the afternoon, and well up into the night. The travelers had lanterns, and at night men with lanterns stood in the water on both sides of the track; and the Major kept bossing the job, hour after hour, riding backwards and forwards between the wagons, and once in a while changing his horse.
Along about midnight one of the mule teams got balky, and the mules turned out of the road, and in the effort to get them back the wagon was halted until the mules could be backed again into line, and the result was that the wagon began sinking. The mules were taken out, and succeeding wagons went around the wreck, which was soon down to the bed in the mud. There was no way to stop a wagon alongside of the wreck, and take off its cargo, and Major Woods with some assistance struggled in vain to keep the wagon from sinking faster on one side than the other. In the work, and heroic tugging, which Major Woods did, he strained himself so that he himself had to be taken out of the river and carried over to his tent. The wagon slowly sank until it disappeared from sight in the fathomless sand below. Some of the natives around managed to save and confiscate some few things of the load, such as the bows and cover, meat, the driver's bedding, etc., but the wagon and almost its entire cargo disappeared -- went down where it was never recovered or could be found afterwards. In the morning the train was almost all across, with a reported loss of the wagon and two mules which were being led or driven, and which got where they could not be relieved, and sank out of sight. The lost wagon was reported to have been loaded with nails.
Major Woods was put into an ambulance, and I saw no more of him until after we got to Laramie some days afterwards.
When the train was all across, General Mitchell called the drivers together, and the different separate wagon-bosses, and told them that they had got to keep together, stay together, help each other, and fight for each other; that otherwise they were liable to be disbanded, murdered and plundered. He picked out what he thought were the best three wagon-bosses in the lot, and told these people that they must select one of them to be the boss during the trip, and that he would see that the one selected did the right thing, and if not he would put him in the guard-house at Fort Laramie when they passed. This arrangement proved very satisfactory, as the train went on through, presumably in good order, for it never reported any trouble after that. At the mouth of Lodgepole was a great area of flat, grassy land. It was a beautiful place for camp.