Ascent of Court House Rock, July 25th - Ficklin's - The Agency - Fort Laramie - July 27th - Bordeaux - Champagne - The Post Sutler - Mr. Bullock - The Squaw Camp - Grasshoppers - Jules Coffey - Charles Elston - Leo Palladio - Bridger - Bridger's Stories
ON JULY 25, 1864, the Captain and I got up early, and with a couple of lariat-ropes started out to ascend Court House Rock. We both succeeded in getting on top of the precipice. It had a covering of stone, not very hard, on which there were several names carved; we took a few minutes to add our names to the number. It was a good deal of a task to get to the top and one equally difficult and dangerous to get down. We rejoined our column, which had started on its march, and we camped in the afternoon at a deserted old place where it looked as if nobody had lived for a generation. It was called "Ficklin's," and was situated on the river sixty-seven miles east of Fort Laramie. It was named before the war, from one of the officers of the Overland Stage Company, We had marched that day about forty miles from Mud Springs. From Mud Springs the weather had been cloudy and misty, and we did not get a chance to see the beauties of the route; this was so for several days, but on our return we had delightful weather, and I will wait until then to describe what we really saw.
On July 26, 1864, we left Ficklin's and went up the North Platte River. We kept on the south side, and camped at what was called the "Agency." The weather was hot and dusty; the clouds seemed to fill the valley, which was entirely unusual. The guides said they had never seen anything like it before, and I must add that I myself never did afterwards. Antelopes appeared without number, and the hills where seen seemed to be alive with deer.
There was water in the river all along the line. We passed Scott's Bluff, fifty-eight miles east of Fort Laramie. We also passed Alcohol Butte and the celebrated Chimney Rock. The Agency where we camped was called the Woc-co-pom'-any agency. It was the place where the Sioux Indians of the north came down to get their annuity goods. There was a large, long, one-story rambling stone house on the place, but there was not a soul there. In fact, there was nobody then living along the river at that time, from the Forks of the Platte River down at Jack Morrow's up nearly to Fort Laramie, over 250 miles, except near the Fort, at Julesburg.
The next day, July 27, 1864, we camped north of Fort Laramie, and I went down to the Fort. Major Wood of our regiment was placed in command of the post by General Mitchell, and I was detailed as post adjutant. There were three companies of the Eleventh Ohio Cavalry then at the Fort; at least, the Fort was the headquarters of three companies, but they were out scouting and guarding trains, all in command of Major Underhill of that regiment. The Captains were named Shuman, Koehne, and Marshall; and there were eight Lieutenants. Five miles down the river from Fort Laramie was the ranch of a Frenchman by the name of Beauvais, and five miles still farther down was the ranch of Bordeaux. These two Frenchmen had Indian wives and children, and Indian herders, drivers, etc., etc., making quite a retinue, and they did all they could to keep the Indians from being hostile, and breaking out in war. These two traders were rich. They had made a great deal of money, had very large stocks of goods, and were reported to own considerable property; but, trade was at a standstill, there being no emigration. A very interesting acquaintance opened while I was at the Fort, under the following circumstances:
The ranchman, Bordeaux, had sent up word that there was a large band of Indians back in the hills; that he was afraid they might make a break on him; and he thought if the Government would send a few soldiers down for a demonstration, that the Indians would go away. The post commander, Major Wood, told me about four o'clock in the afternoon to take ten men and go down there and see what there was to it; stay all night, and come back in the morning. I got down to Bordeaux' before sundown, and he seemed very glad to see me, and he gave my soldiers a camping-place in his "pilgrim quarters," and we put our horses in the corral. I put the Sergeant in charge, and told him to keep a good lookout. The soldiers had their own rations, but Bordeaux insisted on being my host. After supper with him we went into his store. It was a large, rambling log building with sod end to it, and additions and outbuildings attached to it, so that it was a sort of wandering, straggling caravansary and store combined. He got to showing me what he had, and then he went into the front of the store-building, where he had some cigars. The doors were all bolted and barred. He got to telling me about his visit to France. The floor in this part of the building was made out of pine logs brought down to a grade with an adz. It happened that I could read his French language, and I expressed myself very much interested, and he told me all about his recent trip to "La Belle France"; and he had a new variety of bitters known as Red Jacket Bitters, of which he was partaking freely. We talked about Indians and Indian matters and Indian habits and Indian customs, and he said that the Indians that had been back of his house had gone off. But I was very much interested in his description of Indian manners and his adventures among them, until it got to be along about one o'clock in the morning. And Mr. Bordeaux again got off onto the subject of his visit to "La Belle France," and he seemed to be very much pleased with the bitters he had and the attention with which I listened to his story. He was a much older man than I, and I was, indeed, very much delighted to hear him talk. All at once he disappeared through the floor, by turning up a plank or puncheon, and the first thing I knew he came back from down below somewhere with two large, musty quart bottles of champagne, and sticking one down in front of me said, "We will drink to La Belle France." I was as much surprised as if the man had dug up a statue of Daniel Webster. The idea of a quart bottle of champagne in that dry, arid, heathen country almost paralyzed me, but I finally said to him that a quart bottle was more than my size, and that I would drink half of one of the bottles with him. I suggested that we split, and each drink half of the same bottle. Thereupon he got two tin cups, and with a hatchet knocked off the head. There in the stillness of night in that country we drank to the health of "La Belle France." I have never seen Mr. Bordeaux since then, but have retained a delicious memory of him and the occasion. In the morning we were up early, and at eight o'clock were back at Fort Laramie.
My duties as Post Adjutant were very light, I had to superintend guard-mount at nine o'clock in the morning, and act in dress parade every evening at six. The old regular army traditions of the post had been kept up, and everything was done exactly as it had been done before the war. Every little matter of detail had been handed down, and was perpetuated with nicety and zest. The post sutler was a man by the name of Ward. His manager was named Bullock, the most courteous old-school gentleman I ever saw. He was as dignified as a Major-General. Ward gave no personal attention to the sutler store, but he was making a great deal of money out of it. He had an enormous stock of goods, and as he had no competitors and as his prices were fixed by the post administration, he got the price, and sold enormous quantities. Bullock told stories of all the generals of the war. One afternoon he took about an hour and a half in explaining to me, and instructing me in making a whisky toddy. It was with him a work of art. I never could see anything about his toddies that was anything more than normal, but somehow he had a reputation that none might hope to equal. In addition to this he had a mint-bed in a secluded place which was carefully watered every day, and more attention given to it than almost anything else around the post.
Off on one side in a low piece of land in a sheltered place, where the refuse of the cavalry stables had been hauled for years, a garden had been organized, and from a little irrigation-ditch water could be drawn with buckets, and the vegetables watered. The place, which I would say was a hundred feet wide and maybe three hundred feet long, had some vegetation on it.
Up above the fort about a mile among the bushes was what was called the "Squaw Camp." It was a place where Indians during peaceful times could come, and pitch their tents, and trade. There were always a number of squaws there in their tents, and a lot of half-white Indian papooses running around. Once in a while an Indian would come in with some beaver-skins and furs, and trade, and go out again; and old pioneers and trappers had their Indian wives there. And all together it was a jolly, careless, laughing, shouting lot of Indians, of whom nobody seemed to have much knowledge. It was said hostile Indians would occasionally run in, and secrete themselves there, and get all the knowledge they could as spies, and go back again.
While we were there a flight of grasshoppers came, such as in after years on several occasions devastated the vegetation of the Western States. During August the air became filled with these insects, and they took the little garden of which I spoke and ate it up almost instantly. One of the officers of the Eleventh Ohio came to me to go out with him and take a look at that garden. The grasshoppers were bunched together in swarms like bees. I remember seeing upon a handle of a spade a bunch of interwoven grasshoppers as big as a man's hat. The Indian women at the squaw camp were catching these grasshoppers, roasting them, drying them, and pounding them up into meal to make bread of during the winter. The Indians seemed to be anxious to utilize all the grasshoppers they could catch, and they made up a great many hundred pounds of them. There was also a berry which grew on the bushes along the broken lands which was called the "buffalo-berry," not unlike a cherry; these the Indian women usually gathered, and put into parfleches. These berries had a sort of tart flavor something like a cranberry. The Indian women gathered these berries and put them away for winter by the thousand pounds, and it was said that the berries were taken out as good as when they were put in. They did not become dry. I was told that they also mixed with them in the parfleches the fat from deer, antelope and buffalo, and ate the combined fat and berries during the winter. A parfleche was a half-tanned hide of some animal, with the hair all taken off and the inside scoured or scraped down smooth.
There was also at the Post, all the time I was there, Major Bridger, the celebrated scout and guide; also a hunter, trapper and guide named Jules Coffey. At least, that is the way they pronounced his name, although I imagine it might have been the French name of Ecoffe, because I heard one of them pronounce it Acoffay. He seemed to be very prosperous, and to have a great deal of money, and he loved to play poker wonderfully. He had, as all of those who fall into Indian life have, strange and intense superstitions. One of his superstitions was that "jacks" in playing cards was his good luck, and he always bet his hand for more than it was worth when he had jacks in it. It was a matter of much ridicule among those at the post, where there were poker games going from morning to night. There was also a celebrated pioneer and guide by the name of Charles Elston. Elston said that he was a Virginian, but he had been out forty years then among the Sioux. He knew the Sioux language, and the Sioux country, and Indian manners and customs by heart. He knew them with even more intelligence than an Indian knew them. As a white man is smarter than an Indian in civilization, so he is smarter than an Indian when it comes to competing in Indian matters and things. Elston was a most charming man. It was said that he had two Indian wives among the Sioux, and one among the Cheyennes, but he was a sort of high-toned fellow, and his wives were never seen at the squaw camp near the fort. He seemed to like pioneering and the frontier, and told many stories of his adventures. On one occasion he told a strange story of trying to take a load of furs down the Platte river in a bull-boat, that is, in a boat made of bull-hide, with wooden ribs. He lost everything he had, and barely escaped with his life, while trying to navigate a Platte river freshet.
Another of these guides and pioneers was Leo Palladie. He was a pure Frenchman, but of the blue-eyed type. He had curly hair, and the happiest disposition of any frontiersman. He was a reader of books and newspapers, and yet he was a thoroughgoing mountaineer. He spoke all the Indian languages in the neighborhood, was an adept at their sign language, was always good-natured, telling stories and having fun. He was sunny-hearted from morning until night He told me a funny event about when the post commander up at Fort Benton, on the Missouri river, heard that the Indians were plotting to destroy the frontier and had mapped out among other things, a campaign against Fort Laramie. That was perhaps about 1861 or 1862. The post commander of Fort Benton determined to send a messenger across the country during the winter for the purpose of notifying the commanding officers at Fort Laramie, because he thought the latter post could not stand in the dead of winter a heavy siege from the combined Indian nations. The mountaineer who was selected to go wanted a companion; a half-breed Indian was sent with him. This white courier was sent off with a letter which started out by saying: "I send you Mr. So-and-so, accompanied by a halfbreed, So-and-so, to convey you the following important information." The letter was presented to Fort Laramie by the courier to the post commander, and he, after reading the opening portion of it, said, "Where is your comrade?" and the courier said, "I eat him." They had floundered through the snow and the mountains, and the mountaineer had to eat the other man in order to carry the message through in safety. Leo Palladie would tell this story, and laugh and shriek every time he told it. It always seemed new and interesting to him. I never could find anybody who ever heard the name of the messenger that was sent, and I often used to think Palladie was telling the story of one of his own personal experiences.
Of all these guides, Bridger was the most interesting. We left Fort Laramie on the 31st of August, and it is probably better to speak of Bridger once for all as of the time that we were there. Every night he was out in front of the sutler store sitting on the benches, and telling stories of his adventures. He was quite talkative, readily responded to questions, and would talk as long as he was talked with. I heard a funny story about Bridger soon after I arrived in camp. The largest building in camp was called Bedlam. It was the two-story large hospital building fronting on the parade-ground, and the upper part of it was used for theatricals at times. There were always some soldiers who were good at private theatricals, and occasionally there was one who had been an actor. So, during the long and tiresome winter evenings there were theatrical entertainments frequently. They were generally of some light, witty, flashy kind, with an occasional heavy piece from Shakespeare. Bridger had seen a couple of Shakespeare's pieces well played at the post, and concluded he would like to have somebody read Shakespeare to him. So, he had the sutler, Mr. Ward, send and get him a copy of Shakespeare, and Bridger got a man, a soldier, to start reading it to him. One evening while sitting in front of the adobe fireplace reading Shakespeare the soldier got to reading in the play where the eyes of the two boy princes were put out. After it had been read Bridger says, "Did he do that?" and when the reader said, "Yes," Bridger pulled the book from him and said, "By thunder, that is what I think of him," and threw the book into the fire, blazing in the fireplace, and that was all of Shakespeare he ever wanted to hear.
Bridger was a celebrity. Some time after my stay at Fort Laramie I met down on the Platte a man named Morgan, on the preliminary survey of the Union Pacific. He had run a trial line up past Laramie, but Bridger told him that the Cheyenne Pass at the head of Lodgepole was a lower pass than Morgan would find. Morgan said that he then went and ran that trial line, and found that it was, indeed, much lower than any other. But how it was that Bridger, traveling over it without a barometer, could know the fact was something which was very puzzling; but it was part of Bridger's wonderful powers of observation. Traveling through the country, over scopes of great distances, he instinctively fixed the grades and elevation as well as other points of the landscape, and that which he had once seen he forever remembered. It was to this wonderful gift that his great reputation was to be attributed. He knew exactly what would be found, and what was the lay of the country, the distances, the peculiarities; all these came within the scope of his observation. For instance, he would start and tell of an unmapped country over which he had been, and he would describe it mile by mile, -- trees, rocks, grades, streams, everything. It seemed as if he made a moving panorama of the route as he rode through the country. In addition to this, he knew everything that an Indian knew. He could do anything that an Indian could do. He knew how Indians felt, and what to expect from them. And he apparently could do anything that a white man could do while in the country. One of the difficulties with him was that he would occasionally tell some wonderful story to a pilgrim, and would try to interest a new-comer with a lot of statements which were ludicrous, sometimes greatly exaggerated, and sometimes imaginary. For instance, one evening he told me that Court House Rock had grown up from a stone which he threw at a jackrabbit. This he did not give in response to a question, but he was on a philosophic and scientific strain of thought, and was saying that rocks grew the same as trees and animals grow, only they grew larger and for a longer time. He used to state that the mountains were considerably larger and higher than when he first came, and it was on one of his philosophical discourses that he told me with the utmost gravity the above story of the origin of Court House Rock. Laramie Peak was visible, although it was a considerable distance from the post. Bridger said that the peak showed up lots larger and plainer than it used to. In those days there was a vast amount of country that was unexplored, and Yellowstone Lake was not on the map nor was it known by white men to exist, and there were great scopes of country through which a white man had never yet gone. I often sat out with him on the bench to talk with him, and I became a good deal of a favorite with him. One time while talking with him I asked him about the country north of the California route which went west to South Pass. He said he had been hunting and trapping through it, and had seen a great deal of it; that he made a trip up through there once, dodging the Indians, and traveling principally at night, and he found a very rocky and romantic country. He told me that there was a large lake up there which he had seen that was so big he couldn't see across it in places, and that it was fresh water. He had told this story to others, but nobody believed him. He was somewhat indefinite as to its location, because he had taken a roundabout road, and was going through the country all alone, sort of scouting it, and dodging the Indians.
No doubt but that he had seen Yellowstone Lake, but nobody believed it. I can recite accurately only one of his stories, because I took time to put it down, as follows. He said: "That is the greatest country that I ever see. I was up there riding around, and I didn't dare to fire a gun only at long intervals, and then I got right out of the country where I fired it as soon as possible. I would bring down a deer, and cut it up and carry it, and move out. One time I was up among some pines, sort of hid in the side-hill along the stream that had a pretty wide valley, and I saw a couple of Injuns coming along down through the grass on their ponies on the other side of the creek. I wanted to watch and wait until they got out of sight, so I kept my eye on them for a long while. I saw them coming for nearly an hour, and they took their time at it, and I was afraid they would cross over, and might run onto some of my tracks. But they didn't, and they went down the valley on the opposite side from where I was. They hadn't gone very far before the crust of the earth gave way under them, and they and their ponies went down out of sight, and up came a great powerful lot of flame and smoke. I bet hell was not very far from that place." This story I never could account for, unless he had seen some Indians drop through the ground in some part of the hot-spring or geyser country.
One time I asked him what kind of a country it was west of the place where he saw the big lake, and he told me it was a very rocky country. Then he said: "Up there is one of the strangest mountains that I ever did see. It is a diamond mountain, shaped something like a cone. I saw it in the sun for two days before I got to it, and then at night I camped right near it. I hadn't more than got my horse lariated out -- it was a little dusky -- when I saw a camp-fire and some Injuns right through the mountain on the other side. So I didn't build any fire, but I could see them just as plain as if there hadn't been anything but air. In the morning I noticed the Injuns were gone, and I thought I would like to see the other side of the mountain. So, I rode around to the other side and it took me half a day." I said to him, "Might not that have been a mountain of salt?" I put this query to him because the country was entirely unknown, and I wanted to cross-examine him, but he said: "Oh, no. I went up and knocked off a corner of it, a piece of rock as big as my arm, a big, long piece of diamond, and brought it out, and afterwards gave it to a man, and he said it was a diamond all right." These were samples of Bridger's stories. He wasn't the egotistic liar that we so often find. He never in my presence vaunted himself about his own personal actions. He never told about how brave he was, nor how many Indians he had killed. His stories always had reference to some outdoor matter or circumstance. He never went on any scouts while we were there, but simply contented himself with telling the officers of the expeditions, or the scout who was going with them, just exactly where to go and what they would find.