Description of Lodgepole Creek - The Deserted Wagons - No Clue to Ownership - The Election - The Political Situation - Trip to Ash Hollow - Adventure of Lieutenant Williams - Cannon's Puzzle - The Stables Finished - The Indian Scare Over
OUR camp at Pole Creek the night of November 4, 1864, was very bleak and dreary. Pole Creek was a vast trough in the plateau. It had a bed wide enough for the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Through this bed the arroyo of the stream ran, a bed of beautiful tawny sand about a hundred yards wide, and cut down from ten to fifteen feet. Sometimes the arroyo was wider, and sometimes narrower, but from Julesburg to the crossing, thirty-five miles, there was nothing, as before stated, in the shape of a tree or bush. It was absolutely devoid of any vegetation except the grass. And above the arroyo the "flood plain" of the stream, if it could be so called, was as level as a floor for distances out of sight. Occasionally in the arroyo there were little clumps of drift roots and brush, sometimes a small, dead, drifted pine. Lodgepole Creek was said to have a well-defined bed for two hundred miles, and to head at the Cheyenne Pass, in the Rocky Mountains.
Above the crossing, which, as stated, was thirty-five miles up from Julesburg, there was no traveled roadway up Lodgepole. The only road from the crossing turned north across Jules Stretch; but, for a hundred miles up-stream from the crossing, the smooth bed of Lodgepole was said to furnish a most excellent route west to the mountains. The stream seemed to have no tributary of any consequence. A few miles above the crossing there was another arroyo coming in from the south, but hunters said there were no running streams whatever entering the creek. On November, 1864, the date of which I am speaking, there was not a drop of water in the creek-bed, nor did I ever in fact see a drop of water in it. We could get water by digging, but we had to dig down two or more feet, and the supply seemed at this time to be scanty.
On the morning of November 5, 1864, we stayed in camp, the men got some drifted brush and roots out of the creek-bed, and were able in sheltered spots to make a little fire. I thought I would wait for the expedition which had been sent from Julesburg up Lodgepole during my absence, to which I have heretofore referred.
About nine o'clock a.m. I started up Lodgepole to see if I could discover any trace of them. We had seen no Indian signs of any kind anywhere. Soon I saw a horseman approaching me, and with my glass I discovered he was a soldier, and when he came up I found that he had been sent down to get in touch with me. He said they had made a find up Lodgepole, and would like to have me come up there, take a look at it, and pass an opinion on it. So, taking one of my men with me, I started up Lodgepole with the messenger. In the mean time the log train had got down to the crossing, and I ordered it to go into park and stay there until I got back.
Going up Lodgepole about fifteen miles, we came onto a strange condition. Out towards the bluffs were sixteen emigrant wagons. They were all deserted, and yet everything outwardly appeared to be orderly. They were arranged as if they had gone into camp for the night, and were in a sort of circle, in manner and form as was then the custom of parking horse and mule wagons. They were arranged so that the right front wheel of one wagon was against the left hind wheel of another, all curved in so as to throw the tongues inside of the circle, which sort of locked them together. On the tongues of each of these wagons, propped up with the neck-yokes, were the harness of four mules or four horses. Everything seemed to be in order except that the wagon-covers were all torn by the winds, and inside of the wagons everything was in disorder. The grass was growing up around the felloes of the wheels. The winds and storms had eliminated all appearances of newness; the camp might have been ten years old, or it might have been two years old; we couldn't tell. The parties had driven up in the grass and camped. There were appearances in several places on the wagons of bullet-marks, as we believed. There were from one to three trunks in each wagon, all of them with the tops open or torn off. There were no provisions nor any blankets, but there were dilapidated, worn, cotton-filled bed-quilts. There was nothing in the shape of guns and ammunition, nor was there any camp equipage. It was one of the most puzzling sights I ever saw. We tried our best to see if we could solve it; we were greatly mystified. The wagons were old-looking, as if sand-storms and prairie weather had beaten them up considerably. I finally made up my mind that the Indians had been the cause of it, years before, although I was not really sure. Indians would, of course, take away everything in the way of cooking apparatus, blankets, food, and ammunition. The other stuff they would not take; as, for instance, in one of the open trunks was a real nice little writing-desk with a very fine little ornamental inkstand, and a nice ivory penholder, and pens. On the other hand, these parties might have been swamped in a storm, lost the greater part of their horses, and had been able to arrange a couple of teams loaded up with what they wanted, and get away. But these wagons were off from any known road, or any line of travel which anybody then knew of or heard of.
There were in our detachment a dozen cavalry soldiers; so I brought them up, picked out four of these wagons, the best ones, four sets of harness, hitched up, and started down Lodgepole. The harness was dilapidated and rotten, but by selecting from the various sets and by using some of our own stuff we managed to get enough for eight horses that worked reasonably well. We also took articles from the wagons: for instance, there were two sheet-iron washtubs in one of the wagons, also a couple of sheet-iron stoves. There were several good pine boxes with hinges on their covers, several articles of underwear. In short, we took about what there was that was of any value, and came down fifteen miles to the crossing.
Strange as it may appear, we searched everywhere to find something that would give us some clue to the ownership of the wagons, but not a thing could be found. Everything in the shape of letters had been carried off. This is one reason why we believed that it was an abandoned camp. But guides to whom we afterwards spoke, said that the Indians would have taken off or destroyed any letters or books which they might find. But this did not seem reasonable, because why should not the Indians have carried off the harness and burned the wagons? We gave the utmost publicity to this strange find, and had it published in the Denver and the Omaha papers, but never did anything occur which gave us any knowledge of the facts, or any clue to the ownership of the property.
We got down to the crossing, and the log train had pulled out for Julesburg. The next morning, the 6th, the men all rode down to Julesburg in the wagons, and took turns riding and leading the bunch of horses which went in front. We got into Julesburg the evening of the 6th of November.
The next day we had a muster of the company, because the National and State election was to come off on the 8th. Lincoln was candidate for the second term and McClellan was the candidate back in the States of all the Copperheads, rebels, thieves, deserters, bounty-jumpers, and other branches of the then so-called Democratic party. The fight made on Lincoln was incredibly bitter. McClellan the "ever unready," ambitious, and incompetent, was the idol of every man who did not want to see the Union saved. A vast amount of Copperhead literature had been sent to the soldiers to get them to become disloyal. From time to time the wagons that carried the mail had delivered, at our post direct to our soldiers, barrels of mail. Some of it was from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, edited by Brick Pomeroy, who wanted to see Lincoln in hell, as he said, playing poker with red-hot sheet-iron cards. When this mail came, which was about every two weeks as the mail went through to Denver, Captain O'Brien and I went into the barracks, gathered up this literature, talked to the men about it, and burned it. Very much to my surprise, I found the company largely impregnated with McClellan doctrine. Captain O'Brien made a speech to the men that was brief, sharp and pithy, and he had the advantage in doing it, because, as his name was O'Brien, he had an opportunity to put the Irish handle on McClellan's name, and to denounce him as an unworthy Irish-American citizen.
When the time came for voting, a great number of the soldiers, fully one-half, declined to vote one way or the other, and when the vote was taken it was twenty-six for Lincoln and fourteen for McClellan. This shows in what a dangerous condition, and how perilous a crisis, the nation was in. It is a great wonder and a great mystery that the Union was saved, as I look at it now; although I was in the middle of it all, I cannot understand it. It seemed that from year to year, in one great crisis after another, we were just merely able in each crisis to save it, and that was all; time after time it was saved almost by a scratch. The Union managed to just get through, and that was all. Lincoln thought for a while that he was beaten.
At the time of which I speak, Price had raided up through Missouri as far as Kansas City, and we were dismally disappointed with the news. From time to time it seemed as if he were going to take Fort Leavenworth, turn the tide of war west of the Mississippi, and break the United States in two. However, Price was defeated, but scarcely anything more, and our side just did manage, and that is about all, to get him started back. I was feeling very despondent after our election, as I did up the returns, and handed them to Captain O'Brien to be forwarded to the Governor of Iowa.
We unloaded the logs at headquarters, and Captain O'Brien thought I had better go over again to Ash Hollow, and get some more wood. In the mean time the Government had furnished us, through their quartermaster at Fort Kearney, a few more tents suitable for campaigning in winter, if we had to make a winter campaign. We pressed in some of the wagons that we had freighted down Lodgepole, and with our company wagons, all together making a train of ten wagons, I started for Ash Hollow.
I may perhaps be permitted to go back, and say that on the entire road from Fort Laramie we had seen no Indians, and no Indian signs. Charley Elston said that the Indians had gone up into winter quarters, except the young bucks, who had gone off farther down the Platte. These young bucks were only in detached squads, and there was nothing for them to get on the Platte River west of Cottonwood; so that the Indian scare appeared to be over. I found that the ranches were being reoccupied. Gillett's ranch, about nine or ten miles west of Julesburg, had been filled up, and a large lot of cattle had been brought in. And the ranches east of Julesburg clear down to Cottonwood Springs had been filled up again. People had fortified the ranches, and the stages had started running regularly up the South Platte. The old stage-drivers said there was no difficulty, and although troops were stationed about every twenty-five miles along the road, there seemed to be no work for them to do except to escort the mail and the stages, and the caravans of teams which occasionally went by.
Lieutenant Williams had gone on down the road. He told us the story of his adventures between Fort Kearney and Cottonwood Springs, coming up. He and an officer named Hancock were riding west in the stage, and there was a man sitting up on the box with the driver. It was a bright moonlight night. It was a four-horse stage. After they had got well out of Plum Creek coming west, and were out on the broad plains, all at once about a dozen shots came from the Indians, and they killed the two horses that were in the lead, and these two horses dropped in their tracks. This was part of the Indian plan, and then they commenced shooting into the stage. Williams and Hancock with Smith & Wesson carbines, and the other two with Sharpe rifles, got down flat on the ground and kept up a fire with the Indians, who besieged them all night. The two dead horses kept the stage from being run away with, and the Indians soon killed the other two. As the Indians skirmished around, the men lay on the ground or got in between the horses, and when morning came they had fired off a greater part of their ammunition, and had succeeded in getting two or three Indians, but were themselves unharmed. They were reinforced in the morning by a party who had been warned by someone who had heard the firing. This was hardly to be called a night attack, for there was a bright full moon.
West of Cottonwood Springs everything seemed to be perfectly safe. The Cheyennes had met with some rough treatment down in Kansas, and along the Arkansas river, and had got over their war fever somewhat. But every once in a while some of the young bucks got out, and succeeded in capturing some emigrant wagons, or some frontier house, and killing somebody. It got to the point that everybody said that the only safety was to exterminate the Cheyenne Indians, but nothing had happened around our post to show an Indian present, nor had we seen any fire-arrows or smoke-signals for quite a while. And in my last trip from Fort Laramie, as stated, nothing of the kind was in view.
On the 9th of November, 1864, we got all ready to go to Ash Hollow, and I determined to make the trip in the night, so as to get there after sunrise, deeming it the safer. The several days of rest my horse had got made him almost unmanageable. I mean my Hermitage horse, "Old Bill." He seemed to be determined to run, and he started off on his hind legs, pawing the air, going on the tips of his toes, and frisking so that I found that I was in danger of having a runaway horse, or one which would be uncontrollable in case of danger. So, in order to get him down to business, I got him down in the Pole Creek arroyo, where the sand was about up to his knees, and I ran him a mile up the creek as hard as he could go, and a mile back. That was a very severe test. I made him go his best. This took the wire edge off of him, and for the balance of the trip he went along like a good, sensible horse.
We got to Ash Hollow, kept well on the lookout, worked hard most of the day, and filled our wagons, then went into camp, parking everything up as if for a fight. All at once, on the other side of the river, went up a smoke signal. We saw it answered up the river as far as a field-glass could spy. In the evening in the earliest dark a fire-arrow went up. I then concluded that trouble would begin in the morning; so we had the mules all hitched up, and the men all mounted, and we started up the road leading out of Ash Hollow, and finally got up on top of the plateau. The men were very tired, and I was very tired, for I had been at work as much as the men. I got them all together and told them that nobody could tell what there was behind us; that we could park upon the plateau, and go in by daylight, but that the Indians wouldn't tackle us by night, in all probability, and that we could go across to Julesburg three teams abreast, and in solid order, but that I was not going to make the order to march if they thought they were too tired or worn out to make it. They all spoke up that they were not very tired, and would be willing to make the trip. So, deploying out the men who were on horseback as scouts, and putting a white wagon-cover on the man who was to follow the trail and go in advance, so that we could keep line on him, we started across. About eleven o'clock a fire arrow went up far in front of us along the line of our probable trail, and a little after that an arrow went up behind us. Deeming it unwise to go any farther in the night, we parked our wagons, and waited for daylight. The starlight was very bright, and we could see considerably well. The wolves howled most fearfully, and as to some of it we could not tell whether the howling was wolves or Indians; so we got the log-wagons in such a position that we were within the circle of them, and we waited for daylight to come. The men dozed off alternately, and we each got two or three hours of sleep. As soon as it became dawn, we started on.
During this trip I rode, for a while, with the soldier Cannon, of whom I have heretofore spoken. When Cannon had no whisky in him, he was a very reliable soldier. That is to say, he had had good experience, and was sensible. Riding along, he told me that he was with Captain Pope, afterwards Major-General Pope, of the Civil War, when Pope was marking out the "Staked Plains" of Texas. That was a route for a future road projected by the Government over the wild and unending plains of northwestern Texas. Where this road was laid out it was called the "Staked Plains," but went down on the map under the name "Llano Estacado." He said he heard Captain Pope ask a question of another officer, and he always wanted to hear the answer to it. He said Pope asked this officer as follows:
"Supposing the Staked Plains are a thousand feet above the level of the sea, and on the first day of June a man gets up in the morning on horseback, and starts out following his shadow from sunrise to sunset at a rate of four miles an hour, where would he be at night, and what would be the shape of his course?"
This particular problem was very interesting. I had at that time a pocket diary showing the moon's phases, and the time of the rising and setting of the sun every day, for different latitudes. At first I could not grasp the puzzle, but before I got to Julesburg, I had it solved in an offhand way, and I told him the nature of the course. He would be at night twenty-eight and one-half miles north of the place where he started, and about a quarter of a mile east of it. This is not really accurate, but is as nearly so as a person could work it out on horseback with the aid of a pocket almanac.
When I got back from Ash Hollow, I found the men had all got into the new adobe post quarters, with battened doors made from lumber hauled down from Denver, and with some square glass windows. The boys had about finished the stables. The stables were 140 feet long, and 30 feet wide. There was a ten-foot door at each end and on one side. The sod was put up eight feet high; eight feet from each side we put up two rows of upright poles on the inside, marking each double stall. We put light logs across each of these, then split posts on top of the logs close together. The boys had waded around in the Platte River and cleaned off all the willows up and down the islands and banks. These had been put down on top of the roof-rails, and then on the willows was spread some spoiled hay, and it was well tramped down; then the whole was leveled off with dirt. When the dirt was all leveled we plowed more sod, and tightly sodded the top of the whole stable. It was fire-proof, cold-proof, and bombproof. It was one of the best stables I ever saw, and by all means the cheapest, considering the quality, I ever saw.
Confidence along the road seemed to he restored. There was always a surging impulse to go ahead and take chances. The East demanded an outlet West, and a reflex tide much weaker was always seeking the East. An open road between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean was a constant necessity. Although one Indian raid followed another, the tide flowed on between-times. And although the current was at times dammed up, it broke loose again with an increasing volume. No attention was seemingly paid to Indian hostilities; they were looked upon in the same light as a bad spell of weather: the hostilities would, like the weather, change from time to time, but no one made calculation about them or took them much into account. People relied on the Government and the soldiers and themselves, and their own good-fortune. Thus, when anybody wanted to cross the plains they just started and trusted to luck and their ability to go through. More than this, the great majority of the pilgrims and whackers rather enjoyed the prospect of having a little skirmish with the Indians, at some point, so as to have something to enliven the trip and something to tell when they got back to the "States." But it was all hard work for the soldiers along the line. Besides all this, the Civil War was loosening up whole blocks of society and giving them an impulse to the West. The war was on; in strong Union communities, if situated anywhere near the lines of the combatants or within the sphere of their influence, they made it hot for the secesh or for people who had relatives in the Confederate army. In places where Rebel sympathizers prevailed the Union men were hung, or driven out; hence in both such cases the minority party in groups sold out and moved away. The Union men went to the open lands of the North and the Northwest, and the secesh to the mountains, the West and the Pacific Coast, away from the theatre of possible strife, as if trying to forget it. These conditions, coupled with the growing demands of legitimate business, gave a constantly increasing impetus to the vast travel westward and eastward along the Platte River. This travel could finally be accommodated only by a railroad.
The Indian policy of the government was necessarily crude. The Indians were powerful, quite free, and fond of devilment; yet between them there was not much coherence, owing to rivalries and feuds. They were divided into bands under the control and leadership of favorite chiefs, who often envied and hated each other. Hence it was that we could not mistreat any Indian without taking the chances of making trouble; thus, if an Indian would suddenly appear at our post we could not kill him or imprison him or treat him as an enemy, because the particular Indian had done nothing that we could prove as an overt act. As far as the Sioux were concerned we had to keep on the defensive, because some of the Sioux chiefs were trying their best to keep their bands and young men from acts of war. It was cheaper to feed the Indians than to fight them, and the constant efforts of the commanding officers were to make treaties of peace; which resulted practically in our buying privileges and immunities from them. The demands of the Civil War which was straining the nation's resources added much to the difficulties of the occasion. So we were in an attitude all the time of about half war and half peace with the Indian tribes. We could not punish them adequately for what they did, nor could they drive us off from the Platte Valley. We let them alone if they kept out of our way, and they let us alone when the danger seemed too great. Of all the Indians in our territory, the Cheyennes seemed to have the least sense. They lacked judgment, and were entirely unreliable; the pioneers placed the Arapahoes next; for respecting treaty obligations, the pioneers placed the Brulë Sioux at the head of all the northwestern Indians.