4 - PIKES PEAK GOLD FEVER
At this time "Pikes Peak gold fever" was still raging all about us. Many proved up on their land and borrowed money on it for the expense of the long journey to the gold fields and it seemed that I was one the numbers who could not resist the temptation to try my luck at gold seeking. So in the spring of 1858, King Manley and myself equipped ourselves with a canvas covered wagon and stock of provisions, two yoke of oxen, and a couple of cows, one of which was eighteen years old. We painted our wagon canvas to make it more effective protection against the rain. Had we known what we did later, we should have taken all cows as they turned out to be much more valuable.
We left Illinois on first day of May. Crossing the Mississippi River at Savannah, we proceeded westward crossing the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids, which was a small town prettily situated. At that place we forded the river which was not at all deep. In passing through Iowa, we often went over miles of the prairie without seeing a habitation, but often passed a herd of deer as they grazed peacefully. We saw several squads of Indians, all of whom were friendly. One buck we met spoke the English language sufficiently to have us understand that we might have trouble with these people, the Cheyenne's, who lived to the westward many hundreds of miles.
We stopped at Council Bluffs before crossing the Missouri River which was accomplished by a side wheeler ferry boat. It was propelled by the power of an old blind team of horses tread power. The cost of transportation was one dollar. On the Nebraska side of the river was the government post for the distribution of supplies and troops to the country further to the west, where the troops were sent to protect the immigrants from the Indians.
At Brownsville, the government post, we joined with a party of 120 people. By this time it was about the last of May. The country was beautiful in its covering of varied rich grasses, together with millions of delicate flowers that were the fragrance of it all in the invigorating the atmosphere, it filled one with joy and ambition. Joe Jordan was our captain. He had been an old Indian scout with Freemont on his exploring expedition. He spoke the Indian language fluently which was a great service to us later.
At Little Blue, now known as Grand Island, our party was joined by twenty more. Among our party were six or seven teams with Mormons. We were much interested in seeing many small herd of buffalo all through Nebraska, which country was usually referred to as "the desert". The eastern part of the country was very fertile, but as we proceeded westward, we waded through sand drifts which were two and three feet deep at places. It pinched our faces a good deal as we went through it. It was hard for us to realize that this semi-desert country was only a few hundred miles from the beautiful fertile fields and meadows of Illinois.
We were quite interested in a performance of the experienced travelers of this country, which was their going ahead of the company to lay pieces of red flannel upon the ground, to attract the attention of antelope, as they scampered over the prairie. In a short time there would some that would become so interested as to allow us to get within easy range of them. One day I had the luck to shoot two of these timid, but inquisitive, little animals with one shot - the shot passing through the head of the one and breaking the other's neck. It really stirs one sensitiveness to kill such pretty, harmless creatures. What meat remained of these animals from the first meal, we dried in the sun which cured it.
One day our Captain startled us by suddenly exclaiming, "A herd of buffalo are coming, boys! See that cloud of dust?", he added. Away to the south, four or five miles, a long cloud of dust was rolling towards us, blown by the strong, hot, south wind. He hurriedly ordered that four or five men with the best rifles prepare to advance with him toward the fast oncoming herd; and it happened that I was one of the party to advance to the point for action. It happened that I had a Sharps rifle which was considered very good. It cost me fifty dollars, though the price of it was thirty more when new. I got it from a man who had planned for a journey to California, but he failed in his plans, and in that way the rifle and five hundred shells became mine at a great bargain.
When we arrived upon a knoll that was about a half mile from the wagons, he halted and gave us orders as to how to proceed when the great herd came within reach of our rifles. He said, "Shoot below the eyes." We had but a little while to wait before the great herd came thundering along to within range of our rifles. It was a situation to make the strongest-nerved men tremble. We fired and crippled several who each fell to their knees; and immediately the great herd parted enough to avoid plunging into our camp as they swept by us with their noses close to the ground. The earth trembled as they plunged on toward the river. They had to run the distance of at least three miles, that we could see them, without slacking their speed. Arriving at the river, they tumbled over each other, many of one on top of the other. The calves were absolutely the cutest animals I had ever seen. We tried to catch a couple of them to take them home with us but it was a hopeless task for us. When they had drunk their fill, most of them went on to the large island in the river.
We were anxious to have some venison of this kind so our Captain let us out to select the bison. He saw a fat two year old heifer and turned to me, kind of gave me the first chance to shoot this choice animal. He advised me to wait until I could shoot it behind the ear, under the horns. One shot did the work. We were about a hundred feet from it, so the bullet had full force, which was considerable in going from the 42 caliber Sharps rifle. We indeed had a feast of this fat, tender young heifer. The remainder of the carcass we cut into strips and hung up on the wagon, exposed to the hot sun, to dry and to cure..... and it surely did.
We also shot an old bull that had separated himself from the herd. He had been defeated in battle with his rivals, the Captain explained, and was so disheartened that he would soon die. He showed how futile it was to shoot such an animal by trying to put a bullet into his brain square in the front of his head. He shot two shots at his forehead but both bullets failed to penetrate and bring him to his knees. He then took a position where he could shoot him from the rear, where he penetrated the big animal's brain.
When we arrived at Cottonwood River, we met with a party of Missourians. They had about forty wagons. The party was captained by a typical Missourian - tall, raw-boned, and a swagger-ish fellow who had a good deal of bluff to his makeup. We really arrived at the river a little while before he did, and stationed ourselves close to the side of the river, ready to go across the first thing in the morning, or as the ferry started operating in the morning. We surmised that our neighbors were planning to beat us to it. George Rice, an old experienced gold seeker of California fame, had charge of the party while our Captain was in advance to seek the advice of an old scout who he knew was in our vicinity. George Rice possessed the intrepidity necessary to thwart our Missourians in their scheme to beat us across the river.
When morning arrived, we found our neighbors on hand trying to get their first wagons in position to run onto the boat. At this juncture the fight commenced - and it was all one-sided. George Rice knocked his opponent to the ground with one terrific blow, then followed with further chastisement by a rather severe booting. The result was: our party crossed the Cottonwood first without further trouble. The ferry boat held three wagons, the power being furnished by ourselves in pulling a rope which was fastened on either shore. For this ferry service we paid fifty cents for each team, and ten cents for each man additional.
As we proceeded on our way, we met hundreds of gold seekers returning with the most discouraging recital of their fruitless experience. But we would not be dismayed by them, we thought them tenderly, and had been stricken with cold feet before making a thorough exploration of Pikes Peak. Our Captain was much to blame for not heeding what these people had to say in the way of advice of the uselessness of our quest. He held that there were places he knew that these people wouldn't dare to go in prospecting and were rich in ore. While we wanted to see the gold fields anyway, so there would be no satisfaction for us until we had been on the ground to see for ourselves.
We found a government trading post and also five hundred troops stationed at our destination. The trading post was a distributing place for supplies. There was also a station for the Pony Express. The first thing we did was to find a grazing place for our cattle and a suitable place to put our tents on. We were prepared to secure most of our gold in placer digging, having the paraphernalia for the purpose. We next proceeded to select our regulators before staking our claims. The officers were given the power of a court marshal to settle disputes, punish the wrongdoers, others, and etcetera. We had partnership companies in staking our gold claims. The claims were about 50 by 100 feet and located in ledges of rock upon Pikes Peak. The nearest point where we could have sufficient water to wash our gold dirt was miles away. The only gold to be found was in the ledges of rock which required blasting and crushing. The nearest crusher to Pikes Peak was in Utah and that was not doing business very well.
We enjoyed very beautiful weather while we were engaged in mining operations, only two light showers of rain, but the snowstorms on Pike's Peak were plainly visible to us. There was plenty of venison to be had for the shooting. Grizzly's were plentiful, but none of us were equipped, and experienced enough, to feel inclined to tackle these fierce fellows.
After a time we became thoroughly convinced of the uselessness of the search for gold; some of our party went on to Utah, others to California. There were sixteen of our party left who returned to Illinois. We sold the two cows for a hundred dollars each and started with two yoke of oxen. We were almost horror stricken to find that the prairie had been fired by the Indians - and where to find feed for our oxen, drove us almost to distraction. It was hard and sickening to see the bones of the poor, dumb brutes which had perished from hunger and thirst; and deserted wagons dotted the roadside, some of which had been made useless by the owners in order to prevent the Indians from using them.
Our journey homeward presented scenes which were too desolate for words to describe. Before we arrived at the Nebraska line, we lost our last oxen. The poor fellows could not get up finally, so we had to put them out of their misery. We abandoned our wagon, taking only what food we could carry. It was quite evident that we were only two of hundreds in a like predicament. There were but two teams which were able to make the return journey to the Missouri River -. We reached it on the 20th of June. Not one of the party had enough money to pay the fee for ferrying across to Missouri when we arrived there. It was almost sundown and we had found a crowd waiting to cross. By daylight the next morning I heard a whistle which I knew to be that of a steamboat.
After the deck hands had landed, the first move they made was toward a grog shop. At this time I lost no time in approaching their Mate to apply for a job on his boat. Being much the smallest of our party, the Mate sized me up with a rather skeptical expression and said, "What in the hell can you do?", "Anything anyone else can do, sir", I replied abruptly. "Well that sounds pretty spunky", he replied with a laugh. "Well we can put you to work as soon as those lubbers get back", he added, meaning that the deck hands were gone for a drink. "I would like to have something to eat first, we have just got back from Pikes Peak and we're nearly starved", I answered. "Pikes Peak, by God!" he exclaimed, and added, "Well, I guess you do want something to eat." He ordered my breakfast to be brought in. It was glorious - fried steak, fish and warm biscuit and coffee. This was surely heaven on earth to me then.
I engaged to work on the trip to St. Louis for wages at the rate of forty five dollars per month. I was to go to work at five o'clock in the morning, and to be on duty until five o'clock in the evening, with an interval of twenty minutes for dinner. Our days work consisted of handling all sorts of goods. Sacks of sugar and salt, coffee, ammunition and various other things, all in heavy receptacles.
The next morning my partner started for home, expecting to walk all the way, which was over four hundred miles. I gave him the gold dust which I had managed to get at Pikes Peak, also my day's wages. The gold dust sold for about fifteen dollars . I requested him to advise my wife that it would be best for me to work for the steamboat company for the rest of the summer as it would be impossible for me to get work around home that would pay me as well as would this steamboat work.
We were six days on the trip to St. Louis. We loaded and unloaded at every town. The river was full of sandbars and nearly every night we spent several hours in pulling over them. When we arrived at St. Louis I met Captain Gabbert, from Galena, whom I had been slightly acquainted with, and also several of his crew, all of whom insisted that I should engage with them for the summer. The boat was a much better one than the one I came down on, and the Mississippi is a better river to navigate.
I engaged with the War Eagle for fifty dollars per month. They made two round trips to St. Paul after which I was promoted to Deck Hand from Roustabout. The round trip consumed two weeks of time; to Galena it required about half that length of time. The rest of the summer was spent working on the Mississippi River. The 28th of November we left the boat in a secure little harbor, a few miles below Galena, at the cutoff, and here the War Eagle remained safe from the ice of the river. One day's drive and I was at home again!
What a joy to be there again, to be among my loved ones. The experience I had since leaving home furnished entertainment for wife and children during many of our spare hours together that winter. It is a time I shall never forget, telling the family of our awful hardships of the journey to Pikes Peak, and the lively and varied experiences of steam-boating on the great Mississippi. For weeks the children of the neighborhood frequented our home to hear my stories.
Soon I was busy again at my old occupation - teaching school. I had engaged to teach the school before leaving for the gold fields, so it may readily be seen that we were not over confident of our success in our gold mining venture. The winters employment in teaching was very much appreciated by ourselves though it brought us in but eighteen dollars per month. There was no county institutes, nor regular teacher's examinations, requiring attendance by prospective teachers. The directors did the job at the schoolhouse, or at the home of one of themselves.
Every Wednesday night I held writing school for my own profit at the schoolhouse. My charge was one dollar per term for each scholar. In this work I made twenty-five dollars in that term. At this time my two eldest children were eight and ten years of age.
The first of April found us started on our trip down the river with a cargo of bacon, lead and oats. When we arrived in Muscatine, we stopped to finish our load with one thousand bushels of onions. When this was done, we were loaded to the guards, so we could not take on anymore and be safe. Springtime was in full bloom when we arrived at St. Louis. We remained there two days while we loaded merchandise for St. Paul. The War Eagle's capacity was about one hundred tons. The trip occupied seven days. Our fuel was nearly entirely of wood which was brought to us at several points along the river.
On our return trip from St. Paul, our cargo was made up of wheat, oats and potatoes. The loading of potatoes, which were mostly fixed for transportation in a bushel in a sack, was a very dirty and disagreeable job, especially on a hot day. At Dubuque we took on lots of wheat, shelled corn, and lead. At Muscatine we took on lots of onions. So our work went on through the season.
We had a calliope, which always aroused the interest of the inhabitants while we played it as we entered the town. It was really amusing to see the crowds at the levee to see us, and it did much to cheer and liven our lives. I always sent my wages home in remittance through the mail and never at a loss - and was never registered. The mail was carried from Galena to Tripmarc on horseback three times a week.