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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


[Editor’s note: The Kansas Territory included much of western and central Colorado—dea.]

In the Rocky Mountains, }
Gregory’s Diggings, June 9, 1859. }

We left Denver at six yesterday morning, in a wagon drawn by four mules, crossing immediately by a rope ferry the south fork of the Platte. This fork is a swift, clear, cold stream, now several feet deep and some twenty rods wide, but fordable except when snows are melting in the mountains. Many gold-seekers’ wagons were waiting to cross, and more were momently arriving, so that the ferryman at least must be making his pile out of the diggings. Henceforward, our way lay north-west for fifteen miles, across a rolling and well-grassed prairie, on which one or two farms had been commenced, while two or three persons have just established “ranches”—that is, have built each his corral, in which cattle are herded at night, while allowed to run at large on the prairie during the day: $1.50 per month is the usual price per head for herding in this way, and the cattle are said to do very well. The miners leave or send back their cattle to herd on these prairies, while they prosecute their operations in the mountains where feed is generally scarce.

Reaching Clear Creek, (properly Vasquer’s Fork), a cold, swift, rocky-bottomed stream, which emerges just above through a deep, narrow cañon from the Rocky Mountains—we left our wagons, saddled tire mules and forded the creek—(and it was all our mules could do to stem its impetuous current)—ascended a gentle, grassy slope to the foot of Rocky Mountains—which had for an hour seemed almost within a stone-throw on our left. Now they were to be faced directly, and the prospect was really serious. The hill on which we were to make our first essay in climbing, rose to a height of one thousand six hundred feet in a little more than a mile—the ascent for most of the distance being more than one foot in three. I never before saw teams forced up such a precipice; yet there were wagons with ten or twelve hundred weight of mining tools, bedding, provisions, etc., being dragged by four to eight yoke of oxen up that giddy precipice, with four or five men lifting at the wheels of each. The average time consumed in the ascent is some two hours. Our mules, unused to such work, were visibly appalled by it; at first they resisted every effort to force them up, even by zigzags. My companions all walked, but I was lame and had to ride, much to my mule’s intense disgust. He was stubborn, but strong, and in time bore me safely to the summit.

New as this rugged road is—it was first traversed five weeks ago to-day—death had traveled it before me. A young man, shot dead while carelessly drawing a rifle from his wagon, lies buried by the roadside on this mountain. I have heard of so many accidents of this nature—not less than a dozen gold-seekers having been shot in this manner during the last two months—that I marvel at the carelessness with which fire-arms are every where handled on this side of the Missouri. Had no single emigrant across the Plains this season armed himself, the number of them alive at this moment would have been greater than it is.

We traveled some two miles along the crest of this mountain, then descended, by a pitch equally sharp with the ascent, but shorter, to a ravine, in which we rested our weary animals and dined. That dinner—of cold ham, bread and cheese—was one of the best relished of any I ever shared. Re-saddling, we climbed another precipice a little less steep—and so up and down for ten miles, when we descended into the narrow valley of a little branch of Clear Creek, and thenceforward had ten miles of relatively smooth going, crossing from one valley to another over hills of moderate elevation and easy ascent.

A wilderness of mountains rose all around us, some higher, some lower, but generally very steep, with sharp, narrow ridges for their summits. Some of them are thinly grassed, between widely scattered trees up their sides and on their tops; but they are generally timbered, and mainly with yellow-pine, some of it quite large, but more of it small and apparently young. High on the mountains, this pine is short and scraggy, while in the ravines it grows tall and shapely, but averages not more than a foot in diameter. Hurricanes have frequently swept these mountains, prostrating the pines by scores; fires have ravaged and decimated them; still, pines on the summits, pines on the hill sides, pines even in the ravines, are all but universal. The balsam-fir grows sparingly in the ravines; hemlock, also, is reported, though I have not seen it: but the quaking-asp or aspen—which seems but a more delicate species of cotton-wood—is thick-set in the ravines, and sometimes appears on the more moderate acclivities, as do gooseberry bushes in the glens. Brooks of the purest water murmur and sing in every ravine; springs abound; the air is singularly pure and bracing; the elk, black-tailed deer and mountain-sheep are plentiful, except where disturbed by the in-rush of emigration; grouse are common and bold: the solitude was sylvan and perfect until a few weeks ago. All is now being rapidly changed, and not entirely for the better.

We had a smart shower, with thunder and lightning, during the afternoon, which compelled us to halt a few minutes. Another such this afternoon, indicates that it is a habit of the country. I am told, however, that though thunder is common, rain is generally withheld at this season, or confined to a mere sprinkle.

Night fell upon us, while yet six or seven miles from the diggings, and we camped in the edge of the pines, on the brow of a gentle acclivity, with a prospect of grass as well as water for our weary, hungry beasts down the slope south of us. Mine had fallen to her knees in the last water-course we had passed, very nearly throwing me over her head; had she done it, I am sure I had not the strength left to rise and remount, and hardly to walk the remaining half mile. As it was, I had to be lifted tenderly from my saddle and laid on a blanket, with two more above me, where I lay while the fire was built, supper prepared, and a lodge of dry poles and green pine boughs hastily erected. I was too tired to eat, but the bright, leaping flame from the dry pines heaped on our fire gradually overcame the shivering, which was about the only sign of vitality I showed when first laid down, and I at length resumed the perpendicular by an effort, and took my place in our booth, where sleep but fitfully visited me during that bright, cool, short summer night. But this left me more time to rub my chafed and stiffened limbs, so that, when breakfast was called in the morning, I was ready, appetite included, and prepared to dispel the apprehensions of those who had predicted, on seeing me taken off my mule, that I must be left there for at least a day. By six o’clock, we were again in the saddle, and pushing on, over a stony but rather level table-land, which extended for two or three miles, thickly covered with young pines and aspens, to the next ravine, whence the road leads up a short, steep hill, then down a very long, equally steep one, to Ralston’s fork of Clear Creek—being as rapid and rock-bottomed as where we had crossed the main creek the day before thirty miles below, but with only one-third the volume of water, so that we forded it easily without a wet foot. A little runnel coming in from the west directly at the ford, with its natural translucency changed to milky whiteness by the running of its waters through sluices in which the process of gold-washing was going forward, gave us assurance that we were in immediate proximity to the new but already famous workings called, after their discoverer, “Gregory’s Diggings.”* [* Now (October) known as “Mountain City.”]

I shall not here speak of their pecuniary success or promise, though I have visited, during the day, a majority of those which have sluices already in operation, and received reports from my fellow-visitors from nearly all the others: Having united with them in a statement —to be herewith forwarded—of what we saw and learned, I refer those who feel any interest in the matter to that statement. What I propose here to do is to give the reader some idea of the place and its general aspects.

The little brook which here joins Clear Creek from the west starts at the foot of mountains three or four miles distant, and runs in a usually narrow ravine between generally steep hills from five hundred to fifteen hundred feet high. Gregory’s lead is very near its mouth; half a mile above seems the heart of the present mining region, though there are already sluices in operation at intervals for at least two miles up the runnel, and others are soon to be started at intervals above them. Three or four miles south-west from its mouth, are Russell’s Diggings, where coarse gold is procured, but I was unable to visit them. Prospecting is actively going forward in every direction, and vague reports of lucky hits or brilliant prospects are started on this side or on that, but I have not been able to verify them. It is no disparagement to the others to say that, though mining is carried on at various points within a radius of thirty miles from this spot, “Gregory’s Diggings” are to-day the chief hope of gold-mining in the Rocky Mountains.

Six weeks ago, this ravine was a solitude, the favorite haunt of the elk, the deer, and other shy denizens of the profoundest wildernesses, seldom invaded by the foot steps of man. I believe this strip of country has long been debatable land between the Utes and the Arapahoes, which circumstance combined with its rarely accessible situation to secure its wild tenants against human intrusion and persecution. I hear that the Arapahoes say that a good “lodge-pole trail”—that is, one which a pony may traverse with one end of the lodge-poles on his back, the other trailing behind him—exists from this point to the open prairie where Clear Creek debouches from the mountains—a trail which doubtless winds along the steep sides of the ravines and avoids the rugged heights necessarily traversed by the miner’s wagon-road. Should these diggings justify their present promise, I doubt not a road will in time be made, reducing by one-half—say five thousand feet—the present aggregate of ascent and descent between this and Denver. But an unworked wagon-road must avoid the sides of these steep-banked ravines, running square up the fixes and along the crests of the mountains, so that this spot is destined to remain barely accessible for at least another year.

This narrow valley is densely wooded, mainly with the inevitable yellow-pine, which, sheltered from the fierce winds which steep the mountain-tops, here grows to a height of sixty or eighty feet, though usually but a foot to eighteen inches in diameter. Of these pines, log-cabins are constructed with extreme facility, and probably one hundred are now being built while three or four hundred more are in immediate contemplation. They are covered with the green boughs of the pines, then with earth, and bid fair to be commodious and comfortable. As yet, the entire population of the valley —which cannot number less than four thousand, including five white women and seven squaws living with white men—sleep in tents, or under booths of pine boughs, cooking and eating in the open air. I doubt that there is as yet a table or chair in these diggings, eating being done around a cloth spread on the ground, while each one sits or reclines on mother earth. The food, like that of the plains, is restricted to a few staples —pork, hot bread, beans and coffee forming the almost exclusive diet of the mountains; but a meat-shop has just been established, on whose altar are offered up the ill-fed and well-whipped oxen who are just in from a fifty days’ journey across the plains, and one or two cows have been driven in, as more would be if they could here been subsisted. But these mountains are mainly wooded, while the open hill-sides are so dry during summer that their grass is very scanty. It is melancholy to see so many over-worked and half-starved cattle as one meets or passes in this ravine and on the way hither. Corn is four dollars per bushel in Denver, and scarce at that; oats are not to be had; there is not a ton of hay within two hundred miles, and none can ever be brought hither over the present road at a cost below forty dollars per ton. The present shift of humane owners is to herd their oxen or mules on the rich grass of the nearest prairies for a week or so, then bring then in here and keep them at work for a week or more, letting them subsist on browse and a very little grass, and then send them down the mountain again. This, bad as it is, seems the best that can be done. Living of all kinds will always be dear at these mines, where American flour is now selling at the rate of forty-four dollars per barrel, and bacon is worth fifty cents per pound; sugar ditto.

I presume less than half the four or five thousand people now in this ravine have been here a week; he who has been here three weeks is regarded as quite an old settler. The influx cannot fall short of five hundred per day, balanced by an efflux of about one hundred. Many of the latter go away convinced that Rocky Mountain gold-mining is one grand humbug. Some of them have prospected two or three weeks, eating up their provisions, wearing out their boots—and finding nothing. Others have worked for the more fortunate for one dollar per day and their board and lodging—certainly not high wages when the quality of the living is considered. And I feel certain that, while some—perhaps many—will realize their dreams of wealth here, a far greater number will expend their scanty means, tax their powers of endurance, and then leave, soured, heart-sick, spirit-broken. Twenty thousand people will have rushed into this ravine before the 1st of September, while I do not see how half of them are to find profitable employment here. Unless, therefore, the area of the diggings shall meantime be greatly enlarged—of which there is no assurance—I cannot imagine how half the number are to subsist here, even up to that early setting in of winter which must cause a general paralysis of mining, and consequently of all other Rocky Mountain industry. With the gold just wrested from the earth still glittering in my eyes—and one company has taken out to-day, at a cost of not more than twenty-five dollars a lump (condensed by the use of quicksilver) which looks like a steel-yard-poise and is estimated as worth five hundred and ten dollars—I adhere to my long-settled conviction that, next to outright and indisputable gambling, the hardest (though sometimes the quickest) way to obtain gold is to mine for it—that a good farmer or mechanic will usually make money faster—and of course immeasurably easier—by sticking to his own business than by deserting it for gold-digging —and that the man who, having flailed in some other pursuit, calculates on retrieving, his fortunes by gold-mining, makes a mistake which he will be likely to rue to the end of his days.

We had a famous gathering a few rods from this tent this evening. The estimate of safe men puts the number present at fifteen hundred to two thousand. Though my name was made the excuse for it, brief and forcible addresses were made by several others, wherein mining, postal, and express facilities, the Pacific railroad, the proposed new Rocky Mountain state, temperance, gambling, etc., etc., were discussed with force and freedom. Such a gathering of men suddenly drawn; hither from every section, and nearly every state, in a glen where the first axe was raised, the first tent pitched by white men, less than six weeks ago, should have inspired the dullest speaker with earnestness, if not with eloquence.

Mining quickens almost every department of useful industry. Two coal-pits are burning close at hand. A blacksmith has set up his forge here, and is making a good thing of sharpening picks at fifty cents each. A volunteer post-office is just established, to which an express-office will soon attach itself. A provision store will soon follow; then groceries; then dry goods; then a hotel, etc., until within ten years the tourist of the continent will be whirled up to these diggings over a longer but far easier road winding around the mountain-tops rather than passing over them, and will sip his chocolate and read his New York paper —not yet five days old—at the “Gregory House,” in utter unconsciouisness that this region was wrested from the elk and the mountain-sheep so recently as 1859.

Denver, June 10, 1859.

We left the diggings yesterday morning, and came down to the foot of the mountains, in spite of a drizzling rain from noon to three or four o’clock, which at one time threatened a heavy shower. We made a poor shelter of a buffalo-skin and a rubber blanket, stretched across a fallen tree, and there waited half an hour; but, finding the rain neither stopped nor grew violent, we saddled up and came on. Two accidents, which might have proved serious happened to members of our party—the first to Mr. Villard, of Cincinnati, who, riding at some distance from all others, was thrown by his mule’s saddle slipping forward and turning under him, so that he fell heavily on his left arm, which was badly bruised, and thence was dragged a rod with his heel fast in the stirrup. His mule then stopped; but when I rode up behind him, I dared not approach him lest I should start her, and waited a moment for the friend who, having heard his call for help, was coming up in front. Mr. V. was released without further injury, but his arm is temporarily useless. The other casualty happened to Mr. Kershaw, of New York, who, riding to my assistance at Clear Creek crossing at nightfall, was thrown by his mule’s starting at the rush of a savage dog, and considerably injured, though he is nearly well to-day. It would have been to me a source of lasting sorrow had his fall resulted in more serious damage.

When we reached Clear Creek on our way up three mornings since, though the current rushing from the mountains looked somewhat formidable, I charged it like a Zouave, and was greeted with three ringing shouts from the assembled Pike’s Peakers, as I came up, gay and dripping, on the north shore. But now, though the water was but a few inches higher, the starch was so completely taken out of me by those three days’ rough experience in the mountains, that I had neither strength nor heart for the passage. I felt that the least stumble of my mule over the round, slippery stones that fill the channel would fling me, and that I was unable to stand a moment in that rushing torrent. So, driving, in my mule after the rest of the party, and seeing her reach the south bank safely, though with great difficulty—breaking a girth and spilling saddle, blanket, etc., into the water—I betook myself to a spot, half a mile up stream, where the creek is split by islets into three channels, and where a rude foot-bridge of logs affords a dry-shod passage. Here I was met by my friend with his mule, and in a few minutes rode to our wagon, beside which we found supper in an emigrant tent and lodging in several, and at four o’clock this morning harnessed up and drove into Denver—just three whole men out of a party of six, and all as weary and care-worn as need be, but all heartily gratified with our experience of three days in the Rocky Mountains.

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