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


Fort Laramie, June 27, 1859.

I left Denver at 3, p.m. on Tuesday, 21st inst. There are two roads thence to this point: that usually preferred follows down the east fork of the South Platte some forty miles, crossing that river near St. Vrain’s (deserted) Fort, thus avoiding several rapid and difficult creeks, and crossing Cache-la-Poudre near its mouth, where, like nearly all these streams, it is broader and shallower than where it issues from the Rocky Mountains. My guide had expected to take this route till the last moment, when he learned that the South Platte was entirely too high to be forded near St. Vrain’s Fort, or any where else, and that there was now no ferry-boat for two hundred miles below Denver; hence he had no choice but to take the upper or mountain-route. So we crossed the Platte directly at Denver, and Clear Creek some three or four miles below the road to Greggory’s Diggings, by a bad, difficult ford, embellished by some half-dozen deep, ugly “sloughs” in the bottom on either side, the creek being so high that the bottom was flooded in part, and very miry. This high water cut us off from a purposed call on a hunter in the bottom, of whom we had expected to obtained fresh meat for our journey. We pushed on ten miles further, and camped for the night opposite “Boulder City,” a log hamlet of some thirty habitations, covering the entrance to “Boulder Diggings,” twelve miles westward in the mountains. Here we found four wagons, two of them with horse-teams, each conveying the luggage of four or five men who, having taken a look at this gold-region, had decided to push on for California, most of them, I believe, through what is known as the “Cherokee Trail,” which forms a part of the shortest practicable route from Denver to Salt Lake. I was strongly tempted at Denver to join one of these parties, and go through this pass—had I stood firmly on both feet, I think I should have done it, saving distance, though losing time. We all camped for the night beside a small brook, the rippling of whose waters over its pebbly bed fell soothingly on the drowsy ear. I had the wagon to myself for a bed-chamber, while my three companions spread their buffalo-skin and blankets on the grass, and had the vault of heaven for their ceiling. The night was cool and breezy; our mules were picketed on the grass at a short distance; our supper of fried pork and pilot-bread had not surfeited us; and we slept quietly till the first dawn of day, when our mules were quickly harnessed, and we left our fellow-campers still torpid, pushing on fifteen miles, and crossing two deep, swift, steep-banked creeks (St. Vrain’s Fork, and a branch of Thompson’s Creek) before stopping for feed and breakfast. After two hours’ rest, we harnessed up, and made twenty miles more before stopping, at the crossing of the other fork of Thompson’s Creek for dinner. Here we found a caravan moving from Missouri to California, which reminded me of the days of Abraham and Lot. It comprised six or seven heavy wagons, mainly drawn by oxen, with a light traveling carriage and pair of horses conveying the patriarch’s family, some two or three hundred head of cows, steers, and young cattle, with three or four young men on horseback driving and keeping the herd. Girls were milking, women cooking or washing, children playing—in short, here was the material for a very fair settlement, or quite an imposing Kansas city. While we were snoozing, they hitched up and moved on before us, but we very soon overtook and passed them. There are scores of such caravans now on the various roads to California, many of which will see very hard times ere they reach Carson Valley, and some still harder before they get fairly across the Sierra Nevada. Many of them are behind time; the feed—for most of the way scanty at best—has been devoured by the cattle ahead of them, and the drouth forbids the growth of more until September, in which month snow begins to fall heavily on the Sierra Nevada. And it will not tend to rouse their flagging spirits to meet—as I am well assured they must—similar caravans of people, who, having tried California to their full satisfaction, are now moving back to Missouri again. Was there ever another such vagrant, restless, discontented people, pretending to be civilized, as ours!

Pushing on steadily over a reasonably level country, though crossed by many deep and steep-banked dry gullies, and perhaps one petty living stream, we stood at 5 p. m. on the south bank of Cache-la-Poudre, seventy miles from Denver, and by far the most formidable stream between the South Platte and the Laramie. Our conductor was as brave as mountaineer need be, but he was wary as well, and had seen so many people drowned in fording such streams, especially the Green River branch of the Colorado, on which he spent a year or two, that he chose to feel his way carefully. So he waited and observed for an hour or more, meantime sending word to an old French mountaineer friend from Utah, who has pitched his tent here, that his help was wanted. There had been a ferry-boat at this crossing till two nights before, when it went down stream, and had not since been heard of. A horseman we met some miles below, assured us that there was no crossing; but this we found a mistake—two men mounted on strong horses crossing safely before our eyes, and two heavy-laden ox-wagons succeeding them in doing the same. save that one of them stuck in the stream, and the oxen had to be taken off and driven out, being unable to pull it while themselves were half buried in the swift current. But these crossings were made from the other side, where the entrance was better and the current rather favored the passage; the ox-wagons were held to the bottom by the weight of their loads, while our “ambulance” was light, and likely to be swept down stream. At length our French friend appeared, mounted on a powerful horse, with an Indian attendant on another such. He advised us to stay where we were for the night, promising to come in the morning with a heavy ox-team and help us over. As this, however, involved a loss of at least ten miles on our next day’s drive, our conductor resolved to make an attempt now. So the Frenchman on his strong horse took one of our lead-mules by the halter and the Indian took the other, and we went in, barely escaping an upset from going down the steep bank obliquely, and thus throwing one side of our wagon much above the other; but we righted in a moment and went through—the water being at least three feet deep for about a hundred yards, the bottom broken by the bowlders, and the current very strong. We camped so soon as fairly over, lit a fire, and, having obtained a quarter of antelope from our French friend, proceeded to prepare and discuss a most satisfactory supper. Table, of course, there was none, and we had unluckily lost our fork; but we had still two knives, a sufficiency of tin-cups and plates, with an abundance of pork and pilot-bread, and an old bag for table-cloth which had evidently seen hard service, and had gathered more dirt and blood in the course of it than a table-cloth actually needs. But the antelope ham was fresh, fat, and tender; and it must have weighed less by three pounds when that supper was ended than when its preparation was commenced.

By the way, there was a discussion at supper between my three companions—all mountaineers of ripe experience—as to the relative merits of certain meats, of which I give the substance for the benefit of future travelers through this wild region, buffalo I found to be a general favorite, though my own experience of it makes it a tough, dry, wooden fiber, only to be eaten under great provocation. I infer that it is poorer in spring than at other seasons, and that I have not been fortunate in cooks. Bear, I was surprised to learn, is not generally liked by mountaineers—my companions had eaten every species, and were not pleased with any. The black-tailed deer of the mountains is a general favorite; so is the mountain-hen or grouse; so is the antelope, of course; the elk and mountain-sheep less decidedly so. None of our party liked horse, or knew any way of cooking it that would make it really palatable, though of course it has to be eaten occasionally, for necessity hath no law—or rather, is its own law. Our conductor had eaten broiled wolf, under compulsion, but could not recommend it; but he certified that a slice of cold boiled dog—well boiled, so as to free it from rankness, and then suffered to cool thoroughly—is tender, sweet and delicate as lamb. I ought to have ascer tained the species and age of the dog in whose behalf this testimony was borne—for a young Newfoundland or king Charles might justify the praise, while it would be utterly unwarranted in the case of an old cur or mastiff—but the opportunity was lost, and I can only give the testimony as I received it.

Cache-la-Poudre seems to be the center of the antelope country. There are no settlements, save a small beginning just at this ford, as yet hardly three months old—between Denver, seventy miles on one side, and Laramie, one hundred and thirty on the other. The North Platte and the Laramie, both head in the mountains, forty to eighty miles due west of this point, thence pursuing a generally north course for more than a hundred miles among the hills, which are here lower and less steep than further south. The bold, high, regular front displayed by the Rocky Mountains for at least a hundred (and, I believe, for two hundred) miles south of the Cache-la-Poudre, hence gradually melts away into a succession of softer, rounder, lower hills; snow disappears; the line between the mountains and the plains is no longer straight and sharply defined; and the still waters of the plain have for some miles an alkaline appearance, beside being very scarce in summer. The Cherokee Trail plunges into the mountains on the north side of and very near to Cache-la-Poudre; and henceforth we overtake no emigrants moving westward —none of any sort—but meet a few in wagons makiong for Boulder City or the Gregory Diggings. Since we crossed Clear Creek, on which there is on this trail a decent fringe of cotton-wood, we had seen but the merest shred of small cotton-woods and some shrub willow at wide intervals along the larger water-courses but the pine still sparsely covered the face of the Rocky Mountains. Cache-la-Poudre has quite a fair belt of cotton-wood; thenceforth there is scarcely a cord of wood to a township for the next fifty or sixty miles; and the pine is no longer visible on the hills near us, because they expose little rock, and hence are swept by the annual fires. The high prairie on either side is thinly, poorly grassed, being of moderate fertility at best, often full of pebbles of the average size of a goose-egg, and apparently doomed to sterility by drouth. This region, though inferior in soil, and less smooth in surface, is not dissimilar in its topography to Lombardy, and like it will in time be subjected to systematic irrigation, should the Rocky Mountain gold mines prove rich and extensive. Some of the streams crossed by our road might easily be so dammed at their egress from the mountains as to irrigate miles in width to the South Platte, forty or fifty miles distant; and, at the prices which vegetables must always command here should the gold mines prove inexhaustible, the enterprise would pay well. I was told at Cache-la-Poudre that encouraging, signs of gold had been obtained on that stream, though it had only begun to be prospected.

We were up and away betimes, still over thinly-grassed, badly-watered prairie, rather level in its general outlines, but badly cut by steep-banked water-courses, now dry. Some shallow ponds are also formed here in the wet season, but the last of them had just dried up. We drove fifteen miles, and stopped for breakfast on a feeble tributary of Cache-la-Poudre, named Box Elder, from a small tree which I first observed here, and which is poorer stuff, if possible, than cotton-wood. This is the only tributary which joins the Cache-la-Poudre below its egress from the mountains. All the streams of this region are largest where they emerge from the mountains, unless re-enforced below by other streams having a like origin; the thirsty prairie contributes nothing, but begins to drink them up from the time they strike it. The smaller streams are thus utterly absorbed in the course of five to ten miles, unless they happen sooner to be lost in some larger creek. Drouth, throughout each summer, is the inexorable and desolating tyrant of the plains.

Rising from the valley of Box Elder, we passed over a divide, and were soon winding our way among the Buttes, or irregular, loosely aggregated hills, which form a prominent feature of the next seventy or eighty miles, and which I must try to give some idea of.

The soil of this region, like that of the plains generally, is mainly clay, with some sand and gravel intermixed—the gravel probably washed from the mountains. Here, though not at a distance form the mountains, loose, water-rounded stones, from the size of a pigeon’s egg up to that of a man’s head, are often, though by no means uniformly, intermingled with the soil, especially near the beds of streams. These stones are of various kinds and colors, including quartz, indicating a mountain origin. But there seems to be no underlying rock in place—that is, none at any depth attained by the deepest water-courses—and the soil, when sodden by the pouring rains of winter and early spring, seems unable to oppose any resistance to the washing, wearing influence of every stream or rill. The average level of the plains would seem to have once been at least forty or fifty feet higher than at present, the greater part of the earth to that depth having been gradually worn away and carried down the streams to the Missouri and lower Mississippi. But there are localities which, from one cause or another, more or less obstinately resist this constant abrasion; and these are gradually moulded into hills by the abstraction annually proceeding all around them. Some of them have been washed down to so gentle a slope that grass covers them completely, and prevents further loss; but the greater number are still being gullied, washed and worn away by the influence of each violent rain. Others have living streams at their base, which, having once taken a sheer against them, are continually increasing the acuteness of their angles and gouging more and more decidedly into their banks, occasionally flinging down tons of undermined earth into their channels to be gradually carried off, as so much has already been. In such places, the Buttes are nearly perpendicular and square-faced; but they are more apt to be circular, and steeper near the summit than below. In some instances, the earth is of a bright vermilion color; in others, partly thus and partly white; giving the Buttes a variegated and fantastic appearance, like that of the Pictured Rocks of Lake Superior. When first seen from a distance, the ensemble of the red Buttes is very striking. But the white clay, as it is gradually washed away, leaving surfaces almost or quite perpendicular exposed to the action of sun, air and water, is, by some occult agency, gradually hardened into a kind of rock, of which long ranges of perpendicular bluffs are composed, sometimes miles in extent, but broken and disturbed at intervals by the intervention of water-courses or other influences.

After leaving Box Elder, our road gradually ascended, winding among the rounded and less regularly arranged Buttes first described above, but passing no water but a single spring and little available grass, until it descends a long hill to a fork of Howard’s Creek, twenty miles from Box Elder. Here we stopped for dinner at 3, p. m., beside, two or three wagon’s of Pike’s Peakers, from whom we obtained a generous supply of fresh bread and another antelope ham, very much to the improvement of our edible resources. (I may as well explain here that all the emigrants we met going into the Kansas diggings, had started from the Missouri, on the north side of the Platte, and had failed to cross at Shinn’s ferry, sixty-five miles up the latter stream, supposing that they could do so at Fort Kearney, or some other point below the forks; but, in the absence of ferries, the high water had headed them off, and forced them clear up to Laramie where they were now working southward, having lost fully two hundred miles by neglecting to cross the Platte where they might have done so). In all this region, it is a settled maxim, that you must cross (if you can) a stream directly upon reaching it, if your way lies across it, never camping before you do so, lest a sudden rise should obstruct your passage for days. Many have lost a fortnight’s weary travel by failing to heed this rule in spirit with regard to the Platte.

We moved again at five, passing over a high ridge, and into a broad valley, with rounded hills on the west, and a range of such precipitous clay-rock bluffs as I have tried to describe on the east. These bluffs were broken through at intervals, and the streams that came down the hills on the west ran out at the brooks, after traversing the valley for two or three miles, and flowed away east to join Howard’s Fork and the South Platte. Our trail here bore considerably west of north, evidently to reach the mouth of the Cheyenne Pass. We had hoped to make our next camp at that point; but night fell upon us before reaching it, and we stopped on a little run where we found water and good grass, close under the mountains, and in one of the loneliest spots I ever beheld. Not a tree nor shrub was visible, nor had been for miles; yet, it was not difficult to gather dry sticks enough to cook our supper, proving what I have elsewhere observed, that wood was formerly more common in all this region than now. We had all turned in by nine, and were doing very well, when a rush, by one of our mules, apprised; us that he was loose, having broken his lariat; he was soon caught and made fast; and we all addressed ourselves to slumber again. In an hour, however, there was a fresh alarm, and not without reason; for three of our mules had gone, we could not tell whither. The first impression was, that a band of Cheyennes, who were known to be encamped in the mountains very near us, had, unsuspected by us, been watching our progress from their heights, and had stolen down under cover of the deep darkness, unfastened, and started our mules with intent to run them off. This was not an agreeable view of the case, as we could hope neither to recover nor replace our faithful animals for at least a week. However, a little watching of the mule still fast, convinced our conductor that the others had started back on the road we had traversed, which was a route the Cheyennes were most unlikely to take, while so near their hiding-places in the mountains. So two of our men started on the back track, but returned in an hour unsuccessful. Then the remaining mule was saddled and bridled—and he had to be thrown down twice before he would submit to the operation—when our conductor mounted him, expecting to be instantly thrown by the perverse beast, unused to the saddle, but he was happily disappointed, and started down the road on a brisk trot. By this time there was moonlight; and he found all the missing mules a little beyond the point to which he had previously proceeded on foot, and brought them back in triumph. It was now break of day, and we resolved to feed and breakfast for once before starting. We did so, and moved on at six, a. m. reaching “Camp Walbach,” at the mouth of the Cheyenne Pass, in less than half an hour.

Let me halt here a moment to illustrate the military and public land systems of the United States. It last year entered the head of some genius connected with the War department, that the public interest or safety required the establishment of a military post at this point, and one was accordingly planted and maintained there throughout last winter. Of course, buildings were required to shelter the officers, soldiers, and animals in that severe climate, and they were accordingly erected; some of the timber being transported from Laramie —a distance of fully eighty miles. In the main, however, they are built of pine logs from the adjacent mountains, the crevices being plastered with mud. In the spring, the troops were very properly withdrawn, leaving half a dozen good serviceable houses, and a superior horse-shed and corral untenanted. Hereupon, three lazy louts have squatted on the premises, intending to start a city there, and to hold and sell the government structures under a claim of preŽmption! I need hardly say that, in the absence of any United States survey, with the Indian title still unextinguished, this claim is most impudent; but that will not prevent their asserting it, and I fear with success. The private interest on one side will be strong, with none on the other; they can threaten to exert a political influence, favorably or adversely, as the case may be, to those whom they find in power; if they are only tenacious enough, impudent enough, they will probably carry their point. Yet, they might as fairly preŽmpt the White House at Washington, should they ever chance to find it vacant.

We drove on across a badly-gullied region, wherein are the heads of Horse Creek—the first stream on our route that runs to the North Platte—and struck the Chugwater just where it emerged from the mountains, about eleven, a. m. Thence, we followed down this creek more than forty miles, crossing it four times, and finally leaving it on our left to cross the Laramie river, eight or ten miles above this place.

The Chugwater is a rapid, muddy mill-stream, running in a deep, narrow, tortuous channel, and constantly gouging into one bank or the other, except where the willows and some other small shrubs oppose the resistance of their matted roots to the force of the current. The rocky hills sometimes crowd the stream closely, compelling the road to make a circuit over the high prairie adjacent to avoid the impracticable cañons through which the stream frets and foams on its devious way. The “Red Buttes” are numerous and conspicuous on the upper course of this creek—the ochry earth or rock which gives them their peculiar color being accounted a rich iron ore. On the lower bottoms of this stream, we found far better grass than elsewhere on this journey. But the day was hot, and our mules suffered so much from musketoes and flies that they ate fitfully and sparingly where we halted for dinner, and again where we stopped for the night. We were unable to stop where the grass was best, because we could not there get our animals down the steep creek-bank to water.

We made our last camp at a point thirty miles from this post, having made one hundred and sixty miles in three days’ steady travel, hampered by the necessity of findiilng grass and water for our beasts. With grain, I think they would easily have made sixty-five miles per day. We stopped beside a stone-and-mud shanty of very rude construction, where a French-man had this spring made a small damn across the Chugwater, so as to irrigate and fence (by a ditch) a small piece of intervale, on which he had attempted to grow some grains and vegetables, with rather poor promise of success. He was absent, and no person or domestic animal to be seen about his place. The night was uncommonly warm for this region—the musketoes a good deal more attentive than obliging. We rose early again, came on ten miles for breakfast, passing almost continually between two rows of magnificent buttes, often looking in the distance like more or less ruined castles; one of them reminded me strongly of the Roman Coliseum. Two miles after breakfast, we crossed the Chugwater for the last time, and left it running north to the Laramie, while we struck a more easterly course for this place. Two miles further on, we came to a most excellent spring—the first I had seen since I emerged from the Rocky Mounltains, by Clear Creek, two weeks before. I had been poisoned by brook water—often warm and muddy—so long that I could hardly get enough of this. We now passed over twelve or fifteen miles of high, rolling, parched, barren prairie, and halted for dinner by a little brook—the only one that crosses our trail between the Chugwater and Laramie—after which we drove down opposite this place in an hour, but were obliged to go two miles below, and pay $2 50 bridge-toll to get across the Laramie, now very high, and looking decidedly larger at their junction than the North Platte itself.

I have been tediously minute in my record of this cross-march to reach the high road to California, because some kind friends have remonstrated with me against the fancied perils of my journey, as if I were running recklessly into danger. I believe this portion of my route is at least as perilous as any other, being the only part not traversed by a mail-stage or any public conveyance, and lying wholly through a region in which there are not a dozen white settlers, all told, while it is a usual battle-ground between hostile tribes of Indians. But we were never in any shadow of danger; and, though I was compelled to economize steps in order to complete the healing of my lame leg, I have rarely had a more pleasant journey. Let any one who wishes an independent and comfortable ride, just run up to Denver and ask my friend D. B. Wheelock to harness up his four-mule team to the Rockaway wagon and take him over to Laramie, and if he does not enjoy a fine prospect, bracing breezes, a lively pace and excellent company, then he will be less fortunate than I was.

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