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


XXVII.
LARAMIE TO SOUTH PASS.

South Pass, Rocky Mountains, July 5, 1859.

I exhausted all the possibilities of obtaining a lodging in Laramie before applying to the commander of the post; but no one else could (or would) afford me a shelter on any terms; so I made a virtue of necessity, and applied to Captain Clark, who at once assigned me a room—there being few troops there at present—and for the five days I remained there I slept between a floor and a roof, after five weeks’ experience of the more primitive methods of keeping cold and storm at bay. I was treated with more than hospitality—with generous kindness—by Captain Clark, Lieutenants Hascall and Follett, and Dr. Johns—and yet the long tarry became at length irksome, because I had already lost too much time, and was most anxious to be moving westward. Finally, the mail-stage from the East hove in sight on the morning of June 30, but halted just across Laramie River all day, repairing coach; and it was eight, p. m., when it started—I alone perched on the summit of its seventeen mail-bags as passenger— he who had thus far filled that exalted post kindly giving way for me, and agreeing to take instead the slower wagon that was to follow next morning. We forded the swollen Laramie two miles above the fort, in the last vestige of twilight—had the usual trouble with mules turning about in mid-stream, tangling up the team, and threatening to upset the wagon—but overcame it after a while, got safely out, drove on fifteen miles to Warm Spring—a fountain which throws out half water enough for a grist-mill, all which is drank up by the thirsty sands through which it takes its course, before it can reach the Platte, only three or four miles distant. We camped here till daylight, then lost two hours in hunting up our mules, which had been simply tied in pairs, and allowed to go at large in quest of the scanty grass of that region. They were found at last, and we went on our way rejoicing.

I shall not weary my readers with a journal of our travels for the last four days. Hitherto, since I left civilized Kansas, I had traversed routes either newly opened, or scarcely known to the mass of readers; but from Laramie I have followed the regular California and Oregon Overland Trail, already many times described, and by this time familiar to hundreds of thousands. Suffice it that, for over two hundred miles from Laramie, it traverses a region substantially described in my notes of my journey from the buffalo range to Denver, and from Denver to Laramie; a region, for the most part, rainless in summer and autumn, yet on whose soil of more or less sandy clay, lacking support from ridges of underlying rock, has been more seamed, and gouged, and gullied, and washed away, by the action of floods and streams than any other on earth—a region of bluffs and buttes, and deep ravines, and intervales, and shallow alkaline lakelets, now mainly dried up, and streams running milky, even when low, with the clay gullied from their banks, and sent off to render the Missouri a river of mud, and to fertilize the bottoms of the lower Mississippi. Occasionally, but not so frequently as south of Laramie, the clay-hills, hardened into rock by some alchemy of nature, present the perpendicular fronts and ruinous-castle aspects already described—in a few instances, the scanty creeks which make their way from the mountains to the North Platte, or the Sweetwater run through narrow cañons of such rock; but usually each creek has washed out for itself a wide valley, and the bluffs or buttes, where they exist, are distant many miles only one side if not on both. In a few places, the mountains are so near that their thinly-scattered, stunted, scraggy yellow-pines are plainly seen—are even close beside us; but usually the prospect is composed of rolling prairie very scantily grassed and often thickly covered for miles on miles by the everlasting sage-bush of this desolate region. This is not an anomaly, as might be supposed—the stem lives for years, perhaps centuries, though the shoots and leaves die* [* I guess this is a mistake; further observation induces me to believe that the sage-bush is an evergreen.] every autumn. Another shrub, less common, but which often thickly covers hundreds of acres, is the grease-wood—a low, prickly bush, growing in bunches, like the sage-bush, and looking like a bad imitation of the English privet. Besides these two miserable shrubs, the dry land, other than the mountains, for hundreds of miles, produces a very little burnt-up grass in patches, and a good many ill-favored weeds of no known or presumed value. Of wood, the Platte and its more easterly tributaries have, at intervals, a shred of the eternal cotton-wood of the plains, much of it the more scrubby and worthless species known as bitter cotton-wood, with a very little of the equally worthless box-elder—and that is all. But, one hundred and forty miles this side of Laramie, we leave the Platte, which here comes from the south, and strike nearly forty miles across a barren “divide” to its tributary, the Sweetwater, which we find just by Independence Rock, quite a landmark in this desolate region, with several low mountains of almost naked rock around it, having barely soil enough in their crevices to support a few dwarfish pilles. Five miles above this is the Devil’s Gate—a passage of the Sweetwater, through a perpendicular cañon, some twenty-five feet wide, and said to be six hundred feet high—a passage which must have been cut while the rock was still clay. Here a large party of Mormons were caught by the snows, while on their way to Salt Lake, some years since, and compelled to encamp for the winter, so scantily provided that more than a hundred of them died of hunger and hardship before spring. Many more must have fallen victims had not a supply-train from Salt Lake reached them early in the season. And here is a fountain of cold water—the first that I had seen for more than a hundred miles, though there is another on the long stretch from the Platte to the Sweetwater, which is said to be good, but a drove of cattle were making quite too free with it when we passed. Here the weary crowds of emigrants to California were to gather yesterday for a celebration of the “glorious fourth,” and I was warmly invited to stop and participate, and I now heartily wish I had, since I find that all our haste was in vain.

It was midnight of the 3d, when we reached the mail route station known as the Three-Crossings, from the fact that so many fordings of the Sweetwater (here considerably larger than at its mouth, forty miles or more below) have to be made within the next mile. We had been delayed two hours by the breaking away of our two lead-mules, in crossing a deep water-course after dark—or rather by the fruitless efforts of our conductor to recover them. I had been made sick by the bad water I had drank from the brooks we crossed during the hot day, and rose in a not very patriotic, certainly not a joyful mood, unable to eat, but ready to move on. We started a little after sunrise; and, at the very first crossing, one of our lead-mules turned about and ran into his mate, whom he threw down and tangled so that he could not get up; and in a minute another mule was down, and the two in imminent danger of drowning. They were soon liberated from the harness, and got up, and we went out; but just then an emigrant on the bank espied a carpet-bag in the watermine, of course—and fished it out. An examination was then had, and showed that my trunk was missing—the boot of the stage having been opened the night before, on our arrival at the station, and culpably left unfastened. We made a hasty search for the estray, but without success, and, after an hour’s delay, our conductor drove off; leaving my trunk still in the bottom of Sweetwater, which is said to be ten feet deep just below our ford. I would rather have sunk a thousand dollars there. Efforts were directed to be made to fish it out; but my hope of ever seeing it again is a faint one. We forded Sweetwater six times yesterday after that, without a single mishap; but I have hardly yet become reconciled to the loss of my trunk, and, on the whole, my fourth of July was not a happy one.

Our road left a southerly bend of Sweetwater after dinner, and took its way over the hills, so as not to strike the stream again till after dark, at a point three miles from where I now write. We passed, on a high divide some miles before we were crossing of the Sweetwater, a low swamp or meadow known as “Ice Springs,” from the fact that ice may be obtained here at any time by digging down some two or three feet into the frosty earth. We met several wagon-loads of come-outers from Mormonism on their way to the states in the course of the afternoon; likewise, the children of the Arkansas people killed two years since, in what is known as the mountain-meadows-massacre. We are now nearly at the summit of the route, with snowy mountains near us in several directions, and one large snow-bank by the side of a creek we crossed ten miles back. Yet our yesterday’s road was no rougher, while it was decidedly better, than that of any former day this side of Laramie, as may be judged from the fact that, with a late start, we made sixty miles with one (six mule) team to our heavy-laden wagon. The grass is better for the last twenty miles than on any twenty miles previously; and the swift streams that frequently cross our way are cold and sweet. But, unlike the Platte, the Sweetwater has scarcely a tree or bush growing on its banks; but up the little stream on which I am writing, on a box in the mail company’s station-tent, there is glorious water, some grass, and more wood than I have seen so close together since I emerged from the gold diggings on Vasquer’s Fork, five hundred miles away. A snow-bank, forty rods long and several feet deep, lies just across the brook; the wind blows cold at night; and we had a rain-squall—just rain enough to lay the dust—yesterday afternoon. The mail-agent whom we met here has orders not to run into Salt Lake ahead of time; so he keeps us over here to-day, and will then take six days to reach Salt Lake, which we might reach in four. I am but a passenger, and must study patience.

A word on the Salt Lake mail. Of the seventeen bags on which I have ridden for the last four days and better, at least sixteen are filled with large bound books, mainly Patent Office Reports, I judge—but all of them undoubtedly works ordered printed at the public cost—your cost, reader!—by Congress, and now on their way to certain favored Mormons, franked (by proxy) “Pub. Doc. Free, J. M. Bernhisel, M. C.” I do not blame Mr. B. for clutching his share of this public plunder, and distributing it so as to increase his own popularity and importance; but I do protest against this business of printing books by wholesale at the cost of the whole people for free distribution to a part only. It is every way wrong and pernicious. Of the one hundred and ninety thousand dollars per annum paid for carrying the Salt Lake mail, nine-tenths is absorbed in the cost of carrying these franked documents to people who contribute little or nothing to the support of the government in any way. Is this fair? Each Patent Office Report will have cost the treasury four or five dollars by the time it reaches its destination, and will not be valued by the receiver at twenty-five cents. Why should this business go on? Why not “reform it altogether?” Let Congress print whatever documents are needed for its own information, and leave the people to choose and buy for themselves. I have spent four days and five nights in close contact with the sharp edges of Mr Bernhisel’s “Pub. Doc.”—have done my very utmost to make them present a smooth, or at least endurable surface; and I am sure there is no slumber to be extracted therefrom unless by reading them—a desperate resort, which no rational person would recommend. For all practical purposes, they might as well—now that the printer has been paid for them—be where I heartily wish they were—in the bottom of the sea.


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