MY LAST TRIP ON THE OVERLAND STAGE.
the fearful Indian raids, resulting in the wanton
destruction of life and property along the overland route
between the Missouri river and Denver, in the summer of
1864, stopping all traffic for six weeks, the stage line was
reopened and put in running order late the following
September; but, three months afterward, there was a fresh
Indian outbreak. Somewhere about the 20th of January, 1865,
the Cheyennes and Sioux made a raid along the Platte and
took possession of the route for a distance of several
hundred miles. They played the mischief with everything in
general, and Ben. Holladay's stage property in particular.
In their march through the valley they burnt a large number
of stations, ran off several head of horses, and stole and
burnt an immense amount of hay, grain, etc., belonging to
the great stage man. They also committed a number of
horrible deeds, besides inflicting great financial loss on a
large number of parties engaged in freighting on the
been paid to this day. I was not urged to take the hazard of personally accompanying this mail, but I knew that some one ought to do so. A sense of duty compelled me to undertake the task. Accordingly I made all preparations, and on the morning agreed upon, armed with a brace of revolvers and my breech-loading rifle, I left on one of the old Concord stages, in charge of the three weeks' accumulation of important mail.
From Atchison to Fort Kearney all was smooth traveling. The overland road was never better for wheeling and good time was made. There was little Indian excitement on this division, but at the fort, around both the military headquarters and stage office, the wildest rumors were afloat of Indian barbarities that had been committed at different places along the stage line west. Excitement at the fort ran high. There was no telling what might happen on the route west at almost any hour. In view of the many wild reports coming in, the "Overland" officials decided it would not be prudent to risk a stage west that night, and, on orders from the division agent in charge of the 200-mile stretch along the Platte between Fort Kearney and old Julesburg, the coach was held until early the following morning. The reason of the detention was that the most of the run through to Cottonwood Springs--about 100 miles--could be made in daylight, and also that, by the delay, it was hoped some additional information might be obtained respecting the movements of the savages.
For fourteen hours we tarried at the fort, much of the time discussing the rumors of Indian raids. Getting an early start before daylight the next morning, which was the 10th of February, 1865, with the stage stock in splendid condition, we started off at a lively gait up the Platte. Cottonwood Springs was reached a little after nine o'clock at night, after a ride of about sixteen hours. Much of the road during the day was in poor condition; still we made over six miles an hour, including all stops. For seventy-five miles of this distance, the road, which formerly was fairly swarming with white-covered prairie-schooners as far as the eye could reach, now seemed to be as barren as a desert. Not a moving vehicle except the stage was to be see, for nearly the entire distance. All the ranches were deserted, the owners with their families having hurriedly fled for their lives. Compared with former trips along this part of the Platte, the journey was a very disagreeable and lonesome one.
The most conspicuous reminders of the horrible atrocities committed by the redskins were the graves, still fresh, of people who a few months before had been butchered along the route, and afterwards scalped by the prowling savages, and their bones left to bleach by the wayside.
We found at Cottonwood Springs the excitement still high, and wild rumors of atrocities by the redskins coming in from all directions. There was no telling how long we would be obliged to remain there, as the Indians, at intervals, it was well known, had been holding possession of portions of the line for more than 150 miles westward. No stage or freighting outfits had gone over the route for weeks. It was also known that, when the stage coaches commenced to move west, each would have to be hauled by a single team of four or six horses for a distance of at least 200 miles, without a change of stock; also, that it was necessary to haul, at the same time, every pound of the hay and grain the animals would consume; hence, even with the best stage stock in the world, with several tons of supplies to be left along the route, from thirty-five to sixty miles a day was all that could be made, under the most favorable circumstances.
During the evening of the next day after we reached Cottonwood Springs, the following dispatch from the commanding officer at Fort Leavenworth passed over the wire:
"HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF THE MISSOURI,
"FORT LEAVENWORTH, February 11, 1865.
"Brigadier General Mitchell, Omaha: I have just informed the Overland Mail Company that I am prepared to protect their mail through this department. See that the proper protection is given it from Fort Kearney west to insure its safety. G. M. DODGE, Major General."
The receipt of this news was extremely gratifying to the officials as well as the employees of the stage line. Owners of wagon-trains all along the Platte were also happy. Active preparations were at once begun by the stage men to restock the line from Fort Kearney up the Platte to Bijou creek, a distance of about 300 miles.
For six long, weary days we remained in suspense at Cottonwood Springs. Most of the passengers and a number of the employees whiled away their time telling stories and playing poker. We left there on the morning of the 16th with three Concord coaches and a vast amount of mail matter for Colorado, Utah, and
STAGES LEAVING COTTONWOOD SPRINGS STATION WITH DELAYED MAIL AND PASSENGERS. Page 375
Montana, in addition to the letter mail for the Pacific coast. One coach had been loaded with over a ton of mail and was drawn by six horses, Bill Trotter, the veteran driver, and myself being the only persons on the vehicle, and we sitting on the box.
We had to carry along our provisions from Cottonwood and our cooking and camping utensils. The manager of the commissary part of the outfit thought we had a sufficient supply at the start to last us through to Denver. Everything arranged for moving off, the entire outfit was in charge of the division agent. it was a lovely morning--a clear sky, with the sun shining beautifully. No one ever saw a more jolly, good-natured lot of fellows than those composing this party. As they journeyed westward they talked, laughed, sang songs, and told stories "whistling through the graveyard," all day long; at the same time each was careful to keep sharp lookout for skulking Indians, though none of us was particularly anxious to meet any.
After reaching Cold Springs, the first station, fifteen miles west, another stage, which had preceded us several days, joined the train; then the four coaches traveled together all day. That night we all slept in our blankets and buffalo robes on the ground floor at Fremont Springs, the next station; nothing of particular interest to any of us, however, having transpired during the day.
At four o'clock that afternoon (the 17th), we rounded up at Alkali Lake, where we overtook another coach, which also had preceded us, and had been there several days; and here we stayed all night, as usual sleeping in our robes and blankets on the floor. Leaving Alkali on the morning of the 18th, the five coaches now in the train traveled westward together. It was 250 miles yet to Denver, but all going together helped to insure a more pleasant trip, and one safer from molestation by Indians. This portion of the Platte Valley was considered one of the most dangerous sections of the overland line. There were several passengers on the five stage-coaches, some of whom had been waiting to get away for several weeks, and about a dozen of the most fearless and experienced employees of the stage company, mounted, and armed to the teeth, went along as an escort.
Between Fremont Springs and Alkali not a living soul was seen on the road, except at O'Fallon's Bluffs, where a small detachment of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry was stationed. This was one of the most uninviting places on the route. The five coaches
and the overland horsemen made quite a long train as they left Alkali, after breakfast on the morning of the 18th. Slowly we journeyed up the South Platte all day, the only sign of civilization being another detachment of. the same regiment of cavalry, whose headquarters for the time being were at Beauvais ranch otherwise known as "Ash Hollow," or "Lower California Crossing." That night we camped at South Platte station, 442 miles west of Atchison and 211 miles east of Denver.
The site of historic old Julesburg was reached at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, the 19th. The weather, which had been lovely for a week or more, had suddenly changed that morning into a cold, stormy, disagreeable day. We had had a tedious ride of several hours, facing a northwest blizzard. The appearance of the locality was greatly changed. There was nothing remaining of the old town founded in 1859 by the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Stage Company. Everything about the premises, including the station, stables, blacksmith shop, and hay and grain depot, had been destroyed by the Indians. The store of Thompson & Chrisman, which stood near by, was not spared by the savages. The entire premises were, only a few days before, burnt, and the busy site of early years now presented a scene of extreme desolation.
Here a consultation was had by the stage party, when it was observed that our supply of food was rapidly diminishing. We all had prodigious appetites, and there was still about 200 miles to cover before reaching Denver. No one could tell how long it would take us to make the trip. It was plain that, on the balance of the journey, with the limited supply of food laid in at Cottonwood Springs, we must come to short rations or all our food would be consumed long before reaching our destination.
We were in a region inhabited by hostile Indians, and it would never do to run short on the substantials of life. We might at any hour be surrounded by savages and held for several days or weeks. It was necessary to lay in an additional supply of eatables to last us through to Denver, and thus be prepared for emergencies. There was no place, however, to get anything on the road, nearly all the ranches having been either destroyed by the savages or deserted by the occupants. There was one alternative.
During the troubles in the fall of 1864, Fort Sedgwick was built a few miles west, but in plain sight of old Julesburg. That was
A TRAIN OF CONCORD STAGES LEAVING ALKALI LAKE STATION. Page 375.
a glorious thing for us on that trip, as it became a "military necessity'" for the division agent, Mr. Reub. S. Thomas, and for me, in the employ of the Government and in charge of more than a ton of Colorado mail matter, to make a requisition for sufficient supplies from the commissary department at this post to enable us to finish the trip. On account of its being used to facilitate the transportation of the United States mail, we had no difficulty in procuring from the officer in command at the military post 100 pounds of hardtack, a few sides of bacon, and some other needed rations. After resting a few minutes, the train of stages, with its mounted escort, departed westward. The storm was raging furiously, and we found it a severe task to sit for several hours on the box of the stage-coach facing a genuine blizzard. While our progress was necessarily slow and very tedious, still we kept moving westward. Late that afternoon the entire outfit camped--went into the corral--a short distance south of the Platte, inside the deserted adobe walls of Buffalo Springs ranch.
The terrible storm that for several hours had been raging had now subsided. Before sunset the wind went down and the sky was clear. All were hungry as a pack of wolves, not having eaten a mouthful since partaking of an early breakfast. The buildings along the route having all been burnt by the savages, we made a fire, and cooked and ate our supper out-of-doors, although the mercury had dropped several degrees below the freezing-point. Our eatables consisted of slapjacks, army hardtack, coffee, and a plenteous supply of fried bacon. The fat fried out of the bacon supplied the place of butter. Nothing in the eating line was ever relished more by a crowd of hungry stage boys. Our coffee did not go down so well. It was made from water dipped out of a slough a few rods away and was strongly impregnated with alkali.
When the "chief cook" announced supper ready, there was very little formality gone through with, as the hungry boys all sat on the ground ready to partake of this feast "good enough for a king." The first thing heard was from the pioneer driver, Bill Trotter, who remarked: "Pour me out a mule's ear full of coffee, for I'm as thirsty as an old toper." Another remarked: "Sam, hand me a slice of 'sowbelly' as long as your arm." "Bob, flip one of them 'sockdologer' slapjacks down this way." "Jake, waltz some of that petrified army hardtack over here." One
driver, who did n't get ready as soon as the others, broke in with; 'Boys, save me a few crumbs, for I'm hungry enough to eat a jackass and chase the driver." All these, and many other equally odd and ludicrous expressions, were heard.
No one cared to sit up long after such a hard day's journey and after facing such a severe storm the last few hours. Having partaken of the hearty supper, and, notwithstanding it was freezing cold inside the four-foot walls of the open corral, all except a couple of the boys who had been detailed to stand guard lay down, with clothing and boots on, and slept on the snow, rolled up in blankets and a buffalo robe, with the broad, blue canopy of the sky for a counterpane. I can answer for myself, and say that I never slept better.
We left camp after breakfast on the 20th. It was a cool morning, but the sun shone brightly all day. While moving along at a slow gait, we pulled up, about ten o'clock in the forenoon, at Kelly's station, which was once known as "American Ranch" (p. 223), about 150 miles from Denver, which is fifteen miles from the eastern base of the mountains. At Kelly's a lively engagement had occurred a few days before, between the men at the station and a band of hostile Indians. During the fight the redskins, with overpowering numbers, had burnt the station, with all the property, leaving the adobe walls alone standing; but the result of the fight was two Indians, riddled with bullets, were left dead on the premises.
On our arrival at the station, one of the dead Indians, with only one leg and one arm, was standing up against the south-wall of the burnt building, while the other, with arms cut off at the elbows, stood against the paling surrounding a grave only three or four rods distant. Both Indians were practically in a nude condition, nearly every article of clothing having been stripped from them. They were frozen stiff, and their bodies had been horribly mutilated. Both had been scalped, apparently in genuine aboriginal style, but whether by white men, or an enemy belonging to the scalp-lifting fraternity, can only be surmised. Slices of flesh from different parts of their bodies had also been cut off and carried away as souvenirs. Each had an eye gouged out and an ear cut off, several fingers had somehow disappeared, and one was minus his nose. (A driver suggested he had evidently been poking his nose into other people's business.) The
entrails of one were visible, representing the first prominent picture in most of the almanacs.
On this long and tedious journey we had been keeping a sharp watch for Indians for several hundred miles; still these were the first and only ones we had seen on the trip. We stopped a few minutes and surveyed the surroundings. The passengers, after making a thorough inspection, were unanimous in their belief that they were "good Indians." All hoped that, if any more, of the "noble red men" were encountered on the trip, we would find them as quiet and peaceable as were these.
The only military post between Fort Sedgwick and Denver was Camp Wardwell, located about equidistant, near the mouth of Bijou creek, at what was known on the upper South Platte in staging and freighting days as "the Junction." The place was about 100 miles east of Denver, by the road along the South Platte, and was in plain view of the Rockies for at least 100 miles along the continental divide. Here there was a cut-off on which was a toll-road--built in the early "60's--which left the main traveled river road and passed several miles south, along which the telegraph line from old Julesburg to Denver was constructed, in the fall of 1863, thus saving, it was claimed, from ten to fifteen miles over the old river road.
During the Indian troubles Wardwell became quite an important camp, a military officer being stationed here, who performed the duties of provost marshal as similar duties had been and still were being performed at Fort Kearney. The principal duties of the authorities were to keep people from proceeding without a minimum strength of thirty armed men, for safety against the redskins. There was a telegraph office at the Junction, which appeared to be indispensable, especially since the Indians had possession of several hundred miles of road along the Platte.
From Buffalo Springs to Denver, the journey was more severe than it had been on any previous stretch since we started out on the 16th from Cottonwood Springs. Every hour we moved forward on the road we were getting closer to the Rockies--steadily gaining a higher altitude. Snow to a considerable depth had fallen, the ground being covered from one to two feet all along the South Platte to the continental divide, a distance of fully 150 miles. This alone was enough to make our progress slow.
The most of the way from here in, our fare consisted of fried
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