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Home -> Chalkley J. Hambleton -> A Gold Hunter's Experience -> 1

A Gold Hunter's Experience - 1

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Early in the summer of 1860 I had a bad attack of gold fever. In Chicago
the conditions for such a malady were all favorable. Since the panic of
1857 there had been three years of general depression, money was scarce,
there was little activity in business, the outlook was discouraging, and
I, like hundreds of others, felt blue.

Gold had been discovered in the fall of 1858 in the vicinity of Pike's
Peak, by a party of Georgian prospectors, and for several years
afterward the whole gold region for seventy miles to the north was
called "Pike's Peak." Others in the East heard of the gold discoveries
and went West the next spring; so that during the summer of 1859 a
great deal of prospecting was done in the mountains as far north as
Denver and Boulder Creek.

Those who returned in the autumn of that year, having perhaps claims and
mines to sell, told large stories of their rich finds, which grew larger
as they were repeated, amplified and circulated by those who dealt in
mining outfits and mills. Then these accounts were fed out to the public
daily in an appetizing way by the newspapers. The result was that by the
next spring the epidemic became as prevalent in Chicago as cholera was a
few years later.

Four of the fever stricken ones, Enos Ayres, T. R. Stubbs, John Sollitt
and myself, formed a partnership, raised about $9,000 and went to work
to purchase the necessary outfit for gold mining. Mr. Ayres furnished a
larger share of the capital than any of the others and was not to go
with the expedition, but might join us the following year. Mr. Stubbs
and I were both to go, while Mr. Sollitt was to be represented by a
substitute, a relative whose name was also John Sollitt, and who had
been a farmer and butcher and was supposed to know all about oxen. Mr.
Stubbs was a good mechanic, an intelligent, well-read man, and ten years
before had been to California in search of gold.

Our outfit consisted of a 12-stamp quartz mill with engine and boiler,
and all the equipments understood to be necessary for extracting gold
from the rock, including mining tools, powder, quicksilver, copper plate
and chemicals; also a supply of provisions for a year. The staple
articles of the latter were flour, beans, salt pork, coffee and sugar.
Then we had rice, cornmeal, dried fruit, tea, bacon and a barrel of
syrup; besides a good supply of hardtack, crackers and cheese for use
while crossing the plains, when a fire for cooking might not be found
practicable. These things were all purchased in Chicago, together with
the fourteen wagons necessary to carry them across the plains. Then all
were shipped by rail to St. Joseph, Mo., where the oxen were to be
purchased. The entire outfit when loaded on the cars, weighed
twenty-four tons.

I stayed in Chicago till the last to help purchase and forward the
outfit and supplies, while Stubbs and Sollitt (the substitute) went to
St. Joe to receive and load them on the wagons and to purchase the oxen.

On the 1st day of August, all was ready, and we ferried our loaded
wagons and teams across the Missouri River into Kansas to make a final
start next morning into regions to us unknown. Stubbs started the same
day by stage for the mountains, to prospect and look out for a
favorable location and then to meet the train when it arrived at Denver.
Sollitt was to be trainmaster, which involved the oversight and
direction of the teams and drivers, and the duty of frequently going
ahead to pick out the best road and select a favorable place to camp at
night, where water and grass could be had. I was the general business
man of the expedition, had full power of attorney from Mr. Ayres to
represent and manage his interest, and hence I had the control and
responsibility in my hands and practically decided all important
questions relating to the business.

The fourteen ox-drivers were all volunteers, who drove without
pay--except their board--for the sake of getting to the gold regions to
make their fortunes there. Most of them were from Chicago--three married
men who left families behind, and one a young dentist. Another was the
son of a prominent public woman who was a rigid Presbyterian, and when I
left Chicago his father gave me a satchel full of religious books to
give to him in St. Joe to read on the plains. He deliberately pitched
them into a loft, where they were left. Another was a young Illinois
farmer, named Tobias, a splendid fellow. Among those we secured in St.
Joe were one German and two Missourians.

The principal article in the outfit of each individual, aside from his
ornaments in the shape of knives and pistols, was a pair of heavy
blankets. One of the Missourians first appeared without any, but next
morning he had a quilted calico bed cover, stuffed with cotton, borrowed
probably from a friendly clothesline, and which, at the end of the
journey, presented a very dilapidated appearance.

Early in the morning of August 2d all were busy yoking oxen and
hitching them to the wagons, but as most of the drivers were green at
the business and did not know "haw" from "gee," and a number of the oxen
were young and not well broken, it was several hours before our train
was in motion and finally headed for "Pike's Peak." The train consisted
of fourteen wagons, a driver for each, forty yoke of oxen, one yoke of
cows and one pony with a Mexican saddle and a rawhide lariat thirty feet
long, with an iron pin at the end to stick in the ground to secure the

For the first two or three miles, while crossing the level valley, all
went well, but when we reached the bluffs and ravines that bounded the
river valley on the west, the green oxen began to balk and back and
refused to pull their loads up the hills, and the new drivers were
nonplused and helpless. The better teams went ahead and were soon out
of sight, while the poorer ones had to double up, taking one wagon up a
hill and then going back for another, and consequently made slow
progress. Instead of riding or walking along like a "boss" at ease, I
soon found myself fully occupied in whipping up the poorly broken oxen
on the off side, while the green drivers whipped and yelled at those on
their side of the team. It was surprising how soon the nice city boys
picked up the strong language in use by teamsters on the Western plains.
The teams got separated, and the train stretched out two or three miles
long. Then Sollitt rode ahead, picked out a camping place, and directed
the drivers to halt and unyoke as they reached it; but when it became
dark three or four teams were still from a quarter of a mile to a mile
behind, and in trouble, so they unhitched the oxen and let them run in
their yokes for the night. Our lunch and our supper that day consisted
of crackers and cheese, as we had no time to cook.

About dark a shower came up, and it drizzled a good part of the
night--the last rain we met with for many weeks. We rolled ourselves up
in our blankets on the ground, under the wagons or in a small tent we
had, for sleep. At daylight next morning we all started in different
directions through the wet bushes that filled the ravines to find the
scattered oxen, and before noon they were all collected at camp. We had
hot coffee and some cooked things for breakfast. But several accidents
had occurred. The cows had fallen into a gully with their yoke on and
broken their necks, one load of heavy machinery had run down hill and
upset, one axle, two wagon tongues, one yoke and some chains were
broken. Sollitt, with two or three of the drivers who were mechanics,
went to work to repair damages. As we seemed short of oxen, I rode back
to St. Joe and bought two yoke more, spending the last of our money
except about fifty dollars.

By next morning we were ready for a new start. Experience had already
taught us something, and we adopted more system and some rules. All the
teams were to keep near together, so as not to leave the weaker ones
behind in the lurch. Our cattle were to be strictly watched all night by
two men on guard at a time--not together, but on opposite sides of the
herd. Two would watch half the night and then be relieved by two others
who stood guard till morning. We all took our turns except the cook, who
was relieved from that duty and from yoking and hitching up his own
team, as cooking for sixteen men while in camp was no sinecure. The man
chosen for cook was one of the drivers from Chicago named Taylor, who
had cooked for campers and for parties at work in the woods. He was
really a good plain cook. His utensils consisted of some large boiling
pots and kettles, a tin bake oven, two or three frying pans, a
two-gallon coffeepot and a few other usual articles.

Each person had a tin plate, a pint tin cup with a handle, and an iron
knife, fork and spoon. The food was placed in the dishes and cups on the
ground, and while eating we stood up, sat on the ground or reclined in
the fashion of the ancient Romans, according to our individual tastes.
The article of first importance at a meal was strong coffee and plenty
of it. Next came boiled beans with pork, whenever there was time to cook
them; and that could generally be done during the night. Then we had
some kind of bread, cake or crackers, and sometimes stewed dried fruit.

About the third day out our open air prairie appetites came, and it
seemed as if we could eat and digest anything. I had been a little out
of health for some time, was somewhat dyspeptic, and had not tasted pork
for years. Soon I could devour it in a manner that would have shocked my
vegetarian friends; and for the next two years I was conscious of a
stomach only when hungry.

The third day the teams went a little better, but we had to double up
sometimes to pull the wagons up the hills and out of the deep gullies we
had frequently to cross, so we only made seven or eight miles. In a few
days we got out on the level prairie and went along faster. But every
morning for a week, one or more of our cattle would be lost from the
herd. They would sneak away during the night and hide in the bushes and
ravines, or start back toward home. As I had no special duties in camp,
or in yoking up in the morning, hunting them fell to my lot. If not
found in the first search before starting time, I would ride back on the
pony for miles, scour the country and hunt through the gullies and
bushes for hours till the lost animal was found; then drive him along
until the train was overtaken. That could easily be followed by the
tracks of the wheels on the prairie. Hiawatha, Kansas, and a few
scattered cabins some miles to the west of it were about the last signs
of settlement and civilization that we saw.

That season was a very dry one in Kansas and on the Western plains. The
prairies were parched and looked like a desert, except a fringe of green
along the water courses. The heat was intense and the distant hills and
everything visible seemed quivering from its effects. The dry ground and
sand reflected the sun's rays into our faces, till a few with weak eyes
were seriously affected. The iron about the wagons, and the chains were
blistering to the touch. The southwest wind was like a blast from a
heated furnace. It was worse than stillness, and I frequently took
shelter behind a wagon to escape its effects.

This heat was very trying and debilitating to the oxen. They would pant,
loll their tongues out of their mouths, refuse to pull, and lie down in
their yokes. Sometimes we were compelled to keep quiet all day, and
drive in the early evening and morning, and during the night when we
could find the way. The most important thing was to find water near
which to camp. Wolves began to surround our camp and the herd of oxen at
night, and break the silence by their piercing howls. After we had gone
to sleep, they would sneak into camp to pick up scraps left from supper,
then come within a few feet of some one rolled up in his blanket and
startle him with a howl. But with all their noise these prairie wolves
were great cowards, and would run from any movement of a man.

Soon after starting out one evening for a night drive, after a very hot
day, one of the weak oxen lay down and refused to go. That the train
might not be delayed, they tied his mate to a wagon, and I concluded to
stay behind with him till morning to see if he would recover. Soon after
dark the wolves seeming to divine his condition and the good meal in
store for them, collected around us a short distance off, and seated on
their haunches, with howls of impatience waited for the feast. They were
plainly visible by their glaring, fire-like eyes. I varied the monotony
of the long night by walking around, sitting down, lying upon the
ground, and occasionally falling asleep beside the sick ox. Then the
wolves emboldened by the stillness, would sneak up close to us and break
out in piercing howls, but they would instantly vanish when I got up
and threw something at them.

Daylight came at last; the ox had grown worse instead of better, and I
left him to his fate and the wolves, and followed the wagon tracks till
I overtook the train in camp, early in the day, with an appetite for a
quart of strong coffee and something to eat.

In this hot weather the oxen with their heavy loads did not make more
than a mile an hour when on the march, so with the numerous delays it
was nearly two weeks before we reached Marysville on the Big Blue River.
This was a small settlement on the verge of civilization, with a few
ranches, saloons and stores, situated on that branch of the old Oregon
trail which started northward from Westport, Mo., and passed near Fort
Leavenworth, Kan. The inhabitants had the reputation of being mostly
outlaws, blacklegs and stock thieves. Their reputation inspired us with
such respect for them that we kept extra watch over our cattle and
possessions while in the vicinity.

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