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Home -> Chalkley J. Hambleton -> A Gold Hunter's Experience -> 3

A Gold Hunter's Experience - 3

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While in their midst we not only had fresh meat at every meal, but we
cut the flesh in strips and tied it to the wagons to dry and thus
provided a small supply of "jerked" meat. In the dry, pure air of this
region, though in the heat of August, fresh meat did not spoil but
simply dried up, if cut in moderate sized pieces. This was also found to
be the case with fresh beef in the mountains. We felt relieved and
heartily glad when the last drove of buffalo was left behind.
Familiarity with them, as with the Indians, destroyed all the poetry and
romance about them. They were not a thing of beauty. An old buffalo bull
with broken horns and numerous scars from a hundred fights, with woolly
head and shaggy mane, his last year's coat half shed and half hanging
from his sides in ragged patches and strips flying in the breeze, the
whole covered over with dirt and patches of dried mud, presented a
picture that was supremely ugly.

On the journey from St. Joe to Kearney we found, along the water courses
and ravines, enough of dry wood and dead trees to supply us plentifully
with fuel for cooking and occasionally to light up the camp in the
evening. To make sure of never being entirely out of wood, a small
supply was carried along on the wagons. Along the Platte there was
practically no wood to be had. For one hundred and fifty miles we did
not see a single tree, but the buffalo supplied us with a good fuel
called "buffalo chips," which was scattered over the plains in
abundance, and which in this dry country, burned freely and made a very
hot fire. When approaching camp in the evening, the drivers would pick
up armsfull of fuel for the use of the cook and for the evening camp
fire, and place it in a pile as they came to a halt.

As soon as we reached camp and while others were taking care of the
oxen, the cook built a fire, drove two forked sticks into the ground,
one on each side of the fire, placed a cross stick on them, and then
hung his pots and kettle over the blaze. A big pot of beans with pork
was boiled or warmed over. Coffee was prepared, and dough made of flour
and baking powder was baked either in the tin oven or a Dutch oven.
Frequently some of the men were seated on the ground around the fire,
stick in hand with a piece of pork on the end of it, held near the coals
to toast. While eating and during the early evening, talking, story
telling and ironical remarks about the prolonged picnic--as the trip was
called--were indulged in.

We were now on the main route of travel between the East and the Pike's
Peak gold fields. Horse and mule teams going West, and traveling faster
than our ox train could go, passed us frequently, and gave us the latest
general news from the States. We also began to meet the vanguard of the
returning army of disappointed gold seekers. They came on foot, on
horse back and in wagons drawn by horses, mules and oxen, and many of
them were a sorry, ragged looking lot. Judging from their requests from
us, their most pressing wants were tobacco and whisky. In those days
Western towns were full of enthusiastic, sanguine, roving men who were
ever ready for any new enterprise, and they were the first to rush to
the gold regions in the spring. But lacking pluck, perseverance and the
staying qualities, they were the first to rush back when the
difficulties and discouragements of the undertaking appeared in their

These returners told sad stories about life in the mountains, the
prospects and the danger from Indians on the road. They said that there
was but little gold to be found, that very few of the miners were making
expenses, that food was scarce, and that before we reached our
destination, nearly everybody there would be leaving for home. Besides,
they said, there were hundreds of Indians along the route, robbing and
murdering the whites. Such stories had a discouraging effect on some of
our drivers and I was very fearful that a few of them would leave us and
join the homeward procession.

Some of these chaps showed a humorous vein in the mottoes painted on the
sides of their wagons. On one was "Pike's Peak or bust," evidently
written on going out; under it was written, "Busted." On another was,
"Ho for Pike's Peak;" under it was, "Ho for Sweet Home."

Each exaggerated account of the Indians made by these people, brought us
nearer and nearer to them and made them seem more and more dangerous.
Finally one morning as we reached the top of a gentle swell in the
plain, a large band of them suddenly appeared in full view, camped at
the side of our road about half a mile ahead of us. From all
appearances there were five or six hundred or more of them. They
belonged to the western branch of the Sioux tribe. We stopped a few
minutes to consider the situation. We had heard and read enough about
Western Indians to know that the safest thing to do was to appear bold
and strong, while a show of weakness and timidity was often dangerous.
So we placed in our belts all our ornaments in the shape of pistols and
ugly looking knives, and those who had rifles carried them. Then we
drove boldly forward toward the camp. I rode the pony beside the driver
of the foremost wagon with my old shot gun in hand. Soon two or three of
their mounted warriors or hunters rode at full speed toward us and then
without stopping circled off on the plain and back to their camp. They
were evidently making observations.

Off to the north several hundred shaggy ponies were grazing in a green
meadow near the river, and the greater part of their men seemed to be
there with them. The camp was made up of some forty lodges, which looked
like so many cones grouped on the plain.

These lodges were formed of poles, some fifteen feet long, the larger
ends of which rested on the ground in a circle, while the smaller ends
were fastened in a bunch at the top, with a covering of dressed buffalo
skins stitched together. On one side was a low opening, which served for
a door.

As we approached we were first greeted by a lot of dirty, hungry looking
dogs, which barked at us, snarled and showed their teeth. Then there was
a flock of shy, naked, staring children who at first kept at a safe
distance, but came nearer as their timidity left them. The boys with
their little bows and arrows were shooting at targets--taking their
first lessons as future warriors of the tribe.

When we got near the edge of the camp several of the old men came
forward to greet us with extended hands, saying "how! how! how!" and we
had to have a handshake all around. Some of them knew a few words of
English. They asked for whisky, powder and tobacco. Instead, we gave
some of them a little cold "grub." They looked over all the wagons and
their contents, so far as they could, and were particularly interested
in the locomotive boiler which was placed on the running gear of a wagon
without the box, and with the help of a little rude imagination,
somewhat resembled a huge cannon. I told them it was a "big shoot," and
that seemed to inspire them with great respect for it. They looked under
it and over it and into it with much interest.

The greater part of the squaws were seated on the ground at the
openings of their lodges, busily at work. Some were dressing skins by
scraping and rubbing them, some making moccasins and leggings for their
lazy lords, some stringing beads and others preparing food. The oldest
ones, thin, haggard and bronzed, looked like witches. The young squaws,
in their teens, round and plump, their faces bedaubed with red paint
toned down with dirt, squatted on the ground and grinned with delight
when gazed at by our crew of young men. We all traded something for
moccasins and for the rest of the trip wore them instead of shoes.

Curious to see inside of the lodges, I took a cup of sugar and went into
two or three under pretence of trading it for moccasins. Their
belongings were lying around in piles, and the stench from the partly
prepared skins and food was intolerable.

One old Indian seemed to think that I was hunting a wife, for he
offered to trade me one of his young squaws for the pony. A pony was the
usual price of a wife with these Western Indians. They exhibited no
hostility whatever toward us. It might have been otherwise, had we been
a weak party of two or three possessing something that they coveted.

They asked us if we saw any buffalo. When we told them that at a
distance of two or three days' travel the plains were covered with them,
they seemed greatly interested and before we got away began to take down
some of their lodges and start off. They were out for their yearly
buffalo hunt to supply themselves with meat for the winter. In moving
they tied one end of their lodge poles in bunches to their ponies and
let the other ends spread out and drag upon the ground, and on these
dragging poles they piled their skins and other possessions. The young
children and old squaws would often climb up on these and ride.

Cactus plants in hundreds of varieties grew in great abundance on these
dry plains. They were beautiful to the eye, but a thorn in the flesh. As
we walked through them their sharp needles would run through trousers
and moccasins and penetrate legs and feet. We often ate the sickishly
sweet little pears that were seen in profusion.

Prairie dogs by the million lived and burrowed in the ground over a vast
region. The plains were dotted all over with the little mounds about two
feet high that surrounded their holes. On these mounds the little
animals would stand up and bark till one approached quite near, then
dart into the holes. In places the ground was honeycombed with their
small tunnels, endangering the legs of horses and oxen, which would
break through the crust of ground into them. I shot at many of them,
but never got a single animal, as they always dropped, either dead or
alive, into the hole and disappeared from sight.

Many small owls sat with a wise look on top of these little mounds, and
rattlesnakes, too, were often found there. When disturbed the owls and
snakes would quickly fly and crawl into the holes. It was a saying that
a prairie dog, an owl and a rattlesnake lived together in peace in the
same hole. Whether the latter two were welcome guests of the little
animal, or forced themselves upon his hospitality, in his cool retreat,
I never knew.

One day we came to a wide stretch of loose dry sand, devoid of
vegetation, over which we had to go. It looked like some ancient lake or
river bottom. The white sand reflected the sun's rays and made it
unpleasantly hot. The wheels sank into the sand and made it so hard a
pull for the oxen that we had to double up teams, taking one wagon
through and going back for another, so we only made about three miles
that day.

The unexpected was always happening to delay us. The trip was dragging
out longer than was first reckoned on, and the early enthusiasm was
dying out. Walking slowly along nine or ten hours a day grew monotonous
and tiresome. Then, after the day's work, to watch cattle one-half of
every third night was a lonely, dreary task, and became intolerably
wearisome. Standing or strolling alone, half a mile from camp, in the
darkness, often not a sound to be heard except the howling of the
wolves, and nothing visible but the sky above and the ground below, one
felt as if his only friends and companions were his knife and his

In the early part of September violent thunderstorms came up every
evening or night, with the appearance of an approaching deluge. Very
little rain fell, however, but the lightning and thunder were the most
terrific I ever saw or heard. There being no trees or other high objects
around, we were as likely to be struck as any thing. For a few wet
nights I crawled into one of the covered wagons to sleep, where some
provisions had been taken out, and right on top of twelve kegs of
powder. I sometimes mused over the probable results, in case lightning
were to strike that wagon. We passed one grave of three men who had been
killed by a single stroke of lightning. Graves of those who had given up
the struggle of life on the way, were seen quite frequently along the
route. They were often marked by inscriptions, made by the companions of
the dead ones on pieces of board planted in the graves.

Now we came to extensive alkali plains, covered with soda, white as new
fallen snow, glittering in the sunshine. No vegetation grew and all was
desolation. An occasional shower left little pools of water here and
there, strongly impregnated with alkali, and from them the oxen would
occasionally take a drink. From that cause, or some other unknown one,
they began to die off rapidly, and within three days one-third of them
were gone. The remainder were too few to pull the heavy train. The
situation was such that it gave us great anxiety.

What was to be done? Either leave part behind and go on to Denver with
what we could take, or else keep things together by taking some of the
wagons on for a few miles and then go back for the rest. The conclusion
was to leave four loads of heavy machinery on the plains and go on with
the other wagons as fast as possible. I asked the drivers if any of them
would stay and guard those to be left. Tobias and the German volunteered
to stay.

We selected a camping spot a mile away from the usually traveled road so
as to avoid the scrutiny of other pilgrims and look like a small party
camping to rest. Then we left them provisions for two or three weeks and
went ahead. We guessed that we were then about 150 miles from Denver.
The two left behind had no mishaps, but found their stay there all alone
for two weeks very dreary and lonesome.

Tobias was for over a year one of my most valuable and agreeable
assistants. The German, when in the mountains a short time, lost his
eyes by a premature blast of powder in a mining shaft. I helped provide
funds to send him East to his friends.

A few days before this misfortune of the death of our oxen and when the
drivers were in their most discontented mood, Sollitt, ever suspicious,
came to me quite agitated with a tale of gloomy forebodings. He said he
had overheard fragments of a talk between the Missourians and some
others who were quite friendly with them, which convinced him that a
conspiracy was hatching to terminate the tiresome trip, by their
deserting us in a body, injuring or driving off the oxen, or committing
some more tragic act. He thereupon armed himself heavily with his small
weapons, and advised me to do the same.

Instead of following the advice, I became more chatty and friendly with
the men and talked of our trials and our better prospects. I discovered
in a few a bitter feeling toward Sollitt, occasioned by some rough words
or treatment they had received. Sollitt was honest and faithful and in
many things very efficient, but was devoid of tact and agreeable ways
toward those under his control, especially if he took a dislike to them.
One man urged me to assert my reserved authority and take direct charge
of the whole business of the train to the exclusion of Sollitt. I had no
longings for the disagreeable task of a train master, and simply poured
oil on the troubled waters, and went ahead.

When the oxen began to die off, Sollitt told me that he thought one of
the Missourians had poisoned them and he disemboweled a number of the
dead animals to see if the cause of death could be discovered. He found
no signs of poison and nothing that looked suspicious in the stomachs;
but he said, the spleens of all of them were in a high state of
inflammation. I did not, however, understand that the oxen got their
ailment from the Missourians.

One evening we saw the clear cut outline of the Rocky Mountains,
including Long's Peak. We differed in opinion, at first, as to whether
it was mountain or cloud and could not decide the question till next
morning, when, as it was still in view, we knew it was mountain. For
several days, though traveling directly toward the mountains, we seemed
to get no nearer, which was rather discouraging.

Small flocks of antelope, fleet and graceful, were frequently seen
gliding over the plain. They were very shy, and kept several gunshots
away. But their curiosity was great, and if a man would lie down on the
ground and wave a flag or handkerchief tied to a stick till they noticed
it, they would first gaze at it intently and then gradually approach. In
this way they were often enticed by hunters to come near enough for a

Forty or fifty miles below Denver we came in view of one picturesque
ruin--old Fort St. Vrain--with its high, thick walls of adobe situated
on the north side of the Platte. It was built about twenty-five years
before, by Ceran St. Vrain, an old trapper and Indian trader. These
adobe walls, standing well preserved in this climate, it seemed to me,
would be leveled to the ground by one or two good eastern equinoxial

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