Over the Rocky Mountains to the Great Salt Lake
From our first camp on this river, in every direction, the eye found only what appeared to be a dead level, except O’Fallon’s Bluff, of which I have already spoken, and two immense towers of rock right up the river. They appeared to be about twenty miles distant, rising up from the perfectly level valley to a height of several hundred feet. The nearer one was called Court House Rock and stood up square from the plains. The rock foundation appeared to be of different colors and at this distance looked very much like an immense public building. The farther one was called Chimney Rock, and resembled an immense factory chimney, needing only a volume of smoke from its summit to complete the delusion. In the rarified atmosphere every detail was perfectly plain, yet we traveled up the river and camped five nights, or at least one hundred miles, before we neared the first, the Court House Rock. It was our habit, if we struck good feed and water, to unyoke our teams and turn the stock loose to feed, while we had our lunch and rested from twelve to two P.M. In this way we avoided travel in the heat of the day, and it gave an hour’s needed sleep to the men who had stood guard the night before.
On the sixth day we found a nice place for our noon hour, exactly opposite the Court House Rock, which lay off the road apparently a mile or so on our left. Some of our young men took a hasty lunch, and telling us they were going to see if they could find a way to its summit, but would be back by two o’clock. We waited for their return until half past two, and, as we could see no sign of them, we who remained yoked up our teams, gathered in our loose stock and drove on about eight miles to where we expected to camp, thinking that as we traveled very slowly they would overtake us at almost any minute. As they did not appear we unyoked and turned our stock loose to graze, had our supper, rounded in the horses and cattle. The women and children retired and the few of us took up our positions on guard. By this time we were very anxious, not knowing what had befallen them, but not daring with our small force to send out a searching party before morning. About midnight we heard a distant call and answered it.
Pretty soon they came straggling in, hungry, foot-sore and about exhausted. They said that on leaving camp they had walked over two hours, and nearly ten miles, and, as the rock then appeared as far off as when they started, they decided to return. It was already dark when they struck our old camp and found us gone and, after resting, they struck out on our trail, traveling slowly because of their fatigue and darkness and the difficulty in following our tracks.
On this broad plains not only was distance deceptive, but sound also. I do not know if it was the altitude, for we were pretty well up in the world by this time, or if it was that on the perfectly level plain there was nothing from which sound could rebound or echo, but it was a fact that a rifle shot sounded like a pop-gun and the wielders of our heavy, long-lashed bull whips, who in the earlier days of our long journey were proud to show off their prowess and see which could crack his the loudest, became discouraged and gave up their game. Speaking of those whips, they had a lash eighteen or twenty feet in length and a stock only four or five feet. A man who knew how to use them could make them crack like a pistol shot, or touch up a "leader" who was inclined to soldier at the full distance of both stock and lash. When I first tried to drive my team, I had a great desire to crack my whip as loud as the others. I never tried it but once. After watching them for a time, I was sure I had caught on, so giving my whip a mighty twirl through the air, I brought it back just as they did, but instead of the wonderful report I was expecting, the lash coiled itself a half dozen times around my neck. At first I felt sure it had taken my head off, but when I found it still on, I carefully unwound the lash and swore a mighty oath never, never to try again.
After leaving the Chimney Rock we continued up the North Platte, passing by Scotts Bluffs, a noted landmark of those days, and crossing the Laramie River near where it empties into the Platte. We camped for the noon hour a few miles from Old Fort Laramie. This fort at that time was one of the principal army posts in the West, and was garrisoned by a regiment under the command of a colonel. It was situated on some rising ground near the Laramie River and only a few miles from the North Platte. The buildings covered a considerable area, being built around a central square. It was almost in the center of the Indian tribes between civilization and the Rocky Mountain Range. I was informed that, although there was a full regiment supposed to be at the post, the force was often reduced to a single company, the other companies being out on scout duty. After lunch I rode into the fort, where I found soldiers on guard as in war time and I was halted and had to name my business before being admitted. I got from the commissary a few necessary supplies and from the post surgeon some medicine that we needed, and returning to camp drove on six miles and camped on some fine feed for the night. Here we were almost besieged by Indian women and children, begging or trying to sell moccasins or other work made from the tanned deer hide. There was an old crone who looked like she was a thousand years old, who had some really beautiful beaded work. I bought from her a little pair of moccasins for my boy, some five months old.
The next morning when we had been an hour on the march, and some twelve miles from the post, the colonel commanding, mounted on a magnificent war horse, with his wife as handsomely mounted, overtook us. He told me that the country for the next sixty miles was overrun with scattered bands of Indians and that he would have given us a guard for a few days, but that there were only a few soldiers in the fort and none he could spare. He urged us to make the best time we could for two or three days, to camp in the open, away from timber, and to keep a strong guard. It is needless to say we followed his orders and there was little sleep among the men of the party for the next two nights. However, we never saw even the sign of an Indian.
From Fort Laramie the road did not follow the river so closely, there being small streams of pure water every few miles, making their way from the mountains on our left. We were now approaching the great range known as the Rocky Mountains. The snow-clad peaks had been in view for some time and now, away to our left, almost in the center of the valley, stood out Laramie Peak, while as far as the eye could reach range on range and peak rising above peak appeared. Before us the low indentation into the great range showed where the great South Pass was situated, while farther to the North loomed up other and still higher mountains. When we were far enough along to be out of the Indian Range we continued slowly up the general course of the Platte, resting a week at a time on some beautiful stream with an abundance of grass. It was now the last week in June and at this high altitude the grass was at its best, and, as we knew that before us lay very many miles of barren land, we thought it best for man and beast to recruit here. About one hundred and fifty miles beyond Fort Laramie we again struck the North Platte, just below the mouth of the Sweetwater. Here the Platte is a deep, rapid-flowing stream, and as it came from melting snows it was as cold as ice water. At this point some parties had established a rude ferry, a small boat which was carried back and forth attached to a wire cable. We ferried our wagons at about ten dollars per wagon, but swam our horses and cattle without accident. From this point our course lay up the Sweetwater for about one hundred miles to the great South Pass. On the second day out at noon we camped at Independence Rock, it being the fourth day of July, 1860. Independence Rock was so named by some of the pioneers who encamped here in earlier days on the same date as we. This rock is an offshoot from the higher ranges away from the river and stands out almost perpendicular on its front, but I believe is easily scaled from the back. As there was fine feed and water here we decided to celebrate for the balance of the day, particularly as some of our nimrods saw a band of mountain sheep gazing down on us from a cliff high up on the range. They started out with high hopes of fresh meat for supper, but returned toward night, tired, not having seen a sheep. I was told that these sheep have wonderful organs of smell, can detect a man at a great distance and can only be secured by old hunters who understand their habits and how to take advantage of the wind currents. They have the most wonderful horns I have ever seen. Some that looked larger than the sheep itself, and they curl around in a manner that one would not believe without seeing. I was told that if closely pursued or cornered they would fearlessly throw themselves off a cliff, alighting on their horns unhurt. I do not know if this is so. In a long and somewhat observant life I have learned to take hunters’ tales, as well as fishermen’s with "many grains of salt."
About eight days’ travel from this point brought us to the summit of the Rocky Mountains in the great South Pass. The ascent had been so gradual for nearly two thousand miles that I could not realize that we had reached an elevation of nearly fifteen thousand feet without any steep climbs. In fact the road up the Sweetwater was very good, crossing the stream many times, which was easily forded. Banks of snow still lay on either side of the road at no great distance, and the nights were quite cool. We camped at the spring on the summit, which is the head of the Sweetwater, and flows Eastward down that stream to the Platte, thence to the Missouri, thence to the Mississippi, and thence to the Gulf of Mexico, over four thousand miles. Only a hundred feet farther over there is another spring called Pacific Spring, the head of the Big Sandy, which flows west into the Green River, thence into the Colorado River, and finally into the Gulf of California, a distance of nearly two thousand miles. It is indeed the great backbone of the continent. The descent on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains is much steeper and more rugged than the ascent from the eastern side, while the soil is more rocky and vegetation less vigorous.
Our route continued down the Big Sandy to the point where it empties into Green River. Ferrying the latter stream we kept on a course up the Black Fork, over a rather mountainous country, passing near old Fort Bridger and following for a distance the line on which the Union Pacific Railroad was later built. The country looked poor and the feed the poorest we had yet met. Continuing we looked down from the head of Echo Canyon into a narrow valley two or three thousand feet below. To descend seemed almost impossible. The road was so steep that we had to lock the hind wheels of our wagons and then they would almost run over the teams. I was told that many cut a small tree and tied it behind their wagons, but we managed to get down without this., After the first few miles the road grows less steep and the bed of the canyon widens out to some extent. Here I noticed beside the road only a few feet from it, a new made grave and at the head a wooden board on which was painted " John ----- shot for horse stealing 1860." The Mormons surely had a way to dispose of those who came in conflict with them. We continued down the canyon until we reached Weber River which we crossed, and turning abruptly to the left through Weber Canyon, we came to a small valley in the hills, and to the first houses we had seen in many months. We obtained permission to camp and turn our stock loose on some unfenced lands. As we had been living on bacon and salt meats, with no vegetables for so long, I sought out a large house which I thought gave promise of affluence. I knocked on the front door, but received no answer, so I went to the back of the house, where under a tree sat a large, solid-looking man with a babe on each knee, while a dozen other children, from two to eight years, were playing around. Two women were washing clothes in the same tub, while a third was hanging them (the clothes, not the women) out to dry. It was my first view of polygamy. The man, as all others I met later, looked fat and happy, while all the women looked tired and careworn.
When I made my wants known the man called the women, who came and each one took a baby from him, while he went with me. He said they had but a few vegetables, but finally produced a few potatoes and some onions, then going to the chicken yard he caught me two fine hens. Of course, I expected to pay an exorbitant price, and I was not disappointed. As we were not especially equipped for cooking chicken, we had a fine stew and added the potatoes, while the onions we took raw with a little salt. I don’t think any dinner I ever ate tasted better.
The next day we continued through the low hills and shortly came out on an opening and the Great Salt Lake Valley and the City of the Saints was lying almost at our feet. The white buildings, the great temple stood out in the sunshine, relieved on every side by gardens and orchards and fields of waving grain. Even at this early date the Mormons had a fine system of irrigation and the city and its surroundings were like an oasis in the desert. At the city limits we were met by some of the city officials, who inquired who we were, where we came from and whither bound, and then we were taken in charge and piloted through the city and across the River Jordan on a substantial bridge and were shown a camping place on the banks of the river, while our stock was driven some four miles to the foot of some low hills, where there was an abundance of salt grass. It was poor feed, but they told us it was the best in several miles. The next day I walked through the city, which seemed well kept, a stream of mountain water running down either side of the streets. In the residence section the houses were large and generally long, with several front doors, I suppose to accommodate so many families. From ten wives up was about the usual number for the Mormons at this date. Brigham Young’s house covered a large area and was surrounded by a high wall, and there was no admittance. I was told that he had anywhere from forty to sixty wives. Poor old man, what a time he must have had, and just think of the dresses and hats and all kinds of furbelows for so many women. Think of the shoes, socks, knickerbockers and little dresses for nearly a hundred children. No wonder the old man died, and no doubt he is reaping his reward. During the day many women visited our camp, with every kind of vegetable to sell or trade for a piece of bacon or a little flour. Anything of which we found we had more than enough to carry us through was gladly taken in exchange for vegetables, which seemed abundant, and very acceptable to us after being without so long. We also had some horse-shoeing done and replenished our stock with such things as we most needed.
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