Richard Reeves
THE OREGON TRAIL: A Manuscript by Richard Reeves

CHAPTER 4: "Dr. J. Noble Is a Jackass"

Scott's Bluff to Devil's Gate

"You are now through the Pawnee country and must look out for the Sioux; and when you get to Larima (Fort Laramie), make as little delay as possible, for fear the Indians molest you. You are now 640 miles from Independence, and it is discouraging to tell you that you have not yet traveled one-third of the long road to Oregon," - so wrote John M. Shively in his 1846 "Emigrants Guide."

After the United States and Britain agreed late in 1846 on the 49th parallel as the northwestern boundary of the U. S. A. , American cavalry began setting up the string of Oregon Trail forts authorized by Congress. Fort Laramie an old fur-trading post where the north fork of the Platte met the Laramie River was taken over by the government in 1849. The Army and U. S. Indian Agents bought off the Indians where they could with a string of new treaties providing "annuities" to tribes that promised peace. Each post distributed Washington's bounty, gifts of food and clothing - and brandy mixed with red peppers and ground snake heads. Within a year or two the forts were usually surrounded by Indians, not warriors but Indians called "Laramie Loafers," reduced to begging when the annuities were late, which they usually were. Laramie was a peculiarly American place - and not such a small on, either. On one day, August 14, 1850, a total of 39, 506 persons and 9, 927 wagons passed through. The horse soldiers were there to protect Overlanders and punish Indian bands who harrased the white travelers. The government back in Washington authorized officers to give emergency food and money to busted emigrants and to repair their wagons if necessary. Christian charity. But the bureaucrats in blue could not give or sell anything to Overlanders who still had money or anything to sell or trade - because that would interfere with "free enterprise" , the costly kind practiced by merchants allowed to set up shop in the forts.

The Yankees were men of business. An Iowa Quaker named Harrison Luelling made one of the early Oregon fortunes, going west in 1847 with a wagon loaded with seven hundred young trees, vines, and shrubs packed in a composted mixture of charcoal and Iowa soil. He introduced new varieties of apples, cherries, pears, plums, black walnut, quince, and shell-bark hickory to the land along the Pacific.

The Indians watching the first trains thought the Overlanders were barbarians of strange habits, strange religion, strange food. Theodore Talbott of the 1843 Fremont expedition wrote that even the five thousand Overlanders that year seemed so numerous to the Indians that a chief of the Oglala Sioux pointed east and asked him: "Are there still any whites left there?"

Even as the Indians guided and helped the Overlanders - guiding them to safe routes, water holes and river fords, often swimming their stock across - the white men and women saw them as objects in a landscape, more exotic wildlife than human beings. To the pious, the natives were heathens, and missionaries came west to save them for Jesus Christ whether they wanted to be saved or not. No doubt many of the emigrants, perhaps most all of them saw little or nothing wrong with taking over Indian lands, including land signed over to them by the United States government only a few years before the wagons and the cavalry came. It seemed a fair bargain to the white man: they were offering the Indians civilization and Christianity for under-used land.

That deal was too fair, some thought. Stories and rumors of Indian atrocities moved at least as fast as the wagons. Hearing them, an 1847 Overlander, Loren Hastings wrote: "The best way, I think, to civilize or Christianize Indians is with powder & lead, & this is the way we shall do it hereafter." Two years later, Charles Ferguson a 17-year old emigrant wrote a line that has outlived him: "1 have heard considerable romance, from persons inexperienced, about the brave and noble red man, but I have never yet met one. Powder, not prayer, is their only civilizer. . . Nothing will convert and Indian like convincing him that you are his superior, and there is but one process by which even that can be done, and that is to shut off his wind. I never knew but one 'truly good' Indian, and he was dead."

In fact, not a single emigrant was killed by Indians until 1845 - and only one Indian was killed by a white man during that time. From 1840 to I 860, only 362 Overlanders and 426 Indians were killed on the routes to Oregon, California and Utah - almost all those fatalities were west of the Rocky Mountains. An emigrant who was outraged by the high prices asked by Fort Laramie merchants, Henry Allyn, wrote in 1853:"Oregon emigrants are in ten times the danger from speculators, ferrymen and traders than the Indians. It is believed that nearly or quite all thefts that are laid to the Indians are either done or instigated by (those white men). We have proved them to be infernal liars. . ."

White lies, however, did little to moderate the white fear of Indians. In 1849, Joseph Francl wrote the kind of first encounter tales found in many journals: "Seventy miles this side of Fort Laramie we see a party of Sioux Indians coming toward us. They are all on horseback and well armed. They came up to us, unsaddled their horses and all sat down on the ground in a circle. The chief steps forth and begins to speak. He wants us to give him some tobacco, sugar, tea and bread. These things are given him (they are about $30. 00 value). There are twenty-eight Indians, excepting the children and women. They have been at war with the Pawnees, returning from battle. My companion, Mr. Merrman, draws my attention to a sack an Indian is carrying and from it blood is dropping. After considerable sign language we made the Indian understand what we wanted-to see what he had in the sack. He opened it and with a great deal of shouting 'hi-hi-hi' spread out twenty-one Indian scalps on the grass. A chill of horror comes over us at the sight. He now begins to dry them. Every Indian knows well the scalp that is his, the one he tore from his victim's head and takes great delight in turning it over in his hands and examining it."

One the worst and most significant of the early Army-Indian conflicts happened just six miles from Fort Laramie. - an action that was the cause for the punitive raid in which Indians, men, women and children were shot down the next year at Ash Hollow. On August 18, 1854, a lame cow wandered away from a Mormon train stopped at the fort. A couple of Miniconjou Sioux braves butchered the animal and had themselves a feast.

The next day, Lt. John Grattan, with 28 men, tracked down the Sioux braves, who were with a Brule party led by a chief named The Bear. The chief offered first a horse and then a mule - generous compensation for an old cow - but the Laramie commander, Hugh Fleming, and Grattan turned those offers down. The young lieutenant, with twenty-two men, then confronted The Bear and his braves, demanding that the man or men who took the cow be turned over to Army justice. The Bear refused. The soldiers fired. But they were already surrounded by braves who had crawled around and behind them in a gulley near the Laramie River. One of the Indians' great fighting skills in a time when close encounters were necessary for combat -- military units and war parties could usually avoid each other because they could see each other miles away on the plains - was an ability to patiently hide in ambush or come up silently and almost invisibly to the clumsier and impatient white men. This time, The Bear's men pounced, killing Grattan and all his men, then mutilating the lieutenant's body.

Grattan's bravado (and stupidity) was a key moment at the beginning of what became a cycle of conflict and reprisal that climaxed with the defeat in 1876 of Colonel George Custer and his cavalrymen by Sitting Bull and the Sioux at the Little Big Horn. During the 1860s and 1870s the Plains were often a very dangerous place for Americans crossing through Indian territory - but there were few of them by then some were rolling along in the relative comfort and safety of railroad cars.

Although thirty emigrants drowned in the rivers near Fort Laramie in the single year of 1850, he real threat to safety on the Oregon Trail was neither dangerous crossings nor hostile Indians. The enemy was unseeable then, before microscopy, the microbes in drinking water and blood and saliva and pus. The consensus of mid-nineteenth century medicine was that the diseases were in the air, that decaying vegetable and animal matter, including animal and human waste, poisoned the atmosphere. Bacteria, germs, viruses were unknown; and the idea that intermediary agents, like mosquitoes or ticks, might spread disease was also unknown.

Abigail Scott counted graves along the Platte through the Kansas and Nebraska territories. But she was happy when the family train reached Fort Laramie, because she was seeing something she had never seen before, mountains, and the wisdom of the day was that disease would be less of a problem once travelers reached purer Western waters. That was usually true, because there was less human waste out there, thus fewer invisible killers. This is part of the account of the Platte trip in her journal: "June 15th- passed seven new made graves today and camped about three quarters of a mile from the Platte here we get good water. . . 16th - We have seen considerable water today termed alkali. It is considered dangerous for cattle to drink any except running water as all these sloughs and marshes are inundated with this substance." . . . "About ten o' clock this morning we passed a train. Were busied in burying the body of a female They had buried her husband the week before. Little did he think that his young wife would follow him. That's a sad thing to leave our friends in uninhabited country in habited only by the red men. . Ten new graves ~ "June 17th - We hope after leaving the Platte River there will not be so much sickness.". . . "June 18th-passed Fort Laramie. . five new made graves. . . As we ascend the Platte the scenery is more beautiful than we have seen for some time. At least we think so as we have seen no timber for 200 miles and we are heartily glad to see it once more. . . We were tired of the dull monotony of the Plains. The breeze blowing from these hills seems to inhale us with new life and vigor. . . Just heard that there is a woman dying about 100 yards away. The part of our train who are sick are much better, improving all the time. It is most generally true that if persons are sick and their health is restored, they are much healthier than had been for some time. . .

"June 2Oth, Sabbath Day. How mysterious are the works of. . . overruling Providence. We little thught when last night's pleasant sun set upon us his congengial rays that when the sun should come it would find us mourning over the sickness and death of our beloved Mother. But it has been ever so. Mother was taken at about 2 o'clock this morning with a great dierrehea attended with cramping. she however aroused until day light when everything was done which we possibly could do to save her life; but her constitution long weakened by disease was unable to withstand the attack and this afternoon between four and five o'clock her wearied heart took its flight. . . June 2 1st. . She now rests in peace, beside the lady before mentioned who died the night before. . . We passed three new made graves and came about twenty miles." Later, Abigail wrote:

"T'was midnight and he sat alone-

The husband of the dead.

That day the dark dust had been thrown

Upon her buried head;

Her orphan children round me sleep

But in their sleep do moan

Now bitter tears are falling fast

I feel that I'm alone."

"My mother was the first one in our train to get the cholera," Martha Hill Gillette wrote in 1853. "Father took charge of her and warned us to keep away from the wagon where she lay. No one thought of stopping for sickness, but after a few days she was well again. With the cholera, you were either well or dead in a few days. We saw a young man burying his bride of a few months. He came within calling distance of our camp, and told father he was leaving behind his wagon well provisioned, also his wife's trunk filled with beautiful clothes, and would father give the things to his girls. Such a longing went up from our hearts for the beautiful things, but my father soon squelched them when he asked us which we wanted, fine clothes or the cholera. . . . Another time we saw a man lying under some willow trees. Father called to him asking if he could help him and the poor fellow pleaded so to be taken along that our hearts were wrung, but we could not take him as it would endanger the whole train. He was left there to die alone. . . .

"Counted as many as 500 graves along the North Platte, wrote Oscar Hyde in 1850. "Sickness lasted usually but a day. Many with beds and blankets were abandoned by the roadside, and no man, not even am Indian, dared touch them, for fear of the unknown, unseen destroyer."

John Wood said: "The sick and the dying are on the right, on the left, in front and in the rear, and in our midst, Death is ~ are stalking their way through pestilence unmoved, while others view each step with perfect consternation."

The captain of Charles Glass Gray's train, the Newark Overland Company, was a doctor, General James Stevens Darcy. That 'was the year the first 49ers went for gold, and the year the cholera hit hard on the trail. On May 10, 1849 Gray wrote: "The General told us all to remain, as our sick man couldn't be~ moved and we had the cholera. I helped overhaul our wagon, with boiling water washed thi~ i~a~b~tht~sJn the afternoon, I was taken with a violent headaches, weakness in the legs, nausea. So, I unpacked a bottle of fine brandy

In June of 1855, a Mormon diarist, E. W. East, wrote:

"On the 18th [of June] the cholera broke out in camp. Bro. M. R. Jones' daughter was attacked first in the night and Bro. Jones in the morning. Bro. Jones died about 2 o'clock p. m. and Mary East about sundown and Bro. and Sister Langfond died the same evening. The four men buried during the night without coffin or box. . On the ~fo1Iowing day the Co. moved out as early as possible and during this day Eliza Josh, Mary York and Susan Geer died. Next day Martha Allison, Sarah Jones, James Jones and Elizabeth Langford were all buried in the same place. On the next day Sister Middlemass, Eliza Geer and A. Priestly died. On the same day S. Gabley, M. . A. Jones, Julia A. Bagley, Fanny Phillips, Emma S. Middlemass, Hugh Phillips and John Geer. . . There were thirty deaths in the camp from the time the Co. left Mormon Grove on June 15 - 29 died of cholera." The other great killers on the plains were smallpox and "fever and ague," later called malaria. Captain Marcy, in his guidebook had part of the story, declaring that malaria was caused by "night air" and offered this confident analysis of current medical knowledge in 1857:

"When camping near rivers and lakes surrounded by large bodies of timber and a luxuriant vegetation, which produces a great amount of decomposition and consequent exhalations of malaria, it is important to ascertain what localities will be the least likely to generate disease.

"This subject has been thoroughly examined by Dr. Robert Johnson, Inspector General of Hospitals in the English army in 1845:

'When the earth is damp, the action of heat on its surface occasions the interior moisture to ascend. Moisture, as exhaled from the earth, is considered by observers of fact to be a cause which acts injuriously on health. There are two causes which more evidently act upon the health of troops in the field than any other, namely, moisture exhaled direct from the surface of the earth in undue quantity, and emanations of a peculiar character arising from diseased action in the animal system in a mass of men crowded together. The noxious effects may be obviated, or rather the noxious cause will not be generated, under the following arrangement, namely, a carpet of painted canvas for the floor of the tent; It requires to be fresh painted only once a year.

'The effect of crowding men together in close quarters, illy ventilated, was shown in the prissons of Hindostan. The dimensions of the celebrated Black Hole of Calcutta -- where in 1756, 123 prisoners out of 140 died by carbonic acid in one night-was but eighteen feet square, and with but two small windows. Most of the twenty-three who survived until morning were seized with putrid fever and died very soon afterward. '" The estimates of the number of Overlanders who died on the Oregon Trail range from 20, 000 to 50, 000 - from bad water, bad food, exhaustion. And from drowning - many emigrants could not swim and many of them wore heavy money-belts that pulled them under if they tumbled into fast-moving water. Not a few of them did their tumbling after buying liquor sold at ferries and fords, drinking while they waited their turn to cross. "Two soldiers and a horse were drowned trying to cross the river, "wrote Peter Hansen near Fort Laramie in 1849. "Several others had drowned before and a number of wagons had been lost." Four years later, Maria Parsons wrote: "There was a man drowned im Buffalo Creek, he was intoxicated - drove in where the banks were full, and horses and wagon and man went down."

The most tragic of the accidents, recorded again and again, were identical to this one described by Absolom Hardy in 1847: "Mr. Harvey's young little boy Richard 8 years old went to git in the waggon and fel from the . . . . . . the wheals run over him and mashed his head and Kil him Ston dead he never moved." Ellen James Bailey Lamborn wrote in the same matter-of-fact manner: "Woman accidentally run over and killed instantly. . . The woman was getting down from the moving vehicle, her clothing caught on the brake-rod and she was thrown forward beneath the wheel."

It was a dangerous and unhealthy time and it is possible that the cholera death rate on the trail was actually lower than in cities like St. Louis, where the disease claimed at least 4,000 victims in 1849 alone. Grave countings on the trail indicated that the death rate for travelers was between one-in-seventeen and one-in-ten. That last figure would make the trip more dangerous than the Civil War where soldiers faced one-in-sixteen chances of being killed in combat. There were, however, no old people, babies or small children in combat - and the very old and the very young were at greatest risk on the trail. Dr. E. A. Tompkins, an 1850 Overlander, listed six principal factors in sickness and death on the trail: (l)the high saline and alkaline content of the water; (2) eating fish; (3) the poor preparation of camp food, "often a perfect mass of indigestible filth too crude even for the stomach of an ostrich; " (4) chilly night watches and sleeping on cold, wet ground; (5) the constant hard and exhausting toil. And the limestone dust, as described by Helen Carpenter on June 28, 1856, the day she lost the family dog: "The air was so full of dust that much of the time the oxen was barely visible. . .

Carlo is not with us and we fear she got lost in the thick dust. . . can imagine her blinded by the dust, starving alone back in the bluffs."

And then there were the doctors themselves, charging from $2 to $10 for treatment that was often useless - bleeding, water injections, wrapping cholera victims in wet blankets. "Find plenty of doctoring to do," wrote Dr. Davis Maynard in 1850. "Stop at noon to attend some persons sick wth cholera. One was dead before I got there and two died before the next morning. They paid me $8. 75."

Lempfrit, the French priest, was also a physician and he described his treatment, on July 11, 1848, of a Presbyerian clergyman:

"This evening our preaching Presbyterian fell ill and asked me for medical help. I went and found my patient almost delirious. A raging fever had confused his mind. He told me he wished to have a dose of rhubarb. Prudently I opposed this. . . In a grave voice I said to him, . . . "You will have to obey my orders, and I think you have need of a good bleeding." I threatened to abandon him if he did not yield to my medical opinion. In the end he gave in, and I bled him. After this he felt better."

Most Overlanders carried their own medicine kits. Elizabeth Dixon Smith's inventory in 1847 included: "A box of physicing pills, a box of castor oil, a quart of best rum, and a vial of peppermint essence." Catherine Haun, travelling two years later, carried:" Quinine for malaria, hartshorn for snakebite, citric acid for scurvy and blueness, and opium and whiskey for almost everything. Laudanum, morphine, calomel, and tincture of camphor were other potent drugs frequently resorted to. Ayer's Pain Killer, Dover's Powders, Jayne's Caminative Balsam."

And generally they prescribed their own treatment, as William Clayton, the writer of the most important of Mormon guidebooks described in 1847: "Having much pain in my joints. . . After getting our tents fixed and fires made, I went to wrestling, jumping etc. to try to get well. I over-exerted myself without any symptom of perspiration and was so sick after I had to go to bed." Later he was laid low again and described his treatment: "Raging fever. The brethren all laid hands on me and rebuked my disease in the name of the Lord, President Young being south. I immediately felt easier and slept well all night."

Some were taken with Indian medicines, which often mixed chanting and dancing with skin applications of herbs and other plants. Young Francis Parkman, who became quite sick before returning east from Fort Laramie, was not impressed by what he saw, writing on August 4, 1846: "There is an old Ind. at the fort, badly wounded, who is always singing to cure himself. His 'medicine, ' which he always resorts to when in pain, is to hand some bystander a cup of water and let him drink it." Then on August 6, he continued:" An Ind. , when sick or wounded, feels obliged to imitate the movements of the animal whom he has as his guardian spirit. A wounded Sioux, sought for some days by his companion, was found in a deep hollow, scratching and growling like a bear." A doctor named Noble caught the attention of Helen Carpenter, and hundreds of others. On June 24, 1856, passing the graves of five soldiers killed in battle with the Sioux the year before, she wrote: "Should the services of a physician be required, one may be found in one of the trains ahead -His ad. freshly written in bright red keel, was conspicuously placed on each the cedar slabs to the memory of the soldiers 'Dr. J. Noble'." (Others who spotted Noble's advertisements a week later reported that someone had altered the legend to read: "Dr. J. Noble is a Jackass!"

Exactly one month later, Carpenter wrote: "Ten or twelve days ago, a young woman in a train back of us died. Last night her mother died leaving seven small children. . . Very little grass. The cattle are obliged to feed on green willows, consequently many have died at this point, and their bodies lie in the stream, and there is no other drinking water. . . The cattle are so used to seeing their fellows by the way that they pass by without more than a casual glance. The same may be observed of the people. The little trails to lonely graves are not so well worn as those seen heretofor. We are reminded of the old adage, 'One can get used to anything, ' and again of the calf that died 'just as it got used to doing without eating'. Are we to share this fate?"

On July 3, she wrote that her family had built a fire the night before and in the morning discovered it was on top of a grave. "I have mentioned our growing indifference, and can but think what we are obliged to endure each day is robbing us of all sentiment - it is to be hoped that we will not be permanently changed."

The next day of course was the Fourth! The glorious Fourth of July. And the Overlanders had more than enough patriotic sentiment. The place to be was Independence Rock, a 600-yard long black granite outcropping 200 miles west of Laramie - one of the places the moving Americans stopped to carve or paint their names. There were two reasons to get there on time - first, it meant a train was on schedule to get across the mountains ahead before snow fell and, second, there was sure to be a big party there - in fact, there were festivities all along the trail on Independence Day.

"After breakfast," wrote James Nesmith, the young sailor from Maine, "my- self, with some other young men, had the pleasure of waiting on five or six young ladies to pay a visit to Independence Rock. I had the satisfaction of putting the names of Miss Mary Zachery and Miss lanes Mills on the southeast point of the rock. Facing the road, in all the spendor of gunpowder, tar and buffalo grease, may be seen the name of J. W. Nesmith, from Maine, with an anchor."

"We celebrated the 4 of July," wrote Virginia Reed, a 13-year old travelling with the extended family of George and Tamsen Donner from Illinois. "Several of the gentlemen in Springfield gave paw a bottle of liquor and said it shouldn't be opened until the 4th day of July and paw was to look east and drink it."

The girl's grandmother, Sarah Keyes, who was 70 years old, had died on the trail in Kansas and Virginia's little sister, Patty Reed, who was six, carried a lock of the old woman's hair. Back in Kansas that same week in 1846, James Clyman, once a mountain man using the South Pass and now an emigrant, stopped at Sarah Keyes' grave and wrote this in his journal:

"This stone shows us that all ages and all sects are found to undertake this long, tedious and even dangerous journey for some unknown object never to be realized even by those the most fortunate, and why? Because the human mind can never be satisfied, never at rest, always on the stretch for something new. . .

Nesmith wrote of the holiday in 1843: "July 4- The glorious Fourth has once more rolled around. . . Some of our company ruminating upon the luxuries destroyed in different parts of the great Republic on this day. Occasionally you hear something said about mint julips, sode, ice cream, cognac, porter, ale and sherry wine, but the Oregon emigrant must forget those luxuries . . . "

Enoch Conyers in 1852 had a better time, writing this:

"July 3- Several of the boys started out this morning for a hunt in the mountains for the purpose of obtaining some fresh meat, if possible, for our Fourth of July dinner. Those who remain in camp are helping the ladies in preparing the banquet. A number of wagon beds are being taken to pieces and formed into long tables. A little further on is a group of young ladies seated on the grass talking over the problem of manufacturing "Old Glory" to wave over our festivities. . . One lady brought forth a sheet. This gave the ladies an idea. Quick as thought another brought a skirt for the red stripes. Another lady ran to her tent and brought forth a blue jacket, saying: "Here, take this, it will do for the field." Needles and thread were soon secured and the ladies went at their task with a will, . . . Some of the boys gathering wood to cook the dinner, and others went after a liberty pole. The boys who went out hunting early this morning returned to camp about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, some loaded with antelope, some with sagehens, and some with jackrabbits. . . The cooking was carried on to a late hour in the night.

"July 4 - The day was ushered in with the booming of small arms, which was the best that we could do under the circumstances, so far away from civilization. Just before the sun made its appearance above the eastern horizon, we raised our forty-foot flagstaff with "Old Glory" nailed fast to the top, . . . our company circled around the old flag and sung "The Star Spangled Banner." Then three rousing cheers and a tiger were given to "Old Glory,". . . To whom should the honor be given to deliver the oration? This honor fell to the lot of Virgil Y. Ralston, a son of Dr. J. N. Ralston, of Quincy, Ill. Unfortunately he, with several other young men of our company, went this morning to the Devil's Gate, where they obtained a little too much "firewater," and by the time they reached the camp were considerably under the influence. But this was the glorious old Fourth, therefore the oration we must have. The Declaration of Independence was read by R. L. Doyle, of Keokuk, Iowa, after which several of the boys gathered around Virgil, lifting him bodily upon the end of one of our long tables, where they steadied him until he became sufficiently braced up, and then let go of him. He spoke for over half an hour, and delivered, offhand, an excellent oration. . .

"All gathered around the tables loaded with refreshments, beautified and decorated with evergreens and wild flowers. The following is our bill of fare in part:

"MEATS

"Roast Antelope, Roast Sagehen, Roast Rabbitt, Antelope Stew, Sagehen Stew, Jack-Rabbit Stew , Antelope Potpie, Sagehen Fired, Jack-Rabbit Fried.

"VEGETABLES

"Irish Potatoes (brought from Illinois), Boston Baked Beans, Rice Pickles.

"BREAD

"White Bread, Graham Bread, Warm Rolls, fresh from the Oven

"PASTRY

Pound Cake, Fruit Cake, Jelly Cake, Sweetwater Mountain Cake, Peach Pie, Apple Pie, Strawberry Pie, Custard Pie

"DRINKS

"Coffee, Tea, Chocolate and Good, Cold Mountain Water, fresh from the brook." "A Fourth of July on the plains never to be forgotten."

Five miles past Independence Rock, the emigrants reached Devil's Gate. They were in the Rocky Mountains, having gradually climbed over hundreds of miles to an altitude just under 5, 000 feet. The site was described in the usual style of the guidebooks, in this case by William Clayton in his 1847 Mormon Emigrant Guide: "A little west from the road. The river here passes between perpendicular rocks four hundred feet high. This is a curiosity worthy of a traveler's notice. . 4-1/2 miles from Independence Rock. 702 miles from Winter Quarters. 327 miles from City of Great Salt Lake."

Nine years after Clayton passed, more than two hundred of his brethren would die horribly two miles west of the Devil's Gate. In 1856. Brigham Young, established in Salt Lake City, was determined to continue expanding the city's population. But the church and its members did not have enough money to purchase oxen or mules in Iowa, so he ordered the organizing of "Handcart Brigades" made up mostly of new and poor immigrants from Europe. Thirteen hundred saints were divided into five brigades, piling one hundred pounds of their earthly goods into two-wheeled carts made by the hundreds in Mormon factories in Iowa. There was an anthem for the journey, titled "A Little More Cider" with this chorus:

"Hurrah for the Camp of Israel! "Hurrah for the hand-cart scheme! "Hurrah! Hurrah! 'tis better far "Than the wagon and ox-team."

Three of the brigades made it safely to Salt Lake, but the fourth and fifth ran into trouble, partly because the wood used to make the last carts was green and it shrank and bent. The carts lost time wobbling along, there was not enough food -- then they were trapped by early winter in the mountains. A member of the last brigade, John Chislett, wrote in his journal:

"There were so many dead and dying that it was decided to lay by for the day. ln the forenoon I was appointed to go round the camp and collect the dead of all ages and both sexes. All stiffly frozen. We had a large square hole dug in which we buried thirteen people, three or four abreast and three deep. Two others died during the day."

Sixty-eight people in the fourth brigade died in the cold and then 145 of the fifth died. One of the rescue teams sent out from Salt Lake City was led by Daniel Jones, who reported:

"A condition of distress met my eyes. . . There were old men pulling and tugging at their carts, sometimes loaded with a sick wife or children, women pulling along sick husbands, little children six or eight years old struggling through the mud and snow. As night came on, the mud would freeze on their clothes and feet."

The Mormon and "Gentile" roads joined at the Gate, close to the beginning of the South Pass, the wide and gradual final climb to the Continental Divide and on over the Rocky Mountains.

The Gentile companies, too, had their troubles as they plodded toward the peak. People were being worn down. James Field described what happened next to his train in 1845:

"July 5 - One of the wildest looking places yet, the Devils Gate. The Sweetwater passes through a ridge of perpendicular rock 120 ft. high, the chasm being about 3 rods wide and water roaring as it struggles among the loose rock at the bottom like a catarac. ". . . "July 16 We were on the road 24 hours, travelling about 42 miles before we could get a camp. . Got to Green River about 6:30 in the morning.". . . "July 17 - A child died. . . it was sadening indeed to hear the mournful lamentations in that lonely and desolate part of creation where the calm stillness of the midnight hour is seldom disturbed by any sound save the low murmur of the river and the howling of the roving wolves.". . . "July 18 - In the afternoon, the child spoken of was buried about a mile above our camp. . . the little procession moving out from camp on foot, two men with the coffin. . . the land is clay-ie, it is hard and full of cracks, and as the wagons passed over it they raised a blinding cloud of dust."

"August 1 - A wagon was repaired which had a tire bursted or broken wheel 100 miles from Fort Hall and we took buffalo hide cut in strips and wound about half the circumference of the wheel". . . August 6 - Just at evening a child fell from one of the wagons and was run over, but happening to fall into a miry hole in the road, it sustained little open injury. This is the third run-over in the company.". . . "August 9-Visited by a large band of Indians, who brought with them a mare belonging to a person in one of the forward companies. . . Contrast this with the owner of the mare, who is reported to have robbed a Sioux grave a litle this side of Laramie of several buffalo robes and other articles it is their custom to deposit with their dead. ". . . "August 13 -The Walla Walla Indians are reported to have assembled some 75 to 100 miles below here for the purpose of stopping the emigrants passing through their territory and it is said they have killed two of the Frenchmen who were with us as pilots on Sweetwater.". . . "August 20- Last night another member was added to the company by the birth of a child. Mother and child doing well. We were ready to go on at the usual startng time. ". . . "August 24- The story of the murder of two Frenchmen by the Walla Walla is pronounced a humbug by the people at the fort."

There were murders, though, and many of them had nothing to do with Indians. Two graves dated September 5, 1849 were passed by Robert Eccleston, who recorded the message nailed to a nearby to mesquite bush: "They commenced quarreling about something of no importance . Hickey struck Davis and they got fighting. Davis whipped Hickey whereupon Hickey, after getting up, stabbed near the shoulder, the knife entering some of the cavities of the heart. He died in twenty minutes. Hickey was arrested by the emigrants generally, there being several companies on the ground , & tried by a jury of 12 men who found him guilty of murder in the first degree and was sentenced to be shot. . ."

At Devil's Gate, Abigail Scott saw another pair of boards:" Two graves together: "Charles Botsford murdered June 28th 1852. . . "Horace Dolly hung June 29th 1852."A week later, at night, she added: "We have a fair specimen here tonight of the various occupations of different persons in the world. Betting and playing cards is going on at one encampment, music and dancing at another, while at a third persons are engaged singing religious hymns and psalms with apparent devotion. Indians of the Shoshone tribe are encamped near us in several wigwams. . . as far from every appearance of civilization as any set of dumb animals in the world."    GO TO CHAPTER 5 >


Richard Reeves stopped writing his syndicated column at the end of 2014 after 35 years in more than 160 newspapers and websites.


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