We were floating along very silently one day, for none of us felt very much in the mood for talking, when we heard a distant sound which we thought was very much like the firing of a gun. We kept still, and in a short time a similar sound was heard, plainer and evidently some ways down the stream. Again and again we heard it, and decided that it must be a gun shot, and yet we were puzzled to know how it could be. We were pretty sure there were no white people ahead of us, and we did not suppose the Indians in this far-off land had any firearms. It might be barely possible that we were coming now to some wagon train taking a southern course, for we had never heard that there were any settlements in this direction and the barren country would preclude any such thing, as we viewed it now. If it was a hostile band we could not do much with a rifle and a shot gun toward defending ourselves or taking the aggressive. Some of the boys spoke of our scalps ornamenting a spear handle, and indulged in such like cheerful talk which comforted us wonderfully.
Finally we concluded we did not come out into that wild country to be afraid of a few gunshots, and determined to put on a bold front, fight if we had to, run away if we could not do any better, and take our chances on getting scalped or roasted. Just then we came in sight of three Indian lodges just a little back from the river, and now we knew for certain who had the guns. McMahon and I were in the lead as usual, and it was only a moment before one of the Indians appeared, gun in hand, and made motions for us to come on shore. A cottonwood tree lay nearly across the river, and I had gone so far that I had to go around it and land below, but the other boys behind were afraid to do otherwise than to land right there as the Indian kept his gun lying across his arm. I ran our canoe below to a patch of willows, where we landed and crawled through the brush till we came in sight of the other boys, where we stood and waited a moment to see how they fared, and whether our red men were friends or enemies. There were no suspicious movements on their part, so we came out and walked right up to them. There was some little talk, but I am sure we did not understand one another’s language, and so we made motions and they made motions, and we got along better. We went with them down to the tepee, and there we heard the first word that was at all like English and that was “Mormonee,” with a sort of questioning tone. Pretty soon one said “Buffalo,” and then we concluded they were on a big hunt of some sort. They took us into their lodges and showed us blankets, knives, and guns, and then, with a suggestive motion, said all was “Mormonee,” by which we understood they had got them from the Mormons. The Indian in the back part of the lodge looked very pleasant and his countenance showed a good deal of intelligence for a man of the mountains. I now told the boys that we were in a position where we were dependent on some one, and that I had seen enough to convince me that these Indians were perfectly friendly with the Mormons, and that for our own benefit we had better pass ourselves off for Mormons, also. So we put our right hand to our breast and said “Mormonee,” with a cheerful countenance, and that act conveyed to them the belief that we were chosen disciples of the great and only Brigham and we became friends at once, as all acknowledged. The fine-looking Indian who sat as king in the lodge now, by motions and a word or two, made himself known as Chief Walker, and when I knew this I took great pains to cultivate his acquaintance.
I was quite familiar with the sign language used by all the Indians, and found I could get along pretty well in making him understand and knowing what he said. I asked him first how many “sleeps” or days it was from there to “Mormonee.” In answer he put out his left hand and then put two fingers of his right astride of it, making both go up and down with the same motion of a man riding a horse. Then he shut his eyes and laid his head on his hand three times, by which I understood that a man could ride to the Mormon settlement in three sleeps or four days. He then wanted to know where we were going, and I made signs that we were wishing to go toward the setting sun and to the big water, and I said “California.” The country off to the west of us now seemed an open, barren plain, which grew wider as it extended west. The mountains on the north side seemed to get lower and smaller as they extended west, but on the south or east side they were all high and rough. It seemed as if we could see one hundred miles down the river, and up to the time we met the Indians we thought we had got through all our troublesome navigation and could now sail on, quietly and safely to the great Pacific Ocean and land of gold.
When I told Chief Walker this he seemed very much astonished, as if wondering why we were going down the river when we wanted to get west across the country. I asked him how many sleeps it was to the big water, and he shook his head, pointed out across the country and then to the river and shook his head again; by which I understood that water was scarce, out the way he pointed. He then led me down to a smooth sand bar on the river and then, with a crooked stick, began to make a map in the sand. First he made a long crooked mark, ten feet long or so, and pointing to the river to let me know that the mark in the sand was made to represent it. He then made a straight mark across near the north end of the stream, and showed the other streams which came into the Green river which I saw at once was exactly correct. Then he laid some small stones on each side of the cross mark, and making a small hoop of a willow twig, he rolled it in the mark he had made across the river, then flourished his stick as if he were driving oxen. Thus he represented the emigrant road. He traced the branches off to the north where the soldiers had gone, and the road to California, which the emigrants took, all of which we could see was correct. Then he began to describe the river down which we had come. A short distance below the road he put some small stones on each side of the river to represent mountains. He then put down his hands, one on each side of the crooked mark and then raised them up again saying e-e-e-e-e-e as he raised them, to say that the mountains there were very high. Then he traced down the stream to a place below where we made our canoes; when he placed the stone back from the river farther, to show that there was a valley there; then he drew them in close again farther down, and piled them up again two or three tiers high, then placing both fists on them he raised them higher than the top of his head, saying e-e-e-e-e-e and looking still higher and shaking his head as if to say:–“Awful bad cañon”, and thus he went on describing the river till we understood that we were near the place where we now were, and then pointed to his tepee, showing that I understood him all right. It was all correct, as I very well knew and assured me that he knew all about the country.
I became much interested in my new found friend, and had him continue his map down the river. He showed two streams coming in on the east side and then he began piling up stones on each side of the river and then got longer ones and piled them higher and higher yet. Then he stood with one foot on each side of his river and put his hands on the stones and then raised them as high as he could, making a continued e-e-e-e-e-e as long as his breath would last, pointed to the canoe and made signs with his hands how it would roll and pitch in the rapids and finely capsize and throw us all out. He then made signs of death to show us that it was a fatal place. I understood perfectly plain from this that below the valley where we now were was a terrible cañon, much higher than any we had passed, and the rapids were not navigable with safety. Then Walker shook his head more than once and looked very sober, and said “Indiano” and reaching for his bow and arrows, he drew the bow back to its utmost length and put the arrow close to my breast, showing how I would get shot. Then he would draw his hand across his throat and shut his eyes as if in death to make us understand that this was a hostile country before us, as well as rough and dangerous.
I now had a description of the country ahead and believed it to be reliable. As soon as I could conveniently after this, I had a council with the boys, who had looked on in silence while I was holding the silent confab with the chief. I told them where we were and what chances there were of getting to California by this route, and that for my part I had as soon be killed by Mormans as by savage Indians, and that I believed the best way for us to do was to make the best of our way to Salt Lake. “Now” I said, “Those of you who agree with me can follow–and I hope all will.”
McMahon said that we could not understand a word the old Indian said, and as to following his trails, I don’t believe a word of it, and it don’t seem right.
He said he had a map of the country, and it looked just as safe to him to go on down the river as to go wandering across a dry and desolate country which we knew nothing of. I said to McMahon–“I know this sign language pretty well. It is used by almost all the Indians and is just as plain and certain to me as my talk is to you. Chief Walker and his forefathers were borne here and know the country as well as you know your father’s farm, and for my part, I think I shall take one of his trails and go to Salt Lake and take the chances that way. I have no objections to you going some other way if you wish to and think it is best”. McMahon and Fields concluded they would not follow me any farther.
I then went to Chief Walker and had him point out the trail to “Mormonie” as well as he could. He told me where to enter the mountains leading north, and when we got part way he told me we would come to an Indian camp, when I must follow some horse tracks newly made; he made me know this by using his hands like horse’s forefeet, and pointed the way.
Some of the young men motioned for me to come out and shoot at a mark with them, and as I saw it would please them I did so and took good care to beat them every time too. Then they wanted to swap (narawaup) guns with me which I declined doing. After this the Chief came to me and wanted me to go and hunt buffalo with them. I told him I had no horse, and then he went and had a nice gray one brought up and told me I could ride him if I would go. He took his bow and arrow and showed me how he could shoot an arrow straight through a buffalo just back of his short ribs and that the arrow would go clear through and come out on the other side without touching a bone. Those fellows were in fine spirit, on a big hunt, and when Walker pointed out his route to me he swung his hand around to Salt Lake.
They all spoke the word buffalo quite plainly. I took his strong bow and found I could hardly pull it half way out, but I have no doubt he could do as he said he could. I hardly knew how to refuse going with him. I asked him how long it would be before he would get around his long circuit and get to Salt Lake, to which he replied by pulverizing some leaves in his hands and scattering them in the air to represent snow, which would fall by the time he got to “Mormonee”. I shivered as he said this and by his actions I saw that I understood him right.
I told him I could not go with him for the other boys would depend on me to get them something to eat, and I put my finger into my open mouth to tell him this. I think if I had been alone I should have accepted his offer and should have had a good time. I gave them to understand that we would swap (narawaup) with them for some horses so he brought up a pair of nice two year-old colts for us. I offered him some money for them, he did not want that, but would take clothing of almost any kind. We let them have some that we could get along without, and some one let Walker have a coat. He put it on, and being more warmly dressed than ever before, the sweat ran down his face in streams. We let them have some needles and thread and some odd notions we had to spare. We saw that Walker had some three or four head of cattle with him which he could kill if they did not secure game at the time they expected.
McMahon and Field still persisted they would not go with us and so we divided our little stock of flour and dried meat with them as fairly as possible and decided we would try the trail. When our plans were settled we felt in pretty good spirits again, and one of the boys got up a sort of corn-stalk fiddle which made a squeaking noise and in a little while there was a sort of mixed American and Indian dance going on in which the squaws joined in and we had a pretty jolly time till quite late at night. We were well pleased that these wild folks had proved themselves to be true friends to us.
The morning we were to start I told the boys a dream I had in which I had seen that the course we had decided on was the correct one, but McMahon and Field thought we were foolish and said they had rather take the chances of going with the Indians, or going on down the river. He seemed to place great stress on the fact that he could not understand the Indians.
Said he:–“This Indian may be all right, and maybe he will lead us all into a dreadful trap. They are treacherous and revengeful, and for some merely fancied wrong done by us, or by some one else of whom we have no control or knowledge, they may take our scalps, wipe us out of existence and no one will ever know what became of us. Now this map of mine don’t show any bad places on this river, and I believe we can get down easily enough, and get to California some time. Field and I cannot make up our minds so easily as you fellows. I believe your chances are very poor.”
The boys now had our few things loaded on the two colts, for they had fully decided to go with me, and I was not in the least put back by McMahon’s dire forebodings. We shook hands with quivering lips as we each hoped the other would meet good luck, and find enough to eat and all such sort of friendly talk, and then with my little party on the one side and McMahon and Field, whom we were to leave behind, on the other, we bowed to each other with bared heads, and then we started out of the little young cottonwoods into the broad plain that seemed to get wider and wider as we went west.
The mountains on the northern side grew smaller and less steep as we went west, and on the other hand reached down the river as far as we could see. The plain itself was black and barren and for a hundred miles at least ahead of us it seemed to have no end. Walker had explained to us that we must follow some horse tracks and enter a cañon some miles to the northwest. He had made his hands work like horses’ feet, placing then near the ground as if following a trail, We were not much more than a mile away when on looking back, we saw Chief Walker coming towards us on a horse at full speed; and motioning for us to stop. This we did, though some of the boys said we would surely be marched back and scalped. But it was not for that he came. He had been watching us and saw that we had failed to notice the tracks of the horses he told us about so he rode after us, and now took us off some little distance to the right, got off his horse and showed us the faint horse tracks which we were to follow and said “Mormonie”. He pointed out to us the exact cañon we were to enter when we reached the hills; and said after three “sleeps” we would find an Indian camp on top of the mountain. He then bade us good bye again and galloped back to his own camp.
We now resumed our journey, keeping watch of the tracks more closely, and as we came near the spurs of the mountain which projected out into the barren valley we crossed several well marked trails running along the foot hills, at right angles to our own. This we afterwards learned was the regular trail from Santa Fé to Los Angeles. At some big rocks further on we camped for the night, and found water in some pools or holes in the flat rocks which held the rain.
Reading people of to-day, who know so well the geography of the American continent, may need to stop and think that in 1849 the whole region west of the Missouri River was very little known, the only men venturesome enough to dare to travel over it were hunters and trappers who, by a wild life had been used to all the privations of such a journey, and shrewd as the Indians themselves in the mysterious ways of the trail and the chase. Even these fellows had only investigated certain portions best suited to their purpose.
The Indians here have the reputation of being blood thirsty savages who took delight in murder and torture, but here, in the very midst of this wild and desolate country we found a Chief and his tribe, Walker and his followers who were as humane and kind to white people as could be expected of any one. I have often wondered at the knowledge of this man respecting the country, of which he was able to make us a good map in the sand, point out to us the impassable cañon, locate the hostile indians, and many points which were not accurately known by our own explorers for many years afterward. He undoubtedly saved our little band from a watery grave, for without his advice we had gone on and on, far into the great Colorado cañon, from which escape would have been impossible and securing food another impossibility, while destruction by hostile indians was among the strong probabilities of the case. So in a threefold way I have for these more than forty years credited the lives of myself and comrades to the thoughtful interest and humane consideration of old Chief Walker.
In another pool or pond near the one where we were camped I shot a small duck. Big sage was plenty here for fuel and we had duck for supper. Our party consisted of five men and two small ponies only two years old, with a stock of provisions very small including that the old chief had given us. We started on in the morning, following our faint trail till we came to the cañon we had in view, and up this we turned as we had been directed, finding in the bottom a little running stream. Timber began to appear as we ascended, and grass also. There were signs of deer and grouse but we had no time to stop to hunt, for I had the only gun and while I hunted the others must lie idly by. We reached the summit at a low pass, and just above, on the north side of the higher mountains were considerable banks of snow. Following the Chief’s instructions we left the trail and followed some horse tracks over rolling hills, high on the mountain side. We found the Indian camp exactly as the Chief had described, consisting of two or three lodges. The men were all absent hunting, but the women were gathering and baking some sort of a root which looked like a carrot. They made a pile of several bushels and covered it with earth, then made a fire, treating the pile some as a charcoal burner does his pit of coal. When sufficiently cooked they beat them up and made the material into small cakes which were dried in the sun. The dried cakes were as black as coal and intended for winter use. These roots before roasting were unfit for food, as they contained a sort of acrid juice that would make the tongue smart and very sore but there was a very good rich taste when cooked. The woman pointed to our horses and said “Walker”, so we knew they were aware that we got them of him, and might have taken us for horse thieves for aught I know. As it was not yet night when we came to the camp, we passed on and camped on a clear mountain brook where grew some pine trees. After a little some of the Indians belonging to the camp we had passed came in, bringing some venison, for which we traded by giving them some needles and a few other trinkets. I beat these fellows shooting at a mark, and then they wanted to trade guns, which I declined. This piece of meat helped us along considerably with our provisions, for game was very scarce and only some sage hens had come across our trail. One day I scared a hawk off the ground, and we took the sage hen he had caught and was eating, and made some soup of it.
After being on this trail six or seven days we began to think of killing one of our colts for food, for we had put ourselves on two meals a day and the work was very hard; so that hunger was all the time increasing. We thought this was a pretty long road for Walker to ride over in three sleeps as he said he could, and we began also to think there might be some mistake somewhere, although it had otherwise turned out just as he said. On the eighth day our horse-tracks came out into a large trail which was on a down grade leading in a northward direction. On the ninth day we came into a large valley, and near night came in sight of a few covered wagons, a part of a train that intended going on a little later over the southern route to Los Angeles but were waiting for the weather to get a little cooler, for a large part of the route was over almost barren deserts. We were very glad to find these wagons, for they seemed to have plenty of food and the bountiful supper they treated us to was the very thing we needed. We camped here and told them of the hardships we had passed through. They had hired a guide, each wagon paying him ten dollars for his service. Our little party talked over the situation among ourselves, and concluded that as we were good walkers we must allow ourselves to be used in any way so that we had grub and concluded as many of us as possible would try to get some service to do for our board and walk along with the party. John Rogers had a dollar and a half and I had thirty dollars, which was all the money we had in our camp. We found out we were about 60 miles south of Salt Lake City. Some of the boys next day arranged to work for their board, and the others would be taken along if they would furnish themselves with flour and bacon. This part of the proposition fell to me and two others, and so Hazelrig and I took the two colts and started for the city, where they told us we could get all we needed with our little purse of money. We reached Hobble Creek before night, near Salt Lake where there was a Mormon fort, and were also a number of wagons belonging to some prospecting train. There seemed to be no men about and we were looking about among the wagons for some one to inquire of, when a woman came to the front of the last wagon and looked out at us, and to my surprise it was Mrs. Bennett, wife of the man I had been trying to overtake ever since my start on this long trip. Bennett had my entire outfit with him on this trip and was all the time wondering whether I would ever catch up with them. We stayed till the men came in with their cattle towards night, and Bennett was glad enough to see me, I assure you. We had a good substantial supper and then sat around the campfire nearly all night telling of our experience since leaving Wisconsin. I had missed Bennett at the Missouri River. I knew of no place where people crossed the river except Council Bluff, here I had searched faithfully, finding no trace of him, but it seems they had crossed farther up at a place called Kanesville, a Mormon crossing, and followed up the Platte river on the north side. Their only bad luck had been to lose a fine black horse, which was staked out, and when a herd of buffaloes came along he broke his rope and followed after them. He was looked for with other horses, but never found and doubtless became a prize for some enterprising Mr. Lo. who was fortunate enough to capture him. Hazelrig and I told of our experience on the south side of the Platte; why we went down Green River; what a rough time we had; how we were stopped by the Indians and how we had come across from the river, arriving the day before and were now on our way to Salt Lake to get some flour and bacon so we could go on with the train when it started as they had offered to haul our grub for our service if we could carry ourselves on foot.
Mr. Bennett would not hear of my going on to Salt Lake City, for he said there must be provisions enough in the party and in the morning we were able to buy flour and bacon of John Philips of Mineral Point Wis. and of Wm. Philips his brother. I think we got a hundred pounds of flour and a quantity of bacon and some other things. I had some money which I had received for my horse sold to Dallas, but as the others had none I paid for it all, and told Hazelrig to take the ponies and go back to camp with a share of the provisions and do the best he could. I had now my own gun and ammunition, with some clothing and other items which I had prepared in Wisconsin before I started after my Winnebago pony, and I felt I ought to share the money I had with the other boys to help them as best I could. I felt that I was pretty well fixed and had nothing to fear.
Mr. Bennett told me much of the trip on the north side of the Platte. He said they had some cholera, of which a few people died, and related how the outer if not the inner nature of the men changed as they left civilization, law and the courts behind them. Some who had been raised together, and lived together all their lives without discord or trouble, who were considered model men at home and just the right people to be connected with in such an expedition, seemed to change their character entirely out on these wild wastes. When anything excited their displeasure their blood boiled over, and only the interference of older and wiser heads on many occasions prevented bloodshed. Some dissolved the solemn contract they had made to travel together systematically and in order and to stand, by, even unto death, and when they reached the upper Platte, the journey only half over, talked of going back, or splitting up the outfit and join others they had taken a fancy to. Some who could not agree upon a just division of a joint outfit, thinking one party was trying to cheat, would not yield but would cut their wagons in two lengthwise just for spite so that no carts could be made and the whole vehicle spoiled for both parties. The ugly disagreements were many and the cloven foot was shown in many ways. Guns were often drawn and pointed but some one would generally interfere and prevent bloodshed. Others were honest and law abiding to the last degree beyond law and churches, and would act as harmoniously as at home, obeying their chosen captain in the smallest particular without any grumbling or dissension, doing to every one as they would be done by. These were the pride of the train. The trains were most of them organized, and all along the river bottom one was hardly ever out of sight of some of the wagons, all going west. Buffalo and antelope were plenty and in great droves, followed always by wolves great and small, who were on the lookout for crippled or dead animals with which to fill their hungry stomachs. Buffalo meat was plenty and much enjoyed while passing this section of the road and this opportunity of replenishing, enabled the stock to last them over more desolate regions where game was scarce.
After Bennett had told his stories, and I had related more of our own close escapes I began to ask him why he went this way which seemed to be very circuitous and much longer than the way they had first intended to go. He said that it was too late in the season to go the straight-road safely, for there was yet 700 miles of bad country to cross and do the best they could it would be at the commencement of the rainy season before the Sierra Nevada mountains could be reached and in those mountains there was often a snow fall of 20 feet or more, and anyone caught in it would surely perish. If they tried to winter at the base of the mountains it was a long way to get provisions, and no assurance of wild game, and this course was considered very hazardous for any one to undertake. This they had learned after consulting mountaineers and others who knew about the regions, and as there was nothing doing among the Latter Day Saints to give employment to any one, it was decided best to keep moving and go the southern route by way of Los Angeles. No wagons were reported as ever getting through that way, but a trail had been traveled through that barren desert country for perhaps a hundred years, and the same could be easily broadened into a wagon road.
After days of argument and camp-fire talks, this Southern route was agreed upon, and Capt. Hunt was chosen as guide. Capt. Hunt was a Mormon, and had more than one wife, but he had convinced them that he knew something about the road. Each agreed to give him ten dollars to pilot the train to San Bernardino where the Mormon Church had bought a Spanish grant of land, and no doubt they thought a wagon road to that place would benefit them greatly, and probably gave much encouragement for the parties to travel this way. It was undoubtedly safer than the northern mountain route at this season of the year. It seemed at least to be a new venture for west-bound emigrant trains, at least as to ultimate success, for we had no knowledge of any that had gone through safely.
Some western people remembered the history of the Mormons in Illinois and Missouri, and their doings there, feared somewhat for their own safety now that they were so completely under their power, for they knew the Mormons to be revengeful and it was considered very unsafe for any traveler to acknowledge he was from Missouri. Many a one who had been born there, and lived there all his life, would promptly claim some other state as his native place. I heard one Mormon say that there were some Missourians on the plains that would never reach California. “They used us bad,” said he, and his face took on a really murderous look.
These Mormons at Salt Lake were situated as if on an island in the sea, and no enemy could reach any adjoining state or territory if Brigham Young’s band of destroying angels were only warned to look after them.
At a late hour that night we lay down to sleep, and morning came clear and bright. After breakfast Mr. Bennett said to me:–“Now Lewis I want you to go with me; I have two wagons and two drivers and four yoke of good oxen and plenty of provisions. I have your outfit yet, your gun and ammunition and your two good hickory shirts which are just in time for your present needs. You need not do any work. You just look around and kill what game you can for us, and this will help as much as anything, you can do.” I was, of course glad to accept this offer, and thanks to Mr. Bennett’s kind care of my outfit, was better fixed then any of the other boys.
We inquired around among the other wagons as to their supply of flour and bacon; and succeeded to getting flour from Mr. Philips and bacon from some of the others, as much as we supposed the other boys would need, which I paid for, and when this was loaded on the two colts Hazelrig started back alone to the boys in camp. As I was so well provided for I gave him all my money for they might need some, and I did not.
The wagons which composed the intended train were very much scattered about, having moved out from Salt Lake at pleasure, and it was said to be too early to make the start on the southern route, for the weather on the hot, barren desert was said to grow cooler a little later in the season, and it was only at this cool season that the south west part of the desert could be crossed in safety. The scattering members of the train began to congregate, and Capt. Hunt said it was necessary to have some sort of system about the move, and that before they moved they must organize and adopt rules and laws which must be obeyed. He said they must move like an army, and that he was to be a dictator in all things except that in case of necessity a majority of the train could rule otherwise. It was thought best to get together and try a march out one day, then go in camp and organize.
This they did, and at the camp there was gathered one hundred and seven wagons, a big drove of horses and cattle, perhaps five hundred in all. The train was divided into seven divisions and each division was to elect its own captain. Division No. 1 should lead the march the first day, and their men should take charge of the stock and deliver them to the wagons in the morning, and then No. 1 should take the rear, with No. 2 in the lead to break the road. The rear division would not turn a wheel before 10 o’clock the next day, and it would be about that time at night before they were in camp and unyoked. The numbers of animals cleaned out the feed for a mile or two each side of the camp and a general meeting was called for the organization of the whole. Mr. L. Granger got up so he could look over the audience and proceeded to explain the plan and to read a preamble and resolutions which had been prepared as the basis for government. I remember that it begun thus:–“This Organization shall be known and designated as the Sand Walking Company, and shall consist of seven divisions etc,” detailing the manner of marching as we have recited. Capt J. Hunt was chosen commander and guide, and his orders must be obeyed. All possible trouble that we could imagine might come was provided against in our written agreement, and all promised to live up to it.