Chapter 8: From Fort Kearney to Fort Laramie
Chapter 8: From Fort Kearney to Fort Laramie:
We stayed at the Fort for 3 days resting, fattening up the oxen on the good grass and clean water, and writing letters to send back East. Ma wrote to her brother George and her Ma, probably telling them not to come, though we never knew what she wrote, while Pa wrote to his brothers and his own Pa back in Indiana. There was a monthly post back to the East from Fort Kearney, and from places further west, there was no sure way to send word.
After our three day rest, spirits were high again and hope returned as we started back up. We were down to 42 wagons, a family that had two wagons and eleven kids had decided that they did not want to go on, but we heard at Fort Kearney that the Cholera was worse last year, and that many other wagon trains had fared worse than we had.
About a dozen more gold seekers joined our train, wanting to travel with us until we reached the split between the roads to Oregon and California. They were merry bearded men, all convinced that they were going to strike it rich and live like kings. Several of them had families, but had left them behind and headed out to the gold fields alone. With their wagons added to the train, we were back up to 45 wagons.
We had seen in St. Joseph, and out here on the trail, that not all the gold seekers were good men. Many were loud, angry, and fighting men, the sort Ma wouldn’t approve of. But Mr. Jones was a formidable man, respected and blunt, and the miners who joined our wagon train were respectful of his rules and in how they spoke and acted around the women and children.
About a week after Fort Kearney, we were crossing a small stream that didn’t appear all that big or dangerous. As we crossed, we saw a small group of Sioux Indians watching us. Two wagons ahead of us, one of the boys fell from the wagon into the creek. As he flailed and panic took over, one of the Sioux jumped into the water and saved him. It happened so fast, and was so unexpected, no one knew how to react. When the brave held the boy out to his parents on the shore, they cried and gave the man a knife and shirt. He took the gifts and returned to the other Sioux on the bluff. Many in the wagon train were faced for the first time with the reality that the Indians were not savages that could simply be written off, there was more complexity to it than that.
It was the 10th of June when we reached California Hill. Up to this point, the trip had been flat. We’d had to cross a few creeks, but nothing too bad, our biggest dangers had been cholera and quicksand when we crossed the rivers. But California Hill was our first real challenge. The mile and a half uphill grade took hours. The oxen had rested at Fort Kearney, but many of them were still weak from the sickness they got from the bad water. The wagons creaked and groaned in protest, the oxen strained and struggled. Whenever a tongue or axle snapped, the whole train had to stop, the break had to be repaired, then the whole group had to start again from a dead stop. The long and grinding slope took hours. The hill, softened from the recent rain, was soft and muddy, and some of the wagons got stuck, adding even more time. By the time we all reached the top, we were exhausted. We made a dry camp that night, at the top of the slope, too exhausted to go on.
In the morning when we went down the slope of California Hill, things were even more difficult. It was just three hundred feet long, but was by far the steepest slope we’d had to deal with. Mr. Jones worked his way down the wagon train, showing us all how to lock the wheels so we wouldn’t lose control of the wagons. We got off to a rough start when the very first wagon, Mr. Jones’ wagon, had a wheel snap, twisting the tongue of his wagon behind the oxen. As the weight shifted the wagon turned sideways, and began to tip. Mr. Jones quickly maneuvered the oxen to stop it, but the twisting snapped the tongue and one of the oxen let out a mighty bellow as his leg was snapped under him. The oxen was the only casualty in what could have been a fatal beginning to the descent. After this, we tied ropes to the wagons and with a number of men holding the ropes to slow the wagons down, began our descent wagon by wagon. It took most of a day to get all the wagons down this way, one by one. No one spoke both from the stress and the exhaustion, except to give direction as each man had to know his role to keep the wagons safe. Most men, my father included, had their family lead horses and walk down the grade, not trusting the safety of the wagon rides on this steep, dangerous descent. One wagon, near the end of the wagon train, ran over one of the oxen leading it when one of the ropes snapped. The wagon tipped and rolled sideways after hitting its oxen. Both oxen were killed and the driver was crushed by his own wagon. We had not lost anyone in a couple of weeks and the shock and suddenness of the accident were overwhelming even though we really didn’t know the man well. He was one of the miners, so there was not a family left behind, but the shock was still with us all. The last few wagons, including ours, made the descent without incident, but the horrors of our first big hill stayed with us long after we buried him.
A day after the hill, we came to Ash Hollow, one of the most beautiful camping sites on the trail. It had sweet, fresh water, lush grass, and an amazing campsite with a lot of wood available. We stayed an extra day to make repairs to our wagons and feed up our oxen and allow them to rest from their ordeal. The ash and cedar firewood made nice smelling campfires compared to the buffalo chips we were used to, and we all enjoyed our time at this site. It was our first time in weeks to have these luxuries. We kept that memory with us as the trail got drier.
On our extra day, John, Jim, and I went exploring. Pa warned us to be back well before dark and to stay together, and we were off. The river here was wide and blue, the cleanest, best tasting water we had seen in weeks. It turned out there were springs, and this was the source of the freshness. Beyond the springs, was a wooded area and a waterfall. As we continued, we found the caves. We made our way down into a great hole in the ground, carefully finding a way to descend. We made torches and explored the caves.
As we spread out a little bit, exploring different nooks and crannies in the caves, John shouted to us that he found something and we rushed over to his end of the cave. It was a whole bunch of bones, some of them bigger than anything we’d ever seen. One set looked like a puma with huge teeth, a bunch of others looked like something much larger than the buffalo we’d run into, with huge tusks and thick leg bones. We had no idea what any of them were, but they were incredible. As we searched the caves, we found arrow heads, stone tools, old campfires, and other things that we had never seen. We left most of them, just taking a few small pieces each to show our Pa.
Pa said the bones were old, no meat or tissue left on them, maybe from an Indian hunt before white people ever came to this area. He said the tools were also old, made of stone before the Indians started trading and getting metal for knives and hatchets. Nathan said that some of the bones looked like animal bones he had seen in a museum in New York, animals that no one had ever seen alive. I kept a tusk and a couple arrow heads, and the other boys kept their particular favorites. John kept a stone hatchet and a tusk from a strange puma, Jim a stone bowl, some arrowheads, and a rock with some carved pictures on it.
We left Ash Hollow early the next morning. Mr. Jones said we had to make up some ground to get through all the mountains before the snow. It was hard to imagine snow in June heat with a whole summer before us, but we still had a long way left to go. We saw shadowy mountains in the distance, and before long, we saw the strange shapes of Courthouse and Jailhouse rocks. It seemed like we would never reach them, every day we would make progress, but the rocks would look just as far away. Finally, we reached them. It was about mid day, when we made our stop for lunch right next to these landmarks.
Quite a few of us decided we wanted to go see them up close, and so we hiked to them as the wagons continued. Pa drove the wagon, while all of us kids, even little Allen and even Nathan and Nancy who never went on adventures walked to Courthouse Rock. Now that we had been away from cholera danger for a few weeks, we talked to others in the wagon train again, and it was quite a large group of us who went to the site. When we got there, we could see a way to the top, and while Nancy, Nathan, and most of the adults and the little kids stayed near the base, John, Jim, and I and a few others went to the top. It was a tough climb, but when we got there, we could see forever. We could see Chimney Rock, an even stranger shape, in the distance, and we could see our wagon train snaking through the valley, kicking up dust. To the north, we could see another big buffalo herd, and to the south, the wandering river. We were surprised how many other wagon trains we could see, east and west, the road seemed full of them. There were at least three in view besides our own, and dust clouds in both directions spoke of even more. We scratched our names in the rock and made our way back down. We headed west to cut off the wagon train as it moved forward.
It took us the rest of the day to catch up to the wagons. They had been stopped for a while, already circled up, when we finally got back to them.
“We were about to go searching for you” Pa said with a grin. Ma didn’t look so happy about it, but she perked up soon enough.
“Sir” asked Nathan in a shaky voice to Pa, “I’d like permission to marry your daughter here.” He seemed nervous, holding his hat in his hand.
“Well, boy, I was wonderin when you’d get round to that” Pa said with a grin. Ma jumped up and hugged him and went back to the wagon and began rustling around.
Pa and Nathan set out to find Mr. Jones, who told them that there would be a preacher at Fort Laramie a few days ahead. Mr. Jones made the big announcement after Pa and Nathan talked to him, and the whole wagon train was buzzing with excitement. There was excitement among the women of the wagon train when we all discovered Ma had managed to stow away her wedding gown among the quilts in the cramped, tightly packed wagon, which she pulled out in triumph as Pa and Nathan came back. Nancy was thrilled. They sewed feverishly those last few nights late into the night of every stop to alter it to fit Nancy for her Fort Laramie wedding.
It seemed like the idea of a wedding lifted everybody’s spirits. The rougher terrain and dry hot weather was taking a toll and again, people and oxen were struggling, but struggles were pushed aside when a wedding was planned and talked about. We had a long trek ahead, but for a few days, we could all live in the present.