Frank M. Gilcrest letter to Charley, 9 Feb. 1908, in Frank M. Gilcrest autobiography, 1908, 2-10.
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The latter part of May, 1864, Father returned from California, having ridden night and day for 21 days, in an overland Stage Coach. He had an outside seat with the driver, and at night would wrap himself in a blanket, and curl up on the mail sacks in the front “boot” where he would get a little sleep. He was pretty well done up by the trip.
On arrival he at once proceeded to secure an outfit for our trip across the Plains. He bought two large horses for our freight wagon, such animals as would bring fancy prices in San Francisco, for truck horses. Then he was fortunate enough to find a perfect match for “old Harry” both in color, build and gait. (You remember “Old Harry”, the chestnut pacer we raised from a colt). For the latter team we had a light spring wagon in which Father, Mother and Inez rode, and in which they had a comfortable bed. Us three boys rode in the big wagon, in which there was no place for a bed, and as we had no tent, we had to roll up in our blankets and sleep under the wagon, or any other old place that was handy. Many times we were wakened in the night, by the rain pouring down on us. We would simply roll over, pull the blanket over our faces and then go to sleep again. Such exposure never appeared to have any injurious effects.
On the Second day of July, 1864, we bid goodbye to friends and relatives at Newton, and started off on our trip across the continent. The first day we drove to Des Moines, the Capitol of the State. Here we put up at a cheap hotel, but we did not sleep much, as the beds were infested with bed bugs, and they were ravenously hungry. It was four months before we again slept in a house. On the Fifth of July we crossed the Missouri River, at Plattsmouth, on a very primitive sort of a ferry boat. From here we started off onto the unpeopled, treeless and apparently limitless Plains.
Although father had crossed the Plains in 1859, with ox teams and again on the Overland Stage, he had evidently failed to profit by the experience, as evidenced by our inadequate equipment for this journey. We should have had one or more extra horses, as few outfits failed to lose at least one on the trip. (We lost two). One of our wagons was a fairly good one for such a journey, but the other, a light spring wagon, was never built for such work. Then our supply of provisions was entirely inadequate. We had sufficient to last us about two weeks. Father’s plan was to buy what we needed, at the trading posts along the road, and thus travel light. The posts, however, were long distances apart, and then we had to pay outrageous prices for everything we needed, resulting in our soon running out of money. I don’t know what would have become of us, if father had not been a member in good standing of the Masonic Order. Brother Masons came to his relief, and made it possible for us to reach our destination.
A few days after crossing the Missouri, we learned that the Indians, clear out to the Rockies, were all out on the war path. This was startling news for us, as we were traveling alone, and our only weapon of defense was my old double barreled, muzzle loading German shot gun. The best shooting gun that I ever sighted over, but I had no buckshot for it, so it was of but little use. In a day or two we reached the trading post of Fort Kearney, where we bought a six inch 38 Smith & Wesson, revolver, with plenty of cartriges, and a lot of buckshot for the gun. Thereby putting ourselves in much better condition for meeting trouble on the way.
Our fighting force, however, was altogether too small for safety. Only father and myself, so it was necessary for us to catch up with men on the road ahead of us, or wait for those behind, to catch up with us. We were late in starting out on our trip, so decided to drive ahead, especially as we had learned that there was a large party of immigrants ahead of us, bound for Salt Lake City, a lot of Old Country converts to the Mormon Faith. Our only safety lay in catching up with these people, and that quickly, as the danger was increasing every day. So we started off on forced drives, and in a couple of days we overtook a man named Lee, who with his wife, and a hired man, had like ourselves started out on this hazardous trip, without any comrades to assist him in time of need. Unlike ourselves, however, they were well supplied with everything needful on the road. We gave them the news of the Indian outbreak, and of our plan to overtake the Mormon train ahead of us.
Lee of course, joined forces with us, and we did some hard driving for a few days, when we reached the South Platte River at the old Emigrant Crossing, where is now located the City of Julesburg. Here we found the Mormons had just crossed the River, and gone into camp for the day, as the crossing was very tiresome for the teams, the river being full of quicksands, and then one could not drive straight across, but had to zigzag up and down the River, following the sandbars, making the trip fully a mile in length. Father and I drove over all right, our wagons being light, but our friend Lee, who had two wagons, one of them heavily loaded, and but two horses to each, borrowed my heavy team to help them get over. When they had gotten about half way over, I saw one of my horses fall down in the water, but the drive soon got him on his feet again, but they came only a short distance when down he went again, and the man appeared to be unable to get him up, but just stood there holding his head out of the water. It was very evident that he needed help, and that quickly, for if the wagons were not kept moving they would soon settle down in the quicksand. So I threw off my shoes and jacket, and made a bee line for the seat of trouble. Most of the way the water was quite shallow, and I could make good time running, but ever little while I would strike a deep place, and have to swim, but I got there in record time, and none too soon, as the wagon had settled down in the sand considerable. As soon as we got the horse on his feet, and as he had had a rest, we reached shore without any more mishaps. The horse was a very heavy, short legged fellow, and having crossed the River twice, and now on his third trip without any rest, had gotten leg weary, and just gave up. It is very tiresome work driving over quicksands, the wagon jolts along as though you were driving over cobble stones.
Having safely crossed the River, we drove up to the Mormon camp ground, where we found as leader of the outfit, a Mr. Murdock, who held a commission from Birgam Young, as Captain of the Immigration Trains. His duty was to take 40 or 50 six mule teams to St. Joe on the Missouri River, where he would buy supplies for the Church Store, and meet the Converts to the Faith, and bring them out to Salt Lake. On the road, (like a ship captain at sea), his authority was absolute, even to the death penalty. He had crossed the Plains 18 or 20 times, so was well posted on the whole country, and knew a great many of the Indians who inhabited it. We found him to be a very nice fellow, and he readily consented to our joining forces with him, but we must look to him as our Chief. The party was under strict military rules, 52 men of us, all names enrolled, and each night four men were detailed for horse guard, and two for camp duty. We were favored by being detailed for camp guard only.
On arrival at our camping place each evening, the Mormon wagons would be parked in the shape of a diamond. The first two driving up side by side about ten feet apart, the next two following with their four wheels just lapping over the outer hind wheels of the first wagons, and so on until half of them were in place and the diamond completed, the last two being close together. Our four “Gentile” wagons were drawn up side by side, about 16 feet in front of that 10 foot opening in the diamond. This was done so that in event of trouble with the Indians, we could run the horses inside the corral, and fight from behind the wagons.
At 8 P.M. guard No. 1 went on duty, his first task was to see that all fires and lights were put out, and every one inside the enclosure, or in the wagons. He then started on his lonesome tramp, encircling the camp, at some distance from the wagons. At midnight he wakened No.2, who guarded camp the rest of the night. In order to find feed for our stock, we would frequently have to drive them a mile or two from camp, as the grass was all eaten off near the road. To guard the stock, Murdock detailed 4 men each night. Two of them would roll up in their blankets and sleep until midnight, with their saddle horses picketed out within reach of their hands. The other two would ride herd until 12, when they would change places. During the day, while on the road, wherever there was a chance for an ambuscade, Murdock would send out 2 or 3 skirmishers on horseback, to prevent any surprises. We were always on our guard, and to this, combined with our strength, we owe our safe passage across the Plains.
We lost but one man on the whole trip, and that was an accident. He was one of the horse guard, a blacksmith, was on the first watch, and had been instructed to come into camp as soon as it was daylight and mend a wagon. He had evidently wakened up all right, and gotten on his horse, without wakening his comrad, who was sleeping near him, had leaned his gun against a greasewood bush, and when in the saddle had reached for the muzzle of the gun, and in pulling it to him, caught the hammer on the bush, discharging the gun. The ounce ball entered just below the ear, and came out the top of his head. He never knew what hurt him. We buried him beside two other men who had been accidently killed at this camp in the two preceeding years. We left the South Platte at the crossing where we caught up with the Mormons, driving up Lodge Pole Creek, and then on over to the North Platte. After leaving Pole Creek, we camped at Mud Springs. The next morning we drove up onto a level table land, where off to the left we could see a cluster of rocks, looming up to quite a height. It looked perfectly level right up to them. I noticed also that the road made a detour away off to the right, and then circled back beyond the cliffs. I wondered at this, but found out the why of it later in the day.
I have always possessed a large bump of curiosity, if there was anything worth seeing, I wanted to see it, and here were these cliffs towering above everything else on the Plains, and I thought that by taking a 6 or 7 mile tramp I could get to the top of them, and have a fine view of the whole country. So I had my brother Murray drive my team, and I started off a foot and alone. I had thought the distance to the cliffs was about 3 or 4 miles, but after tramping 2 or  hours, I was some distance from them, and instead of finding it level right up to the rocks, I had come to a sheer drop of 60 or 80 feet down to a little valley, through which a small stream of water ran. I now understood why the road made that long detour. There was no place within a couple of miles of the cliffs, where the little valley or gulch could be crossed by the teams.
I tramped up along the edge of the bluff, looking for a place where I could get down into the valley, but after going a short distance, I discovered some smoke rising from below. We were in the midst of Indian country and I knew very well that no white men were camped there, so I cautiously crawled up to the edge of the cliff and looked over, and much to my consternation found there was a camp of Indians, 7 or 8 lodges. I now discovered that I had failed to put any extra cartriges in my pocket, (my belt had no place for them). Here I was with but five shots in my gun, no help within five or six miles, and a bunch of hostile Indians within 60 to 80 rods of me.
Right then and there, I wished very strongly that I had curbed my curiosity that morning, and staid with my wagon. I was very sure I had not been discovered, so I ran back from the bluff a ways, and then down for half a mile or so, where I found a place I could get down over the bank. Here the gulch was narrower, and there was an elbow in it above, shutting off a view of the Indian camp, and as I could see a place on the other side where I could get out of the gulch, I decided to cross at this point. It was risky business, as some of the Red fellows might have been down that way, but I had to get over somewhere, as our train had already passed far beyond the gulch, and my safety lay in that direction. I might have gone farther down before crossing, where it would have been less dangerous, but I did not want to go back to the train without having been to the top of those rocks. So I cautiously crawled down over the bluff, keeping a sharp lookout, both up and down the little valley. I made the trip all right, and was soon on the top of the bluff on the other side. I was still a little uneasy about those Indians, for I thought it was possible that some of them were up in the rocks, watching the train, and I might have a scrap with them yet. But as I had started out to visit the top of those cliffs, I decided to take the chances.
I reached the top all right, carved my name under a shelving rock had a magnificent view of the surrounding country, and then made tracks for camp, arriving there about one o’clock. I did a very foolish thing in making the trip, and the wonder is that I ever came out of it to tell the story. The clear atmosphere out here makes it very difficult to guess distances. Where I had expected to walk about 5 or 6 miles that morning, I in fact traveled 15 or 16.
The Indians killed a great many people that year. We would hear of murders every day or two. We came through, however, without any disturbances, owing unquestionably, to our vigilance, and numbers. Very few of the Indians had rifles at this time. They used bows and arrows. One day I saw some Indians killing buffalo with arrows. We were driving up the South bank of the North Platte, when over on the North bank of the River, we saw four Indians on their ponies, chasing two buffalo. They would ride up along side of the animals and shoot arrows into them just back of the fore leg. Pretty soon one of them went down, the other disappeared around a bluff, but they undoubtedly got him also.
Game was very scarce along the road, we got nothing larger than Jack Rabbit, and Sage Hens. We did see a few Antelope, but they were so very wild that we could not get near them, and we did not dare to go off into the hills after them, on account of the Indians. I have never been able to understand why it was that during our whole trip, we saw but the two buffalo spoken of, when a few years later, the thousands of men engaged in the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, over the same ground we traveled over, were fed almost exclusively on buffalo meat. Here was where “Buffalo Bill” made his great record as a hunter, as he had the contract to supply the meat.
A short distance West of Ft. Laramie, we camped at the "Cache la Poudre", a beautiful little stream, where we found the wreck of two wagons, and the bushes around, covered with fine feathers. It seems that a few days before, two men, their wives, a little girl and a hired man (colored) had camped here for a noon day rest. They had finished their lunch, and were about ready to hitch up, when a band of Indians rode into camp. One of them spoke pretty good English, and told the people that if they would give them something to eat they would not molest them. The men immediately got busy, getting out the food and starting up the fire again, when at a signal from one of the red Devils, they filled the men with arrows, killing all three.
They then put the women and the girl on some ponies, and part of the band started off with them, the rest stopping to destroy everything they did not want to carry off. Two or three feather beds were ripped open, and scattered over the bushes. The women supposed their fate would be worse than their husbands, and the mother was ready to take desperate chances for her little girl who was riding behind her. While going through some thick brush, she dropped her off having told her to hide in the bushes for a while, and then follow the trail back to the road, where she must look out for some white people. For some reason, the Indians allowed the girl to go, and she had evidently just reached the road, when the rest of the red fiends came up and shot her. Later in the day, a part of immigrants found the three dead men, and a little farther up the road, the little girl, with an arrow sticking out each side of her. The four bodies were buried at their last camping site, and a courier at once sent back to the Fort with the news of the murders.
At the Fort was a large encampment of Reservation Indians, among them the squaws of two of the Chiefs, the latter with a lot of other Indians were supposed to be off on a hunt, but were really on the war path. The Officer in charge took prompt action, he at once arrested the two squaws mentioned, and then sent an Indian runner after the murderers, with orders for the women to be brought in at once, and unharmed, or he would hang the squaws.
This course had the desired effect, as the women were promptly returned. I never learned the details of the punishment measured out to the murderers, but understood that a number of them were hung. To an Indian this is the most ignominious death he can suffer. No happy hunting grounds for him, if he is hung. Any other death is all right but the Great Spirit has no favors for the Indian that is hung.
On a portion of our trip up the North Platte, we were fortunate enough to have the protection of a troop of U.S. Cavalry, which was a source of great satisfaction to us, as this was a very dangerous part of the trip. The soldiers did not camp very near us, not so far away, however, but that we could hear their bugle calls. I used to think that the morning and evening bugle calls, echoing up and down the river was the sweetest music that I had ever heard. Picket duty, up in this part of the country was rather trying to one’s nerves, especially on a dark night.
One night we camped in a location which gave the Indians an elegant opportunity to rush us, if they chose to. I never could understand why Murdock, the experienced frontiersman that he was, should have selected such a location for our camping ground. Our wagons were parked on a bare, level plain, within about forty or fifty feet of a steep bank, that dropped down about eight feet, to a lower level, that extended out to the River, about twenty or thirty rods. This lower level was covered with a dense growth of sage brush, through which the Indians could have crept right up to our camp without being discovered. Fortunately for us, they were not hunting for trouble that night.
I was on guard that night, and I will not soon forget the incident. At 8 o’clock I buckled on my Smith and Wesson, shouldered my shot gun, loaded with buckshot, and started out to see that everyone was inside the enclosure or in the wagons, and to put out all fires. It was a moonless night, but bright starlight. I was very uneasy about that brush patch down below us, and I kept my eyes and ears wide open when I came around to that side of the camp. The coyotes usual serenaded us every night, and I liked to hear them when I was on guard, for that was evidence that no one was around, but when they quit barking, I began to get uneasy. About eleven o’clock I noted that the barking had ceased, and I hurried around to the danger side of the camp, where I dropped down on all fours, so I would not be outlined against the horizon, to any one down on the lower level. I then crawled up to the edge of the bank, and lay there for some time listening for any disturbance that there might be. I heard a little rustling in the leaves, but concluded that it was a wood rat or something of that sort, so I again took up my lonely tramp around the camp. A little later, I heard a very decided racket down in the bushes. My first impulse was to call out some of the men, but then I thought if it turned out to be only a coyote, prowling around, they would laugh at me, so I decided to investigate on my own hook. I jumped down the bank into the bushes, making quite a noise, following which I saw five or six heads pop up through the bushes, only ten or fifteen feet from me. Needless to say that I was considerably startled, and I can vouch for the fact that under certain conditions a man can think of an incredible number of things, in an exceedingly short space of time.
To tell all that I thought, would take some time, but the predominating thought was, you are in for it now, old fellow, but get as many of them as you can, before they get you. As my gun came to my shoulder, a white man’s voice snapped out, “Don’t shoot”, and it was none too soon, for my finger was on the trigger, and it was in a country, and under such circumstances, that one would have been justified in shooting first, and investigate afterwards. I kept them covered until they explained that they were Mormon teamsters who had crawled out from under the wagons while I was on the other side of the camp, and gone down into the bushes to find a warmer place to sleep. On learning that they belonged to our party, the quills went out of my hair, and my hat dropped down on my head again. I read the "riot act" to them and drove them back into camp. They were very much afraid that I would report them to Captain Murdock, and had I done so, they would undoubtedly have been severely punished, as they had violated strict orders.
A short time after this, we lost one of our large horses. We had camped where there was a nice little stream and good feed, but “old Bill” did not take advantage of it. He went down near the little creek and stood there as though he was thinking about something. On the other side of the creek was an overhanging bank, where the earth had been washed out underneath. Pretty soon Bill walked down into the water, kneeled down and shoved his head under the bank and drowned before we could get him out. Mother saw the whole performance, and claims that it was clear case of deliberate suicide. The old fellow was sick, having been badly alkalized from drinking the alkali water we were obliged to use. Some of the little lakes or ponds along the road were so rich in alkali that as the water evaporated, it crystallized around the edges like ice. The Mormons gathered large quantities of it, and carried to Salt Lake City to use as saleratus.
Shortly after leaving the North Platte, we struck the Sweet Water [Sweetwater], a beautiful little stream clear as crystal, and it was indeed sweet water, especially after the miserable alkali stuff we had been obliged to use for a number of days. On arrival at this stream, we found fine feed for the stock, so we stopped over a day, to give the animals a rest, and a good feed on the rich pasture. We camped on the creek just above what is known as the Devil’s Gate, a cleft in the solid rock, 50 to 100 feet deep, through which the stream passed a range of mountains to the plains beyond. On the South side of the Gate, there were wild flowers in great abundance, and this spot was called the Devil’s Garden. Across the creek, high up on the Mountain was the Devil’s Slide, and near it the Devil’s Wash Basin. Notwithstanding the fact that his Satanic Majesty had so much to do with the location, we enjoyed our rest there very much.
The next morning on driving up the creek a short distance, we discovered something that caused the fine water we had been enjoying to leave a bad taste in our mouths. A dead ox was lying in the stream and had been there so long that he was falling to pieces. One of the instances where we found it out. From here we soon reached the South Pass. This was one of the things in which I was badly disappointed. I had looked for great cliffs on either hand, a sort of gash through the rocks, and to reach it, we would have to climb steep mountains. As a matter of fact, however, the Pass is a large valley on top of the Rockies with some high peaks off in the distance, and with a light rig one could trot about all the way from the Missouri to the summit.
One night we camped in the Pass, and it was bitter cold, the wind blowing a gale. Shortly after this we camped on a little stream, (Ham’s Fork) where the water was awful. The only way we could use it was to boil it and make coffee. It was so strong of alkali that it tasted like soft soap. Fortunately we had but one day of it. The rest of the way to Salt Lake the water was fine. The Green River, the main tributary to the Colorado, is a beautiful stream up here, and is quite a large one. We had to ford it, and the water came near running into the wagon beds.
Shortly after crossing the “Green” we drove through Echo Canon, where one night we had one of the worst storms we experienced on the whole trip, and I laid out in it all night, the water coming down in such quantities that it was like a stream flowing over the whole surface of the ground.
The last day before we reached Salt Lake City, old Brigham Young, with an escort, came out to meet us. You see we were bringing him a lot of converts to the Mormon faith, most of them from Ireland, one of them an old woman some 80 or 90 years old, and she expected to marry, or rather be sealed to old Brigham and thereby renew her youth. I expect, however, that she kept on growing old, as Brigham selected younger material for sealing purposes.
Speaking of the old dame, reminds me of an incident that occurred at the Devil’s Gate. Her grandson, a lad of about 6 or 7 years, was asked by some boys to take a run down to the Devil’s Garden but he would not go. On being urged to do so, he replied, “Divil a bit will I go near the place. The Ould Gintleman might be out this foine day, and take me in wid him”. And that settled it, and he stuck close to his old Granny all day.
At one of our camps, back on the Platte, I was on guard, and near midnight I heard a great groaning in one of the Mormon wagons, and on investigation found this old woman was making the racket. All I could get out of her for some time was that she was starved. After firing a lot of questions at her I found she wanted a drink, and she wanted it hot, so I got a tin cup of water and set it on some coals that I raked out of one of the camp fires and got it nearly scalding hot, and gave it to her, and she drank it down as though it was but luke warm. She then began to groan out, “that was so good, that was so good.”
We stopped at Salt Lake City for about ten days to rest up our horses and buy another one to replace old Bill. Capt. Murdock had loaned us a horse to get us to this point.