Those who’ve read my latest book, “Wood, Iron and Blood“, will remember its description of the California Trail, taken by many emigrants from the eastern states to California and Oregon in the 1840’s and 1850’s. I read many accounts of the crossing while preparing to write that book.
One of the more interesting travelogs was “Death Valley in ’49” by William L. Manly, describing his journey by wagon to Pacific Springs in Wyoming, followed by a hair-raising adventure by boat down the Green River until his party was within overland reach of Salt Lake City in Utah. From there, he continued along the southern route to complete his journey, passing through Death Valley in eastern California in the process, where he and his party nearly died – hence the title of his book.
His river journey was an unusual way of covering that part of the route (most emigrants continued by wagon), and not without its own hazards. I thought you might be interested in a different way to cross at least part of the continent.
When we came to the first water that flowed toward the Pacific Coast at Pacific Springs, we drivers had quite a little talk about a new scheme. We put a great many “ifs” together and they amounted to about this: If this stream were large enough; if we had a boat; if we knew the way; if there were no falls or bad places; if we had plenty of provisions; if we were bold enough to set out on such a trip, etc., we might come out at some point or other on the Pacific Ocean. And now when we came to the first of the “ifs,” a stream large enough to float a small boat, we began to think more strongly about the other “ifs.”
In the course of our rambles we actually did run across the second “if” in the shape of a small ferry boat filled up with sand on a bar, and it did not take very long to dig it out and put it into shape to use, for it was just large enough to hold one wagon at a time. Our military escort intended to leave us at this point, as their route now bore off to the north of ours. I had a long talk with the surgeon, who seemed well informed about the country, and asked him about the prospects. He did not give the Mormons a very good name. He said to me: “If you go to Salt Lake City, do not let them know you are from Missouri, for I tell you that many of those from that state will never see California. You know they were driven from Missouri, and will get revenge if they can.” Both the surgeon and the captain said the stream came out on the Pacific Coast and that we had no obstacles except cataracts, which they had heard were pretty bad. I then went to Dallas and told him what we proposed doing and to our surprise he did not offer any objections, and offered me $60 for my pony. He said he would sell us some flour and bacon for provisions also.
We helped them in crossing the river, which was somewhat difficult, being swift, with boulders in the bottom but we all got safely over and then made the trade we had spoken of. Dallas paid me for my pony and we took what flour and bacon he would let go. He gave us some ropes for head and stern lines to our boat and a couple of axes, and we laid these and our provisions in a pile by the roadside. Six of us then gave up our whips. Mr. S. McMahon, a driver, hesitated for some time, but being pressed by Dallas for a decision, at last threw down his whip and said: “I will go with the boys.” This left Dallas with only one driver, but he took a whip himself, and with the aid of the children and his wife, who drove the two-horse wagon, they got along very well. I paid for such provisions as we had taken, as the rest of the fellows had almost no money.
So we parted company, the little train slowly moving on its way westward; our military captain, the soldier boys, and the gay young lady taking the route to Oregon, and we sitting on the bank of the river whose waters flowed to the great Pacific. Each company wished the other good luck, we took a few long breaths, and then set to work in earnest to carry out our plans.
ABOUT the first thing we did was to organize and select a captain, and very much against my wish I was chosen to this important position. Six of us had guns of some sort; Richard Field, Dallas’s cook, was not armed at all. We had one regular axe and a large camp hatchet, which was about the same as an axe, and several very small hatchets owned by the men. All our worldly goods were piled up on the bank, and we were alone.
An examination of the old ferry boat showed it to be in pretty good condition, the sand with which it had been filled having kept it very well. We found two oars in the sand under the boat, and looked up some poles to assist us in navigation. Our cordage was rather scant, but the best we could get and all we could muster. The boat was about twelve feet long and six or seven feet wide, not a very well proportioned craft, but having the ability to carry a pretty good load. We swung it up to the bank and loaded up our goods and then ourselves. It was not a heavy load for the craft, and it looked as if we were taking the most sensible way to get to the Pacific, and we wondered that everybody was so blind as not to see it as we did.
This party was composed of W. L. Manly, M. S. McMahon, Charles and Joseph Hazelrig, Richard Field, Alfred Walton, and John Rogers. We untied the ropes, gave the boat a push, and commenced to move down the river with ease and comfort, feeling much happier than we would had we been going toward Salt Lake with the prospect of wintering there.
At the mouth of Ham’s Fork we passed a camp of Indians, but we kept close to the opposite shore to avoid being boarded by them. They beckoned very urgently for us to come ashore, but I acted as if I did not understand them, and gave them the go-by.
As we were floating down the rapid stream it became more and more a rapid, roaring river, and the bed contained many dangerous rocks that were difficult to shun. Each of us had a setting-pole, and we ranged ourselves along the sides of the boat and tried to keep clear from the rocks and dangers. The water was not very deep, and it made such a dashing noise as the current rushed among the rocks that one had to talk pretty loud to be heard. As we were gliding along quite swiftly, I set my pole on the bottom and gave the boat a sudden push to avoid a boulder, when the pole struck in the crevice between two rocks, and instead of losing the pole by the sudden jerk I gave, I was the one who was very suddenly yanked from the boat by the spring of the pole, and landed in the middle of the river. I struck pretty squarely on my back, and so got thoroughly wet, but swam for shore amid the shouts of the boys, who waved their hats and hurrahed for the captain when they saw he was not hurt. I told them that was nothing as we were on our way to California by water any way, and such things must be expected.
The next day after this I went on shore and sighted a couple of antelopes, one of which I shot, which gave us good grub, and good appetites we already had. As nearly as we could estimate we floated about thirty miles a day, which beat the pace of tired oxen considerably. In one place there was a fringe of thick willows along the bank, and a little farther back a perpendicular bluff, while between the two was a strip of fine green grass. As we were passing this we scared up a band of elk in this grass meadow, and they all ran down the river like a band of horses. One of them turned up a small ravine with walls so steep he could not get out, so we posted a guard at the entrance and three of us went up the cañon after him, and after the others had each fired a shot, I fired the third and brought him down. This was about the finest piece of Rocky Mountain beef that one could see. We took the carcass on board and floated on again.
Thus far we had had a very pleasant time, each taking his turn in working the boat while the others rested or slept. About the fifth day, when we were floating along in very gently running water, I had lain down to take a rest and a little sleep. The mountains here on both sides of the river were not very steep, but ran gradually for a mile or so. While I was sleeping, the boat came around a small angle in the stream, and all at once there seemed to be a higher, steeper range of mountains right across the valley. The boys thought the river was coming to a rather sudden end and hastily awoke me, and for the life of me I could not say they were not right, for there was no way in sight for it to go. I remembered that while looking over a map the military men had, I had found a place named Brown’s Hole, and I told the boys I guessed we were elected to go on foot to California after all, for I did not propose to follow the river down any sort of a hole into any mountain. We were floating directly toward a perpendicular cliff, and I could not see any hole anywhere, nor any other place where it could go. Just as we were within a stone’s throw of the cliff, the river turned sharply to the right and went behind a high point of the mountain that seemed to stand squarely on edge. This was really an immense crack or crevice, certainly 2,000 feet deep and perhaps much more, and seemed much wider at the bottom than it did at the top, 2,000 feet or more above our heads. Each wall seemed to lean in toward the water as it rose.
We were now for some time between two rocky walls between which the river ran very rapidly, and we often had to get out and work our boat over the rocks, sometimes lifting it off when it caught. Fortunately we had a good tow line, and one would take this and follow along the edge when it was so he could walk. The mountains seemed to get higher and higher on both sides as we advanced, and in places we could see quite a number of trees overhanging the river, and away up on the rocks we could see the wild mountain sheep looking down at us. They were so high that they seemed a mile away, and consequently safe enough. This was their home, and they seemed very independent, as if they dared us fellows to come and see them. There was an old cottonwood tree on the bank with marks of an axe on it, but this was all the sign we saw that anyone had ever been here before us. We got no game while passing through this deep cañon, and we began to feel the need of some fresh provisions very sorely.
We passed many deep, dark canons coming into the main stream, and at one place, where the rock hung a little over the river and had a smooth wall, I climbed up above the high water mark which we could clearly see, and with a mixture of gunpowder and grease for paint, I painted in fair sized letters on the rock, CAPT. W. L. MANLY, U. S. A. We did not know whether we were within the bounds of the United States or not, and we put on all the majesty we could under the circumstances. I don’t think the sun ever shone down to the bottom of the cañon, for the sides were literally sky-high, and the sky, and but a very small portion of that, was all we could see.
Just before night we came to a place where some huge rocks as large as cabins had fallen down from the mountain, completely filling up the river bed, and making it completely impassable for our boat. We unloaded it and while the boys held the stern line, I took off my clothes and pushed the boat out into the torrent which ran around the rocks, letting them pay the line out slowly till it was just right. Then I sang out to “Let go,” and away it dashed. I grasped the bow line, and at the first chance jumped overboard and got to shore, when I held the boat and brought it in below the obstructions. There was some deep water below the rocks, and we went into camp. While some loaded the boat, others with a hook and line caught some fish, which resembled mackerel.
While I was looking up toward the mountain top, and along down the rocky wall, I saw a smooth place about fifty feet above where the great rocks had broken out, and there, painted in large black letters, were the words “ASHLEY, 1824.” This was the first real evidence we had of the presence of a white man in this wild place, and from this record it seems that twenty-five years before some venturesome man had here inscribed his name. I have since heard there were some persons in St. Louis of this name, and of some circumstances which may link them with this early traveler.
When we came to look around we found that another big rock blocked the channel 300 yards below, and the water rushed around it with a terrible swirl. So we unloaded the boat again and made the attempt to get around it as we had done the other rocks. We tried to get across the river but failed. We now, all but one, got on the great rock with our poles, and the one man was to ease the boat down with the rope as far as he could, then let go and we would stop it with our poles and push it out into the stream and let it go over, but the current was so strong that when the boat struck the rock we could not stop it, and the gunwale next to us rose, and the other went down, so that in a second the boat stood edgewise in the water and the bottom tight against the big rock, and the strong current pinned it there so tight that we could no more move it than we could move the rock itself.
This seemed a very sudden ending to our voyage and there were some very rapid thoughts as to whether we would not be safer among the Mormons than out in this wild country, afoot and alone. Our boat was surely lost beyond hope, and something must be done. I saw two pine trees, about two feet through, growing on a level place just below, and I said to them that we must decide between going afoot and making some canoes out of these pine trees. Canoes were decided on, and we never let the axes rest, night or day, till we had them completed. While my working shift was off, I took an hour or two for a little hunting, and on a low divide partly grown over with small pines and juniper I found signs, old and new, of many elk, and so concluded the country was well-stocked with noble game. The two canoes, when completed, were about fifteen feet long and two feet wide, and we lashed them together for greater security.
When we tried them we found they were too small to carry our load and us, and we landed half a mile below, where there were two other pine trees—white pine—about two feet through, and much taller than the ones we had used. We set to work making a large canoe of these. I had to direct the work for I was the only one who had ever done such work. We worked night and day at these canoes, keeping a big fire at night and changing off to keep the axes busy. This canoe we made twenty-five or thirty feet long, and when completed they made me captain of it and into it we loaded the most valuable things, such as provisions, ammunition, and cooking utensils. I had to take the lead for I was the only skillful canoeist in the party. We agreed upon signals to give when danger was seen, or game in sight, and leading off with my big canoe we set sail again, and went flying down the stream.
This rapid rate soon brought us out of the high mountains and into a narrow valley, when the stream became more moderate in its speed and we floated along easily enough. In a little while after we struck this slack water, as we were rounding a point, I saw on a sand bar in the river five or six elk, standing and looking at us with much curiosity. I signaled for those behind to go to shore, while I did the same, and two or three of us took our guns and went carefully down along the bank, the thick brush hiding us from them till we were in fair range, then selecting our game we fired on them. A fine doe fell on the opposite bank, and a magnificent buck which Rogers and I selected, went below and crossed the river on our side. We followed him down along the bank, which was here a flat meadow with thick bunches of willows, and soon came pretty near to Mr. Elk, who started off on a high and lofty trot. As he passed an opening in the bushes I put a ball through his head and he fell. He was a monster. Rogers, who was a butcher, said he would weigh five hundred or six hundred pounds. The horns were fully six feet long, and by placing them on the ground, point downwards, one could walk under the skull between them. We packed the meat to our canoes, and stayed up all night cutting the meat in strips and drying it, to reduce bulk and preserve it, and it made the finest kind of food, fit for an epicure.
Starting on again, the river lost more and more of its rapidity as it came out into a still wider valley, and became quite sluggish. We picked red berries that grew on bushes that overhung the water. They were sour and might have been high cranberries. One day I killed an otter, and afterward hearing a wild goose on shore, I went after it and killed it on a small pond on which there were also some mallard ducks. I killed two of these. When I fired, the ones not killed did not fly away, but rather swam toward me. I suppose they never before had seen a man or heard the report of a gun. On the shore around the place I saw a small bear track, but I did not have time to look for his bearship, and left, with the game already killed, and passed on down through this beautiful valley.
We saw one place where a large band of horses had crossed, and as the men with them must have had a raft, we were pretty sure that the men in charge of them were white men. Another day we passed the mouth of a swollen stream, which came in from the west side. The water was thick with mud, and the fish, about a foot long, came to the top, with their noses out of water. We tried to catch some, but could not hold them. One night we camped on an island, and I took my gun and went over toward the west side, where I killed a deer. The boys, hearing me shoot, came out, guns in hand, thinking I might need help, and I was very glad of their assistance. To make our flour go as far as possible we ate very freely of meat, and having excellent appetites it disappeared very fast.
It took us two or three days to pass this beautiful valley, and then we began to get into a rougher country again, the cañons deeper and the water more tumultuous. McMahon and I had the lead always, in the big canoe. The mountains seemed to change into bare rocks and get higher and higher as we floated along. After the first day of this the river became so full of boulders that many times the only way we could do was to unload the canoes and haul them over, load up and go ahead, only to repeat the same tactics in a very short time again. At one place where the river was more than usually obstructed we found a deserted camp, a skiff and some heavy cooking utensils, with a notice posted up on an alder tree saying that they had found the river route impracticable, and being satisfied that the river was so full of rocks and boulders that it could not be safely navigated, they had abandoned the undertaking and were about to start overland to make their way to Salt Lake. I took down the names of the parties at the time in my diary, which has since been burned, and I have now forgotten them entirely. They were all strangers to me. They had left behind such heavy articles as could not be carried on foot. This notice rather disconcerted us, but we thought we had better keep on and see for ourselves, so we did not follow them, but kept on down the rocky river. We found generally more boulders than water, and the down grade of the river bed was heavy.
Some alders and willows grew upon the bank and up quite high on the mountains we could see a little timber. Some days we did not go more than four or five miles, and that was serious work, loading and unloading our canoes and packing them over the boulders, with only small streams of water curling around between them. We went barefoot most of the time, for we were more than half of the time in the water, which roared and dashed so loud that we could hardly hear each other speak. We kept getting more and more venturesome and skillful, and managed to run some very dangerous rapids in safety.
On the high peaks above our heads we could see the Rocky Mountain sheep looking defiantly at us from their mountain fastnesses, so far away they looked no larger than jack rabbits. They were too far off to try to shoot at, and we had no time to try to steal up any nearer, for at the rate we were making, food would be the one thing needful, for we were consuming it very fast. Sometimes we could ride a little ways, and then would come the rough-and-tumble with the rocks again.
One afternoon we came to a sudden turn in the river, more than a right angle, and, just below, a fall of two feet or more. This I ran in safety, as did the rest who followed, and we cheered at our pluck and skill. Just after this the river swung back the other way at a right angle or more, and I quickly saw there was danger below and signaled the men to go on shore at once, and lead the canoes over the dangerous rapids. I ran my own canoe near shore and got by the rapid safely, and waited for the others to come also. They did not obey my signals but thought to run the rapid the same as I had done. The channel here was straight for 200 yards, without a boulder in it, but the stream was so swift that it caused great rolling waves in the center, of a kind I have never seen anywhere else. The boys were not skillful enough to navigate this stream, and the suction drew them to the center where the great waves rolled them over and over, bottom side up and every way. The occupants of our canoe let go and swam to shore. Field had always been afraid of water and had worn a life preserver every day since we left the wagons. He threw up his hands and splashed and kicked at a terrible rate, for he could not swim, and at last made solid ground. One of the canoes came down into the eddy below, where it lodged close to the shore, bottom up. Alfred Walton, in the other canoe, could not swim, but he held on to the gunwale with a death grip, and it went on down through the rapids. Sometimes we could see the man and sometimes not, and he and the canoe took turns in disappearing. Walton had very black hair, and as he clung fast to his canoe his black head looked like a crow on the end of a log. Sometimes he would be under so long that we thought he must be lost, when up he would come again still clinging manfully.
McMahon and I threw everything out of the big canoe and pushed out after him. I told McMahon to kneel down so I could see over him to keep the craft off the rocks, and by changing his paddle from side to side as ordered, he enabled me to make quick moves and avoid being dashed to pieces. We fairly flew, the boys said, but I stood up in the stern and kept it clear of danger till we ran into a clear piece of river and overtook Walton clinging to the overturned boat. McMahon seized the boat and I paddled all to shore, but Walton was nearly dead and could hardly keep his grasp on the canoe. We took him to a sandy place and worked over him and warmed him in the sun till he came to life again, then built a fire and laid him up near to it to get dry and warm. If the canoe had gone on twenty yards farther with him before we caught it, he would have gone into another long rapid and been drowned. We left Walton by the fire and crossing the river in the slack water, went up to where the other boys were standing, wet and sorry-looking, saying that all was gone and lost. Rogers put his hand in his pocket and pulled out three half dollars and said sadly: “Boys, this is all I am worth in the world.” All the clothes he had were a pair of overalls and a shirt. If he had been possessed of a thousand dollars in gold he would have been no richer, for there was no one to buy from and nothing to buy. I said to them: “Boys, we can’t help what has happened, we’ll do the best we can. Right your canoe, get the water out, and we’ll see how Walton is.” They did as I told them, and lo and behold when the canoe rolled right side up, there were their clothes and blankets safe and sound. These light things had floated in the canoe and were safe. We now tried by joining hands to reach out far enough to recover some of the guns, but by feeling with our feet we found that the bottom was as smooth as glass and that our property had all swept on below, no one knew where. The current was so powerful that no one could stand in it where it came up above his knees. The eddy which enabled us to save the first canoe with the bedding and clothes was caused by a great boulder as large as a house which had fallen from above and partly blocked the stream. Everything that would sink was lost.
We all got into the two canoes and went down to Walton, where we camped and stayed all night for Walton’s benefit. While we were waiting, I took my gun and tried to climb up high enough to see how much longer this horrible cañon was going to last, but after many attempts, I could not get high enough to see in any direction. The mountain was all bare rocks in terraces, but it was impossible to climb from one to the other, and the benches were all filled with broken rocks that had fallen from above.
The next morning Walton was so well we started on. We were now very poorly armed. My rifle and McMahon’s shotgun were all the arms we had for seven of us, and we could make but a poor defense if attacked by man or beast, to say nothing of providing ourselves with food. The mountains on each side were very bare of timber, those on the east side particularly so, and very high and barren. Toward night we were floating along in a piece of slack water, the river below making a short turn around a high and rocky point almost perpendicular from the water. There was a terrace along the side of this point about fifty feet up, and the bench grew narrower as it approached the river. As I was coming down quite close under this bank I saw three mountain sheep on the bench above, and, motioning to the boys, I ran on shore and with my gun in hand crept down toward them, keeping a small pine tree between myself and the sheep. There were some cedar bushes on the point, and the pines grew about half way up the bank. I got within as good range as possible and fired at one of them, and the animal staggered around and fell down to the bottom of the cliff. I loaded and took the next largest one, which came down the same way. The third one tried to escape by going down the bend and creeping up a crevice, but could not get away and turned back cautiously, which gave me time to load again and put a ball through it. I hit it a little too far back for instant death, but I followed it up and found it down and helpless, and soon secured it. I hauled this one down the mountain, and the other boys had the two others secured by this time. McMahon was so elated at my success that he said: ” Manly, if I could shoot as you do I would never want any better business.” The other fellows said they guessed we were having better luck with one gun than with six, so we had a merry time after all. These animals were of a bluish color, with hair much finer than deer, and they resembled a goat more than a sheep. These three were all females and their horns were quite straight, not curved like the big males. We cut the meat from the bones and broke them up, making a fine soup which tasted pretty good. They were in good order, and the meat like very good mutton.
We kept pushing on down the river. The rapids were still dangerous in many places, but not so frequent nor so bad as the part we had gone over, and we could see that the river gradually grew smoother as we progressed. After a day or two we began to get out of the cañons, but the mountains and hills on each side were barren and of a pale yellow caste, with no chance for us to climb up and take a look to see if there were any chances for us farther along. We had now been obliged to follow the cañon for many miles, for the only way to get out was to get out endwise, climbing the banks being utterly out of the question. But these mountains soon came to an end, and there was some cottonwood and willows on the bank of the river, which was now so smooth we could ride along without the continual loading and unloading we had been forced to practice for so long. We had begun to get a little desperate at the lack of game, but the new valley, which grew wider all the time, gave us hope again, even though it was quite barren everywhere except back of the willow trees.
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 gunshot, 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 were a hostile band we could not do much with a rifle and a shotgun toward defending ourselves or taking the aggressive. Finally we concluded we had not come into this wild country to be afraid of a few gunshots, and determined to put on a bold front and take our chances on getting scalped or roasted. Just then we came in sight of three Indian lodges 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 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, when 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 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 hands to our breasts 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. 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 the 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 with a crooked stick began to make a map in the sand. First he made a long crooked mark, ten feet long or so, 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 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 had 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 until 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 finally capsize and throw us all out. He then made signs of death to show us that it was a fatal place. I understood perfectly 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 after this as I conveniently could, 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 Mormons 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 born 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 Field concluded they would not follow me any farther.
I then went to Chief Walker and had him point out the trail to “Mormonee” 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. Then they wanted to swap guns with me, which I declined doing. After this the Chief came to me and wanted me to go and hunt buffaloes 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 spirits, 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 correctly.
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 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 made a corn-stalk fiddle which made a squeaking noise and in a little while there was a mixed American and Indian dance going on; 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 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 on down the river than of going with the Indians. McMahon seemed to place great stress on the fact that he could not understand the Indians. “This Indian may be all right,” he said, “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 up 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.
There you have it: an unusual diversion from the normal wagon route from Wyoming to Salt Lake City, and a rather dangerous one, taken by very few emigrants. I’m struck yet again by their willingness to risk danger and privation, something we seem to have lost in modern society. “Manly manhood” seems to have become undervalued in our over-urbanized, risk-averse society.