'Recollections of a Pioneer' is an autobiographical account by J. Watt Gibson, which primarily focuses on the author's participation in the American Civil War. The book was written at the solicitation of many Gibson's friends and acquaintances who urged that his recollections of that period ought to be preserved. It covers the author's first journey to California in the late 1840s, gold mining, crossing the plains with cattle and his experiences during and after the Civil War, and ends with his return to Missouri and getting married in 1868.
CHAPTER II. Table of Contents
First Trip to California.
Late in the year 1848 or early in '49, we began to hear wonderful stories about gold in California. News traveled very slowly in those days, and we could depend very little upon its accuracy, but the reports that came convinced us that the discovery had actually been made and we readily pictured in our own minds the fortunes to be had in that country. Difficult as the methods of travel were in those days, we were not without information as to the route and character of the country intervening between us and California. Robert Gilmore, a neighbor of ours, had been overland to Oregon and back, and could tell us very definitely about the country out to a point beyond the Rocky Mountains. The talk of gold, and of an expedition to the country where it had been found, soon became general and it was not long until a party of men was made up to try their fortunes in California. Brother William, brother James and myself agreed to become members of the party, and we rigged up a wagon and four yoke of oxen, laid in a year's provisions, provided ourselves with guns and plenty of ammunition and joined others of a company who had made like provision. I must not neglect to mention that as an important part of our commissary we added a half barrel of good whiskey. We started on the first day of May and stopped over night at St. Joseph. The next day, everything being ready, we crossed the river on the ferry boat and pitched our tents the first night out on Peter's Creek. Our party consisted of twenty men and boys, all from Buchanan County. They were Robert Gilmore and his son Mat, James Gilmore and his son Dave, Ben Poteet, a man by the name of Spires and his son, Milt Gilmore, Lum Perkins, a man by the name of Fish, Charles McCray, Henry McCray, Liel Hulett, Mitch Hulett, old man Greenwood and his two sons, Brother William, Brother James, and myself. We had seven wagons, fifty-eight head of cattle and seven horses.
Robert Gilmore was our pilot. His previous journey over the road as well as his peculiar fitness for the task made the selection of any other person out of the question. He had an accurate memory concerning every point along the road. He knew the courses of the rivers and how to cross the desert divides at the narrowest places to avoid long distances without grazing and water for our cattle. He also knew better than any of us the habits of the Indians, and his experience with them often avoided trouble and saved our property and most likely our lives. He was cool-headed and prudent and as brave a man as I ever knew. It must be remembered that we made no provision whatever to feed our cattle and horses. We expected to move slowly and allow them time to graze for subsistence. During the first part of the journey at the season of the year in which it was made, we experienced no trouble whatever, as grass was very plentiful, but later on, as I shall relate, we often felt sorry for the poor dumb beasts that we had taken from the fine pastures of Buchanan County and driven out into that arid country.
Our second day's journey brought us to Wolf River. During the next few days our journey led us by gradual ascent up on to a high prairie, which must have been the water shed upon which the town of Sabetha is now situated. The whole earth was covered by abundant verdure, and I recall very distinctly the expansive view which presented itself in every direction from the crests of the ridges as we passed over them. There was not a single human habitation in sight and no evidences that human foot had ever been set upon this land, except the dim outline of the trail we were following. Only one or two companies were ahead of us and the tracks of their wagons and oxen made but little impression upon the fresh grown grass. Farther out the almost total absence of trees made the most vivid impression upon my mind, accustomed as I had been for so many years to a timbered country, and though I could see no evidences that the soil was not productive, I could hardly believe this place would ever be a fit habitation for men. We traveled some days over such country as I have described and no doubt passed over the sites of many present flourishing towns. The sixth or seventh day out, if I remember correctly, we reached the Big Blue. In our journey thus far, we had occasionally seen deer and antelope, but when we began to descend into the valley of the Big Blue we saw great numbers of these animals. On the banks of the river we found in camp a party of eastern emigrants who had left St. Joseph a few days in advance of our train. Their teams were all horses and they had camped for a time in order to lay in a supply of venison. Their horses were then in fine condition and they were riding them out on the prairies chasing the deer and antelope. We camped for the night and next morning, as usual, plodded on. Later in the day we were overtaken by these emigrants who trotted by us with their faster teams and made fun of our equipment. They told us, as they passed, that they would have the gold in California all mined out before we got there. Some of us, the younger members at least, who had had no experience on the plains, felt that they might be telling us the truth; but Gilmore assured us that we had taken the safer course and that we would reach California long in advance of those men, and that it was doubtful if they would ever get there at all. Weeks later Gilmore had the satisfaction of verifying what he had told us, for we overtook and passed these very trains. Their horses were thin and poor, starved out on the short grass, and famished for water.
From Big Blue we crossed a rolling divide to Little Blue and followed that stream a long distance, then across a high prairie, that seemed to be almost perfectly level. It was on this part of the journey that we had our first disagreeable experience. Up to that time, the boys of the party at least, had looked upon crossing the plains as a great frolic. The weather had been fine. The company was congenial and the novelty of the whole thing kept us well entertained. Shortly after we broke camp one morning and started on a twenty mile drive, it began to rain and continued all day long a steady downpour. We had found no wood with which to cook dinner and had eaten cold victuals, with some relish, believing we would find plenty of firewood at night. We traveled until quite late and finally stopped at a small creek, where other emigrants had camped, but there was no wood, not a stick to be found. The only thing in sight was a tough old log which had been hacked and hewed by preceding emigrants until scarcely a splinter could be chopped from it. The buffalo chips were all wet and it was still raining. The boys were not so gay that night. They managed, after hard work, to get splinters enough off the old log to heat up the coffee and that was the only warm article of diet we had for supper. We made the best of it and after supper prepared to crawl into wet tents to sleep if we could. Bad as the prospect was, I was happy that it was not my turn to stand guard. It rained all night and next morning the boys who had been on guard were sorry-looking fellows and the cattle and horses little better. I do not remember how we managed to get breakfast, but I do recall that we started early and pushed on still through the rain. The moving warmed us up and we were much better off traveling than in camp.
We reached Platte River late the same day at a point which must have been some miles above the location of the present city of Grand Island, probably about the site of the City of Kearney. The river was running bank full and the only fire wood in sight was on an island out in the stream. The stream, though wide, was not deep, and we rode our horses over and carried back wood enough to make a fire, though it was a very bad one. It stopped raining about night, but remained cloudy and cold and we passed the night with less comfort, I believe, than the night before. Next day we made only twenty miles but stopped long before night at the mouth of a little stream or gulch that descended down into Platte River which we knew as Plum Creek. The wind had blown from the north all day and had chilled us through and through in our wet clothing. The principal inducement to the halt was the canyon through which Plum Creek emptied into the river. It afforded a sheltered camping place and its sides were covered with red cedar which made splendid firewood. We pitched our tents in behind a high bluff and immediately built a blazing fire. Everybody was busy. Blankets were stretched upon poles before the fire and the wet extra clothing was hung out to dry in like manner. We cooked the best meal the stores would afford and prepared plenty of it. Before night we were all dry and warm, had had plenty to eat, and were again in a happy frame of mind. There was but one thing to prevent complete satisfaction with the situation and that was that at this very point in years gone by several vicious attacks had been made upon emigrants by the Indians. It was a fine place for the Indians to ambush the unwary traveler. Gilmore had learned the story of these attacks on his previous trip and immediately after we had supper he started the members of the company out in various directions to look for Indians. It was an hour or more until sundown, as I recollect, so we climbed to the tops of the hills and inspected the country for miles around. There was not a single sign of Indians anywhere to be seen. He told us to look particularly for smoke as we would probably not see the Indians but would discover the smoke from their fires coming up out of the valleys. The favorable report made to Gilmore did not satisfy him. Weary as we all were, he ordered a double guard that...