Chapter Eight - The Fifty-Niners

The first wave of Fifty Niners hit the approaches to the Missouri River during the month of February. These were the earlybird gold seekers, all of them eager to get a jump on the expected onrush of humanity. Their impending arrival was relayed to the jumping off points via detailed newspaper reports from towns further east. In early March, the Council Bluffs Bugle reprinted an optimistic account from the Des Moines Citizen, which stated that the current through that city for Pike’s Peak was widening and deepening daily: “Our merchants make mention of the fact, with a merry twinkle of the eye, and an exuberant feeling extending clear to the depths of their pockets. Of course we are only witnessing as yet, the few drops that precede the copious shower.”

Council Bluffs

A similar report reached the Kansas City Journal of Commerce from St. Louis: “We see from the exchanges that the hotels of St. Louis are filled with people waiting to go up the Missouri river. Hundreds have taken quarters aboard the boats, paying $.50 a day for their board. They are bound for the gold mines.” What the Journal failed to mention were the numerous pickpockets and confidence men also thronging the St. Louis levee and besetting the Missoouri River boats, “ready to take all the cash and valuables brought by the strangers visiting the place.”

By the end of March, Kansas City itself was filled with Pike’s Peakers, with every steamboat bringing more. One newspaperman reported seeing a runner for one of the local hotels heading a company of twenty-five unsuspecting gold seekers up Main Street “with all the pomp and circumstance of a glorious military captain.” Another wrote that the drummers for express wagons were thick as hail. They greeted each boat with the cry: “$40 for passage to Pike’s Peak from here; charge $50 at Leavenworth. Shortest route, best roads, fine eating houses, good camping grounds - only 550 miles.”

While many passengers were induced to disembark at Kansas City, others steamed on to Leavenworth. Those choosing Leavenworth were said to number “about seventy-five persons to the boat - perhaps more.” Some tarried for a short time after landing, fell into line, then marched westward “without expending a solitary dime.” Others were taken in by the signs beckoning them at every turn: Pike’s Peak Hotel, Pike’s Peak Ranch, Pike’s Peak Lunch, Pike’s Peak Outfits, Pike’s Peak Line. Still others were corralled by enterprising merchandisers, whose entire stock of carpet bags, rockers, picks and pans and provisions had been placed in the current of the Pike’s Peak trade. Little wonder that many a previously solvent gold seeker left town “drained completely dry by those despicable human landsharks that dog their steps from place to place, while they have a ‘red’ to call their own.”

Towns upriver from Leavenworth were experiencing their own run of Peakers. Over seventy-five companies, averaging six men each, outfitted at Omaha during a two week span in late February. The Omaha Nebraskian estimated that probably as many more were buying their supplies across the river at Council Bluffs. In early March the Nebraska City News reported that its streets were already “lined with white topped wagons,” while over at tiny Brownville merchants were soon doing such a heavy business that fresh supplies were needed by every boat.

At St. Joseph the Pike’s Peak excitement was running mountain high. So many hundreds of gold seekers were arriving by train that the hotels were becoming crowded “from dome to cellar.” A newspaper reporter, who arrived during the second week of March, wrote back to the editors of the Chicago Press & Tribune: “St Joseph is a perfect jam with ‘Peakers’ and sharpers takin ‘em in, horses, mules, oxen, men, women, children, wagons, wheelbarrows, hand carts, auctioneers, rumors, stool-pigeons, greenhorns, and everything else that you can imagine, and a thousand other things your imagination will fail to conceive. Everything is very high; board at a ‘one-horse’ hotel $2.50 per day, and little rats of mules $150. The folks think the whole United States will be here in a few days. Ten days ago a man could fit out here at a reasonable rate.”

By late March of 1859, the great Pike’s Peak Gold Rush was in full swing. Fifty, eighty, perhaps as many as one hundred thousand gold seekers were converging on the Missouri River, with thousands crossing daily.

“Still they come!” reported the St. Louis Missouri Republican on 25 March 1859. “Who come? The Pike’s Peakers and gold seekers - fortune hunters. Every boat from the Ohio is crowded with them, and every boat for the Missouri goes up jammed with people. Boats now loading for this port and the Missouri river, at Pittsburg and Cincinnati are thronged with emigrants. Those on their way here are in the same condition. They are coming down the Mississippi and Illinois, too - the Pike’s Peakers. They are flocking overland across the country - the Pike’s Peakers.”

Two weeks later, correspondent A.D. Richardson wrote back to the Boston Daily Journal that the roads leading west from the Missouri River were “white with the wagons of the Pike’s Peak emigrants.” He estimated that there were as many as fifteen thousand camped in large parties along the waters of almost every Kansas stream, waiting for the grass to green before proceeding further.

Richardson’s observations were echoed by the editor of the Brownville Nebraska Advertiser: “The travel from this point to the gold mines is still on the increase; it may safely be said not to be scarcely begun yet. The bottom on the Missouri side opposite us looks like any army encampment, so many trains are there encamped waiting for grass.”

It must have seemed to the newspapermen covering the gold rush that the whole country was on the move. Babbett and Carpenter of the Council Bluffs Bugle kept a record of the number of emigrant teams passing their office during the third week of May. “Sunday 40 teams; Monday 66 teams; Tuesday 90 teams; Wednesday 108 teams; Thursday 111 teams; Friday 94 teams; Saturday 75 teams; A total of 584 teams.” A similar report was filed in the Kansas City Journal of Commerce: 1,351 teams recently counted on the Santa Fe Trail between Council Grove and the Arkansas Crossing, with as many more on the way. And the St. Joseph Gazette, commenting on the traffic from that city to Fort Kearny, reported that the road was “lined almost the entire distance with trains of emigrants. For several weeks past, one hundred trains on an average, have crossed the Big Blue per day.”

Heading West

H.M. McCarty of the Westport Border Star noted not only the number of Fifty-Niners, but also their physical make-up.

“They continue to come - all sorts, sizes and descriptions. The world seems all a moving. They are passing our office every hour of the day. “There is a fellow from ‘Illinoy,’ who wants to know which is the shortest cut to the Peak, and whether he can get there by Sunday next. “Then comes one all the way from the Green mountains, with a stump-tail mule and a keow with crumpled horns... “Then follows a Tennessee rip-snorter, who started to go, and he’s gwyne tost and up to the rack, fodder or no fodder... “There goes a motley crew of six b’hoys from St. Louis... “Next follows a tidy little red wagon, drawn by four sleek, well-fed oxen... “They are scarcely out of sight when slowly creeps along a sort of Jersey cart, drawn by a jaded mule, driven (the driver as usual on foot) by a travel-soiled, care-worn old man... “Right behind this group - now along side of them - now ahead - is a wheel-barrow or hand-cart chap - going on his own hook, and as independent as a wood-sawyer... “Now comes two seedy, half-starved, susupicious looking fellows, with nothing but carpet-sacks....”

The observant editor was correct in assuming that there was not a typical Fifty-Niner in the crowd. Hoosiers there were, Buckeyes, Hawkeyes, Badgers, Pennsylvania Dutch and Georgia Crackers. There were farmers in their faded jeans and slouched hats, clerks in their long-tailed blues, scolding mothers and their squalling babies, merchants, doctors, lawyers, millers politicians, printers, bankers, and even a newspaper editor or two. Some among them were old, some young, some just approaching middle age. A few were hometown heroes. A few more were on the run from the law. And even though the great majority could rightfully be called “honest, industrious poor men,” there were enough misfits among them to induce the editor of the Nebraska City News to later characterize the whole emigration as “a shiftless, lazy, lousy, scurvy, profane, insane and idiotic herd of rapscallions, nincompoops and ninnies.”

Editor McCarty was also correct in his observation that prairie travel had taken on an entirely new dimension. The familiar canvas-topped wagon, so long thought indispensable for any successful emigration to Oregon or California, was not a necessity for these Pike’s Peakers setting out on a much shorter trip to the Rocky Mountains. After all, the Rockies were only six or seven hundred miles from the Missouri River, little more than one fourth the distance to the West Coast. The trip required only three to five weeks of provisions instead of the usual six months supply. With this fact in mind, many were taking to the trails unencumbered by wagon or team. They were hauling whatever they needed in two-wheeled carts, on pack mules, or on their backs.

A good number of these Fifty-Niners chose the handcart. It was lightweight, easy to pull, and - if constructed of properly seasoned lumber - extremely durable. Moreover, it had been tested for several years by the Mormon emigration to Utah, members of which had reduced this mode of travel to a science.

The Handcart

The advantages of the cart were advertised early on in the gold rush by an article in the Omaha Times. This article announced the formation of a company composed of one hundred men, who proposed “starting to the mines with hand carts - a la Morman... Each hand cart will be manned by from three to four men, and be freighted with one hundred pounds to the man. The whole cost of their outift - carts, clothing and provisions - at the Omaha market, will be about twenty dollars per man. This train will go through quicker than mules. One hundred pounds each, will enable them to take provisions enough to last them through, with two week’s supply after they get there; three month’s clothing; and all the necessary cooking and mining utensils. The labor of pushing their carts through will be nothing; those who go out with teams have to walk, the hand cart men are even with them there; those who take teams have to herd their cattle and mules nights, and charge around for an hour every morning hitching up, the cart men can lay down to sleep and in the morning take the road without delay; teamsters have to depend on grass, cartmen can camp any place; teamsters have their teams and provisions to take care of when they get to the mines, carts will be worth ten times their original cost; wagons will be useless, carts a convenience. We feel proud of our hand cart boys, and every person who becomes one of their number and goes through shows himself a man.”

This Omaha experiment was the subject of much editorial comment across the country, and perhaps for that reason inspired many imitators. A reporter for the St. Joseph Gazette wrote of a train he saw wending its way down that city’s streets. He did not count them, but did notice that the handcarts were “very light and neat and painted red.” Eight men were allotted to each cart. Two men pulled while the others followed behind two by two.

A correspondent to the Missouri Republican noticed a number of similar handcarts being unloaded from steamboats at Kansas City. As in St. Joseph, the handcartmen formed themselves into companies, “with a captain and clerk, eight men to a hand-cart, divided into four reliefs, two at a time pulling the cart, which contains all the provisions, camp equipments, working tools, et cetera, for the eight persons thus arranged.”

The beauty of the two-wheeled cart lay in its adaptability. It could be constructed so as to ford streams like a boat. Its body could be decked over, with bows fixed on top like a wagon bed. A sail could be rigged atop a short mast to provide locomotion when the wind blew. Above all, the cart could be pulled by any type of man or beast.

One heavily-laden cart was seen on the road west from Leavenworth “drawn by a horse in the shafts with a yoke of oxen before him.” Another cart passed through Kansas City on 3 April 1859, drawn by a little white bull, on whose sides were painted the words “Pike’s Peak Lightning Express.” The six jolly young men who owned the cart were next spotted on the Santa Fe Trail near Council Grove. Though by then they had sold the bull and harnessed themselves to the cart, they still called their team the “Lightning Express.”

In late March of 1859, while waiting for the ferry at Council Bluffs, gold seeker David Spain observed a man and two dogs all hitched together to a cart. Two weeks later, a full-fledged dog team set out from Aledo, Illinois, pulling a light cart. The team was owned by R.S. Osbaris. It consisted of “two Newfoundland dogs, two grey hounds and two pointers for a lead.” And, for awhile, the talk of St. Louis was a human team from Cincinnati: “five beautiful girls all dressed in bloomer costumes, hitched to one of these carts and trudging along with song and laughter.”

A.D. Richardson managed to capture a moment of humor from the all-too-common sight of a band of handcartmen laboring down the streets of St. Joseph toward the ferry. As the correspondent watched, a townsman shouted out to them at the distance of half a square:

“Halloa! hold on there.” Those pulling the six handcarts stopped while he came up and asked: “Are you going to Pike’s Peak?” “Yes,” was the rather crusty response. “Well, why don’t you wait for the grass? continued the interrogator. “Grass,” ejaculated one of the emigrants impatiently. “What do we want of grass? We haven’t any cattle.” “Very true; but you are making asses of yourselves, and you ought to look out for provender.”

Handcarts were not the only modes of conveyance that evoked an occasional chuckle among the more traditional-minded of the Fifty-Niners. In mid-March of 1859, two adventuresome gold seekers set out from Springfield, Missouri, with a wheelbarrow, one man pushing and the other pulling. The pair had been preceeded a month earlier by I.J. Stevens and N. Smith of Minneapolis. These Minnesotans had an entirely new mode of traveling, far eclipsing the wheelbarrow and handcart. It was called a tebogia, supposedly a common mode of conveyance between the Selkirk settlement and St. Paul. According to a report filed in the Council Bluffs Bugle, the construction of the tebogia was “very simple and light, being a piece of sheet-iron 8 feet long, 18 inches wide, turned up slightly in front, to allow it to pass over low obstacles readily, and 4 inches deep. To this, the two men are attached, by harness. In this, they take out sufficient provision and clothing to last them through the long, tedious and dreary journey, across the plains to the gold mines.”

The Wheelbarrow Man

For those who preferred to transport their supplies without any type of vehicular assistance, the options were limited to either pack animals or their own backs.

The pack trains were among the first to depart. The Topeka Pike’s Peak Company left on 10 March 1859. They were under the command of Captain Henry Judd. All packed their outfits on ponies. They were preceded by a company from nearby Lawrence under the charge of city engineer, A. Cutler. Cutler carried with him a commission to complete the survey of El Paso, the paper town recently laid out at the foot of Pike’s Peak. He and his Lawrence boys sent their supplies ahead by ox team as far as Salina, and from there packed with Indian ponies up the Smoky Hill. The notorious Kansas politician, Jack Henderson, led a party of packers up the Platte River Trail. He was spotted just north of Denver City by returning argonaut David Kellogg, who wrote of the meeting in his diary: “Met a party on horseback from the states led by Jack Henderson. This fellow lived at Delaware Crossing in Kansas Territory, and kept a ferry across the Kaw River. At the election for admission of Kansas as a state in 1857 he forwarded to Lecompton, as the vote of his precinct, 400 names which he copied from a Philadelphia directory.”

Much more numerous than the pack companies were the walkers - the “footing gentry” of song and legend, who elected to set out for the mountains “without anything but a blanket and a brazen face.”

A Walker

Typical of these solitary footmen was a German-speaking emigrant from St. Paul, who passed through Council Bluffs in late January of 1859. His entire outfit consisted of a rifle, a large butcher knife, and the clothes on his back. On being asked if he expected to reach the gold regions on foot, he replied: “Yaw; me has walked vrom St. Baul, he furder nor dat.”

Another footman, Daniel Witter of South Bend, left for the new Eldorado on the first day of May, carrying with him “a bag of clothes, a violin, a gun and revolver, my dog and $250.” Ahead of him on the Platte River Trail was a gold seeker named Bradley from Oquawka, Illinois. Bradley was footing it through with nothing but his gun and a carpetbag. Also from Illinois were the Blue brothers - Alexander, Daniel and Charles. These ill-starred brothers started up the Kaw River with only their blankets, their satchels, and 200 lbs. of recently-purchased flour, all strapped to the back of a little Kansas pony.

While waiting for the stage at Leavenworth, letter writer Libeus Barney made note of the thousands of Fifty-Niners leaving that city daily. Among them he noticed several parties “with guns, pistols and picks, their blankets thrown over their shoulders, and with provisions scarcely sufficient to last a week.” One party of sixteen set out in mid-March with their mining shovels on their shoulders and their diminutive carpet bags on the end of them. Another party of twenty started out with their blankets, picks and pans strapped to their backs. Their entire lot of provisions consisted of forty lbs. of hard bread and a quantity of salt. On being asked how they expected to make the trip up the Smoky Hill with such a ridiculous outfit, one of them replied: “That’s easy enough. We intend to kill enough game and sleep in barns.”

Fortunately for these ill-prepared footmen, the majority of the Fifty-Niners took to the trails with well-provisioned outfits, and were - in most cases - willing to share with those in need. A Hawkeye named James Berry Brown, traveling the Ox-Bow Trail with a light ox wagon, met up with two destitute footmen just northwest of Nebraska City. He and his traveling companions provided the pair with a hot meal and a dry berth under the wagon. “I don’t suppose we have more than is necessary to our own support across the plains,” Brown wrote in his journal, “yet I can never see a man go hungry so long as we have to give. That which will alleviate.”

William A. Burnap, traveling the Council Bluffs Road with eleven family members and four heavily-laden wagons, met up with a multitude of footsore walkers returning home. All were weary and hungry, and begging their subsistence from outgoing teams.

“Had we been so disposed,” Burnap later wrote, “the women would not have permitted any one to leave our camp hungry, so long as there was anything left in our wagons.”

Such generosity so depleted the Burnap stock of supplies that before long the only remaining eatable was flour. Reduced to subsisting on pancakes and dudah gravy, they solved their dilemma by hunting buffalo and jerking the meat. At Fort Laramie they were able to resupply their wagons with staples before heading south to the mines.

A correspondent to the Missouri Republican wrote from Leavenworth that he could discern three distinct classes of Fifty-Niners leaving for the gold fields: the poorest of all, departing on foot; the more fortunate, with their handcarts and wheelbarrows; and those he called “flush,” those who had the money to “purchase cattle, mules and wagons, and go well provided with all that is necessary to make a trip on the prairies with comfort and pleasure.”

“Sea bread Crackers Flour Rice Crush sugar Butter Lard Box raisins Salt Pepper Dry peaches Beans Dry beef Bacon Soda Cream tartar Ginger Nutmegs Vinegar 2 gal. Tin plates 5 Tin cups 3 Knives and forks 3 Tin teapot Coffee pot Large pan 1 Copper teakettle Frying pan 1 Dutch oven and lid Large spoons 3 Small spoons 3 Soap 10 lbs Coffee Tea Crow bar Mining pans 3 Picks 3 Shovels 3 Ax 1 Hoe Sheet iron Nails Saws 2 Hand ax Chalk and line Plane Auger Chisels Water can 2 Square Drawing knife Powder Caps Lead Candles Guns 2 Revolvers 2 Clothing, boots, socks Bed clothing Corn meal Coal oil Tobacco Mustard and salt Boxes of pills 2 or 3 Cholera mixture Ess. peppermint Pins 2 papers Needles 3 papers Black linen thread Silk thread Court plaster Curry combs Horse brush Lantern Liniment Pens Paper 3 qrs. Envelopes 4 pkgs. Arnolds ink 1 qt. Books Combs coarse and fine Looking glass Scales Garden seeds Matches ½ dz. boxes Kindlers Water pails 2 Prunes Drill 20 yds. Pants buttons 1 gross Blankets Rubber coat Over coat”

Considering his point of origin, David Spain probably hauled this heavy load of supplies in a Studebaker wagon, constructed in South Bend by John Studebaker and his brothers. Most other Fifty-Niners used common farm wagons, built either at home or at the local blacksmith shop. In building these, special attention was always paid to the running gear. It was constructed of well-seasoned timber and reinforced with iron at all the key points. The wagon box itself was almost always a simple affair, ten feet long, four feet wide, with sides and ends two feet high. The five or six bows supporting the canvas cover were usually of the best hickory and hooped to a height of five feet above the wagon bed.

The great debate among the Fifty-Niners lay not in the wagons themselves but in the teams that pulled them. David Spain employed horses to pull his wagon. In this he was in the minority. A fellow gold seeker who also journeyed through Iowa, E.H.N. Patterson by name, observed that “the majority of those going out are provided with oxen; while horses come next, there being only a few mules on the road.” Patterson’s observation was borne out in a tally given to the Kansas City Journal of Commerce by Santa Fe traders, Delgardo and Garcia. These New Mexicans took a count of the draft animals they encountered on the Santa Fe Trail during the height of the gold rush. Exactly 7,375 were oxen, 632 were horses, and only 381 were mules.

The teams used by the Fifty-Niners accurately reflected the preferences of most prairie travelers. Horses were considered great for the saddle, but were not recommended for the long haul. Mules were said to be capable of pulling a wagon faster than oxen and of surviving the summer heat better, but they were thought more liable to be stampeded and driven off by Indians. Oxen - while slow - were known for their endurance, especially through deep sand or over muddy roads. Moreover, they were cheap. Three yoke could be bought for as little as $150-$200. Three span of mules might run as high as $600, horses even more.

Oxen, however, were not always the slow, placid animals they first appeared. Jesse L. Pritchard, a Pike’s Peaker from Urichsville, Ohio, left a memorable description of his first experience with oxen. He had initially decided to purchase his oxen on the prairies of Illinois in order to save the expense of buying them at one of the principal outfitting points along the Missouri River. He paid $125 a yoke, more than double what he could have bought them for on the frontier. After disembarking at Leavenworth, he yoked the green oxen together and hitched them to his wagon. At that point his troubles began.

Yoking the Oxen

“The cattle,” Pritchard later wrote, “those mild-eyed but evil-minded brutes, that had become furious with the excitement of their new surroundings, wanted to stampede to their native hearth - the prairies - and it took three or four men to keep them in say our progress through the city was a triumphal march seems to lack something in strength; perhaps ‘cycloned’ through the streets will do. Three men were posted on each side of the oxen to keep the brutes straight. The start was sudden and the pace was killing. A newspaper came fluttering along on the wings of a Kansas zephyr and I suppose the oxen took this as a signal to start. However that may be, they did start, and it was not long before the wagon ‘caromed’ on the starboard sidewalk, glanced off at an angle of forty-five degrees to the larboard sidewalk, then ‘richoted’ back and forth until we zigzagged that street from end to end...While the circus lasted, I was running like a wild Indian, trying to keep up with the procession, and mentally calculating what the probable damage to life and property would be.”

Unlike Jesse Pritchard, most of the Fifty-Niners seemed to retain pleasant memories of these slow-moving animals with the large dreamy eyes and the amiable dispositions. Among their most ardent admirers was George M. Willing, a physician from St. Louis. The good doctor traveled the southern route with a light buggy drawn by two unshod oxen. He named his oxen Ball and Brandy, and worried incessantly when “old Bally” pulled up lame. “The road for several days has been very gravelly,” he wrote home to his wife, “and tells fearfully on the feet of the cattle. One of mine is very tender-footed, and quite lame. I nurse him and favor him all I can, for I would rather make the journey on his feet than mine.” For a time, Dr. Willing considered modifying his buggy into a two-wheeled cart and hitching Brandy into shafts like a horse; but a little doctoring in the form of a moccasin tied around one of Ball’s hooves effected a cure, enabling the matched pair to finally reach the “ox comforts” of Clear Creek valley, where they were left for a time to luxuriate in fatness.

Many of the Fifty-Niners yoked cows in with their oxen. The cows provided the luxury of fresh milk, which on the frontier could command as much as forty cents a gallon, almost double the price of a gallon of whiskey. The Burnaps left northern Iowa with a judicious mixture of oxen and cows - twelve yoke in all to pull their four heavily-laden wagons. E.H.N. Patterson of Oquawka, Illinois, also initially yoked a pair of milk cows in with his oxen. On reaching the spongy prairies of Iowa, however, he found that the cows provided little in the way of pulling power. Near Kossuth, he bought a replacement yoke of oxen for $65. The oxen came “up to the scratch” immediately. The unyoked cows were thereafter tied to the back of the wagon, their only function being to provide the morning and evening milk.

Patterson always tried to provide the best for his animals, even at the inflated Iowa prices of twenty-five cents for a bushel of corn and six dollars for a ton of hay. He was understandably upset when he came upon three Waukegan Frenchmen, who had so mismanaged their team that one yoke of oxen were already sore and lame. “When they got to Big Grove,” Patterson wrote in his diary, “they swapped off their wagon, cattle, and a thirty dollar gun, for an old carriage not worth fifteen dollars and two used up, blind and lame stage horses!” It was with some satisfaction that Patterson later learned that the carriage and horses were sold at auction in Council Bluffs for only $46. The Frenchmen were forced to pay $20 each to secure passage through to the mines, “where they will be set down without anything.”

The pull through Iowa was made especially difficult by a wet spring. The rains began on 17 March 1859, and continued practically unabated through April and May. The prairies turned to swampland. The primitive roads became quagmires. The black Iowa mud - like sticky dough - clung with a fierce tenacity to the wagon wheels of the Fifty-Niners.

Edward Dunsha Steele, from nearby Lodi, Wisconsin, did not arrive in Iowa until mid-May. The second day in, his train ran into a violent rainstorm that continued until nightfall. Camp was set up and the cooking done in the rain. Tents were pitched on the wet ground. “We began to experience some of the difficulties of camp life,” Steele noted in his diary.

Hoping to modify some of the anticipated “tediousness of travelling,” Steele purchased a fife at Dubuque. Although a teacher by profession, the thirty-year-old gold seeker was a poet and musician by nature. At home, he had often composed verse and set it to music. Here on the trail, he joined D. Waite and the two Barnes brothers, Arnold and Richmond, in forming a fife and drum corps called the West Point Band. The band preceded the wagon train out of Dubuque, playing martial music until they ascended the bluffs overlooking the town. From there westward - despite the rain and mud and swollen streams - the West Point Band continued to play their way through every town passed. Cedar Rapids, Marengo, Des Moines, all heard the martial strains of the fife and drums playing such old time favorites as the ever-popular Yankee Doodle.

The West Point Band arrived in Council Bluffs on 15 June. “Passed through the city,” Steele wrote, “our music playing as has been our usual custom in passing through towns - and drove out upon the flat where we encamped.” As it turned out, Steele’s was not the first band to play its way through the city. Just one week earlier, the Council Bluffs Bugle had reported the arrival and departure of a brass band from Freeport, Illinois, which had enlivened the city with “superior music.”

A third band had outfitted at Kansas City in late April of 1859. The Journal of Commerce wrote up their arrival under the heading “Music for the Mines. There is now at the Farmer’s Hotel, a full rigged band of musicians from Indianapolis, en route for the gold mines. They enlivened our streets on Thursday, with the merry strains of music, and are now engaged in preparing their outfits. What a commotion the saxhorns, trombones, kent-bugle and brass drum, will raise among the Kiowas and Cheyennes in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains. We admire their philosophy, for music is one of the master keys to happiness.”

In keeping with the spirit of the times, the Haniibal Messenger published “The Goldseeker’s Song.” This song, perhaps more than any other, seemed to capture the spirit of the gold rush.

“Take up the oxen boys, and harness up the mules.

Pack away provisions and bring along the tools;

The pick and the shovel, and a pan that won’t leak;

And we’ll start for the gold mines. Hurrah for the Peak.

“Then farewell to sweethearts, and farewell to wives,

And farewell to children, the joy of our lives;

We’re bound for the far west, the yellow dust to seek,

And as we march along we’ll shout, Hurrah for Pike’s Peak.

“Then crack your whips, my jolly boys, we’ll leave our homes behind,

And many lovely scenes that we’ll often call to mind,

But we’ll keep a merry heart, and we’ll steer for Cherry creek;

For we’re bound to hunt the yellow dust - Hurrah for Pike’s Peak.

“We’ll cross the bold Missouri, and we’ll steer for the west,

And we’ll take the road we think is the shortest and the best;

We’ll travel, o’er the plains, where the wind is blowing bleak,

And the sandy wastes shall echo with - Hurrah for Pike’s Peak.

“We’ll sit around the campfire when all our work is done,

And sing our songs and crack our jokes, and have our share of fun;

And when we’re tired of jokes and songs, our blankets we will seek,

To dream of friends, and home, and gold. Hurrah for Pike’s Peak.”

Equally symbolic of the gold rush were the many slogans and inscriptions used to decorate the wagon covers of the Fifty-Niners. One Ohio wagon bore the inscription “Root Hog or Die.” Another had a large elephant painted over the whole cover, while a third sported a rude attempt at a pike, with a pyramid to represent Pike’s Peak.

By far the most popular of the slogans was the enigmatic “Pike’s Peak or Bust.” It was initially sighted on an Illinois wagon passing through Nebraska City in early May of 1859. The slogan was inscribed in flowing letters of red chalk. Three weeks later, the same wagon returned, its owner riding a gaunt and starving mule, which looked as if it had just climbed to the top of the peak. When asked why he didn’t go through, the dejected gold seeker replied: “Wal, he’d got clean on beyond Kearny, and - he busted, so he just rubbed out ‘Pike’s Peak or bust,’ and turned back.”

Willard Burnap of northern Iowa also painted “Pike’s Peak or Bust” on his wagon cover. Proud as he was of the slogan, the young Fifty-Niner’s faith in the gold rush was severely shaken when he met several go-backs, who had changed their inscriptions to read “Pike’s Peak Not for Me,” “Pike’s Peak Over to the Left,” and “Pike’s Peak Not for Joseph, No! No!”

A.D. Richardson told of a similar emigrant on the Republican River Trail whose wagon was tabled “Pike’s Peak or Bust.” “One after another,” Richardson wrote, “the traveler’s cattle died, till only one cow and an ox were left. During a luckless night these either strayed away or were stolen by Indians. The next day my informant found this prairie Micawber sitting upon his wagon tongue smoking his pipe and waiting for something to turn up. But under the first inscription he had penciled with charcoal: ‘Busted, by thunder!’”


Other inscriptions seen on the wagons of returning emigrants read “Pike’s Peak be Damned,” “We have seen the Elephant,” “We want to go H-O-M-E.” One eastward-bound mule wagon carried the words “From Cherry Creek. Pike’s Peak all a Humbug.” Westward-bound G.W. Lucas, from Fremont county, Iowa, countered with a verse of his own:

“We’re ‘humbugged’ if we stay at home,

Or ‘humbugged’ if we leave;

There’s few reports that come or go

But what will some deceive.”

The frustration inherent in many of these inscriptions was the first indication that the great Pike’s Peak Gold Rush was in trouble. The rush - so fairly begun - suddenly seemed on the verge of becoming a rout.

Next Chapter - The Stampeders

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1. Council Bluffs Bugle, 2 February 1859, 9 February 1859, 9 March 1859, 18 May 1859, 8 June 1859.

2. Kansas City Journal of Commerce, 26 March 1859, 30 April 1859.

3. Missouri Republican, 27 March 1859, 30 April 1859.

4. Kansas Weekly Herald, 12 March 1859.

5. Omaha Nebraskian, 9 March 1859.

6. Nebraska City News, 12 March 1859.

7. St. Joseph Journal, 11 May 1859.

8. Brownville Nebraska Advertiser, 5 May 1859.

9. Western Border Star, 5 May 1859.

10. Omaha Times, 3 February 1859.

11. Nebraska Advertiser, 17 March 1859.

12. Wyoming Telescope, 9 April 1859.

13. Hannibal Messenger, 28 April 1859.

14. A. D. Richardson, "Diary," Overland Routes to the Gold Fields 1859, edited by LeRoy R. Hafen (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1942).

15. Daniel Witter, "Diary," Colorado State Historical Society Library.

16. Libeus Barney, Letters of the Pike's Peak Gold Rush (San Jose: The Talisman Press, 1959).

17. James Berry Brown, Journal of a Journey Across the Plains in 1859,, edited by George R. Stewart (San Francisco, 1970).

18. William A. Burnap, What Happened During One Man's Lifetime (Ferguson Falls, Minn, 1923).

19. "The Diary of David F. Spain," edited by John D. Morrison, The Colorado Magazine, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, (January, 1958).

20. Jesse L. Pritchard, "To Pike's Peak in Search of Gold in 1859," The Trail, Vol. IV, No. 4, (September, 1911).

21 Edward Dunsha Steele, A Diary of His Journey from Lodi, Wisconsin across the Plains to Boulder, Colorado in the Year 1859. edited by Noli Mumey (Boulder: Johnson Publishing Company, 1960.

Copyright © 1999-2008 Richard Gehling. All Rights Reserved.

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