Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 

Article Index

 

Who chronicles the patient, plodding, silent pioneer, who, having been crowded out of his home by too many laborers in a limited field, or, because he could no longer wring subsistence from a soil too long tilled by sire and grandsire; or possibly a returned volunteer from our war, who, finding all places he once filled closed up, was compelled to take the grant of land that the Government gives its soldiers, and begin life all over again, for the sake of wife and children! There is little in these lives to arrest the poetical fancy of those writers who put into rhyme (which is the most lasting of all history) the lives otherwise lost to the world.

How often General Custer rode up to these weary, plodding yeomen, as they turned aside their wagons to allow the column of cavalry to pass! He was interested in every detail of their lives, admired their indomitable pluck, and helped them, if he could, in their difficult journeys. Sometimes, after a summer of hardships and every sort of discouragement, we met the same people returning East, and the General could not help being amused at the grim kind of humor that led these men to write the history of their season in one word on the battered cover of the wagon--"Busted."

We were in Kansas during all the grasshopper scourge, when our Government had to issue rations to the starving farmers deprived of every source of sustenance. What a marvel that men had the courage to hold out at all, in those exasperating times, when the crops were no sooner up than every vestige of green would be stripped from the fields! Then, too, the struggle for water was great. The artesian wells that now cover the Western States were too expensive to undertake with the early settlers. The windmills that now whirl their gay wheels at every zephyr of the Plains, and water vast numbers of cattle on the farms, were then unthought of. . . . A would-be settler in Colorado, in those times of deprivation and struggle, wrote his history on a board and set it up on the trail, as a warning to others coming after him: "Toughed it out here two years. Result: Stock on hand, five towheads and seven yaller dogs. Two hundred and fifty feet down to water. Fifty miles to wood and grass. Hell all around. God bless our home."

It would be too painful to attempt to enumerate the ravages made by the Indians on the pioneer; and God alone knows how they faced life at all, working their claims with a musket beside them in the field, and the sickening dread of returning to a desolated cabin ever present in their heavy hearts. There are those I occasionally meet, who went through innumerable hardships, and overcame almost insurmountable obstacles, and who attained to distinction in that land of the setting sun; but I find they only remember the jovial side of their early days. Not long since I had the privilege of talking with the Governor of one of our Territories. He was having an interview with some Mexican Senators by means of an interpreter, and after his business was finished, he turned to our party to talk with enthusiasm of his Territory. No youth could be more sanguine than he over the prospects, the climate, the natural advantages of the new country in which he had just cast his lines. All his reminiscences of his early days in other Territories were most interesting to me. General Custer was such an enthusiast over our glorious West, that I early learned to look upon much that I would not otherwise have regarded with interest, with his buoyant feeling. . . . I must qualify this statement, and explain that I could not always see such glowing colors as did he, while we suffered from climate, and were sighing for such blessings as trees and water; but we were both heart and soul with every immigrant we came across, and I think many a half-discouraged pioneer went on his way, after encountering my husband on the westward trail, a braver and more hopeful man.

How well I remember the long wait we made on one of the staircases of the Capitol at Washington, above which hung then the great picture by Leutze, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way." We little thought then, hardly more than girl and boy as we were, that our lives would drift over the country which the admirable picture represents. The General hung round it with delight, and noted many points that he wanted me to enjoy with him. The picture made a great impression on us. How much deeper the impression, though, had we known that we were to live out the very scenes depicted!

Coming back to the Governor: I cannot take time to write his well-told story. The portion of the interesting hour that made the greatest impression on me was his saying that the happiest days of his life were those when, for fifteen hundred miles, he walked beside the wagon containing his wife and babies, and drove the team from their old home in Wisconsin to a then unsettled portion of Ohio. The honors that had come to him as senator, governor, statesman, faded beside the joys of his first venture from home into the wilderness. I saw him, in imagination, as I have often seen the pioneer, looking back to the opening made in the front of the wagon by the drawing over of the canvas cover to the puckered circle, in which were framed the woman and babies for whom he could do and dare. I fall to wondering if there is any affection like that which is enhanced or born of these sacrifices in each other's behalf. I wonder if there can be anything that would so spur a man to do heroic deeds as the feeling that he walked in front of three dependent beings, and braved Indians, starvation, floods, prairie-fire, and all those perils that beset a Western trail; and to see the bright, fond eyes of a mother, and the rosy cheeks of the little ones, looking uncomplainingly out upon the desert before them--why, what could nerve a man's arm like that? Love grows with every sacrifice, and I believe that many a youthful passion, that might have become colorless with time, has been deepened into lasting affection on those lonely tramps over the prairies.

It has also been my good fortune lately to recall our Western life with an ex-governor of another Territory, a friend of my husband's in those Kansas days. What can I say in admiration of the pluck of those Western men? Even in the midst of his luxuriant New York life, he loves better to dwell on the early days of his checkered career, when at seven years of age he was taken by his parents to the land of the then great unknown. He had made a fortune in California, for he was a Forty-niner, and returned East to enjoy it. But as he lost his all soon afterward, there was nothing left for him to do but to start out again. His wife could have remained in comfort and security with her friends, but she preferred to share the danger and discomforts of her husband's life. Their first trip over the old trail to Denver (our stamping-ground afterward) was a journey from Missouri, the outfitting place at the termination of the last railway going West, taking sixty-four days to accomplish. The wife, brave as she was, fell ill, and lay on the hard wagon-bed the whole distance. The invincible father took entire care of her and of his children, cooking for the party of eleven on the whole route, and did guard duty a portion of every night. The Indians were hovering in front and in rear. Two of the party were too old to walk and carry a musket, so that on the five men devolved the guarding of their little train. Nine times afterward he and his wife crossed that long stretch of country before the railroad was completed, always in peril, and never knowing from hour to hour when a band of hostiles would sweep down upon them. He taught his children the use of fire-arms as soon as they were large enough to hold a pistol. His daughter learned, as well as his sons, to be an accurate marksman, and shot from the pony's back when he scampered at full speed over the prairies. For years and years, all his family were obliged to be constantly vigilant. They lived out a long portion of their lives on the alert for a foe that they knew well how to dread.

But the humorous comes in, even in the midst of such tragic days! How I enjoyed and appreciated the feelings of the Governor's wife, whom I had known as a girl, when she rebelled at his exercising his heretofore valuable accomplishment as cook, after he became Governor. How like a woman, and how dear such whimsicalities are, sandwiched in among the many admirable qualities with which such strong characters as hers are endowed! It seems that on some journey over the Plains they entertained a party of guests the entire distance. The cook was a failure, and as the route of travel out there is not lined with intelligence-offices, the only thing left to do for the new-made Governor, rather than see his wife so taxed, was to doff his coat and recall the culinary gifts acquired in pioneer life. The madame thought her husband, now a Governor, might keep in secrecy his gifts at getting up a dinner. But he persisted, saying that it was still a question whether he would make a good Governor, and as he was pretty certain he was a good cook, he thought it as well to impress that one gift, of which he was sure, upon his constituents.

The next letter from the expedition brought me such good news, that I counted all the frights of the past few weeks as nothing, compared with the opportunity that being in Fort Riley gave me of joining my husband. He wrote that the cavalry had been detached from the main body of the command, and ordered to scout the stage-route from Fort Hays to Fort McPherson, then the most invested with savages. A camp was to be established temporarily, and scouting parties sent out from Fort Hays. To my joy, my husband said in his letter that I might embrace any safe opportunity to join him there. General Sherman proved to be the direct answer to my prayers, for he arrived soon after I had begun to look confidently for a chance to leave for Fort Hays.

With the grave question of the summer campaign in his mind, it probably did not occur to him that he was acting as the envoy extraordinary of Divine Providence to a very anxious, lonely woman. While he talked with me occasionally of the country, about which he was an enthusiast--and, oh, how his predictions of its prosperity have come true already!--I made out to reply coherently, but I kept up a very vehement, enthusiastic set of inner thoughts and grateful ejaculations, blessing him for every breath he drew, blessing and thanking Providence that he had given the commander-in-chief of our forces a heart so fresh and warm he could feel for others, and a soul so loyal and affectionate for his own wife and family that he knew what it was to endure suspense and separation. He had with him some delightful girls, whom we enjoyed very much. I cannot remember whether, in my anxiety to go to my husband, my conversation led up to the subject--doubtless it did, for I was then at that youthful stage of existence when the mouth speaketh out of the fullness of the heart--but I do remember that the heart in me nearly leaped out of my body when he invited me to go in his car to Fort Harker, for the railroad had been completed to that next post.

Diana crowded what of her apparel she could into her trunk, and I had a valise, but the largest part of our luggage was a roll of bedding, which I remember blushing over as it was handed into the special coach, for there was no baggage-car. It looked very strange to see such an ungainly bundle as part of the belongings of two young women, and though I was perfectly willing to sleep on the ground in camp, as I had done in Virginia and Texas, I did not wish to court hardships when I knew a way to avoid them. Though we went over a most interesting country, General Sherman did not seem to care much for the outside world. He sat in the midst of us, and entered into all our fun; told stories to match ours, joined in our songs, and was the Grand Mogul of our circle. One of the young girls was so captivating, even in her disloyalty, that it amused us all immensely. When we sang war-songs, she looked silently out of the window. If we talked of the danger we might encounter with Indians, General Sherman said, slyly, he would make her departure from earth as easy as possible, for he would honor her with a military funeral. She knew that she must, in such a case, be wrapped in the Stars and Stripes, and he did not neglect to tell her that honor awaited her if she died, but she vehemently refused the honor. All this, which would have been trying from a grown person, was nothing but amusement to us from a chit of a girl, who doubtless took her coloring, as the chameleon-like creatures of that age do, from her latest Confederate sweetheart.

In retrospection, I like to think of the tact and tolerance of General Sherman, in those days of furious feeling on both sides, and the quiet manner in which he heard the Southern people decry the Yankees. He knew of their impoverished and desolated homes, and realized, living among them as he did in St. Louis, what sacrifices they had made; more than all, his sympathetic soul saw into the darkened lives of mothers, wives and sisters who had given, with their idea of patriotism, their loved ones to their country. The truth is, he was back again among those people of whom he had been so fond, and no turbulent expressions of hatred and revenge could unsettle the underlying affection. Besides, he has always been a far-seeing man. Who keeps in front in our country's progress as does this war hero? Is he not a statesman as well as a soldier? And never have the interests of our land been narrowed down to any prescribed post where he may have been stationed, or his life been belittled by any temporary isolation or division from the rest of mankind. Every public scheme for our advancement as a nation meets his enthusiastic welcome. This spirit enabled him to see, at the close of the war, that, after the violence of wrath should have subsided, the South would find themselves more prosperous, and capable, in the new order of affairs, of immense strides in progress of all kinds.

I remember a Southern woman, who came to stay with relatives in our garrison, telling me of her first encounter with General Sherman after the war. He had been a valued friend for many years; but it was too much when, on his return to St. Louis, he came, as a matter of course, to see his old friends. Smarting with the wrongs of her beloved South, she would not even send a message by the maid; she ran to the head of the stairs, and in an excited tone, asked if he for one moment expected she would speak, so much as speak, to a Yankee? The General went on his peaceful way, as unharmed by this peppery assault as a foe who is out of reach of our short-range Government carbines, and I can recall with what cordiality she came to greet him later in the year or two that followed. No one could maintain wrath long against such imperturbable good-nature as General Sherman exhibited. He remembered a maxim that we all are apt to forget, "Put yourself in his place."