Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

I was born in Ohio County, West Virginia, September 25, 1850, the oldest of three children. My mother died when her third child was born. I was then ten years old. I believe that the earliest remembrances of one's mother make the deepest impression. In the few years that I received my mother's care, my character was given a certain trend that it never lost. My mother told me that I should always be kind to dumb animals, and especially to birds. In all my after life I never forgot her words. Often on the Plains and in the wilderness did I turn my horse or wagon aside rather than injure a road lizard or a terrapin that was unable to get out of the way.

When I was twelve years old my father died, and with my sister I went to live with my uncle, Thomas Dixon, who lived in Ray County, Missouri. In those days travel was difficult, and Missouri seemed a long way from our home in West Virginia. We had been with our uncle only a few months when my sister was stricken with typhoid fever, and died after an illness of about two weeks. This left me alone in the world. My uncle was kind and good to me, but I stayed with him only a year. I was a strong, rugged boy, unwilling to be dependent upon even a kinsman for my living, and with much resolution I decided to seek my own fortune.

While at my uncle's home I had often met men who had been to the far west, and their marvelous tales of adventure fired my imagination, and filled me with eagerness to do what they had done. My dreams were filled with beautiful pictures of that dim region that lay toward the Rocky Mountains.

In those days no traveler undertook this westward journey without a horse and a gun. I was penniless, and the purchase of these necessities seemed utterly beyond my resources.

I had formed the acquaintance of a boy named Dan Keller, several years older than myself, and also without father or mother. Many times had we talked of the wild country where game abounded and Indian warriors rode as free as the wind. That we should go was as inevitable as the coming of the grass in spring or the falling of leaves in autumn. My uncle would have been greatly opposed to our enterprise had we told him of it, so I went away without telling him good bye.

Having no horses, Dan and I started on foot, and in place of guns we had only courage and our chubby fists. In a sack on my back I carried my one extra shirt and my mother's photograph. The latter I treasured beyond all my other possessions. Making our way to the Missouri River we fell in with some wood choppers who were supplying with fuel the steamboats that in those days plied that river. The camps of these wood choppers were found at frequent intervals along the shore. The men were rough but generous and hospitable, and we were welcomed at their camps, many of which we reached at night-fall. We hunted and trapped up and down the river for several months, often staying in one camp for a couple of weeks.

We were beginning to see the world and to find adventure. Around the campfires at night the wood choppers told of their exploits in the west--of how they had hunted the grizzly bear, the buffalo, the panther, the deer and the antelope, of how they had been caught in the howling blizzards, of their narrow escapes from drowning in swollen rivers, and of the battles they had fought with hostile Indians. Many times we sat and listened until midnight, the rush of the river sounding in our ears, and then after we had gone to bed we lay looking at the stars and wondering if it would ever be possible for us to lead such a delightful life.

Following the wood cutters' camps up the great river we finally reached Westport, Missouri, near where Kansas City now stands. We arrived there on Sunday, October 23, 1864, just as a big battle was being fought between the Union army under General Alfred S. Pleasanton and the Confederate army under General Stirling Price. We could hear the roar and boom of the cannon and see the clouds of smoke rising in the sky. Dan and I would have enlisted on the spot had we not been too young. But the smoke of battle got into our nostrils, and we were more determined than ever to reach the far west and fight Indians.

Proceeding northwest, we crossed the Kaw River and found ourselves in Kansas. At that time there were a few warehouses along the banks of the Missouri River where the Kansas City stock yards are now situated. We halted a day or two at the little town of Wyandotte. I remember how the surrounding country was filled with mink, raccoon, rabbits, opossums, squirrels, quail and prairie chickens. This was greatly to our liking, so Dan and I hired to an old farmer near Wyandotte, and remained with him a couple of months.

The first signs of spring were now in the air, and like the wild geese that were passing northward, we resumed our migration. At the end of many weary miles we reached Leavenworth, Kansas, and after forming the acquaintance of an old plainsman named Tom Hare, fire and brimstone could not have turned us back, so determined did we become to plunge deep into the wild country that lay beyond us. Hare was a driver in a Government bull train.

Drifting into town hungry and foot-sore, I will never forget this old man's kindness. He took us to a railroad mess house--the Kansas Pacific grading camp was then at Leavenworth--and gave us our breakfast. While we were eating the old man watched us attentively and seemed pleased with our appearance. In a moment he was telling us of some of his trips in the west, which was like setting out fire in dry stubble. He said that the outfit or bull train to which he belonged was in camp about four miles from town. It was in need of hands, and if we wanted to go on the next trip he would help us get employment, advising us to remain with him until the bull train was ready to start. The outfit was waiting for winter to break up.

We immediately became the old man's staunch friends and ardent admirers. We went out to the camp and when we were taken to the boss, he eyed us carefully and said: "You boys are pretty young, and Bill looks like he ought to be at home with his mother, but I'll give you a chance." So he hired us then and there at $50 a month, with everything furnished, including guns and ammunition. Dan and I were immensely proud of ourselves, and looked forward to the journey with eager expectancy. I was only fourteen years old, but delighted with the prospect that at last I should begin the journey across the Plains.

We got orders about April 15 to pull out for Fort Scott, Kansas. We moved by easy marches and reported to the quartermaster when we reached Fort Scott. He ordered the outfit to go into camp a few miles from town on a small stream where there was good grass and water for the stock. There we were to await further orders. We were in camp for two weeks, and all we had to do was to look after the stock, which we did in turns. The stream abounded in fish, and everywhere there was lots of small game. These were among the happiest days of my life. Because of my youth, the men favored me in many ways. I hunted and fished to my heart's content.

I was disappointed that the bull train had been sent south instead of west, but still hoped the order would soon come for us to move toward the Plains. This was in April, 1865, and in southern Kansas the news of President Lincoln's assassination had just been received. I recall that on our way to Fort Scott a black flag of mourning hung on every settler's farmhouse.

One morning about the first of May there was shouting among the men, the rattling of chains, the creaking of heavy wagons, and the lowing of oxen, as we assembled under orders to proceed to Fort Leavenworth. We moved away in high spirits across the beautiful country, bright and fragrant with the wild flowers of spring. Lawrence was the first town of importance that we reached.

It was the custom of the bull-whackers to make a lively demonstration whenever they passed through a town. With their big sixteen foot whips they could make a sound like the crack of a rifle, and as rapidly as possible the whips were cracked, the drivers shouting to their oxen, while men, women and children ran into the street to witness the spectacle. It was a performance that everybody thoroughly enjoyed, and which never again will be seen in this western country.

In two days from Lawrence we came to Leavenworth City, about three or four miles south of Fort Leavenworth. Here we made the same uproar. Liquor was more plentiful than water at Leavenworth in those days, and many of the bull-whackers "tanked up." There was a big noise all the way to the fort.

Between Lawrence and Leavenworth the country was well settled, and every farm-yard was filled with chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese, many of which disappeared about the time we passed that way. Of course I would not be willing to admit that I helped steal any of them, but it would be useless for me to say that I did not help eat from many a well-filled pot. A fat pig that strayed near our camp rarely ever got back home. It is but just to say, however, that this taking of private property was done largely in a spirit of mischief, as these rough bull-whackers could not have been induced to engage in what would have been regarded as actual stealing.

This outfit was made up of men of various ages and occupations. Some had been soldiers, and several had been sailors. I reveled in the stories told by the old gray haired men. I believe that I liked best of all their stories about fighting Indians.

Like all frontier towns, Leavenworth City was well supplied with saloons. It is not surprising that in the West most men drank, as the saloon was the main starting place for an outfit like ours, and a man who did not take at least one drink was considered unfriendly. I wish to emphasize this last word, for my statement is literally true. Inviting a man to drink was about the only way civility could be shown, and to refuse an invitation bordered upon an insult. Again, the saloon was the place where all trails crossed, and there we might be sure of meeting men from the north, from the west and the south, and gaining information that was so essential to those who were journeying into far off places.

The outfit was ordered into camp near the fort, with everybody planning for the westward trip. Our chagrin and disappointment may be imagined when we learned that the whole train was to be sold by the Government, to which it belonged. The country was now green with growing grass, and the cattle were getting sleek and fat. The orderly came and told us to assemble the train in front of the quartermaster's office. The wagons were strung out one after the other until they formed a line half a mile in length. An auctioneer stood in front of the building and cried the sale; as soon as one wagon and team was sold another took its place. The teams were bought in at from $1600 to $1800 each, wagons included, and the twenty-five wagons and three hundred bulls were bought by one man; his name was Kirkendall. He had been master of transportation at Fort Leavenworth. Kirkendall hired our train-master, and he in turn hired all the men who wanted to remain with the outfit. About half the men quit, and their places were filled with fresh bull-whackers. Some of the latter had never seen a bull train, and had lots to learn.

By this time I had begun feeling that I was an old hand. When I was first employed I found it difficult to yoke my oxen, but my small size appealed to the men, and there was always somebody willing to help me. I was now able to yoke my own oxen.

We lay in camp wondering where Kirkendall would send us. In a few days orders came for us to pull out for Fort Collins, Colorado, with government supplies. I bubbled over with joy, for now I was headed for the Plains. Kirkendall received twenty-five cents a pound for the freight he took out. Each wagon was loaded with about seven hundred pounds of freight, consisting of flour, bacon, sugar, coffee, ammunition, etc. This outfit was made up of twenty-five teamsters, one wagon master, one assistant wagon master, one night herder, and one extra man to take the place of any man that might fall sick. Each man was provided with a gun and ammunition.

Before hiring to Kirkendall, we had been paid off, and I had more money than I had ever dreamed I would possess at one time. According to the custom of the country, and not without some inclination and vanity of my own, I began investing in good clothes, notably a big sombrero, a Colt's revolver, a butcher knife, a belt, and a bull whip. For the latter I paid $7. His whip was the bull-whacker's pride, and around it circles all his ambition and prowess. Dan bought a similar outfit. I doubt if two boys ever felt more important. I am sure that the older men must have smiled at the two youngsters, each buried beneath his big hat and leaning to one side under the weight of his "shooting irons." How impatient we were for the start! The days seemed to stretch into months. At last, however, we were ready, and whooping farewells, we pulled out.


[Buffaloes--Just as They Looked in the Old Days.]

Little did we dream of the hardships ahead of us. In the comfort of our winter camp we had seen ourselves traveling across the Plains in the bright sunshine of spring, the grass green, the birds singing, and the streams flashing along the way. The winter rains and frosts had made the roads miry and seemingly without bottom. We had gone along without serious trouble until we reached Salt Creek valley. Here we had to pass through a long lane where the mud was hub deep. We did not realize how bad it was until we were well into the lane. Often we were compelled to put twenty-four oxen to one wagon to pull through some of the bad places. This valley was three or four miles wide, and it took us all day to get across. A man's patience was thoroughly tried, and that day I heard more different kinds of swearing than could be put into a dictionary. After getting out we laid over all next day resting and making repairs. One wagon was sent back to Leavenworth City for material to repair things that had been broken. In Salt Creek valley was pointed out to me a small road in which was said to be Buffalo Bill's old home.

The road grew better in the neighborhood of Maysville, Kansas, on the Big Blue, where there were a good many settlers. We were making between eight and ten miles a day. The Big Blue is a swift stream, and at the time was in flood, which caused us much trouble in crossing, as cattle do not take well to water, especially when pulling loaded wagons. We doubled our teams, cracked our whips, and forced the reluctant oxen into the torrent with a man on horseback swimming on each side of them, and in this way they swam and struggled to the further shore. Often the oxen were in danger of drowning, but the whole outfit was crossed without the loss of a single animal.

At this crossing the river made a bend, and the road took the direction of what was called the "dry" route. So we filled our canteens with water and left the river about three o'clock in the afternoon, driving until late that night, and making a dry camp. Next day brought us to the Little Blue, a tributary of the Big Blue. From there our route bore more to the north, going upstream, and in about three days we were in sight of Fort Kearney, Nebraska, and from there by making a long drive, we got to the Platte River in one day.

All the while since leaving Fort Leavenworth I had been tense with the expectation of seeing a war party of painted Indians, or a herd of buffaloes sweeping over the Plains. Neither had come to pass, and I was keenly disappointed.

When we got to the Platte, we struck a main traveled road leading out from Omaha, Nebraska, St. Joseph, Missouri, and Atchison, Kansas. These three towns were the main shipping points on the Missouri River at that time. Here we could see trains moving along or in camp on the road. Our route led straight up the valley, and in two days we reached a stage station called Plum Creek, where in later years hostile Indians committed many depredations. There seemed to be something in the very air at Plum Creek that was different from what we had left behind. A feeling of danger, invisible but present, all of which was manifested when an escort of United States soldiers moved out ahead of us when the bull train started.

This meant that we were in a dangerous locality. In my boyish enthusiasm I was delighted instead of being fearful, for it looked as if we were going into the enemies' country, and from all indications we were, for we could see where the Indians had raided the settlements the previous year. At different places where there had been a road ranch or a small store, their ruins told the tale of fire and rapine by savage Indians. These buildings were built mostly of sod, as there was no timber in the country. Here and there we passed a grave at the side of the road. The raiding had been done by the Sioux. Practically the only buildings in this part of the country were the way stations and home stations of the overland stage company which ran from the Missouri River to California.

After leaving Julesburg, Nebraska, the country became much wilder. We saw great herds of antelope and many deer. I was impatient for the sight of buffaloes, and it seemed strange to me that none had appeared. As a matter of fact they had not worked that far north, but were coming later. All along the road after we got on the overland stage route, the stage drivers, who always drove in a gallop as they passed us, would cry out "Indians on ahead! Better look out!" This we found was done jokingly, to alarm such tenderfeet as might be among us, and we soon paid no attention to it, when we encountered no Indians.

Julesburg consisted of a couple of stores and two or three saloons. Here we got a fresh escort of soldiers. Between Plum Creek and Julesburg we passed a big square stone on which was inscribed "Daniel Boone" and other inscriptions, one saying that further information could be found on the other side, meaning the bottom. This stone was so big that twelve men could not move it. We saw where teams had been hitched to it and the stone overturned. We did the same thing, and found the same inscription on the bottom. I doubt if ever a bull train passed that way without turning that big boulder to satisfy its curiosity.

Three days out from Julesburg we left the Platte, and struck a trail called the dry route, at what was known as Freeman's Orchard. There was no sign of an orchard, however. The South Platte had to be forded, and it was a different stream from any we had crossed. We stood in dread of it, as the current was swift and its shores rocky. It took us a whole day to get over, and some wagons had to be partly unloaded.

There were only three horses in the outfit, used by the wagon master, his assistant, and the night herder. They were a great help to us in crossing these streams, as the cattle would follow the horses when no amount of whipping could make them take the bad place. Traveling north, we came to the "Cash la Poole," a beautiful mountain stream in Colorado, beyond which was Fort Collins, which we reached in August, being on the road two and one-half months.

I now saw mountains for the first time. Fort Collins was situated on the "Cash la Poole" in the foothills. Long before we got there they seemed to hang in the sky like clouds. The population of Fort Collins was mostly post traders and soldiers. We remained there about a week, unloading supplies and resting the stock. While there I visited an Indian camp and saw my first Indians. They were Utes, and greatly interested me. The squaws were drying wild cherries for winter, pounding them in a stone mortar. The day before we left Fort Collins a fight took place in our camp between two bull-whackers, Edward Ray and Jim Lynch, over a game of cards. Ray shot Lynch, and the latter was left in the hospital at Fort Collins.

Our trip back to Fort Leavenworth was over the same route. My journey had fascinated me, but I was disappointed in not having engaged in a fight with Indians, and in not having seen a single buffalo. Going back we were trailing three or four wagons together, and drove the rest of the oxen, taking turns with the teams.

Between Julesburg and Plum Creek we met a party of women on their way to Salt Lake City, Utah, to join the Mormons. There was not a man among them, and they could not speak a word of English. I was told that they were Danes. All the women wore wooden shoes. They drove ox-wagons and had the appearance of being very poor. The sight of these women so excited our curiosity that the trainmaster called a halt until they passed us. Their camp was not a great distance from ours, and that night some of the boys wanted to go and pay them a visit, but the trainmaster told them that if they did not want to get left they had better not go.

There were small stores or road ranches, as they were called, all along the route, generally every ten miles, and often we bought at our own expense such luxuries as sweet-meats and canned goods which were not to be found in our commissary. Tomatoes sold at fifty cents a can, and everything else was in proportion. When we got back as far as Maysville we could buy fresh vegetables and geese and chickens by paying a big price for them; but in those days no price was too great to be paid by hungry men. Money was plentiful and if we could get what we wanted, we bought it, regardless of what it cost.

As we approached Leavenworth City, we were met by men soliciting trade for the hotels, stores and saloons, who came out eight or ten miles to meet us. At the fort our wagons were parked, or formed in a square, to be left there for the winter, and the oxen were taken to the country to be fed. By the time we were ready to break camp, hacks and wagons were coming out to take us down town, each business house being represented. We had drawn practically none of our wages during the trip, and when we were paid, many of us felt rich, and had enough to carry us through the winter if we were not extravagant.

November had arrived and the weather was getting cold. There are few sights more chilling and somber than the Plains in winter, stretching brown and dead under a leaden sky, with the wind moaning and roaring from the north. We could have found jobs with other outfits, as trains were being fitted out for western forts, to both Fort Lyon and Fort Riley. Dan and I would have gone as bull-whackers with these, but were advised by older men not to go, as it would be a hard trip in winter storms and blizzards. Dan and I remained together for a week, enjoying the sights. He decided to go back to his old home in Indiana, where he could be with his parents during the winter. Strangely, I never afterwards heard of or saw him.

In returning from Fort Collins, I had become strongly attached to another young fellow named Johnny Baldwin. We were together in the street one day when we met up with the master of a bull-train that was getting ready to start to Fort Larned. He was a gruff old codger, and looked as rusty as a six-shooter that had lain all winter in the snow. He asked us to go with him, and we would have gone if we had not struck a better job that very day. After we had told him that we would decide by next day, we wandered into the street. There we met a man who caught our fancy beyond all others we had seen. He was a jolly, good natured fellow, who joked with us, and said that he would like to hire us to go with a government mule train that was outfitting. He said that we would get to see "lots of corn-fed country girls" out in the country where the mules were being fed for the winter. He offered us each $45 a month, and we hired to him on the spot.

This proved to be a much easier job than the one we had just left. The outfit consisted of about 150 head of mules that had been driven to a farm on Soldiers' Creek, about 60 miles from Leavenworth, near where Holden, Kas., now stands. Here we remained all winter. About all I had to do was to help the cook and round in the mules at night. We had an abundance of good things to eat, and grew fat and "sassy."

When the men discovered that I was a good shot, I was given a job that was wholly to my liking--hunting game for the mess. There were plenty of quails, rabbits, squirrels and prairie chickens, and I was in my glory. I ranged the country, a youthful Daniel Boone, enjoying every moment of the time. I seemed to have a natural aptitude in the handling of fire-arms. It was my greatest ambition to become a good shot. In later years I was counted an expert marksman in any company, regardless of how proficient my rivals might be. I always attributed my skill with the rifle to my natural love for the sport, to steady nerves, and to constant, unremitting practice. Where other men found pleasure in cards, horse-racing and other similar amusements, I was happiest when ranging the open country with my gun on my shoulder and a dog at my heels, far out among the wild birds and the wild animals.

In the neighborhood of our camp were a good many settlers, sturdy, strong people, who lived in the style of the frontier, and, I dare say, got much more contentment out of life than many who came after them and lived under more civilized conditions. During the winter, dances and parties were frequent, and we were hospitably invited to attend them. I went with the men, but was entirely too bashful to take part. I sat beside the fiddlers and looked at the pretty girls, rosy and blushing, and would have given a fortune--had I possessed one--for courage enough to walk boldly up to the handsomest, ask her to dance with me, and be able to dance without making blunders as the figures were called. Alas, such courage and assurance was quite beyond my strongest resolves. I remember, particularly, one black-eyed girl who observed my embarrassment, and would always speak to me and invite me to take part. I adored her for this, but would have fled like an antelope had she approached me.

Along about the first of March we got orders to take the mules to Leavenworth. We were elated at the prospect of change. Where were we going? How long would we be gone? What would be our adventures? These were questions that came to us thick and fast. This was one of the splendid things of life in frontier days--this eagerness to be off and away after a season of hibernation. Many a hunter, many a scout, many a cowboy, returning from a long and arduous expedition, would swear that never again would he endure misery and hardships such as he had encountered. All winter he would stay close to the cook and roast his shins beside the fire, dead sure that he was forever done with the roving life. Then, one day, came the honking of wild geese flying northward; the sun grew warmer; the grass was springing green around the buffalo chips in the prairie, and in the draws the redbud was lifting itself in little pink clouds. Farewell to all firm resolves! A span of oxen could not have held the plainsman in the quarters which he had believed to be the most delightful place in the world, when he arrived there in the fall. Something was calling him--something in the wind, the sky and the dashing rain--and he went, went like a bird from its cage.

The day we broke camp a "norther" began blowing, and I froze two of my fingers rather badly. We traveled 35 or 40 miles the first day, the mules going at a gallop part of the time. We reached Fort Leavenworth next day, and delivered our mules to the corral-master, after which we went to the Government mess house, where our appetites attracted considerable attention and caused no less comment.

The quartermaster paid us our accumulated wages. We were now without a job. A friendship had grown up between myself and a man named Bill Gladden. The two of us went from the Fort to the city, and remained there about three weeks, attracted by the curious sights to be seen daily in the coming and going of the brawny multitudes of men who gave to that town a historic interest.

The manager of the farm where I had spent the winter was named McCall. His family seemed to feel much affection for me. His son, Charley, and I became fast friends. McCall offered me a job, which Gladden advised me to accept, as he felt that I was rather young to be fighting my way against the odds that often overthrew strong men in the Plains Country. This, however, was not what I wanted to do. I had made up my mind to go west--and to keep on going west until I could say that I had seen it all, and had hunted buffaloes and fought Indians to my complete satisfaction. Little did I dream of how much of this sort of thing was in store for me in later years. The McCalls were so persuasive however, that I could not resist their kind offers, and I remained on the farm about a year. During all this time Mrs. McCall was a mother to me, and the family treated me as if I were a son and a brother. I am sure that the good influences of this home were helpful to me in after life.

I worked for the McCalls until the fall of 1866. In July a number of horses were stolen from the barn, and my employer gave me the place of night watchman, a responsible position for a boy of my age. I had the greatest confidence, however, in my ability to use my rifle in a way that would be disastrous to thieves. I did not lose a single horse.

The McCalls had two girls and one boy, Charley. The latter was wild and reckless, but good-hearted and eager for any kind of adventure. Once he had run away from home and gone west with a Government mule train. Old man McCall was a great hand to hunt, and often took me with him on his hunting trips. I always thought that he felt a bit provoked at me when his folks teased him about my killing the most game, but he laughed it off, and would brag on me himself.

That fall the McCalls told me that if I wished to remain and go to school during the winter, my board would not cost me a cent. I was glad to take advantage of this offer, so Charley and I walked to town every day to school--the two girls attended a Catholic boarding school. Prior to this, I had attended school only two terms. Plainly, my school days were limited.

I did my best to keep Charley out of trouble, and am sure that I exerted a good influence over him, as he would nearly always listen to me. Despite my utmost endeavors, he engaged in a number of fights at school, which caused his parents more or less trouble. During all our acquaintance Charley and I never spoke a harsh word to each other.

While I was living with the McCalls a shocking tragedy took place at their home--the suicide of United States Senator James Lane of Kansas. He was visiting there at the time he killed himself. Mrs. Lane and Mrs. McCall were sisters. The Senator was in poor health. While riding with his wife and children, he thrust the muzzle of a six-shooter into his mouth, and pulled the trigger. The bullet came out at the top of his head. Strange to say, he lived three days. I was with the ambulance that was sent out to convey him to Leavenworth, where he could receive medical aid. Senator Lane was a Kansas pioneer, and took an active and leading part in the conduct of its early affairs.

Leavenworth City was a tough place in those days, filled with all kinds of rough characters. I saw three men lying dead in the street one day, as the result of an extraordinary occurrence. Four men were sitting under a tree playing cards, as a severe electric storm formed and swept over the city. One man suggested that the game should be postponed until after the storm had passed, to which another replied, "D----n the lightning." At that moment a bolt struck the tree with a blinding flash, killing all of the men save the one that had asked that there be no card-playing while the storm was raging. The bodies of the dead men were laid on the floor of the fire station. Their deaths caused much comment, as many persons felt that they had provoked the wrath that fell upon them.

Shootings were as common as the arrival of a bull-train, and excited little comment. The man who was quickest on trigger usually came out ahead--the other fellow was buried, and no questions asked.