Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

In the summer of 1857, Russell, Majors & Waddell were sending a great many trains across the plains to Salt Lake with supplies for General Johnston's army. Men were in great demand, and the company was paying teamsters forty dollars per month in gold.

An old and reliable wagon-master, named Lewis Simpson--who had taken a great fancy to me, and who, by the way, was one of the best wagon-masters that ever ran a bull train--was loading a train for the company, and was about to start out with it for Salt Lake. He asked me to go along as an "extra hand." The high wages that were being paid were a great inducement to me, and the position of an "extra hand" was a pleasant one. All that I would have to do would be to take the place of any man who became sick, and drive his wagon until he recovered. I would have my own mule to ride, and to a certain extent I would be a minor boss.

My mother was very much opposed to my taking this long trip, as I would be absent nearly a year, and there was a possibility that something might arise to prevent me from ever coming back, as we could not often tell how the Mormon difficulty would terminate. Then again, owing to the Indians, a journey over the plains in those days was a perilous undertaking. She said that as I had recently returned from the plains, and had had a narrow escape from death at the hands of the Indians, she did not want me to risk my life a second time. I told her that inasmuch as I had determined to follow the plains for an occupation, nothing could now stop me from going on this trip, and if it became necessary I would run away.

Seeing that it was impossible to keep me at home, she reluctantly gave her consent, but not until she had called upon Mr. Russell and Mr. Simpson in regard to the matter, and had obtained from the latter gentleman his promise that I should be well taken care of, if we had to winter in the mountains. She did not like the appearance of Simpson, and upon inquiry she learned, to her dismay, that he was a desperate character, and that on nearly every trip he had made across the plains he had killed some one. Such a man, she thought, was not a fit master or companion for her son, and she was very anxious to have me go with some other wagon-master; but I still insisted upon remaining with Simpson.

"Madam, I can assure you that Lew. Simpson is one of the most reliable wagon-masters on the plains," said Mr. Russell, "and he has taken a great fancy to Billy. If your boy is bound to go, he can go with no better man. No one will dare to impose on him while he is with Lew. Simpson, whom I will instruct to take good care of the boy. Upon reaching Fort Laramie, Billy can, if he wishes, exchange places with some fresh man coming back on a returning train, and thus come home without making the whole trip."

This seemed to satisfy mother, and then she had a long talk with Simpson himself, imploring him not to forget his promise to take good care of her precious boy. He promised everything that she asked. Thus, after much trouble, I became one of the members of Simpson's train. Before taking our departure, I arranged with Russell, Majors & Waddell that when my pay should fall due it should be paid over to mother.

As a matter of interest to the general reader, it may be well in this connection to give a brief description of a freight train. The wagons used in those days by Russell, Majors & Waddell were known as the "J. Murphy wagons," made at St. Louis specially for the plains business. They were very large and were strongly built, being capable of carrying seven thousand pounds of freight each. The wagon-boxes were very commodious--being as large as the rooms of an ordinary house--and were covered with two heavy canvas sheets to protect the merchandise from the rain. These wagons were generally sent out from Leavenworth, each loaded with six thousand pounds of freight, and each drawn by several yokes of oxen in charge of one driver. A train consisted of twenty-five wagons, all in charge of one man, who was known as the wagon-master. The second man in command was the assistant wagon-master; then came the "extra hand," next the night herder; and lastly, the cavallard driver, whose duty it was to drive the lame and loose cattle. There were thirty-one men all told in a train. The men did their own cooking, being divided into messes of seven. One man cooked, another brought wood and water, another stood guard, and so on, each having some duty to perform while getting meals. All were heavily armed with Colt's pistols and Mississippi yagers, and every one always had his weapons handy so as to be prepared for any emergency.

The wagon-master, in the language of the plains, was called the "bull-wagon boss"; the teamsters were known as "bull-whackers"; and the whole train was denominated a "bull-outfit." Everything at that time was called an "outfit." The men of the plains were always full of droll humor and exciting stories of their own experiences, and many an hour I spent in listening to the recitals of thrilling adventures and hair-breadth escapes.

Russell, Majors & Waddell had in their employ two hundred and fifty trains, composed of 6,250 wagons, 75,000 oxen, and about eight thousand men; their business reaching to all the government frontier posts in the north and west, to which they transported supplies, and they also carried freight as far south as New Mexico.

[Illustration: A PRAIRIE SCHOONER.]

The trail to Salt Lake ran through Kansas to the northwest, crossing the Big Blue river, then over the Big and Little Sandy, coming into Nebraska near the Big Sandy. The next stream of any importance was the Little Blue, along which the trail ran for sixty miles; then crossed a range of sand-hills and struck the Platte river ten miles below Old Fort Kearney; thence the course lay up the South Platte to the old Ash Hollow Crossing, thence eighteen miles across to the North Platte--near the mouth of the Blue Water, where General Harney had his great battle in 1855 with the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. From this point the North Platte was followed, passing Court House Rock, Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluffs, and then on to Fort Laramie, where the Laramie River was crossed. Still following the North Platte for some considerable distance, the trail crossed this river at old Richard's Bridge, and followed it up to the celebrated Red Buttes--crossing the Willow creeks to the Sweet Water, passing the great Independence Rock and the Devil's gate, up to the Three Crossings of the Sweet Water, thence past the Cold Springs, where, three feet under the sod, on the hottest day of summer, ice can be found; thence to the Hot Springs and the Rocky Ridge, and through the Rocky Mountains and Echo Cañon, and thence on to the Great Salt Lake valley.

We had started on our trip with everything in good shape, following the above described trail. During the first week or two out, I became well acquainted with most of the train men, and with one in particular, who became a life-long and intimate friend of mine. His real name was James B. Hickok; he afterwards became famous as "Wild Bill, the Scout of the Plains"--though why he was so called I never could ascertain--and from this time forward I shall refer to him by his popular nickname. He was ten years my senior--a tall, handsome, magnificently built and powerful young fellow, who could out-run, out-jump and out-fight any man in the train. He was generally admitted to be the best man physically, in the employ of Russell, Majors & Waddell; and of his bravery there was not a doubt. General Custer, in his "Life on the Plains," thus speaks of Wild Bill:

       *       *       *       *       *

"Among the white scouts were numbered some of the most noted of their class. The most prominent man among them was 'Wild Bill,' whose highly varied career was made the subject of an illustrated sketch in one of the popular monthly periodicals a few years ago. 'Wild Bill' was a strange character, just the one which a novelist might gloat over. He was a plains-man in every sense of the word, yet unlike any other of his class. In person he was about six feet and one inch in height, straight as the straightest of the warriors whose implacable foe he was. He had broad shoulders, well-formed chest and limbs, and a face strikingly handsome; a sharp, clear blue eye, which stared you straight in the face when in conversation; a finely shaped nose, inclined to be aquiline; a well-turned mouth, with lips only partially concealed by a handsome moustache. His hair and complexion were those of the perfect blonde. The former was worn in uncut ringlets, falling carelessly over his powerfully formed shoulders. Add to this figure a costume blending the immaculate neatness of the dandy with the extravagant taste and style of the frontiersman, and you have Wild Bill.... Whether on foot or on horseback, he was one of the most perfect types of physical manhood I ever saw.

"Of his courage there could be no question; it had been brought to the test on too many occasions to admit of a doubt. His skill in the use of the pistol and rifle was unerring; while his deportment was exactly the opposite of what might be expected from a man of his surroundings. It was entirely free from all bluster or bravado. He seldom spoke himself unless requested to do so. His conversation, strange to say, never bordered either on the vulgar or blasphemous. His influence among the frontiersmen was unbounded, his word was law; and many are the personal quarrels and disturbances which he has checked among his comrades by his simple announcement that 'This has gone far enough,'--if need be followed by the ominous warning that when persisted in or renewed the quarreler 'must settle it with me.'

"Wild Bill was anything but a quarrelsome man; yet no one but him could enumerate the many conflicts in which he had been engaged, and which had almost always resulted in the death of his adversary. I have a personal knowledge of at least half a dozen men whom he had at various times killed, one of these being at the time a member of my command. Others had been severely wounded, yet he always escaped unhurt.

"On the plains every man openly carries his belt with its invariable appendages, knife and revolver--often two of the latter. Wild Bill always carried two handsome ivory-handled revolvers of the large size; he was never seen without them.... Yet in all the many affairs of this kind in which Wild Bill has performed a part, and which have come to my knowledge, there was not a single instance in which the verdict of twelve fair-minded men would not have been pronounced in his favor."

       *       *       *       *       *

Such is the faithful picture of Wild Bill as drawn by General Custer, who was a close observer and student of personal character, and under whom Wild Bill served as a scout.

The circumstances under which I first made his acquaintance and learned to know him well and to appreciate his manly character and kind-heartedness, were these. One of the teamsters in Lew. Simpson's train was a surly, overbearing fellow, and took particular delight in bullying and tyrannizing over me, and one day while we were at dinner he asked me to do something for him. I did not start at once, and he gave me a slap in the face with the back of his hand,--knocking me off an ox-yoke on which I was sitting, and sending me sprawling on the ground. Jumping to my feet I picked up a camp kettle full of boiling coffee which was setting on the fire, and threw it at him. I hit him in the face, and the hot coffee gave him a severe scalding. He sprang for me with the ferocity of a tiger, and would undoubtedly have torn me to pieces, had it not been for the timely interference of my new-found friend, Wild Bill, who knocked the man down. As soon as he recovered himself, he demanded of Wild Bill what business it was of his that he should "put in his oar." "It's my business to protect that boy, or anybody else, from being unmercifully abused, kicked and cuffed, and I'll whip any man who tries it on," said Wild Bill; "and if you ever again lay a hand on that boy--little Billy there--I'll give you such a pounding that you won't get over it for a month of Sundays." From that time forward Wild Bill was my protector and intimate friend, and the friendship thus begun continued until his death.

Nothing transpired on the trip to delay or give us any trouble whatever, until the train struck the South Platte river. One day we camped on the same ground where the Indians had surprised the cattle herd, in charge of the McCarty brothers. It was with difficulty that we discovered any traces of anybody ever having camped there before, the only landmark being the single grave, now covered with grass, in which we had buried the three men who had been killed. The country was alive with buffaloes. Vast herds of these monarchs of the plains were roaming all around us, and we laid over one day for a grand hunt. Besides killing quite a number of buffaloes, and having a day of rare sport, we captured ten or twelve head of cattle, they being a portion of the herd which had been stampeded by the Indians, two months before. The next day we pulled out of camp, and the train was strung out to a considerable length along the road which ran near the foot of the sand-hills, two miles from the river. Between the road and the river we saw a large herd of buffaloes grazing quietly, they having been down to the stream for a drink.

Just at this time we observed a party of returning Californians coming from the West. They, too, noticed the buffalo herd, and in another moment they were dashing down upon them, urging their steeds to the greatest speed. The buffalo herd stampeded at once, and broke for the hills; so hotly were they pursued by the hunters that about five hundred of them rushed through our train pell-mell, frightening both men and oxen. Some of the wagons were turned clear round, and many of the terrified oxen attempted to run to the hills, with the heavy wagons attached to them. Others turned around so short that they broke the wagon tongues off. Nearly all the teams got entangled in their gearing, and became wild and unruly, so that the perplexed drivers were unable to manage them.

The buffaloes, the cattle, and the drivers, were soon running in every direction, and the excitement upset nearly everybody and everything. Many of the cattle broke their yokes and stampeded. One big buffalo bull became entangled in one of the heavy wagon-chains, and it is a fact that in his desperate efforts to free himself, he not only actually snapped the strong chain in two, but broke the ox-yoke to which it was attached, and the last seen of him he was running towards the hills with it hanging from his horns. A dozen other equally remarkable incidents happened during the short time that the frantic buffaloes were playing havoc with our train, and when they had got through and left us, our outfit was very badly crippled and scattered. This caused us to go into camp and spend a day in replacing the broken tongues, and repairing other damages, and gathering up our scattered ox-teams.

The next day we rolled out of camp, and proceeded on our way towards the setting sun. Everything ran along smoothly with us from that point until we came within about eighteen miles of Green river, in the Rocky mountains--where we camped at noon. At this place we had to drive our cattle about a mile and a half to a creek to water them. Simpson, his assistant, George Woods and myself, accompanied by the usual number of guards, drove the cattle over to the creek, and while on our way back to camp, we suddenly observed a party of twenty horsemen rapidly approaching us. We were not yet in view of our wagons, as a rise of ground intervened, and therefore we could not signal the train-men in case of any unexpected danger befalling us. We had no suspicion, however, that we were about to be trapped, as the strangers were white men. When they had come up to us, one of the party, who evidently was the leader, rode out in front and said:

"How are you, Mr. Simpson?"

"You've got the best of me, sir," said Simpson, who did not know him.

"Well, I rather think I have," coolly replied the stranger, whose words conveyed a double meaning, as we soon learned. We had all come to a halt by this time, and the strange horsemen had surrounded us. They were all armed with double-barreled shot guns, rifles and revolvers. We also were armed with revolvers, but we had had no idea of danger, and these men, much to our surprise, had "got the drop" on us, and had covered us with their weapons, so that we were completely at their mercy. The whole movement of corraling us was done so quietly and quickly that it was accomplished before we knew it.

"I'll trouble you for your six shooters, gentlemen," now said the leader.

"I'll give 'em to you in a way you don't want," replied Simpson.

The next moment three guns were leveled at Simpson. "If you make a move you're a dead man," said the leader.

Simpson saw that he was taken at a great disadvantage, and thinking it advisable not to risk the lives of the party by any rash act on his part, he said: "I see now that you have the best of me, but who are you, anyhow?"

"I am Joe Smith," was the reply.

"What! the leader of the Danites?" asked Simpson.

"You are correct," said Smith, for he it was.

"Yes," said Simpson, "I know you now; you are a spying scoundrel."

Simpson had good reason for calling him this and applying to him a much more opprobrious epithet, for only a short time before this, Joe Smith had visited our train in the disguise of a teamster, and had remained with us two days. He suddenly disappeared, no one knowing where he had gone or why he had come among us. But it was all explained to us now that he had returned with his Mormon Danites. After they had disarmed us, Simpson asked, "Well, Smith, what are you going to do with us?"

"Ride back with us and I'll soon show you," said Smith.

We had no idea of the surprise which awaited us. As we came upon the top of the ridge, from which we could view our camp, we were astonished to see the remainder of the train men disarmed and stationed in a group and surrounded by another squad of Danites, while other Mormons were searching our wagons for such articles as they wanted.

"How is this?" inquired Simpson. "How did you surprise my camp without a struggle? I can't understand it."

"Easily enough," said Smith; "your men were all asleep under the wagons, except the cooks, who saw us coming and took us for returning Californians or emigrants, and paid no attention to us until we rode up and surrounded your train. With our arms covering the men, we woke them up, and told them that all they had to do was to walk out and drop their pistols--which they saw was the best thing they could do under circumstances over which they had no control--and you can just bet they did it."

"And what do you propose to do with us now?" asked Simpson.

"I intend to burn your train," said he; "you are loaded with supplies and ammunition for Sidney Johnson, and as I have no way to convey the stuff to my own people, I'll see that it does not reach the United States troops."

"Are you going to turn us adrift here?" asked Simpson, who was anxious to learn what was to become of himself and his men.

"No; I hardly am as bad as that. I'll give you enough provisions to last you until you can reach Fort Bridger," replied Smith; "and as soon as your cooks can get the stuff out of the wagons, you can start."

"On foot?" was the laconic inquiry of Simpson.

"Yes sir," was the equally short reply.

"Smith, that's too rough on us men. Put yourself in our place and see how you would like it," said Simpson; "you can well afford to give us at least one wagon and six yokes of oxen to convey us and our clothing and provisions to Fort Bridger. You're a brute if you don't do this."

"Well," said Smith, after consulting a minute or two with some of his company, "I'll do that much for you."

The cattle and the wagon were brought up according to his orders, and the clothing and provisions were loaded on.

"Now you can go," said Smith, after everything had been arranged.

"Joe Smith, I think you are a mean coward to set us afloat in a hostile country, without giving us our arms," said Simpson, who had once before asked for the weapons, and had had his request denied.

Smith, after further consultation with his comrades, said: "Simpson, you are too brave a man to be turned adrift here without any means of defense. You shall have your revolvers and guns." Our weapons were accordingly handed over to Simpson, and we at once started for Fort Bridger, knowing that it would be useless to attempt the recapture of our train.

When we had traveled about two miles we saw the smoke arising from our old camp. The Mormons after taking what goods they wanted and could carry off, had set fire to the wagons, many of which were loaded with bacon, lard, hard-tack, and other provisions, which made a very hot, fierce fire, and the smoke to roll up in dense clouds. Some of the wagons were loaded with ammunition, and it was not long before loud explosions followed in rapid succession. We waited and witnessed the burning of the train, and then pushed on to Fort Bridger. Arriving at this post, we learned that two other trains had been captured and destroyed in the same way, by the Mormons. This made seventy-five wagon loads, or 450,000 pounds of supplies, mostly provisions, which never reached General Johnson's command, to which they had been consigned.