Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

Thomas J. Farnham—I

A curious little book, the title-page of which bears the date 1841, is Thomas J. Farnham's, Travels in the Great Western Prairies, The Anahuac and Rocky Mountains, And in The Oregon Territory. It was published in Poughkeepsie, N. Y., by Killey & Lossing, printers. It contains nearly two hundred pages, and is printed in very fine type, and on thin paper, with small margins; so that in fact it looks more like a tract than a volume. Yet it contains about a hundred and twenty thousand words.

Its title indicates the character of the book. It is the narrative of a journey made in order to obtain "a view of the Great Prairie Wilderness, the Rocky Mountains, and the sweet vales of the Oregon Territory."

Farnham was one of a party of fourteen men who left Peoria, Ill., on the first day of May, 1839. The company was followed by a wagon containing their provisions, ammunition, and other baggage, and each man carried "a rifle swung at his back; a powder horn, bullet pouch and long knife at his side."

Their way westward was marked by no adventure, except the usual ones of travel on the prairie; but at Quincy the author met Joe Smith, Jr., the father of the Mormon prophet, and he interrupts his narrative to give a somewhat extended account of Mormonism and the history of the Latter Day Saints up to that time. From Quincy they passed on to Independence, Mo., twenty days out from their starting point. Here the travellers beheld a sight novel to them—the breaking of green mules to harness; and after some time devoted to loitering about Independence, and making preparations for their journey, they started westward in a storm.

Farnham's party followed the track of the Santa Fe traders, and, like others who passed over this road, they met with the Kauzaus (Kansas) Indians, whom they saw and wondered at. Early in the trip, near the Osage River, the members of Farnham's company began to weary of prairie life, and three of his best men determined to return to the "States," and left him. The journey continued along the Santa Fe trail, but provisions began to grow short. Game was seen from time to time, but none was killed. Continual storms drenched them, wet their packs and their ropes, and made life more or less of a burden to them. At last, however, in the latter half of June, they came to the buffalo range, overtaking there a party of Santa Fe traders.

Buffalo now began to be found, and the party killed their first one, "a noble bull; a mountain of flesh weighing at least three thousand pounds." This relieved their necessities, but they were anxious, because of the prospect of soon meeting Indians—Caws, Pawnees, or Comanches, or all three. And now, to make things worse, one of the men of the party accidentally shot himself with his own rifle. For a day or two he was carried in one of the wagons belonging to the Santa Fe caravan, but presently Farnham's party turned off from this trail, and then the wounded man was obliged either to ride a horse or travel in a litter. Experiment soon showed, however, that the last method of travelling was impracticable, and it was necessary for the man to ride. His wound became inflamed and painful, but the constant care of the author made life much easier for the wounded man. "June 23, the buffalo were more numerous than ever. They were ranged in long lines from the eastern to the western horizon. The bulls were forty or fifty yards in advance of the bands of cows, to which they severally intended to give protection. And as the moving embankment of wagons, led by an advanced guard, and flanked by horsemen riding slowly from front to rear, and guarded in the rear by men, made its majestic way along, these fiery cavaliers would march each to his own band of dames and misses, with an air that seemed to say, 'we are here'; and then back again to their lines, with great apparent satisfaction, that they were able to do battle for their sweet ones and their native plains." Farnham says that during three days they passed over a country so completely covered by buffalo that it appeared oftentimes dangerous even for the immense cavalcade of the Santa Fe traders to attempt to break its way through them. He figures that they travelled over one thousand three hundred and fifty square miles of territory so thickly covered with buffalo that, when viewed from a height, it scarcely afforded a sight of a square league of its surface. Soon after this, disaffection showed itself in the ranks of Farnham's company, and it was proposed to abandon the wounded man, the mutineers declaring that he would die in any event, and that it was not worth while to delay the whole party to await that event.

Now, too, a jealousy as to the command arose. There was a bully who determined to frighten Farnham into abdicating the leadership of the party in his favor.

At last they reached Fort William, or Bent's Fort, on the Arkansas, and on account of the differences which had sprung up within the party, it was decided to disband here. The property owned in common was to be divided up among the members of the expedition, and they were to go their several ways. As it turned out, Farnham and a few others went on together.

"Fort William," he says, "is owned by three brothers by the name of Bent, from St. Louis. Two of them were at the post when we arrived there. They seemed to be thoroughly initiated into Indian life; dressed like chiefs; in moccasins, thoroughly garnished with beads and porcupine quills; in trousers of deerskin, with long fringes of the same extending along the outer seam from the ankle to the hip; in the splendid hunting shirt of the same material, with sleeves fringed on the elbow-seam from the wrist to the shoulder, and ornamented with figures of porcupine quills of various colors, and leathern fringe around the lower edge of the body. And chiefs they were in the authority exercised in their wild and lonely fortress."

The country in which the fort was situated was then the common hunting-ground of several buffalo tribes, unfriendly alike to one another and the whites. The Maws and Cheyennes, the Pawnees and the Comanches gathered here in summer to hunt the buffalo; and thus, in the neighborhood of the post, there might be from fifteen to twenty thousand savages, "ready and panting for plunder and blood." If the Indians engaged in fighting had their own battles among themselves, the people of Bent's Fort felt safe; but if the Indians kept the peace among themselves, there was great anxiety at Fort William.

"Instances of the daring intrepidity of the Comanches that occurred just before and after my arrival here, will serve to show the hazard and dangers of which I have spoken. About the middle of June, 1839, a band of sixty of them under cover of night crossed the river and concealed themselves among the bushes that grow thickly on the bank near the place where the animals of the establishment feed during the day. No sentinel being on duty at the time, their presence was unobserved, and when morning came the Mexican horse guard mounted his horse, and with the noise and shouting usual with that class of servants when so employed, rushed his charge out of the fort; and riding rapidly from side to side of the rear of the band, urged them on, and soon had them nibbling the short dry grass in the little vale within grape-shot distance of the guns of the bastions. It is customary for a guard of animals about these trading posts to take his station beyond his charge; and if they stray from each other, or attempt to stroll too far, he drives them together, and thus keeps them in the best possible situation to be driven hastily to the corral, should the Indians, or other evil persons, swoop down upon them. And as there is constant danger of this, his horse is held by a long rope, and grazes around him, that he may be mounted quickly at the first alarm for a retreat within the walls. The faithful guard at Bent's, on the morning of the disaster I am relating, had dismounted after driving out his animals, and sat upon the ground watching with the greatest fidelity for every call of duty; when these fifty or sixty Indians sprang from their hiding places, ran upon the animals, yelling horribly, and attempted to drive them across the river. The guard, however, nothing daunted, mounted quickly, and drove his horse at full speed among them. The mules and horses hearing his voice amidst the frightening yells of the savages, immediately started at a lively pace for the fort; but the Indians were on all sides and bewildered them. The guard still pressed them onward and called for help: and on they rushed, despite the efforts of the Indians to the contrary. The battlements were covered with men. They shouted encouragement to the brave guard—.' Onward! onward!' and the injunction was obeyed. He spurred his horse to his greatest speed from side to side, and whipped the hindermost of the band with his leading rope. He had saved every animal; he was within twenty yards of the open gate; he fell; three arrows from the bows of the Comanches had cloven his heart. And relieved of him, the lords of the quiver gathered their prey, and drove them to the borders of Texas, without injury to life or limb. I saw this faithful guard's grave. He had been buried a few days. The wolves had been digging into it. Thus forty or fifty mules and horses and their best servant's life, were lost to the Messrs. Bent in a single day. I have been informed also that those horses and mules, which my company had taken great pleasure in recovering for them in the plains, were also stolen in a similar manner soon after my departure from the post; and that the gentlemen owners were in hourly expectation of an attack upon the fort itself."

It was midsummer when Farnham left Fort William, with four companions, for Oregon Territory. He stopped at Fort El Puebla, five miles above Bent's Fort, and here met a number of trappers. One of these greatly impressed him, a man from New Hampshire. "He had been educated at Dartmouth College, and was, altogether, one of the most remarkable men I ever knew. A splendid gentleman, a finished scholar, a critic on English and Roman literature, a politician, a trapper, an Indian." Dressed in a deer-skin frock, leggings and moccasins; there was not a shred of cloth about his person. Stiff, cold, and formal at first, he thawed as their acquaintance grew, and gave Farnham glimpses into his nature which greatly interested the traveller. There' were other men among these trappers, who told the author tales of adventure which he gladly set down, and which are well worth reproducing did space permit. Here Farnham traded for additional horses, and before long they set out to cross the mountains.

Led by a trapper named Kelly, who was familiar with the country through which they were to go, the party followed up the Arkansas, and at last entered the Rocky Mountains. Before they had gone very far their way seemed barred by mountains impracticable for pack-horses; yet their guides, after considering the way, marched straight onward over mountains of which some notion may be had from the following description: "The upper half, though less steep, proved to be the worst part of the ascent. It was a bed of rocks, at one place small and rolling, at another large and fixed, with deep openings between them. So that our animals were almost constantly falling, and tottering upon the brink of the cliff's, as they rose again and made their way among them. An hour and a half of this most dangerous and tiresome clambering deposited us in a grove of yellow pines near the summit. Our animals were covered with sweat and dirt, and trembled as if at that instant from the race track. Nor were their masters free from every ill of weariness. Our knees smote each other with fatigue, as Belshazzar's did with fear. Many of the pines on this ridge were two feet in diameter, and a hundred feet high, with small clusters of limbs around the tops. Others were low, and clothed with strong limbs quite near the ground. Under a number of these latter we had seated ourselves, holding the reins of our riding horses, when a storm arose with the rapidity of a whirlwind, and poured upon us hail and rain and snow with all imaginable liberality. A most remarkable tempest was this. . . . One portion of it had gathered its electricity and mist around James' Peak in the east; another among the white heights northwest; and a third among the snowy pyramids of the Utaws in the southwest; and marshalling their hosts, met over this connecting ridge between the eastern and central ranges, as if by general battle to settle a vexed question as to the better right to the pass; and it was sublimely fought. The opposing storms met nearly at the zenith, and fiercely rolled together their angry masses. And as if to carry out the simile I have here attempted, at the moment of their junction, the electricity of each leaped upon its antagonist transversely across the heavens, and in some instances fell in immense bolts upon the trembling cliffs; and then instantly came a volley of hail as grape-shot, sufficient to whiten all the towers of this horrid war. It lasted an hour."

After the tempest had ceased they clambered to the summit—whence they had a marvellous view of the Great Main snowy range of the "Rocky," "Stony" or "Shining" mountains then, clambering down on the other side, they camped not far below, on the headwaters of the Platte River, in what is now North Park, Colorado. Food was scarce, and nothing had been killed since they left Fort William; but when they came in sight of the Bayou Salade, Kelly promised them that before long they would have meat; and sure enough, during the day a buffalo was seen, killed by the guide, and greedily devoured. A hearty meal of its flesh; tongue, fat ribs, tenderloin, marrow-bones, and blood-pudding were all enjoyed, and the party ate almost the whole night long.