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Nebraska Trailblazer #3: Oregon Trail
Excerpts from the diary of John T. Gibson, April 18- September 11, 1859


JOURNAL OF WESTERN TRAVEL
Marengo, Iowa County, Iowa, April 18, 1859

There are few men in this Mundane sphere, who are insensible to the unspeakable inconvenience of being poor, and fewer still, who schooled in that condition, will remain so, when a suitable opportunity presents itself for amassing an independence. Consequently believing as I did, that there was an ample field, and a fair prospect of renumeration for the industrious man in the neighborhood of Pike's Peak ­ a few others and myself in all a round dozen, left Marengo today at 3:00 P.M. en route for the diggings ­ some like myself, leaving a comfortable home ­ a loving wife and family for the sole purpose of placing them in easier circumstances ­ others again for the mere sake of fun and frolic, who probably have a vague idea that they will make something handsome. . . . Blacksmiths, carpenters, millers, coopers and a general assortment of Jacks of all trades, determined to make a start, and not caring about crowding our raw teams. We have only come five miles, and are now snugly encamped on Little Bear Creek, some of our friends paying us a parting visit here, and seeing us safely off, and little does anyone of us know, though all so happy and anticipative now, what various hues and shades the future may assume, either in regard to himself or those he is in company with.

May 9, 1859.
Five miles travel brought us to the Big Muddy, which we crossed, and landed in Plattsmouth, a thin scattering village with only one outfitting store in the whole place. . . . We bought our outfit here, saw some fine gold specimens from the mines, and were altogether more encouraged than we have been since we started. I wrote my first letter home from this point. . . .

May 10, 1859.
. . . We struck tents about nine o'clock, and travelled up the Platte some 16 miles over the best farming land that can be found in any country. There is one great drawback, however, the scarcity of timber. There is a little skirting the Platte in the distance, and a trifling amount along some of the creeks we have crossed, and that is all. Today we have met some teams coming back whose hearts have failed them. They bring all kinds of reports, such as land-robbers, robbing the provision wagons, men being killed ahead of us, and everything else tended to dishearten the timid ­ but we think we are made of sterner stuff, and are determined to see the peak, gold or no gold. Harper has amused us all today, stopping every man he met and asking if he had got any reliable news. . . .

May 11, 1859.
Talk about your eastern rainstorms. They sink into utter insignificance when compared with what can be got up on short notice along the Platte. The lightening flashed almost simultaneous with the clashing, deafening, reverberating reports of heavens artillery. The wind howled a perfect tornado, leveling one tent in company, and forcing the inmates to scamper in their shirt-tails and seek shelter in ours, which was strained in every stitch to the utmost tension, but with commendable promptness, every man sprang to his feet at the first onset, manned the ridgepole, and stood to his port, till the extreme violence of the tempest was abated, and then the windows of heaven were opened and the rain descended much in the same way while it lasted, as it did in Old Captain Noah's time. In fact, I never recollect seeing it rain any harder. . . . Today we have had a trying time for the timid, having met 45 teams on the back track, bringing all kinds of reports but we have now ceased to give credence to anything at all connected with the mines, and are resolved to see it through.

May 13, 1859.
. . . we continued our journey meeting teams by the hundred, and though a little hard to persuade, we must have been hard-headed indeed if we could have stood out in the face of all we saw and heard from authentic sources. We therefore held a council of war ­ passed a resolution that Pike's Peak was the . . . [biggest] humbug ever got up in any country ­ that it had ruined thousands, beggared twice as many and had absorbed the little all of the destitute poor who could only raise enough to go out that far. We next debated the point whether we would go on to the Peak anyhow, and then return home or strike straight for California and try our fortunes there. Over the plains had the majority so here we go, barely enough provided for such a trip. . . .

May 16, 1859.
Rained again as usual, started however, and joined three more young fellows from Humboldt County, Iowa. Their names are Henry Badger, Horace B. Hollows and Curtis Bellows ­ the two last crossed the plains in 1852. We have been stumping every man we met for some sort of a trade or other, and so Powell traded off his kit of carpenter tools for a first rate rifle. Travelling heavy and hard on our cattle, and the road more crooked than ever, one bend in particular, five miles across and over twelve round ­ at all events it took us nearly all day to make it, and we have set down this days travel at fourteen miles. . . .

May 19, 1859.
We started this morning from near Elm Creek. Had a nice cool morning and pleasant roads, till about the middle of the forenoon, when my wagon got settled in a marshy piece of country about a mile wide. All hands except the drivers took hold of 100 cwt. of flour each and put for dry land. The team managed the balance easily, the other boys happened to get through first rate. About noon we reached Clear Creek, a distance of eight miles, the road delightful, skirting the Platte all the way. . . . Some of the company sighted a wolf, another some geese but did not succeed in killing either. The large train is now ahead of us, but we can always start one hour earlier than they can, and I have already learned by noting their movements, that a man with a small number of work cattle, has no business in such a crowd, the torment and vexation, occasioned by the insubordination of his cattle in such a mixed multitude, would put me crazy in a week. I would ten times rather make the trip singly and alone. . . .

May 20, 1859.
. . . I took my gun and started up the river. Shot a goose on one of the islands about 250 yards out. It fell back into the river, drifted nearly half a mile, and lodged against a sand bar; being no swimmer I was afraid to venture in and so went for some of the boys, but when we came back the goose was gone, and all we cold see was the track of a wolf or some other vermint who had appropriated the goose in my absence. I hunted the island over in quest of the plunderer, but could not discover his retreat There were recent traces of Indians also plenty of beaver sign, both here and up the river for several miles. We are now camped at the Pawnee Village. We visited what is called their Chief's grave ­ round it is described a circle some 20 feet in diameter, the outer rim fringed with the skulls of horses, the noses pointing inward to the center. These horses are said to have been killed in the battle between the Pawnees and Sioux Indians in 1850. The Pawnees were then victorious. There are about 60 horses heads in all. In retaliation the Sioux returned in greater force, and burned the village to the ground, so that all that now remains are the ruins of their wigwams, and their caches or places of deposit for grain. These are dug about 8 feet deep in the ground, narrow at the top and hallowed out underneath in the shape of a gallon jug. The trails of the Indians are plainly seen, traversing the bluffs in every direction.

May 22, 1859.
Today being Sunday, we laid over and were variously employed in washing, fishing and hunting, as the case might be. We caught three splendid catfish weighing about 10 lbs apiece, they made a glorious mess. In the forenoon five of the Marengo boys, John Dillin, Frank Reno, Wallace Hamilton, Jacob Baines, and Craven Gardner, who had been at Cherry Creek met, and camped all night with us. They fully confirm previous reports from the mines, and all agree in saying it is the greatest humbug ever got up in any age or country. Sam Dillin, brother to John, formerly of Marengo, now from Council Bluffs, was in the mines all winter, and had the richest claim that was worked, and could not make with the hardest kind of work more than $1.50 per day. Wallace Hamilton goes with Ben Owen to California, while William Liddle belonging to my crowd goes home, . . . All the old Californians tell us in drinking to stick to the Platte and not change it for any other as long as we can get it. They all pronounce it healthy. . . .

May 23, 1859.
We parted from the boys, with three times three in full chorus ­ saw tears glisten in several eyes and . . . we went against a head wind all day. The sand blowing enough to blind us. Altogether the most disagreeable day we have had since we started. We are now opposite Grand Island, said to be 80 miles long. Camped by the river, and are now holding on to our tents to keep them from being torn up bodily. It has blowed great guns for several hours, and not done yet.

May 26, 1859
The father of all the thunderstorms, we have as yet encountered since we started, fell in full force upon our devoted heads today, drenching us to the skin. Some of us concluded to go as far Kearney and try there to get some shoes for our oxen, so we started through the mud some 15 miles. . . . We met a government train from Fort Laramie, going to the river for supplies. There were 20 teams, consisting of three spans of mules to each wagon, and 6 spare wagons in the train, another ox train from the same place, 14 wagons with five yokes of oxen to each and 10 spare wagons. What clumsy, unwieldy overgrown wagons they do have ­ timber enough in one to make three. We passed another train from Atchinson in Missouri loaded with groceries, bound for the peak. . . . We visited the Fort, quite a respectable little place. Got dinner at 75 cents a head, and enjoyed the good things of mine host amasingly, but felt it somewhat off sitting at a table, instead of squatting on the ground, as we have been so long accustomed to do. There are about 200 soldiers quartered here and they all look decent and orderly, though mostly Dutch and Irish.

May 28, 1859.
Travelled over what I denominate the Buffalo Flat, intersected every two or three rods with deep trails and covered with wallow holes where the animals are in the habit of wallowing in the mud to prevent the flies, gnats and mosquitoes from annoying them. The whole flat is impregnated with alkali and resembles a boneyard. Here lies the bones of many an unwary ox who had drank to freely of the poisonous water. There too, the remains of the wounded and worn out buffalo ­ with here and there a pile of bones that look as if the Indians had killed them. . . .

May 29, 1859.
The boys came in last night without any game, but hungry as wolves, and we all did justice to a good mess of haresoup, - got up in the most approved style and contrary to custom, - we travelled today in the forenoon making about 12 miles. Put some shoes on one of our cattle which was beginning to get a little footsore and rested ourselves and cattle in the afternoon. . . .

May 30, 1859.
Six weeks today since we left home, and we are now nearly 600 miles on our way ­ travelling over good hard smooth and level roads, winding and twisting through patches of alkali. The same as it has been for several days. We are having both a rarity and variety for our meals ­ catfish, pigeons, and a splendid antelope that Kay killed. He and Wallace Hamilton packed it to the wagons at least six miles ­ four more of the boys are out hunting and have not yet returned, and it is now dark, no doubt of it, they must pass the night out.

May 31, 1859.
As we expected, our hunters found their own beds last night. Bukey and Harper arrived at camp about daylight, having travelled all night and were much annoyed by the wolves hanging on their trail and feeble and pretty well used up for want of food, water and sleep. The other two, H.B. Bellows and Henry Badger, did not arrive till noon. They killed a buffalo with my double barrelled smooth bore, 15 miles from the road. They carried about 50 lbs. of the meat to where they expected to find us, but lo! We were all of 25 miles ahead, so they gave away their meat, and overtook us at noon, tired and footsore. . . . We are now camped by cottonwood Springs, far famed in Western literature. This is a spring of excellent, with only a trading post and a stage station immediately by it. Here is also a new made grave, the man died this spring.

June 2, 1859.
More agreeable this morning. Good day, though dusty for a long drive. A few more ducks, and another fine antelope brought in by Kay to vary the monotony of pork and beans. . . . We passed a colony of what are commonly termed prairie-dogs, and instead of finding as described by Emerson Bennet, "a regularly organized town, laid out in streets and squares, with an elderly fellow who occupies the center pavilion, and acts as chief magistrate" we found no more regularity, than there is among so many molehills in a meadow. Towards night we passed O'Fallon's Bluffs where there is a trading-post and 23 wickie-ups, belonging to a company of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. . . .

June 5, 1859.
Sunday once more, and both we and our cattle require rest; we have been pushing ahead most too fast for several days in order to reach the crossing, before the river should rise thereby rendering the passage dangerous if not altogether impracticable. There is a continual string of teams crossing and the whopping and yelling put me in mind of skunk bottom. We are only 240 miles from Pikes Peak, at this point.

June 6, 1859.
We struck across this morning for the North Platte, by the way of Ash-Hollow, distance 18 miles. Killed the fawn of an antelope, and scared another half to death in the forenoon. . . . Got catched in a most pitiless pelting hailstorm, as big as marbles, how they did sting through the thin shirt-sleeves, it latter rained worse than it hailed, till we were both soaking wet, chilly and chafed up before we reached the camp. We passed something like what the Alps must have been in Napoleons time, coming almost perpendicularly down into Ash-Hollow.

June 9, 1859.
Started very early. Awful hot and dusty ­ got in sight of courthouse rock, apparently a mile or so from the road. We had a great dispute about the distance, and two of the boys, Powell and Harper, have been out, and are now coming in, convinced no doubt of their error, as they reluctantly acknowledge that they travelled about five miles before they reached it. We are now past it and in full view of Chimney Rock.

June 10, 1859.
When opposite Chimney Rock about 10 o'clock A.M. nearly all the boys went up to see it. It is composed of sand and clay, and is as near as I can judge, quite 400 feet in height ­ 200 from the base to the highest ascending point and then 200 feet more sticking up on the top like a chimney-stack. The boys say that there are any amount of names cut out in the soft rock. The bluffs all along jut out in every conceivable form and shape covered here and there with dwarf cedar. We killed three hares, and made a fair drive of about 17 miles.

June 11, 1859
We struck out this morning for Scotts Bluffs, a place much celebrated in western literature, and I must say they interested me more than any place I have yet seen. You come on approaching them into a regular amphitheater in shape of a semi-circle completely walled in with soft rock of all shapes and sizes. Here a sculptor might appropriately take lessons from Madam Nature, and be greatly profited ­ here are pinnacles and peaks, turrets and towers, domes, citadels and fortresses in every style of architecture. But the greatest curiosity in these latitudes is ­ the remarkable purity of the atmosphere, as well as the extraordinary ease with which one is liable to be deceived in regard to distance ­ for instance you see a bluff or mountain apparently not more than a mile at any rate, which in all probability you won't get to it short of four or five. . . .

June 12, 1859
Last night was our first experience in the way of mosquitoes. None of us slept any of any account, and those who did, looked as if they had had a good milling ­ eyes bunged up, and faces swelled up skin-tight. This is Sunday once more, we accordingly laid over and let our cattle rest. One of Ben's oxen showed some symptoms of being sick, but got considerably better by night. The day was passed in reading, writing, sleeping, washing and overhauling and changing our loads. A great many teams passed us today, but every dog has his day, and very likely we may get ahead of most of them yet.




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