Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/09


From the Rockies to the Middle West.—1859-60

MY personal prospects were now assured, at least to the extent of a continuance of my engagement on the Commercial during the summer and fall. “Pike's Peak” was the all-absorbing topic in the press throughout the United States, and news from there was eagerly sought by editors and publishers. Several other correspondents appeared successively on the field, but I had a great advantage over them through my early advent and my knowledge of the country.

The influx of wanderers across the Plains in search of riches grew steadily greater as the summer advanced. Not less than fifty to sixty thousand fortune-hunters reached the Rocky Mountains before the first of September. Within a few weeks, from four to five thousand had crowded into the Gregory and adjoining gulches. The overflow then found its way along other water-courses to the north and south, and even up to and over the highest range, to the region watered by the Grand and Green Rivers. Thousands followed the South Platte to its sources, and thence reached the western slope through the Ute Pass. In fact, before the next winter set in, the greater part of the territory now included in the boundaries of the State of Colorado had been journeyed and worked over, and in many places permanent mining-camps established. Almost every day, reports of new “strikes” in various parts of the mountains reached the Cherry Creek towns. As soon as they were sufficiently confirmed to warrant it, I set out to verify them on the spot. Thus I was “on the go” the greater part of the time. I usually joined prospectors who had made original discoveries and come to Cherry Creek to obtain supplies and implements for developing them. But several times also I started out with exploring parties without any definite destination. I likewise revisited established mining-camps, like Gregory's, at intervals. In this way the range of my observations extended from Long's Peak to Pike's Peak on the eastern as well as on the western slope of the mountains. I crossed and recrossed the main crest of the mountains repeatedly. I visited those beautiful, all but circular valleys, consisting of mountain meadows dotted with pines singly and in groups, traversed by rushing mountain-streams and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, known as the South, Middle, and North Parks. These trips, while involving sometimes great hardships, never failed to be enjoyable from beginning to end. I think of them even now with rekindled enthusiasm. The contact with primitive nature in its sublimest forms had something inspiring. We travelled every day just as long and as far as we liked. We took ample time for everything for admiring natural wonders, for enjoying the scenery, for fishing and hunting, and for prospecting. The streams were full of trout and the valleys of elk and deer. We frequently met great herds of elk. We always slept on the ground—and such restful sleep we had, from ten to twelve hours every night! I could name half a dozen flourishing Colorado towns on the sites of which I camped before they were even “taken up.” We did our cooking by turns, and rich feasts we had on trout and game. Altogether, I was always sorry when my journalistic duties compelled me to return to Cherry Creek to work up new material into my regular reports.

Yet, in Denver and Auraria, life was also growing from day to day more active, varied, and interesting. They both made astonishing strides. A number of portable saw-mills had arrived, and were furnishing an ample supply of building-material. Hardware for buildings and ready-made windows and doors were also landed by the wagon-load. Skilled mechanics became numerous. The quick means of transit from the Missouri by the stage company—the time had been reduced to six days—also brought a considerable accession of capitalists. In every direction the business of pushing the towns forward was pursued with remarkable energy by midsummer. New buildings were started every day, and their character steadily improved. The original site of Auraria had been taken up by Nebraska men, that of Denver by the party which had come out in consequence of the Leavenworth meeting already mentioned. No Government survey having ever been made, this “taking up” was really squatting at random. The “squatters” had no little trouble in protecting their claims from “jumpers.” As was to be expected, the moment the future of the country seemed assured, “additions” to the town site were staked off for miles from its boundaries to the four points of the compass. The Denver Company originally consisted of twelve members, each holding an equal undivided interest. “General” Larimer, originally from Pittsburg and afterwards a resident of Leavenworth, was the leading spirit. In consideration of my having written up the country so assiduously, I was given a one-forty-eighth interest in the association. (It may as well be mentioned here that I helped to locate and became part owner of other town sites in different parts of the country.)

By the end of August, there were fully five thousand people settled on Cherry Creek, including at least one hundred families. Long before that time, the necessity of protecting the real and personal property of the inhabitants had led to the formation of town governments. Although the population was drawn from every part of the United States—it would not be too much to say from every quarter of the globe—it was remarkably respectable and orderly. I do not hesitate to assert that the percentage of vicious elements, gamblers, thieves, murderers, and bad women, was never so large there as in other mining towns in California, Nevada, and Montana. Interference with property and injuries to persons were not frequent, but it was practically impossible to bring offences against either to punishment, owing to the total lack of courts and jails. It was therefore not surprising that Judge Lynch had to be finally appealed to for order and safety. Banishment and hanging were about the only practicable punishments. Yet, during the summer and fall, only fifteen men and women were given notice to leave the country, and only two men hung for murders committed in gambling- and bawdy-house brawls. I witnessed one of the executions. The subject was a fine-looking young man, not over twenty-three, of respectable parentage, great intelligence, and fine education, but brought to this terrible end by drink and other bad habits. He admitted that he deserved to die, and met his doom very bravely.

By the latter part of the summer, the two towns contained several hotels with more or less “modern” improvements, two scores of stores, numerous mechanics' shops, at least one hundred doctors' and lawyers' offices, and other evidences of advancing civilization, besides great numbers of drinking- and gambling-saloons. Several excellent eating-houses were also opened, in which very good meals without lodging could be had at moderate prices—that is, at seventy-five cents a meal (instead of from one and a half to two and a half dollars). The Express Company had moved into a new building some time before, and I had found board and lodging elsewhere. I must not forget to relate an exciting experience we had before the removal of the Express Office from the original log-building. The company made a business of bringing letters from the East, for carrying which they charged twenty-five cents each, following in this a practice common in California and other mining States. At first the charge was willingly paid, but, as the population grew larger, grumblings began to be heard that gradually swelled into general and loud dissatisfaction and violent attacks in the press on the “extortion” of the Express Company. The agitation culminated in indignation meetings and the passage of resolutions denouncing the Company and threatening the use of force to compel a more reasonable charge. For several days crowds gathered in front of and inside the Express Office on the arrival of stages, demanding their letters without offering to pay anything. I stood by my friend, the Express Agent, behind the counter, and it looked twice as though he would have occasion to defend himself against violence. Fortunately, a compromise was reached, in pursuance of which the charge was reduced to ten cents. It was done away with altogether when, before the end of the summer, the Government entered into a contract with the Company for the transportation of the mails.

Late in the summer, the arrivals from the East almost ceased and a return tide set in—that is, a homeward migration which steadily gained in numbers, so that, in the early fall, it looked as though the country would rapidly lose most of its population. This was not surprising, for four out of every five of the immigrants had come without means, and in the expectation that, by the simple use of their hands and ordinary implements, they could quickly gather fortunes from placer diggings. But the truth was, that the alluvial auriferous deposits were very limited and quickly exhausted, and that the precious metals in the Rocky Mountains were buried in veins of quartz and galena, the successful working of which required capital and costly mechanical appliances that had to be brought from the East. Only a few small quartz-mills had been hauled across the Plains and set up in the mountains. Unavoidably, under the circumstances, the bulk of the gold-seekers were doomed to disappointment, and sought their way back to the States as best they could. It turned out that the entire yield in gold and silver in 1859 from the Pike's Peak region did not exceed three-quarters of a million, while many millions had been sunk in outfits and wasted labor to secure this meagre result.

My faith in the future of the country remained unshaken, but, with the advance of the fall, I was obliged to consider the question whether I should remain during the winter or return to the East. It was evident that, whenever snowfall and the freezing up of the streams should compel the cessation of mining operations in the mountains, general dulness would set in and with it a great dearth of news, so that I could hardly expect the Commercial to continue my allowance for services. On the other hand, I liked the climate and the pioneer life; and then, too, I had some property interests, as explained. After some weeks of doubt, I was helped to a decision in favor of passing the winter east of the Missouri by a scheme that suddenly dawned upon me and that could be carried out only there. It was to embody my observations and experiences in a book that should be also a guide to the Pike's Peak region for the new tide of gold-seekers that I felt sure would set in again with the coming spring. I submitted the idea to my friends among the leading business men, who thought very highly of it and promised me their support by subscribing for numbers of copies and otherwise.

Accordingly, I made up my mind to start back, taking the Platte route in the last week of October. A short time before my departure, I received an offer for my interest in the Denver town company, viz., twelve hundred dollars in money, a gold watch, a wagon with two horses, and a rifle! The proposal was very tempting, for the town lots had cost me nothing, and the amount of cash seemed imposingly large to me, who had never had more than one-tenth of it at my disposal at one time. I had had no experience in such matters, and lacked all speculative instinct, and, being young and very self-confident, did not really care much for money beyond my current requirements. The wagon and team were just then an especially attractive consideration, as their ownership would solve for me the problem how to travel across the Plains. Hence I accepted after brief hesitation. The outfit for the journey was quickly completed. I secured two passengers, who paid thirty dollars each for the ride of six hundred and fifty miles in the ordinary farmer's wagon. It was just enough to pay for the provisions of the party, and for a few bushels of corn which I took along by way of precaution for the horses. We left Denver early on the morning of October 29. My fixed determination at the time was to return early in the spring, but it was only after the lapse of fully seventeen years that I saw the place again, and then only in consequence of a most extraordinary turn in the wheel of my personal fortunes.

We followed what had become the great highway for the Pike's Peak travel, down the South Platte to its junction with the North Platte, and thence along the main river as far as Fort Kearny, where we left it, going in a southeasterly direction over the military road leading to Fort Leavenworth. With the exception of some sandy stretches of several miles each, the road was hard and level nearly the whole distance to Fort Kearny, so that we could make from twenty-five to thirty miles a day without over-fatiguing the horses, which proved excellent roadsters. The vast numbers of animals that had passed over the same route during the summer, had left not a spear of green or dry grass in the Platte valley, but happily a number of “ranches” had sprung up where hay could be had, though at a high price. There was also an absolute scarcity of firewood, and we had to cook our meals by the use of “buffalo chips” (dry dung) that we collected in bags some distance from the river. My companions were very helpful in taking care of the horses and preparing our morning and evening repasts, and altogether we got along capitally. We slept in and under the wagon, wrapped in our buffalo robes and blankets, with the horses picketed next to it. Splendid weather favored us until we were within a day's travel of Fort Kearny, when a snowstorm came upon us in the night that compelled us to lie still for thirty hours. Of course, cooking was out of the question, and we were reduced to bacon and “hardtack.” The horses were kept well blanketed, and fed with corn. When the storm ceased, there was eighteen inches of snow on the ground, but the warm sun made it melt rapidly.

We replenished our supplies, as far as necessary, at Fort Kearny—a trading and military post with three companies of cavalry—and pushed on as fast as possible (forewarned, as we had been by the snowstorm, of the season of blizzards) over the remaining one hundred and eighty miles to St. Joseph on the Missouri, our destination. We reached the first settlements at Marysville, an embryo town eighty miles from Fort Kearny, on the Blue River, after a three days' drive. Here we found decent hotel accommodations and good stabling for the horses, at moderate Eastern prices. From this point on, our hardships were at an end, nice roadside inns being situated at convenient distances all the way. About thirty miles from St. Joseph an extraordinary incident occurred. A buggy with two occupants was coming towards us over the open prairie. As it approached, I thought I recognized one of them, and, sure enough, it turned out to be no less a person than Abraham Lincoln! I stopped the wagon, called him by name, and jumped off to shake hands. He did not recognize me with my full beard and pioneer's costume. When I said, “Don't you know me?” and gave my name, he looked at me, most amazed, and then burst out laughing. “Why, good gracious! you look like a real Pike's-Peaker.” His surprise at this unexpected meeting was as great as mine. He was on a lecturing tour through Kansas. It was a cold morning, and the wind blew cuttingly from the northwest. He was shivering in the open buggy, without even a roof over it, in a short overcoat, and without any covering for his legs. I offered him one of my buffalo robes, which he gratefully accepted. He undertook, of course, to return it to me, but I never saw it again. After ten minutes chat, we separated. The next time I saw him he was the Republican candidate for the Presidency.

We reached St. Joseph the next day, having been only twenty-four days from Denver—a very quick trip under the circumstances. I concluded not to place my team in winter quarters, but to sell it, though I obtained only a very low price for it, and then I took the first train for St. Louis and Cincinnati. In both places I was a sort of attraction, and received a good deal of attention, especially in business and newspaper circles, and spent some weeks very agreeably.

Towards the close of the year, I commenced work upon my proposed book upon the Pike's Peak region. The bulk of the material I needed was already in my possession, but the collection of additional data to give it a reliable character as a “guide” was necessary. Moreover, in order to ensure pecuniary success, I decided to make a regular canvass for subscriptions among the business men of St. Louis and Chicago and the Missouri River towns. Accordingly, I visited all those places, and had reason to be satisfied with the result. I secured not only subscriptions for about ten thousand copies, but a good many advertisements to be printed on fly-leaves at the end of the book. This preliminary work being accomplished, I settled down at a St. Louis hotel for the preparation of the manuscript early in February, and by the middle of March it was ready for the printer.

My venture was indisputably a legitimate one from every point of view, and it really promised very satisfactory results. Indeed, the aid already secured justified the expectation of a profit of at least several thousand dollars, and this prospect filled me with great buoyancy of spirit. But all my fond hopes were to remain unfulfilled. In an evil hour, I was led to contract for printing the book and lithographing the accompanying maps with a firm whose business it was to publish city and town directories all over the West. The firm seemed to have a good standing, and certainly had all the requisite printing facilities. When the book was about half done, however, the firm failed, and all their assets were seized upon by their creditors, including the plates for my book. A complicated contention over the assets ensued. In spite of my unceasing efforts, I succeeded only in the latter part of May in getting control of my manuscript and the finished plates, and it was late in June before the book was ready. My agreement with the subscribers and advertisers had been to deliver it on May 1. The spring emigration to Pike's Peak, for which the book was intended, being over, they refused to accept it. The upshot of it all was, that barely enough copies were sold to cover the cost of the first edition of twenty-five hundred. In other words, instead of the expected financial success, the undertaking proved a failure, leaving me without any compensation for the months of time and trouble I had devoted to it, and, besides, very much reducing my limited means. I did not get over the pang of that disappointment for a long time.

Instead of finding myself an independent capitalist, able to do thereafter only such literary work as suited me—a blissful state to which I had confidently looked forward—I was again obliged to seek regular journalistic employment. Fortunately for me, we were in a “Presidential year,” the exciting forerunner of the dreadful crisis through which the country was to pass during the following years. I had been asked by the Cincinnati Commercial to attend the memorable Republican National Convention that met at Chicago on May 16, on its behalf, and gladly obeyed the summons. What I saw and heard on that great occasion will always form one of my most cherished and stirring reminiscences. I have attended a number of national gatherings of the great political parties since, but none that even remotely compared with the attendance at the Chicago convention in point of intelligence, character, earnestness, and enthusiasm. It contained the very flower of the leaders of the young Republican party: Horace Greeley, William M. Evarts, Thaddeus Stevens, Preston King, David Wilmot, Andrew G. Curtin, Henry J. Raymond, Thurlow Weed, General James Watson Webb, George William Curtis, George S. Boutwell, George Ashmun, Joshua R. Giddings, William Dennison, “Tom” Corwin, Henry S. Lane, N. B. Judd, Lyman Trumbull, and Carl Schurz. It was undeniably what all the opposition parties—the Douglas Democracy, the Buchanan or Breckinridge Democracy, and the Bell and Everett “American” party—charged it with being: a sectional convention, made up exclusively of representatives of the free States, excepting the five border Slave States. The Proceedings were of absorbing interest, and, upon the whole, harmonious. Still, two divergent tendencies upon the slavery question, one radical and the other conservative, were noticeable, which led to the most dramatic incident of the Convention. It was when the motion of Joshua R. Giddings to embody the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, “That all men are created equal,” etc., etc., was voted down, and George William Curtis, then only thirty-six years old, rose to renew it with a matchless burst of eloquence which at once carried away the audience.

In one respect the Convention proved a great disappointment to me. I was enthusiastically for the nomination of William H. Seward, who seemed to me the proper and natural leader of the Republican party ever since his great “irrepressible conflict” speech in 1858. The noisy demonstrations of his followers, and especially of the New York delegation in his favor, had made me sure, too, that his candidacy would be irresistible. I therefore shared fully the intense chagrin of the New York and other State delegations when, on the third ballot, Abraham Lincoln received a larger vote than Seward, and the former's unanimous nomination followed. I had not got over the prejudice against Lincoln with which my personal contact with him in 1858 imbued me. It seemed to me incomprehensible and outrageous that the uncouth, common Illinois politician, whose only experience in public life had been service as a member of the State legislature and in Congress for one term, should carry the day over the eminent and tried statesman, the foremost figure, indeed, in the country.

I devoted my entire time for the remainder of the summer, as well as during the fall till the Presidential election in November, to getting up reports of notable political meetings for the Cincinnati Commercial, the Missouri Democrat, with whose well-known chief editor, B. Gratz Brown, I had become well acquainted during my stay in St. Louis, and for the New York Tribune, connection with which I secured through my acquaintance with Horace Greeley. I was constantly on the wing, and travelled over Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, with occasional incursions into Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Missouri—in sum, from four to five thousand miles. I do not think I exaggerate in saying that I must have attended at least fifty important meetings in the course of four months. While a high order of popular oratory was rare, there was a great deal of very good speaking. I heard Lincoln, Douglas, S. P. Chase, J. C. Breckinridge, Carl Schurz, Schuyler Colfax, Tom Corwin, and a host of lesser lights. I met hundreds of old political acquaintances, and made literally thousands of new ones. It was a singular opportunity to observe and study human nature in general, and the game of practical politics in particular. Upon the whole, I had a very good time, being the recipient of hearty hospitality everywhere. Still, I was very glad when my labors came to an end.

I was in Chicago on the day of the election. Though no great admirer of the Republican standard-bearer, I desired, of course, his success, and felt greatly gratified by it. It was clear to my mind that the triumph of the Republican party would lead to a national crisis. I believed, indeed, that the country was on the threshold of most serious events, and it looked to me as though a violent solution of the slavery question might be rapidly approaching. But I had as little idea as anybody else that the greatest and bloodiest civil war known to history was to break out in the immediate future.