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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 19

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

Robert West Howard

G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 21
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p255  Chapter XX
This Sacred Land

Achan! Achan! Achan! Father! Father! Father! Listen well. Your young men have gone on the path, and have destroyed the fine timber and the green grass, and have burnt up the country. Father, your young men have gone on the road, and have killed my game and my buffalo. They did not kill them to eat; they left them to rot where they fell. Father, were I to go to your country to kill your cattle, what would you say? . . . Father, you talk about farming, I don't want to hear it; I was raised on buffalo and I love it.​a Since I was born I was raised like your chiefs, to be strong, to move my camps when necessary, to roam over the prairie at will. Take pity upon us; I am tired of talking. . . . Chief Bear's Tooth of the Crows during Treaty Council, Fort Laramie (November 12, 1867).

The Rawlins-Dodge ride from railhead to Salt Lake City during the summer of 1867 heralded the end of the red man's 150‑year‑old horse and bison economy. The 650‑mile expanse of the Continental Divide and the bleak high plains between Julesburg and the Great Salt Lake Valley were the doorway to the last huge area of primitive wilderness left in the United States. Opening that doorway meant doomsday for the land of the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Blackfeet, Kiowa,  p256 and all the northland tribes as surely as the farmers' push up the Mohawk Valley in the 1760's presaged the end of the Iroquois' empire, and the wagons creaking into the Great Smokies after 1800 omened the Cherokees' loss of their homeland.

The briefing conferences between Generals Rawlins, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant, Sherman and Congressional committeemen during May and June revealed the Federal plan to create a fortified throughway between the Platte and Utah. Generals Rawlins and Augur were to determine the site for a new army base at the foot of the Black Hills in the vicinity of Union Pacific's Crow Creek Crossing. Rawlins, in conference with Dodge and the Army commanders who would join the expedition en route, would select sites for other forts along Union Pacific's route across the high-plains basin and the Continental Divide. Fortunately the construction of Fort William P. Sanders in 1866 as guardian of the western approaches to Cheyenne Pass now seemed to be in line with Union Pacific's route from Sherman Summit into the Great Basin. General Dodge had already indicated that a division point might be established on the Laramie River near Fort Sanders.

Congress, complained the War Department's executives, would probably continue its moans about "balancing the budget"; the Army might be slashed back to a personnel of 25,000 — less than 5 per cent of its 1865 strength. But by building new forts now, an armed corridor could be created along Union Pacific that would not only guarantee a speedy throughway between the East and the Pacific slope, but would provide supply bases for future Indian wars. Eventually, then, Fort Laramie and the other "Great Desert" posts along the old Mormon-Oregon route through South Pass could be abandoned. The railroad, coordinated with the telegraph, would enable troops to rush overnight from the Missouri Valley or Utah to any sector of the Indian frontier, equipped with horses, forage wagons and the new Gatling guns. The plan was a momentous step toward mechanizing the Army.

 p257  Equally ominous to the red man's economy were the implications of this armed corridor. Ranches and towns would follow the high iron as avidly as they had in the rush across Nebraska. The gun, ax, saw, and steel-snouted plough — and now the windmill and barbed wire — were the frontiersman's pitiless confederates. Thousands of gold prospectors were already in the South Pass area and hundreds of miles north along Powder River's Bozeman Trail. The army of lumberjacks that Union Pacific must send out to cut hardwood for its ties, bridge timbers, stations and fuel, would launch a forest razing as devastating as the ones that had crashed up and down the Appalachians and across the Great Lakes bluffs since 1800. Now, too, the coal, iron and copper deposits located by geologist Van Lennep and others could be exploited; each would create a wasteland of trash and deadly smelter fumes.

The Union Pacific corridor would inevitably widen as a result of these spasms of industrial development. This would distort the botanical balance that perpetuated the bison and big-game herds. So the red man's economy was doomed. He must choose, again, between all-out war or adaptation to the white man's sedentary routine of farming and ranching. The Doolittle-Henderson committee had won White House and Congressional approval for a series of treaty conferences with the plains Indians. These were to be convened during late summer and fall. Generals Sherman and Harney would lead the Army's delegation. The Sioux would be ordered to settle on reservations in the Cheyenne and White River country of the Dacotah, just north of Nebraska's northwest border. The Cheyenne would be ordered south to the Arkansas River Valley in southern Colorado and Kansas. Peace or war, the decision meant that Union Pacific's corridor would open a strip for town, ranch, lumberman and miner exploitation 100, and perhaps 300, miles wide, between the Platte and Utah.

Rawlins briefed Dodge on these prospects during the two-day jog up Lodgepole Creek and over the ridge to Crow Creek. Dodge suggested that the Crow Creek division point might  p258 make an excellent site for the Army's Black Hills base. Troops stationed there could protect both the Denver Road and the Lone Pine Pass and would also be in position to rush relief forces up the Bozeman Trail to Forts Laramie, Fetterman, Phil Kearny and Reno.

When they reached the Crow Creek Crossing they found that the Army would soon have a city to guard too. Newspapers had announced the location; the New York office touted its real-estate opportunities. Scores of wagons were parked on the bluff, some beside half-built cabins. The tent offices of real-estate agents fluttered hand-lettered signs offering, choice lots near the Pacific Railroad. The red-and‑black covers of rouge-et‑noir tables gleamed in a half-dozen saloons. A madam in a starched purple dress lolled on a campstool in front of a tent "crib."

Plans were set for a big Fourth-of‑July celebration, these first settlers announced. They'd even lugged in fireworks plus an anvil for the big shoot. If General Rawlins would make the principal address of the festivities, perhaps General Dodge would do the honors of christening the city? The generals agreed.

Augur and Rawlins led a cavalry patrol up and down the creek bluffs, stared west toward the mountains, and finally agreed on the site for Ft. D. A. Russell. Dodge went into conference with Jacob Blickensderfer and Silas Seymour. Blickensderfer, a competent civil engineer, was the White House appointee to determine the point where the Rocky Mountains' eastern base began. Collis Huntington's hoodwink of President Lincoln and the Interior's topographers when he persuaded them to move the base of the Sierra fifteen miles west had become a cloakroom classic in Congress. For once the radical Republicans and Andrew Johnson were in agreement. This time Washington would double-check the spot where Union Pacific's loans made the jump from $12,000 to $75,000 a mile.​b

Such a massive decision demanded, of course, the presence  p259 of the consulting engineer, Silas Seymour. Moreover, Dodge and Durant were beginning to exchange caustic notes. Durant was convinced that his chief engineer had switched allegiance to Oliver Ames. (Typically, Durant overlooked the fact that Ames was now president of Union Pacific.) Thus Colonel Seymour and umbrella had been ordered to join the Rawlins-Blickensderfer party. It was also fitting, Seymour urbanely announced, that the consulting engineer acquaint himself with all the problems of the route into Salt Lake and thus be in a position to answer directors' questions at the board meetings in October.

Another column of settlers' wagons clattered in during the morning of July 4. General Rawlins delivered a commendable speech about the significance of Independence Day and the glorious promise of the New West. Dodge followed him with a talk that formally christened the community as Cheyenne. The cheers were punctuated by a successful firing of the anvil. Thereafter the saloons took over, and except for the evening's fireworks display and the line of customers outside the crib tent, dominated the rest of Cheyenne's birthday.

General Rawlins obeyed physician's orders and retired early. He rose at dawn, ordered his horse, and cantered off for a prebreakfast run. The horse strode up a ridge. Across the plain stretched the pink clay embankment for the railroad. A grading gang was already at work, their shovels a silver shimmer in the sunrise. The General sighed and lolled back in his saddle.

A fusillade of rifle shots cracked. A shovel flung high up the bank, turned lazily and shivered back to earth. The man who had thrown it pitched face down to the ground. The fusillade echoed again. More graders fell; the rest ran toward their wagons. Down a draw plunged a column of Indians, rifles and knives glinting, heels gripping the ponies' ribs like hawk talons. The charge screamed among the wagons, crossed the embankment, and vanished in a gully. The silence swirled back.

Rawlins raced back to camp, roused his cavalry, and led  p260 them out to the grade crew. There were five dead and as many wounded. The foreman had recognized the raiders' war paint. They were Cheyennes. This was their christening party for their namesake city.

The expedition based on Cheyenne for another two weeks while Dodge checked Evans' stake-out over Sherman Summit (Evans' job so pleased him that he ordered the name of the pass changed from "Lone Pine" to "Evans" on company maps). The Black Hills crossing took another week. Seymour drawled questions about the grade, insisted on a cavalry escort for his prowls after "a more suitable route," and spent an entire day frowning over details of the bridge that — 135 feet above the high-water line and 650 feet long — would span Dale Creek.

General John Gibbons was waiting at Fort Sanders. He reported that Red Cloud, the Sioux chief believed responsible for the Fetterman Massacre the previous December was on the warpath again, boasting that he would destroy Forts Phil Kearny and Reno and close the Bozeman Trail. That same evening the telegraph relayed the news that Percy T. Browne's body lay at a Wells, Fargo stage station a day's ride west.

Dodge rode out with a cavalry squad next morning, assigned the squad to guard the rest of Browne's party in the location survey toward the Great Basin, and brought Browne's body back to Sanders. He wrote a detailed report of the surveyor's gallant last stand to Oliver Ames: Browne's re-equipped crew had ridden west again in June to continue the stake-out from the spot where the Sioux had jumped them on May 12‑13. At noon on July 23, near the Medicine Bow River, a column of 300 Sioux warriors attacked. The crew fought off the first charge and managed to retire to a hilltop. There they waited until the howling warrior wave broke the hillcrest, then brought down the lead horses and kept pouring lead into the pile-up that followed. The rest of the Sioux rode out of range and deployed for a siege. In midafternoon a sniper shot Browne in the chest. Browne told the crew to light a campfire  p261 at dusk and prop him up beside it, then make a dash for the Wells, Fargo station twelve miles south. But just before sunset the Sioux reassembled, fired a volley, and galloped north. The crew rigged a litter from their rifles and cartridge belts, lowered Browne on it, and carried him to the stage station. He died an hour after they arrived. Finishing the report to Ames, Dodge pledged, "We will push this road to Salt Lake in another year or surrender my own scalp to the Indians."

The reason for the Sioux's failure to starve out the Browne crew became obvious within two weeks. During July, Red Cloud sent word to all Sioux bands ordering them in for a campaign against Forts Phil Kearny and Reno and the wagon traffic along the Bozeman Trail. On August 2 more than 3,000 of his warriors attacked Captain James W. Powell and 32 men on Big Piney Creek. Years later Red Cloud admitted that Powell's marksmen unhorsed more than 1,000 Sioux during the Wagon Box Battle that afternoon and crippled his campaign. Dodge and Rawlins assumed that the troop that attacked Browne's crew were en route to join Red Cloud at the rendezvous in the Big Horn and could not delay another day for a "coup" on Browne's gallant eleven.

The Dodge-Rawlins cavalcade took a month to explore from Fort Sanders to the Salt Lake valley. Rawlins decided on another fort location atop the bluffs on the west bank of the Platte's North Fork. A few miles west he knelt to drink from an ice-cold spring gushing out of a rock, pronounced it the best water he had ever tasted, and enthused about the setting. Dodge estimated the mileage from the west base of the Black Hills and decided the spot was about right for another work-train division point. He named the site Rawlins' Spring, and inked it in on his work map.

A few days later on the Red Desert they met the Charles Bates survey team, intact but out of water. Rawlins ordered a barrel of water, some provisions and his latest copy of Leslie's Illustrated Weekly transferred to the Bates wagons. That night in the joint camp Bates repeated the gossip he had heard about  p262 Central Pacific from the Mormons in the Green River Valley. Crocker's Chinese, they said, were still hammering away on that Summit tunnel There were supposed to be 15,000 of them, all told. Work trains were running through Truckee Canyon; railhead should be at the Nevada border before winter. But the Summit and several of the east-slope tunnels would not be finished before snowfall. It looked as though Cisco would be Central Pacific's railhead for another winter.

At Green River, Seymour paraded up and down the bluffs for a day, frowning at every rock ledge as a possible better site for the bridge than the one Sam Reed had selected three years before (and Dodge had approved a year ago). At Fort Bridger the party waited for two days in the hope that Jim Bridger would ride in from his hunting trip. At Weber Valley, Rawlins received his introduction to Mormon life when a boy ran into the living room of the home they were visiting, bobbed a greeting, and blurted, "I just come over fer pop's slippers. Mom says he's gonna stay with us this week."

On August 30 an escort waited at the month of Weber Canyon to lead the way to Camp Douglas, the hilltop fort behind Salt Lake City. The grooms were still unsaddling late that afternoon when Brigham Young and wife, Amelia Folsom, drove up to the officer's clubhouse. Amelia had grown up in Council Bluffs; Dodge recalled her as one of the pigtail crowd who had gawked around the Missouri & Mississippi survey camp. Young was on his ebullient best behavior. The officers were invited to the Beehive House for dinner next day and an "evening's concert" of harpsichord and harp with a violin solo by Young himself. The entire cavalcade was extended the "freedom of the city," including passes to the theatre and reserved pews in the Tabernacle on Sunday morning.

The rare honor of the invitation to Beehive House went beyond the fact that Rawlins was the Army's Chief of Staff. Schuyler Colfax had not rated an invitation in 1865 (nor did he again in 1869).​c The Mormons needed new industries and cash. The migrations of converts from the British Isles and  p263 Australia had been almost too successful. The Church could supply graders, wagonmen, blasters and tie hacks for Union Pacific's right of way from the Green River west to Nevada. And the same forests that had supplied the poles for the Pacific Telegraph could furnish excellent cedar ties and hardwood bridge piers.

Thus the rococo, velvet-draped "Long Hall" on the second floor of Beehive House experienced another historic conference. Dodge was on a spot. Sam Reed's surveys indicated that Union Pacific would add more than a hundred miles to its route by looping into Salt Lake City. The best gradient ran down the canyon of Echo Creek to its junction with the Weber River, then followed the Weber into Great Salt Lake's valley, near the foot of Bear River Bay. From there, the cheapest and shortest rail route west arched north around the head of Great Salt Lake in the tracks of the Bartleson-Bidwell pioneers. And Salt Lake City was at the foot of the lake. The logical solution would be to build a branch line down to the city, similar to the Cheyenne-Denver branch. Dodge couldn't reveal this to Brigham Young, any more than he could make loose promises about subcontracts from Crédit Mobilier.

But the evening was delightful. Young's children trooped to the head of the stairs and curtsied. The dinner was pure New England, right down to the damask tablecloth and captains' chairs. The ladies played both religious and popular duets. Young proved to be a fine fiddler.

In conferences the next day Young was urbane. He verified Charles Bates's gossip about Central Pacific. Crocker was boasting that his coolies would build a mile of track a day across the Nevada Desert after April or May, 1868 — a sprint that should bring them into Salt Lake City by the summer of 1869. Young smiled, then leaned back in his chair. Didn't Union Pacific, he asked, want its own throughways to the Pacific? The Latter-day Saints Church would support two such routes. One would cut southwest across Utah and Nevada and cross the Sierra to Los Angeles or San Diego. The second  p264 would run northwest, from somewhere around Green River, to follow either the Snake River or the Mormon Wagon Road through Idaho to Portland and Seattle. If the generals wished to explore either of these possibilities the Church would be pleased to furnish guides and arrange facilities.

Dodge declined on the trip southwest, but would be pleased for any aid in examining the terrain between the Green River and the Snake. Union Pacific's directors were eager, he knew, for terminal facilities on the Pacific. The Oregon route should be of particular interest. He promised, too, to deliver to Ames and Durant, in person, the Latter-day Saints' proposition on subcontracting.

The expedition rode due north through Ogden and Brigham City, explored the desert west toward the Promontory Range, then took the Mormon Road into Idaho. The terrain convinced Dodge that Brigham's plan was sound. A line could be built from Green River to the Snake's Valley, then looped northwest to the middle valley of the Columbia. He wrote a detailed report for Oliver Ames. During the ride East he reached another decision. Percy Browne had been his choice as location engineer for the Utah Division. Now Jacob Blickensderfer was displaying competence and capacity for leadership. Dodge asked him to sign on for the job and Blickensderfer accepted.

General Rawlins had decided that modernization of Jim Bridger's fort on the east base of the Bear River Divide plus the site on the North Platte River would provide adequate protection for the Union Pacific's throughway to the Wasatch. Fort Halleck, established in 1862 to protect the Oregon-Mormon Trail approach to South Pass, was only ten miles north of the right of way planned over the Laramie Plains. His recommendations were approved in Washington. The chain of forts that protected Union Pacific across the Continental Divide were: Russell at Cheyenne, Sanders at Laramie, Halleck near Medicine Bow, Fred Steele just east of Rawlins'º Spring and Bridger on the Wasatch approach.

 p265  The news at Fort Sanders caused Dodge to hurry on to Washington. The 40th Congress had convened its second session in July, in anticipation of the radical Republicans' drive to impeach President Johnson. Only the week before, General Sherman had been ordered to leave the Indian Treaty discussions at North Platte and return to Washington to testify about the struggle between Johnson and Secretary of War Stanton.

Rows of Cheyenne and Sioux sat on the embankment at railhead, gravely kibitzing the ironmen. Jack Casement pointed out one of them as Turkey Foot, the chief who had directed the freight-train wreck and massacre near Plum Creek the previous August; he had ridden in with Pawnee Killer, Spotted Tail, Standing Elk and other war chiefs to demanded that "work stop on these roads" and that the red man be allowed to live "in old ways."

In reply, on September 20, General Sherman had announced the Federal edict of Sioux reservations in the Dacotah and Cheyenne reservations in the Arkansas Valley. "Our people East," he warned the council circle, "hardly think of what you call 'war' here, but if they make up their minds to fight you, they will come out as thick as a herd of buffalo, and if you continue fighting you will all be killed. We advise you for the best. We now offer you this choose your own homes and live like white men, and we will help you all you want. We are doing more for you than we do for white men coming from over the sea. This Commission is not only a Peace Commission, but it is a War Commission also. We will be kind to you if you keep the peace, but if you won't listen to reason, we are ordered to make war upon you in a different manner from what we have done before."

Pawnee Killer and several Cheyenne chiefs stalked out of the tent, emerged from their lodges an hour later "with their faces painted a fiery red," and galloped off toward Julesburg. The telegraph warned station agents and railhead. North's Pawnee Scouts went on 24‑hour patrol. But nothing happened. Possibly, Casement concluded, Pawnee Killer and his renegades  p266 were off in the hills "sulking it out." They had until November 1 to make up their minds. Then the commissioners would return to North Platte for the decision on "reservation or war." Dodge hurried on to Washington to be sworn in as the most delinquent member of the 40th Congress.

The procession that rode out of Cheyenne toward Fort Laramie in early November was guarded by two companies of cavalry and a battery of Gatling guns. Cramped into the two wagons were generals, Senators, Indian commissioners and a bevy of newspaper correspondents.

Red Cloud sent down a refusal to bring in his Sioux, since the 600‑mile ride would interfere with their fall hunting and meat curing. He would, he said, "come in" during 1868 if the Great Father showed a willingness to give up the forts on the Bozeman Trail. The ritual of calumet smokes, handshakes and orations were repetitions of the North Platte and Medicine Lodge councils. The Federal commissioners offered a reservation for each tribe, a government annuity of $15 per capita each year, courses in sedentary agriculture by the Indian agents plus gifts of trade goods and "guns and ammunition for hunting." Their alternative was war, with Congressional committees already pledged to increase the Army's budget for recruitment of another 4,000 soldiers if the tribes demurred.

The Crow lodges had dragged 400 miles down from the Yellowstone. The chiefs knew that they might lose half their horses and some of their women and children on the bleak trip home, especially if they had to face the wrath of Red Cloud's warriors too. Chief Bear's Tooth, "tall in stature and very deliberately got up," gave the mighty plea that began "Achan! Achan! Achan! Father! Father! Father! Listen well. Call your young men back from the Big Horn." In essence it thundered the fears of Turkey Foot and Pawnee Killer at North Platte — of Santana, Ten Bears and others at Medicine Lodge. "Keep our country pure and clean. Preserve the old ways."

But the Crows signed the treaty. And Pawnee Killer, Turkey Foot and the Cheyenne renegades were waiting at North Platte  p267 a week later. "To secure the present generation as faithful friends," they pleaded, "do not send any more wagons up to the Powder River country. Send no more young men here. Recall your soldiers from our country, and then we shall be happy, as we have been in times long ago." The commissioners agreed that the Bozeman Trail would be discussed during the 1868 conference with Red Cloud at Fort Laramie. They hoped it would be possible for the white man's greatest fighter, General Grant, to attend. The Brule, Oglalla and Cheyenne shrugged and signed. This would assure them the gifts of trade goods and ammunition; beyond that no white man's treaty was worth much.

The commissioners train rolled off to Omaha. At least, they agreed, they had secured the Indians' pledge — whatever it was worth — for Union Pacific's throughway across Wyoming. If Red Cloud held his warriors in check until next summer's treaty council at Fort Laramie, the Casements should have railhead across the Laramie plains and halfway to Wasatch. Julesburg was a ghost-town litter of abandoned shacks and refuse heaps.

A group of merchants held evening meetings in the Casement warehouse office at Cheyenne to consider elections for a civil government — or for a Vigilante committee as a bloody prelude. Ten miles west the work train spewed iron and ties for the assault on Evans Pass. The weather was holding. Another three weeks and head-of‑track could be at Sherman Summit.

In New York, Silas Seymour was finishing a series of conferences with Thomas Durant. He carefully folded the drawing he had just made of the Evans Pass escarpment, purred his sympathy for "the necessity of such an unfortunate delay," and waddled off to the Engineers' Club. Durant began to dictate a telegram to Jack Casement.

The track gleamed halfway up the pass toward Sherman Summit. There was snow in the air. But chances were excellent  p268 that railhead would be on the Summit before the blizzards came. The telegraph key in the Casements' office began to clatter. The operator reached for a sheet of copy paper; started copying. The blood drained from his face. He threw the pencil across the office and gritted out "Goddam!" Durant was ordering all work stopped on Evans Pass and trackage abandoned. Colonel Seymour had decided that the Evans gradients were wrong. Details on the new route were being mailed.

Thayer's Notes:

a We can note in passing that this is as good a demonstration as any, that the best guarantee of the preservation of an animal species is to hunt or raise it for food: as soon as the bison was no longer food, their numbers dwindled. Thus the cow is not about to go on the endangered list, which is principally populated by unpalatable beasts like the tiger.

b This inexplicable typo served as one of the excuses for a particularly nasty slashing review when Howard's book came out; but typo it is, our author knew perfectly well that the correct figure is $48,000, and tells us so several times (pp120, 137, 145), and the reviewer was disingenuous, as he proved himself to be elsewhere.

c When he was Vice President of the United States.

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