Freighting, Overland.Prior to the advent of the railroads west of the Missouri river, the transportation of freight to points in the remote west was an important problem. The immense traffic had its inception with the Santa Fe traders over the trail that led from independence, Mo., to the southwest. This business was greatly increased a few years later when the Oregon, Utah and California emigrants pushed into the heart of the far west. When the discovery of gold near Pike's Peak became known the rush that followed was almost unparalleled in the annals of history. This subject has never been thoroughly written up and it is impossible at this date to give any approximate estimate of the undertaking.
The Santa Fe trade grew from the start and as early as 1854 as much as $1,000,000 worth of goods annually were transported to that place, which figures were greatly increased before the era of railroads. Josiah Gregg, of Independence, was one of the earliest freighters, and in his "Commerce of the Prairies," published in 1840, gives a good description of those early times, though it was published a little prior to the great freighting era. Bent, Aubrey and Maxwell were other well known freighters on this great trail. These men with loaded wagons averaged about 32 miles a day, and about 42 with empty ones, always stopping at noon and taking the harness off their mules and allowing them to run loose to graze and roll while the men cooked and ate dinner. Wagon trains along the Santa Fe trail numbered from six to fifty wagons each, every wagon being drawn by from six to eight spans of mules or as many yoke of oxen. During the period when Indians were troublesome the smaller outfits always travelled in company with the larger ones, and at one time no wagon trains with less than fifty wagons were allowed to pass Fort Larned. At night these wagons were arranged in a circle and the stock placed inside to prevent stampeding by Indians.
With the opening of the Oregon trail (q. v.) an immense business developed in that quarter. This trail had its start from independence Mo., and up to the time of the Mormon emigration was practically the only route to the Pacific coast. On the completion of the military road from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Kearney, considerably shortening the haul from the Missouri river to that point, the transportation of freight and passengers was almost entirely abandoned over the Independence road, starting west from Fort Leavenworth, St. Joseph and Council Bluffs.
In the early fifties the firm of Majors & Russell, freighters, of Fort Leavenworth, obtained a contract for the transportation of all government freight that was sent from this post to other military outposts in the western country. Some idea of the extent of this undertaking may be gleaned from the fact that in 1856 this firm had 350 wagons employed and their profits for the year amounted to about $350,000. In 1858 this firm, then known as Russell, Majors & Waddel, obtained the contract for the transportation of supplies to Utah for the army of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. Up to this time the most of the government supplies had been forwarded west from Fort Leavenworth, but with this contract it became imperative to have another base of supplies, as the loading and unloading of hundreds of thousands of pounds of freight at any point would seriously retard business, and accordingly Nebraska City was chosen. This year the freight offered by the government amounted to over 16,000,000 pounds and the firm had to increase their transportation facilities to 3,500 wagons and more than 40,000 oxen. To handle this immense business it required over 4,000 men and about 1,000 mules. All this freight was finally gotten through to its destination, and the wagons after being unloaded were taken to Salt Lake City and placed as closely together as they could be. After remaining there for a year they were sold to the Mormon authorities for $10 each, having cost at the factory from $150 to $175. The oxen were carefully looked over and about 3,500 were selected to drive to California to place on the market there. They were first driven to Ruby Valley, Nev., which was thought to be a good place to go into winter quarters. Soon after reaching there, however, a great snow storm set in and continued for several days with unabated fury. In less than forty days after reaching the valley all but about 200 of the animals were frozen to death, not being able to obtain any subsistence. About $150,000 was lost in this disaster. In 1857 Indians attacked a herd of about 1,000 oxen owned by the firm that were being grazed on the Platte river west of Fort Kearney, killed the herders and scattered the animals. This was also a complete loss. This firm employed six yoke of oxen to each wagon which contained from 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of freight. Trail wagons were not then used. Twenty-five wagons and the necessary teams constituted a "train," and these trains were scattered along the road at intervals of from 2 to 10 miles apart, so as to keep out of each other's way. This firm finally failed in 1863 and much of their equipment fell into the hands of Augustus and Peter Byram, who took the same to Atchison and conducted a freighting business from that place. These gentlemen had previously been employed by the firm as yard and wagon master, respectively.
Atchison from early days was one of the most important points for freighting along the Missouri river. Cutler's history of Kansas says: "In June, 1855, Atchison was selected by a number of Salt Lake freightersthe heaviest in the countryfor their outfitting and starting point on the Missouri river. This is what gave the place its first business start, and the great channel through which this immense traffic pouredthe great overland route to Utah and Californiabrought Atchison into intimate communication with the whole west." In 1860 the following firms were doing a freighting business with headquarters at this place: Irwin, Jackman & Co., government freighters, with 520 wagons, 75 mules, 6,240 oxen, and 650 men; D. D. White & Co., with 125 wagons, 22 mules; 1,542 oxen and 52 men; Livingston, Bell & Co.; Jones & Cartwright; J. B. Doyle & Co. M. Elsback & Co.; John Dold & Bro.; Robert & Lauderdale; Hugh Murdock, and others. In that year there were 1,328 wagons, 502 mules, 15,303 oxen and 1,549 drivers employed in the business out of Atchison. In 1865 over 21,500,000 pounds of freight were received at Atchinson[sic] for shipment, a considerable portion being destined for Denver. The Butterfield Overland Despatch (q. v.) was started this year and at once became a formidable competitor, but on account of troubles with the Indians was soon forced out of business. Wagon trains running out of Atchison carried from 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of freight each, and averaged their owners about $400 for the trip to Denver, making an average of 14 miles a day and consuming 90 days in a round trip. The slow gait of oxen precluded their making over three round trips a year. Mules, however, made much better time, requiring from thirty to forty days for the trip and return. From 12 to 16 cents a pound was the charge for freight hauled by mule teams during the summer months, while in winter as much as 25 cents a pound was asked and obtained. During the '60s as many as five steamboats at one time have been at the Atchison levee discharging freight for western points.
Leavenworth was also an important point as a freighting center. In 1855 Majors, Russell & Co. were the largest freighters, the bulk of their business being transportation of government supplies. Clayton & Lowe, Powers & Newman, and others were engaged extensively in the business during the latter '50s. In 1862 Toussant & Boncher, Burns & Trowbridge, John S. Hamill, Lewis H. Hershfield, Lawrence Page, David W. Powers, Everett Stanley and Thomas H. Young were doing a freighting business. The following year eleven firms were similarly engaged. In 1865 no less than forty-seven firms were employed in freighting, among whom were A. Caldwell, J. C. Trwin, David Powers, B. L. Burns and others.
With the discovery of gold near Pike's Peak, on Cherry creek, the real rush begun. Every trail, road and short cut leading towards these new diggings was soon crowded with freighting outfits of every sort, loaded down with stocks of merchandise intended to supply every possible human want; lined with adventurous individuals in lighter vehicles, who pushed on as fast as horse flesh could endure the strain; men on horseback; men with push carts; toy wagons and wheelbarrows, and last but not least, an ever increasing army on foot, with their earthly possessions tied in a package and slung over a shoulder. This rush started in 1858 and by 1859 had reached the flood stage. The greater part of this travel went over the California road, while much went up the Kaw river and up the Smoky Hill valley; up the divide between the Republican and Chapman creeks; and much by way of the Sante Fe and Pike's Peak trails.
With the advent of the railroads the prairie schooners gradually disappeared and fragmentary portions of the old trails are the only remaining vestiges of a mighty commerce that has disappeared.Pages 690-692 from volume I of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed May 2002 by Carolyn Ward.
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