1918 KANSAS AND KANSANS Chapter 9 Part 3


The discovery of gold in California very nearly upset the world. No event of a like nature ever created such excitement. From every state parties and individuals set out for the gold fields on the other side of North America. Very nearly every man in Missouri who could do so started to California in 1849. Many of the companies were led by the men who had served under Colonel Doniphan in the War with Mexico. These gold hunters passed over all the branches of the Oregon Trail. Many thousands of them came up the branch which crossed at Topeka or Uniontown.

Major William Gilpin addressed one party of five thousand at the point where Lawrence was later founded. The branches from Leavenworth and St. Joseph were choked with the Forty-niners. They started from Council Bluffs and from Bellevue, now Nebraska City. Many "cut offs" were made by the Argonauts along all branches of the trail. Men were mad. Women and children were sometimes abandoned on the plains after being robbed of their property - of which one Forty-niner told the author of two instances. From the high land between Lodge Pole Creek and the North Platte this same Argonaut saw teams, often four abreast, as far as the eye could carry in both directions. He himself had started with a complete sawmill to be set up on the Sacramento, but was prevailed upon to sell it to the Government at Fort Kearny for four times as much as it had cost him together with expenses of transportation. He sold out against his judgment, and regretted to the day of his death that he had not taken it through saying that it would have made his fortune in one season in the goldfields.

No such movement of people as followed this gold discovery has occurred before or since in all history. California had population enough for a State before she could begin to realize what was the matter "back East." Men in the golden valleys sang "Joe Bowers" and "put in their biggest licks."

The emigration caused by the discovery of gold continued for several years. In a way it was duplicated in Kansas in 1858, when gold was discovered in the streams about Pike's Peak. "Pike's Peak or Bust" was the slogan. It developed that the gold there was insufficient in quantity, and the thousands who crowded the Oregon Trail on the journey outward choked that historic highway on their return with this inscription rudely lettered on their worn and weather-beaten wagon covers: "Pike's Peak and Busted."

On the discovery of gold in California, Major Gilpin said in an address at Independence as follows:

On July 4th, 1849, speaking by their invitation to the California emigrants about to depart from the Missouri River I used this language:

Up to the year 1840, the progress whereby twenty-six States and four Territories have been established and peopled, has amounted to a solid strip, rescued from the wilderness, 24 miles in depth, added annually along the western face of the Union, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

This occupation of wild territory, accumulating outward like the annual rings of our forest trees, proceeds with all the solemnity of a providential ordinance. It is at this moment sweeping onward to the Pacific with accelerated activity and force, like a deluge of men, rising unabatedly, and daily pushed onward by the hand of God.

Fronting the Union, on every side, is a vast army of pioneers. This active host, numbering 500,000, at least, has the movements and obeys the discipline of a perfectly organized military force. It is momentarily recruited by single individuals, by families; and in some instances by whole communities; from every village, county, city, and State of the Union, and by immigrants from other nations.

Each man in the moving throng is in force a platoon. He makes a farm on the outer edge of the settlements, which he occupies for a year. He then sells to the leading files pressing up to him from behind. He again advances 24 miles, renews his farm, is again overtaken and again sells. As individuals fall out from the front ranks, or fix themselves permanently, others rush from behind, pass to the front, and assail the wilderness in their turn.

Previous to the recently concluded war with Mexico, this energetic throng was engaged at one point in occupying the Peninsula of Florida and lands vacated by emigrant Indian tribes. At another point in reaching the copper region of Lake Superior; in absorbing Iowa and Wisconsin. From this very spot had gone forth a forlorn hope to occupy Oregon and California. Texas was thus annexed - the Indian country pressed upon its flanks, spy companies reconnoitered New and Old Mexico.

Even then, obeying the mysterious and inscrutable impulse which drives our nation to its goal, a body of the hardiest race that ever faced varied and unnumbered dangers and privations, embarked upon the trail to the Pacific coast. They forced their way to the end, encountering and defying difficulties unparalleled, with a courage and success the like to which the world has not heretofore seen.

Thus, then, overland sweeps this tidal wave of population, absorbing in its thundering march the glebe, the savages, and the wild beasts of the wilderness; scaling the mountains, and debouching down upon the seaboard. Upon the high Atlantic sea-coast, the pioneer force has thrown itself into ships, and found in the ocean fisheries food for its creative genius. The whaling fleet is the marine force of the pioneer army. These two forces, by land and by sea, have both worked steadily onward to the North Pacific.

They now re-unite in the harbors of California and Oregon, about to bring into existence upon the Pacific a commercial grandeur identical with that which has followed and gathered to them upon the Atlantic.

Hence have already come these new States; this other seaboard; and the renewed vivacity of progress with which the general heart now palpitates!

Will this cease or slacken? Has the pouring forth of the stream from Europe ever ceased since the day of Columbus? Has the grass obliterated the trails down the Alleghanies, or across the Mississippi? Rather let him who doubts seat himself upon the bank of the supreme Missouri River and await the running dry of its yellow waters! For sooner shall he see this, than a cessation in the crowd now flowing loose to the Western seaboard.

Gold is dug - lumber is manufactured - pastoral and arable agriculture grow apace - a marine flashes into existence - commerce resounds - the fisheries are prosecuted - vessels are built - steam pants through all the waters. Each interest stimulating all the rest, and perpetually creating novelties, a career is commenced, to which, as it glances across the Pacific, the human eye assigns no term!


Of the military expeditions over the Oregon Trail, only that of Albert Sidney Johnston will be mentioned in this work. After the establishment of Fort Laramie there were many military tours to the westward from Fort Leavenworth. In 1857 there was an uprising in Utah known as the Mormon Rebellion, and the United States sent out a military force to put it down. This force was commanded by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston. Colonel E. V. Sumner had been assigned to this command, but the troubles in Kansas demanded that some officer be put in charge of the troops the Border-Ruffians hoped to have the Government use against the Free-State people of the Territory. Colonel Sumner was transferred to this latter service. It was then that Colonel Johnston, of the Second Cavalry, was ordered to take charge of the Army intended to establish order in Utah. The first detachment of troops consisting of eight companies of the Tenth Regiment, and all the Fifth Regiment - infantry - left Fort Leavenworth on the 18th of July, 1857, under the immediate command of Colonel E. B. Alexander. Later the two remaining companies of the Tenth were dispatched, under command of Colonel C. F. Smith. With these troops were the two batteries of Phelps and Reno. On the 16th of September six companies of the Second Dragoons, left Fort Leavenworth, commanded by Colonel Philip St. George Cooke. The following day Colonel Johnston started from Fort Leavenworth with his staff, and with forty dragoons as an escort. Colonel Johnston and staff traveled in a light spring-wagon. All this force went out over that branch of the Oregon Trail from Fort Leavenworth.

This expedition had been well provided with provision-trains and herds of cattle for beef. A Mr. Chiles of Independence, Missouri, had a contract to furnish eighteen hundred head of cattle at some point beyond Fort Bridger. William Clarke Quantrill, the guerrilla, was a herder with this bunch of cattle. He wintered in Utah, but news of the discovery of Gold at Pike's Peak took him to that region, from whence he returned to Kansas.

The movement of the army to suppress the Mormon uprising do not come under the history of Kansas, and only the fact that it went out over the Oregon Trail can be set down here. The command of this expedition was the last service Colonel Johnston rendered the United States. He became an officer in the Confederate Army, and was killed at Pittsburg Landing.


There were no established mail routes across the Great Plains until the Mormons settled in Utah and gold had been discovered in California. These events caused the two great settlements of Americans to be made west of the Rocky Mountains. The first was in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, and the second was on the Pacific Coast. There had been emigration to Oregon and California before either of the events referred to had occurred, but the settlers were not numerous enough to cause the establishment of a mail service to accommodate them. While the Mormons were hostile to the United States and had started to settle in the Salt Lake Valley when the country still belonged to Mexico, there were many among them who looked back to the United States as a mother-land. They desired news from home. And it was but a few months until the country to the Pacific Ocean fell to the United States by the fortunes of war, and the Mormons found themselves again citizens of the country they had foresworn. The settlement in California, the stupendous production of wealth there, the enterprises of the country projected on so enormous a scale, made it necessary to furnish means of communication with the Government at Washington and relatives and friends in every state. Ships did indeed bring mail around the cape and some soon found its way across the isthmus, but Americans exalted with more money than the world had ever known were not to remain content with so slow a process. It became necessary to found the Overland Mail.

The first contract for an overland mail service was made with Samuel H. Woodson, of Independence, Missouri. It was for a monthly service between that point and Great Salt Lake, and was called "The Great Salt Lake Mail." The contract was awarded in 1850, the service to begin July 1 1850, and continue to June 30, 1854. The distance was more than eleven hundred miles, and the amount to be paid Woodson was $19,500 per annum. This mail was carried on horses and mules. In 1854, the contract was awarded to W. M. F. McGraw, of Maryland, for $13,500 per annum. Three mules were used in this service, each carrying a sack of mail and ridden by an agent fantastically garbed in fringed buckskin and other ornamental mountain attire. There was a line from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, and McGraw had helped to carry passengers overland at the rate of $180 to Salt Lake City and $300 to the California terminal. For some time he was not equipped for his passenger business. The Mormon War increased the volume of business and the mail was transported in wagons drawn by mules. As this was but a monthly mail it was found insufficient for the needs of the Government. In 1858 John M. Hockaday, of Missouri, was given a contract for a weekly mail over the same route for $190,000 per annum. The starting point was St. Joseph, Missouri. The Government paid a like sum for carrying the mail from Salt Lake City to San Francisco. The returns from this service amounted to very little, being only $5,412.03 for the first year. This contract was sold to the great freighting firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell in the year 1859.

The Government immediately prior to the Civil War was in the hands of the South. The great overland mail was directed and carried through Southern territory - from Memphis and St. Louis by Little Rock and El Paso to San Francisco. When the administration changed to loyal hands the mail was carried from St. Joseph, Missouri, to which point the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad had been completed. The Southern route was discontinued in March, 1861. This contract was soon annulled. It was decided to put on a daily mail from St. Joseph, by Salt Lake City to Placerville, California. As soon as the railroad reached Atchison, Kansas, that town was made the initial point of this route. From this time there were abundant mail facilities provided for the Western settlers. The overland stage was soon an established institution on the Oregon Trail, and the coaches always carried mail.


After the establishment of Fort Laramie, the Government was under the necessity of contracting for the transportation of freight to that point. Some of the first supplies were hauled by the Government, perhaps, but the practice of employing private parties to perform this service was always in favor. When Fort Kearny was erected supplies were hauled to that point. The freighters who first took contracts for transporting supplies over the Oregon Trail had mostly gained their experience in this overland business on the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1855 Alexander Majors and William H. Russell, both of Western Missouri, formed a partnership for freighting across the plains under the name of Majors & Russell. This firm carried all the freight to the posts west of Fort Leavenworth that year. Cholera prevailed on the plains, especially between Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley. Major A. E. Ogden, Quartermaster at Fort Leavenworth, died at Fort Riley of the disease. Many emigrants died of this scourge, which followed all the trails over the plains. The cholera affected the freighting business, but Majors & Russell made profits amounting to three hundred thousand dollars in 1855 and 1856. This will serve as an index to the volume of the freighting done over the Oregon Trail in those years. For there were many other freighting firms in the business over the trail, transporting goods to Utah. The amount of hauling required by the Government was more than doubled by the Mormon War, though freighting to Utah for the Mormons was stopped for the time.

Majors & Russell added another partner in the spring of 1858, the style of the firm being then Russell, Majors & Waddell (the last name pronounced Wad'-dle, not Wad-dell'). The Government contracted with this company to transport sixteen million pounds of freight over the Oregon Trail for the years 1858 and 1859. To perform this enormous contract it was necessary for the company to purchase thirty-five hundred wagons and forty thousand oxen. This immense outfit was separated into caravans and pushed out constantly from Fort Leavenworth heavily laden. Floods hindered them early in the year 1858. The contract was faithfully performed. Many of the caravans got into the Salt Lake Valley too late to return to Fort Leavenworth. The wagons would not be required for the next year. They were parked on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, where they covered several acres of ground. They remained there more than a year, and were finally sold to the Mormons for ten dollars each, the purchasers breaking them up for the iron used in their construction. These wagons had cost the company more than one hundred and fifty dollars each. The oxen were driven into Skull Valley, where they wintered on the dried grass. Thirty-five hundred of the best ones were selected to be driven to California. They were driven to Ruby Valley, in what is now Nevada, to winter on the dried grass found there in plenty. A heavy snow, however, covered the grass until the cattle could not get to it. They starved and froze to death, only two hundred being saved. This loss footed up about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The Indians stampeded one thousand head of oxen on the Platte the same year. Notwithstanding these losses, the company made large profits on this contract.

These caravans of freighters were called "trains." Each wagon was drawn by six yoke of oxen—twelve oxen. Twenty-five wagons composed a train. The captains of these trains were instructed to keep two or three miles apart on the trail. If the grass had been eaten closely along the road, or if water became scarce, they were to remain six to eight miles apart. The captains of the trains acted as wagon-masters. There was an assistant wagon-master, and there was a herder to attend the oxen at night. Extra oxen for each train were driven along to replace those who might from any cause become disabled, and there was an attendant for these. There was a driver for each team or wagon. The number of men for each train footed up thirty-one. On the plains these trains were known as "bull-trains" and the drivers were known as "bull-whackers." Every man was armed for the protection of the trains. The route of this great business followed the Oregon Trail from Fort Leavenworth to Kennekuk, in the northwestern corner of Atchison County, thence by Seneca to the Big Blue, in Marshall County, thence up the Big Blue bearing to the west, entering Jefferson County, Nebraska, near its southeast corner; thence up the Little Blue to the Platte, at Fort Kearny. Mr. Majors said of the Oregon Trail:

"There is no other road in the United States, nor in my opinion elsewhere, of the same length, where such numbers of men and animals could travel during the summer season as could over the thoroughfare from the Missouri River up the Platte and its tributaries to the Rocky Mountains." At one time, the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell employed in their business seventy-five thousand oxen and used six thousand two hundred and fifty wagons. These wagons were especially constructed for this business according to specifications furnished by Mr. Majors, and they would carry seven thousand pounds of merchanise.

After the Mormon War was over the freighting of the Mormons to supply their own wants was resumed. Their supplies had to come from points on the Missouri River. Many converts passed over the trail every year to settle in Utah - gather in Zion. The population of the Great Salt Lake Valley increased rapidly, and many other parts of Utah were explored and settled. Another event which gave impetus to the business of freighting over the Oregon Trail was the discovery of gold on Cherry Creek, a tributary of the South Platte, in the western portion of Kansas - now Colorado. It was in the fall of 1857, that it became generally known that there was gold to be found in the streams heading under Pike's Peak. Early in 1858, expeditions left Kansas for these gold fields. Atchison became one of the points on the Missouri from which the parties of gold-hunters outfitted. A citizen of that town sent out a competent engineer to study the best routes to the gold-diggings. It was found that it was six hundred and twenty miles from Atchison to Denver. It was six hundred and eighty-five miles from Leavenworth to Denver. For five hundred miles over this route there was not a house. Various roads were laid out from Missouri-River points to Denver, all branching from some route to the Oregon Trail. The heavy travel finally settled to the one over the trail to Julesburg, on the South Platte, thence along that stream to Denver. The rates per pound for transporting freight to the Cherry Creek region were as follows:

Flour ..........9cts. Crackers ..........17cts.
Tobacco ........12 1/2"Whiskey ...........18"
Sugar ..........13 1/2"Glass .............19 1/2"
Bacon ..........15" Trunks ............25"
Dry Goods ......15" Furniture .........31"

On other articles - necessaries of life - the charges were about the same. While manv of the gold hunters returned disappointed, others remained as permanent settlers. Denver grew rapidly. It was the county seat of Arapahoe County, Kansas, and the headquarters of the gold-seekers - the point about which the Pike's Peak gold excitement centered. It absorbed much of the freight passing out over the Oregon Trail, and in a few years was known as the "Queen City of the Plains." As showing the volume of the freighting business from one point on the Missouri River, the statistics of it from Atchison for the year 1858 are copied from the Champion, of October 30, 1858.

Radford, Cabot & Co.St. LouisP. M. Chateau & Co.Kansas CitySalt Lake City3240480812181,587
John M. Hockaday & Co.Mail ContractorsFirst Supply TrainIndependenceS. L. M. Stations1020........8023,000
Dyer, Mason & Co.IndependenceW. H. Dyer & Co.IndependenceSalt Lake City6070720521315,000
S. G. Mason & Co.IndependenceE. C. ChilesIndependenceSalt Lake City273535036149,000
Radford, Cabot & Co.St. LouisJ. B. DoyleNew MexicoSalt Lake City384346013....198,500
John M. Hockaday & Co.Mail ContractorsSecond Supply TrainIndependenceS. L. M. Stations1018........8521,000
C. C. BranhamWestonC. C. BranhamWestonSalt Lake City2836380126145,500
C. A. Perry & Co.WestonC. A. Perry & Co.WestonSalt Lake City911231,080718500,501
R. H. Dyer & Co.Fort KearneyR. H. Dyer & Co.Fort KearneyFort Kearney387045647212,800
F. J. MarshallMarysvilleF. J. MarshallMarysvillePalmetto202528013120,000
Irvin & YoungIndependenceIrvin & YoungIndependenceSalt Lake City324038417160,000
Livingston, Kinkead & Co.New YorkIrvin & YoungIndependenceSalt Lake City5259624212234,017
J. M. Guthrie & Co.Weston, Mo.S. M. Guthrie & Co.WestonSalt Lake City506070038252,000
Curtas ClaytonLeavenworthC. C. BranhamWestonSalt Lake City122538011266,000
Reynald & McDonaldFort LaramieReynald & McDonaldFort LaramieFort Laramie9151632649,000
C. MartinGreen RiverC. MartinGreen RiverGreen River712846135,000
Livingston, Kinkead & Co.New YorkHord & SmithIndependenceSalt Lake City4050....5325159,400
Hord & SmithIndependenceHord & SmithIndependenceDo and Way Points1015....28537,400
Bisonette & LazinetteDeer CreekBisonette & LazinetteDeer CreekLabonto13201566....67,600
Ballord & MoralleMarysvilleJ. S. WatsonMarysvilleMarysville9131083....45,000
R. H. Dyer & Co.Fort KearneyR. H. Dyer & Co.Fort Kearney13201582....68,100
John M. Hockaday & Co.IndependenceThird Supply Train5760....6312204,000
Geo. ChorpoeningCaliforniaA. J. SchellPennsylvaniaCal. & S. L. Stat's1220........8021,000
Hockady, Burr & Co.Salt Lake CityHockady, Burr & Co.UtahSalt Lake City1052251,00050200465,500

Freedom's Champion: October 30, 1858.

1918 Kansas and Kansans Previous Section Next Section

A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans , written and compiled by William E. Connelley, transcribed by Carolyn Ward, 1998.

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