One-Way Ticket to Kansas, the autobiography of Frank M. Stahl, as told and illustrated by Margaret Whittemore. University of Kansas Press, 1959. Transcribed by John D. Meredith
XIII There's Gold in Those Hills
My primary concern was to look for a job, and I found onecutting logs for Denver's first frame houses. Up to that time, the buildings were adobe, except for a few log cabins. This work took me twenty miles into the mountains, but compared with the long journey just completed, it seemed a short distance.
Curly Gray, an Auburn boy, and I then bought an interest in a placer mine, four miles west of Denver on Bear Creek. By tying willows in bunches to make a dam, we raised the water and ran it in ditches down to our claims. Alongside our camp was that of Jim Beckworth, one-time partner of Kit Carson. He entertained us by the hour with tales of his adventures. A company of loggers, further up the mountain, soon ended our prospecting here by destroying our dam with their log rafts. We were learning by experience that "gold has to be dug from ground before it can be put into your pockets."
We decided to strike out for Central City, forty miles distant. Our combined resources when we reached there were ten cents, which we spent for liver at a butcher shop. After making a fire and roasting the meat for our supper, we laid out our bed under a pine tree. This section was the natural home of the antelope. Since we often saw hundreds at a time, we knew we would not starve.
Another prospector now joined us and each of us took a one-third interest in good placer mines at the junction of two gulches above the city. We were doing quite well when, early in 1861, reports reached us of valuable gold
discoveries in the San Juan Mountains. Many persons, however, in attempting to climb the steep and rugged passes, had suffered severely from the cold, and some lost their lives in the deep mountain snows.
In spite of these reported hazards, I could not resist the urge to join four other Auburn boys in a caravan of 150 persons on what was later known as "the ill-fated San Juan expedition." To my partners at Central City I gave the "power of attorney" to handle the mines as they saw fit during my absence.
Starting early in the summer to avoid the perils of cold weather, our party followed Cherry Creek south of Denver until we reached Pueblo, a town of only a few Mexican huts. Here the Mexicans had thrown a wooden bridge across the Arkansas River and charged a toll of $2.50 for each vehicle.
We had several ox-drawn wagons, one owned by Mr. Smith and his brother Sol. They were accompanied by Mrs. Smith and their eighteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Our mounted leaders included two of Sheriff Middaugh's boys from Denver. One member of the party was a vigorous, middle-aged man named Pete, who claimed to have discovered a rich vein in Poor Man's Gulch on the west side of the Sangre de Cristo range.
For some reason our leaders became suspicious of him and decided to put him under guard. Al Davis and I were appointed to take charge of him at night. We made our beds on the ground, placing Pete between us. When we awoke one morning, we were chagrined to find that he had slipped through our hands.
Three horsemen struck out at once, and after two days of searching returned with the culprit, who had been
hiding at a ranch over at the Greenhorn. Al and I felt humiliated and expected some drastic punishment. We anxiously awaited the verdict, while the others held a council. Finally, to our relief, the leaders simply led the turncoat over to us, saying curtly, "Don't let this fellow get away again."
From that time on, Pete did not make a move at night without our knowing it. After his attempted escape, the men had lost all faith in his stories, but, true to the Western style, he was given every opportunity to make good. We crossed the Sangre de Cristo range with its sharp mountain passes and camped at the mouth of Poor Man's Gulch. Day after day parties went out with him to locate his diggings, till at length he admitted he could not find the spot.
What advantage he hoped to gain by leading our large caravan on this wild-goose chase is still a mystery. He surely deserved punishment, and he received it in the Western frontier mannerthirty-nine lashes applied to his bare back. That was the last we saw of Pete, but we learned too late that he had played a similar trick on California prospectors during the gold rush of '49.
Thoroughly discouraged at the turn things had taken, most of our caravan immediately took the back track for Denver. Only the Smith family and we five boys from Auburn remained. At the mouth of Gray Back Gulch we found several run-down cabins made of pine logs. A few of the roofs had enough boards to keep the rain out. Wedged between the logs, for some reason, were scores of grizzly bears' feet with long claws. We went into the woods after game to replenish our diminishing food
supply, and every few days one of us walked over to Fort Garland to draw all the government rations possible.
Late one afternoon a ruddy-faced well-knit frontiersman in slouch hat and buckskin burst into camp to warn us of impending danger. It was none other than Kit Carson.
"The Utes are on the warpath," he said. "Your camp is on their main trail, and the sooner you move, the better!"
We also learned that the Mexican bandit, Joaquin, and his men infested this region. Any word of caution from Fremont's intrepid scout was not to be passed over lightly. Kit Carson's prowess and resourcefulness had stood him in good stead. His hairbreadth escapes were legendary, and through his knowledge of Indian traits and language, he had exercised a restraining influence over many warlike tribes.
After he left us we discussed our predicament and tried to decide what course to pursue. There was little sleep for any of us that night. In the darkness I seemed to hear the bells of Indian ponies and the soft tread of moccasined feet.
By morning the Smith family had resolved to start back towards Denver. We bade them goodbye with deep concern for their safety. The daughter Elizabeth was a large comely girl about my age. Since her shoes had worn thin from mountain climbing, I let her take my extra pair of slippers.
We boys lost no time in moving camp, hastily throwing blankets, cooking utensils, picks, shovels, pans, and other equipment into the wagon. Half a mile up the gulch we found a grassy field where we pastured our oxen. We
pitched our tent in a narrow valley, facing a well-worn path made by deer. Icy waters from mountain snows tumbled over nearby rocks, forming a sparkling rivulet.
By the time we got settled, it was almost sundown. The other boys started a game of cards while I took a nap. After I awoke, my first impulse was to look after the cattle, and I started up the dusty trail, stopping first to bathe my face in the cold stream. When I had gone but a few rods, I noticed the tracks of cattle hoofs coming down the path. A closer look in the gathering dusk indicated moccasined footprints adjacent.
I yelled, "Indians!"
The other boys came on the run. Investigation proved that the cattle were indeed gone. We could hardly believe that they had passed within a few hundred feet of the open tent without our knowledge. Evening shadows now engulfed the valley, and we knew further search would be useless.
Here we were, stranded, out of food, cattle gone, and surrounded by hostile Indians. What could we do? We spent most of the night talking over our situation. The cattle had evidently been taken east on the mountain pass followed by the Smith family. We agreed that three of us would attempt to track them down at daybreak.
George Ramsey, Frank Day, and I started along the wagon road, leaving Al Davis and Harlow Kline to guard the camp. When we had gone about three miles we saw, lying in the dust, a slippermy slipper! It was one of the pair given to Elizabeth Smith the day before. Where was its mate, and how did it get there? Had misfortune overtaken the Smiths already? We were determined to find out, if possible.
Leaving the wagon road, we crossed the gulch and climbed to a narrow foot trail sometimes used by infantry soldiers in guarding government trains. From this height we soon had an unobstructed view of the valley below, and what did we see, standing all alone, but a white ox with yellow spots! It belonged to the Smiths!
Soon eight or ten men, wrapped in blankets, rode in single file from the south side of the gulch to where the lone ox stood. We had seen enough to make us want to return to the home side of the gulch ourselves, and this we did as quickly as possible.
Hidden by quaking aspen trees, we could neither see nor be seen; so we waited here until dark to start for camp, some six or eight miles to the northwest. Suddenly a blood-curdling yell arose from the valley immediately below us, occasioned, no doubt, by the discovery of our footprints crossing the wagon road.
We were now afraid to take the trail back to camp, but, under cover of darkness, cut through a long stretch of pine forest where hundreds of trees had been felled, spreading over a heavy undergrowth of quaking aspens. There was always the danger that mountain lions or bears might be lurking near. Exhausted from our long hike, we finally reached camp.
A party of prospectors, on the point of starvation, had found the place during the day, and when they heard our story, offered to help us by giving us guns, but they were not willing to risk their lives in any further search.
The next morning a government wagon train passed up the road toward Fort Garland. This gave us courage to continue our efforts. Casting all care to the winds, we retraced our steps along the road followed the day before.
A two-mile walk brought us suddenly in sight of a circle of wagons corralled in the usual Western way. Among the herd of grazing cattle we recognized our two steers, as well as the Smiths' piebald ox.
We three boys entered the camp boldly and found ourselves facing the most villainous group of men I have ever seen. All but the captain bore marks of fighting, and all carried knives, though I saw only a couple of guns. They were Mexicans who had evidently been to Leavenworth with a load of hides and wool, and were returning to Mexico with the goods for which they had bartered their cargo.
Upon our arrival, they immediately drove the oxen into the wagon corral. We tried to make them understand that two of the steers were ours.
"No savvy," was the reply.
I felt certain the leader did understand, for by words and signs he insisted they had bought the cattle.
We argued back and forth to no purpose.
Ramsey suddenly decided to go into action. Drawing
his Colt's revolver, he started straight towards the cattle, declaring by all the saints in the calendar that he was going to have what rightfully belonged to us. His sudden outburst frightened the Mexicans. Frank Day and I rushed to his aid, and we got our two steers without firing a shot.
The piebald ox we regretfully left behind. Although we continued our search for the Smiths and made numerous inquiries, the fate of that family remained a mystery.
After getting our cattle back to camp, we took pains to keep them tied at night. One of the pair was bitten by a reptile and died close by our tent. We dug a hole and buried him under an aspen tree. I cut into the smooth bark the words "Sacred to the memory of Tom."
About this time a man name Beauchamp drifted into Fort Garland with his wife and ten-year old daughter and came over to see us. Being anxious to get back to Denver, Beauchamp offered to provide a mate for our ox if we would return with them. This plan seemed providential. We crossed the mountains without any kind of trail and came out at Canyon City, reaching Denver late in the fall of 1861. There we learned that a war was on between the states.
During our long absence my partners at Central City had concluded that I must have met the same fate as others of the San Juan expedition and would never return. They had both left, taking everything that could be converted into money. With all investments in the placer mines now worthless, my gold bubble had burst. A rifle, a shotgun, a Colt's revolver, and one-fifth interest in a wagon and yoke of oxen comprised my sole stock in trade.
As Ramsey, Kline, and I started for home on foot, we looked like scarecrows in our trousers and shirts of common bagging, and hats made of willows. We trudged along, following the Platte valley to Fort Kearny, then across the plains to the Little Blue, past Marysville again, and on to Auburn.
Eleven years later, after the railroad was completed to the mountains, many of those who had risked their all reaped ample rewards for their faith and perseverance. Attempts to extract gold and silver from the San Juan Mountains met with success, and the region became one of the most productive mining sections of Colorado.