Gold Rush 49ers, the Sioux after the Platte ford

At the ford the South Platte stretched three quarters of a mile across with water one to three feet deep. John C. Fremont described the river bottom as quicksand. Wagons would stick in the mire. Men unloaded supplies and ferried them across by mule back. They yoked extra mules or oxen to pull stuck wagons free.

Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska

It took a team of 14 mules to get one wagon across. Powerful storms plagued the gold rush 49ers all across the plains. In 1841 Joseph Williams talked of a storm so severe that a hailstone as big as a goose egg knocked an Indian to the ground. Then a waterspout was seen in the river that carried onto the land as a tornado. Thunderstorms often caught wagons in midstream, making a difficult crossing more unpleasant.

Nooning on the Platte

After fording the river the wagons traveled up the South Fork for a while then came to a place called Cedar Grove. The rare shade was regarded as a luxury. Many would take on a stock of firewood here to replace the dried buffalo chips they had been forced to burn. Soon they came to a pretty pass into a valley that was lined with stunted ash trees and called Ash Hollow. Wild currants and gooseberries grew near its entrance and a spring of cool, clean water lay midway down the pass. This became a popular stopping place for the wagons, but as the summer wore on the available forage for animals was grazed out.

A Sioux warrior

Tales of encounters with Sioux Indians near Ash Hollow were rife. The diary of one man says the Indians swarmed their camp to beg. “They were pitiable looking creatures, some stark naked,” he said. Elisha Perkins talks of a whole tribe, men, women, children  passing right in front of them. The men, short and muscular, rode long maned horses while the women led pack animals equipped with a travois made of two poles fastened to the animal at one end, willow baskets filled with household supplies or dried buffalo meat lashed in the middle, and the other end dragging along the ground. A multitude of dogs also pulled a load on the contraption. Perkins described them as “such a motley mass as never greeted my eyes before.” But, thankfully, the Sioux here were peaceful.

 

Comments

  1. Great illustrations. Thanks. Bryan Jones’ memoir MARK TWAIN MADE ME DO IT is about growing up along the Platte River in Nebraska.

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