Monday, 25 July 2016

Snow

Friday April 29th  Another cold damp day with the threat of rain and snow, so I took a short cut along the Tri County Supply canal ...
This meant I passed a little to the south of the presumed site of Gilman's Pony Express station, although there is some confusion about the location and identity of the Pony Express stations on this stretch of the trail.
The horsey network had sorted out a place to stay near Brady.  John Hecox had a large new machinery shed I could shelter in, with plenty of grass around it for the horses.  I arrived early so John took me for a drive up to the family holiday house on the Jeffrey Reservoir. He also let me borrow his pick-up so I could drive into Brady to buy needed supplies.
John with lovely girlfriend Samantha and Lakota Sioux friend Mike, who gave me a little good luck charm..
Like so many boys, John likes his toys, which include the speed boat in the background, a gargantuan tractor ...
....and an amazing drone...
and of course he has his faithful hound Snoop..
Freezing rain set in during the evening, so I was thankful Frank had given me permission to bring the horses into the shed if necessary, which I did.  Lady was fine but thin-skinned Mo was shaking like a leaf.  I piled saddle pads and tarpaulins on him, and with the inside blower heater he soon warmed up.

Night in a Pony Express Station

Wednesday April 27th      Do I really want to set out on such a miserable morning?...
Yep this is a field not a lake....
 
Struggling against a gale on a cold, wet day.......
...added to which the road was soggy and heavy going.  It was a head down and trudge day, and a relief towards evening when a man in a pick up stopped to ask if I needed help.  Kim Rhone not only sorted out straw filled loose boxes and feed for the horses in a barn just down the road, but also took a rather weather beaten traveller home for supper, shower and proper bed!  Kim and wife Mary Kay with whom I had a most enjoyable evening ...
This was not far from the location of the former Willow Island Pony Express station.  The log cabin on the site was moved to the Cozad town park in the 1930s apparently for use by boy scouts.
Thursday April 28th and the day started off fine but blustery.  A view towards the bluffs that flank the Platte floodplain.

 With a surname like Rhone, it is perhaps not surprising that one of Kim's farming projects has been a small vineyard.  He planted and nurtured the vines, but now finds it more profitable to lease the vineyard to a local wine making firm.  Passing his Reno Ridge vineyard on the way out ....
It was inevitable the moment I had found a nice patch of grass under an electricity line and unloaded the horses for a midday rest that an inspection helicopter would turn up. However they made an effort to avoid our section of line though Lady still looked askance at it....
 
I was delighted to discover that Lyle Gronewald had arranged for me to stay at Midway Pony Express station near Gothenburg, which is owned by the congenial Larry and Jan Gill.  Not only that, but Larry gave me permission to actually sleep in the log cabin!  The Gills have been committed to preserving this piece of history, and at their own expense have built a shed around it to protect it from the elements.   With the Gills, who also organised a journalist from Gothenburg and took me out for a meal....
My wet trousers are testimony to the lurking rain which caught up with me again as I was arriving!
 
Midway was so named as it was halfway between Aitchison and Denver on the stage line.  The log building is thought to be the only Pony Express station in Nebraska still on its original site.
The kitchen in the log cabin, which also served as my bedroom.... 
.......of course it would not have had a concrete floor in those days - this has been laid as a conservation measure.
Midway was a home station, and it was an immense privilege to be able to stay in this cabin which housed so many riders in the past, including a couple who will go down in history.  Jim Moore rode the hundred and forty miles from Midway to Julesburg and back again (as the eastbound rider had been killed by Indians) in a time of fourteen hours and forty six minutes.  This constituted an average speed of eighteen miles an hour, which as a former endurance rider I know is going some!  William Campbell was reputedly the last surviving Pony Express rider when he died in 1934. 
Ready to set off on the morning of  Friday April 29th...
This photo clearly shows the shed which has been built by the Gills to protect the old cabin.
 
PS. In researching this post I have just learnt to my great sorrow that Larry Gill passed away on 23rd June, the evening before the Pony Express Re-ride went through. He was a true gentleman and I was honoured to have had the opportunity to meet him.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Plum Creek Massacre

Tuesday April 26th  Rain threatened as we made our way past the now non existent pony express stations of Platte and Garden to Plum Creek.  This was the site of another 1864 Indian war massacre that took place a couple of miles away across the plain to the right in the photo below...
On the morning of August 8th, having unsuccessfully attacked a large wagon train approaching Plum Creek from the west, a war party of around a hundred warriors raided a group of three wagon trains carrying freight to Denver City and approaching the small settlement from the east. All thirteen men in the party were killed, but two women (Mrs Smith and Nancy Morton) and a young boy (Danny Marble) survived.  Mrs Smith managed to hide in undergrowth, while the two latter were abducted.  The attack took place within full sight of the Thomas Ranch and Blondeau's store at Plum Creek about a mile away.  Residents together with drovers from the first wagon train (which had reached Plum Creek) lacked the numbers and firepower to mount a rescue, although a plea for reinforcements was telegraphed to Fort Kearny.
The abductees were initially held captive with the victims seized in the Little Blue raids, but were later sold on separately. Laura Roper (see On the Warpath post) and the children were released after 37 days due to the efforts of Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, but it was many months before Nancy Morton, Lucinda Eubanks and her baby son Willie were freed after varying treatment at the hands of their captors.
 
I stopped for a midday break about a mile south of the massacre site at the farm of Jeff and Bertina Carlsen..
....at least I hope I have got the name right - in talking to them it transpired that British journalist Dylan Winter had camped in the trees behind during an impressive thunderstorm.  Dylan rode the Oregon Trail by horse and bicycle about twenty five years ago and I met up with him earlier in the year.  He wrote a very entertaining book 'A Hack Goes West' about the experience, but in it he refers to the Carson family.  Click here for links to the programmes he recorded for BBC radio.

 A short diversion to the Plum Creek cemetery was in order, as it contains a memorial to the massacre....
.....although eleven of the victims are in fact buried in a communal unmarked grave in a field to the south of the massacre site about a mile and a half to the east. The resting place of the other two victims is unidentified.  The memorial stone gives the date of the attack as August 7th, but from more recent sources I believe the correct date to be August 8th.
The site of the former Plum Creek Pony Express station was a little further west. After the Pony Express ended, it served as a telegraph station, presumably the one from which a message was sent at the time of the massacre.  A small garrison of troops was established there after 1864, but the log building was then burned and abandoned in 1867 and nothing remains.
 
Lady and Mo on the banks of the River Platte, or more correctly on one of the channels which make up this wide, shallow, braided watercourse...
..and this also explains the name which almost certainly comes from the French for flat.
Although the Platte valley became a significant routeway, the river itself was too shallow for navigation, and it was also not always particularly easy to ford due to quicksand.  The river was an important source of water for emigrants and their animals, but it was not good quality due to the heavy silt load.
 
 Bad weather and thunderstorms were forecast which did not bode well for camping, so I was lucky to find shelter after a last minute phone call to Dr Joe Jeffrey of Robb Ranch. He was away, but alerted his daughter and son-in-law Scott and Amy Hill to my arrival.  It poured with rain all night, but the horses were dry and cosy with plenty of feed and hay, and I slept like a log in the tack room.
The photo shows that Mo was now pleasingly putting on condition.
 
Amy and Scott, who invited me in for supper, and laid on breakfast as well..
 

Monday, 18 July 2016

Night in the Museum

Sunday April 24th.  A bevy of lively ladies provided my mounted escort for the short ride to Fort Kearny in the morning...
Julia is on the far right on her grullo Festus (named for the Gunsmoke character!) together with fellow Saddle Club drill team members Jenny, Estelle and Carrie on their quarter horses, two of which were rescue cases.  For the non horsey among you, grullo is a dark smokey dun colour with black legs, mane and tail and often a dorsal stripe.
 

Lyle Gronewald, the president of the Nebraska division of the NPEA, had arranged for me to actually stay at Fort Kearny State Historical Park, and I was met by custodian Gene Hunt.
 ...who guided us to a secluded sylvan corral where the horses were turned out to graze and put their hooves up..
Fort Kearny was founded in 1848 as a military outpost at a strategic location on the Platte river where major trails (Oregon, California etc) merged to follow the Platte river valley corridor westwards.  It was named after Colonel subsequently General Stephen W Kearny but it must be noted that the town of Kearney just across the river is confusingly spelt with a second letter 'e', a later addition to the name probably caused by misspelling.  The fort was established to protect the growing number of emigrants moving west, but also served as a supply and service depot and mail centre.  It was originally an unfortified collection of adobe houses and then wooden buildings, but during the Indian war of 1864-5 a small stockade was erected.  Construction of the Union Pacific railroad obviated the need for an army post at this location, and the fort was abandoned in 1871.
Nothing has remained of the original buildings, but following acquisition of part of the site in 1929 by the State of Nebraska, the original layout has been identified and marked out, and the stockade, smithy and powder magazine reconstructed.   There is now a visitors' centre and small museum with a range of interesting artifacts....
Fort Kearny served as a stage stop, but it is uncertain whether it was ever a Pony Express station. and it is thought that Dobytown, two miles to the west, was a more probable location. However it is possible that pony express riders stopped here to deliver and pick up mail for the military.

It appeared I had only just missed a major local attraction as Kearney is the self-styled 'Sandhill Crane Capital of the World'  due to the sandhill crane migration which takes place from February to mid-April.   Having over-wintered in Texas like many other North Americans, in early spring over half a million sandhill cranes fly north to breeding grounds in Canada. Along the way they stop over in their thousands on wetlands along the River Platte.  Visitors pour into the area to see the sight, and there is even a sandhill crane festival.

After being treated to supper in Kearney by park visitor Malia, I retired to my cosy quarters for the night...
...not a little hobbit house, but Fort Kearny powder magazine.  It was mildly disconcerting to be sleeping by the boxes of ammo and gunpowder, even though they were fake!
Monday April 25th.  A couple of miles west of Fort Kearny, we came to the site of Dobytown, which is thought to be the location of the Fort Kearny Pony Express station.  Originally called Central City and then Kearny City, it was more commonly known as Dobytown after the sod buildings which looked like adobe structures.  Situated just outside the military reservation of Fort Kearny and on the emigrant route to the west, Dobytown contained 14 saloons, and quickly developed a reputation as a centre for gambling, whisky and wild wild women.
But with the abandonment of Fort Kearney in 1871, Dobytown soon became a ghost town and nothing now remains but an open field.  Not even the appropriately named Dirty Woman Ranch survived.
 
I was looking for a likely place to stop near Elm Creek at the end of the day when a pick-up pulled up and the driver asked where I was going.  Frank Meyer immediately offered accommodation for the horses and use of an empty house we had just passed which he owned.  Frank and family run a large ranching concern of around 50,000acres.  Frank with Rhino, one of his beloved young Charolais bulls, who is off for stud duties in the sandhills area of Nebraska.
The house that Frank built..
 Frank proudly shows me the view from the new state of the art house he is in the process of building on a specially constructed mound above flood level by gravel pits on the Platte river valley floor.

Weathering the Wind

Friday April 22nd.
Loving the hat....
..Ellen stopped to chat and give encouragement!
 
Riding along Oregon Trail road ...
The recent rain gave an idea of the conditions wagon trains sometimes faced while travelling along the Oregon Trail.  This road does not follow the exact line of the Oregon and Pony Express trails, but they crossed somewhere around this point.  It must also be remembered that as this was all open prairie in pioneer days the wagons could take their own line rather than following a single track.
This was not far from the location where the Simonton-Smith wagon train was attacked by Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians during the raids of August 7th 1864.  Eight wagons carrying hardware from St Joseph to Denver were attacked and all eight drivers killed. The alarm was raised when the bodies and smoking wagons were discovered by two young couples out riding from 32 Mile Creek stage station, about five miles further west along the Oregon trail.
 
Pony Express marker for 32 Mile Creek station, where we stopped for our midday break. 
The station derived its name from its location 32 miles from Fort Kearny, but was also variously called Clarke's Ranch and Dinner Station. The long one-story log building was sited near the tree line in the photo above, but was destroyed during the Indian troubles.  Serving as a Pony Express way station as well as a Home station for the Overland Stage, the station was abandoned in August 1864 following discovery of the fate of the Simonton-Smith wagon train.  Station keeper George Comstock and visitors fled to Fort Kearny, and the station was subsequently burned to the ground by Cheyenne and Arapahoe warriors.   By all accounts it was well run with a reputation for good grub! 
 
It is not always easy to access the creeks, assuming they are not dry, but there is usually a water hydrant outside most houses tapping a good supply of ground water. This hydrant was at a nearby house, and as you can see, my foldable Ortlieb buckets have really come into their own on this stage of the journey...  
As evening drew in I found a place to overnight with loads of grass for the horses. Here is Sarah Maendele in front of the lovely house where she lives with husband Brandon and sons Nolan and Nash....
 How to live like a hobo....
---or when one is too lazy to put up one's tent. But it is much quicker to get going in the morning, and you can see dawn is just breaking on the morning of Saturday April 23rd, which turned out to be an extremely windy day. 
Lady and Mo by an Oregon Trail marker on Highway 1A not too far from the probable site of Sandhills Pony Express Station which was destroyed during the Indian Wars of 1864...
....the line of the Oregon and Pony Express Trails lies straight ahead to the north-west, while the station site is in a field just under a mile south-east of this position.   Sandhills was apparently so called due to the local sandy terrain, though it was also rather ambitiously called Summit presumably due to its position on the crest of the divide between the Little Blue and Platte rivers.  From this point on we would be following the historical routeway up the Platte and North Platte rivers. This immensely important artery provided water and grazing for emigrants' animals, and was used by the Oregon, California and Mormon trails as well as the Pony Express.
 
A grazing break behind a line of trees which provide a welcome respite from the buffeting of the wind ...
 
....you can hear the wind whooshing through the telephone wires. 
This was on W Rd leading directly to my destination of Lowell, and the next Pony Express station was sited near the Platte river about a mile and a half outside the present settlement.  Called Kearny, or Hooks after the station keeper M.H.Hook, it was the last one under the jurisdiction of St Joseph-Fort Kearny Division Superintendent E.A.Lewis.  In the photo below (taken from W Rd) it is thought that it was located just under two miles away, to the left of the road and before the line of trees on the horizon which indicate the course of the River Platte.
At the time of the Pony Express this would have been a treeless plain with the braided channels of the Platte clearly visible from higher ground.
Just the other side of Lowell I was fortunate to find a safe paddock and great welcome with horse owner Julia Mruz.   I often check out the location of the tornado room which most people have in these parts (just in case!) but interestingly due to proximity to the Platte river and resulting high water table, her house did not have the usual basement and tornado room!   

Thursday, 14 July 2016

On the Warpath

Tuesday April 19th
As a result of the flood of emigrants penetrating the west and depriving the plains Indians of their ancestral hunting grounds, tribal resentment and unrest was coming to a head by the early 1860s.  Emigrant trails up the valley of the Little Blue river were the focus of the Cheyenne war of 1864 which erupted on August 7th of that year, both settlers and emigrants being severely effected.  Many of the buildings formerly used by the Pony Express before its demise in 1861 were destroyed and burnt in Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux raids, and none survived along the section of the trail we were now following.
Oregon Trail marker at the junction of R Road and 5200 Rd which also gives the position of Kiowa Ranch....
...which was run by Jim Douglas and served as a pony express as well as a stagecoach stop.
 According to the marker, it was located somewhere in a field about 200 yards ahead of where this photo was taken.....
 There were now frequent reminders of Cheyenne war.  Only about four miles past the site of Kiowa Ranch this stone marked the spot where on August 10th 1864 stagecoach driver Robert Emery "discovering Indians in ambush on the trail just ahead 722ft due south of this point wheeled his horses and under hot fire raced back to a wagon train three miles east, saving the lives of three passengers"
The wagon train was in fact the remains of a larger company which had been attacked further west at Liberty Farm on August 7th and had retreated to camp near Kiowa station.
Only a mile and a half away on the same day, a pioneer couple were killed at the old Bowie ranch and around $10,000 of property and livestock stolen, so I was intrigued to come across the following sign by the side of the road ....
 ....though sadly I did not have time to investigate.  Dugouts were temporary pioneer frontier homes which were quite literally 'dug out' of slopes.

And another couple of miles brought us to a monument commemorating the Oak Grove Ranch raid of August 9th 1864. The buildings in the background recreate the original ranch buildings, although the original ranchhouse was a larger two storey building.
When about twenty Cheyenne turned up at the ranch following the Eubank Ranch massacre two days earlier (more of that later) the ranch workers were understandably nervous. And their fears were born out when the Cheyenne suddenly attacked, killing two hands while eleven others took refuge in the house.  They survived the attack when an ox train turned up, and escaped the next day before the attackers returned to burn the original buildings. The monument lists the names of the two victims as well as all those who escaped, which included four females.
The ranch was probably also the location of Oak Grove Pony Express station, run by Al Holladay.

Lady studies the Pony Express sign outside the little town of Oak..
 Just beyond Oak are 'The Narrows'  so called as the Little Blue river passes through a narrow, steep sided valley.  The emigrant wagons clung to a narrow terrace of land on the foothill above the river but below the rougher land above. We were unable to follow the trail through here, so we climbed up the gentle hill to where I had been told there were some very nice people who kept horses. And what a good decision as I received a warm welcome from Rhonda Yaeger, whose husband Gary Rupp is a retired vet.  The horses were provided with sweet feed and full hay mangers in a lovely old barn with access to an outside pen...
....while I was shown to a comfortable self-contained guest apartment above the garage. After a week of camping in outbuildings, it was bliss to have a proper bed not to mention shower and supper.
Rhonda was also able to regale me with the story of the Eubank Ranch massacre, which took place just across the Little Blue river from where they live.  When the Cheyenne made their initial attacks along the Little Blue on August 7th 1864, they killed seven members of the Eubank family. Mrs Eubank was abducted together with two of her children and a young girl visitor Laura Roper, all of whom were held captive for many months  The Eubank ranch was burnt to the ground.
For a more detailed account of the massacre and other raids along the Little Blue in 1864 see http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~wynkoop/webdocs/oakgrove.htm

Rhonda sees us off on the morning of Wednesday April 20th, Mo sporting the Navajo saddle blanket Rhonda had kindly donated to replace the bath mats.
I had spent most of the week dodging thunderstorms, and here were more ominous clouds looming on the horizon...
 The rain had made the roads soggy and sticky, and I changed my route slightly to avoid the clinging mud of the dirt tracks.  The gravel roads were soft and slippery, and towards the end of the day I came across this sorry spectacle...
Efforts to tow the whole caboodle out of the ditch only resulted in more spilt bales, and it had to be put off until the next day.   However on the plus side for me, the bales were being delivered to a farm with horses across the road.  Kenny Shaw and Jo Theis were happy to accommodate both Lady and Mo, while I was able to use their horse trailer....
Thursday April 21st
A view of the Little Blue river from the line of the pony express trail on Rd 302 north of De Weese
Liberty Farm pony express station was about half a mile downstream of this point, at the confluence with Liberty Creek. It was most probably a home station and was managed by James Lemmons and Charles Emory.  It was also a stage stop and continued as such with J.M Comstock as station keeper after the demise of the Pony Express. On August 9th 1864 the station was attacked and burnt to the ground by the Cheyenne.
The stage station was relocated to Pawnee Ranch, a fortified road ranch near the mouth of Pawnee Creek.  An old barn on the ranch site, where we stopped for a midday break...
...courtesy of owner Doug Paus. And as a demonstration of Mid-Western hospitality, Todd Batteman  who had given me water and a sandwich a couple of miles back down the trail, suddenly turned up with a bottle of delicious home-grown pears!
Oregon and Pawnee Ranch marker...
 
The next Pony Express station is identified as being at Spring Ranch, but unfortunately there appears to be no consensus as to its exact location.  It was destroyed during the Cheyenne attacks of August 1986, as were two other homesteads in the area.  But here are Lady and Mo looking resigned just south of the old settlement of Spring Ranch.
Think we are on the right road..
A perfect end to a perfect day....
Keith and Pat Nejezchleb who took us in off the road.....
 Still a slight worry about being in tornado alley, not alleviated when Keith described how his pivot had been destroyed and his soya bean crop sucked up by a tornado.  Everyone here has a strengthened tornado room in the basement and I always check where it is. For those who do not farm in the USA a pivot is one of those overhead sprinkler systems which rotate round a central pivot.