Leaving Independence-- 1863
Jasper Samuelson was looking for a wagon train to guide to California. The war was pushing more people into making the trip west, but most were going to Oregon. Jasper had to hunt to find enough people for a train to California, but he knew he could find one if he just looked. Jasper's "problem" with finding a train was that he was picky. If Jasper didn't think you could make the whole trip, he wouldn't let you start. This cut into the list of possible clients.
Other than that, Jasper had only a few rules, but he literally lived by them. His first rule was that you had to be willing to travel on Sunday. His second rule was that horses could not be used as draft animals; oxen were best, but mules were barely acceptable. His third rule was that every wagon had to have a shotgun; at least one person with that wagon had to know how to use it and be willing to do so against attackers, be they animal or human. His last rule was no hard liquor, except for medicinal use by a doctor. If you couldn't abide by those rules, you had no place on his train.
Jasper was walking along the main street of Independence one morning when a man came up to him. "Mr. Samuelson? My name's Abe Grant. Me an' my friends are lookin' fer a guide to California. We hear ya're the man to lead us. Are ya available?"
"I don't have a commitment, yet. How many in yer group?"
"We've got 22 wagons here, already, an' we're expectin' 13 more to join us afore the end of the week. Kin ya come out ta our camp today?"
Jasper agreed and got directions to Grant's camp. He showed up after lunch and was introduced to the 61 men and older boys already in the camp. There were 67 women and girls he did not meet at that time, but he didn't expect to. All of these people were from southern Ohio and Indiana, and the people coming in were from Illinois. They were all running from the devastation and turmoil of the civil war, not because they believed in slavery or were pacifists, but because they just wanted to be left alone!
Jasper told them his rules and how much he charged for the trip. They agreed to his price and conditions and shook hands on the deal. Jasper had his train! Jasper started the men on converting from horse-drawn wagons to ox teams and learning to drive them. Driving oxen was not difficult, but it did take some practice.
Andrew Jones, the guard captain, made sure that everybody had the requisite shotgun and knew how to use it. The Indians and outlaws were becoming a real problem now that the Army had left for the battles in the east. He also found those few who were very good shots with a rifle and organized them into a special force to protect key points in the train.
The remaining wagons showed up over the next 3 days and were integrated into the train. The final complement was 39 wagons, when the 4 used by Jasper and his people were counted in. They had a problem, there was no doctor! Jasper refused to move until they found a doctor to make the trip; he insisted that the trek was too dangerous to attempt without a doctor. A doctor was found at the last minute, but he didn't have a wagon or a family. He was just out of medical school in Vienna, Austria, and wanted to try his fortune in California. His thick accent made him hard to understand, but he appeared competent. He was taken on and shared the wagons with Jasper's people.
Once the train was full and everybody had learned enough to work his oxen, Jasper started training them on forming the defensive circle It was Jasper's practice to form two circles, an inner one of 8 to 10 wagons which was used to shelter the women and children and formed the last line of defense, and an outer circle of the remaining wagons which he hoped would never be breached.
The first effort at circling the wagons was the expected chaos. It was relatively easy to form the inner circle of 8 wagons because Jasper could talk to all of the teamsters at the same time while they were trying to form the circle.
The outer circle of 31 wagons was a different story. Jasper's assistants, Jeb Warren and Nickolas Holden, were reduced to trying to coordinate a fire drill in the monkey house! Finally, with the help of the guards and Seth Lawson, the scout, the wagons were finally circled, wheel to wheel, and Jasper pronounced success in achieving what he had in mind.
Everybody breathed a sigh of relief, that is, until Jasper told them to do it again! It had taken all morning to form the circle the first time and it was such a comic show that they had drawn quite a crowd of onlookers. They broke for lunch and practiced twice more that afternoon.
The next day, they formed up four more times and Jasper told them that the next time they did it, it would be for real! Tomorrow would be a day for last minute changes and rest, and they would leave Independence the following day.
Jasper told the doctor, "Be sure to have enough laudanum, because we will need it if an injured person had to ride in a wagon. Bouncing around with a broken leg can be the worst sort of torture, so I want to be prepared."
"Ja, I haf plenty of laudanum und splints. Ve vill be OK. Ja?"
This was a day for a different kind of chaos as the women repacked and rearranged the wagons to be sure that they had everything they needed for the trip arranged so that they could reach it with a minimum of difficulty. Husbands were dispatched to purchase last minute items that had been overlooked in the initial packing. Overall, the children were the only ones who had any fun this day!
Jasper had explained to the people of the train that their route would follow the Oregon Trail to eastern Idaho and then cut southwest across Nevada to California. So, when they found out that they were starting out on the Oregon Trail, they shouldn't panic, he knew what he was doing.
There were no very old people in this train, so everybody would be walking, to start. Only the injured, the sick, and women very late in pregnancy would ever ride in the wagons. Besides, with the way the wagons bounced, it was no treat to ride. They should hope for a walk every day for 6 months, ten miles a day for the first half of the trip and five miles a day for the last half!
They started out that morning in high spirits, there was even some singing. None of the pros were concerned, they knew that wouldn't last long. Seth Lawson rode out ahead of the train to be sure that the way was clear and to reserve a campsite for them for that night. They easily made 5 miles before they stopped for lunch. Jasper didn't know if it was important this close to Independence, but he had the train pull into the defensive circles because he wanted the people to get into that habit before they reached the more dangerous parts of the journey.
They were almost finished with forming the outer circle when Seth came pounding up to the train with the news that a bunch of guerrillas were right behind him. Andrew Jones quickly stationed his guards and sent the women and children scurrying to the inner circle of wagons. All the men and older boys grabbed up their weapons and rushed to their assigned defensive stations with a gratifyingly small show of confusion.
Moments later, a sizable force rode up and began shooting at the wagons. They must have been trying to intimidate the "civilians," because there was nothing in the wagons worth shooting at. They were surprised by the mass of fire that came from under the wagons. A few in the front of the hoard were wounded; they turned and raced away. None of the attackers were killed, but they didn't come back.
There was a lot of macho pride exhibited by the men of the train at their easy victory. Jasper and Andrew tried to let them down easy by explaining that this must have been a very inexperienced bunch of raiders and they couldn't expect this to be the usual way things happened. Jasper pointed out, "Y'all should see from this experience the advantage of always forming the defensive ring every time we stop."
After lunch, the column reformed and the set out to reach their overnight campsite. That night, Jasper warned the men to keep their weapons handy, because the never knew when they would need them. He warned the women to keep close watch on their children and not to let them wander. "These woods are full of bears and lions (cougars), as well as evil bandits, so ya never know what might grab one of the kids."
They were out of Missouri and into Kansas by mid morning the next day. They expected to meet Jayhawkers any time from now on. Jayhawkers had been trying to collect tolls from wagon trains for years. Some trains paid up, but those that didn't could expect a vicious attack at any time. Jasper had no intention of paying!
It was shortly after lunch when trouble showed up. A delegation of 8 men wearing red gaiters showed up and demanded to see the wagon master. Jasper said, "I'm the wagon master. What do ya want?"
"We're here to collect the toll for crossing Kansas. We want $12 per wagon. How many wagons y'all got?"
Jasper laughed. "Ifen ya think ya're gona git $468 from this train, ya gota 'nother think comin'! Now, git outa the way afore ya git hurt!"
"This is the only warning ya'll git. Ya better pay up. Ya won't like the consequences of not payin'."
Jasper spat on the ground and roared, "I SAID TO GIT OUTA THE WAY!"
The leader in the red gaiters scowled at Jasper and rode away with his guard of 7 men. Jasper turned to Andrew and said, "We better keep a close eye out fer the next couple of days. It's easy ta tell that we kin expect trouble from that bastard."
No sooner had he said this than a bullet cut a notch in Jasper's hat brim. Andrew started to send his men racing after the departed Jayhawkers, but Jasper stopped him, "Chasing 'em is jus' what they want. They prob'bly got an ambush set up jus' fer the occasion. Fergit it an' let's worry 'bout the train."
"Ya're right, but, shit, I hate to let 'em git away with that!"
Andrew and his guards rode a screening patrol around the wagons until they circled for supper. They brought their horses inside the circled wagons, but stayed on the alert that night. It was well that they did!
Andrew had the men sleep at their defensive posts that night, so they were ready when the Jayhawkers struck after midnight. The attackers had left their horses in the woods and were attacking on foot. They were spotted by Saul Autry, one of Andrew's professional guards. They were still out of effective shotgun range, so Saul fired his pistol at them to alert the train. They were still out of pistol range, too, but the attackers fired their pistols, anyway. Bullets went everywhere, but none landed where they could be harmful. The resulting noise convinced even the most doubtful in the train that trouble was afoot.
The pall of smoke from the pistols made it easy to find the Jayhawkers, so the defenders knew where to shoot when ordered to do so. The result was a withering barrage directed at the smoke, since individuals couldn't be seen. Unfortunately, the smoke from the defenders weapons prevented them from aiming very well, so there were few casualties after the first shots, but the Jayhawkers were impressed by the number of shots being fired. They pulled back and Andrew, who had run out in front of the smoke from the wagons, called for a cease fire.
The defenders never knew how effective their shooting had been, since the Jayhawkers picked up their people as they retreated. There was one more attempt by the Jayhawkers that night, but it was obviously half-hearted and it never was any sort of a real threat to the wagon train.
Dr. Von Tasel had a few patients that night for minor wounds, but nothing that would keep them from walking the next day. Jasper considered this a victory and he made sure that his people heard that from him.
They resumed the march the next day without dallying about. Jasper wanted to get out of Kansas and into Nebraska as soon as possible. That night, the rains started. The landscape turned into a morass of mud and more mud. The oxen labored to pull the wagons through the mud and the people labored to walk through it. Jasper had expected the complaints and was ready when some people went to Abe Grant, wanting to stop until the ground dried out. Jasper explained that they couldn't stop; this was the rainy season and they would have to live with it. They couldn't afford to lose the time they would need later to get over the mountains before the snow came. He generally shut them up with, "Remember the Donner party!"
The rain quit after only two days of falling, so Jasper was hopeful that they would not have too much trouble when they got to the Blue River. They had forded some streams, but they were piddling things compared to the Blue in flood, so Jasper was pushing as hard as he thought prudent. They finally reached the river and even Jasper was shocked by what he saw!
The river had started to flood and was so wide that it was hard to see across to the other bank. Fortunately, most of the river was only inches deep and not flowing very fast, so that it was possible to cross without swimming the oxen. Hopefully, the wagon beds were sealed as well as they should be so that they would float when they had to. Nevertheless, it was frightening to look at the river in this condition.
Jasper sent Seth across to make sure that the ford was in passable condition. Seth reported that it was, but he suspected there were quicksand sinks on both sides where the ford narrowed to little more than two wagons wide. Jasper had a bad feeling about this situation and had the wagons halt well back from the river and form their defensive rings.
Jasper had the people eat an early supper so that they would have time for a long meeting afterward. He called everybody together and explained in great detail how they were to cross the river the next day. He warned the women to keep a close eye on the children—there were quicksand holes all around the area and some were near the ford. In many cases, they could not be seen now because of the flood, but they should believe that they were there. It was safe on the ford, but nowhere else! Again and again, he warned them to be careful and keep a sharp eye on the children.
The discussion wore on into the night, with Jasper coming back, often, to his warnings about quicksand. He did warn about snakes, but he didn't dwell on them because the people should be familiar with the problem of snakes: even if the snake wasn't poisonous, its bite could still cause fatal illness from blood poisoning.
Finally, Jasper decided that was enough. If they didn't behave properly tomorrow, no amount of additional talking was going to help. The meeting broke up with Jasper's admonition that they would be rising 2 hours before daylight, tomorrow, to be ready to start the crossing as soon as they could.
The next morning, everybody was up and ready by daylight, so they began the crossing with everybody watching professional teamsters take Jasper's 4 wagons across the river. Once safely across the river, the teamsters came back to help the amateur teamsters manage their oxen.
The crossings were going well and Jasper had hopes of finishing with enough time to spare so that they could get away from the swollen river before camping for the night. He was supervising another launch across the ford when there was a scream of pain from a child.
Everybody turned to see the cause of the problem. The saw a ten-year-old boy with a large snake hanging from his arm by its jaws! Two men and three women ran to rescue the boy, so Jasper ordered everybody else to return to business; this caused some ill-will toward Jasper's unfeeling reaction to a child in pain, but Jasper was too busy to worry about that, now.
That night, Jasper found out that the boy had been playing with what was locally known as a rat-snake. The snake was hungry and irritable because the flood had chased away his normal food supply of small animals, and the pestering by the boy was simply the last straw. The snake was simply emphasizing that it wanted to be left alone and its teeth accidentally got caught in the boy's arm! The doctor had repaired the boy's arm, but had done nothing to alleviate the pain in the boy's bottom after his father had finished chastising him.
The second accident of the day came about as a woman was running after her laughing child as it splashed in the water too close to a known quicksand pit. She stepped in a hole and snapped her leg; it was a compound fracture and she would be riding in the wagon for some time. In fact, she was lucky not to lose the leg! The doctor was still afraid that gangrene might set in, but hoped that he could keep it at bay.
Nobody knew how the third accident happened. An eight-year-old girl simply disappeared! Her bonnet was found floating near a quicksand pit and she was never seen again. Like most girls, she never learned to swim, so she must have been wading where she shouldn't have been.
Every wagon got across the river safely, but there was still considerable sadness in the camp over the loss of the little girl. Though he didn't say so, Jasper knew that these treks were especially hard on children, and he wasn't surprised at the loss of one. He just tried not to let it bother him, too much.
So much time was spent searching for the missing girl that they did not leave the river for that night's camp, after all. The camp was very somber when they left the river the next morning.
Two days later, they had their next run-in with Jayhawkers. This time they were on the march and did not have time to circle the wagons. Andrew had instructed everybody to crouch under the wagons in such a circumstance. Those that had their guns handy should try to defend the wagon train as best they could. This was a bad situation and they should just struggle to persevere. The main rule was: shoot at the horses, not at the men! The horse made a bigger target and a man falling from a running horse was just as dead as if a bullet had hit him.
The Jayhawkers made two passes down the length of the train. There were a few injuries on the train, but the Jayhawkers lost a number of riders when their horses were shot. When the battle was over, they found 7 dead Jayhawkers and one dead man from the train. Six people from the train were wounded, none seriously. They never found out how many of the attackers were wounded, but that was their last visit from Jayhawkers. Fortunately, none of the oxen were injured.
The woman whose husband had been killed was in a state of shock and the doctor tried to comfort her. She had no children, so she was in something of a serious predicament. She was a pleasant looking woman with a more than pleasant personality, so the doctor was easily persuaded to look after her. A boy from one of the other wagons was hired to drive her team, so she was able to keep up with the train.
The wagon train reached the Platte River at Grand Island two weeks after leaving the Blue River. Crossing the Platte was entirely different from crossing the Blue.