by lyle e davis
Back on November 4th of this year, The Paper featured a cover story that cited a story by Mark Twain
(Samuel Clemens) that described his trip out west via stagecoach (Riding the
Overland Stage, 1860; if you wish to read this account see www.thecommunitypaper.com
- then Archives, , click on the November 4, 2004, issue and it will be there
for your reading pleasure.)
We received a numbe of favorable comments on this feature
and since many of you seem to enjoy historical accounts of our nation and the
fascinating stories that make up that history, we offer another look at what it
was like in the ‘wild, wild, west’ with this account of “Crossing the Plains,
First, some background, then, enjoy the reading of a
fascinating diary by a young lady, accompanying her family in the westward
approximately 300 years from 1500 to 1800 for European population to extend
from the East Coast of America to the Mississippi River. Popular wisdom at the
beginning of the 19th century hypothesized it would take at least another 300
years, or most likely longer, to fill the area between the Mississippi and the
Of course, it
didn't take 300 years to settle the West. A number of factors accelerated the
pace of change. Beginning with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the US
government acquired domain over the land to the west of the Mississippi through
war, treaty or purchase. The discovery of gold in California and the promise of
fertile land lured an estimated 300,000 to the Pacific Coast prior to 1860. In
the midst of the Civil War, Congress enacted the Homestead Act entitling any
head of family, anyone over the age of 21, or any veteran of military service
to 160 acres of land. With the end of the war, many took advantage of the offer
filling the trails west with wagon trains loaded with all their worldly
possessions. Before the end of the century America's frontier had been extended
to the Pacific and then officially declared closed.
The decision to
make the trek could not have been an easy one - motivated no doubt by hard
times at home and the promise of better times to the west.
Sarah Raymond was
one of those who made the journey along with her father, mother and brothers.
Her diary doesn't reveal her age, but we can assume she was young, probably a
teenager. The family began their journey on May 1, 1865, in Missouri and
arrived at their destination in Virginia City, Montana Territory, on September
6. Sarah details each day's adventures - accidents, sickness, river crossings,
Indian encounters, mud, dust, monotony, and terror.
We don't know much
about Sarah beyond what appears in her journal except that she married and
stayed in Virginia City the rest of her life. She first published her journal
at the request of friends in a local newspaper, the "Rocky Mountain Husbandman," in the early 1880s.
Her diary was published in book form in 1902.
On June 12, 1865,
- about 6 weeks after leaving Missouri - Sarah's group of wagons arrives at
Fort Kearney, Nebraska Territory, a major way station on the road west. There,
the pioneers are confronted with evidence of the hazards of their journey:
"Monday, June 12
We stood by the graves of eleven men that were killed last
August by the Indians. There was a sort of bulletin-board about midway and at
the foot of the graves stating the circumstances of the frightful tragedy. They
were a party of fourteen, twelve men and two women, wives of two of the men.
They were camped on Plum Creek, a short distance from where the graves are.
They were all at breakfast except one man who had gone to the creek for water,
he hid in the brush, or there would have been none to tell the tale of the
There had been no depredations committed on this road all
Summer, and emigrants had become careless and traveled in small parties. They
did not suspect that an Indian was near until they were surrounded, and the
slaughter had commenced. All the men were killed and scalped, and the women
taken prisoners. They took what they wanted of the provisions, burned the
wagons and ran off with the horses.
The one man that escaped went with all haste to the nearest
station for help. The soldiers pursued the Indians, had a fight with them and
rescued the women. One of them had seen her husband killed and scalped and was
insane when rescued and died at the station. The other woman was the wife of
the man that escaped. They were from St. Joe, Missouri."
Killed on the Road
"Sunday, July 16
Just after we crossed the bridge, and where there is a
sudden turn in the road, as it winds around the mountain, we saw where two men
had been killed and two wagons burned last week. The tire became loose on a
wheel of the next to the last wagon in a freight train, the men stopped to
tighten it, while the rest of the train moved on, not thinking of danger, and
was out of sight in a few minutes. An hour later some of the men came back to
see what kept them. There they were - dead and scalped - horses gone, and
wagons on fire. The Indians had taken all the freight they could use, piled
wood under the wagons, and set it on fire. We saw quantities of white beans
scattered over the ground, also the irons from the wagons."
"Wednesday, July 26
…I did not awake this morning until everything was ready for
a very early start. Mother had kept my breakfast warm by keeping the stove
until the last minute. I sat in the wagon and ate my breakfast after the train
had started. When through, I climbed out and went to see how Neelie (Sarah's
friend) was. I found her feverish and restless; her symptoms unfavorable.
Oh, the dust, the dust; it is terrible. I have never seen it
half as bad; it seems to be almost knee-deep in places. We came twenty miles
without stopping, and then camped for the night. We are near a fine spring of
most excellent water - Barrel Spring it is called. I do not know why; there are
no barrels there. When we stopped, the boys' faces were a sight; they were
covered with all the dust that could stick on. One could just see the apertures
where eyes, nose and mouth were through the dust; their appearance was
frightful. How glad we all are to have plenty of clear cold water to wash away
Murder in Camp
As Sarah rides
along with the wagon train she is approached by a friend - Frank - from a
portion of the train that had split off to travel on its own. Her friend has
"Saturday, August 5
'Frasier was shot and killed day before yesterday evening.'
'Oh Frank; how did it happen?'
'Hosstetter did it, but I think he was not much to blame'
Frasier is the man who spoke to Cash, Neelie and I, as we
were watching the wagons ferried across the Missouri River, whose son ran away
from his mother, and home, to come to his father, and go with him to Montana.
Frasier had teams and wagons for freighting and Hosstetter some capital to
invest in freight, to take to Montana. Frasier advised the purchase of flour,
and he would freight it to Virginia City for fifteen dollars per cwt. He said
flour was worth fifty and sixty dollars per hundred in Virginia City. (So it
was in the Spring of 1864, and as high as seventy-five and one hundred dollars
per one hundred, which was the cause of a bread riot in Virginia City.)
No doubt Frasier was honest in his advice, and would have
invested in flour for himself. He charged more freight than was right, for ten
and twelve cents is the prevailing price; but then Hosstetter should have found
that out himself.
When he found he had been imposed upon and learned that
flour is retailing at Virginia City for $15 per hundred, he was angry,
dissatisfied, and perhaps quarrelsome. Frasier was no doubt very aggravating.
They had quarreled several times, and the evening of the 3d, Frasier was heard
to say to Hosstetter in a threatening tone:
'You may consider yourself lucky if you ever see Montana.
You need not expect to get any of this flour. It will take it all to pay the
It was getting dark, and Fraser stood with one hand on a
wheel as he talked. He then got into the wagon and out again, with something in
his hand, which Hosstetter thought was a revolver in the gathering darkness. He
came back to the wheel where he had been standing when he made the threat, and
Hosstetter thought he had come to shoot him, and fired twice, as he thought, to
save his own life, Frasier fell, shot through the brain, and died instantly.
Then it was found he had a hatchet in his hand and had come
to tighten a tire on the wheel, which he had found loose when he laid his hand
on it. Frasier's eldest son of fourteen years is here. There are five children
and their mother at home. Hossteter has three children and a wife. Eleven
innocent persons to suffer, no one knows how intensely, for that rash act.
Frasier's son knelt beside his father's dead body and
placing his hand on his breast, he swore a fearful oath that he would have but
one purpose in life until his father's death is avenged. Oh, what a shocking
ambition for so young a boy."
Later in her
diary, Sarah describes the trial of Hosstetter:
"…The men from these four trains elected judge, jury,
prosecuting attorney and lawyer for the defense, and have tried Hosstetter for
murder. The jury brought in a verdict of 'Not guilty.' He shot in self-defense,
as Frasier had threatened to kill him."
entry a day later notes that a squad of soldiers came and took Hosstetter to a
fort near Green River (Wyoming) for an official trial. However, she does not
reveal the outcome of that trial.
"Thursday, August 24
We came to a toll bridge over the Blackfoot this morning,
where the toll was one dollar per team and fifty cents for horseback riders.
There had been an excellent ford just below the bridge. The men collecting the
toll had spoiled it by digging ditches on both sides near the bank. The water
was clear, and they were plainly visible. Hillhouse (Sarah's brother) mounted
Dick (Sarah's horse) to see if we could ford it. One of the men screamed out at
him: 'You will mire your horse if you try that.'
'I'll risk it.' And he rode in below where the ditches were
dug. The pony's feet were not muddy. Hillhouse found we could easily ford he
creek below the ditches, which we did without accident.
It does seem a shame that we should have to pay toll for
crossing a stream like that, after fording South Platte, North Platte and Green
The Missourians refused to pay the exorbitant price, and
offered them fifty cents per wagon. They swore they would not take a cent less
than one dollar. But the travelers were too many for them, and they drove over
and did not pay a cent. The toll men were fearfully angry, and made great
threats, but the men dared them to do their worst and laughed at them.
I do hope we will get ahead of these
people to-morrow. They are not the kind of people I like to travel with."
Herndon, Sarah Raymond, Days On The Road