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


XII – Western Kansas Diggings

Fabulous gold discoveries in Colorado—then part of Kansas Territory—were luring thousands of adventurers across the plains. I joined a group of Auburn boys, deciding that I had little to lose and perhaps much to gain in searching for the precious metal. Four of us set off together on foot in June of 1860. We hired a man named Tim Chidsey to haul provisions, bedding, and a small tent to serve as protection against rain.

West of Topeka, where we completed our preparations, the sparsely settled land was chiefly Indian reservation. Our first stop was at the Pottawatomie Catholic Mission at St. Mary's. Here the black-robed Jesuit priests had established in 1848 a manual labor school and trading houses in connection with an extensive farm. Exhausted cattle, abandoned there by gold-seekers bound for Colorado, formed the nucleus of the "mission herd."

We followed the Kaw River to its junction with the Blue; then up the Blue to Marysville, the last place before Denver to call itself a town. In front of a whisky and tobacco shop was a post with an inverted human skull on top, filled with tobacco.

"Help yourselves, boys," called a voice from the doorway. "A pipe-full is free."

We passed what is now the line between Kansas and Nebraska and followed the beautiful valley of the Little Blue River. Mosquitoes were everywhere.

"Those pesky skeeters!" cried Tim. "They're driving the oxen crazy. We'll have to chain them to the wagon tonight or they'll stampede for sure!"

Near our camp a herd of buffalo crossed the valley and disappeared over the bluffs. Hoping I might get a calf, I followed a part of the way up the slope with my gun. What I then saw drove all thought of buffalo from my mind. Strewn across the ground were the remains of three charred wagons with little left but the iron. Oxen, two or three yoke to each wagon, had been shot and were lying in their chains. There was no sign of human beings. We learned later that Mormon families from Arkansas had been attacked by Indians. Travelers following behind found the bodies and buried them. This was but one of many unwritten tragedies that summer on the plains.

Pushing westward up the Platte and across a high tableland dotted with cactus, we saw large groups of Indians who were peaceful, at least to the extent of avoiding any open outbreak. The danger lay in being caught napping alone on the trail. Your hair might be the forfeit.

Fort Kearny was the converging point for caravans en route to Denver. We found it advisable to join other teams in order to take turns at night standing guard over the camp. The stream of travelers pouring across the plains became so continuous that there was scarcely a distance of even a few miles between companies.

Some pushed their meager belongings in two-wheeled carts, but the greater part traveled in ox-drawn wagons. Occasionally there were families with women and children among the throngs of rough-clad laborers, teamsters, farmers, and merchants. All hoped to better themselves in this wild scramble for gold. Supply trains made money by selling tools, whisky, and eatables.

Scrawled on the wagons were such inscriptions as "Root Hog or Die," "Lightning Express," and "Pike's Peak or Bust." Returning prospectors displayed the words "Pike's Peak and Busted," or showed pictures of a man climbing out of the small end of a horn. Though they laughed away their disappointment, it was evident that the loss incurred in time and money was a serious matter.

One night, as I lay out under the stars, I heard the thud of galloping hoofs. It was a Pony Express rider on his weekly run, carrying a sack of letters. This fast mail service from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, started on April 3, 1860, but was discontinued sixteen months later when telegraph wires supplanted the ponies and their fearless riders. They established an enviable record for speed and endurance.

Our tedious march across the prairies ended at Cherry Creek, a stream usually dry, running through the town of Denver. Pike's Peak rose majestically to the southwest, a landmark for trappers, emigrants, and traders. We had reached the site of the "gold diggin's." Other boys from Auburn, who had preceded us, greeted us warmly.

"You'll find plenty of high life here," declared Al Davis, "roulette, faro, keno, three-card monte, and poker—pay your money and take your choice."

We wandered about the town and looked in on two large gambling houses. It was amazing to see the huge sums played for stakes on a single faro table—as much as twenty thousand dollars.

Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, had visited Denver the year before to investigate reports of rich gold discoveries. He stayed at the only hotel but was unable to sleep because of boisterous crowds at the bar and gaming tables, and a band that played throughout the night.

When he could stand it no longer, he got up and dressed, went downstairs, and gave the rowdies a piece of his mind. He lectured them on the evil of their pursuits, pointing out incidentally that he was entitled to some rest. They listened attentively and applauded with vigor. During the remainder of his stay, gambling and drinking ceased promptly at eleven o'clock.

The "Tribune Philosopher" is said to have coined his memorable phrase, "Go west, young man," that summer, while stirring his readers with glowing descriptions of the untapped resources of the Great American Desert.





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