Demas Barnes

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, Overland

Via the Overland Stage, 1865
A Series of Letters

Originally published 1866, D. Van Norstrand, New York

Denver, Colorado Territory, June 21, 1865
I had not deemed it a great undertaking for another to cross the continent overland, but when I sit here midway, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, the habits of my life changed--all connection with the accumulated interests of many years of toil suspended, social ties sundered, kind friends and loved ones far behind me, with rugged hills, parched deserts, and lonely wastes far, far ahead, I do feel it is a great undertaking for me--for any one. Many friends said they envied me my trip, would themselves like to go, etc. I do not doubt their sincerity--I have thought so myself--but I beg to undeceive them. It is not a pleasant, but it is an interesting trip. The conditions of one man's running stages to make money, while another seeks to ride in them for pleasure, are not in harmony to produce comfort. Coaches will be overloaded, it will rain, the dust will drive, baggage will be left to the storm, passengers will get sick a gentleman of gallantry will hold the baby, children will cry, nature demands sleep, passengers will get angry, the drivers will swear, the sensitive will shrink, rations will give out, potatoes become worth a gold dollar each, and not to be had at that, the water brackish, the whiskey abominable, and the dirt almost unendurable. I have just finished six days and nights of this thing; and I am free to say, until I forget a great many things now very visible to me, I shall not undertake it again. Stop over nights? No you wouldn't. To sleep on the sand floor of a one-story sod or adobe hut, without a chance to wash, with miserable food, uncongenial companionship, loss of seat in a coach until one comes empty, etc., won't work. A through-ticket and fifteen inches of seat, with a fat man on one side, a poor widow on the other, a baby in your lap, a bandbox over your head, and three or four more persons immediately in front, leaning against your knees, makes the picture, as well as your sleeping place, for the trip--but of all this when I come to it...

Denver, June 25, 1865
The Indians have interfered with the running of the stages west of this, and it is uncertain when I shall be able to proceed, I have visited the mines in the mountains at Central City and Black Hawk, and returned here to wait my chances...

...It was near evening of our second day, calm, delightful, but hot. I was sitting with the driver outside, holding an umbrella to protect me from the tropical heat while in but a linen coat. A cloud appeared in the south-east, a sudden and intensely cold breeze struck us, and I will venture to say the thermometer sank thirty degrees in ten minutes; the whole heavens were streaked with forked lightnings; the wind rose to a hurricane that seemed about to snap and start the very sods from the earth, while as to rain--it might have rained harder before, and it might have rained harder since, but I didn't happen to be out in it. A ship might as well proceed under full sail in a typhoon, as a stage across the plains in one of these storms. The teamsters understand themselves, wheel the horses' heads from the wind, and lay to until their fury is passed. This is no fancy sketch. Twice during our passage were we compelled to make this kind of an uncertain anchorage. Stages are frequently capsized. When occurring in the night time, as did one of ours, and which is more usually the case--the Egyptian darkness, interspersed with vivid lightning the most incessant I ever witnessed--reverberating thunder that seemed to make the very earth quake and tremble--with no voice audible above the clatter of the pelting rain--one is strongly reminded that home would be a very comfortable place to be in.

Denver, Colorado, June 26, 1865
I have run a little ahead of my diary. Ten miles out of Atchison, you are fairly in the prairie wilds, and make no town of account until you reach Denver, six hundred and forty miles. For convenience of forage the overland transportation and emigration trains take all the western water courses and start from Leavenworth, Nebraska City, Atchison, St. Joseph, Omaha, &c., so that no one route give a full comprehension of this business. Butterfield's overland dispatch will send out thirty thousand yoke (60,000 head!) of cattle this season, averaging six yoke to the wagon. They reach Denver, is say forty days.

The fare from Atchison to Salt Lake is $350. Baggage over twenty-five pounds, $1.50 per pound--meals extra. I found them to commence at $1 and advance to $2. All this is entirely different from the information given me at the Stage office in New York.

It was eight o'clock in the morning. A whip cracked--a heavy Concord stage wheeled in front of the office; on it was pointed "Overland." Childish though it might have been, I felt sad; it was a long distance. I was running from letters, from home, from friends. Life is not so full of pleasure that we can afford to put three thousand miles between us and our dearest heart treasures and not feel irresolute and pained. Our effects were soon loaded, 1,600 pounds of Mail in the Coot, our baggage on top exposed to the storm. Hear me, Mr. Holladay; all the protection it had was extemporized by the passengers in the shape of coats and shawls--not even a cheap tarpaulin or an old blanket...

The roads were heavy and we made but eighty miles the first twenty-four hours; the route, bearing north by west, crosses into Nebraska at Cottonwood creek, one hundred and seven miles out, and reaches Fort Kearney on the Platte river, two hundred and sixty miles. Prairie fowl, quail, snipe, etc., are seen in abundance, though singular to say we get no taste of any at the stations. At the crossing of the Big Blue creek the driver put our feet about one foot under water without notice, and thought it a good joke. The dust and mud already in the coach, added to the crackers, etc., composing our luncheons, the small bags and bundles necessarily so deposited, made anything but an agreeable mess the balance of the way. This, like most other rivers this way, is a swift, unreliable stream, with steep banks. It rises sometimes two to six feet in an hour and becomes thirty feet deep. In two days it is nearly dry.

Fort Kearney the houses are principally of sod or adobe, one story high, and generally without floors--stations from ten to fifteen miles apart, horses good, four to a coach, eating stations about two per day, meals as good as could be expected, excepting total absence of potatoes.

From about one hundred and fifty miles out, our dignity was much enhanced by a government cavalry escort of two or four horsemen with each stage night and day. The Indians have committed terrible depredations along three hundred miles of the route, burned and pillaged everything, destroyed six thousand bushels of corn at Julesburg, burned hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of wagons, merchandise, &c...

Denver, Colorado, June 27, 1865
Denver is a square, proud, prompt little place, which, like Pompey's Pillar, is surrounded by immensity. It is better built than St. Joseph or Atchison, has fine brick stores, four churches, a good seminary, two theatres, two banks, plenty of gambling shops, a fine United States mint, which I observed had nothing to do, and which, as near as I could ascertain, had actually coined the vast amount of forty thousand dollars in a whole year! and the most abominable hotels a person ever put his feet into. There being no wood, brick becomes a necessity for building purposes--hence the character of its buildings. Population claimed, six thousand. I am sorry to cut them down to four thousand, but that is mroe than they can count, unless they add the flies, of which at least several millions dine with us every day.

I have omitted to speak of one feature in our travels which curdles the blood at every step. The cruelty to animals by the brutal drivers is perfectly awful. Each teamster carries a rawhide lash about nine feet long, one and a half inches in diameter at the belly, attached to a short stock or handle, folded over his shoulder, which he uses upon the poor, willing, overworked dumb beasts with apparent delight, and frequently draws blood at every stroke. The concussion is like the snap of a pistol. I wish the drivers--the most blasphemous wretches that ever disgraced a language--might have one good blow to see how they would like it. The seven hundred miles I have travelled have been literally lined with the bones and carcasses of domestic animals...

...These are the longest days, and, consequently, shortest nights. It is hardly dark at nine; a bright moon irradiates the night, and day dawns at three in the morning. Short naps, with my hand on my six-shooter, and the reassuring presence of a military escort, quiets my nerves, and would not add greatly to my insurance policy, in my estimation. The stages run on from here again, but only tri-weekly. The mail is piled up at different places, and I think the bottom of it here will hardly move for a month, I expect my Salt Lake letters are thus detained, and I shall not receive them. It is outrageous the way the public are swindled by the proprietors of this stage-route. I speak only what I know, and repeat a remark made by the agents: "Too much trouble to tear the pile out from the bottom." If I remember correctly, Mr. Holladay gets $800,000 per annum for carrying the United States mail once a day. This, of course, gives him a chance to run stages, carry passengers, and keep other people off the course. I have seen the stages pass through here loaded with passengers, and not carry a pound of mail, while perhaps two weeks' mail, or more, lay heaped up in the office! The passage from Atchison to Salt Lake is $350. Eight passengers would be $2,800; extra baggage, say $100 more...

Fort Halleck, Dakota (Wyoming), July 1, 1865
After six days detention at Denver, with promise of a clear coast, and seven in the coach, we left that city, but soon found ourselves with eleven passengers, and other mishaps to follow. We leave the Platte five to ten miles to our right, proceed northerly about twelve miles from the mountains for near eighty miles--then pass the first range of mountains, through what are known as the Black Hills. The snow ranges, seen from the plains, are about sixty to seventy miles beyond the first range, though appearing not more than fifteen to twenty miles from where we were riding.

More to come; I have not completed this page.

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