5. The Country of the White River Utes

FOR A TIME they were in three sections, one cleaning up the summer’s business, one packing supplies over the pass from Empire, and one, under Walter Powell, breaking the trail west.1

The road they were traveling, if it could be called a road, had been laid out by E. L. Berthoud and Jim Bridger for the Overland Stage Company in 1861. It reached from Golden, Colorado, almost due west to Provo, Utah, spanning 413 miles of utter wilderness. And it had never been used since its laying out, except by 150 men of the Third California Veteran Infantry on their way to Denver in the summer of 1865.

Along the fading track of the volunteers’ wagons the advance party starting from Hot Sulphur Springs made fifteen miles the first day, and camped on the Troublesome. The second day they lost the trail and made only eight miles. The third, they crossed the Rabbit Ears range and lost the trail again, camping on what they assumed to be the headwaters of the Bear (Yampa) River. The fourth, following an obscure trace down the creek, they had a mild mutiny when Gus Lankin and young Bishop, mistrusting Walter Powell’s groping, stopped in a grove and unsaddled, saying they were camping there no matter what the others did. The main party went on down the creek, and before night the mutineers rejoined them. There were no words, but there were sneers, and in the evening the mountain men had the contemptuous edification of watching Keplinger sight a sextant on a star in Scorpio trying to determine where they were.

Next morning they had the irritation of meeting the Berthoud trail exactly where Keplinger had said they would. The day after that, they woke to find Gus Lankin gone with a horse, a mule, three sacks of flour, a sack of meat, and other plunder. And after that, going off the trail to pick up some traps that he and Lankin had cached in August, Billy Rhodes, accompanied by Bill Woodward, was fired on from ambush. The party spent an angry afternoon and evening hunting Lankin with the intention of putting him beyond further thievery and bushwhacking.

They did not find him, but Durley, Keplinger, and Allen, who with Walter Powell made up the posse, had their summer’s experience capped with an earnest manhunt. The four were twenty-four hours without food, slept out alone, and had a rough eight miles of guesswork before they found their way back to camp. Billy Rhodes did not come off without suspicion, either. Bishop even slept with him for a few nights to keep an eye on him, for fear he and Lankin planned a quiet wilderness massacre with the pack train for a prize. But Missouri kept the peace, Lankin never showed again, and the excitement died down.

Young Bishop, who did not go with the manhunters, had his summer capped in a different way. Berthoud’s trail was so obscure that the advance party lost it constantly, and finally Walter Powell sent four men back to the springs with the pack train while he remained to locate the route. Meeting Major and Mrs. Powell with the main train, bringing up a double load by hauling half of it one day’s journey and then going back for the other half, Bishop was sent clear back to Empire for mail with instructions to return along the party’s trail and join them on the White.

Only one thing was wrong with Bishop’s instructions. No one told him that there were two large streams besides the Grand flowing westward. After picking up the mail and spending a week with the squatter Sampson at the springs, he followed the well-marked Indian trail down the Grand and across the Gore Mountains. But when he found himself at an abandoned campsite on a beautiful clear stream he assumed that he was on the White. Actually he was on the Yampa. On a tree he found a note for him: “We have moved camp to a point on White River, 50 miles distant. General directions South of West. You will find provisions cached in the rocks 20 steps north. Come along as fast as you can. Keplinger.”

The ravens had beaten him to the provisions. Salvaging a little sugar and flour, Bishop went on, but he went down the river, thinking himself already on the White, instead of cutting southwest as instructed. When he realized that he was good and lost he sat down to think, and then backtracked to where he had found the note. Snow stalled him in the timber; his food was all but gone when he managed to kill an antelope and jerk a supply of venison. Hoarding his ammunition and coddling his mule, he felt his way along the snow-obliterated track of the party by such tenuous spoor as broken twigs and the marks of passage on sagebrush and trees. He even shot a grizzly bear and tried to take its pelt along, but the mule vetoed that. More than a month after he had left Hot Sulphur Springs, he caught up with the rest on the White River.

They were glad to see him, but not half so glad as he expected. Everything had grown harsher: the most Powell had been able to do about his lost member was to send Keplinger back to the Springs to inquire. After that they took their choice of explanations. He had been murdered by bad Indians or bad whites, he had deserted, or he was lost. But he had demonstrated a considerable capacity to take care of himself, and Powell cordially invited him to make one of next year’s river party. Bishop calculated that he had had his fun, and elected to go back to the States with the dudes.

The dudes were not quite through with their seasonal labors, however. In the wide valley on the White River which now shows on the maps as Powell Park or Powell Bottoms, just below the modern town of Meeker, they spent the last two weeks of October, 1868, cutting winter hay for the stock and building cabins for their winter camp, and had snow for a warning as they worked. Green River Crossing, now Green River, to which the Union Pacific tracks had reached, was a hundred and seventy-five miles northwest of them in Wyoming. Those who were going out would have to be moving.

Ten of them left on November 2 for the last stretch of mountains the tenderfeet would see. Moving down the White through a valley full of game, they eventually broke off northeastward across the divide between the White and the Yampa, and then north of west until they hit the Yampa in a country sandy, eroded, grown to sage and cactus, and empty of both game and timber. The weather was bitter. On the night of November 5 they made a dry and grassless camp; to make matters worse the cook set the sagebrush afire and they parched themselves putting the blaze out.

Very thirsty, they set off in the morning with the intention of heading for the first green that showed, but the high points revealed nothing except dry hills, gulches, and endless wasteland. The best they could do for their thirst was a handful of snow drifted against the comb of a ridge. Moving north and west, sometimes swinging east to head arroyos, they entered a dry creekbed and followed it down to a frozen puddle, but when they chopped through the ice they found the water so alkaline that they did not dare drink it themselves or give the animals more than a taste. An all-day struggle put them nine or ten miles farther northwest, but for the second night they camped without grass or water. To hold the thirst-crazed stock they barricaded an arroyo at both ends and camped in the bottom.

Before daylight young Allen, tormented by a two-day thirst, woke to see clouds coming from the west. Hopefully he spread rubber blankets in the ditch, and before the flurry blew past he caught a cupful of dirty water mixed with snow.

It was noon the next day when they found water. That night it began to snow, so that they pushed hard all the next day, making eighteen miles. But the mules were used up and hard to move. In the afternoon Durley’s gave out and had to be abandoned; he loaded his saddle and pack onto Allen‘s, and that same afternoon they lost the pack mule they were driving and never found him again. Into a bitter wind, their faces peppered with snow like harsh sand, they went on until that night they discovered willows, good grass, a herd of thirty-five strayed steers from some railroad point to the north or some herd being trailed up from Texas. Stronger for the providential fresh beef, they encountered next day a wagon track running down the valley of Little Bitter Creek, and that night they slept in cabins with woodcutters who told them that Green River, the end of the line for Union Pacific passenger trains, was only fifteen miles north. On November 15, after disposing of their mules for what they could get, all but Powell and Howland were on the train for the States.


Thus far the tourists, the temporary volunteers, those who in Bowles’ words were “eager for border experiences.” They had had them. Some had climbed a major peak with the first party to make it. Some had hunted a man with the intention of killing him. Some had stood guard all night in rifle pits awaiting an Indian attack. All had been reported killed by these same Indians. One had spent a month wandering through the wildest kind of country, living on what he could shoot and finding his way by signs that a few months before he would never even have seen. And all in the last ten days had experienced some of the dubious pleasures of the real explorer.

Doctors Wing and Vasey, along with Bishop, Durley, Farrell, Akin, Poston, Allen, and Taylor, called it a summer at Green River. Woodward and Keplinger had already gone out by the White River route. Powell and O. G. Howland went back in late November, 1868, across the snow-drifted sagebrush country, around the eastern end of the Uintas, and back to the camp in Powell Bottoms where now there were only Mrs. Powell, Walter, and Sam Garman of the prairie tribe, plus Sumner, the younger Howland, Bill Dunn, and Missouri Rhodes, who sometime now, safely west of possible embarrassment, began to go by his real name of Billy Hawkins.

During the winter, in spite of heavy snow, Powell pressed his investigation of the country out from Powell Bottoms: the mesas dark with juniper and runty pine, gray with sagebrush, whose terraced flanks dropped into the floodplains of creeks feeding the White, the Yampa, and the Grand. He went down the meandering cottonwood-belted valley of the White to where in a great basin blocked by the roll of the Uintas to the north and by broken fantastic buttes to the south the little river flowed into the wide dirty ice of the Green. He climbed to high places and saw the barren badlands country and the difficult canyons and gulches that had made trouble for his party on the trip to Green River in November. What he was doing was making a map in his mind; upon that map, later, he would trace the imperfectly known course of the river.

Powell Bottoms was populous with Indians, mainly the White River Utes of Antero and Douglas, the same who had camped earlier in the season at Hot Sulphur Springs and irritated Sam Garman into temper tantrums with their incorrigible begging. They still begged, but they were an opportunity for study that Powell did not neglect. Though they had most of the attributes and culture patterns of the plains, they were a mountain people, protected by their remoteness and far less altered by contact with white men than the plains tribes. He spent days and weeks with them learning the Ute language, collecting an extensive vocabulary, trading for buckskin leggings, ceremonial bonnets, pottery, beadwork, all the artifacts in which their culture was given form. He had known Indians before, but never on such intimate terms as this. For more than thirty years after this winter he would retain and extend the interest he felt now, and what he learned from Antero and Douglas and the warriors and squaws and children who tracked the deep snow of the bottomland and smoked the winter sky with their fires would grow into an encyclopedic knowledge of Indian cultures and languages.

Not that he knew everything to begin with. In fact, he knew so little that in pursuing some topographical studies and running a line he drove stakes into the ground. If Jack Sumner had not been an old friend of Antero’s that row of stakes might have cost the whole party their scalps, for the Utes, who knew little enough about white men, knew enough to know that stakes meant surveys, land parceling, white settlers. On that same ground, in some of those same cabins, those same Utes ten years later would murder Nathan Meeker and every man of his agency, and in the ensuing war all but wipe out a detachment of United States Cavalry, for a breach of cultural relations not much more serious. Meeker, friend of Emerson and Hawthorne, agricultural editor for Greeley’s New York Tribune, founder of towns and scholarly enthusiast of pioneering, would make the mistake of plowing up a favorite race course of the Utes and trying to coerce them into becoming agri culturists and observers of the Sabbath.2 ,

Powell, though he might be so gauche as to put out stakes, was not so bullheaded that he would not pull them up again. He was an ex-officer, and the habit of command stuck with him, but he was also a learner, and one of the growing few ready to grant the right of the Indian to his own habits and attitudes. In all his work in the West from that winter on, he never went armed, and he never had trouble, and this in years and in regions where other scientific expeditions would hardly venture outdoors without a military escort.

Actually they did not have to go outside their own group for trouble. Five months is a long time to be shut in. The trappers made one compact unit, the three Powells another; Sam Garman, the sole remaining student, was a little extraneous. Sumner thought he was homesick, but Sam himself, in a letter to Friend Gertrude, put another complexion on his dissatisfaction: “I can’t afford to stay with the expedition as it requires too much of my time & too complete an abnegation of one’s own affairs to present very great attractions to a student and traveler who is receiving no pay and not learning enough to pay for the time.” So when the White River rose in mid-March, 1869, and flooded their cabins and drove them to a sopping and miserable camp on higher ground, and the camp took that occasion to break up and start moving toward Green River, Sam Garman kept right on going and began an expedition of his own. “The Major and myself had no difference except that he found I could do almost any work he had to do and that appeared to be excuse enough for setting me at it, no matter what became of the work I had come to do; besides Mrs. Powell thought me too independent and tried to make me understand that herself and the major commanded the expedition and members until I announced my intention of leaving when matters changed suddenly and took a much pleasanter aspect, but too late.”

A little cabin fever, a little rubbing on the irritated nerves. Perhaps Sam Garman had a legitimate grievance. The trappers in their independence and solidarity would be hard to command, and Powell’s maiming kept him from many tasks. There remained only Garman to fall back on, since Walter Powell, moody and difficult, was hardly a dependable helper. And Mrs. Powell, though by every testimony a woman of hardihood and courage, had a fair idea who was boss.

But the five months had hardened them further, they were better acquainted with the habits and language of the Indians, they had some notion of the country through which the Green and its tributaries ran: They had looked into the canyons along the Yampa. and the Green, and from the country of the Uinta Utes where White and Green flowed together they had looked far southward toward the deeper unknown at the foot of Wonsits Valley. They had talked about the boats they would use; the drawings and specifications were in their kit.

Through deep snow, but without the hardship and danger of the November trip, they packed out to the Yampa, where Sumner, O. G. Howland, and Dunn settled down in good grass while Seneca Howland and Billy Hawkins accompanied the Powells out to Green River. From there the Major and Emma went east alone, headed for Chicago where he would order the boats built, and then Washington, where he would try his promotional talents for a third time on all the available sources of money and support.

Sumner, Howland, and Dunn loafed around on the Yampa for a while, looked over the country along the Little Snake and the Vermillion, moved on to Brown’s Hole just as the spring ducks were coming over, hung around there for two weeks fattening up on duck and roast ribs, and then in a leisurely spring hegira cleared out and fooled their way up to Fort Bridger and thence to the town of Green River. There, reunited with Walter Powell, Hawkins, and Seneca Howland, they camped below the Green River bridge, spending their days and nights trying to drink up all the whiskey in town, but finding that Jake Fields could make it faster than they could drink it, and waited for Powell, to return.

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