SOME TALES OF THE TRAIL REMAIN UNEXPLAINED:ONLY CONCLUSION. . ."I WONDER WHAT HAPPENED
[The National Tombstone Epitaph, April, 1990]
All good stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle and end, and many (perhaps most) most narratives satisfy this requirement. But not all. There are events and incidents which, while interesting, create (or at least do not erase) ambiguity and uncertainty. Such events/incidents, properly belong, one supposes, to the "I wonder how it all came out" school of historical reporting.
Of course, not all such events possess any particular importance. In June of 1849, William G. Johnston, traveling through Wyoming's Sweetwater Valley, provided an example. After describing the noted landmark, Devil's Gate, he reported that other members of his party "Climbed to the top of the wall on the south side." And what they found qualifies this tale for the "I wonder" collection, for at the top of this 400 foot high rock outcropping these enterprising emigrants "found the bones of three Indians and those of a buffalo."
"Now the query is," Johnston continued, "Which of these was the survivor? Did the buffalo make a meal of the three red men, and then lie down in pleasant dreams; or did the three Indians gorge themselves on the flesh of the wild beast, and then in perfect contentment spread themselves out to bleach on the top of this isolated monument?"
There is an addition question which Mr. Johnston did not raise--how in the name of rock-climbing quadrupeds did that buffalo get to the top of Devil's Gate in the first place? I wonder?
Other examples involve much more serious events and questions. Enoch Conyers, who traveled the Oregon-California Trail in 1852, is the descriptive source of two more incidents. On June 11, he and his party, following the Platte River in western Nebraska, "passed a small band of Indians, said to be of the Sioux tribe." Particular note was taken of these Indians because they were the first "we have met with since passing through the Pawnee country." Furthermore, "They seem to be traveling and on the lookout for something or some person."
"One squaw in particular, who was dressed gaudily in her tribal costume, scrutinized every countenance. Finally she came across a man in a company back of our train that she apparently was well acquainted with. This man, whose name was Morgan, could talk with her in her native language and was seemingly very glad to see her. With this man's family she remained whilst the balance of the band soon disappeared."
Seventeen days later, still on the Platte River but by now in east-central Wyoming, Conyer's train again encountered "A small band of Sioux Indians. . ." Not only were they were also able to provide additional information about Mr. Morgan and his female Indian acquaintance. "We are told," Conyers recorded in his diary, "that the squaw remained with Morgan's family until Mrs. Morgan was delivered of a girl child, which the mother name Platte, that name designating the place where the child was born. The squaw acted as midwife."
Perhaps a week or so after the birth of the child, however, both "Morgan and the squaw dropped out of sight and were not seen nor heard of any more." What might have happened? "Some say that the squaw killed him, while others maintain that Morgan deserted his wife and family and willingly accompanied the squaw." What really happened? I wonder?
A bit more than a month after the disappearance of Mr. Morgan from his family, Conyers reported another intriguing encounter with an unknown outcome. In traversing the mountainous country through which flow the rivers Bear and Snake, Conyers' group "caught up with a widow woman who had buried her husband back on the Platte." This unfortunate woman, who "had four or five little helpless children to care for," had been abandoned by her company and left "along with her team and little ones to get over the mountains the best she could."
When Conyers' party encountered her, she was attempting to repair the wheel of her wagon. One "Mr. Burns offered the lady his services. The wheels of the wagon had shrunk so much that it required wooden wedges three-quarters of an inch thick driven under the tire all around the wheel to keep the tire on, and then there was no assurance of it lasting until she got down the first hill."
The repairs completed, "Mr. Burns offered to drive the team and help her get down the mountain, but she very kindly declined the offer, picked up her whip, gave it a whirl and a crack and started on down the mountain." The contemporary reader would, of course, very much like to know whether this courageous woman and her children survived and successfully negotiated the remainder of the Oregon Trail. Conyers is of no help at all in this matter. He verbally castigated the company that abandoned her, noting that "such is life on the plains. Here it is every one for himself and the devil take the hindmost." But to the ultimate outcome of this sage he says only "We did not see or hear anything more of her after leaving the summit." Did she make it? I wonder?
Quite a different type of story comes from the "rendezvous country" of the early mountain men, western Wyoming. The wagon train to which Mrs. Velina A. Williams and her nephew O.A. Stearns belonged passed through this country in the summer of 1853. On August 3, Mrs. Williams noted in her diary that on that day they had "Passed 'Quaking Asp Grove' and three miles farther a fir and pine grove, where we met a crazy man who asked for food. . ."
Her nephew, a boy at the time of the trip, added his adult recollections of this encounter years later. "The crazy man was a very ragged, dirty-looking person," he wrote, who "had a sort of bag or sack in which he deposited the food and other articles given him by members of the train." Although the man could and did make sounds, "No intelligent reply could be elicited from him." Curious, Stearns and his equally youthful companions followed the "crazy man" when "he started off into the woods at right angles to the road." The recipient of the wagon train's largesse "did not go far; when coming to an opening among the trees he paced back and forth from one end of the open space to the other, alternately eating from his sack and talking to himself gesticulating the while as though addressing an audience." "Of his fare or how he came to be in that condition we never hears," Stearns concluded, but "His was doubtless one of the many tragedies of the plains." What would have driven a man to such extremes? Might he have one day "come out of it" and lived a normal life or did he die alone and alienated in the wilderness. I wonder?
A final example of our "untold tales" comes from Fort Laramie, arguably the most famous military post on the northern plains during the 19th century. Although the history for the fort is replete with stories, one which sparked the imagination with great regularity during the last third of the century was that of The Fort Laramie Ghost. This frontier ghost story involved the daughter of the post sutler who disappeared one day while riding alone from the post in a new green riding habit. Her body was never found, but periodically reports surfaced to the effect that a pretty young woman wearing a green riding habit had been seen galloping across the plain in the general vicinity of the post.
One young lieutenant in particular had a most unsettling encounter with the "Ghost of Fort Laramie," insisting ever after that he, in fact, really did see her. For those interested, the late David Hieb, long-time superintendent at Fort Laramie, tells the story in its classic form in the publication of the Denver Westerners. Was there really a "Ghost of Fort Laramie"? I don't know, but the train with which Martha Missouri Moore was traveling in the summer of 1860 camped near Fort Laramie on July 6th and 7th, leaving on July 8th. Six days later, on July 14, she and her party "Camped on the prairie at 1/2 past 4 P.M." Mrs. Moore noted that there was "good grass but no water, hauled wood." Then she added, without embellishment, speculation or explanation, "Saw a a lovely apparition in the shape of a woman riding horseback. She was very pretty and prettily dressed."
Did Martha Moore perhaps actually see the Fort Laramie Ghost? If not, just what did she see? I wonder?
Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved