ACROSS THE PLAINS IN ‘88

By Edith (Wright) Vermillion and finished by her granddaughter Mary Edith Philpot

A few years ago, I went to the Colorado mountains.  On the eastern slope of the mountains, I gazed at the top of the front range and remembered the lovely valley and mountains on the other side.  So many memories of a trip made when I was just a child came back to me.  It was almost the same as going back along the same trail again.

             In the early spring of 1888, there were many unusual and different things going on at the old farmstead at Competition, Missouri.  Father, who was also the local country doctor along with his farming, was preparing to take his family across the plains, through Colorado, to settle in the State of Washington.

             There were nine of us children in the family – six boys and three girls, ranging in age from 18 years old (my brother, Will) to our infant brother, Paul.  Leon, the second eldest was 16, O.T. was 14, Johnnie was 12, myself (Edith) 10, Fred 7, Grace 5, Eppah 3, and Baby Paul.

             Mother was in ill health, and had been for several months since the birth of our brother Paul.  I think this was the deciding factor for our move.  However, I think that Father had some adventurous traits, for he later practiced medicine, and owned and operated a drug store in the Indian territory of Oklahoma.  He had gone to medical school after settling in the Ozarks.

             All the preparations for this trip were quite an undertaking.  Wagons had to be purchased and outfitted, and a large sale of all our belongings that we would be unable to take with us was planned.

             Three wagons were made ready and the best horses selected for the journey.  We had good teams to draw the wagons, and extras, if they were needed.  Three saddle horses, a stallion of the saddle breed, and “Old John”, our mule, were our quota of horses.  We had always had numerous head of cattle for milk, butter and beef, and also many horses.  Any that we didn’t plan to take with us would be sold at the sale.  We planned to take about forty cows with us.

             New covers were purchased for the three wagons.  Extensions were made on the top side boards, which gave us more space to pack and haul our belongings.  A large wall tent was purchased and also a camp stove.  One wagon was used for our grub wagon.  It was built with a table that could be lowered at the back end, as a work table for mother to prepare the meals.  This wagon was loaded with flour, meal, fruit, meat, and a big can of lard.  All the cooking and eating utensils were also loaded on this wagon.  On the side of the wagon was a large water barrel with a faucet.  This wagon also carried our tent and poles.

             Mother was kept busy making large mattresses of straw.  There were twelve of us to prepare beds for, the addition of Father’s young cousin, Arthur White, and one of the neighbor’s young sons.

             During the preparations for this trip, little Paul, the baby, became ill and died.  Poor Mother, already in ill health, was deeply hurt.  The neighbors said that she would never be able to withstand the trip.  However, the plans were continued.

             Then came the day of the sale.  So many of the things we hated to part with, but in making a long journey, they were of no use to us.  However, it was still heartbreaking to see our things sold.

             Our departure was set for the first day of May.  Our friends and neighbors came to help load the wagons and to say good-bye.  We had a late start.  The clouds began to roll, and the rains came pouring down.  We made only four miles the first day, to Elk Creek.  The creeks and rivers were swollen with water, so we had to make camp.  We were still among friends, with Father being the doctor, so we took shelter in their church.  The rain continued for three days while we stayed there.  Friends let us pasture our cows and horses on their lands.  They came to visit us in the church building.  One mother brought her two children for Father to doctor.  They had the whooping cough.  This was something else for Mother to worry about, as our youngest two had not had it.

            The creeks went down, the rains ceased, and we started on our journey again.  We only made a few miles a day at first, for it was wet and rainy.  If we came to a stream too deep for the wagons to cross, we stopped and camped.

             One morning Mother was preparing breakfast and started to the water keg.  As she passed “Old John”, the mule, he kicker her.  “Old John” would be docile as a lamb until surprised, then he would kick.  Mother wasn’t injured, but she was furious.  As Father always said, Mother’s eyes were “snapping black” when she was angry.  I suppose this is how they were when she told Father that “Old John” had to go.  So, as we neared a small Ozark town, and made camp, Father decided to sell “Old John”.  While Father was extolling the mules good traits, the farmer asked how come one of his ears drooped.  Father was amazed to see that “Old John” was letting his left ear hang limp!  That ended the sale of “Old John” that day.  Since we had never seen him drop that ear before, and never did again, Father presumed that he didn’t wish to be sold.

             We picked up more speed as we became accustomed to traveling, and so covered more miles each day.

             Sometimes a calf would be born.  To save time and prevent delay, Father made a swing from an old wagon sheet and hung it under the back wagon.  The calf’s mother could follow along side.  At night, the swing was lowered and the little calf spent the night with its mother.

             Mother’s health improved as we traveled.  She had an enormous task, cooking for us all.  There were five men to cook for, and six children.  Father’s cousin helped Mother with the cooking.

             The men all carried revolvers.  They had fine slickers (raincoats) and good riding saddles.

             Our parents had practiced good discipline with their children.  When we stopped for camp, everyone knew his chores.  In a short time, our tent was up, the cook stove ready and Mother started preparing our meals.  Everyone was hungry and ready to eat.  Then on cool evenings a campfire was built and the older ones sat by the fire and chatted.

             Two of the boys were on night watch each night until one a.m., then two others took the watch.  One night at one-thirty, when two of the boys were about to go on duty, one of the boys that they were to replace was missing.  Everyone was aroused, thinking that he might have fallen into a prairie dog hole, or even worse, met with some sort of foul play.  You can believe that he was a very guilty looking boy when he was found, fast asleep, in the grub wagon – quite a while later.

             Each morning a new vista was before us.  We wondered what strange sights, or people we might see during the day’s travel.

            Mother had a friend who had attended school with her, in an Academy, in Greenville, Illinois.  Her name was now Bartles, the town being named after her husband.  We had come this way on our trip so Mother could visit with her.  Father called them and asked them to come out to our camp.  I’m sure Mother must have felt a bit travel-worn and dusty when her friend arrived dressed in black taffeta.  She and her husband were driving a beautiful buggy with a handsome pair of horses.  She and Mother embraced, and Mrs. Bartles whispered something in Mother’s ear.  They laughed joyously.  When we asked what she whispered, Mother just said, “She just asked me if I remembered an incident that happened when we were girls.”  They enjoyed their visit very much.  They hadn’t seen each other for twenty years.

             We were all very tan from being in the sun.  We didn’t realize how much until our attention was brought to the fact.  One morning, in Oklahoma, an Indian came up to the wagon, and said to Mother, “You Cherokee?”

             Sometimes Mother gave us – the girls, enough cow’s cream to rub our dry faces.  Cosmetics were not very common in those days.

             As we trailed into Kansas there seemed to be a drought.  As we came near to Kingman, Kansas, the army worms were so thick that the trail was wet as the wagons passed over them.

             Father went ahead on horseback into Kingman, and met some men who wanted us to stay over a few days.  The next morning, we were met by a colored man, who was driving a two-wheeled sulky.  He directed us into the fair grounds where we stayed three days.

            Two Negroes, who were caretakers at the fair grounds, sent Mother word to send her biscuits over, and they would bake them for her.  She made up a large pan full and Johnnie and I took them over.  They were having their breakfast and asked us to stay and eat.  We said, “No thank you.”  But we stood and waited for the bread to bake.  One man asked, “Won’t you eat a piece of apple pie?”  We answered “No.”  He replied with, “Sis, I am going to tell your father you are above eating with colored folks!”  We were very embarrassed.

             Mother did her laundry while in Kingman, and we started again on our journey.

             The grass was getting scarce for cattle grazing and so was the water supply.  We followed the Arkansas River as long as possible.

            Soon two families joined us.  They were on their way to Silver City, New Mexico.  They were from Coffeyville, Kansas.  Mr. Brown had two wagons, and Mr. Day had three.  There were young children in the Brown family and one young lady.  The Day family included a small daughter, Maggie, a young lady, Eliza, and a son.  Maggie had typhoid fever, and Father doctored her.  They had a hammock hung in one wagon.  She had begun to sit up when we parted later.

             A young man, Perry Porter, was with the Day family.  He was engaged to Eliza.  They were to be married when they reached Silver City, New Mexico.

            The families left us when the trail started Southwest.  They promised to write, and they kept that promise.  They wrote that the Brown’s lost one of their boys from the fever.  The family went back to Kansas.  Mr. Day wrote that Eliza had taken typhoid and died.  We have never heard of Perry Porter since.

             While the other families were with us, the young men and women sang and played their banjos and guitars around the campfires.  Father and Leon would play the violin.

             There were days when we suffered from lack of water.  The dust was terrible.  The grass was scarce for our animals.  We saw fence posts that looked as if they were literally made of grasshoppers.

             One day we were hoping to find water, and we found a pitcher pump beside the trail.  Mother remarked, “God Bless the persons that put that well there.”

             Another day we needed water.  We saw a windmill near the road.  Father stopped to water the animals and get our water supply, and was promptly told to move on by a cowboy that had ridden up.  Father told him that he would move on, as soon as we had all had water.  The cowboy threatened us, and then called his boss.  Father rode out to meet the boss, and explained our suffering for water.  He told us to help ourselves to all we needed.

             As we moved on northwestward, the water and grass supply was more abundant, and the dust lessened.

             We stopped early one evening for camp so that the animals could rest and graze.  Brother Will rode out on the prairie to hunt for antelope.  He was gone too long and we became worried.  After a long time, he finally rode in.  He had been lost.  He couldn’t persuade his horse to go in the direction he thought was the camp.  He finally gave the horse the reins and let him go his own way.  Soon Will saw something laying in the grass ahead.  It was his slicker he had lost from his saddle earlier.  His horse had brought him home!

             We had a feast that same night on the finest beef.  We had camped near a farmer’s house and Father went to talk with him.  He had just butchered a steer and my father bought some from him.  The farmers were mostly very nice and friendly.  Sometimes we bought fruit and vegetables from them.

             We crossed over into Colorado and soon found grass and water plentiful.

             We went through Colorado Springs and camped in the Garden of the Gods.  We loved camping there.  To us, the fantastic rocks were castles, forts, Indian lookouts, and ladders to the sky.  We enjoyed the Springs near there, as well.

             We had to take the cattle through Manitou Springs, over Ute Pass before daylight the next morning.  I was up early that morning.  We gathered around the campfire.  Mother asked if the boys had taken their guns with them, and Father replied that they had.  We had heard something scream in the night, and we thought it might be a mountain lion.

             Mother was quite frightened about crossing Ute Pass.  She was afraid to ride over the pass and so decided to walk.  But she didn’t walk very far before she had to climb back into the wagon.  It was frightening, but we made it, and found the boys and cattle waiting on the other side.

             The scenery was so beautiful!  Deep valleys, clear crystal streams, snow capped mountains, and Pikes Peak all left us breathless with admiration and awe.

             The railroad trains coming around the mountain seemed like boxes.  Our horses became very frightened at times.

             The nights were becoming quite cool and we were becoming fearful of snows coming.

             We camped one night at a creek called Blacktail.  The little speckled trout were plentiful and the grass was knee high.  This was a wide open valley or park-like place.  It was a wonderful camping spot, with wild flowers and rushing streams.

             Around eleven o’clock that same night at the camp, the boys heard a cry in the distance.  “Halloo!!”  They called Father, and he got out of his bed to go talk to the stranger, who had by this time arrived at the campsite.  It was a woman who had lost her trail because of our horses, wagons, and cattle.  She was on her way to Egeria Park, (1) Colorado, where her son was seriously ill.  We begged her to stay at our camp that night, but she wanted to get to her son, and so went on alone through the night.  The roads were so narrow, and the trees so thick and tall that we thought she was very brave to travel alone.  She made the trip safely, we learned, as we saw her later in Egeria Park.

             We traveled on through valleys, over mountains, and winding trails, until we came to the Grand River.(2)  More rain had fallen, and the river was swollen.  Crossing seemed almost impossible.  We camped that night, and the next day waited for the river to lower.  When it finally seemed safe to cross, father rode his horse across to the other side and waited.  The cattle were then driven across.  It was frightening to see the cattle struggling in the water, but it was a successful crossing.  Mother was very afraid for the wagons, as they carried her and us children across.  There were no problems however, and we reached the other side without incident, and continued on to Egeria Park.

            Egeria Park was a beautiful valley.  We camped there for many days.  We were told however, that if we stayed there until winter, that the children would need snowshoes to get to school.

             There was a two story log building with a store on the first floor and the family living upstairs.

             The deer were plentiful, and came close to our camp.  There were many kinds of wild birds and small animals.

             Father didn’t want to winter at Egeria Park against his family’s wishes.  He talked of shipping his cattle on to Washington.  But the snows came in the high mountains, and it was only August.  He knew that there were more mountains to cross before our destination.  He knew that the weather and travel would be a severe trial to all, so he decided to turn and come back to the Missouri farm at Competition.

             Many of our days would end with all of us travel weary.  We welcomed amusing incidents and often laughed over them years afterwards  --  one that stands out in my mind, and one I’m sure that my sister Grace has never been allowed to forget, happened along our route through Oklahoma.  As we passed through a small settlement a sign read, “Pure-bred Boar for Sale”, Grace called for Father to stop – saying, “Pa, here is a place to buy Ma a new bread board which she badly needs.”

             Oregon or Washington might have been our home someday, if we had gone on as planned.  We were all very homesick, or perhaps we were yearning to be living in a house once more.  We were more experienced travelers on our trip back to Missouri, the largest part of our herd had been sold, and so we traveled faster, it seemed.  Father had carried Mother to the wagon when they started west and when they returned after many months, she was a laughing, walking, working Mother again.

             These are my memories of our trip to Colorado, as things were in 1888.

             1.            Egeria Park was where Yampa and Toponas are now located.  Yampa was Lower Egeria.  Toponas was upper Egeria.  (Colorado Magazine Vol. XL, April 1963 – No. 2, pages 121-127)

            2.            Above the junction with the Green River, the Colorado River was called the Grand River.  The name was officially changed in 1921 to the Colorado River.

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