Escape From Lexington - Cover

Escape From Lexington

Copyright© 2024 by FantasyLover

Chapter 17

This year has been difficult for me. As much as possible, I’ve tried to stay in the background, letting Striking Eagle make the decisions and work assignments. It was a lot harder to do than I thought it would be and had me questioning my decision to leave more than once. It’s not that Striking Eagle didn’t do a good job, but I felt as if I was letting people down who had trusted me. Happily, everything went well this year with no unpleasant surprises.

All during the summer, I watched Striking Eagle run things to see how well he did. On more occasions than I care to admit, I had tears in my eyes, knowing that, for a second time, I’d be leaving my home behind and leaving behind people I cared about. The villages that came in the spring and summer to trade with us told me goodbye. Those who came in the fall to dry berries and buffalo did the same. Hundreds of braves from other tribes with whom I’d hunted stopped to tell me goodbye and to thank me for selling them good rifles. The good rifles had made a huge difference to their village’s ability to thrive, and not just survive.

Tara had her lists again, listing who planned to go with us, what we planned to take, and what we intended to leave behind. We didn’t take any lumber because there were plenty of lumber mills in Oregon. We already had lots of tools, several cast-iron stoves, ready-made parts for a panemone, lots of cast iron pipe and fittings, cases of glass windowpanes, guns, and the necessary supplies for the guns, especially lots of black powder, lead, caps, and wadding. That was already packed in wagons sitting in the cave, waiting.

After finishing the harvest, we packed seeds, grain, dried food, and cured tobacco in barrels. We also loaded the bourbon and whiskey we planned to take. The money from selling the hooch when we reached Oregon would go a long way towards helping us start over. Besides, we still had a huge surplus of cash from what we sold each year, specially the copper and gold. Heck, we still had a lot of what we started with when the nine of us originally left Kentucky. I made sure to leave enough money for Striking Eagle to buy the things he’d need next spring, even if they didn’t have furs to sell.

By December 1, we had a firm list of the 267 people going with us. My wives and children, my extended family, and the original slaves I helped escape were going. In addition, many of the other emancipated Negroes who had joined us here, a few of the trappers who now worked for me, and a surprising number of the Indians wanted to go with us.

Striking Eagle and I had reviewed the people who remained and made sure that he had people qualified to do everything. I was surprised at how many people were staying here, partially because I wasn’t aware that we had so many living here now. Striking Eagle explained that several smaller villages from the various tribes that came here to trade or to hunt buffalo had asked permission to join ours since their villages were too small to continue supporting themselves. We had also continued to collect widows and orphans. Many made their way to a village that they knew traded with us and came here with that village, intending to stay.

Tuesday December 26, 1848

Mr. Chouteau knocked on our window this morning and then met me inside the cave again. I could tell by the look on his face that he was excited about something.

“I heard this morning that there was a major gold discovery in California last January,” Chouteau explained. “Actually, I heard about it two months ago, but ignored it like every other overblown rumor about Oregon and California. The person I just heard it from is headed from California to St. Louis. His saddlebags are full of gold to buy supplies to take back to California to sell to miners.

“Evidently, just before winter set in, thousands of people flocked to the area where the gold was found. Most of them left the mountains until spring because they can’t pan for gold when the creeks are frozen. A few of the bolder ones stayed to pan along the rivers. The guy who went through here had more than eighty pounds of gold dust and nuggets in his saddlebags and plans to buy supplies with it. He plans to take a steamer back, getting off and crossing the narrow strip of land between the Atlantic and the Pacific somewhere south of Mexico. He says the trip will only take three months that way. He wants to be back as soon as he can get there.”

“Why didn’t he take a ship going back east?” I asked.

“There weren’t any available. Most of the crews deserted and headed for the mountains to look for gold. They don’t want to be stuck aboard ship when the spring thaw hits,” he answered.

“There may not be a ship available to take this guy to California after he crosses to the Pacific side,” I laughed.

Chouteau continued, “Anyway, I want the wagons to leave the eighth of January. There will be thousands of people flocking to California as soon as the first grass breaks through on the prairie. I’d also like to know if I can rent any of your wagons that you don’t need for the trip. I won’t need them to take furs down, but I want to buy at least twice as many supplies this year.

“Even though we’ve increased what we bought each year, we’ve barely made it through. Except for the stuff you sell us, we’re out of almost everything. The guy headed east was surprised that we still had food to sell him,” he said.

I thought for a moment before replying, “We already have a tentative list drawn up and figure eighteen wagons for what we want to buy, and two more filled with hay besides what we stuff into the top of the other wagons. That leaves us with ten extra wagons. That should give you twenty-two wagons.”

“Perfect,” he exclaimed excitedly. “I hope I can use your blacksmiths and carpenters again this summer,” he said.

“I’m sure they’ll be glad to help,” I assured him, and then suggested, “You should put up even more fences to separate pastures for their livestock. The pastures you had this summer were pretty full several times,” I suggested.

“Yes, and you should plan on having a full crew working your three rafts at the ford. Nobody has died or lost or damaged a wagon crossing the river for three years now thanks to your rafts. I’m sure you made some good money from it, too,” he chuckled.

“That we did,” I replied. “I’ve thanked Samuel for the idea several times. I just hope that the winter stays mild,” I said as I looked at the barometer on the wall. “The tribes all say that it should be mild, although the snow is deeper than I’ve seen here before.”

“I’ll check back with you next week to verify the departure date,” Chouteau said, looking greatly relieved.

“Oh, how many men will you have going?” I asked as I accompanied him back to the cave.

“Probably eight men will go, and that barely leaves us enough to run the fort,” he replied.

“I’m sure we have plenty of people to send. If you want to keep one or two more here, that shouldn’t be a problem. I think Samuel, George, and Arnaud would help at the fort so long as they don’t have to go out hunting, or if they can go out with our people when we hunt buffalo. If you need, I can handle your money and order your supplies again,” I offered.

“Yes, it was a blow when Samuel left to work for you, but the fact that you are willing to take the wagons to St. Louis for me softened the blow. I’ll make sure that my new second in command goes along again. I also suspect that four of the drivers who agreed to go will leave when they get back to civilization,” Chouteau commented. He thanked me again right before turning his horse south towards the trading post that was now barely a mile away.

“How many drivers do we have that want to go this year and how many more are willing to go?” I asked my wives when I got back to our cabin. I guess that, technically, I was asking Tara, our keeper of lists.

“Twenty-seven want to go, and another twenty-four are willing to go if we need them,” she answered.

“It sounds like we’ll need everyone, then,” I replied. “With our eighteen wagons, Chouteau’s twenty-two wagons, and three scout/hunters, we’ll need a minimum of forty-three people. That way, we’ll be prepared if none of the people from the fort decide to return and I’ll be happy if they do.

“Does this change your plans to move?” Tara asked.

Since I had decided to move west, Oregon has always been my target. I’ve talked to everyone I could who has been to Oregon. Some of the discussions touched on California, and I’ll admit that the large valley I heard about in California had piqued my interest. Unfortunately, last I heard, California was still part of Mexico, although there seems to be a battle being fought for control.

“I’ll admit that the news about finding gold in California makes that big valley I heard about sound good. I can’t believe it takes more than a week to ride from one end to the other,” I replied.

“Are you going to California to look for gold?” Tara asked.

“No, if I went, I would stay far away from wherever the gold is. That kind of wealth attracts trouble. You’ve seen me here. I didn’t go crazy when we found the gold. We worked at it each year. I finally found the vein high up on one of the ridges. After blasting out ten feet of the quartz the gold was in, I decided that it wasn’t worth risking a gold rush here,” I replied. “I want to find some of the fertile soil and the lack of snow they’re supposed to have in Oregon.”

That afternoon, my family, the former slaves, and the former trappers met in the old living quarters of the cave. It was the only indoor place big enough for everyone to gather. Everyone in the valley had learned that I planned to follow the trail west to Oregon this coming spring since we had discussed it as soon as I got back from St. Louis last April. With the Indians accepting that I wanted to move and everyone else that was excited about leaving, we planned our crops and made sure that our plans for the rest of the year left us prepared to depart. We also made sure we would be leaving everything those who stayed here would want and need.

In order to leave everything that was needed, we’d have to buy more things to take with us, but overall, we were in good shape. We had a lot more copper this year, taking more than sixteen hundred pounds with us now that we had more experience with both mining and the stamping mill. I even cheated with the gold a bit. I had six of the former slaves who intended to go west with us work on the deposit. From higher up on the ridge where the mine was, they dumped buckets of loose ore into a chute we built to guide the ore into a wagon that had been lined with canvas. We took ten wagonloads of ore to the stamping mill and crushed it before halting our operation at the gold mine. Several of the women panned what was left after the stamping mill crushed the ore and the copper smelters smelted the gold they recovered into ingots. We have ninety-six pounds of gold to take back east with us this year and I plan to pass it off as California gold.

We also have thirty barrels of Dad’s moonshine to sell in St. Louis this year and will have thirty to take to Oregon, as well as twenty barrels of slightly aged whiskey.

1849 trip to St. Louis

The Missouri River was clearer of ice than I’d ever seen it on the way to St. Louis. Once we had the raft on our side and everything was ready, we began shuttling people and wagons across the river, a process that took most of the day. Once again, I was the last person to cross, along with Striking Eagle. Although I stood beside him, I let him steer the raft this year. As with my first trip, I always tied a rope around myself. We tied one around Striking Eagle, too. The other end is tied to somebody’s horse. If we fall in, the rider takes off on his horse to a predetermined point that would leave us lying in the mud along the bank of the river. Fortunately, we’ve never needed it.

There was a new man in charge of the Council Bluffs trading post this year, but he’d evidently talked to the rest of our people and was waiting for me when I got across.

“Is it true that you take widders and orphans from the different Indian tribes to your home?” he asked me.

When I confirmed it, he continued, “The Oto and Omaha was buttin’ heads last summer. They brought fifteen Oto widders with eight young’uns and the Omaha brought six widders and seven young’uns, sayin’ you’d take ‘em back with you,” he explained.

“Do you have enough food for them to last five more weeks?” I asked. I paid him for the food they’d eaten and for what they would need for the next five weeks. I even left the rest of the buffalo we killed yesterday. Striking Eagle assured the man that he would continue to accept widows and orphans. He was immensely proud that we were able to take them in. Without us, if they were lucky, their husband’s brother or another male relative would take them in. Otherwise, widows and orphans were at risk of starving if the tribe didn’t have food to spare.

Then the man told me that the nearby Mormons wanted to see me, although Striking Eagle and I had already expected that message. Since the steamboat wasn’t due for another day or two, Striking Eagle and I hurried to the nearby predominantly Mormon town of Kane. Unlike the temporary town they had built across the river, this was a permanent settlement. The settlers here would help current and future Mormon emigrants by providing shelter through the winter if necessary, as well as food and supplies.

Even though I always agreed, they always asked if their wagons could go with ours. I always knew who to ask to see when I got to Kane because that person had been in the party of men on horseback who stopped at our place on the most recent trip east. They stopped to say “hello,” to introduce themselves, and to ask again if their wagons could go with us in the spring. They usually spent a day or two with us, recuperating, defrosting, and letting their animals rest. They also usually bought a large quantity of our favorite medicinal herb to take east with them.

This year, I introduced them to Striking Eagle, reminding them that I was headed for Oregon almost as soon as we returned from St. Louis. This trip to St. Louis would be my last. Striking Eagle assured them that their wagons would continue to be welcome to travel with ours.

On this, my final trip, I spent more than usual, but I was buying things to take to Oregon. I bought a wagon full of canvas, two wagons full of glass jars, plenty of cast iron pipe, pumps for the windmills, pitcher pumps, and fittings to install six windmills and to pipe water to our cabins, the barn, and our crops.

I didn’t buy a steam engine for a lumber mill because the rivers in Oregon didn’t freeze, although I did buy everything else we needed for a lumber mill. I also bought the hand tools we’d need and didn’t already have enough of. I had yet another of Tara’s lists for the tools. We compiled it from her original lists and then noted what tools we already had and how many of each. The list of things to buy included five of the fancy horse-drawn reapers. It was a good thing that they came unassembled and packed neatly in a wooden crate or they would each have required a separate wagon.

We bought all the India rubber cloth I could find in every town we visited, sure that it would be a big seller at the trading post with all the miners headed to California, along with the canvas we bought. It was a good thing that Tara had kept her lists of things we bought. That way, we had a better starting place for this shopping trip. I let the gunsmiths in Lexington, Louisville, and Jeffersonville know that I wouldn’t be back to buy rifles again because I was moving to Oregon, but someone else would be here later in the spring next year to pick up the rifles I ordered.

Our entire family had come back to see my brother Daniel one final time. When he heard that we were going to Oregon to farm, he wanted to come with us. He was fed up with witnessing the increasing abuse heaped upon local slaves, especially those who escaped. He also missed being around the rest of the family. The Negroes who worked for him wanted to come, too. Even some of the Negroes from the New Hope Plantation asked to go with us. Even with several people leaving the plantation, they still had enough help. Each year, more free Negroes heard about the New Hope Plantation and worked there now. They had asked Daniel to buy a farm adjacent to the plantation, giving him the money. They didn’t think the owner would sell it to Negroes.

Willy took me aside and asked if I felt up to helping eighteen more slaves escape, eleven men, five women, and two girls. The escaped slaves were hiding in the former slave huts. If any white men arrived, they hid in a concealed root cellar under the huts. Evidently, my brother and the Negroes working for him had discovered nearly half of them and helped them reach the plantation before they could be recaptured. The others made it there on their own.

Our family discussed it, and Tara had a great idea. Tara and I wrote letters of manumission using the names of freed slaves who were still at our place near Fort John, and then had Belle forge the signature of the clerk. Yet again, her forged signature looked identical to the original, although it was a different signature than Mr. Greene’s. We managed to find enough clothing that fit the escaped slaves so they looked like they belonged with our group. Fortunately, most of the adult runaway slaves knew how to handle a team.

Even Tara’s parents decided to go to Oregon with us. I was surprised that both their farm and my brother’s large farm sold within two days of posting a notice in Lexington. They even got a good price for the land. The only bad part about the sale was that the man who bought the two farms planned to bring in slaves and start a new tobacco plantation. Our original farm, the two I bought to make it larger, and Tara’s family farm made a large plot of land that already had most of the necessary buildings. The existing windmills and water tanks made the property even more valuable.

Even though I didn’t ask him to, Daniel paid me back what I had spent to buy the two adjacent farms. He explained that they had made a lot of money each year by working all three farms. We managed to buy enough farm wagons to hold their belongings, as well as all the goods I bought in Lexington and the surrounding towns, especially heavy clothing for the escaped slaves we were taking with us.

I’d made one trip to a town east of the farm and two trips into Lexington to buy wagons, wood to raise the sides of the wagons, wood to install bows in the wagons and to make the extended covers for the drivers, canvas to cover the wagons, and linseed oil for the canvas. I also bought whatever goods I could find in the area to take back with us since they were cheaper here than in St. Louis, even taking the cost of the steamboat trip into consideration. On two of the three trips, a group of six men looking for runaway slaves accosted me, insisting that the “slaves” with me were some of their runaways when they were really some of the slaves from the Greene Plantation that I had previously emancipated.

The encouraging thing was that I had the same four “slaves” with me both times they stopped us. They remembered me the second time, but thought I had four new slaves with me. After arguing with them for ten minutes, I insisted that they accompany me into Lexington to the clerk’s office so he could verify that I had freed the slaves years ago. Grudgingly, they agreed. They were stunned when they learned how many slaves I had emancipated, and were pretty upset with me about it. The clerk was relieved to learn that I didn’t have more paperwork for him to process.

When our wagon caravan finally left for St. Louis, we passed the men yet again. With the two ten-year-old girls separated and hidden beneath the driver’s seats of two wagons (in the spaces we used to hide copper ingots, our money, and the gold we panned), the men contented themselves with counting the number of Negroes in our wagon train. Since many of the former slaves I had emancipated were still at the New Hope Plantation or Fort John, the number with us was far less than the number that the clerk in Lexington told them I had emancipated.

I was surprised on the trip to Louisville to learn that Daniel had only been that far once before. Even though he was six years older than I was, aside from that one time, Mount Sterling was the farthest he’d been from home unless he’d gone farther during one of the winter hunting trips when he accompanied me.

“Even if you weren’t going to Oregon, I was almost ready to go with you,” he said. “You’ve traveled more than a thousand miles from home and only once have I been more than fifty miles away. Every spring you have exciting new tales to tell about your new home and your new life. You’ve met and befriended more Indian tribes than I can keep track of. You’ve seen the fabled Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and the Great Plains that I see constantly mentioned in the newspaper and story books.

“I can’t even envision those places, yet you’ve come to know them well enough to guide dozens and even hundreds of people unerringly across the vast distance of the plains between your home and the Missouri River. Heck, you even built a raft big enough to carry your group across the Ohio River in the middle of the winter.

“I thought we were doing well financially here, but I know how many wagons you just bought, and how much those wagons and mules cost. Dad says that you earned more than $3,000 this year just from the copper you sold, and nearly $20,000 selling the gold you panned from your stream.

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