End of an Era
Copyright© 2011 by woodmanone
Johnny made good time the first day on the trail. That evening when he camped, he changed clothes. The friend he'd met at the Pacific Ocean had an extra set of buckskins and a trade was made. Johnny gave him a skinning knife that he seldom used for the clothes. He'd waited until now to change because he didn't want to hurt Maggie's feelings by changing out of the work pants and shirt she'd gotten for him.
Those pants and shirts are fine around town or on a short trip but there's nothing as comfortable as a good set of buckskins, he thought. The buckskin pants were a little tight but they'd stretch with use. The shirt fit fine but Johnny cut off the fringe along the arms and across the chest and back. Damn fringe just gets in your way, he said to himself.
He continued to wear the western boots instead of moccasins. Moccasins were fine when he just rode along easy but he had better than 1200 miles to travel and there'd be some hard riding along the way. Johnny didn't want to figure his trip in miles but in the number of days it would take.
Johnny felt he had made a little over 30 miles the first day. His horses were fresh and the trail was mostly flat with a few areas of rolling hills. He knew he couldn't make that many miles every day, especially when he got into the mountains. If he didn't run into trouble and the weather didn't turn real bad he figured to reach Fountain in just over 50 days. And that's if I don't have to spend a lot of time looking for the right way, he thought. But if I take longer it don't really matter. Colorado still gonna be there for a while.
Colorado and Fountain were south by south east of Portland. Johnny didn't think he have much trouble finding the right trails. Even if I get it wrong a little, Colorado is a big place, he said. Don't think I'll miss the whole blamed territory.
He made almost 30 miles the second day; in country that was still mostly rolling hills. For the next few days I'll have these rolling hills and prairie, he told himself. As he settled into his camp at almost dusk he pulled the newspaper that Maggie had given him out of a saddlebag. There on the front page in a double wide column was his story. He settled down to do some reading.
END OF AN ERA
The Life and Times of a Mountain Man.
As told to Margaret Ann Dempsey
By Johnny Burrows
Jonathan Daniel Burrows was born in 1816 at Lexington, Kentucky; not far from where Daniel Boone settled and founded Boonesborough. Johnny grew up reading and hearing tall tales about Daniel Boone, Jim Bridger and other frontiersmen. The stories made the young man long to be more than a farmer.
One of his cousins, Sherman Taylor, stopped by the Burrows farm on his way to Florida. He was going to join the U.S. Army and fight what would become known as the Second Seminole War. Johnny decided to seek adventure and left with Sherman. They arrived and enlisted in the Army in 1836.
After a year and half of battles with the fierce Seminoles Johnny took part in the Battle of Lake Okeechobee; Sherman was killed during that battle. Johnny heard his commanding office, Major Hitchcock, read a dispatch he was sending to Washington. It was a harsh criticism of the government's treatment of the Seminoles.
Disillusioned by the Major's dispatch and the death of his cousin, Johnny secured his release from the enlistment and started west.
Now that ain't exactly the way it were, Johnny thought with a smile. After Sherman got kilt, I just sorta decided that things were getting a might dangerous for Mrs. Burrows' little boy and I rode off one night all on my own. He continued reading.
Johnny had no wish to return to the family farm and remembering the tales from his childhood decided he would become a frontiersman; or as Johnny said, a real by god Mountain Man. He obtained a grub stake and began his trip to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
He had to smile at the "obtained a grub stake", what he did was steal a couple of Army horses, four or five of the Army's percussion cap rifles and a couple of pistols. He sold them to them to a gunner runner to get his traveling stake.
Deciding that it was the best way to learn the ways of a mountain man, he attended a Rendezvous in Alamosa, Colorado. The Rendezvous is a month long meeting of mountain men, fur traders, and suppliers. Ideas, suggestions, and information about the best trapping grounds were exchanged between the mountain men while they restocked their supplies.
Took a bit more time than that, he remembered. Left Florida in mid '38 and didn't get to Alamosa until '44. Sometimes I travel in sorta roundabout way. Johnny chuckled at the idea that any trappers would tell others about good spots for firs. The only ideas and suggestions exchanged were ones that couldn't be printed. The part about Alamosa is true enough, he thought. But the Rendezvous was more of a month long reason for getting drunk and raising hell.
Burrows saw a trapper being set upon by four men and stepped in to help the outnumbered man. After a fierce fight, Johnny and the man known as Bear Claw Clausen triumphed. The two victors quickly became friends and formed a partnership. Bear Claw took Johnny under his wing, as it were, and taught him the ways of the wilderness and trapping. Their partnership lasted for two seasons before they parted ways.
Reckon Maggie just has a natural flair for makin things sound better than they were, Johnny thought. He was walking past the fight between Bear Claw and the men with no intention of getting involved. One of the men fell into Johnny and when he regained his balance hit Johnny with a big right hand. That's how I got into that fight. It was a gooden too.
Bear Claw did take me under his wing, Johnny said to himself. But weren't because of friendship; I paid him to take me with him into the high country. The old bastard taught me about trappin and I did all the work around our camps like some gall danged butler. We parted ways because Bear Claw tried to steal some pelts from me and it was either kill him or leave.
After leaving Bear Claw, Johnny Burrows came down from the high country and spent a month or so as a buffalo hunter. His big Hawken rifle could bring down the biggest bull from long distance. But Johnny found the slaughter unsettling and soon returned to his beloved mountains.
On his travels back to the Rockies he met and made friends with a tribe of Cheyenne Indians. Johnny was so taken with the nomadic life of the Cheyenne that he lived with them for three months, taking a Cheyenne princess as his wife.
Their life together lasted three years until she was taken in a raid by a rival Indian tribe. Johnny searched for months but never saw her again.
Reckon the girl got the story mostly right, just some of the details are exaggerated. I didn't rightly make friends with the Cheyenne; we had more of an armed truce. I used some trade goods like steel knives and pots and such to trade with the Cheyenne for cured buffalo hides. Selling the hides back at a buffalo camp at a good profit I would restock my supplies and went back to the Cheyenne for more hides. Tradin for the buffalo hides was a sight easier than killing and skinning the animals my own self.
One evening sitting in front of the teepee the Chief let me use, I had a few sips of whiskey. The Chief wanted to try the whiskey and quickly got rip roaring drunk. I refused to give him any more but told him I would trade for it. He offered his pony, which was a good animal, so I took the trade. I figured I could sell the animal when I got supplies the next time.
The next day the Chief returned and wanted his horse back and offered a young woman in trade for his animal. I would've had to get back to the buffalo camp to sell or trade the horse and she was a fine looking girl. It'd been a long time since I'd had a woman so I made the trade.
I spoke a little Cheyenne but I couldn't pronounce the girls Indian name; in English it was Morning Star. She was about 18, tall and slender with long almost black hair. Star moved like a big cat, all graceful and smooth and we fit together like two peas in a pod. I started off slowly trying not to force or scare her and pretty soon I was the one pushin her away. It was the best trade I ever made.
Star weren't no Cheyenne princess either; she was a Ute that'd been captured by the Cheyenne on a raid. We could get by talkin in Cheyenne but mostly we just used sign. She cooked, cleaned and did all the other things around camp that an Indian woman should. She also kept my bed warm at night. Star seemed to be happy and I know I was.
The end came three years later as we were traveling back to the high country in the fall. We passed within a couple of miles of a Ute village and when I woke up the next morning, Star was gone. All my gear was still there but her things were missing. I followed her trail until I got close to the village and saw her standing with an older man. Guessed it was her father. I knowed to cut my losses; there was no way to get Star out of that village without killing or gettin killed. Missed her something fierce I did but I went on up to the mountains.
Heartbroken, Johnny returned to his beloved mountains. For the next several years Burrows trapped beaver and other fur bearing animals and lived the solitary life of a mountain man. Asking only a fair price for his pelts and to be left alone, he continued trapping until 1862. By that time the price and demand for beaver pelts fell to a point that it was longer monetarily feasible to continue.
Johnny followed his cohorts who'd come down from the mountains. There were only a few things he could work at and remain in the outdoors. Many mountain men took to hunting buffalo; he'd already tried that and was repulsed by the slaughter and waste. Another employment opportunity was to scout for the Army; Johnny didn't care for the regimented life of the Army. The job he took was leading wagon trains.
He made his way to Fort Smith and after several interviews decided he would help a group headed to Oregon.
Maggie's right about one thing; I'd had my fill of killing buffalo. But it wasn't the waste or the killing that bothered me. It was the damn hard work of skinning those big animals, and the horrible stink. For a month or more after I quit, no matter how many baths I took, I had the smell of death on me.
As far as scoutin for the Army, I'd sorta deserted back in '38. I didn't know if the Army kept records but I wasn't gonna take the chance of ending up in a federal prison or shot. That left wagon trains.
There weren't several interviews either. I was drinking in a saloon one evening and a man next to me at the bar looked at my buckskins and asked if I were a mountain man. When I nodded he asked if I'd been to Oregon and I nodded again. Then he offered me the job of leading his wagon train from Fort Smith to Independence. He told me we had just over 25 days to get there so's we could join up with another train for the trek to Portland.
Well I'd better get some sleep, Johnny thought. Who'da thought that readin could tire a body out that much. I'll read some more after I get farther down the trail. He packed the newspaper in his saddle bag and settled in for the night.
Johnny was up at daybreak and on the trail shortly afterwards. He still had a few days in the rolling hills before he started into the foothills of the mountains. William was anxious to get on the way and even Buck pranced a little in the cool of the morning.
Johnny's animals had gotten settled in for the trail in the first days and he thought it was time to put some miles behind him. For the next five days Johnny rode from first light until midday. He would stop feed and rest the horses for two or three hours and then ride until dusk. Soon there was a bright full moon, called a Comanche Moon, and after a couple of hours rest he would ride most of the night under its light.
It was the middle of July and Johnny had better than 1200 miles, in his mind 50 days or so, to travel and a lot of that through the mountains. He pushed his horses and himself hard because he wanted to get through the mountain passes before any early fall storms or bad weather could catch him. Winter comes early in the high country, he reminded himself. Johnny had heard stories and seen firsthand what happened to people that got caught in the mountains unprepared.
As the full moon waned, Johnny cut back the number of hours he rode. By the second week in August he was better than half way to his destination. He came down off a mountain range to a high plateau. The mesa was still at over 7000 feet with a lot of scrub brush, buffalo grass and a few cactus and not much else. The best thing, it was almost flat and Johnny could make a lot of miles each day. He decided to rest his horses for a half day; they'd been putting in hard miles for the last three weeks.
Sitting by his campfire that evening he pulled the newspaper back out of the saddle bag. Might as well read some more of Maggie's tale, he thought.
Johnny Burrows lead the wagon train from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Independence, Missouri in record time. There his wagons met and were joined by another group of people who needed a guide to what they felt was the promise land. It was soon apparent to the people of the wagon train that they were in good hands with Johnny Burrows leading them.
He quickly showed the people the best and fastest ways to get on the trail in the mornings and to make camp at night. Johnny instituted a midday rest stop, something most wagon trains didn't do. He explained to the wagon master that the horses and mules pulling the wagons had a long way to go. There was no need to push them too hard or they couldn't make the trip.
Unfortunately on the trail some of the emigrants contracted Cholera; four people died. Johnny quickly explained to everyone that it was caused by contaminated food and drinking water. The members of the train followed his advice and there were no more infections.
Maggie sure do weave a good yarn, Johnny thought. We made Independence within the 25 days but it weren't no record. I don't know about them being in good hands or me showing the people how to make and break camp, all I did was scout and guide a bit. Bob Schaffer, the wagon master, had a pretty good handle on gettin those folks trained.
Even guiding wasn't that big a deal. By '62 the Oregon Trail was almost like a road because of all the wagons that had traveled along it. That part about the animals is right though. I did explain to Bob that pushing the animals too hard would cause problems later in the trip. Especially when we hit the desert.
That Cholera was a real bad thing, he thought shaking his head. But weren't me that explained about bad food and water. Bob warned everyone almost every day to be careful about water and food. Anyway it weren't until we hit the high desert that there was a problem.
Some know everything, too smart to listen, and you can't tell me what to do, man decided he, his wife, and his two kids would drink the vile looking water in that water hole. I'd told him that it was bad and even kept him from watering his horse at it. He died a few days later followed by the rest of his family; but by God his horse lived. I think we got the best of the deal.
The emigrants were fearful about the fierce Indian tribes, whose land the Oregon Trail crossed. The Cheyenne to the north of the trail and the Pawnee to the south were a constant worry for them.
Johnny's having had a Cheyenne wife and his experience living with the Cheyenne was invaluable. He was able to talk with the Cheyenne and Pawnee to resolve any problems and avoid trouble. He persuaded the emigrants to give a few gifts to the Indians as a thank you for letting the wagon train cross their ancestral lands.
There were several rivers to cross on this journey. The crossings were one of the most dangerous hardships on the trail. The Green River in particular was very hazardous. Because of Johnny Burrows' experience and by following his instructions the train crossed this perilous river with no major problems.
A ferry on one of the rivers almost brought the journey to an end. The ferryman demanded the exorbitant price of $16 a wagon and $3 a head for livestock. The emigrants would have been hard pressed to afford the fares.
Johnny had a discussion with the man, explaining that these were just plain folks trying to start a new life. The ferryman listened to Johnny's words and had a change of heart. He only charged them $5 a wagon and $1 for livestock which was a fair price. Johnny and the ferryman shook hands as the wagon train left to continue its trek.
Johnny laughed out loud reading this part of Maggie's article. It's true, those people were a little worried about Indians and me knowing Cheyenne did help some.