Saturday, December 26, 2015

High Plains adventure: Chariton to California in 1853

Here's a story of high adventure for you on this second day of Christmas, involving the Wescoatt boys, Jonas (left) and Riley, who during 1853 put together a wagon train consisting of themselves and their families, some 35 unattached young men from Lucas and Monroe counties and about 400 cattle, then headed west across the Plains to California to make their fortunes.

Jonas, at the time, was Lucas County's first county judge/clerk, and held that position until 1854, although he actually wasn't here during the last months of his tenure. He and another brother, Nelson Wescoatt, and their wives --- Amy (Flint) and Catharine (King) --- joined Buck Townsend at Chariton Point during 1849, before there was a Chariton, and so were here for the creation. Jonas was elected the first county judge and Nelson, who was the first county surveyor, platted Chariton and also served as its first postmaster.

Nelson and Jonas bought during the first sale of Chariton property a double lot at what now is the west end of the north side of the square (currently occupied by the Demichelis Building) where they built the first log structure in Chariton, lived, operated a store --- and dug the city's first well.

Their brother, Riley, apparently joined his brothers here, too, during those first days, but then married Mary Jane Richardson and settled down for a couple of years at Albia in Monroe County, where all three had lived before Lucas County opened for settlement.

At the time the Wescoatts were helping to found Chariton, it sat astraddle the Mormon Trail, forged during 1846 by LDS pioneers headed for Utah and by 1853 --- after gold had been discovered discovered in California during 1849 --- the main route west across Iowa for everyone. After 1850, gold-seekers and land-hungry settlers rather than religious refugees became its principal users and the westward flow reportedly was constant.

Nelson and Catherine Wescoatt headed for the gold fields first, about 1851; and then in 1853, Jonas and Riley began assembling their party, buying cattle from Lucas and Monroe county farmers and looking for young men in both counties interested in gold and looking for the best way to get to California to find it. It seems likely that the staging area for this expedition was in or near Chariton, but I can't prove that.

The story-teller here is Riley Wescoatt and this version was published near the turn of the 20th century in two places --- on Page 1 of The Sunday State Journal, Lincoln, Nebraska, on March 21, 1909; and as Chapter 7 of the 1916 Buffalo County, Nebraska, and It's People: A Record of Settlement.

Here's the story:


Capt. Riley Wescoatt (left), an early settler in Central Nebraska, relates his experience in crossing the plains in 1853.

In the spring of 1853 Riley and Jonas Wescoatt of (Chariton and ) Albia, la., arranged to take a herd of 400 young cows across the plains to California. Jonas Wescoatt had made the trip to California and back the year previous with the view to the present enterprise. Their cows cost them about four thousand dollars, and in addition the expense of the necessary outfit, comprising saddle horses, wagons and twenty yoke of oxen, provisions, bedding, ammunition and other necessaries for so extended a journey along the route of which nothing could be purchased. 

The Wescoatt brothers were both married and their wives and three children accompanied them. Their wagons were covered and the wagon boxes extended over the wheels so as to provide comfortable sleeping quarters and as they carried feather beds and plenty of bedding they made the journey with comparative comfort.

The saddle horses were for use in driving the cattle, the Wescoatt brothers furnishing board and transportation for thirty-five men who wished to go to California and who assisted in driving and caring for the cattle and doing each his share of guard duty as compensation for board and transportation.

The Wescoatt family had moved from the Tippecanoe battle ground in Indiana to Monroe County, la., in 1831, and the thirty-five men who accompanied them on this journey were neighbors with whom they were well acquainted, as it was a somewhat hazardous undertaking and only men of character and courage were wanted.

(Actually, the Wescoatt boys had come to Van Buren County --- not Monroe --- from Indiana during 1838 --- not 1831 --- with their parents, Joseph F. and Sarah Wescoatt. Joseph died at Keosauqua during 1840. Monroe County didn't open to settlers until 1843, after which some of the boys moved there. Sarah remained at Keosauqua until 1852, when she joined Jonas and Nelson and their families in Chariton. She remained in Chariton until her death during 1888.)

They crossed the Missouri River on April 28th at Bellevue (Nebraska), then a trading point, and Mr. Riley Wescoatt states that they saw no house or habitation after leaving the Missouri River until their arrival in California, except the ranch later known as "Boyd's Ranch" on Wood River, about ten miles northeast of Fort Kearney, the location of this ranch being about a mile west of the present Village of Gibbon in Buffalo County.

It was an unusually early spring and even at that early date the emigrant travel was so great that six steamboats had come up the Missouri River from below and were used for ferrying purposes at the Bellevue crossing.

At the crossing of the Missouri the Wescoatt brothers met a party of 100 well armed men enroute for California and under command of Capt. John Fuller. Captain Fuller had made the journey to California the previous year and had arranged to furnish board and transportation for these 100 men, they to pay him $100 each, $10,000 in all, and each man to do his full share of guard duty. 

The Wescoatt brothers and Captain Fuller arranged to make the journey together and did so, not camping more than a mile apart during the entire journey.

The party traveled the trail north of the Platte and because of the heavy emigration over the trail found the pasture very short. . Because of the scantiness of the pasture they were compelled to range their cattle, at times some distance from the regular trail and so for the first month their rate of travel was very slow.

On May 28th, about one hour before sundown, when the party was about four miles south of the present Village of Wood River, in Hall County, Nebraska, and was preparing to camp for the night, it was noticed that there was a commotion on the south side of the Platte River and the firing of guns was heard. By means of field glasses which both commands carried, it was seen that a large party of Indians had attacked an emigrant camp on the south bank of the Platte and were scalping women in the camp. The fight appeared to last but a short time, ten minutes, Mr. Wescoatt says, and while there was some talk of crossing the river it was finally decided not to do so.

In explanation of this decision Mr. Wescoatt says : "The Platte was very high, and also our own commands were in danger of attack, as there appeared to be a large party of the Indians, and it was thought best not to divide our own forces."


 As a matter of general information in connection with this tragedy it might be well to state that the Platte River at this point is more than a mile wide from its north to its south bank. There is one large and several small islands in the river and three main channels. The largest or north channel is about 1,400 feet in width, the middle one about 1,000 feet and the south channel about 350 feet, in all the water channels are nearly 3,000 feet in width. High water occurs in the Platte from May 15th to June 15th, varying with the earliness of the season when the melted snow from the mountains comes rushing down on its way to the ocean. The fall in the Platte River is 3,400 feet in the 400 miles across the State of Nebraska, being an average fall of about eight feet to the mile. When we compare this fall with that of the Mississippi River, averaging less than one foot fall to three miles between its mouth and St. Paul, Minn., it will be seen that the fall in the Platte is nearly twenty-five times as great as in the Mississippi. The Platte has a sandy bottom and in high water numerous quicksand holes, also in high water there is somewhere between its banks what is termed a "main channel," here today, elsewhere tomorrow, continually changing, in which the water is much deeper and runs with a stronger current than the remainder of the stream, making it an extremely dangerous river to cross when the water is an average of three feet in depth and much deeper in the "main channel" referred to. These explanations are deemed necessary because the casual reader, not understanding the surrounding conditions, might be led to think the Wescoatt and Fuller commands were heartless and lacking in courage in not at once going to the rescue of attacked emigrants. Also the reader will in some measure be the better able to realize what a small boy braved and endured in his escape on this occasion.


The Wescoatt and Fuller commands camped at this point for the night. About 2 o'clock the next morning the camp guard brought a small boy to Mr. Riley Wescoatt. The boy's clothing, consisting of shirt and trousers, was wet and the child, while greatly excited, seemed able to control his feelings. He said he belonged to an emigrant party going to California and camped on the other side of the river; that last evening they were attacked by a large party of Indians and he was afraid all but himself were killed; that he hid in the brush on the bank of the river and when it became dark he saw a camp fire on the other side of the river and knowing how to swim had crossed over; that he was carried down the river a long ways, five miles he told Mr. Wescoatt, and when he got across he had followed the river until he reached the camp. 

The boy said his name was John Hodges and that there were five in the family, his father, mother and three children.

 John was at once taken to Captain Fuller. Messengers were sent to camps below on the trail, requesting as many men as could be spared to come, armed and mounted, ready to cross the river at daylight. Mr. Wescoatt states that guns carried on this journey were flint-lock muskets, although some of the party had revolvers with percussion caps. Little John was given a revolver and a horse and took an active part in the fight with the Indians later in the day. Mr. Wescoatt states that John was about thirteen years old and a boy of more than ordinary intelligence, energy and courage.

At daylight a party of 185 men, armed and mounted, crossed the Platte, going direct to the place of the massacre. They found the emigrant party consisted of fifteen men, nine women and four children, all killed except the boy, John Hodges. The women had been scalped, but not the men. The wagon train, consisting of seven wagons and the necessary oxen, had been destroyed, the Indians burning most of the wagons and contents. It appeared that the Indians were armed with bows and flint pointed arrows, though little John thought some of the Indians had guns. If the emigrants had killed any of the Indians the dead bodies could not be found.

Captain Fuller was in command and his party took the trail of the Indians and it was soon learned that the Indians had already broken camp and were going south towards the Republican River some fifty miles distant. The Indians were surprised and attacked some miles south of the Platte River on the divide where it was broken by ravines and draws. The Indians were mostly mounted on ponies and it was a running fight, lasting two hours or more. At the close thirty-seven dead Indians were counted. It was estimated that the Indians numbered one hundred and fifty. They were Sioux, all warriors, and undoubtedly a war party as they were in Pawnee territory and the Sioux and Pawnees were traditional enemies.

The Fuller command returned to the place of massacre about 2 o'clock in the afternoon and planned for the burial of the murdered people. Graves were dug on a rise of ground near the emigrant camp and members of families, as identified by little John, buried side by side. There was nothing of which coffins could be made and the dead were wrapped in their clothing and committed to the care of Mother Earth who is ever kind. 

The Wescoatt and Fuller commands remained in camp two days before the burial of the emigrants was completed. Their next camp was near a place known later as "Boyd's Ranch," before mentioned in this paper, the Wescoatt party camping on what is now section 21 and the Fuller command on the hill or bluff on what is now known as section 16, both in Gibbon Township, Buffalo County.

It was somehow understood that a war party of Sioux, 400 strong, were preparing to attack these two commands in revenge for the Indians killed in the fight south of the Platte and an anxious night was passed, but the commands were not molested. The Indians had been troublesome all along the trail that spring and word was sent to the officers at Fort Kearney in regard to the massacre of emigrants less than twenty-five miles east of that fort, but the officers of that garrison made no response and Mr. Wescoatt spoke of the officers of the fort at that date in terms not at all complimentary. 

The buildings of the ranch mentioned were of sod with dirt roofs and the owner had a large corral in the bend of the river west of the house. He trafficked in oxen and horses, trading for such animals as had become lame on the trail. He had a considerable number of men about the place, frontiersmen, some half-breeds, most of whom could speak the Indian language. He seemed to be on good terms with the Indians and did not seem to fear an attack.

The ranchmen kept liquor for sale, freighting, as he said, alcohol from the Missouri River and making out of one barrels of alcohol twenty barrels of whisky, selling his whisky for $20 a gallon. Both the Wescoatt and Fuller commands bought each twenty gallons of whisky, paying $800 in all. The wives of the Wescoatt brothers carried the money and the men had quite a time to convince their wives that it was advisable to purchase the liquor, but the men in their employ insisted that liquor was needed on so long a journey and as it could not be secured elsewhere it was purchased.

The boy, John Hodges, was made one of the family by Mr. and Mrs. Riley Wescoatt, Mrs. Wescoatt coming to love and care for him as one of her own family, and he accompanied them to California, where the two commands arrived on August 17, 1853. The boy made his home with the Wescoatts for more than two years, when he one day accompanied, as usual, Mr. Wescoatt to Sacramento, some five miles distant from their ranch. On the street John saw and recognized an uncle who had gone to California some years before and who had not before learned of the massacre of his relatives. This uncle was a rich ranchman and accompanied Mr. Wescoatt home and remained several days, finally inducing his nephew to make his home with him.

The Wescoatt brothers realized a profit of more than sixteen thousand dollars for their cattle, some of the choicest cows bringing $150 each and the heavier oxen $300 a pair.

Jonas Wescoatt and wife soon returned to Iowa where Mr. Wescoatt served for many years as a judge in that state. After the death of his wife, he returned to California, living in a hotel in San Francisco, where he lost his life in the destruction of that city by earthquake a few years ago (on April 18, 1906). 

Riley Wescoatt and wife returned to their Iowa home about the year 1856, coming via Panama, crossing the isthmus soon after the completion of the rail- road at that place. Mr. Riley Wescoatt was a soldier in the Mexican war, serving under General Taylor. He was wounded soon after reaching Mexican soil and returned home. 

On the breaking out of the Civil war he raised in his own county Company H, First Iowa Cavalry, being commissioned captain of that company and promising the members of the company that he would remain with them during their term of service. He remained with the company as captain and was mustered out with his regiment April i6, 1864. 

In 1875 Mr. and Mrs. Wescoatt came to Nebraska, taking a homestead on Elm Island, in Hall County, less than two miles distant from where the massacre of the emigrants occurred in 1853, and repeatedly visited the place where they were buried. Mrs. Riley Wescoatt died July 15, 1905. The death of Mr. Wescoatt occurred on March 6, 1909. He was buried beside his brave and courageous wife in Riverside Cemetery, near Gibbon.

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