While the little community at Bannack were snugly housed for the winter, anxiously awaiting the return of warm weather to favor a resumption of labor in the gulch, numerous companies were in progress of organization in the States, intending to avail themselves of the same seasonable change to start upon the long and adventurous journey to Salmon river. The fame of Bannack and Deer Lodge had not yet reached them. In the summer of 1862 an expedition under the direction of the Government was planned in Minnesota for the ostensible purpose of opening a wagon road between St. Paul and Fort Benton, to connect at the latter point with the military road opened a few years before by Captain John Mullen [Mullan] from Fort Benton to Walla Walla. This route of nearly two thousand miles lay for most of the distance through a partially explored region, filled with numerous bands of the hostile Sioux and Blackfeet. Government had grudgingly appropriated the meagre sum of five thousand dollars in aid of the enterprise, which was not sufficient to pay a competent guard for the protection of the company. The quasi-governmental character of the expedition, however, with the inducement superadded that it would visit the Salmon river mines, soon caused a large number of emigrants to join it.
The Northern Overland Expedition, as it was called, left St. Paul on the 16th of June, 1862. It was confided to the leadership of Captain James L. Fisk, whose previous frontier experience and unquestioned personal courage admirably fitted him for the command of an expedition which owed so much of its final success, as well as its safety during a hazardous journey through a region occupied by hostile Indians, to the vigilance and discipline of its commanding officer. His first assistant was E.H. Burritt, and second assistant, the writer; Samuel R. Bond, secretary, David Charlton, engineer, Dr. W.D. Dibb, surgeon, and Robert C. Knox, wagon master. About forty men were selected from the company, who agreed, for their subsistence, to serve as guards during the journey. One hundred and twenty-five emigrants accompanied the expedition to Prickly Pear valley. This band was thoroughly organized, and ready at all times for instant service while passing through Indian country. Fort Abercrombie, Devil's Lake, Fort Union, and Milk river were designated points of the route, and it was generally understood that the company should pursue as nearly as possible the trail of the exploring expedition under command of Governor Isaac I. Stevens in 1853.
All the streams not fordable on the entire route were bridged by the company and many formidable obstacles removed. The company arrived without accident, after a tedious but not uninteresting trip, in Prickly Pear valley on the 21st day of September. It was the largest single party that went to the Northern mines in 1862. About one-half of the number remained in Prickly Pear valley, locating upon the creek where Montana City now stands. The remainder accompanied Captain Fisk to Walla Walla. All who were officially connected with the expedition, except Mr. Knox and the writer, returned by way of the Pacific ocean and the Isthmus to Washington.
Gold had been found on Prickly Pear creek a short time before the arrival of our company. "Tom Gold Digger," or "Gold Tom," had pitched his lodge at the mouth of the canyon above our location and was "panning out" small quantities of gold. The placer was very difficult of development and the yield small. Winter was near at hand. Many of the party who had left home for Salmon river, where they had been assured profitable employment could be readily obtained, now found themselves five hundred miles from their destination with cattle too much exhausted to attempt the journey, in the midst of a wilderness, nearly destitute of provisions, and with no chance of obtaining any, nearer than Salt Lake City, four hundred miles away, from which they were separated by a region of mountainous country, rendered impassable by deep snows and beset for the entire distance by hostile Indians. Starvation seemingly stared them in the face. Disheartening as the prospect was, all felt that it would not do to give way to discouragement. A few traders had followed the tide of emigration from Colorado with a limited supply of the bare necessaries of life, risking the dangers of Indian attack by the way, to obtain large profits and prompt pay as a rightful reward for their temerity. Regarding their little stock as their only resource, the company set to work at once, each man for himself, to obtain means to buy with. Prices were enormous. The placer was still unpromising. Frost and snow had actually come. With a small pack supplied from the remains of their almost exhausted larders, the men started out, some on foot, and some astride their worn-out animals, into the bleak mountain wilderness in pursuit of gold. With the certainty of death in its most horrid form if they fell into the clutches of a band of prowling Blackfeet, and the thought uppermost in their minds that they could scarcely escape freezing, surely the hope which sustained this little band of wanderers lacked none of those grand elements which sustained the early settlers of our country in their days of disaster and suffering. Men who cavil with Providence, and attribute the escape of a company of half-starved, destitute men from massacre, starvation, and freezing, under circumstances like these, to luck or chance or accident, are either destitute of gratitude or have never been overtaken by calamity. Yet these men all survived to tell the tale of their bitter experience.
My recollection of those gloomy days, all the more vivid, perhaps, because I was among the indigent ones, was emphasized by a little incident I can never recall without a devout feeling of thankfulness. Intelligence was brought us that a company of miners was working the bottom of a creek in Pike's Peak Gulch, a distance of sixty miles from the Prickly Pear camp over the Rocky Mountain range. Cornelius Bray, Patrick Dougherty, and I started immediately on a horseback trip to the new camp in search of employment for the winter. One pack-horse served to transport our blankets and provisions. Our intention was to cross the main range on the first day and camp at the head of Summit creek, where there was good grass and water. In following the Mullen [Mullan] road through the canyon, when about two miles from the ridge, Bray's horse gave out and resisted all our efforts to urge him farther. There was no alternative but to camp. The spot was unpromising enough. There was no feed for our horses, and our camp by the roadside could not escape the notice of any band of Indians that might chance to be crossing the range. It was the custom in this Indian country for packers and others to seek some secluded spot half a mile or more from the trail for camping purposes; but here we were cooped up in a canyon not ten rods wide, and the only practicable pass over the range running directly through it. Of course we all mentally hoped that no Indians would appear.
I had, while at Fort Benton, held frequent conversations with Mr. Dawson, the factor at that post, who had spent many years in the country, and was perfectly familiar with the manners and tactics of the Indians. He warned me against just such exposure as that to which we were now liable, and when night came, knowing that the country was full of roving bands of Bloods and Piegans, I felt no little solicitude for a happy issue out of danger. Evening was just setting in, when the snow began to fall in damp, heavy flakes, giving promise of a most uncomfortable night. Our only shelter was a clump of bushes on the summit of a knoll, where we spread our blankets, first carefully picketing the four horses with long lariats to a single pin, so that in case of difficulty they could all be controlled by one person. Dougherty proposed to stand guard until midnight, when I was to relieve him and remain until we resumed our trip at early dawn. Bray and I crept into our blankets, they and the bushes being our only protection against a very heavy mountain snowstorm. Strange as it may seem to those unfamiliar with border life, we soon fell asleep and slept until I was aroused by Dougherty to take my turn at the watch. I crawled from under the blankets, which were covered to the depth of five inches with "the beautiful snow," and Dougherty fairly burrowed into the warm place I had left.
About three o'clock in the morning the horses became uneasy for want of food. Preparatory to an early departure I gathered in a large heap a number of small, fallen pines and soon had an immense fire. It lighted up the canyon with a lurid gloom and mantled the snow-covered trees with a ghastly radiance. The black smoke of the burning pitch rolled in clouds through the atmosphere, which seemed to be choked with the myriad snowflakes. So dense was the storm I could scarcely discern the horses, which stood but a few rods distant. Wading through the snow to the spot where my companions slept, I roused them from their slumbers. I could liken them to nothing but spectres as they burst through their snowy covering and stood half-revealed in the bushes by the light of the blazing pines. Despite the gloomy forebodings which had filled my mind, at this scene I burst into a fit of loud and irrepressible laughter.
It was but for a moment, for, as if in answer to it, the counterfeited neigh of a horse a few rods below and of another just above me, warned me that the danger I had feared was already upon us. It was the signal and reply of the Indians. Bray and Dougherty grasped their guns, while I rushed to the picket pin, and, seizing the four lariats, pulled in the horses. A moment afterwards, and from behind the thicket of willows just above our camp, there dashed down the canyon in full gallop forty or more of the dreaded Blackeet. In the light of that dismal fire their appearance was horribly picturesque. Their faces hideous with war paint, their long ebon hair floating to the wind, their heads adorned with bald-eagle's feathers, and their knees and elbows daintily tricked out with strips of antelope skin and white feathery skunks' tails, they seemed like a troop of demons which had just sprung out of the earth, rather than beings of flesh and blood. Each man held a gun in his right hand, guiding his horse with the left. Well-filled quivers and bows were fastened to their shoulders, and close behind the main troop, driven by five or six outriders, followed a herd of fifty or more horses they had just stolen from a company of miners on their way back to the Bannack mines, and who had encamped for the night at Deer Lodge. These animals were driven hurriedly by our camp, down the canyon, the main troop, meanwhile, forming into a line on the other side of them so as to present an unbroken front of horsemen after they had passed, drawn up for attack. This critical moment we improved by rapidly looping the lariats into the mouths of our horses and bringing our guns to an aim from behind them over their fore-shoulders. As we stood thus, not twenty yards asunder, confronting each other, the chief, evidently surprised that the onslaught lingered, rode hurriedly along the front of his men and with violent gesticulations and much vehement jargon urged them to an instant assault. They strongly expostulated, and by numerous antics and utterances, which I afterward ascertained meant that their guns were wet and their caps useless, finally persuaded him to resort to the bows and arrows. The chief was very angry, and from the violence of his gestures and threatening manner I expected to see several of the Indians knocked off their horses. When the Indians, in obedience to his command, hung their guns on the pommels of their saddles, and drew their bows, the attack seemed inevitable. Our guns were dry, and we knew that they were good for twenty-four shots and the revolvers in our belts for as many more.
Satisfied that an open attack would eventuate in death of some of their number, nearly one-half of the Indians left the ranks and passed from our sight down the canyon, but soon reappeared, emerging from the thicket on the opposite side of our camp. We wheeled our four horses into a hollow square, and, standing in the centre, presented our guns at each assaulting party. As our horses were the booty they most wished to obtain, they were now restrained lest they should kill them instead of us. A few moments of painful suspense -moments into which days of anxiety were crowded -supervened. A brief consultation followed, and the chief gave orders for them to withdraw. They all wheeled into rapid line, and with the military precision of a troop of cavalry dashed down the canyon and we saw them no more.
Thankful for an escape attributable to the snow which had unfitted their guns for use, and to the successful raid they had made upon our neighbors, we saddled our horses and hurried over the mountain range with all possible speed. While crossing, we found two horses which, jaded with travel, had been abandoned by the Indians. We took them with us, and on our arrival at Grasshopper some days after, restored one to Dr. Glick, its rightful owner.
"I have had seven horses stolen from me by these prowlers," said he, "but this is the first one that was ever returned."
The little gulch at Pike's Peak was fully occupied when we arrived, and after remaining a few days we mounted our horses and made a tedious but unadventurous journey to Bannack, then, and for nearly a year afterwards, the most important gold placer east of the Rocky Mountains.
The fame of this locality had reached Salmon river late in the fall of 1862, and many of the people left the Florence mines for the east side. Among them came the first irruption of robbers, gamblers, and horsethieves, and the settlement was filled with gambling houses and saloons, where bad men and worse women held constant vigil and initiated that reign of infamy which nothing but the strong hand could extirpate.