By Maggie Magoffin
This week’s “tailing tale” comes from Colorado Pioneers in Picture and Story written and published by Alice Polk Hill in 1915, Part III, Chapter VII, The Unwritten Law.
Mr. Hugh Steele is a son of R. W. Steele, who was at the head of the Provisional government. He is now Secretary of the Colorado Pioneer Society and likes to talk about old times.
In response to my request for a story of the early days, Mr. Steele told me the following: The heroic spirit of the pioneers was never more strongly exemplified than in their endeavor to rescue those lost and wandering in the mountains. Indeed, it was an unwritten law among them that one should imperil his own life in the defense or rescue of a pioneer in danger.
Mr. John W. Irion of Thomasville, Colorado, was one of a party that risked their lives to save others. This is the story, said Mr. Steele: In March 1860, a party of men left Gregory Diggings for the purpose of prospecting the Middle Park country. They crossed the main range near James Peak. Thoughtless of the fact that they were going into a widely unsettled section, they carried a very slim allowance of provisions.
After crossing the range and going down the valley of Grand River, they camped at Hot Sulphur Springs, and prospected the surrounding country until their supply of provisions was gone. It became necessary to retrace their trail to Gregory Diggings.
In the meantime, the weather had turned very cold, and one of the party, Nathan Rowley, had his feet frozen and was unable to travel. After some discussion, it was decided to start at once and leave Rowley at the Hot Sulphur Springs, until assistance could be sent to him.
They had gone but a few miles on the return trail when Charles Tupper halted, with the remark that he had never abandoned a man in such a desperate condition and he never would. Taking with him his old-fashioned muzzled-loading rifle and blankets, he went back to Rowley, determined to stay with him to the bitter end.
The other men made their way to Gregory and scattered to other sections, leaving the rescue of Rowley and Tupper to a man by the name of Dorsey, who had been the leader of the expedition.
Dorsey was taken with fever and lay for a month unable to do anything, yet he had not forgotten his companions and made strenuous efforts to get someone to go to the rescue.
Finally, he induced two men, Heath and King, to make the effort. They went as far as James Peak, where a storm overtook them, and, worn out and discouraged, they returned to Gregory Diggings. They said no human being could get across the range at that season of the year.
Dorsey, undaunted by the failure of the first party sent out, went to Russell Gulch, where James F. Pierce, Harrison Dennis, Lyman G. Crippen and John W. Irion were engaged in whip-sawing lumber. Pierce and Rowley had camped together the previous winter and Dorsey thought he might be induced to assist in finding his former partner. Pierce said it would be absolutely impossible for him to leave, but he would pay wages to anyone who would volunteer to go.
Crippen at once declared himself ready to go, and Irion, with an emphatic exclamation, said he would accompany him. They started the following morning. Dorsey acted as guide, being too feeble from sickness to pack anything. From the pass of James Peak, Dorsey pointed out to them the route, which his party had traversed to Hot Sulphur Springs. If Rowley and Tupper are still living, said he, they will be waiting for the promised relief.
Crippen and Irion bade Dorsey farewell. From James Peak they proceeded north along the summit of the range for about three miles, doubtless crossing the ground where the Moffat Road now runs. At one point, they were confronted by an insurmountable cliff of rock and were obliged to make a detour to the west slope and pick their way along the rough mountain side. Irion was in the lead when suddenly he found himself being carried rapidly down the slope, accompanied by all the snow above and around him. Fortunately, he lodged against a ledge of rock, while the avalanche of snow deepened and widened until it looked to him about a quarter of a mile wide.
This was his first experience in snow slides. He had to climb one hundred and fifty feet to get back to where he started. Then they hurried along the ridge to the north, until they found a place where they could descend in safety to timberline. They built a fire, cooked supper and rolled up in their blankets for the night. An early start was made next morning and they expected to make a good advance in their search, but the snow was soft and treacherous and their snowshoes were but makeshifts, being pieces of board about eight inches wide and thirty inches long, lashed on with pieces of cord. Threatened by snow blindness, they hastily melted snow, bathed their eyes, and were overjoyed to find it produced relief. The next morning they were up early and started on their journey. During the night the weather had changed, snow had fallen and it had softened the crust of the old snow, so that travel became extremely laborious. The crust would give way and down they would go to their armpits.
They became exhausted and went into camp. Irion climbed a tall tree, and from the top he could look down upon the country a few miles distant. This renewed their courage, and the next morning they started with the intention of reaching the open country that day. However, their labors were to be brought to a conclusion much quicker than they dared to hope. They had proceeded about a mile when they heard a voice calling. Both of the men made answer to the call and fired their pistols several times, running as rapidly as possible towards the place whence the sound came. Irion called out, “Who are you?” A voice answered, “My name is Tupper.” “Where is Rowley?” he asked. “He is only a short distance away, was the reply.”
Tupper then stepped out from some thick undergrowth of timber, which had concealed him, and in a few seconds was joined by Rowley. Irion said they were two of the most unsightly human beings he had ever looked upon; they were unwashed, black with smoke, and veritable walking skeletons. It can be but faintly imagined with what intense emotions the rescuers grasped the hands of these poor fellows.
To each was given a small piece of bread, which was the first they had tasted in six weeks. Tupper, who had spent his time hunting and caring for Rowley, occasionally killed a duck, and was fortunate enough to kill one wild goose. They had been reduced too such straits that for nearly three weeks they subsisted on the carcass and skin of a groundhog. Feasting like this brought Tupper to his sick bed, and for a week he was unable to get up.
Together they went to where the rescuers had spent the previous night. They made a fire and prepared supper. To each of the poor, starving men was given tea, a piece of bread and a small piece of fried bacon. In their emaciated condition, had they been allowed to eat what they desired, it might have proved fatal.
Around the campfire the four men sat and talked. Tupper and Rowley asked what had brought two strangers on this fearful trip seeking for them. When the cause of the long delay was explained, the poor fellows broke down and cried like children, pledging, between sobs, everlasting friendship for Crippen and Irion.
After a rest of several hours, they took up the march for Gregory Diggings. The unwritten law was obeyed and when the boys were turned over to their friends, Crippen and Irion were given a real pioneer reception.