By Maggie Magoffin
While financial depression still ruled the land and men were without money, credit, or opportunity for business of any kind, fanciful fabrications of the discovery of gold at Pike’s Peak caused a wild rush to the new Eldorado. Good, bad and indifferent; the educated and illiterate; the merchant, the speculator, the mechanic, the farmer, the gambler, some of every kind, a sort of human mosaic, marshaled under a banner which bore the forceful, if inelegant legend, “Pikes Peak or Bust.”
An apparently interminable procession of white covered wagons, christened “prairie schooners,” drawn by the contemplative ox and the patient mule, moved across the plains, and, at night their camp fires, like beacon lights, stretched along the Platte Valley route from the Missouri River to the Rockies.
College graduates and city men were the masters of ox-teams, cooks at campfires, scullions and helpers in the drudgery of the long journey. Some of the white-topped wagons, moving at a snail’s pace, bore the inscription, “Lightening Express,” “Root Hog or Die,” and “From Pike County to Pike’s Peak.” Strange vehicles of all sorts crawled along the trail to the golden shrine. One man pushed a wheelbarrow laden with supplies. Another packed an ox with tools and provision and trudged by the animal’s side. Many made the journey in pairs, with handcarts, alternately pushing and riding, and some cheerily walked the long way with their earthly possessions swung to a pole across their shoulders.
It was not a holiday outing. A journey from the Missouri River in those days occupied from six to seven weeks. There were no settlements on the way, no opportunity to procure supplies, save at the occasional stations of the Hockaday Stage Line to California. Genuine courage prompted such a journey through hot sun, fierce winds, and drifting sands across the wide, treeless plains. The pioneers were cut off from any communication with home and friends for months – years perhaps. A few of the Argonauts of ’59, thinking a bird in the hand worth two in the bush, took their helpmates with them. These were not society belles, or light-brained coquettes, but women of good, practical sense, of moral and physical strength.
However, many of those arriving in the Colorado gold fields were mere “surface float,” having come with Utopian ideas in regard to the wealth of the country, expecting to find great nuggets of yellow metal lying around loose and streams burdened with golden sand. These romantic fortune-seekers soon returned east, condemning and damning the country and declaring Pike’s Peak to be an unmitigated swindle. Under the Inscription, “Pike’s Peak or Bust,” was written in black letters, “Busted by Thunder.” The routes of travel for six hundred miles eastward were a restless surging wave of humanity.
D.C. Oakes, whose pamphlet describing and lauding the country induced many of them to emigrate, had returned to the “States” to purchase a sawmill and was returning to the gold fields when he met the stampeding, angry hoard. They said he had “sworn deceitfully,” and they threatened to hang him and burn his mill. He met them bravely by stating the fact of his having invested every dollar he was worth in that sawmill, which ought to be proof conclusive of his faith in the country. They spared his life and his mill. However, a little further on he came across a new-made grave, and on the headstone, which was fashioned from a storm-polished shoulder blade of a buffalo, was written “Here lies the body of D.C. Oakes, Killed for aiding the Pike’s Peak hoax.”
One returning pilgrim informed his friends at home that nothing but unpardonable ignorance had prevented him from making a fortune. If he had only given the subject a thought, he would have known domestic animals were always scarce in new countries. A wiser man was far-sighted enough to travel with a cat he had taught to follow him. The cat easily sold for five dollars, and then it would follow its new master. The cat was resold numerous times. The returned pilgrim insisted that if he had taken a load of cats in his wagon he would have made a fortune.
The army of “go backs” grew greater than the advancing host, and they told many a tale declaring there was not a thimbleful of gold in the country; it was all a delusion and a snare. They warned the brave and bold who pushed forward to beware of the man who had buckskin patches on pants; he was a thief, a liar, and a villain; he was here, there and everywhere seeking whom he might devour. The pilgrims harassed their minds devising how they would avoid this scoundrel of the Rockies. However, upon their arrival, lo and behold, every man in the mountains wore the confounded rogues’ patches.
One hundred and fifty thousand persons left the Missouri River for the Pike’s Peak region in the spring and summer of ’59. Of these, not less than fifty thousand were turned back by the senseless panic that prevailed. It was thought that the new country was undesirable for any purpose save that of satisfying this love for gold.
If gold was the only allurement, the pioneers who remained are entitled to larger credit for laying the foundation of a state where the initial environments were so forbidding.
Resource: Colorado Pioneers in Picture and Story by Alice Polk Hill, 1915.