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Pikes Peak or Bust! Part 3: Far From The Civilized World


Last updated 4/13/2022 at 10:45am

Chavis Creek drawing by Daniel Jenks courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

By Larry Obermesik

Between 1849-65 Daniel Jenks had the forethought to chronicle his gold-rush trials, tribulations and triumphs across the American West. Writing to an "imaginary confidant" in his journal, Jenks shared his innermost thoughts with the reader, the dreams and fears that drove him.

Daniel's cross-country odyssey in 1859 took him from Rhode Island to Colorado, and then back to California where he'd been prospecting for gold on-and-off since 1849. Jenks documented 130 campsites on that trip, even drawing some of them, leaving us a detailed record of his (mis)adventures along the way.

But until 2021, Daniel's first-hand account of the Colorado Gold Rush remained undiscovered in the Library of Congress archive, read by few and never published.

During "The Panic of 1857," the U.S. economy literally collapsed. Jenks described the scene in his journal; "Want and misery stalk boldly through the land." News of gold discoveries in the Rocky Mountains spread like wildfire in 1858. In 1859 - drawn by the gravity of gold to the "New Eldorado" - thousands of desperate and ill-prepared Americans traveled westward. Untold numbers perished.

We rejoin Jenks & Company, trudging along in the brutal conditions on the Santa Fe Trail, determined to reach Pikes Peak or give their all in the undertaking.

Camp 11: Cottonwood Creek - 4/9/1859

This morning by 4 1/2 o'clock we turned out all hands to gather dry buffalo chips, ox chips, weeds and dry grass to make a fire and at last succeeded in half cooking our grub. Though our slap jacks were well peppered with the dust of buffalo chips and ashes before we succeeded in baking them. About 7 o'clock we got underway and traveled until we came to a pond of rainwater where we nooned. After which we continued on over this sea-like barren waste till night when we reached this creek, having walked for 30 miles today. Here we found a little timber and building a good fire, we made a square meal once more. Found quite a collection of teams here, all bound to Pikes Peak.

4/10 - Lay by here today, commenced our regular guard duty today. Our train consists now of three wagons, the Ohio boys have joined up here. My guard today, each man has to take his turn on duty. Two men are on at a time, they have to stand all night once a week to guard the camp and cattle from the Indians. From my notebook, I make the following extract. Mother, father, sisters dear, as upon this pleasant Sabbath Day I lay out here on a mound of this vast prairie, our cattle in full view in front, my horse grazing at my feet, made fast by his lariat to the horn of my saddle, upon which I lay stretched out in the tall dead grass.

My thoughts are with and of you, how you would look if you were to see me now. And what are you doing just now, whilst I am thus occupied? Oh, Father in Heaven protect you and spare your lives, for all my hopes of earthly bliss lives centered in that sacred spot called home. And how are you occupied today? Do you ever give one passing thought to one who thinks of you as near perfect? God bless you all and spare our lives to meet again. Alone though I be, far from the civilized world, still your spirits follow me and bare one company. A man is never alone who has such friends on earth, no matter how distant they may be.

Camp 12: Turkey Creek - 4/11

Last night I stood guard all night and an awful time I had of it, I like to froze. We carried buffalo chips and kept the fire up until we had drained the country of its supply and then we had to flee to our blankets in spite of us. Twas awful cold to be sure. Traveled all the forenoon over the prairie until we came to a frog pond, where we nooned. Buffalo chips for fuel again and a frog pond for water, and you may imagine what our dinner was. After dinner we went on to this little muddy stream, making 22 miles today. Buffalo chips for fuel again, not a tree or bush to be seen in today's travel.

Camp 13: Little Arkansas Creek - 4/12

This morning at 4 1/2 o'clock we were routed out by the guard, gathered a sufficient quantity of barnyard fuel and got breakfast. At 6 o'clock were on the road again. After passing over 13 miles of the same dreary dead prairie, we halted by a quagmire and got dinner. After dinner went on crossing several dry creeks and by sundown reached this small creek where we found a little timber, the first we have seen this side of Cottonwood Creek. Fine day but windy. This little stream is called a river but is but a very small specimen of one. Saw the first prairie dogs here, a species of ground squirrel.

Camp 14: Chavis Creek - 4/13

This morning we made an early start and had not proceeded far before it commenced snowing and blowing in true 'Norwest' style. Wrapping ourselves in blankets we strode, endeavoring to keep warm by fast walking. Three of us left the teams and went on ahead. Had got about a mile in advance of the teams when we were hailed by a stranger who had left his teams to go off the road to hunt. He had killed a buffalo and wanted us to haul it into camp for him. Waited for the teams to come up to accommodate him, then pushed on again. About 11 o'clock we reached this creek about 10 miles from our last night's camp. We were delighted to find a plenty of timber but no water, the creek being perfectly dry. But stop we must, for Lissy says; "Oh dear, I know I'm freezing." And the balance of us felt it, if we said nothing.

So water or not, we determined to stop. About a mile below the road in the heavy timber we found a rude log cabin built by the US Mail Company as a station house for their men, in case of just such a storm as this. We took possession at once, flew around and soon had a rousing fire. And I do think I never was so happy in my life as I was in this cabin after I commenced thawing out. The contrast between this and our condition out on the road was so great, that I felt perfectly happy. 17 of us slept in this hut tonight and thanked Fortune for favoring us so much. For I do believe if this storm had caught us on the prairie, it would have been all day with some of us.

You good people at home who live a civilized life and have homes to go to when it storms, who probably never in your life knew what it was to have Old Mother Earth for a bed and the heavens for a covering, can form no idea how pleasant it seemed when we first struck a fire in this rude hut. But it would have astonished you to have seen our crowd pitch in to the buffalo steak that the stranger brought in. We had it in all shapes, fried, boiled and baked and for once we got a belly full. Such a time as we did have. 16 men and one live woman, young and pretty at that, all hived up in a hut 10 feet square.

Lissy says, "Isn't this nice?" "You bet," says soldier stranger, "Allows his fellows haint got much the start on him by driving off and leaving him behind." After supper the ground in the hut is covered with our bedding, our muddy boots are taken off and we spread ourselves around as best we may, to take up as little room as possible.

The cold raw northwest wind roars through the timber, the snow continues to sift through the slab roof but what care we, for we are housed once more and can laugh at Old Boreas. And laugh we do and a right pleasant evening we pass in this old hut away out in the wilderness. All of us a few weeks ago were strangers to one another, but now are fast friends. For aye, it is impossible to ever forget one's traveling companions on such a trip as this.

Dan, our John Bull, says he don't know if it's fun for us to live like darned injins, but if the Good Lord forgives him for this time, he never will so tempt fate again, sir....

Editor's note: This article is an excerpt from a first-hand account of 1800s traveler and prospector Daniel Jenks from the new book "The Lost Gold Rush Journals" by Larry Obermesik of Hanover. The book covers Jenks' experiences - in his own words, transcribed from his journals - of the California Gold Rush and then his arrival in Colorado south of Fountain. Obermesik's story was featured in our Dec. 1 issue. Obermesik is a member of the Fountain Valley Historical Society.

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