Traveling to Gold Fields Makes a Tough Life Worse

Leaving the home place, family finds trouble and tragedy in Colorardo's gold fields.

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"Tilda, I wish you would quit egging your pa to go to the Colorado gold fields. You know he has an itchin' foot and is only too anxious to have an excuse to move on again. When his folks died and left him the home place in Ohio all stocked, I thought maybe he would stay put for a spell. But it wasn't long until he said things were gettin' too civilized, and we moved to Indiany. We just got settled, and he wanted to push on farther, and we came to Wisconsin. The worst of it is, every move we make we get poorer."

"Ma, I feel bad about it, but John is just bound that we are going. I don't feel a rough mining camp is any place for two little boys, and I know the baby is too young to take. He says since I'm nursing her she'll be all right. I've tried telling him my milk will go back on me, but he thinks I'm just making it up. Did you ever see bluer eyes than this girl has, Ma?"

Susan looked at her eldest daughter, a beautiful young woman with a nice figure, quantities of red-bronze hair, dark blue eyes and a peach-blow complexion. She had been a merry, light-hearted girl until she had married John.

"I don't know, Tilda, I'll think and pray about going. I do wish John would quit his gambling and drinking."

Matilda had gone for a visit with her Aunt Rach, who was very romantic and had persuaded her to marry John. It had been a sorry marriage because John was cruel when he drank.

The next morning John came in and said to Tilda, "Well, old woman, get ready! I just bought a yoke of oxen for $100. We'll go next week so you'd better get things ready. Don't take anything you can get along without – some of these days you'll be wearing silks and satins!" Matilda had a feeling of premonition of some impending disaster that hung over her like a dark curtain, but she was relieved to learn that her parents had made up their minds to go on the gold hunt, too. The little boys were all excitement and would lean over the crib and tell their baby sister all the wonderful things that would happen.

It was a beautiful May morning, and everything looked green and fresh. The birds were singing and wild flowers were beginning to appear. Matilda looked over her little house and at her belongings and then would go out and measure the wagon again and wonder how she could ever get in all the things she needed. No matter what she took she'd always remember something they had left and needed. Among the things she took were two feather beds piled on top of each other and a leather-covered trunk with clothes and a few choice possessions. I think all the women slipped in a few things that didn't come to light until they arrived in Colorado. Susan had a quantity of dried apples left over, so she took them, and they were all glad she did.

The trip to Kansas was not so bad, and the travelers felt encouraged because they had learned a good bit that surely would help them on the wilder part of the journey. They arrived at Leavenworth late in the evening and were amazed at the wagons. They hadn't dreamed so many people were going to Colorado and Oregon. They decided to take the Oregon Trail and cut down from Ogallala to Denver.

In the camp that night they heard something that made their blood run cold. It seemed that on the last trip out a man had said he would shoot the first Indian he saw. No one took him seriously, but in about the wildest part of the trip they saw an Indian girl sitting on a log watching a train go by. They heard a shot, and to their horror they saw the girl topple over. The men were aghast because they knew there would be reprisals.

At daybreak, the camp was surrounded by Indians who demanded to know which man had shot the chief's daughter. The leader of the train knew he had to give the man up or everyone would be killed. The Indians lined the whites up, and everyone had to stand and watch while the guilty white man was skinned alive. Children screamed and women fainted. The suffering man crawled down the bank for water. He lived three hours. It wasn't a tale to comfort nervous women, and some just refused to go on.

Matilda was more concerned about her baby than about Indians, though, as they started out across Kansas. The infant girl had summer complaint, and the medicine they had bought at the post didn't help much. The third day out the baby was much worse, and Matilda was beside herself. As they made camp that night, the child died. There was no material with which to make a coffin, so Matilda took her new Paisley shawl out of the trunk and wrapped the little body in it. They read a Psalm, had a prayer and sang a hymn. The next morning the wagon train was driven over the grave, so the coyotes wouldn't find it.

One of the travelers was Old Jeb, a man said to be so lazy he had calluses on his hunkers. But before the trip was finished the leader said he was one of the most valuable men they had. It was getting hotter and drier all the time, and the winds were scorching. The children were tired and cross. The mothers were nervous and fidgety, and their eyes burned and their lips were cracked and parched with alkali dust. It was Old Jeb who walked among the wagons and told funny stories and cheered up the dispirited. He took a pan of water and a rag, went down the wagon train and washed the nostrils of the oxen. The leader said of him, "Old Jeb is good for man and beast."

Blood-curdling yells awoke the travelers one night. Matilda put both boys under the two featherbeds and told them if they so much as peeked out she would skin them alive. Just then there was a zing, and an arrow was embedded in the trunk. It was plain that the Indians were trying to stampede the horses, and John brought his beautiful black horse to Matilda and told her to hold and quiet him. Not 20 feet from her wagon, Matilda saw an Indian shot from his horse. At daybreak, the Indians left as suddenly as they had come. Several whites had been injured, but none fatally. When the men examined the body of the "dead Indian" they discovered he was a white man wearing a war bonnet. They knew then that they had dealt with brigands after horses.

The wagon train made it through to Colorado, and John threw up a cabin near a Boulder gold mine. The miners were a wild bunch, and Matilda said she was more afraid of them than of the Indians.

It was a discouraging year. John drank and gambled most of the time, and Matilda's father did not adapt to work in a mining camp, so he did carpenter work for others. At the end of the year, Susan and Sam went back to Wisconsin. Matilda felt desolate at seeing them go, but she was glad they still had money left to get back.

John's drinking and gambling got worse and worse, and he was cruel to Matilda and the children. Finally, she could stand it no longer and separated from him. It was very hard for a woman to make a living in a mining camp, and Matilda did menial work to make a little money. She washed and cooked for the miners and even panned a little gold. John stayed around camp just to make life miserable for Matilda, it seemed.

The next year the still-young Matilda was courted by a man of some means whose wife had died the year before. He was kind and thoughtful, a very different type than John. Hannibal was fond of the little boys, and they adored him. Matilda married Hannibal and began to be happy again.

Hannibal thought it would be fine if the boys had a pair of cats for pets. He ordered a pair sent by the next train, but they were so long coming that when they arrived they had five kittens. That night three of the toughest men in camp, Blackie, Swede and Charley, knocked on the door and said they wanted to see "them cats." The boys were excited and anxious to show their pets. One kitten had a bad eye and was dubbed One-Eyed Pete for a man in camp. Another kitten was named Liz for a woman camp follower who could shoot, swear and drink with the toughest. The rough miners were entranced with the kittens and with little Henry and Johnny.

Matilda and Hannibal decided to give the children their first real Christmas that year. They invited the boys' three tough miner friends. For the occasion, Blackie shot a nice fat deer, and Matilda made venison mincemeat with some of the dried apples they had brought from Wisconsin. Before Christmas day, the men made a trip to Denver and bought gifts for the boys and a new Paisley shawl for Matilda. They had heard how she had buried her baby in her shawl. The three men had a wonderful time shopping and spent all their gold dust so they didn't have any left for a "bender." They had a wonderful Christmas Day, and one of the men said to Matilda, "I declare, Missus, you're gettin' prettier every day!" And she was; she didn't have the worry she had had before.

The first warm day of spring Matilda went to see a sick woman and left the little boys in the yard to play. When she came out, the boys were gone. Matilda was frantic and began to search all over town for them. Then a miner told her he had seen John with the boys, and the father had boasted he was stealing the boys and taking them to California where they would be bound out. As long as Matilda had a hard time taking care of the children it was all right with John. When things became easier for her, his jealous nature couldn't take it. He didn't really want the children; he just wanted to ruin Matilda's new-found happiness.

Matilda had left Wisconsin with three children. Now her arms were empty. She was heartbroken. The three tough miners to whom the little boys had endeared themselves wanted to do something. But what could they do? John was the children's father. It's a good thing, though, that the men couldn't get their hands on him.

Black measles hit the camp in its most virulent form. Liz, the camp follower, was delirious and no one would go near her. Matilda told Hannibal she was going, and he went with her. They cared for Liz the best they could, but she died the next day. They asked the deacon to say a few words at her funeral, but he said she was damned to hellfire and he wouldn't go near. When the little group was gathered at the grave, it was Matilda who said, "Well, folks, you know – or ought to know – the Lord's Prayer. Now we're going to say it!" A few days later Matilda came down with the disease and nearly died.

Hannibal at last achieved the thing he had been working toward – he had raised enough gold to buy Henry and Johnny out of bondage. He arranged that the boys should be delivered to Matilda's old home in Wisconsin and that Matilda should go back to visit her relatives and meet the boys.

In the meantime, Hannibal planned to go on a spring prospecting trip with a party going far back into the mountains. Two days before Matilda was to start to Wisconsin, John returned from California and said that he, too, was going on the prospecting trip. Matilda begged Hannibal to change his plans and not go. "The worst Indian is white beside John, and I'm afraid for you, Hannibal," she said. But her husband said he'd always taken care of himself and refused to change his plans.

Long before Matilda reached Wisconsin she knew she was to become a mother again. She arrived at her old home, but months and months went by, and there was no word from her husband, nor did the boys arrive. One week before their blue-eyed sister was born, Henry and Johnny arrived safely. But the joy of their homecoming was dimmed by the news brought by the man who had delivered the boys. He said that two stories about ill fate to the prospectors were making the rounds. One was that Ute Indians had killed them, and the other was that a band of robbers had attacked them for their gold.

Again Matilda had to provide a living for her family. As soon as she could wean the baby, she walked the 16 miles to a town where she could get work in a hotel, doing as much work in a day as two women should have done.

She hoped against hope that Hannibal would walk in some day. But it was John who walked in. Then one night at a party, John told Matilda's sister that Matilda never would see Hannibal again because his body was at the bottom of a pit, and he showed her Hannibal's watch to prove it.

Because Matilda would have nothing to do with John, he was furious. At a neighborhood dance, he brought in a sack of candy and offered a piece to Matilda. She said she didn't want any, but when it looked as if he might make a scene, she took a piece. The family dog strolled in, and she gave the candy to the dog. In a few minutes the dog died of convulsions.

Matilda worked at the hotel for three years and scarcely saw her children, who stayed with their grandmother. Finally, she married a man named Jim in the hope of having a home for her boys and little girl. She was scarcely established when John stole the boys again and took them back to California. She never saw little Johnny again, but Henry came back when he was 17 to see his mother and made many trips back as long as she lived.

Matilda bore nine children during the years of her third marriage, but the marriage was unhappy, and she became embittered as she grew older. In her early 50s she had pneumonia from which she did not recover. Not many of the 13 children she had borne were with her at the last.

My mother was the little girl born to Matilda and Hannibal after Matilda returned to Wisconsin. I have the brooch that was Hannibal's wedding gift to Matilda. When I was a child I saw the little leather-bound trunk that Grandmother Matilda took with her on her wagon trip West. And the Indian arrow was still in it!

Leona Haskell McDaniel
Topeka, Kansas

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.