Cross a Bend of the Gila-Brackish Water-Difficult Traveling-Boat Made of Two Wagon-Boxes-Provisions Shipped in It-Fears for Its Safety-Boating a Failure-Cargo Left-Another Reduction in Rations-Feed on Mezquit Seeds-Arrival At the Colorado-Crossing the River-Suffering of the Men Sent Back for Flour-Wagon Stuck in the Middle of the River-Left There By the Colonel-His Statement Incorrect-Wagons Abandoned
We spent Christmas day by marching eighteen miles from the Maricopa village, mainly up hill and over sand, and camped without water. The following day we advanced twenty-three miles and encamped near the Gila River. Our route between the Maricopa village and this point lay across a bend of the river. From our having to follow around the base of a mountain the distance was considerably greater than a direct line would have been.
We found the water quite brackish, owing to the fact that the Saline River, which is a larger stream than the Upper Gila, empties into it just below the Maricopa village. At this point our loads were lightened by a cache of three-hundred mule shoes.
Our route from this point lay down the river, over heavy sandy bottoms, in some places quicksand. It was so difficult traveling that we only made sixty miles in six days, and even then the men had to work very hard at helping the mules to pull the loads. Of course, all our beef secured in the wild bull region was exhausted, and the famished sheep and oxen that were slaughtered had so little flesh on their bones that very little could be got from them to appease our hunger or furnish us sustenance. Dr. Sanderson pronounced such flesh very unwholesome, and predicted that if we did not adopt the plan of broiling or frying it instead of boiling it, as we had been doing, we would “die off like rotten sheep.” How to fry it without grease was “beyond our ken,” and to broil it would be to waste so much by shrinkage and loss of juice that it would only aggravate our hunger, so we continued to boil it and drink the soup. Sometimes we would add to the soup about two spoonfuls of flour for each man. The entrails were generally utilized by hanging them over a stick and broiling and then eating them. The hide was used by cutting it up into pieces, singeing the hair off and boiling it until tender enough to eat. The tripe was also boiled. When an animal was slaughtered the entire carcass was rationed out to companies and messes; and then, again, after cooking, the meat was divided into as many lots as there were men in the mess, and allotted to the men after a somewhat original fashion. One man would be required to turn his face from the food, so as not to see it, while another would point to a lot and ask him “who shall have this?” He would name a man, and thus one after another of the men had his portion accorded to him.
As we traveled down the river, we found rocks covered with ancient hieroglyphics, including profiles of men, beasts and reptiles.
Grass in many places was very scant, and our animals fared badly. On the 1st of January, 1847, we had recourse to cutting down the cottonwood trees for our animals to browse upon. Either from eating too much of this food or from some other cause, a number of our mules and sheep died, with strong symptoms of poison.
Despairing of our teams being able to continue with such heavy loads, a rather novel plan was hit upon to convey a portion of the baggage. Colonel Cooke writing of it, says:
“I am now preparing a boat of two pontoon wagon-bodies lashed together, end to end, between two dry cottonwood logs; in this I shall put all the baggage I can risk. * * I have determined to send Lieutenant Stoneman in charge; he professes to have had similar experience, and is desirous to undertake it.”
This move cast a gloom over the men generally, as they took the view that with our already scanty supplies no further risk of loss ought to be taken.
This curious barge, which was loaded with twenty-five hundred pounds of provisions for the men and corn for our mules, was launched on the 1st or 2nd of January. It was expected that it would be moored or fastened near our camp every night, but trouble was experienced almost immediately after it started, in getting it over a sandbar, and after that we neither saw nor heard anything of it for several days. During this time, the command struggled along the river bank with great difficulty, and were oppressed with apprehensions concerning the boat and its valuable cargo. Fears were entertained that it had fallen into the hands of the Mexicans or Indians, or that it had foundred on a sandbar.
Finally, on the 5th, Doctor Foster, one of our guides and interpreter, brought the sad news that, owing to the many sandbars in the river, much of the provisions had been taken from the boat and left on the sandbars and on the river bank, and that the boat was moving slowly down the stream.
Men were immediately detailed to go back and aid the boat. After about three miles travel, they met it, with the crew, but the last of the provisions had been left about twenty miles further up the stream, and the main bulk about fifteen miles still farther back.
Several of the men had already fainted and fallen to the earth, through hunger and exhaustion, but now, sad to relate, another reduction in the rations of one ounce to the man was ordered. A few more such reductions and nothing would have remained.
On the 7th of January, the quartermaster ordered the remaining provisions weighed, and found that we had only four days allowance of our short rations left. That day we advanced only seven miles, owing to the pioneers having to work the road over rocky points of ridges and gullies. When we camped our mules had to swim the river to obtain feed, and then it only consisted of flag-grass and willows.
The following day we traveled over a rich alluvial bottom, where we found wild hemp growing, and reached the mouth of the Gila River. In the absence of grass, the mules were fed on the fruit or seed pods growing upon a variety of the mezquit which the men called “mescrew.” For several days previously the men had also resorted to the eating of these seeds to make up for their lack of rations. They ground them in coffee mills and made cakes of the meal. It was found to be nutritious and quite palatable to the starving men, but its use had to be abandoned as it produced constipation.
On the 9th, a march of ten miles over a bottom, which in some places was heavy sand and in others miry clay, brought us to the crossing of the Colorado. Here forty men were detailed to gather the mezquit seeds, or tornia, to feed the famishing mules upon. The river was found to be quite as wide, though not so deep as the Missouri, and the water much the same color as that river.
Francisco, a Spanish guide, was sent across the stream to fire the thickets on the opposite shore, in order that the command might travel over the next day.
Here we were overtaken by some of the men who had been sent back to recover the provisions left on the Gila from the barge. They brought with them about four hundred pounds of flour, but found no pork, and the rest of the men were left to search farther for it. These men were in a pitiable plight; their clothing was torn into shreds, through having to travel and crawl through thorny brush to get to the river bank to search for the provisions. They had also suffered severely for want of food. One man reported being two days without anything to eat. The corporal “returned with a shirt.”
Ferrying across the river in the pontoon wagon-boxes was commenced on the 10th and continued all night and until late the next morning.
The crossing ranged down the river, which was over half a mile wide, hence the ford was nearly a mile long, including two channels, in the middle of which it was difficult to reach the bottom with our tent poles. Planks from wagon-boxes left on the road were laid on top of the wagon-beds and a portion of the provisions placed upon them, and hauled over by the mules, which had to swim in the deepest portions of the river. Two mules were drowned while being driven across.
Quartermaster Sergeant Smith, who, as previously mentioned, was severely injured by a wild bull, was ordered by the Colonel to ford the stream, although, by virtue of his office, he had the right to ride in any wagon of his company. The water in some places was up to his neck.
After the baggage was all over, the loose animals were driven across. One hundred and thirty of our poor sheep were still alive, though, like ourselves, almost famished.
After crossing, the main army traveled about fifteen miles to a well dug by General Kearny. Company C’s wagon, however, got stuck on the sand bar in the river, between the two channels, with a broken-down team. The Colonel refused to allow the other companies to wait or render any assistance, but proceeded on with them. The wagon which was stuck in the quicksand was released by the worn-out men getting into the water and aiding, as on the sandy desert. The Colonel charged that it was the inactivity of the men that kept the wagon on the bar; this charge he has wrongfully and foolishly permitted to be published in his “Conquest.” Great and brave as he was, he here lost an excellent opportunity for glory and fame by not, Washington or Jackson-like, jumping into the river and putting his shoulder to the wheel, thus aiding the half-starved, worn-out men and team, the former of whom were suffering severely through his indiscretion in hazarding and losing their food by the boat disaster.
I esteem Colonel Cooke very highly, and think, perhaps, a less independent and persevering man would have failed in making the journey with wagons. I also give him much credit for the general justice he has done the Battalion in his work referred to, and sincerely regret the necessity that has prompted this defense of my injured companions in arms. The fact was, the team was broken down, and nine miles farther on the wagon had to be abandoned.
Private animals were pressed into service to aid the wagons, but even with this help, three were abandoned and the baggage was packed on the team mules.