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Ask Gen. Palmer: Long, dangerous trip on horseback

November 3, 2013 Updated: November 3, 2013 at 3:42 pm
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Editor's Note: This column about local history appears in Sunday's print editions of The Gazette, on the "Who We Are" page. Send questions to dave.philipps@gazette.com; 636-0238.

Dear readers, if I might, I'd like to take a few weeks to tell you a bit about a part of my life that is rarely talked about - my trip on horseback, when I was 29 years old, from Salina, Kan., to Los Angeles. This was in 1867, after I fought in the War of the Rebellion and before I founded Colorado Springs. For those of you who think of me as an old man clad in layers of tweed, I can assure you I cut quite the figure in a Mexican serape and the broad-brimmed hat of a Comanchero, riding across the desert. It was quite an adventure.

I had been appointed by the Union Pacific Railroad Company to help survey a railroad route to the gold diggings in California. At the time, there was scarcely a settlement between Kansas and the coast, so we traveled through parts hitherto almost unknown.

It was a dangerous trip. We had to move slowly, making meticulous measurements, even though at the time the buffalo Indians on the plains were quite upset about the incursions of wagon trains and were in open warfare with the cavalry. Our party encountered Indians a number of times. My dear friend William Bell, who later founded Manitou Springs, was at a small cavalry fort on what is now the Colorado-Kansas border when hundreds of Cheyenne attacked, whooping and yelling like a host of demons, and killing seven at the fort, mutilating and scalping the dead in a most horrifying fashion.

Dangerous, yes, but this country was beautiful, too. Kansas was still thick with buffalo. I rendezvoused with Dr. Bell near the timbered mesas of what became the Colorado-New Mexico border. From there, we rode together to Santa Fe. The land was uninhabited except for a few rancheras with cattle and goats. Traversing the plains south of Raton, we encountered antelope so numerous they were scarcely ever out of sight. Timid and watchful, they would bound away from us at great speed, never getting close enough for us to take a shot.

My job was to scout about, noting the likely routes for the railroad, as well as sources of coal. We traveled light on horseback, without even tents. Behind us came a larger party of geologists, surveyors and mapmakers. I must tell you the practice of drafting careful maps on the frontier was no simple matter. It would take a line of men, one reading the survey numbers, one plotting the line on the map, another sketching in the surrounding topography, all while battling gusts of wind or flies and grasshoppers that would insist on helping, going as far as jumping into the Indian ink, then hopping across nearly completed maps. Once, our mapmaker was putting the finishing touches on a map when a frightened mule ran through camp, collapsing his tent on him. It is a wonder, with so many obstacles, that we were able to return with any maps.

I'll tell you about the next leg of the journey and my visit to the dance halls of Santa Fe next week.

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As told by staff writer Dave Philipps in Gen. Palmer's voice.

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