Dennis and the Mormon Battalion
By Mabel Harmer
Chapter 11 – Gold
In the course of the next few months the Battalion moved on to the Pueblo Los Angeles, a rowdy, struggling village overrun with Indians, Mexicans and dogs. They built a fort on a hill overlooking the town and, although the Mexicans planned to take it, the most remained in the hands of the Americans until the day came when they were to be mustered out.
All morning there was an air of excitement and anticipation throughout the camp. At noon when the companies were called to order, each man knew that it was for the last time. it was with something of an anti-0climax that they heard Lt. Smith pass through the lines and say in a low voice, “You are discharged!”
“And that is that,” said Neil, as they broke ranks and he came over to where Dennis was watching the proceedings. “What are you folks going to do now?”
“Get an outfit and start back as soon as possible. do you want to join up with us? Pa would be real glad to have you. Say!” he cried, jumping up. “I just thought of something. I’ve got to see if I can buy Hannibal. I can’t leave him here with all these Indians and Mexicans.”
“Of course you can’t,” laughed Neil. “Come along. I’ll see if I can buy a good army mule, too.”
They sought out the quartermaster and quickly arranged for the purchase of two mules as well as a musket apiece.
“Now we’re all set to go back over the mountains,” said Dennis happily.
“Yeh, only that nobody around here knows where we can get through. They tell us that the best we can do is follow near the base of the mountains about six hundred miles north until we come to Sutter’s Fort. Somebody up there can probably give us a route through.”
In spite of their eagerness to be on the way, it was days before even the first company had assembled the necessary equipment for the trip. Finally, they were able to purchase enough horses and mules to begin the journey. For the next month they raveled northward, again having to ford icy mountain streams, carrying their baggage over on their heads or building rafts by tying dry logs together.
Once more they knew the pangs of thirst when they were two days without water on a dry, hot plain. The animals became so thirsty that their eyes turned white and they staggered blindly against anything that came in their way. There was one event, however, of such importance that it threw even the worst hazards of the journey into insignificance. They happened, one day, into a village of white people and met a man by the name of smith who had been east with Sam Brannan and had met the Mormons.
Immediately he was surrounded by men eager for news of their wives and families.
“Just a minute,” laughed Smith, holding up his hands. “I don’t know where anybody’s wife is, but I can tell you that Brigham Young and the first company of the Mormons have settled in the valley of the great Salt Lake, and that five hundred more wagons are on the way to join them.”
“The valley of the Great Salt Lake,” repeated Dennis. “Ask him where that is, Pa?”
“It’s mighty close to a thousand miles from here,” answered Smith, who had heard the question. “And there’s some mighty high mountains and hot deserts in between.”
“That won’t bother us much,” scoffed Dennis. “All we need is a place to go. We’ll get there all right!”
The meeting with Smith urged them on with fresh zeal. Late in August they reached Sutter’s Fort where they intended to make final preparations for crossing the mountains. Although they had heard considerable about the fort no one in the party was prepared to see anything quite so elaborate as the huge enclosure with walls eighteen feet high and imposing bastions on each corner.
On being admitted to the inside of the fort they found a large house, which was the owner’s residence, and numerous other buildings, including barracks for the soldiers, workshops, a bakery and a mill. There was also a row of small houses for the laborers on the farm.
“If it wasn’t for getting back to Ma and the boys I’d sort of like to stay here,” said Dennis wistfully as he walked around the beautiful grounds. “It sure would be nice to settle down again.”
Sutter allowed the battalion members to come inside the fort. The company immediately set about acquiring horses, cattle and wagons for the journey to the Salt Lake valley. Most of the men went to work for Sutter in order to purchase equipment.
Mr. Martin worked in the tannery and Dennis was given a job herding the prize cattle up in the hills above the river. He had a fine horse to ride back and forth each day and good meals when he returned at night. It was altogether quite wonderful and he felt a tinge of regret when he learned, on returning to the fort one evening, that they were to resume their journey on the following day.
By sun-up the Martins had packed. It was only a few minutes later that Nancy appeared by the side of the wagon resplendent in a new red calico dress and sunbonnet.
“Whew!” whistled Dennis. “Ain’t we grand? I’ll bet that you talked some Mexican woman out of that finery.”
“Not on your life, I didn’t,” she replied, tossing her head. “Ma bought the material at the store and made it for me. I wasn’t going to be caught riding into the Salt Lake Valley in those old rags I had.”
“Well, I didn’t do so bad myself,” answered Dennis, pointing down at his feet. “See these. Brand new shoes from the best leather at the tannery. I’ll bet that you’ll wish you had good shoes instead of a fancy dress before you get over the desert.”
“Maybe,” retorted Nancy, “and maybe not. Uncle Tim has a mighty good outfit. I don’t expect to do much walking.”
Before long everyone was ready and the wagon train started moving toward the rising sun. “Homeward bound at last” was the thought singing in everyone’s mind. What joy! Even though that home was at least seven hundred miles away and no one had the slightest idea what it might be like.
For several days they journeyed without incident, camping by cold streams at night where there was an abundance of feed for the animals. About noon of the sixth day, the men in the ‘fore wagons shouted, “Someone is coming! There are wagons in sight!” The news was carried quickly down the line from one wagon to the next.
Scarcely had the wagons stopped before their occupants were tumbling out over the wheels and rushing forward to meet the newcomers.
“Hello,” called the leader of the party as they came up. “I’m Sam Brannan. Are you folks Mormons?”
“Yes,” cried a dozen voices. “Have you come from the Salt Lake Valley?”
“That I have,” replied Brannan. “Right from a conference with Brigham Young himself. And I’ve got a sack of letters here. Enough for everyone, I hope,” he ended smiling.
As fast as he could call the names, the letters were tossed into eager hands. The two Martins waited in a fever of anxiety until almost the last, when the name “Amos Martin” brought a breathless “Here” in reply, and a roll of paper was handed to Mr. Martin.
The Martins moved off to one side and sat down on the ground to read their precious missive.
Dear Husband and Son,
We are now back at Winter Quarters, having come up from Pueblo early in the spring. We are all well and have quite a nice little cabin which was turned over to us by some of the saints when they left for the Salt Lake Valley. The brethren here all take care of the widows and wives of battalion members, so we are as well provided for as any. We will not attempt to come to the valley for another year since I understand President Young is advising the battalion to stay in California and work during the coming winter. Much as I long to see you, I am willing that you should follow the president’s advice and stay, if you think it will be for the best in the long run. We will leave here next spring and plan to meet you in Salt Lake next summer. God’s blessings on you both.
With all my love,
For a long time neither spoke and Mr. Martin folded the letter thoughtfully over and over again. Finally he arose, saying, “Let’s go back and hear what Brannan has to say.”
They found Brannan, the center of an interested group, telling them in no uncertain terms of the desolateness of the Salt Lake valley. “Why,” he was saying, “it freezes there every night of the year and it’s so dry that seeds won’t grow without irrigation. You mark my word now, they’ll all be coming on to California before the end of another year. At any rate, you folks are advised to stay here now.” He finished by reading a message from the Church leaders stating that all who had not the means of starting a new home would do well to remain in California for the winter and bring their earnings with them in the spring.
“How about it?” asked Amos martin of his brother. “Are you going to go on or turn back?”
“Why, I suppose I’ll turn back,” answered Tim, a bit hesitantly.
“I suppose you’ll do nothing of the kind,” spoke up his new wife decisively. “We’ve got a team, a wagon and a cow. And I reckon there’s plenty of land up there. We’re not going to dilly dally around with these Mexicans and Indians any longer. California is no place for a woman anyway.”
Amos Martin laughed as he replied, “Then I guess we’ll say good-by. Ellen thinks that I had better stay and work so that I won’t have to come back with empty hands. I think that the president’s advice is worth following.”
A week alter they were back once more at Sutter’s Fort, much to the delight of Captain Sutter, who was very anxious to build a gristmill and a sawmill up the river a few miles. So far he had been unable to find any competent laborers.
As soon as supplies could be loaded Dennis found himself, in company with a dozen others, riding up along the bank of the American river. In charge of the company was John Marshall, Sutter’s chief employee, who was to be a partner in the sawmill.
“What do you think we’ll do first up here?” asked Dennis of James Brown.
“Build a place to live in, I hope. They say it rains an awful lot in this country in the winter time.”
“I was hoping to see snow this winter,” said Dennis with a half sigh. “You remember last year we were down on the desert. But I guess it’s all for the best.”
“Sure it is. And if what Brannan says about the Salt Lake Valley is true, maybe you can be mighty glad that you’re in California,” replied James. “See up above us. That’s Coloma – where we’re going to build the sawmill.”
They drew up where Marshall and the others had stopped and got down from their horses.
“Mrs. Wimmer will give you something to eat,” said Marshall, “and then you can get right to work. There’s no need wasting time looking at the scenery. it will still be here when you get through with your job. Build your cabins and then you can get going on the mill.”
Building the cabins was only a matter of days, since they were thrown up of logs from the nearby mountains, had only dirt floors and openings for doors and windows. The sawmill was a different proposition, for Sutter insisted that everything built for him had to be the best possible. By mid-January the mill was finished and the water turned into the mill race for a trial run.
James and Dennis walked over to watch the tail race which was not carrying off the water quite as efficiently as was necessary. Just where the race entered the river, Marshall called their attention to a bed of rock saying, “This is curious rock. I believe it contains minerals of some kind and I believe there is gold in these hills.”
The two boys glanced at each other and smiled as James asked, “What makes you think so?”
“I read in some book that this flint-like rock you see throughout these hills is called quartz and is an indication of gold. You boys go back to the cabin and get a pan and we’ll see if we can find anything in this gravel.”
Dennis ran for a pan and watched idly while Marshall scraped up some of the bedrock from the stream and washed it back and forth in the pan.
Finally he handed the pan back saying, “I guess there’s nothing here, but I’m not through yet. I’ll wager my interest in the mill that I’ll find metal of some kind or other in this stream. That book I read said it was sure.”
“I sure hope so, Mr. Marshall,” said Dennis smiling. He rather liked the old fellow in spite of his stormy ways and queer notions. then he went back to the cabin and forgot all about the incident until the following morning when, as they were busy preparing breakfast, they heard a hammering out near the mill.
“What in the world is going on out there this time of day?” asked Henry Bigler, holding a pan of fried cakes and flipping them over.
“That,” answered James laughing, “must be our friend Marshall. He’s going to find a gold mine this morning.”
“Nice idea,” returned Henry. “Remind me to get a pocketful before I go down to the fort next time. I’d like to buy one of those fancy shirts at Brannan’s store. And now, lads, you can sit down and eat, unless you’d rather go out with Marshall and dig gold.”
At the moment, everyone preferred eating to prospecting. It was not until they were on their way to the mill that Marshall, still busy at the streams, called to them in a voice trembling with excitement, “Boys! I’ve got her now.”
“Come on, let’s humor him,” said James under his breath, as they walked along to where Marshall stood, his old wool hat in his hands.
There were a dozen small scales in the hat and, picking up the largest, James put it between his teeth, tested it for a moment and then said in a changed tone of voice, “You know, fellows, this could be gold.”
Sure it’s gold,” maintained Marshall stoutly. “Take it over to that bench and try it with a hammer. You’ll see.”
“I know a better way,” answered James. “Those coals from the manzanite in our fireplace. They’re still red hot. if this stuff doesn’t burn up in them, we’ll grant it’s really gold you’ve got here.”
As many as possible crowded into the little cabin while James first blew the coals up again and then held the metal over them in the tip of an old shovel blade. Although he blew until the coals were fiery hot, the metal was quite unchanged and in a voice now filled with excitement, he cried, “Boys, it is gold! Gold!”
With all the haste possible they summoned Captain Sutter up from the fort and he, little knowing at the time that the gold was to prove the ruination of all he had worked for, laid his plans with Marshall and the other men. Most of them were to stay at the mills until they were completed but the two boys were to return with him to New Helvetia. The whole thing was to be kept a deep secret until they felt the time was ripe to make known their discovery to the world.