In 1867, Pennsylvania journalist A. K. McClure, a man then in his late 30s, decided to take a leave of absence from his position in Chambersburg and spend what turned out to be 8 months traveling and living in the relatively newly occupied territories of Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Montana. He wrote of his experiences in a series of almost 50 letters, which were published either in the New York Tribune or the Franklin Repository (Chambersburg is in Franklin County PA). The letters were published in a book in 1869 titled “Three Thousand Miles Through the Rocky Mountains”.
McClure, when still in his mid-20s, purchased the “Repository” in 1852. He also became active in the Pennsylvania Republican party, became a member of the state legislature, was a strong abolitionist, and was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln. During the war, he was a commissioned Union officer, and after the war, he worked for a mining company for a short period, served again as a state legislator, and went back into the journalism business, this time in Philadelphia (where he also lost a mayoral campaign). He wrote several other books of memoirs, biographies of William McKinley and others, and books about the Civil War and the South.
His letters written on his western sojourn are fascinating. It is clear that the mountain West of 1867 is not the mountain west of 2014. Here are some of my take-aways:
1. Travel in the west in the 1860s was no fun, particularly before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, which was not completed until 1869. And even then, it made transportation through the west easier (so you could get to San Francisco), but did not help traveling within the Rocky Mountain Region. Travel within the region was done by animal conveyance, including stage coaches.
2. Stage coach travel was never comfortable. Every coach seemed to be overloaded, with not only the passengers, but their baggage, and other mail and cargo being shipped. Things were appreciably more uncomfortable in the cold weather, and part of McClure’s travels occurred in the depths (and I mean depths) of winter. One example (page 428):
“Besides, the mountain roads might become impassable, and the possibility of detention in snow drifts, with the temperature from twenty to forty degrees below zero, made passengers thoughtful to protect themselves as completely as possible. With double woolen underclothing, a heavy winter suit, a blanket overcoat, a pair of heavy California blankets fully half an inch thick and large enough to envelop the whole body, an immense buffalo robe, double woolen socks, buckskin moccasins, and buffalo boots, all carefully wrapped in a gunny sack, for the feet, I felt that the worst of winter storms might be defied.”
3. Indians were a real problem with continual tales of travelers being attacked (and killed and scalped), and traveler way stations being burned to the ground with horses taken away. McClure apparently started the trip with liberal attitudes towards the Indians of the west, but changed his mind completely on the trip. More than once he was delayed for significant periods of time because roads were shut down or drivers refused to proceed because of recent Indian activity or spotting. At other times, passengers were required to have their guns loaded and ready to go as Indian attacks were deemed likely. His position appeared to be that the white man and the Indians were in a fight to the finish. He thought that the government was going about things just the wrong way. Apparently, American military troops were given the task of making large areas Indian-free, something McClure thought impossible. He thought that the task should be to protect the roads and the travelers, something that was not being done, for reasons that escape me and him.
He also makes the point that various Indian tribes were rivals of, or enemies of, each other, and that some of the tribes got the idea that their positions would be improved if they became allies of the white man against their enemy tribes. But McClure believed this to be a subterfuge only – that the “friendly” Indians were only playing to be friendly and that, as soon as they had the chance, they would turn against you and stab you in the back.
It’s not that he denied the Indians’ valor, at least to an extent (because he also thought that did not want to engage in fair fights), but that he felt they were simply savages without any moral commitment and that this is the way it would always be. A virtual “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” position.
4. He also hated the Mormons, but for very different reasons than those who used against the Indians. With regard to capacity to build cities, develop culture, work hard and farm the land, McClure felt that the Mormons outshone all other mountain settlers. They were also bright, friendly and respectful. But….they were Mormons. They were polygamous. They had strange beliefs, and none of this can be tolerated.
5. The future of the mountain country lay in agriculture, in tourism and spas, and most importantly in mining, and especially the mining of gold. Much of his trip is given over to descriptions of mines and mining camps and towns, and miners. He has a chapter devoted to a step by step review of how gold is mined (and it is very interesting). He also talks a lot about the financing of mine work – and how so many mines both in Colorado and Montana had been shut down because the money ran out to continue operating the mines, while the owners of the mines became rich because they continued to sell worthless mining stock to gullible easterners.
6. The winter weather was atrocious, but the settlers learned to withstand it. The plains were tedious and boring. You could go all day without seeing a tree. The settlers, almost all men, were a varied group – some opportunistic, but mainly hard working, although often easy to take advantage of.
7. When traveling, accommodations were hardly five-star. Small roadhouses, where the men slept on the floor in one room, and the women slept on the kitchen floor, near the stove. He describes the food eaten at various places. It seems that some food was awful, and other food surprisingly good and varied. There was a lot of meat eaten, and this included elk and antelope, as well as today’s more common dishes.
8. Some places seem to have no religion whatsoever; other places, usually based on clergy who have settled there, have active churches. Social life seems to be centered around home parties (and there were many more men than women), except in places like Salt Lake City and some other larger towns. Taverns abounded, Sunday blue laws varied.
I believe McClure was single when he made the trip. About ten years later, Wikipedia tells me that he married Cora M. Gratz. I stopped when I saw that because I know that the Gratz family was one of the early and very prominent Jewish families of Philadelphia. Indeed Cora Gratz was a member of that family. Whether she was Jewish (or the product of a mixed ancestry and no Jewish connection), I am not certain. The McClures apparently had no children, so I can’t trace religion forward either. I do note, interestingly (to me), that McClure mentioned Jews only once in his book. On one of the trips out of Denver when Indian attacks were anticipated, and there were, I think, nine passengers in his coach, each of the men were instructed to take, load and make ready their weapons. Only two passengers did not possess their own firearms, he said, and they were two men of the Hebrew religion. OK, I know, this is just a curious aside, but nevertheless…….