Overland Trail

By David Hilger

During the early months of the year 1867 in the border counties of Minnesota, a general discontent prevailed among the settlers of that section; discontent resulting from a combination of circumstances: the horrors of the Sioux massacre of 1862, and the effects of the Civil war were pretty severely felt by the personnel of the First and Second Minnesota regiments of Volunteers, which were almost annihilated in some of the hard fought battles of that war. These regiments were partly made up of the residents of the section of country to which I refer. Added to this was the general discontent caused) by two or three severe winters, the rigors of which were severely felt by the early settlers of Minnesota, and last but not least the glowing reports of the discovery of gold in various sections of Montana, all combined to make the time ripe for immigration.

I happened to be the son of one of the pioneers of Minnesota, and when only four years of age was taken, by forced marches, to St. Paul, at that time considered the only place of safety from the pursuing Sioux warriors. This was during the time of the memorable massacre of 1862, when 2,100 men, women and children were butchered by savages, the parallel of which has not been equaled in the history of the United States. At that time my father joined a company of volunteers who relieved the town of New Ulm from siege and saved it from utter annihilation.

Little wonder indeed that the spirit of immigration prevailed among the settlers of that section. In the months of June and July, 1867, there were gathered at the point of rendezvous, about 80 miles northwest of Fort Wadsworth, North Dakota, twenty-four families, between thirty and forty children, and 160 single men, all prepared for the arduous journey overland, over the trackless prairie, without a single habitation across all of what is now North Dakota and the greater part of North Montana.

I may state that settlement and civilization ceased at that time at Fort Ridgley on the Minnesota River, about one hundred miles southwesterly from St. Paul.

The ordinary immigrant's outfit consisted of from one to two yoke of oxen and a wagon which contained a family or sometimes two, and three or four single men. When finally organized and ready for starting, this immigrant train consisted of nearly 300 wagons. An organization was affected, and Capt. Davy was selected as commander or captain, and from the membership of the train an advisory board was selected. It became necessary to adopt a code of laws to regulate and decide all matters pertaining to the management of the train, and the safety of its people, and punishment for infractions of its so called criminal code, for it must be remembered that we were now like a ship on an ocean, adrift from civilization or the protection of courts and its officers, and must organize for mutual protection against the lawless bands of Indians whose territory we were about to invade.

Well do I remember a cheerful morning in July, 1867, when a long line of ox teams strung out and headed west-ward over the trackless prairie covered with luxuriant grasses and wild flowers, and bidding adieu to the last settlers who had dared to endure the trails and dangers of frontier life plunged into an unknown ocean of prairie, our objective point being Helena, Montana.

Besides our train of nearly 300 wagons we were joined by Capt. Smith of the regular army with two companies of infantry who were taking or driving 300 head of beef steers to Fort Buford on the Missouri River. All combined this made a homogenous gathering of men, women and children, besides the government troops, and collectively a strong outfit to resist the attacks of hostile Indians.

The routine work from now on was one composed of camp life with its attendant details, and the route and distance of travel, and places of camping were left in the hands of the captain and his advisory board, with full power to maintain a strict military discipline. In selecting grounds for a camp, which was always done with the view of protection from any attack of the Indians during the night, high ground was chosen, and the train was always camped by making a large circle of the wagons, with the tongues turned inside of the circle, thereby forming protection for those within the train enclosure, and also making a corral for the work cattle.

We had a very fair brass band that enlivened the occasion with music, and dances on the open prairie by adepts who were not used to wax floors were indulged in. Game, which was our principal article of diet, was abundant; buffalo, antelope, deer and elk were to be seen every day. We had our trials and tribulations, our so called ups and downs. When the weather was tine, travel good, water and fuel plenty, no sickness, and work cattle in good condition, then everybody was in a good humor, at least during the early part of the trip. But when we reached the Milk River in northern Montana, in September, the downs had an inning; bad water, if any at all, country dry and hot, and alkali in abundance, no fuel, provisions running low, sore-footed cattle, sickness, and everybody in bad humor.

The first evidence of civilization that we reached after leaving Fort Ridgley in Minnesota was Fort Stevens on the Missouri River. It was a military post the same as Fort Buford and Fort Union further up the river, where supplies were readily accessible during the period of navigation on the Missouri River. This is on the extreme western line of what is now North Dakota, so that I can say that I crossed North Dakota from its eastern line at a point near Big Stone lake, thence westward to Montana by a route that lay about forty miles south of Devils lake to the Missouri River, without seeing a solitary habitation or a single evidence of civilization.

From Fort Stevens our route was northerly along the general course of the Missouri River to Forts Buford and Union; thence westerly to the mouth of Milk river; thence up Milk River to a point near where Fort Assiniboine now stands; thence we turned southwesterly until Fort Benton was reached, which point was the head of navigation of the Missouri River, and which we reached the last day of September, 1867. Strange as it may seem, modem engineering has constructed and is operating the Great Northern railway line almost along the identical course that we traveled overland in 18'67. After recuperating for a week at Fort Benton we again set out and arrived in Helena the first week of October, when our train disbanded.

As I have passed rapidly over our journey in general, I shall now go back to review some of the instances and details of that journey.

It must be borne in mind that our course lay through a country occupied by hostile Sioux Indians, as well as the Crees and Gros Ventres, whom we met in northern Montana, and when it required a great deal of tact and diplomacy to avoid conflicts. Strange as it may seem, we did not have a single death on the entire trip, and with the exception of the occasional exchange of shots fired by the pickets no damage resulted. It took three months to make the trip and at times the circumstances were very trying. Sore footed work oxen were the source of our greatest trouble when we struck the alkali sections along the Milk River. Many of the cattle gave out and had to be shot. This required some adjustment of teams and an ox would be confiscated from some other immigrant who was better supplied, for Ave could leave no one on the prairie in this hostile Indian country. It would surely mean death to those that would be left behind.

My father had crossed the plains in 1864, and had had experience in these matters, so when we started west from Minnesota our outfit consisted of four wagons and two yoke of oxen to each wagon, besides two milch cows, and it became necessary later on to yoke up these milch cows and work them the same as the oxen. My father took with him three young men who were desirous of going west, but had no means. They were engaged to drive ox teams and assist generally in the work required in making camp and other matters, and they accompanied us to Helena, Montana, one of whom, a wealthy banker, died recently.

While this journey on the whole was not so bad, and as no deaths resulted, I might say that we had a comparatively pleasant journey, although at times very trying. I remember of traveling a few years ago on the Great Northern railway in a Pullman sleeper along almost the identical course we had followed; with ox teams forty years ago. I was somewhat amused by a fussy elderly lady who was continually complaining because the train was an hour or so late and she had quite an argument with the porter for non-attention. My mind could not help but go back to the days of the overland journey when it took three months to go over the distance that is now almost covered in twenty-four hours, and I thought of the trials and tribulations of the mothers and children as they crossed that trackless prairie. The inconveniences, the hardships, the dangers from roving bands of hostile Indians; and I compared them to the fussy old lady in the Pullman sleeper, and I thought to myself lucky indeed that there were at one time pioneers who blazed the trail for the coming commonwealth of North Dakota and Montana.

The principal reason why we used work oxen instead of horses for making this trip is because the Indian had no use for the ox. At that time he had all the game he wanted. Horses would have been subject to stampede and could have been taken away from us by any attack of Indians, and this would have put us on foot, as the saying goes. Cattle wander only a short distance from camp where there is plenty of water and grass, which is not the case with the horse. Oxen were a great deal cheaper than horses and required only a yoke and a chain to be ready for action. We usually drove from twelve to twenty miles a, day, depending, of course, upon the water, fuel and available camping ground.

When we left Minnesota we engaged two half-breeds, and one Sioux Indian as, guides. They were thoroughly familiar with the country, and rendered us valuable assistance, in fact we could not have gotten along without them.

I must relate one instance in connection with these guides. Unfortunately one day and through some unknown source they got possession of some whiskey and became intoxicated, in other words paralyzed drunk, and placing them in a wagon more dead than alive, we continued our journey. The captain was very much enraged at the Indians for getting drunk, and made the fatal mistake of censuring the guides rather than the guilty parties who had given them the whiskey, and they got very much offended after sobering up and were going to quit the train. They were finally persuaded to go along until we reached the Missouri River. They were, however, sullen and in a non-talkative mood, and near evening were compelled to make a dry camp, the cattle suffering severely for want of water, as the weather at that time was extremely hot. The captain with his advisory board had to finally go to the guides and make all kinds of overtures to get them in a good humor, and make many promises besides presents, and the result was that they immediately took an interest in matters and one of them informed the captain that if he would order the train to yoke up he would take them to a fine spring, which was within a mile from the place where we were camped. This was immediately done and we were soon at a beautiful spring that had apparently been overlooked by the pickets whom we had sent out in search of water. After that great care was taken with our guides; we even permitted them to have a limited amount of whiskey.

The reader may also want to know why we shot the work oxen that we were compelled to leave behind, and I will say that it was an act of charity to do so, for just as sure as we left one the buffalo would find and gore him to death. Our whole train witnessed one of these scenes and we concluded that thereafter we would put the oxen out of their misery rather than leave them to the mercy of the buffalo.

We never were short of buffalo meat at any time after leaving Minnesota until we reached Fort Benton, and I might say that antelope and deer, which furnished an abundant supply of meat, were seen almost every day.

I will give a more detailed description of my impressions of the buffalo, which at that time roamed by countless thousands over North Dakota, and Montana.

When we reached Milk River, and for several weeks there-after while our train was slowly moving westward and up the Milk River valley, I can say without the slightest exaggeration that we saw thousands upon thousands of buffalo every day, ranging from small herds of from twenty-five to one hundred, up to five hundred or even oven a thousand in a herd, and from any high point where any considerable view could be had, you could count from ten to twenty herds in sight at one time. As the train approached their accustomed grazing grounds over which they had held full sway for perhaps centuries in the past, they slowly and somewhat sullenly moved from the path of their invaders. It actually became dangerous at times, for a herd could have been stampeded through the train by careless hunters, for it is next to impossible to turn a large herd from their course. I remember one day when a massive buffalo ran right through the train which was stretched out in double file, by jumping over and between the ox teams. No particular damage resulted; the buffalo was shot some eight or ten times and finally killed a short distance from the train.

We found great difficulty in finding good watering places for our cattle, for the tramping of so many buffalo had made the accessible points along the banks of the Milk River perfect mire holes, and water had to be dipped in buckets to water the cattle. Clouds of dust rose from the vast herds as they moved swiftly over the prairie in a solid, compact body, and the low rumbling occasioned by the sound of so many feet which seemed to vibrate the very earth, was at times awe-inspiring.

It seems incredible that these "Monarchs of the Plains'' could have disappeared from the very face of the earth, in a comparatively short time. The professional buffalo hunters, with their heavy sharp rifles, lured by the fascination of criminal destruction and the prices paid for buffalo hides, soon created havoc among their numbers, and now we can only see the sad remnants of their once former greatness in a few parks as a reminder of our once great frontier.

No description would be complete without something being said about the half-breed of forty years ago. A common name locally, but perhaps not so well understood at a distance. The half-breeds were simply the products of an intermarriage between the whites and Indians, which became almost a distinct race by themselves. When near Devil's lake in North Dakota, we were visited by a large band of Red river half-breeds, that consisted of a party of about two hundred, at least they had two hundred Red river carts, which was a home production built with an axe and an auger, a crude and serviceable vehicle, and capable of hauling a thousand pounds.

They were comparatively wealthy at that time as far as good, fat horses were concerned, and they, themselves, cleanly, contented and happy; and they always observed the Sabbath by rest and religious exercises. They wore white shirts on Sundays, scrupulously clean but never ironed. They were all armed and had no fear whatever of hostile Indians. The remnants of the so-called half-breeds of this section tells a somewhat sad story, and here is a theme for the temperance lecturer, for I can safely say that ardent spirits, alcohol and its various compounds has done more to impoverish, debauch and degrade these people than all other influences combined.

When we reached Milk River and our train was slowly moving up the valley in a long column, an incident happened that nearly resulted disastrously for the personnel of the train. For a week or more we were daily visited by Indians, and our men traded for quite a number of horses, and they appeared very friendly. An old Indian chief became a very close friend of my father, induced by the generous treatment accorded him, and presents and invitations to dine are valued factors in such cases. Finally taking my father to one side, he told him that in "three sleeps," which meant three days, we would reach a camp of Indians of about three hundred lodges, where were many bad young men, who had killed several wood choppers a week before on the Missouri River. He added that our young men should he cautioned to stay close to the train, as the young warriors would surely kill them if caught away from the train, and we must be very careful in coming up to the Indian village to promote friendship by presents, but to take no chances of being ambushed.

The next day our train formed in double column, and extra precautions were taken. On the third day our pickets reported a large Indian camp several miles ahead. At this point the hills crowded either side of the river, leaving a narrow bottom, and a dense growth of timber skirted the river, an ideal place for a massacre.

Suddenly a strong party of mounted Indians in full war paint, typical young warriors, burst into view, and emerging from a coulee, ran at full speed at the head of the train. With leveled guns and drawing their bows and arrows, they commanded us to halt, and we did so immediately. At the same time Indians seemed to rise from the very earth; the timber was alive with them, and in a few minutes about five hundred to six hundred warriors were around and among us. My father had been in many Indian skirmishes before, so immediately detected the absence of squaws and papooses, which meant trouble. He was met by Captain Davy, who, white as a sheet and trembling with fear, addressing my father, said: My God, what are we going to do?" I was only eight and a half at that time, but I can assure you I was old enough to realize the situation with suppressed excitement, for the war paint on the Indians riding bare-back, with not a stitch on except a breech clout, and carrying bows and bundles of arrows, or muskets, was evidence enough as to the intent of their murderous natures.

If I do say it myself and I shun the spirit of egotism, my father, Nicholas Hilger, never possessed an iota of fear, and I never saw a man in my life who, under the most trying; circumstances, possessed such absolute control over himself. The crucial moment for action had arrived, and he was fully equal to the occasion. ''Captain, order out the brass band at once and don't act like a cur. Put on a bold front, was his rejoinder.

The band was quickly gotten together, and in a brief time the astonished Indians were regaled with the inspiring tune of "Yankee Doodle," for it was perhaps the first band that most of them had ever heard, and they seemed to forget the purpose for which they had come, my father immediately summoned the chiefs together, offered them presents, gave them trinkets, divided sugar and coffee with them, and finally smoked the pipe of peace, but at no time did that brass band let up until we were finally commanded to move on.

The squaws and papooses had been attracted by the music, and by their sudden appearance my father knew from experience that the extreme danger point had passed.

We were soon under way and camped that night about four miles beyond the Indian camp on high ground, some distance from the Milk River. Can von imagine the distress of any mother during this trying' time? It was a close call, for one of them who followed us for several days finally told my father that the chiefs were unable to restrain their men, and they had intended to kill every man of the train.

The bows and arrows used by boys at the present time seem very harmless indeed, but not so in the hands of an Indian, for it seems incredible with what force and accuracy they could drive an arrows I have seen them shoot arrows through the largest buffalo, so that the spear-head of the arrow would protrude from the opposite side of entrance. I also remember seeing a young Indian, about fourteen years of age, in full sight of the train, kill three buffalo in a run. This was done by riding a horse alongside, or quartering behind close to a buffalo at full speed, then the second or third arrow landed just behind the short ribs, ranging forward in the region of the heart and lungs, and soon brought him to a standstill when he would shortly fall, bleeding to death inwardly.

The reader would undoubtedly be interested to know how we managed to get along with a train of three hundred wagons across a wild and undeveloped country, without any wagon roads or bridges, so I will tell how this was accomplished.

A large part of our journey lay over a level or rolling prairie which was not at all difficult to travel except occasionally. This was the fact when we reached the Missouri River, where we had to cross broken, in fact, bad land country, and it required a considerable amount of labor to construct roads.

The most serious trouble that we experienced was in the earlier part of our trip in North Dakota, when we had to cross a great many streams that were not fordable. Although we had made provisions for exactly such emergencies, expecting to swim a number of streams, and having constructed the wagon boxes with a view to being water tight, I remember three different streams that could not be forded, so the train was ferried on boats made out of the wagon boxes. These boats were made by lashing two wagon boxes side by side, sometimes four were placed in this way, two in front and two behind, held together by cross timbers, and these made quite a fair sized ferry boat. Ropes were attached to pull them backward and forward when the stream was narrow, otherwise they were paddled and poled over. The running gears of the wagons were taken apart and ferried over, then the effects and supplies were taken over, so that in a day's time our entire outfit would be able to cross a stream that could not be forded.

We narrowly escaped a serious disaster in one of our ferrying operation, when the men, tiring somewhat of pulling the so-called ferry boats backward and forward with the ropes, decided to use a yoke of oxen to perform this work. Every thing went well until a load, composed of women and children, not omitting myself, was about mid-stream, when the oxen scared at something, and became uncontrollable, pulling too strong upon the ropes. The result was that the water bulged over the top of the boxes and swamped us. The oxen kept on going, however, so with the assistance of eight or ten men plunging into the water, everybody was taken off, but most of the effects were washed down the river. With the exception of the momentary fright, no harm was done, though that boat load got a splendid ducking'.

Picket duty and guard duty forms one of the most laborious duties of the immigrant outfit in the hostile Indian country. The captain had a roster of all able bodied men that were in the train, and each one had to perform his proportionate part of picket duty. At night a guard was placed around the train, consisting of four men at equal distances, whose duty it was to pace backward and forward. At each half hour one guard would call, "Half past one; all right all 'round," then this was repeated by the next guard and the next until it made its run. The guards, of course, were relieved, one set being on from eight o'clock until twelve, and the other from twelve until four. This was the guard work of the train, butt the worst part of all was what is known as picket duty.

A picket consisted of from three to five men, located at some distance from the train on a commanding point of view, who were required to be concealed as much as possible. They generally took picks and shovels, and dug a trench, throwing the dirt outward and forming a breastwork, which protected them from the fire of the enemy. These pickets were usually located from two or three hundred yards to as much as half a mile distant from the train. They were not relieved at night, but would be on duty from eight o'clock until daylight in the morning, about four o'clock. There were never less than two pickets out, and in a dangerous country there were sometimes as many as four and five.

Every evening the captain read off the list of those assigned to picket duty, and also for the guards for the night. The list of names were always carefully checked, so that each one performed his share of this duty, barring-sickness or disability.

During the day time we had what was known as a day guard, composed usually of twenty-five men, whose duty it was to form a line on either side of the train when it was in motion. They were generally placed about from fifty to one hundred yards apart on each side of the train, and maintained this position while traveling.

I must not neglect to say that the two companies of infantry that were with us under Captain Smith rendered great service to us as far as Fort Buford, in protecting the train and in performing guard and picket duty. I attribute largely the fact that we had no open encounters with the Indians to our effective picket and guard duty, both day and night.

The Indians at that time were haughty, distrustful, and defiant. With the buffalo as a supply to draw from which furnished practically everything that was required in the shape of food, clothing and protection from the elements, and with large numbers of good horses, it is no wonder that for years it required the best efforts of our government to subdue them and protect the white settlers. The half-breeds, however, were good natured, contented, reliable and friendly at all times in those early days.

I have heard of epochs in our national history that tried the very souls of men, and I can assure you that the character of a man is brought out in bold relief on a trip of this kind. You might live as neighbors in your home town for years and years, and still know very little about his latent character. Quiet, unassuming and unnoticed individuals will, in the most trying times, prove to be heroes, whereas others that you had every reason to believe would be brave and courageous, will prove to be abject cowards. A trip across the plains, via the ox team route, develops character better than any test I know, and I know when we arrived at Helena in the fall of 1867, weary and travel worn, it would have been an easy matter to make out a classified list, based upon the worth and courage of the membership of that emigrant train. On that list would have been the names of men who performed an important part in the settlement and development of the Empire of Montana; men who will forever be honored and revered for their splendid traits of character; brave and courageous, and yet kind and gentle; ready at all times to risk their own lives for the protection and safety of others; men who never for a single moment lost their keen perception of justice, and on whose sunburned and unshaven faces beamed the sunlight of honesty.

Source: Montana Historical Society Contributions, Vol. I., 1876

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