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Mrs. Reid’s Letter


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As promised in the previous blog, this month I am featuring an amazing story about pioneer wagon travelers conquering the mountains of Northwest Colorado. Through my time at the museum, I have done a lot of research on the history of Steamboat Springs, and read a lot of humbling stories and interviews from pioneers, but I have never been more impacted by local history as I have while researching for the museum’s new exhibit, Journeys West: Pioneer Tales from the Wagon Trail. Each family arrived with their own story of excitement and hardship because each person’s experiences were unique and new. I found one particular story to be really interesting and descriptive of the journey.

Local pioneer, Samuel B. Reid was instrumental in Steamboat Springs and Hayden business in the late 1880s. Before coming to Northwest Colorado, Reid traveled from North Carolina to California, to Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Washington, then settled in 1873 on Snake River, near the Colorado and Wyoming border. Reid married Mary Denney in 1863 in North Carolina. Sam and Mary had five children: Albert was born in 1864 in Idaho; Martha was born in Montana in 1866; Mary and Siren were born in Nevada in 1869 and 1871; and Sam Jr. was born in 1879 in Hahns Peak. (That’s a lot of wagon miles to cover with young children!) After three years at Snake River, the Reids relocated to the Elk River valley in 1876.

In 1996, the Tread of Pioneers Museum received a typed transcript of a letter Mrs. Mary E. (Denney) Reid wrote to her family, dated May 5th, 1876. The letter details the 14-day trip the family took from Snake River to Elk River. The original letter is three pages; I have included selected excerpts:

“Dear Children, nephews, and nieces:
I am going to write of my trip from Snake River up to Elk River, 80 miles without any road. You must not think that it is going to be much, but it will let you know how we traveled over the mountains.”

“The 6th. (1876)
We got breakfast and it began to snow again, so we lay in camp all day. Albert killed a duck for supper, and it snowed that night, covered my rocking chair up with snow. . . We hitched up the horses, and fixed up the things and was about to start and it commenced to hail, blow, and snow again, so we turned them out again.”

“7th.- We went to Fortification about 20 miles, and of all the mud, we had it. It was stick and stall, then holler and hurrah, till we would get out, and then go a little farther, and then stick again, till at last we came to an Indian camp. There were 18 wickiups and the laws [sic] knows how many men, women and papooses and dogs. They all ran to meet us, the dogs fighting and the folks jabbering.”

“The 9th.-Then came the next job to cross the river. It was up and swimming. What was to be done, make a boat, raft across or what? Well, we got our breakfast first, now for the river. So Baker took the horse and started to hunt the best place to cross. We found a place that was not quite swimming. They propped up the wagon bed and made five loads out of the one. We got across all right except losing our cat. She got scared and ran off, and we never found her anymore. We just got across in time. In an hour after we crossed it, it was out of banks and wasn’t crossed anymore for two weeks. We stopped till morning.”

“The 10th.- We started on. Had such a sidling [sic] hill to go down, that we tied rope to the wagon and let it down. Rocky and muddy. We all walked for a mile, then we rode a ways till we came to another hill. . . The worst was to come. There was a creek, and it had washed gutters out all the way down, so we had to take ropes, let the wagon down. When we were down, we had another ride till we came to a mud-hole, and then we all had to walk again.” [The banks were too steep for them to climb out of.] We started up, got about half way up, and the horses got out of breath, and began to let the wagon back right down into the river. All the men held the wheels, and Mrs. Hayse and I banked up rocks to the [back] wheels and let them [the horses] rest till they got their breath. Then with another pull, they made the top. We loaded up again, drove down to the water and camped with the wagon in the mud over the hubs.”

“The 11th.- we started up the hill to the canyon. We pulled along until noon and was way up on the side of the mountain. You could see everyplace and yet could see no place. We got dinner and started on up the mountain, up, up, up. Till at last we reached the top, just as the sun was setting. Just think what a hill it is to take all day to pull up it, with 4 horses, wet with sweat. . . Couldn’t get any farther with a load, so we packed the horses with bed clothes, and each one took something to eat. Some had a frying pan, some a sack of flour, some one thing and some another. We started down the hill someplace. When we couldn’t walk, we sat down and slid down the rocks. We got down and got something to eat, and went to bed. Next morning, the 12th.- We woke up and looked up as we would for the sun at noon, to see the wagon.”

On the 12th the travelers were able to move the wagon down from the mountain top. They built a bridge at another creek crossing. During the crossing, one of the wagon wheels fell off the side of the bridge and almost took the wagon and horses with it. In order to get the wagon back on the bridge and across, they (yet again) unloaded the wagon, unhitched the horses, crossed and reloaded, but not after a horse fell down and almost broke its leg and a cow had to be rescued from near drowning.

“The 13th.- We got up the mountain just in time to see where we had to go down again. There was a big snow drift, and the water running down from it in great creeks. . . We would slide down the snow drift first, then we would climb up over brush, through mud and water, and then it would get so steep, that we would roll over and over. At last, we got to the bottom, all wet and tired and the woodticks eating us up. Mrs. Hayse and I went to work picking them off of the children. . .”

“The 14th.- The men went to packing down the stuff on their backs, while we got breakfast. They would take the wagon sheet and tie up the things that wouldn’t mash, and roll them down the hill behind them. If they got to going too fast, they would sit down on them and brace their feet along. Came down all right. They took the wagon to pieces and rolled one wheel down at a time, and slid the wagon bed down. They all had a rope tied to it, so as to steer it right. Got down and put the wagon together and started the next morning.”

“The 15th.- Went a little way and had to make a bridge, crossed all right, went a little farther, got in a mud-hole, had to pry out then about 100 yards, got into another, had to unload, take off the horses, put ropes to the end of the tongue and pull it out that way. Went a little farther had a bridge to build, got over after getting the horses all down and unloading. Went a little further, stopped for dinner, built a bridge.”


That night the travelers had a big scare. Mrs. Reid describes everyone standing around the fire and resting when suddenly a gun shot rang out. When everything had calmed down and it was found that no one was hurt, they discovered that a young boy had accidently fired the shotgun. Mrs. Reid wrote, “The shot whistled by my bonnet. How it missed all of us is a mystery.” While the episode was scary for the group, stray bullets may not have been entirely unfamiliar. Accidental gun deaths were a common cause of death during this time, and it was the second leading cause of death on a wagon train, after sickness.

The following days were much the same—steep hills, mud, and building bridges. On the 17th of May, Mrs. Reid writes, “Made another bridge across a little creek and came upon a slate bluff in sight of the house and had to fix a lever on the upper side of the wagon, and put three men there to keep it from turning over down the hill into the river, 500 feet [below]. It would have killed everything had it gone over. We thought it was going once, the side board broke, but got across; then for mud. We all had to walk and walk light or we would go down to our knees.”

This 1908 image is of the Whitmore family moving from Snake River
to Columbine ( similar to where the Reids were in 1876).
Tread of Pioneers Museum collection, 4889
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