When John Mortimer Murphy went to Yellowstone Park in the 1870s, he decided to take part of the trip from Utah to Montana by mule train. Such trains, which supplied Montana gold rush towns in the 1860s and 70s, had teams of as many as 20 mules. Here’s Murphy’s tale about traveling with the hardy teamsters who drove the huge teams.
After a tediously slow journey the train reached Corinne, the only gentile settlement in Utah, and therefore a perfect Babylon of wickedness in the eyes of Mormons. This place was formerly unusually prosperous and enterprising, as it was the head-quarters for the numerous prairie schooners that transported goods into Montana; but since the construction of the Utah Northern Railroad it has lost its commerce and prestige, and is now only a sleepy village of 700 inhabitants.
I left there for a small town called Franklin, in Idaho, 100 miles distant, via railroad, which is now the head-quarters for the hundreds of large wagons or prairie schooners that take manufactured articles into Montana, and return laden with the products of that extensive region. From Franklin all travel northward is by stage or horseback, and he who chooses the latter may rely upon jolting enough to dispel all symptoms of indigestion, as the country to be traversed is very hilly, and the roads are mere trails.
I secured a seat in one of the “schooners,” as I wished to see the sort of life led by those captains of the plains who drive the mules, and I thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of the trip. The genial fellow with whom I booked as a free passenger led a line of perhaps thirty wagons, and by this leading advantage escaped the clouds of dust, which enveloped those in the rear. His team consisted of eight pairs of mules and two “bell mares,” whose jingling cadence soothed the feelings of the obstinate long-eared quadrupeds so much that they toiled and struggled all day without an effort at a display of stubbornness.
Our route led back through Idaho, and carried us through the fertile valley of the Beaver River, where Mormons were quite thickly settled. Their substantial houses, well-kept farms, and crowds of tow-headed children were seen in every direction, and gave the country a cultivated appearance most pleasing to behold.
The long line of wagons rumbled onward all day, and in the evening encamped together in an open plain. Fires were then lighted, and a supper, consisting of fat bacon, bread made out of self-raising flour and baked in a pan, and hot strong coffee was partaken of by the drivers with a relish which can be enjoyed only by those who toil hard and have their appetites sharpened by the bracing air of the plains.
After this was over the teamsters paid each other, friendly visits, but I noticed that the inquiries made were usually about the draught animals, and their good conduct during the day. If the answers were not satisfactory on the latter point, a dozen recipes would be given for bettering it, and some would go so far as to advise the death of that “Yaller Jim,” “Black Bill,” or “Wall-eyed Virginia,” as nothing else could cure them of their ill temper.
The last spree in Franklin, Bozeman, or Helena was related with the most minute exactness, and the fight that Piegan Jack had with Hiel Southard discussed in all its bearings—and the cause of the death of the latter analyzed in the most tediously detailed manner.
When the time for retiring came each muleteer spread a roll of blankets under his wagon, rolled himself up in it, and was soon fast asleep. At daybreak the next morning the animals were fed, a repast of the same character as the previous dinner eaten, and the long line resumed its march.
These teamsters are a hardy, rough-and-ready class, who seem impervious alike to fear and the vicissitudes of the weather; and it would be difficult to find any persons more hospitable than they are. Their mode of life prevents them from enjoying many of the advantages of education, yet few are met who cannot read and write; and all can discuss local and national politics with a terseness and emphasis that would do credit to a professional politician.
The individual among them who is not brave, or, as they term it, “has no sand in him,” is rare indeed, as the majority of them have had to fight Indians many a day, and being adepts with the rifle and revolver, the body of men that could defeat them is difficult to find. Every one carries arms in his wagon, and not a few wear revolvers in their belts, so that they are prepared for emergencies at all times.
Many drive their own teams, but several are employed by transport companies at sums varying from 100 to 200 dollars per mouth, according to the dangerous character of the route they traverse, or the heavy work they have to do. Whenever a body of Indians takes to the war path the caravanseries are the first objects of assault, if plunder is desired, but the occasion is very rare when the attack is successful, if the teamsters are in any numbers, or have received an intimation of their danger.
I stayed with the caravan until it reached Fort Hall, in Idaho, and there bidding my kind host a farewell, I booked as a passenger in the stage that ran through Montana, then distant some 200 miles. The route over which it travelled was but sparsely settled, and wandering Indians even were seldom seen.
— John Mortimer Murphy, Rambles in Northwestern America, London: Chapman and Hall, 1879. (pages 195-197)
— Charles D.Loughrey Photo, Pioneer Museum of Bozeman.
— You might also enjoy General W.E. Strong’s story about traveling to Montana by stagecoach, “One Good Square Drink.”