A Twice-Told Tale

The rumor of gold strikes in the vicinity of Pikes Peak on the eve of the American Civil War sent teams of hopeful miners streaming westward, with Thomas Lovewell and Daniel Jenks adding to their ranks.  A trickle of adventurers in 1858 swelled to a flood the following year, partly because of a booklet printed in Glenwood, Iowa, and distributed at jumping-off points along the Missouri River.

DC Oakes

The man who published the most famous guide to the new gold fields, Daniel Chessman Oakes, quickly came to be reviled as a liar and charlatan, whose well-deserved death at the hands of an angry mob was reported in newspapers from Glenwood to Baltimore and St. Paul to Shreveport.

Still very much alive in 1883, Oakes decided it was time to give his own version of the notorious tale.  Unlike the maligned guide, Oakes’s  memoir has languished unpublished* and, one supposes, largely unread inside a series of folders in the Denver Public Library.  Thanks to Lovewell cousin and intrepid traveler Phil Thornton, who visited the library in 2020, we can see what Denver’s tireless frontier promoter had to say in his own defense.

A note of thanks is due my wife, whose decades of experience grading the papers of young students came in handy in deciphering Oakes’s hurried penmanship.  I may have inadvertently given D. C. the benefit of the doubt on some spelling issues, but tried not to intervene when an incorrect or obsolete variant was clearly intended.  

On meeting old 59ers these days I am often reminded by them that they saw my grave on the Platt river near Julesburg in spring of 59, or what purported to be mine with Buffalo bones for tomb stones and various epitaphs written thereon.  Among them I remember the following (for I saw it myself), D. C. Oakes dead and buried and in hell.  Another who seemed rather more political added the following - Here lies the remains of D. C. Oakes,  who was engaged in this damn hoax.

The causes that led the stampeders, as they were called at that time, to bury me in effigy are known to but few at this late day.  I have often been solicited by friends to make a statement in reference to the cause of the stampede among the immigrants.

To give a proper understanding of the subject we shall have to commence with our first arrival at the mouth of Cherry Creek in search of gold which was the 10th of Oct. 1858. H. J. Graham, Geo. Pancoast, Chas. Miles, Abram Walrod and myself were the party.  We found Green Russel and company 4 miles above on the Platte washing out gold with rockers, from $3 to $10 per day to a man, it being float gold.  Those of us that had been in California concluded the source must be in the mountains.

So we spend several weeks prospecting along the base of the mountains finding float gold in nearly all the streams but not in paying quantities.  It was too late in the season to enter the mountains but we were satisfied no good pay existed there.  Returning to Cherry Creek we found a large camp of immigrants preparing to winter.  On our first arrival there was no person nor house on the present site of Denver.

That winter we returned to the states, leaving one of our party, Miles, before having obtained Green Russels company journal of their expedition kept by Luke Tierney.  When I returned to Glenwood Iowa and had the journal published together with guides of the route to the mines by Oakes, Smith put the books on sale at the various starting points along the Missouri river during that winter.  

Many letters were written home giving glowing accounts of the country and mines.  The result was a verry large migration started for this country in the spring.  In the meantime Lou Mullin,  Dr. Street and myself purchased a steam saw mill and out-fit.  Street and myself started with the mill about 20th of March of 59 for the mines.

Owing to our heavy machinery we made slow progress the first 200 miles and the immigrants with horse and mule teams were passing us daily in large numbers.  They would invariably notice the mill and want to see the owners, saying whoever was to bring a mill through must have confidence in the country.  

I was always pointed out to the immigrants as having been through fall before so I had to tell my story to nearly every company that passed me.  They would find out my name and that I had published the guide book.  So I became known to nearly everybody that passed me.  Our progress was so slow that near O’Fallons Bluffs I decided to move forward with the horse teams and select a place for the mill, leaving the ox teams to follow.

Street, Haines and myself started forward with the horse train.  Not far below Julesburg we met returning emigrants going home.  I tried to convince them they had not given the country a trial and offered to wager what little I had in sight on the plains that I could find $10 diggins in that country but that kind of talk had no effect.  They kept on homeward bound and we continued on up the river, meeting the stampedes thicken and more of them every day

I will state here what caused the first turn of the immigrants home was a man who had wintered here becoming discouraged and started home early in the spring.  When he met the immigration he told them the mines were a humbug, the country was unfit for white settlers - they were all leaving the country as fast as they could get away.

His story had the effect to turn larger numbers of the immigrants homeward and in no good humor you can be assured.  The man that started the cry of humbug I never saw to know him.  As I said before I continued on up the river and faced the stampede for about a day and a half being told every day by the immigrants I would be murdered if I went on.  Finally at a noon camp we met two friends, John Hill and Eli Long who advised us to return to the mill and keep our party together for they considered me in danger if I went forward.  So we concluded to go back and meet the mill camped with Hill party that night.

* The narrative was written by Oakes for a speech delivered to the Pioneer Society in 1883.  Chunks of the script are intermingled with letters, diary entries, and other sources throughout Chapter Six of D.C. Oakes, Family, Friends and Foe by LaVonne J. Perkins.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com