In 1860 Henry E. Palmer traveled from Omaha to Pike's Peak with James A. Maxwell's party. He was a careful observer of the people the group encountered and the sites they visited. Palmer was especially impressed with "the great ox trains belonging to the freighters, particularly the outfits belonging to Russell, Majors & Waddell. The drivers of cattle hitched to one wagon, all controlled by the sturdy command and crack of the bullwhip wielded by the athletic driver, created a novel sight.
"The first pop I ever heard from the bull whip gave me a shock such as one might expect from the unlooked-for explosion of a cannon just a few steps behind you. The whip lash of buck skin resembling a great bull snake was usually about twelve to sixteen feet long (I saw one twenty-two feet long), fully an inch in thickness near the middle, tapering down to only one-sixteenth of an inch to the popper, the lash fastened to a hickory wood stock, or rather, handle to the lash, for the stock was only about eighteen inches long. The experienced bullwhacker would raise this stock, twirl the lash full length behind, then swing it to the front quickly, and with a short jerk straighten the lash with a force that when the popper uncurled, the report would sound fully as loud as a cannon cracker. Snap this popper of the bull whip near the side, or under a lazy ox, as one of the expert bullwhackers could do, and the ox would jump and push ahead. Six, eight, and sometimes ten yoke of oxen hitched to one of the heavy 'prairie schooners' loaded with four to six tons of merchandise, or to a wagon and a trail wagon behind, was truly an interesting sight.
"The bullwhacker, who handled the team with his great bull whip, was no insignificant part of the attraction. I judge that about half of these hardy, stalwart fellows, not afraid of anything in this world or in the next, were Missourians. We passed one of these trains near Cottonwood; in fact we passed these 'outfits,' as they were called, every day. I asked a husky looking driver, 'Where from?' He answered, 'Omaha, ha, ha.' 'Where bound?' 'Idaho, ho, ho,' then popped his whip, swore at the oxen, and passed on.
"The ox trains commonly known as 'bull trains,' usually started on the day's journey at daylight and camped about noon, giving the cattle all the afternoon and until 3:00 A.M. for feed and rest. Everybody crossing the plains from '58 to '68 had to do their share of 'standing guard'. . . . Our horses and mules were either hobbled or picketed out during the night, or in war times, generally in the corral, which was always formed by every large train. As we entered camp the head team would lead off to the right or left, the middle team in the opposite direction, both forming a half circle, completed when they came together."
Return to Timeline Index