Most people who grew up watching Westerns were swept away by the romance on the big screen. It’s a natural enough reaction. Spend enough hours in a dark theater munching (preferably buttered) popcorn with the likes of Eastwood or McQueen (not to mention the Duke, Coop, Fonda or Stewart) staring down from the big screen, and you’ll gladly join the ranks of those who swear that, in the old days on the frontier, good guys were always clean with nice boots and really smart, loyal horses while the bad guys all wore dirty clothes and had bad teeth. Battle scenes were especially antiseptic. If shot, people were either just “winged” or they died. And, if they died, they usually did it quickly and with a remarkable absence of blood. (There were exceptions, of course; sometimes, someone lived long enough to curse, confess or profess undying love—in 25 words or less--before staring briefly into space and then going limp as if their plug had just been pulled.)
These days, the truth about life “on the frontier” reveals a much more grisly, grueling existence, especially for those individuals who braved unknown and, to some, unsettled land in search of newly found fortune.
Gold has an unequalled allure to those who seek instant wealth above all else. A mere rumor of its discovery can—and has—spread to such an extent that even unproven claims call out across miles and miles of open, merciless prairie with more false promise and deadly persistence than the Sirens called to Ulysses. (It’s not called “gold fever” for nothin’.) Such was the case in 1848 with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California, and the ensuing “rush” was historic. However, the “flash in the pan” was largely over by the mid-1850, and miners were in search of new sites of promise. In May of 1858, William Greeneberry Russell (three names? he must have been rich) organized an expedition to where the Platte River and Cherry Creek met, having heard rumors of small gold deposits. Lucky for him (perhaps, not so lucky for others) they found a small deposit in July of that same year. In no time, word spread that “gold lay in the hills of Colorado”, and, by 1859, hordes of miners were swarming into the territory, intent on staking a claim and making their fortune at the foot of the great Rockies.
For many, many years--long before William Greeneberry Russell even knew the Colorado Territory existed--the headwaters of the Smoky Hill River with its limestone banks was a significant site for the Indians who hunted and resided in the region.
For those passing through with “no eyes to see”, the sandy creek was dry, offering no water to even those most desperate to find it. But others—those Indian tribes who hunted and roamed in the area—knew better. Before 1830, it might have been the Pawnee, the Kiowa or the Comanches, and, later, the Cheyenne or the Arapahoe. Regardless of who was the first to see, all soon knew that the dry earth was a disguise, for, beneath the surface, there were springs such that one could scoop out a handful of sand and, within moments, the hole would fill with water.
Using their hands, the Indians began to dig wells fed by the springs below. Then they began to dig into the banks of the stream, fashioning out of the limestone shallow caves that provided shelter from the hottest of days and respite from the rigors of a buffalo hunt. Even John C. Fremont—the man known as the Pathfinder and the first white man to have allegedly traveled in the area—made no mention of the oasis when he followed the river along what was known as the Smoky Hill Trail in the year 1844.
Had expeditions ended with Fremont…had William Greeneberry Russell never declared gold was found in Cherry Creek, Indian Wells, as they were once known, might have remained as they were, undisturbed and untouched except for those who used it only for temporary respite
But that was simply not to be.
During the California gold rush, miners and others followed routes along the Platte and Arkansas. These trails were well traveled and offered as much a measure of safe passage as could be found in travel of that type. But Cherry Creek and nearby Denver lay between the two trails and could not be directly accessed by either one. The best—and fastest by, supposedly, 100 miles—trail was the Smoky Hill Trail, renamed the Butterfield Trail for the man who paid to have it surveyed. While this trail was more direct and, consequently, shorter, it was also treacherous and loaded with dangers, not the least of which was no water and very little game for the last 130 miles. Travelers often arrived in Denver with horrifying tales of great suffering and death from no food or water. Before long, the trail was renamed “Starvation Trail” and, in 1859, was no longer traveled.
Yet, the trail was not dead. In 1860, David Butterfield (oddly enough, no relation to the other) managed to arouse enough interest in the trail to fund another surveying party. Lieutenant Julian Fitch, along with four men of the US Signal Corps, Colonel Isaac Eaton and his party of 26 “constructionists” plus an escort of 250 cavalry left Ellsworth on July 14th and began actual work on the road. “Stations”, some no more than pens holding fresh horses and others providing food and other accommodations, were constructed, many only 12 miles apart. One such station was the site at Indian Wells. Having been discovered by Fitch and his men, another well was dug and the caves were expanded, one reaching a depth of more than 30 feet and providing enough room for a stagecoach and team of six horses to be driven inside and turned around.
Finally, five years later, in 1865, Butterfield himself rode the first coach to Denver, arriving on September 22nd. The venture was described by investors as a great success. However, these were men of business not men of the plains, and they had seriously underestimated the one opponent more dedicated to the region than they were. The Indians.
Almost from the beginning, the tribes in the area put up serious and deadly resistance to the infringement the Butterfield Overland Dispatch had made upon their lands. Five forts were built along the length of the trail, but even with troops permanently stationed on guard, the ability of the Indians to appear out of nowhere, attack with heart stopping violence and intent only to disappear again robbed the troops of much of their efficacy. Before long, after numerous incidents that only grew more violent with each telling, did it become clear that this was a war that would continue until either one or both of the opponents were defeated.
Ultimately, the Butterfield Overland Dispatch route was deemed financially unsuccessful and was sold to Wells Fargo who vowed to make it work. But it was not the Indians who were the ultimate demise of the stagecoach trail. It was the railroad.
Even with the on-going conflict, Indian Wells continued to be inhabited and actually was the site of a several dwellings making up a small commercial district that included several stores, Johnnie White’s saloon and a blacksmith shop. By this time, the size of the cave was so immense—and the span of its roof so expansive—that people began to fear the ceiling wouldn’t hold.
When the railroad finally made it to the site of the small “town”, it dug another well and provided enough support so that water could be piped to the railroad. However, they soon discovered another, closer well that was better established. With this discovery, the group of dwellings were moved from the cave to a location about 5 miles south. That location is now the site of the town of Cheyenne Wells.
The wells and caves, called the “Old Wells”, continued to be accessible until the late 1930s when, out of fear of possible injury to those who went exploring, the entrance was dynamited and sealed permanently shut. There’s some disagreement over who actually did the dynamiting. Some say it was the owner who walked in, laid the fuse, struck a match and sentenced the caves that had once been so full of life to a future of darkness and silence. Others say it was the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps and was blasted when they were here in 1938.
Regardless of who actually lit the match, those wells remain in darkness to this day, housing not only scattered remnants of the original dwellings but echoes of voices once raised, perhaps, in song and celebration for the springs of sweet water delivered in the midst of a dry and aging earth.