Death Stalked The Grand Reconnaissance

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They rested their animals and overhauled their gear, while a detachment under Beckwith rode off southward for Taos to get another mountain man to guide them over the treacherous Cochetopa Pass and into the valley beyond. Fortunately they returned with Antoine Leroux, one of the real veterans of the southern Rocky Mountain fur trade. Leroux had guided Kearny west to California in 1847. In 1851 he had taken Lieutenant Lorenzo Sitgreaves’ expedition into the Navaho country of New Mexico and Arizona, below the Grand Canyon and the San Francisco Peaks to the Colorado River and on to California; on that trip a Yampais arrow had all but paralyzed him. For the past few months he had been staying in Taos with the other mountain trappers, assiduously attending fandangoes and all-night drinking bouts.

With Leroux to guide them the explorers were in good hands. During the last weeks of August they moved up the San Luis Valley, and by the end of the month they were approaching the Cochetopa Pass. Everywhere the grandeur and serenity of nature was impressive, and the party’s routine responded to its invitation. Gunnison would scout ahead with Leroux while Beckwith would urge along the train. Kern would ride off to some nearby prominence to sketch the terrain while Schiel and Creuzfeldt would collect rocks and plants for shipment to the Smithsonian in Washington.

On September 2 they cut their way with axes and shovels over the crest of the Cochetopa, thereby crossing the Continental Divide. And during the next week, led by Leroux, they descended by stages into the valley of the present-day Gunnison River, which the captain himself called the Grand. The only disturbing sign was an Indian smoke signal that arose against the sky beyond the mountains to the northwest in mistaken answer to a cook’s runaway campfire. Then one day the advance party found itself suddenly surrounded by nearly two hundred Paiute Indians well mounted on captured Navaho ponies and arrogantly scowling at the white interlopers and demanding tribute. What had become a tense situation was shortly disposed of by Leroux. Speaking to the chief, he declared: We have good weapons, much powder, and much lead. If you want to fight, so be it. We will fight with you and kill many of your warriors. The white father has many brave warriors. He will punish your transgressions. He has sent us to ride through your land and see what his red children are doing.

With that the red men became more hospitable and vanished shortly afterward. The explorers’ route took them along the gorgeous high canyons of the Gunnison, across the barren divide west to the Uncompahgre, down that river to the Gunnison again, then over the Grand River (the main Colorado).

One day an entire Indian band appeared in a friendlier manner and, camping on a riverbank beside the caravan, hopefully awaited presents, shouting far into the night to their comrades on the other shore to swim across and join the party and tell their friends about it, too. The hardpressed Leroux found himself in the embarrassing position of having to spend the night sharing sleeping quarters with a native chief, one of whose fellow chiefs the scout had once killed in an altercation over a horse. But after much smoking and giving of presents the explorers eventually departed in peace.

From the Grand they made their way across a great barren artemisia plain covered with agate and other conglomerate rocks, relics of whole formations that, as Schiel pointed out, had almost vanished, “as it were, before our eyes.” To the north were the colorful bands of the Book Cliffs. To the south, though none of the explorers noted it, were the fantastic eroded arches (now preserved as a national monument) that mark the entrance to the rugged country around the confluence of the Green and the Grand.

After passing the Green River the party made directly west up the broad sloping incline of the San Raphael Swell to the base of the Wasatch Mountains, which they could see dead ahead of them for several days. October 12 found them encamped near the entrance to Wasatch Pass, ready to cross over into the Great Basin. Captain Gunnison had thus far led his expedition successfully through some of the wildest and most difficult country in western North America, and they all had passed safely through the dangerous Ute country. Sometime after crossing the Grand River, Antoine Leroux had deemed them safe enough and himself turned back through Indian country for New Mexico and a rendezvous with Lieutenant Whipple and his thirty-fifth-parallel survey.