The Yellowstone Expedition down the Yellowstone in 1874 is identified in a way with the history of Gallatin County, as it was started from Bozeman, the prime object being to open up the Wolf Creek country, where the men supposed there were rich placer mines as represented by a man named J. L. Vernon, a former Bozeman teacher, who claimed he had found gold in paying quantities in the Wolf Creek Mountains.
James Gourley, one of the party, a pioneer who came to what is now Montana in 1862, and who on May 4, 1932, celebrated his ninety-second birthday anniversary in Bozeman, said, “I don’t think there was ever an expedition made into the heart of a hostile Indian country that equaled this. The country was alive with Sioux Indians, and yet we made that march, losing only one man out of 146 that started from Bozeman.”
With the 146 men, everyone having a saddle horse, the outfit included about 20 wagons with about 50 teams and some cattle, 100 packhorses, one 12-pound Howitzer and one 12-pound Napoleon. “The company was organized,” Mr. Gourley says, “about the middle of February, 1874, with Benjamin Franklin Grounds captain. He was a Texan, who had seen service in California in early days. The outfit over which he had wonderful command was composed of ranch men from Gallatin Valley, citizens of Bozeman, hunters and trappers from the Yellowstone, prospectors and miners from various parts of the territory.”
The weather was intensely cold, and when they reached the Sweet Grass country, they had to keep the cattle moving all night to keep them from freezing, and some of the men had feet, hands and ears frost-bitten. Going on to the Yellowstone they had to shovel the way through snowdrifts and in one place it took 50 men with ropes to pull the wagons and teams up the steep hills.
They had several skirmishes with Indians and narrow escapes from being killed, but routed the Indians most of the time with the big guns. The Indians filled the wagon sheets full of holes, and killed 21 of their horses one night.
In one skirmish, the men killed several Indians, frightened about 30 from a couley, got the scalps of 13 Indians and captured 23 of their horses. While in camp on the Rosebud, the Indians tried to get the herd of horses but failed. One Indian was shot off his horse, and while trying to get the scalp of this red man, “Zack Yates, one of our best men,” Mr. Gourley said, “was shot through the heart, and died instantly. This was the only man killed on the trip.”
A dummy grave was dug to fool the Indians, and into this was put a loaded shell, some sticks of giant powder and other missiles to cause trouble if the Indians opened the grave, and the body of Mr. Yates was taken to the next camp and buried in the breast-works. With numerous narrow escapes in the skirmishes on the trip, it seemed marvelous that no more men were killed, and that no serious trouble came from the extreme cold, but Mr. Gourley said, “I think our success came from the fact that we always got in the first shot. We worked on their superstitions, making them think our medicine was stronger than theirs, through leaving cartridges loaded with giant powder that they picked up.
“We did not find any gold,” he continued, “but we traveled slowly on the way home, making our camps with great caution. We crossed the Big Horn River at Fort C. F. Smith, April 10, and arrived back in Bozeman May 3.”
- Additional Reading