From the Museum Archives: The brutal, first written account of Yampa Valley
The first written account of the Yampa Valley and Northwest Colorado is a stark reminder of just how miserable life could be for those who dared to venture away from civilization in the 1800s.
In 1839, Thomas Jefferson Farnham left Peoria, Illinois leading 19 men on one of the first overland journeys to Oregon. Instead of taking the still-new Oregon Trail route through Wyoming, Farnham hoped to avoid hostile Indians by taking a more southerly route. However, before the party even reached the Rocky Mountains they were near mutiny and many returned home. He was left with just a handful of men and a faithful dog to press on.
On July 31, 1839 they officially reached the Yampa Valley near today’s town of Yampa. Farnham described Egeria Park as, “…a beautiful savannah stretching northwesterly from our camp in an irregular manner. Three hundred yards from us rose Tumbleton’s Rock (today’s Finger Rock).”
On August 4, while following the Yampa River, they reached the area of Steamboat Springs and explored Sulphur Cave. “About 12 o’clock we came upon a cave formed by a limestone and sulphur deposit from a small stream that burst from a hill hard by. Near it were a number of warm springs.”
They were now headed for Fort Davy Crockett in Browns Park. However, food became scarce with the more arid climate. After a week with little to eat except two grizzly bear cubs that their dog helped catch, they had no choice but to consider every option for food — including their faithful companion.
On August 11, near present-day Maybell, Farnham wrote, “This morning we tried our utmost skill at fishing. Patience often cried ‘hold,’ but the appearance of our poor dog would admonish us to continue our efforts to obtain a breakfast from the stream. Thus we fished and fasted till 8 o’clock. A small fish or two were caught — three or four ounces of food for 7 starving men! Our guide declared the noble dog must die. He was accordingly shot, his hair burnt off, and his fore quarters boiled and eaten!! Some of the men declared that dogs made excellent mutton; but on this point, there existed among us what politicians term an honest difference of opinion. To me, it tasted like the flesh of a dog, a singed dog.”
Farnham then added, “…we left (the Yampa River) to see it no more, I would humbly hope, till the dews of Heaven shall cause this region of deserts to blossom and ripen into something more nutritive than wild wormwood and gravel.”
Finally, just two days later and still starving, they arrived at Fort Davy Crockett. Farnham’s relief was palpable. “…the bluffs opened before us the beautiful plain of Browns Hole. The Fort, as it is called, peered up in the centre upon the winding bank of the Sheetskadee (Green River). The dark mountains rose around it sublimely and the green fields wept away into the deep precipitous gorges more beautifully than I can describe. How glad is man to see his home again after a weary absence. Every step becomes quicker as he approaches its sacred portals and kind smiles greet him and leaping hearts beat upon his and warm lips press his own. It is the holy sacrament of friendship.”
Here they stayed for a week while regaining their strength and restocking supplies. They left on the 19th to continue to Oregon.
Farnham’s popular book “Travels in the Great Western Prairies” was published in 1841. In addition to the earliest account of the Yampa Valley, it is also considered one of the first accounts of an overland voyage to Oregon before the true rush began. You can read it in its entirety here: https://tinyurl.com/y5aymumv
Farnham wrote a few more popular books about his travels through California and Mexico and quickly became influential in both Oregon and California affairs. He died in San Francisco in 1848.
Paul Knowles is assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. To learn more, drop by the Museum of Northwest Colorado at 590 Yampa Ave., or visit the museum’s Facebook page, facebook.com/MuseumNorthwestColorado.