“This road once led fortune seekers across Oklahoma on their way to California’s Gold Rush. Today it’s a path for those in search of a Sooner State adventure like no other.”
In case you missed it in print, here’s the electronic version of my story, “The Great Golden Way” from Oklahoma Today’s September/October 2016 edition. Subscribe at oklahomatoday.com and click here to read it: The Great Golden Way
Hiking in southern Utah and northern Arizona in September of this year, I pinched off twigs of sage along the trail as I passed, crushing the leaves and blossoms with my fingers and cupping my hands to my face to inhale the scent, a scent I didn’t want to release. A few weeks later, the smell of sagebrush is only a sweet and pungent memory, but it’s one of the ways the West intoxicates me, drawing me back again and again. Slot canyons have perhaps an even more powerful pull, and that is evident in the photos here, some of my favorites from my recent travels.
Bill and I have been blessed to visit Utah several times over the past few years and as I was thinking about my next trip — hiking in the area around Kanab, Utah later this week — I remembered this story from our 2009 journey across the country to California, “The Trail of the Ancients.” It was published in James Pratt’s Adventure Rider Magazine.
West of Oklahoma City — way out past Hinton and nearly to Hydro — the casual observer driving along Interstate 40 might catch out of the corner of his eye some mounds to the south upon the prairie. They’re easy to miss, since such physical features are unexpected amid the flatness, and one’s eyes are not easily drawn to the landscape in that region. It was, of course, the contrast these buttes created that made them remarkable to travelers of the prairie in the days when overland navigation depended heavily on landmarks.The first recorded observation of the mounds came in 1849 from Lieutenant James H. Simpson of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Simpson was part of Captain Randolph B. Marcy’s military escort for a party of gold seekers traveling to California. Simpson notes in his journal on May 23, 1849:
“Proceeding on about a mile (from camp), some hills of singular shape make their appearance, for the first time, bearing north 70 degrees west; several have very much the appearance of immense Indian lodges.”
The most famous of these mounds, which became an often-noted landmark for westbound travelers, is Rock Mary. Simpson describes his discovery of Rock Mary as follows: “Nearing the first of these (mounds) . . . , and it appearing more oddly shaped than any of the others, I started off alone to ascend it — reaching it just in time to scare up a wild turkey; and tying my horse to a black-jack tree at its base, I scrambled up to its summit. The novel character of the hill; its contorted appearance; its sudden emergence from the plain around it; my having reached its pinnacle; it being an object of interest to beholders in the distance; — all this had its complex influence upon me, and I felt correspondingly elated.”
In the excitement of discovering and ascending the mound, Simpson unfurled an American flag at the summit and named the rock in honor of a young woman traveling with the company, Mary Conway. Captain Marcy did not remark on Rock Mary specifically in his journal but describes the first sighting of the buttes as follows:
“Continuing on this ‘Divide’ for thirteen miles we passed several high mounds of a very soft red sandstone, rising up almost perpendicularly out of the open table land, and can be seen for a long distance before reaching them. At the base of the southern mound, following an old Indian trail, it led us down into a deep ravine, where there is a fine spring of cool water, with wood and grass.”
These hills came to be called the Natural Mounds, described by botanist and artist H.B. Mollhausen, who traveled with the Whipple Expedition surveying a possible railroad route to the Pacific in 1853, as “a group of bold steep hills in the thenceforward treeless plain.” He described them further as “a chain of conical hills, lying separate, but scattered in a direction from north-west to south-east; they are all about equal in height, namely, about eighty feet, and covered with a horizontal stratum of red sandstone.”
Today, the mounds are no less visible, and are easily located as one travels west from Hinton, Oklahoma. Rock Mary is located a few miles west of Hinton on private property southeast of the intersection of Caddo County Roads N2560 and E1070. See Google map here.
Although the site is not open to the public, Rock Mary can be viewed from the county road. I had the opportunity to visit it with Art Peters, curator of the Hinton Historical Museum, as part of my research for “The Great Golden Road,” my story about the California Road in the September/October 2016 issue of Oklahoma Today (oklahomatoday.com). See below a photo of Peters in front of Rock Mary, viewing the butte from the west, and a photo of me at the summit of Rock Mary, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A few months later, my son Mark Fields and I went with Peters on a tour of several other mounds in the same area. We visited Lone Mound, Crown Mound, and Chimney Mound. Crown Mound is the tallest of the “Natural Mounds” and part of the cluster called “Steen’s Buttes,” northwest of Rock Mary. These were so named in the fall of 1858 by Lieutenant Edward F. Beale during a survey for construction of a wagon road from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the Colorado River. They are named for Enoch Steen, who commanded the military escort accompanying Beale’s expedition. This is the grouping of hills most easily viewed from Interstate 40.
Chimney Mound was memorialized by Mollhausen in the illustration below. Its appearance is much the same today.
On another excursion, traveling alone to explore and photograph the mounds, I was able to locate Ghost Mound, pictured below. My resource for this excursion was Art Peters’ book, “Legends of the Mounds,” the cover of which is also pictured below. The book contains history, legends, and a map of the mounds, and is available at the Hinton Historical Museum, 801 S. Broadway in Hinton, or by contacting the museum at (405) 542-3181 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The latest issue of Oklahoma Today (September/October 2016) features my article, “The Great Golden Way,” which tells the story of a trail that crossed Oklahoma in the 1800s, the California Road. It began in Fort Smith, Arkansas and carried fortune-seekers to Santa Fe, New Mexico on their way to the gold fields of California, starting in 1849. Wagons traveled more than 400 miles across Indian Territory in the course of the journey, following the south bank of the Canadian River (or the “South Canadian River,” as we know it locally . . . the “North Canadian River” is actually the northern branch of the Canadian).
Go to OklahomaToday.com to subscribe or pick up a copy on newsstands now.
Remnants of the trail are still evident today and Art Peters, curator of the Hinton Historical Museum, has spent the last decade retracing the wagon road through western Oklahoma. In the past few years he has also been placing markers on the trail.
Over time his exploration has yielded numerous artifacts. Even after the Gold Rush, the road was used for many years, probably until around 1918. Wagon hardware, buttons, tableware, and many other metal objects have turned up in Peters’ excavations and they are on display at the museum, located at 801 S. Broadway in Hinton, just north of the entrance to Red Rock Canyon. (Red Rock Canyon is the only place on public property in Oklahoma where a California Road wagon rut is evident and can be easily visited.)
Four of the artifacts Peters has recently found are pictured below, with some details written by Peters about each one. (Artifact photos by Art Peters.) See these and much more at the museum. For more information, call (405) 542-3181 or go to Hinton Historical Museum
Peters: The padlock is from the 1901 – 1915 time period and the flat-style key it took was a very common thing at that time. I’ve found old trunk locks before that took the same small-style key. I found the lock several yards to the south of a trail campsite near Leedey. I don’t know if the word Patrol means anything more than a brand name or if these locks were meant to lock strong boxes on stage coaches, but I think it was very possible. Movies always show a massive railroad lock, as big as the palm of a hand, being shot off by the outlaws, but in reality they used anything that was handy and would get the job done.
Peters: The fork is from the same campsite as the padlock. Two of the tongs are still holding the shape of the imprint from where a wagon wheel ran over it. The third tong and handle were broken off from the force of being run over. On the reverse side of the handle there are two small hooks, located at the very outer edge, resembling snake fangs, that show us this fork was originally attached to a ring and was part of a “camp set.” But it is uncertain if the “camp set” would have been something the average wagon traveler could have purchased at a trading post or in Fort Smith before heading out, or if it could have come from a military outfit leading the wagon trains or passing through on a different expedition. In the same campsite I also found a long thin flat piece of metal shard I think could have been a cheaply made knife blade body, missing its base and point, but can’t be sure it was part of the same set.
Peters: The cast-iron stove foot was found in a wagon train campsite west of Hinton. I recently found more cast-iron stove plate shards, which equal about one-third of a complete stove-top, top-plate, and part of the top surface rim, which indicates it was a cook stove and not a pot-belly stove. When the wagons were entering this campsite they had just pulled a hill leading them here, and it was during that uphill pull that the wagons would have begun moaning, groaning and creaking under the stress of the pull. This is also the time when wagon brackets and horse harness would break, and men would come to realize their wagons were too overloaded to carry on. Therefore items such as cast-iron stoves and grandfather clocks would have been unloaded to ease the stress the animals and wagons were undergoing. When I think about this old stove foot and the complete stove it came from, I can imagine a conversation between a man and wife on the trail who has just had a horse harness or wagon part break as they approached the top of this hill. If the man is polite to his wife it would go something like this. “Honey you know I love you, but we just can’t take the stove any farther.” Then seeing the broken parts for herself, she would obviously agree to discard it.
Peters: One item I had not given much thought to until a friend mentioned it, is a badly oxidized flat gear about the size of an old silver dollar. It is bent on one edge and has a small pointer on one flat side. I took it to a clock repair shop and the lady there, before I told her about my work, said it was from a mid to late 1800s grandfather clock and the small pointer was the striker that releases the chimes every half hour. It fits the time period perfectly and those old clocks were heavy and if broken in route, it may have been discarded in the camp.
It’s a good week for publications — my story on the Ozark Highlands Trail, “Waiting for Daylight,” was published in TrailGroove’s online magazine (Click here for the TrailGroove web site) a few days ago and then yesterday OutdoorX4 magazine released the digital version of Issue 16 with my story on trekking in Iceland, “Land of Fire and Ice.” AND, one of my photos is featured in OutdoorX4’s “Great Escape” section. Nice! The print version of OutdoorX4 will be available at Barnes and Noble soon, for those who don’t yet subscribe. (Subscribe at OutdoorX4.com.) See both these pieces at my Publications page: https://susandragoo.com/publications/
And, coming out very soon in Oklahoma Today magazine is another article I’m very excited about. Subscribe today at OklahomaToday.com and stay tuned!
August is just around the corner and, while it’s not the best time to hike and camp in Oklahoma and Arkansas (let’s be honest, it’s a great time to go to Colorado), it’s the perfect time to plan some autumn and winter outdoor experiences! Here are a few stories to inspire you:
A camping guide Bill and I authored for Oklahoma Today, Oklahoma Today Camping Guide, which features some of the best places to camp in Oklahoma;
My story on hiking the Ouachita Trail (Oklahoma’s only long-distance hiking trail) for OutdoorX4 magazine, Ouachita Trail OutdoorX4;
And a new story just out in TrailGroove Magazine about last fall’s hike of the western section of the Ozark Highlands Trail with Mary McDaniel, Janet Hamlin, and Pamela Frank: Waiting for Daylight TrailGroove.
Just posted on my web site a large group of recent adventure, history, and travel articles I’ve had published (some as co-author with Bill) in Oklahoma Today, OutdoorX4, ADVMoto, RoadRunner, TrailGroove, Expedition Portal and others. Check them out at this link: https://susandragoo.com/publications/