Early spring in 1856 the Sacker family along with other like minded families were on there way west from southern Indiana. It was a time when tensions were rising nearly to the boiling over issues concerning slavery, the economy and industrial manufacturing. The people were starting to draw lines in the sands of their moral fiber and their political beliefs. The price of crops was down and one of the hardest winters in memory had taken its toll on the livestock and supplies.
For the Sackers and many other people at that time it all added up to a permanent move west to get away from it all. Everyone had already been hearing stories of the limitless opportunities of the nearly guaranteed prosperity to be found in the west. Gold and endless fertile land free for the taking. If one were to believe everything that one heard at that time about the west, why one might think that the Good Lord had moved Heaven out there.
When it came time to leave most people just took what they needed and simply sold or abandoned everything else. On the other hand some tried to take everything including grandmother's upright piano, china cabinets and things like that. Some folks even tried to disassemble their houses, loading whole walls on flat bed wagons with the pictures still hanging on them. The Sackers packed two covered wagons full of everything that was smaller than the size of a kitchen chair, pa's orders!.
Getting out of Indiana and through Illinois took a little over three months. Going through Missouri was only another six weeks. The scenery so far were pretty much the same as home. No dramatic events have occurred except for mother Sacker declaring that the family could use a break from traveling, time to get rested, cleaned up and reorganized. Some days they traveled up to twenty miles, some days only five, and for a few days "no miles" because father Sacker decided (after mother's constant demanding) that the livestock needed a rest, and the wagons could use some repair.
They traveled through the less populated areas of these states in order to avoid the fighting over slavery. In the 1850's Missouri and Kansas were real pre-civil war hot boxes with Missouri being a slave state and Kansas opposing slavery. Back on May 30, 1854 Kansas became a territory. This meant that shortly thereafter there would be an official vote in Congress to determine if Kansas would become a State and the state would vote on whether or not it would be proslavery or free. Men who were landowners in Kansas and were against slavery formed a political party called "Free Staters". Proslavery voters from Missouri flooded the Kansas territory to try and sway the vote posing as Kansas citizens. To insure a successful proslavery vote a group of proslavery men known as the "rough-ins" used threats, violence, and murder to suppress the movement of the Free Staters. The pro slavers were successful for a time and did win the vote.
A zealous abolitionist named John Brown took up arms against the aggressive pro-slave movement in Kansas. John Brown and five of his sons along with other abolitionist had many bloody fights with the Missouri pro-slavers from 1856 through 1859. In 1859 there was a politically motivated incident at Harpers Ferry Virginia where the actions of John Brown resulted in the Federal Government sending a United States Marine Colonel named Robert E. Lee to arrest John Brown for murder, even though the pro-slavers were the first to draw innocent blood. Brown was arrested, tried, found guilty and On Dec.2, 1859 he was hanged.
The majority of congress at the time was Republican free-staters. Ironically many of them were privately funding John Brown's efforts. Congress held a vote concerning excepting Kansas as a State, which was a war of its own. The Republican Congress refused to recognize Kansas if it was to be a Slave State. As a result of such political confrontations the Southern Democrat controlled states elected to withdraw from the Union. "Bleeding Kansas" along with thousands of other small skirmishes across the country during this time really were where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Even as far west as California there were men arguing and fighting over what was going on in the east. The incidences surrounding John Brown's actions were the boiling over of a pot that had long been sitting on the fire, boiling hard.
The war would not be official for another two years though there were many bloody fights leading up to it. Kansas became the 34th State on Jan. 29, 1861 and was declared a free state. (The war officially began Apr. 12, 1861 with confederate shots being fired upon Fort Sumter) In proportion to its population Kansas sent more troops to fight for the Union during the war than any other State.
There were many causes of the war and at the beginning of woes Slavery was not a focal point. The number one spark that started the flame was political in nature. There was a great gulf between the way that northern people thought and the way that Southern people thought about a lot of issues, economics being the overall issue. Yes even then and as always money equals power and power equals control. Generally speaking the average state of being would have been much poorer in the South although there were more wealthy elite individuals in the South with one person having power and authority over many individuals. Slavery worked well in this environment and was the source of extreme wealth to few individuals.
The North was full of lower middle class working people and these many people working together becomes a power and authority of their own. Kind of like a Union!
Slavery would be brought into the equation as a moral issue on the grass-roots level and because of that pressure Congressmen used slavery as a political ploy. This would bring into issue States Rights, which would in-turn get the population, north and south, set to the issue in a heated manor. Throw into that boiling pot the other fact that new territories were at the time in the process of becoming states. That all gave birth to the radical factions from the North and South, which would heat these issues into violent confrontations. This started the general population to daily conversations making choices on the issues in which they would stand firm on. Next the general population on both sides would secretly fund groups of radicals that would move about the territories that were about to become states and do what ever it would take to sway the opinions of the people there.
Sacker and his group were lucky to make this journey west by a southern route when they did for two good reasons. One, they would not have been able to leave once the war started, as any able-bodied men would have had to fight. The second reason is that the fight to extinguish the Indians would not heat to a climax in the west until after the Civil War and the southwest would be one of the last areas heavily fought over. Until then most people had little to no reason to fear the Indians. In fact their are plenty of stories of settlers traveling west before the civil war who were stranded, lost, freezing and starving that received life saving help from Indians.
So far the route for Sacker wagon train has been through small settlements connected by well-traveled wagon trails. The dirt packed hard enough to make for fairly smooth going, even in the rain except for the heaviest wagons, which had to be pulled up muddy slopes and across creeks one at a time, using extra teams of horses and mules taken from other wagons. When they got half way into Kansas they ran out of common trails but it didn't matter this was the beginning of the Great Plains. Here the land was longer and flatter than the bottoms of Jed Sacker's feet and covered with a two-foot tall blanket of grass that was as sweet as honey. As they went on, the land began to roll. First it was gentle long low-grade slopes, which gradually began to get steeper and more often. It was like the ripples on a lake bunching up as they are forced against the shoreline. After a while they began to see boulders as large as houses scattered across the landscape as if they fell randomly right out of the sky. After many days of the ever steadily inclining and the building rocky terrain the boulders are now the size of huge barns stacked one upon another and another yet. Now they find themselves having to work their way around the great piling boulders and up steep rocky inclines.
For the first time they were faced with a decision about going on or not, particularly those who packed everything. The only choice really is either to go back and get involved with the bloody mess over slavery or abandon everything here except that which is necessary to survive the rest of the journey. They could see that others had done just that. In fact the foothills of the Colorado Rockies were America's first junkyards. Littered with everything from whole wagons, crates full of dishes and clothing to the walls of houses. To this day there are still places where remains of this refuse remains.
By now they knew that they were at the foothills of the great western mountains. They also knew that just on the other side was the realizing of their western dream. Surely it couldn't be long now they have come so far already and are nearly halfway into Colorado. Missouri and Kansas territories are so big that crossing either one alone seemed farther than crossing Indiana and Illinois combined. They proceeded up the base of the east side of the mountain range known as the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. They had found a narrow passage between two peaks, which reached up over 14,000 ft. The pass (Medano Pass) was forested but not nearly as steep or rocky as the mountain range on either side. They chopped, cut, trudged and treaded their way up, day after day until one clear morning when they could finally see the summit of the passage that they were on. Mr. Sacker overcome with anticipation decides to scout ahead. At the top, at nearly 9,000 ft., he looked out toward the western sky. Though it seemed that he could see on forever, from a point at the foot of the mountain below where he stood, on to the western horizon, on to the north, and to the south, all he could see was an ocean of sand. Sacker worked his way back to the wagon train with the news of what he had seen. He told his friends that they had to be close because they had already topped the Rockies and the western desert was just on the other side.
Everyone worked their way down toward the desert valley. Half way down the west side of the mountain they came upon a stream (Medano Creek), which they could follow to the sandy valley below. It was near dusk and the families decided to make camp on a plateau just above the valley floor. The next morning when the sun finally rose above the mountain range that was now behind them, it burned away the lazy clouds which had settled in the valley for the night. It also cleared way to an unsettling view. On the other side of this vast valley of sand looking along from the north to the south, the horizon from the ground to the sky was saw-toothed with vast ranges of mountains. It was unlike anything that they had ever seen. They had no idea that the whole world was even as immense as what their eyes were now beholding. The mountain range that they had just crossed, though peaking at over 14,000 feet, was relatively small in comparison to the 800 miles of mountain ranges to come.
The Sackers were at what is now known as the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Southern Colorado. The dunes cover approximately 40 square miles. That may not sound like much but that is a big chunk of ground. You cannot see across from one side to the other when you are in the middle of it. You can not drive across it and you would die walking it. This is a mysterious place to visit. It is like a portion of the Arabian Desert was placed in the San Luis Valley between two lush forested mountain ranges. When you are there you literally take one step to go from forest to sandy treacherous desert. The wind can be dead calm all around but as soon as you take that step onto the sand dunes you begin to feel the mysterious winds that helped to create the dunes. The winds over the dunes rarely stop and often they are gusting at 50 miles per hour or more for 24 hours a day. The dunes are shaped and reshaped daily by the winds and some of the dunes have formed to heights of over 700 feet. The area was originally home to the Ute Indians. Just a short drive west from the dunes on route 160 and you will find yourself at Mesa Verde National Park.
©®1990-William J. Marsh
More about the Sackers, Mesa Verde and the Southwest in another story which I will publish soon.