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Major Frederick Benteen, riding at the head of black Troops B and E of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, raised his hand and called, 'Halt!' at a preselected fort site in eastern Utah Territory, near the confluence of the Duchesne and Uinta rivers. It was August 23, 1886. Benteen and the troops had traveled a total of 650 miles, part of the distance by train, the rest on horseback, from Fort McKinney, Wyoming Territory, to help build and garrison a new Army post to be called Fort Duchesne.
Benteen and his 75 black 'buffalo soldiers' were completely surprised when white soldiers of Companies B, I and K of the 21st Infantry, who had arrived just three days before, cheered them. The beleaguered men of the 21st had traveled 347 miles from Fort Steele, Wyoming Territory. They were delighted to see reinforcements, regardless of color, especially since the new arrivals had brought them all kinds of supplies and ammunition, as well as a Hotchkiss mountain gun, a type of air-cooled, gas-operated machine gun.
Back on the 20th, as they neared the fort site, the infantrymen of the 21st had expected to be ambushed by Ute Indians. They later learned that an ambush had indeed been planned. Some 300 Ute braves had gathered in deep cuts alongside one of the two roads going south from Wyoming Territory to Fort Duchesne. Brigadier General George Crook, in command of the Department of the Platte, and his escort had taken the longer, more traveled route; 1st Lt. Joseph Duncan, in command of Companies B, I and K, had chosen the shorter route. Luckily, one of Duncan's scouts had warned him that Utes were nearby when his command was about 30 miles out from the Fort Duchesne site. The lieutenant had veered off that road and followed Crook, thus avoiding the ambush.
Once at the site, the infantrymen had not been able to relax. Some 700 Utes from the Ouray Reservation had come out to see what the soldiers were doing. In response, the soldiers had established a picket line and quickly dug trenches. While waiting for reinforcements from the 9th Cavalry, they had, according to one observer, 'displayed their triangle-shaped bayonets to their best advantage.'
The appearance of the buffalo soldiers and the Hotchkiss gun did not sit well with the Utes. Chief Sour, of the Uintah band, was especially angry. Special Indian agent Eugene E. White had told him that horse soldiers were coming, and the chief had assumed he meant white soldiers. When Sour's scouts reported seeing black soldiers, Sour hurried to White's headquarters. 'All over black!' he shouted at the agent. 'All over black, buffalo soldiers. Injun heap no like him! Woolly head! Woolly head! All same as buffalo. What you call him, this black white man?' It took White more than an hour of fast talking to console Sour. White guaranteed that 'the buffalo soldier chiefs were white' and vouched for the good conduct of these new soldiers. The agent later learned that previous black visitors to the reservation had not been welcome, and some had mysteriously disappeared.
Reports of conflict among the White River, Uncompahgre and Uintah bands of Ute Indians, the Utes' lack of respect for government employees, and concern for the safety of white settlers had influenced the War Department to build a military post on the Uintah frontier in 1886. All soldiers to be garrisoned there, both infantry and cavalry, would be under the command of Major Benteen, named fort commander. This was the same Benteen who had been with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn just 10 years before. Benteen had disliked Custer, and some people said he should have come to Custer's aid, but Benteen's actions and conduct at the battle were considered by the Army to have been correct and exemplary. With the arrival at the fort of the final unit, Company F of the 21st Infantry, from Fort Sidney, Neb., Benteen had under his command 20 commissioned officers and 266 enlisted men.
Chief Sour was not alone among the Utes in his fear of the black soldiers, whose hair was likened to the mane of the buffalo. Appearance obviously had something to do with it, and the White River Utes remembered that black soldiers of the 9th Cavalry had come to the aid of Major T.T. Thornburgh's command in the fall of 1879 during the Battle of Milk Creek in western Colorado. In that action, Captain Francis Dodge, who had been commanding a scouting party of buffalo soldiers near Milk Creek, learned that Thornburgh's command was under siege and led Company D of the 9th Cavalry to the fight. Thirty-five buffalo soldiers and their officers joined the beleaguered men (Thornburgh had been killed) in trenches at Milk Creek. The combined force held on for three additional days until a large contingent of soldiers from the 5th Cavalry arrived and forced the Utes to retreat. The Battle of Milk Creek, together with the killing of Indian agent Nathan C. Meeker at the White River Agency in Colorado, influenced the decision to remove the White River Utes, as well as the Uncompahgre, from their lands in western Colorado to reservations in eastern Utah.
Although the Utes did not like having black troops nearby, their initial fears were allayed so that within a few weeks of the 9th's arrival the Indians were said to be 'harvesting quietly and going about their usual occupations.' Commenting on the Utes' attitude toward black soldiers, the post trader said, 'The dislike is not sufficient to cause apprehension.'
With the immediate threat of Ute trouble abated, the black and white soldiers turned their attention and efforts to regular garrison duties and building the fort. The soldiers lived in canvas tents–banked with soil for warmth, each tent containing a stove–until more permanent quarters were completed in March 1887 for both officers and enlisted men.
The soldiers' living quarters were the type found at most military posts built during the period. In 1890 they were described as good, except for water leaking in several quarters occupied by married men. Bathing facilities at the post were poor. Weather permitting, the soldiers bathed in what was described as a 'mosquito-infested, rocky-bottomed river.' The post surgeon reported that the 'lack of bath tubs, lack of conveniences for warming water…and lack of privacy makes bathing uncomfortable, so it is frequently neglected.' Despite harsh conditions, the post surgeon reported generally good health among all the soldiers at Fort Duchesne.
Military records of the day did not indicate the presence of officers' and soldiers' families at the fort, but Captain Stephen B. Jocelyn, in command of Company B, 21st Infantry, noted some of the women in his diary: 'There were four ladies at the post when I arrived in August 1886: Mrs. Benteen and her young niece, Mrs. Bailey, wife of First Lieutenant H.L. Bailey; Mrs. Benham, the doctor's wife; and Mrs. McCaskey, wife of Second Lieutenant E.W. McCaskey. Two more women came in November 1886 who were members of the post traders' family. There were two or three colored women, wives of Ninth Cavalry soldiers, who do the washing.'
Military duty at Fort Duchesne included patrolling the Ouray and Uintah reservations and quelling any disturbances. Potential danger arose every year when some of the Ute bands would sneak back into western Colorado, their former home. For the most part, white Coloradans hated all Indians, especially Utes, so when Utes were discovered on their old hunting grounds all hell broke loose.
On one occasion, in August 1887, Captain Henry H. Wright, leading a troop of buffalo soldiers, was dispatched into Colorado to investigate rumors that two white men and five Indians were killed during a fight on the Snake River near Lily Park, Colo. Captain Wright met the Utes returning to Utah, and they told him a white game warden and his deputies had come into their camp shooting, so they shot back. Some of the Indians had been killed. The buffalo soldiers escorted the Utes back into Utah. The black troops reportedly all agreed that the Indians 'were wantonly massacred by the game warden and his deputies.'
On another occasion, Chief Colorow, a dissident White River Ute from western Colorado, decided that Utah reservation living wasn't for him and his people, and he headed back to Colorado (see 'Warriors and Chiefs,' P. 12). Garfield County Sheriff Jim Kendall claimed he had a warrant for Colorow's arrest for stealing horses and led a posse after the old Ute chief. Colorow said he hadn't stolen any horses, and the shooting began. The white men, unable to overcome the Ute warriors, entered the Indian camp when only women and children where there. Kendall's men burned tents and stole horses and goats.
Alarmed by the white men's unprovoked raid, but seeking no vengeance, Colorow and his band tried to slip back into Utah before there was more trouble. Colorado Governor Alva Adams, knowing the revulsion, loathing and fear Coloradans had for Indians, called out the state militia and sent them to stop the Utes before they could reach the safety of Utah. Although it is not certain what Governor Adams' instructions to the militia officers were, he may have hoped they would annihilate the Utes to solve the problem of their constantly sneaking into Colorado.
Fortunately, word of the trouble reached Fort Duchesne, and 1st Lt. George R. Burnett, with only 10 buffalo soldiers of the 9th Cavalry, raced toward the border to meet Colorow and his band and escort them back to the reservation. Burnett and his men were able to do so without firing a shot. The Colorado militia, lawmen, game wardens, cowboys and ranchers decided not to fight the buffalo soldiers who were protecting the Utes.
Indian Agent T.A. Byrnes, who was riding with Burnett and the buffalo soldiers, wrote a letter to the commissioner of Indian Affairs commending Lieutenant Burnett's superb handling of an 'explosive' situation. He also commended the 10 black soldiers for their exceptional courage and bravery. News of the letter circulated among the Utes, and they learned firsthand from Colorow that the buffalo soldiers had saved him and his people. The Utes' admiration and respect grew for the black cavalrymen, and cooperation between them and the Utes was greatly enhanced.
The buffalo soldiers stayed busy. Reports that part of the Uncompahgre Reservation was to be opened for non-Indians brought hundreds of'sooners' into the area. Many of the white men left when they learned that they couldn't take reservation land. However, about 200 to 300 decided to remain, amid protests from the Uncompahgre Utes.
Captain M.W. Day, with 20 buffalo soldiers, was sent to eject the intruders. Day was ordered to avoid, if possible, any conflict that might lead to bloodshed, since many of the trespassers were there because of a misunderstanding. All but about 12 men heeded the soldiers' orders to pack up and leave. The dozen holdouts were immediately arrested and taken to the fort. The troops and agency officials then destroyed the location markers and monuments that had been posted by the white intruders.
Providing escort for Indian agents when large amounts of money, annuities to the Indians, were being transported was an important duty for black cavalrymen. Extra precautions were taken in March 1898 when rumors circulated that several members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch were hanging around Price and Helper, Utah. The $30,000 annuity was mighty tempting bait for a holdup. Captain Wright and a troop of buffalo soldiers were dispatched to the railroad depot at Price, and then a detachment was sent from Price to Helper when Wright heard that the attempted robbery was to take place there. When the train arrived at Helper, it was guarded by 9th Cavalry troops and no robbery attempt was made. The buffalo soldiers then quickly returned to Price. When the train got there, about 40 armed soldiers stood guard on the platform while the money was transferred to an open government wagon. The buffalo soldiers then escorted the Indian agent, Captain G.A. Cornish, and the money from Price to Fort Duchesne.
Relations between black and white soldiers stationed at the post were generally amicable. A visitor to the fort commented, 'The white infantrymen and the black cavalrymen at the fort fraternize without any fine discrimination as to color.' The men ate together and, according to the same visitor, may have slept and fought 'the festive bedbug together.' Army records show no serious incidents of any kind between black and white soldiers at Fort Duchesne.
The only problem between white and black soldiers seemed to occur at baseball games. The buffalo soldiers were tremendous baseball players, usually winning most games they played. Many of them were exceptionally good boxers, too. Fistfights between black and white soldiers over 'bad' calls by the umpires are mentioned in several newspaper stories. Of course, a good fistfight relieved some of the dull monotony of garrison duty, and many members of the 21st Infantry were Irishmen who loved a good donnybrook–among themselves, with blacks, whites or any others who were in the mood. From time to time the 21st would challenge the 9th to a boxing match, usually pitting a buffalo soldier against an Irishman.
During the summer of 1888, the two troops of black cavalrymen participated along with white companies from Fort Duchesne, Fort Douglas (Salt Lake City) and Fort Bridger (Wyoming Territory) in extensive maneuvers held in Strawberry Valley, directly west of Duchesne, Utah. The maneuvers took place near the reservations to demonstrate the military force that could be brought against the Utes should they try to break the peace. Later, with the closing of the post at Fort Bridger in 1890, Fort Duchesne troops became responsible for guarding the entire Indian frontier areas of eastern Utah, western Colorado and southwestern Wyoming.
The cooperation between most black and white soldiers stationed at Fort Duchesne does not imply that racial prejudice was nonexistent. Major Benteen, who commanded only from August 23 to December 18, 1886, made no secret that he did not like black soldiers. His unhappy association with the 9th Cavalry helped convince him to retire. He said after 30 years of service, 'It was not proper to remain with a race of troops I could take no interest in and this on account of their low down rascally character.'
At the time Benteen assumed command at Fort Duchesne, he apparently disliked nearly everyone, regardless of color. He absolutely hated the Mormon settlers in the Uinta Basin of eastern Utah. His language became extraordinarily abusive and foul when referring to Utahans. He said, 'Some think I came here to fight Indians, but I came here to fight Mormons.' Nearly every time he met a Mormon man he would say, 'Mormons are a set of goddamned sonsofbitches,' and try to pick a fight. Once, in a drunken rage, he pulled a revolver on S.D. Cotton, Mormon sheriff of Uintah County, and would have killed him had not Lieutenant Burnett, Benteen's only friend on post, interceded and taken the gun away from him. No reason has been given for Benteen's hatred of Mormons except that he was from Missouri, and many Missourians hated Mormons.
At Fort Duchesne, Benteen was abusive to the men of the 9th Cavalry, but hardly anyone else escaped his wrath. Between September 25 and November 12, 1886, he was arraigned on six counts of drunkenness and for conduct unbecoming an officer when, in the presence of others, he took off his clothes and urinated on his tent. He also quarreled with non-Mormon civilians, many employed by the U.S. government at the post or on the reservation. A special army investigator was summoned to Fort Duchesne to investigate his odd conduct and bring formal charges against him. The buffalo soldiers were said to be'silently' delighted at the proceedings, while Mormons and non-Mormons were more verbal in their jubilation, knowing that a new commanding officer would soon be appointed and Major Benteen would be relieved of command.
At his court-martial, Benteen was found guilty of all charges and ordered dismissed from the service, but powerful men in Washington interceded because of his 30 years of 'honorable' service. He was allowed to retire with all pay and allowances, and some years later, on May 28, 1894, he was appointed a brigadier general by brevet in the U.S. Army. Major Frederick W. Benteen, brevet brigadier general, died from paralysis on June 22, 1898.
The ill-disguised contempt that some white officers felt toward blacks was not limited to black enlisted men. Between 1870 and 1889 only three blacks graduated from West Point. In 1880, General J.M. Schofield, superintendent of the academy, stated: 'To send to West Point for four years' competition a young man who was born in slavery is to assume that half a generation has been sufficient to raise a colored man to the social, moral, and intellectual level which the average white man has reached in several hundred years. As well might the common farm horse be entered in a four-mile race against the best blood inherited from a long line of English racers.'
Two of the black West Point graduates, John H. Alexander (1887) and Charles Young (1889), served at Fort Duchesne between 1888 and 1901. Both men were from Ohio, and Alexander's success inspired Young to emulate him. While stationed at Fort Duchesne from June 1888 to October 1891, Lieutenant Alexander directed fatigue details, took the soldiers on practice marches and performed the other regular duties assigned an officer. At least once, he led a patrol to remove intruders from the reservations.
Colonel Edward Hatch, who replaced Benteen as the fort's commander, protested assigning Lieutenant Young to his 9th Cavalry, stating that the addition of Young might cause 'white officers not to apply for assignment to the regiment.' However, the War Department upheld Young's appointment. Young, like Alexander, carried out responsibilities common to junior officers throughout the Army. In addition to leading patrols, he served as commissary officer, summary court officer and post exchange officer and was in charge of the post school at various times.
Relations between the buffalo soldiers and the white civilians of eastern Utah were usually amicable. White residents of the Uinta Basin firmly believed there was a need for military protection and vigorously opposed any plans that might lead to a removal of the troops. It mattered little to them what color the soldiers were as long as they were close by.
The troops sometimes entertained the residents of Vernal with an evening of comedy at the local opera house. Before the performances, the post band, consisting of both black and white soldiers, would play and march in a street parade. Fort Duchesne baseball teams competed with the civilian teams from Vernal. The buffalo soldiers also participated in rodeos. At one of the first rodeos in Uintah County, to celebrate July 4, 1888, the 20-man Adams civilian band rode in a specially built band wagon, playing music and leading a procession from town to the rodeo grounds. Following the band wagon rode 85 buffalo soldiers, mounted on matching black horses and carrying shiny swords. En route to the parade ground, they put on a sham battle and special maneuvers, which totally captivated the residents of Vernal and the surrounding county. Black soldiers also organized a brass band, and others performed in a minstrel group. Because of the remoteness of Fort Duchesne, entertainment of any type was most welcome.
In 1885 several miners prospecting on Uintah reservation lands had discovered veins of asphalt-bearing materials very close to the site where Fort Duchesne would be constructed the following year. No one knows who discovered the black hydrocarbon, but the first man to prove its worth was Samuel Henry Gilson, and the valuable mineral was called Gilsonite. Paints, varnishes, lacquers and insulation that was impervious to water, sun and eroding chemicals could be made from it. Miners staked claims and began mining illegally. Furious when the Indians reported the illegal mining on their land, Indian agent T.M. Byrnes rode out and confronted the miners. In salty language he told them to get the hell off the reservation and not to come back. They got out, but within three years they had returned.
The miners petitioned the U.S. Congress to pass an act taking the Gilsonite-bearing lands from the Indians and declaring it public domain, and in 1888 Congress did pass an act releasing 7,040 acres of Indian land to the public domain. But the act stated that every adult Indian would have to make his mark, consenting to sell the land to the miners for $20 an acre. That posed a slight problem. Many of the Indians didn't want to sell any of what little land they had at any price. Several white men–including post trader Bert Seabolt, fort commander Major James Randlett and Indian subagent Harry Clark–put their heads together to find a solution.
Clark, normally a quiet, unassuming man, made a rather bold boast: 'Hell, men! I can bring every Indian on the reservation to any spot you tell me to, and get them to sign any document, if you'll turn your heads the other way while I do it!' And how would he be able to pull off that feat, the others asked. 'Give them whiskey!' came the reply.
Heads were apparently turned the other way for two days in September 1888 when a treaty signing–with free whiskey for all–was held. Two big tents were set up, complete with a signing table and barrels of whiskey furnished by the miners and other white men involved. Every Indian made his mark, transferring the 7,040 acres to the miners. This event came to be called the 'Whiskey Tent Treaty.'
The buffalo soldiers were placed on alert, ready to ride at a moment's notice to quell any insurrections, disturbances or other problems that might occur, but they were not needed. Almost all the Indians got drunk. Hank Stewart, a Mormon scout and Ute interpreter, said: 'I rode to the top of that hill yonder. I sat there looking down at more Indians in one place than I had ever seen in my life before. I knew I would never see anything like it again. The big camp was pandemonium. I'd have bet there would be hell to pay. You can't get as big a bunch as that together, either white, black, red or yellow, give them that much whiskey and get away with it. There had to be trouble somewhere. But there wasn't. The miners got away with it. I can't figure it out.'
No one could have foreseen the problems this unusual event would create for the officers and men of Fort Duchesne. The Gilsonite-bearing land'sold' to the miners was just across the Uinta River from the fort. Called the Duchesne Strip, it was under no legal jurisdiction of any kind–neither military, federal, territorial nor county.
A ragtag wild and woolly town sprang up. Liquor flowed 24 hours a day, honky-tonk pianos tinkled day and night, every kind of gambling flourished, and the many brothels did a booming business. Gunfights, fistfights, knife fights and many other kinds of mayhem made 'the Strip' a very dangerous place. The outlaw Elza Lay had a part-time business counterfeiting silver dollars in the saloon he owned there. Often he rode with Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, and he frequently holed up at his saloon because no law enforcement officer could legally set foot on the Strip. Lay said that the amiable Cassidy always treated the soldiers from Fort Duchesne with respect and made friends with many of them, including the buffalo soldiers.
The Duchesne Strip was placed off-limits to all the soldiers, but they paid little attention to the order. Off-duty soldiers, black and white, would remove their shoes, tie them around their necks, and swim across the Uinta River to the Strip. A few hours later, coming back to the post, they would throw their empty whiskey bottles into a ravine near the fort. It was so full of empty bottles that the locals called it Bottle Hollow. (That name is still in use today. The Ute Convention Center on the reservation is called Bottle Hollow Resort.)
Off-duty soldiers from Fort Duchesne were the largest class of customers on the Strip, but they mingled freely with Gilsonite miners, ranchers, outlaws, Mormon cowboys and even Ute Indians. On May 4, 1889, the local paper, the Vernal Express, ran a story headlined: 'The Strip Tragedy–Killing of Jack Thomas by Carter; the Tenth Violent Death at This Saloon.'
'It appears a controversy arose between two colored soldiers of the Ninth Cavalry, and they drew on each other,' the story says. 'A white man, Mr. Owen Curry, interfered, and was attempting to take a gun from one of the soldiers. Another white man, Jack Thomas, came reeling into the saloon about then, much under the influence of whiskey and told everyone to shut up and be quiet. Mr. Curry told Thomas he had the situation well in hand and to keep his gun holstered.
"Like hell,' Thomas said, and pulled his gun, and looking directly at buffalo soldier William Carter remarked, 'you black son of a bitch, I will kill you,' and struck Carter over the head. Instantly six guns were pulled by at least that many darky soldiers. Most of the civilian patrons wisely withdrew so as not to interrupt the course of any stray bullets; just what occurred after that is difficult to determine; but it is supposed that William Carter shot the drunken Thomas. Carter's buddy, buffalo soldier Abraham McKee, joined in the shooting spree. At an inquest Carter was let off. Jurors ruled the shooting justified. The less fortunate McKee was taken to Fort Duchesne and placed in the guardhouse.'
The frustrated commanding officer at Fort Duchesne, Major Randlett, tried to get some kind of law enforcement on the Strip. He wrote to the Utah territorial attorney general to complain about 'a tough class of squatters, men and women without any means of existence except gambling, selling whiskey to the Indians and prostitution….The women have the vilest reputation known in their class, and altogether they make up the dirtiest community I have ever known in thirty years experience in frontier service.' His letter was a waste of time. The nearest federal law was a U.S. marshal in Salt Lake City, 155 miles away. And the marshal wasn't certain he had any jurisdiction, so he stayed away rather than become embroiled in some tangled legal situation–or possibly to avoid a stray bullet. When the Army closed Fort Duchesne as an operating post in 1912, the Strip slowly died.
The last white infantry unit left Fort Duchesne in September 1892. From that date until March 1901, only black cavalry units–buffalo soldiers–served at the post, under command of white officers, except for a period during the Spanish-American War.
To the average citizen of Vernal and the surrounding area, as well as the soldiers at Fort Duchesne, the big topic in the news in 1898 was the trouble with Spain over Cuba. In February the post was ordered to fly its flags at half-staff in memory of the battleship Maine disaster. On March 31, 1898, Fort Duchesne's commander received orders to ship the post's Hotchkiss gun, together with all its ammunition, to Mobile, Ala. Troops of the 9th Cavalry were specifically ordered to the Cuban war zone by way of Tennessee because of the prevalent belief that black men were better able to stand the hot, tropical climate. On April 16 the Hotchkiss gun, followed by Troops B and F of the 9th Cavalry, completed the trip over the rough mountain road to Price. The townsfolk from Price and nearby towns turned out in large numbers to bid farewell to the buffalo soldiers who would soon be going into battle in the Spanish-American War. The companies, including officers, numbered about 127 men. The soldiers were feted by the local community with a luncheon at the town hall. As the soldiers entered the hall, they were serenaded by two lines of children from Wellington and Price, singing 'Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys' and other patriotic songs. After lunch the buffalo soldiers and civilians played baseball. That evening both the civilians and soldiers entertained the community. The troops departed the next day by train amid wild cheers and best wishes for their success in fighting the Spaniards. The departing buffalo soldiers were replaced at Fort Duchesne by two companies of white soldiers from the 7th Cavalry.
Troops C and I of the 9th Cavalry arrived at Fort Duchesne from Montauk Point, Long Island, N.Y., in October 1898. Black troops from Regular Army units had been sent to Montauk Point for rest and recuperation after a gallant display of bravery and patriotism in Cuba. The new men quickly adjusted to the rigors of a Western post.
By 1910 the population of Uintah County had reached 7,050, the area was well-settled and the Indians were peaceful. An inspecting officer 'found no reason why Fort Duchesne, Utah, should be continued as a military post.' On September 13, 1911, the last commanding officer of the fort, Captain R.M. Nolan, saw Troop M of the 1st Cavalry, the only unit remaining, depart for Fort Boise, Idaho, and Fort Duchesne became the civilian administrative headquarters for the Ouray-Uintah Ute Indian Reservation. Captain Nolan and an assistant stayed on to wrap up final details of the transfer of the military post, but on February 12, 1912, they, too, departed.
This article was written by Robert Foster and originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!
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