Young John witnessed life-altering tragedies on the way to California.
The trails to California were fraught with danger, but pioneers like the Missouri family of John Ringo were willing to face it in search of a better life. John, who was born on May 3, 1850, in Wayne County, Indiana, would become a mysterious and legendary gunfighter in Mason County, Texas, and Tombstone, Arizona Territory. But in May 1864, he was just a real boy from the Midwest about to begin the first big adventure of his life, perhaps too excited to fully comprehend the perils that lurked on the road west.
On May 18, 1864, Martin and Mary Peters Ringo packed up their five children—John Peters, Martin Albert, Fanny Fern, Mary Enna and Mattie Bell—and all their worldly possessions in two covered wagons for the journey to California. Mary’s sister, Augusta, lived in San Jose; she had married Coleman P. Younger, the uncle of infamous outlaw-to-be Cole Younger. The senior Martin Ringo had tuberculosis, and the family hoped the change of climate would be beneficial. At Liberty, Mo., they bade farewell to their kin and struck out on the Fort Leavenworth Military Road with 68 other wagons headed for Fort Kearny.
They trudged along, coping with the elements, wagon breakdowns and accidents. On June 7, 14-year-old John was not paying attention, and a wagon wheel rolled over his foot, severely injuring it. The same day, another boy fell beneath a wagon and was killed. To complete the catastrophic day, a wagon master named Hase shot one of his teamsters through the head, killing him. John witnessed it, and Mary recorded it in her journal. The next day they stopped to hunt buffalo, and young John hobbled along with the men, participating in a successful kill.
On June 13, near Fort Kearny, the Ringos picked up the Great Platte River Road. The next day, Mary wrote that John had a chill and was very ill all night, but he recovered in a few days. At the Cottonwood Springs military post, soldiers stopped the wagons and searched for items or horses bearing the U.S. brand. The next day, Martin and his sons went up the canyon and stocked up on cedar wood.
On June 25, the wagons came to a halt at the South Platte crossing and stayed there for two weeks while hard rains, wind and high water delayed their journey. Mary noted that several Indians came into camp; one had a saber he said he’d taken from a soldier he had killed. Independence Day passed, devoid of celebration. The Ringos finally crossed the river on July 9 and went over the divide to the North Platte. At Ash Hollow, they paused for repairs, while Mary climbed atop a bluff and discovered the grave of a man named W. Craner, who was shot by accident. The inscription had ominous portent.
They traveled on, passing the landmark Courthouse and Chimney rocks, where they received word of hostile Indians. Sure enough, when a wagon owned by a Mr. Gouly took a wrong trail and separated from the main train, Indians attacked, though Gouly and a companion drove them off. The warriors crossed the river and killed a traveler in another train. The Ringos’ train turned around, circled the wagons and prepared for an attack that never came.
Beyond Scott’s Bluff on July 16, they found an alkali slough, where some of the cattle drank, sickened and died. Spooked by the Indian scare, the nervous emigrants mistakenly fired at a band of friendly Indians seeking to trade. The Indians hurried to Fort Laramie to report the incident. Soldiers detained the Ringos’ train until the emigrants eased hard feelings with gifts of flour, bacon, sugar and coffee.
The trail grew worse beyond Laramie, and two oxen died. On the 27th, the Ringos found a notice tacked to a tree, stating that Indians had killed six men. The next day, near Horseshoe Creek, Indians attacked the Kelly-Larimer wagon train, killing four men and capturing two women. When the Ringos came along, they discovered a scalped corpse being eaten by wolves. They set up a watchful guard around camp that evening.
On July 30, the danger of overland travel became harsh reality, and Mary Ringo’s life was irrevocably altered. At dawn Martin stood on their wagon to look for Indians. Grabbing his shotgun, he accidentally fired its load directly into his right eye. Fellow traveler William Davenport described the incident, “At the report of the gun, I saw his hat blown up 20 feet in the air, and his brains were scattered in all directions.” Another eyewitness was Martin’s son John, who helped to dig his father’s grave and bury him.
Mary wrote in her diary: “And now, Oh God, comes the saddest record of my life, for this day my husband accidentally shot himself and was buried by the wayside and, oh, my heart is breaking, if I had no children how gladly would I lay me down with my dead—but now, Oh God, I pray for strength to raise our precious children and, oh—may no one ever suffer the anguish that is breaking my heart, my little children are crying all the time and I—oh, what am I to do.”
Mary poured out her feelings. “Everyone in camp is kind to us, but God alone can heal the breaking heart. After burying my darling husband, we hitch up and drive some five miles. Mr. Davenport drove my mules for me, and, Oh, the agony of parting from that grave, to go and leave him on that hillside where I shall never see it more, but thank God tis only the body lying there, and may we only meet in Heaven where there is no more death but only life eternally.”
After considering their options, Mary and her children decided there was nothing to return to, and they would continue to California. On August 1, they arrived at Platte Bridge Station, where they repaired wagons, and Fanny, the Ringo’s eldest daughter, suffered an attack of what Mary termed “cholremorbus.”
Farther west, along the Sweetwater River, the grass was good, but the water was too alkali. They passed Independence Rock and camped below Split Rock, where some of their cattle died. At Three Crossings, Mary was beset by loneliness and looked forward to reaching Salt Lake City. The following week, she spoke to a Mr. Davis of the wagon train and wrote: “I am always glad to see him, for he is the last one Mr. Ringo ever talked to. Oh God, thou hast sorely afflicted me— give me strength to bear this heart tryal [sic].”
The train crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass (the gateway to the Far West) on August 16 and wound its way down to Green River. Mary wrote, “We only have seven wagons in all, and I am afraid to travel with so few, but no one seems to apprehend any danger but me.” At Fort Bridger, Mary tried to mail a letter, but noted, “There is no Eastern Mail; the Indians are too bad for the coaches to run.”
It rained on the train almost constantly until it arrived at Salt Lake City on September 6. Mary tried to sell her wagons, oxen and mules, intending to book passage on a stagecoach to California. Stock was plentiful, however, and she could not get enough cash to finance the trip. She hired a man named John Donly to drive one wagon with the oxen, while she drove the other wagon and mules. On September 10, alkali water and grass sickened the mules. They continued through Nevada’s Ruby Valley, past Diamond Mountain and into Simpsons Park Station. The last steep hills wore Mary out. “I walk down, which brings on a spell of sickness, for tonight I am very poorly.”
On October 7, in Austin, Nev., Mary disposed of one wagon and the oxen. She and her family stayed about a week with her cousin Charley Peters. But there was no respite for the hard-luck family. Mary gave birth to a stillborn son with a deformed face. The family believed the baby had been traumatized when Mary looked on her dead husband. As she always had done, Mary pulled through, and she and her children traveled on with the remaining wagon and mule team. They crossed the arid Humboldt Sink and traversed the Sierra Nevada. Finally, on the last day of October, their exodus was over. They reached the Sacramento Valley just ahead of the first snows.
Mary and the children moved into a remodeled carriage house on the ranch of Coleman Younger and Augusta Peters Inskip Younger (Mary’s older sister). A year later, Mary moved her children to a house on Second Street in San Jose. The youngest son, Martin, died August 29, 1873, of tuberculosis. He was 19. Fanny and Mattie grew up and married. Mary Enna became a spinster schoolteacher. Mary Peters Ringo died in 1876.
It has been said John was forever traumatized at seeing his father killed and gazing on the body of his deformed, stillborn brother. He began drinking at age 15 and fell in with the wrong crowd. In 1869 the 19-year-old ran off to Texas and eventually Arizona Territory to become the notorious John Ringo—outlaw, gunslinger and proverbial skeleton in the family’s closet. He died, with his boots off, under mysterious circumstances in Arizona Territory in July 1882.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.