In February 1859, Alexander, Daniel and Charles Blue left their comfortable Illinois home in hopes of finding Pike’s Peak gold. What they found instead was blinding snow, despair, starvation, death and cannibalism.
“Gold has a magic power upon the human mind,” Daniel Blue wrote in December 1859, as he slowly returned to health in Whiteside County, Illinois, after a grand adventure turned sour in the American West. “The hope of its possession has infatuated thousands, and the pursuit of it has plunged tens of thousands into misery and premature graves.” Daniel Blue had the misfortune of finding misery not at the gold fields but in trying to reach them. He was, by the thinnest of margins, able to keep out of a premature grave. His brothers, Charles and Alexander, were not so fortunate.
Ten months before Daniel wrote those words, the three Blue brothers, along with cousin John Campbell and friend Thomas Stevenson, waited in Morrison, Ill., for a train. Alexander Blue was 30 with a wife and four young children, while the other four men were unmarried and in their 20s. Daniel at 25 was the second oldest of the Blue brothers. Charles was just 21. None was immune to the magic power that gold had on the mind. They had all read the ballyhoo in the newspapers about gold at Pike’s Peak (the apostrophe was done away with in 1891 on the recommendation of the newly formed U.S. Board on Geographic Names) in what was then Kansas Territory (today’s Colorado). As early as September 1858, the Chicago Tribune reported, “It seems to be a pretty well established fact that gold does exist in considerable quantities in Kansas…washings are said to yield from $5 to $16 a day along a small stream, about 50 miles from Pike’s Peak.” Many of the newspaper stories that followed made it sound as if would-be prospectors could walk to the foot of the golden mountains of the Rockies, fill their buckets with nuggets as big as hen eggs and then troop home with wealth galore. Even if the Blue brothers suspected it wasn’t quite that easy, their minds pushed aside or boldly hurdled all obstacles. Gold was available, and they wanted their share.
If hindsight is 20/20, Daniel Blue had it in abundance. “For [gold’s] sake,” he wrote in December, “men imperil their lives, sacrifice their peace of mind, their comfort of body, and sometimes their very souls. They forsake homes, loved ones, friends, and everything that is dear to their hearts, and cross seas, deserts, and mountains, enduring the greatest hardships and the severest deprivations, in quest of the expected wealth that gold will give….Yes…the object of our undertaking and adventures which resulted disastrously to myself and my companions was the getting of gold.”
On February 22, 1859, the Blue brothers bid farewell to their father, mother, three sisters, Alexander’s wife and children, a comfortable home and many good friends. The timing clearly could have been better—it was at least six weeks until spring— but how could they wait for spring days when others were already going for the gold? A report in a hometown newspaper, the Whiteside Sentinel, said that “from four to six hundred men are at work on Cherry Creek [near the new town of Denver City], and all doing well.” Campbell, Stevenson and the Blue trio don’t seem to have given the weather a second thought. Illinois winters could be miserable, but they were going south to Kansas City and then westward across the Kansas plains, where it figured to be warmer.
In 1859 Kansas Territory took up a huge hunk of mid-America, extending from the Missouri state line on the east to (at least) the front range of the Rockies, which included the Pike’s Peak area. Denver City was small but starting to boom, having been founded the year before, when the gold rush began. Kansas would be admitted as the 34th state with Topeka as its capital on January 29, 1861. Some 30 days later, Colorado Territory would be formed from parts of Kansas, Utah, New Mexico and Nebraska territories. Colorado Springs, at the foot of Pike’s Peak, would not be founded until 1871, and Colorado would not become the 38th state until August 1, 1876.
According to Blue’s later account (which includes very few dates), the small party took the railroad to St. Louis and a boat on the Missouri River to Kansas City before continuing on foot to Lawrence, Kansas Territory, where they bought a pack pony. At Topeka, they packed 200 pounds of flour on the pony. Their enthusiasm was dampened only slightly three miles west of Manhattan, Kansas Territory, when a severe snowstorm hit and they had to take shelter in the hut of an old Indian named James Leviea. The Blue party shared the shelter for several days with a Captain John Gibbs and eight other gold-hungry men. Gibbs said he knew the way to the Pike’s Peak region, having crossed the Plains before, so after the storm played out, the two groups banded together and resumed the journey. Before long, two gold seekers from Cleveland, Ohio—John Currans and George Soley—hooked on, bringing the group’s total to 16. The Blue party’s pony was the only pack animal anyone had. The others toted their goods on their own backs.
Soon the entire group arrived at Fort Riley, where the wouldbe prospectors lingered because there was plenty of shelter and plenty to eat. For miles beyond the fort were prairies with few homesteads and no trading posts. The gold seekers, according to Daniel Blue, debated as to which route they should take for Denver City, the Republican River route or the Smoky Hill route. The Republican route would take them northwest into Nebraska Territory for about 30 miles before dipping back down into Kansas Territory and continuing on to an area near present-day Limon, Colo., a distance of about 600 miles. The Smoky Hill route went more directly westward, first following the Kansas River and then the Smoky Hill River to an area southeast of Limon, covering about 500 miles. Since Captain Gibbs said that he had crossed the Great Plains earlier by the Smoky Hill route, most of the gold seekers favored going that way. Daniel Blue admittedly did not know the advantages and disadvantages of the respective routes, but he still argued that the Republican route was preferable. “Somehow I had a presentiment at that time that we should meet with calamity if we took the Smoky Hill route,” he recalled. The middle Blue brother lost his argument and yielded to the decision of the majority.
“We started off, following the Kansas River, and waded across the Republican fork of that stream,” Daniel wrote. “Before the close of that day, a driving snowstorm overtook us, one of the most terrible storms I ever witnessed. We left our pony and provisions, and, wrapping ourselves in our blankets, hurried to a house a short distance from us, where we dried ourselves at a stove and remained until the next morning.” The grim reality of the journey was beginning to set in, not that the travelers necessarily would have fared any better on the longer, more northern Republican route.
“What should have been a grand adventure became an endurance contest,” Daniel Blue remembered, “a merciless wearing away of flesh, bone and human determination to live, and, at the end, a nightmare too horrible to contemplate.” It didn’t help that the Blue brothers and the others were mostly farm boys, with little or no knowledge of how to live off the land or just how nasty March nights could be on the Plains. At Fort Riley, Daniel had purchased a tent to provide some protection from the elements at night, but, according to his account, his companions convinced him to leave it behind. “All we had to shelter ourselves with on this long journey of over 500 miles of uninhabited country were woolen blankets into which we wrapped ourselves at night, lying down to sleep on the bare ground,” he wrote.
Well rested after a night indoors, the group covered a lot of ground over the next eight or nine days, generally following the Smoky Hill River and the sun westward. Somewhere in what is today’s western Kansas, Captain Gibbs and his followers decided to go off and hunt for buffalo, because their provisions were nearly gone. The original five (the three Blue brothers, Campbell and Stevenson), as well as George Soley, elected to keep moving west. A couple of days later they accidentally drifted away from the river and became lost for some time. Finally, the exhausted half-dozen men found their way back to the river, where they quickly set up camp and left the pony grazing nearby. The next morning, the men were well rested but the pony was gone. A search for the valuable animal was futile—something had spooked him or, more likely, Indians had stolen him. This was a grave setback to their venture, but there was nothing to do but press on toward Denver City. Soon, John Scott and two other of Gibbs’ men found their way into the Blue camp, enlarging their number to nine.
Apparently there was no further trouble for the group until mid-March, when they were about two days from the head of the Smoky Hill route. Daniel Blue’s older brother became ill. Alexander, recalled Daniel, “was taken with severe pains in his head and back, and we had to stop to give him a chance to recruit. We rested four or five hours, when, after getting a drink of water, Alexander felt able to proceed. Here we consumed the last bit of flour and provisions that we had with us, and threw away all the luggage that we could possibly dispense with, and went on.” On what Daniel Blue believed was March 17, the travelers reached the head of the Smoky Hill route and, since there was nothing left to eat, discussed whether to take the time to hunt for game (they had two or three guns with them) or to keep moving. “We had been informed,” Daniel wrote, “both before starting and while on the way that the distance from this point to Denver City was only about 55 miles. This was our greatest mistake, the actual distance being about 170 miles….Oh, it was a fatal, a terrible mistake, this mis-information as to the real distance.” Believing that Denver City could be reached in another three or four days, they chose to not delay but to hunt while they walked. They didn’t get far before a blizzard struck, leaving them nearly blinded. They wrapped themselves in their blankets for the night and then hit the trail again in the morning. For four more days they fought their way through the storm.
Much to their horror, on the fifth day, the weary men realized that they had been traveling almost in a circle. Now, they could see the correct path west again, but there were other problems. They still didn’t have food, except for “an occasional rabbit that we captured, and a dog that followed us,” and not only Alexander Blue but also Charles Blue were sick. “Alexander suffered intensely, but stood it heroically, seldom uttering complaint, lest he would make Charles feel worse,” Daniel Blue recalled. Nevertheless, Charles became “completely disabled” for a while. Alexander, though wracked with rheumatism, felt well enough to go hunting with Daniel after they spotted a herd of wild horses. But the two older brothers came up empty, and Alexander came back totally exhausted and sank down in severe pain. He was wrapped in blankets, and his head and feet were bandaged with strips torn from shirts. While the group waited for Alexander to regain his strength, two of the men decided to go ahead and take their chances on their own.
The seven others lay down in their own blankets and tried to keep warm and get some rest. It was impossible, though, not to think about food. “Oh, for something nourishing to eat; how hunger gnawed in our stomachs, parched our lips, and dried up the moisture of our throats and mouths,” Daniel Blue wrote. “How it weakened us, consuming, as if by fire, our muscles and our juices. It reduced us to very skeletons, and we stalked about emaciated, with death’s hollow sound in every word we tried to speak, with death’s dull, leaden fixedness in our eyes, and with death’s pale look in our sad and wretched faces.” In this desperate state, the men first began to discuss the possibility that some of them would die of starvation and exposure and that others might eat human flesh. “I am willing to die by starving to death, if it must be so,” Daniel told the others, “but I am not willing that any of you should die to keep me alive.” The discussion continued, however, and “all then agreed that whichever of us should die first, should be eaten by the rest.”
The appearance of antelope suggested other possibilities. An article in the Chicago Tribune had advised gold seekers: “Game would be a resource against starvation, consisting of buffalo, deer, antelopes, etc. Those who go to the far west [Pike’s Peak] may be said to run no risk at all. If they do not find gold so abundant as they anticipate, they can turn to the cultivation of the soil.” Seeing antelope was one thing, but actually shooting one was something else. Not only did the men not down an antelope, but Daniel Blue nearly shot a fellow hunter. “Crouching near the ground,” Daniel recalled, “I awaited the antelopes approach with my gun cocked, but on trying to change my position, let the butt of the gun fall heavily to the ground, which caused it to discharge, and the shot pierced the corner of a satchel under Thomas Stevenson’s arm, he being seated on the ground about ten feet from me.” As for cultivating the soil, that was but a distant dream.
Still, they all were alive when the sun came up the next day. Daniel Blue arose early and walked a short distance to the top of a ridge. Looking westward, he saw something that filled him with joy: “I beheld for the first time, dimly up among the clouds, a peak of the Rocky Mountains. My heart, faint with weakness, beat quicker then, and a thrill of joy came over me, and hope revived.” Daniel ran back to his companions, crying: “The Peak! The Peak!… Take courage, boys, and let us go on.” At the time, they were in the vicinity of present-day Limon, Colo.
Slowly, they walked westward, with Daniel supporting most of Alexander’s weight, practically carrying him at times. Then Alexander fell to the ground and everyone had to stop. “Daniel,” Alexander said, “My race is run; I have gone as far as I can.” Thomas Stevenson, John Campbell and John Scott felt strong enough to keep going, but George Soley stayed behind with the Blue brothers. “I will stick to these boys till I die,” Soley said. He had also reached his limit, and not long after the trio had departed, Soley joined Alexander Blue on the ground. Both were unable to pick themselves up. “Charles rallied a little during the day, and he walked slowly,” recalled Daniel, “while I carried the two helpless men along, first bearing Soley a certain distance, and setting him down; then going back after Alexander, and then again returning for the satchels.” All they had to eat were boiled roots, grass and snow, none of which was satisfying. It wasn’t enough to sustain Soley. He slept through the night, but in the morning he took a turn for the worse. Before dying, he supposedly said, “Take my body and eat as much as you can, and thus preserve your lives.”
Daniel Blue later noted that even if the three brothers had wanted to bury Soley, they didn’t have the tools or the strength to dig a grave. For three days, the three Blues lay on the ground near the corpse before they began cutting the flesh from the legs and arms of their dead companion. “This was the hardest of our trials—this being forced to eat human flesh,” Daniel admitted. “We restrained as long as we could, but it was our last hope of preservation. After having, with eager relish, devoured part of a leg and part of an arm, the body began to mortify and we could eat no more of it. But, though it had sickened us at first, we were stronger.”
If Alexander Blue indeed did devour some of the human flesh, it didn’t help much. Soley was his last meal. Several days later, on April 18, 1859, Alexander also died. “He said he was happy in finding relief from long sufferings; all he regretted was that he could not see his wife, children, parents and sisters, before giving up this life,” Daniel Blue recalled. “He requested us, if we should chance to live to return home, to take good care of his family. He wished us to bid all farewell for him, and trusted fervently that he would meet us all in the ‘other world.’ With these words spoken, he sank into the sleep of death, as gently and peacefully as a child going to sleep. Before his death, he, like Soley, urged us to eat his body for our own preservation.”
Two days later, according to Daniel’s account, “the uncontrollable and maddening cravings of hunger impelled Charles and I to devour a part of our own brother’s corpse. It was a terrible thing to do, but we were not in a condition of mind or heart to do as we or other men would have done amid ordinary circumstances….We were considerably strengthened by the food, and taking some with us, we resumed our journey.” Neither surviving brother could move very fast, but they made a little progress each day until Charles fell on the banks of Beaver Creek (about halfway between what is now Agate, Colo., on Interstate 70, and Last Chance, Colo., on state Route 36). Daniel fed his younger brother prickly pears and tree bark, but Charles could not digest anything. He lingered for a day or two before joining Alexander and Soley in death. Near the end, Charles wrote a note addressed to his father, Donald Blue: “I take my pen in hand to let you know that my hour of death is near at hand. God help you and Mother. We three brothers are here together, near the Big Sandy River. We have twenty-five dollars and five cents…in a very few hours I must die, and in good health, for want of a little food. May God help us all, and that we all may meet in heaven.”
Daniel was prostrate with grief, weeping and moaning next to Charles’ body. “I was now sick of life, and gave over in despair,” Daniel recalled. “While my brothers were still living, the hope of saving them inspired me with courage, strength and resolution, but they were now dead, and I was alone, having no one but myself to care for. My spirit shrank within me, and I made up my mind to die.” His grieving and death wishing went on for three days, but he finally answered the pangs of hunger and ate some of the flesh of his brother Charles. He also drank water from Beaver Creek. The food and drink did not revive him, though. He became so weak that he could not rise from the ground, and then he lost all vision. “Finally, I fell asleep,” he remembered, “remaining unconscious, I do not know how long; it may have been several days, or only a few hours. The first I knew was hearing a voice exclaiming gruffly: ‘Weak, weak,’ and a human hand was laid upon me. I had not the strength to speak or make a motion, and the Indian (for such he was, and there were three of them of the Arapaho tribe) took me to his tent, their Chief and a number of his tribe being camped there. He and his squaw bathed me, and gave me some tenderly cooked antelope meat and something to drink. The effect of this was to throw me into a violent fever, and to make me feel very sick. He then gave me some warm antelope blood and some raw antelope liver; these tasted sweet, and I relished them well. They strengthened and revived me, so that I was soon able to raise my head, and in a day or two, I could sit up, and my eye-sight was restored. God bless that young Indian brave and his good squaw. They nursed me as carefully and gently as my own mother would have.” It didn’t matter that they couldn’t understand each other’s languages—action spoke louder than words, and Daniel concluded that these Arapahos had as much humanity as could be found in the “most perfect civilization.”
On May 4, the young Arapaho, looking both excited and sad, indicated by signs that a wagon was nearby and asked if Daniel wanted to go there. The Indian then helped the white man onto a pony and led the animal to an encampment, where Daniel saw a westbound stagecoach belonging to the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Company. The next day, the surviving Blue brother bid farewell to his rescuer and boarded the coach. One of the passengers noted that Daniel “looked like a skeleton, and could hardly use his limbs, and his sight was impaired.”
Instead of being taken directly to Denver City, Daniel was dropped off at Station 25 (on the west bank of East Bijou Creek in northeastern Elbert County) so that he could regain enough strength to continue his journey. His troubles were not over, though, because a “Comanche and Apache” attack at the station gave him one more fright before another Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Company coach collected him. “Fortunately we escaped unharmed from the warriors,” he wrote, “and I proceeded on the stage to Denver City; I arrived the 11th of May, nearly three months after the day we left our home in Illinois.” He called it “a melancholy termination to a bold adventure.”
As he was arriving in the boomtown, Daniel Blue saw the pony that he and his brothers had purchased in Lawrence and that he had supposed was stolen by Indians on the Kansas River. It turned out that some emigrants had found the pony wandering in the Smoky Hills and had brought it to Denver, where they had sold it. The next day, May 12, Daniel went to the Denver office of the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Company and made a statement about his troubled journey west. He did not leave out the parts about consuming the flesh of first George Soley, then his older brother, Alexander, and finally his younger brother, Charles. His statement, Daniel said, was made “freely, voluntarily, and without compulsion.” In Denver, Daniel also ran across John Currans, the Clevelander who had gone west in search of gold with the unfortunate Soley. Currans hadn’t found any gold, but he was driving a team for pay. Daniel also crossed paths with Captain Gibbs, who was working in the mines. The two men concluded that of the 16 gold seekers who had banded together on the Plains west of Manhattan, Kansas Territory, only five had survived— Daniel Blue, Gibbs, Currans, Thomas Stevenson and a man from North Carolina who had been with Gibbs’ original party.
Daniel Blue stayed in Denver only about three weeks, during which time he recuperated nicely but never felt strong enough to take a job. There was definitely gold in the Pike’s Peak region, but he realized that a man needed capital, machinery and much patience to get it. He also realized that “the gold bubble had been blown by reckless speculators for the drawing [out] of just such young men as we were.” By the time he joined a mule team headed east, he had decided, “Gold stories have no longer any allurements for me.”
What a difference a season made. Recrossing the prairies in June and July proved to be happily uneventful. The mule team took a route that followed the Platte River through Nebraska Territory to Omaha City. From there, he went by steamer to St. Joseph, Mo. “I came by railroad to my old home in Whiteside County worn, weary, and poor,” he wrote, “with just fifty cents in my pocket, and feeling content to spend the rest of my days—and I am still quite a young man—in peace at home and on the farm.” At the end of his account, he wrote, “I lament the terrible and untimely taking off of my beloved brothers, whose bones lie bleaching on the plains of Western Kansas, yet I thank God fervently that He rescued me from the fate that stared me in the face…and not left this sad history unwritten, or the fate of my companions untold.” Daniel Blue married Helen Benjamin back in Morrison on November 5, 1860, just three days before his mother, Catherine Blue, died. Daniel and his wife moved for a time to Independence, Iowa, but a newspaper report in March 1879 said that Daniel had recently returned to his old home in Morrison. How long Daniel lived is uncertain, but according to the Whiteside Sentinel, his father, Donald Blue, lived to be 91, dying on January 14, 1888.
Jayne Kennedy Sweger, who writes from Great Falls, Mont., says that the Blue name popped up while she was tracing her family history. She found out that her grandmother’s sister married a man named Donald McKay, whose mother was Catherine Blue, one of Daniel Blue’s sisters. “I contacted one of my McKay relatives for information regarding the Blue expedition,” she adds. “She sent me a copy of Daniel’s narrative!” “A Thrilling Narrative of the Adventures, Suffering and Starvation of Pike’s Peak Gold Seekers on the Plains of the West, 1859, by One of the Survivors” was privately printed and given to Daniel’s relatives and friends.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.