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Grandpa soldiered on the plains

By Lora Taylor Gray / September 30, 1988



EVERY grandfather is special, and often very interesting, but my grandfather was remarkable because he rode a black horse named Hellfire, knew Buffalo Bill, and witnessed the beginnings of the American railroad. What I loved best about Grandpa was the stories he told me of his life as a soldier on the plains and mountains in the ``early days.''

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As a little girl I visited him in Omaha. Grandpa was then in the feed and grain business, and was state commander of the American Indian War Veterans for Iowa/Nebraska.

Grandpa was working on a journal, entitled ``Brief Reminiscences of the Soldier's Life on the Plains and in the Mountains During the Early Days of 1867-8-9 to '70.''

Lauren Winfield Aldrich was a better-than-average name, but Grandpa saw it as ``a bit hifalutin for Army life,'' and in his journal often referred to himself as Pete - Peter Van Doe. That name just didn't suit him, as he was Lincolnesque - tall and rangy, with deep-set eyes and thoughtful countenance. He had rich stories of his Army days, and read to me from his journal.

Near the beginning of his journal record he wrote: ``Indian hostilities were fierce in '67 [1867], and the government made call for volunteers to protect the Union Pacific Railroad, then under construction. I responded to the call, enlisted Sept. 10, 1867, at Galesburg, Illinois, and was in Company A, United States Infantry.'' Grandpa was 19 years old at that time.

He continued: ``The volunteers were schooled well in discipline and warfare 'cause most had served full terms during the Civil War. I was assigned for duty on the plains and mountains, and was immediately entrained for Council Bluffs, Iowa, the terminus of railroad traffic westward. We were conveyed across the Missouri River by ferry boat near Omaha, a frontier town near three thousand. That was the beginning.''

Grandpa spoke of a wagon train consisting of six mule trains of ``stale remnant supplies'' left over from the Civil War. The wagon train accompanied several hundred volunteer soldiers on a forced march westward.

``Each man carried about 35 pounds of equipment, including six-guns, knife, rope, and spade, our tools of the time. The march was about 30 miles a day. We slept on the ground with one blanket, and our `keeping warm fuel' was `buffalo chips' [dried buffalo dung]. On this march from Omaha to the Utah territory, there wasn't a house in sight.

``All the higher ground was as free from vegetation as the Sahara Desert. On the lower levels were bordering streams and we sustained some loss, especially at the Platte, with the turbulent water and treacherous quick sands. One ferocious blizzard night, the men slept in a roofless corral, and crowding close to campfires didn't do much to keep us warm and dry.''

Later in his service, Grandpa served four months at Fort Kearney, Nebraska, where he was detailed to repair telegraph lines from the fort. A pair of climbing hooks were strapped to his legs, which he used in ascending the poles, but when four Sioux shot at Grandpa, he said, ``I didn't bother at all with the hooks coming down!''

All kinds of important officers and noble Indians figured in my grandfather's tales (good guys, for sure). It's interesting that the most dangerous of the ``bad boys'' didn't bother making notches on their guns! The men with notches on their guns were showoffs.

Grandpa's horse, Hellfire, was a pretty wild horse. He wrote about keeping him in line. ``My horse had run away several times, and on this occasion became excited and unmanageable, and ran like a streak directly toward the Indians. It seemed no time 'till we were almost among them.

``Pete finally broke the bridle rein on one side and by hard pulling on the single rein the course was changed. The Indians were passed on one side, and Pete yelled at Hellfire to stop. The horse slowed, and Pete jumped off, pulling Hellfire around a rock. Then Pete joined in with the boys on `the business of the day.'''

Pete continues with his horse story: ``The next day was inspection day, and Pete was promoted to sergeant, in spite of, or maybe because of the `tough-mouthed' horse. The great speed and endurance of Hellfire overbalanced his one bad habit, and Pete believed he was the best horse on earth.''

I'm sure you know about the oldtime ``entertainments.'' Well, Grandpa said the ``Easter Sunday sports doin's'' were the best of all. There were foot races, horse racing, marksmanship (``with Colts Navys''), and wrestling. In the evening there were solo, duet, and choral concerts, clog dancing, and - can you believe it? - an orchestra made up of violins, bass viols, piccolo, cornet, and snare drum!

Aside from the officers and soldiers at the fort, there were some 50 Indians, mostly Arapahoes and Cheyennes

My grandfather numbered many Indians among his friends. One was the noted warrior Big Spotted Horse, and another, a Pawnee, Sgt. White Eagle, served with Grandpa's troop.

It's good I have the fascinating documents from Grandpa's service days and his writings.

As you study his journal, you think of watching a fine western movie, or reading a wonderful book of the Old West. Yet, it's better, because he actually lived all of it.

Lauren Winfield Aldrich lived until 1938 and was 90 when he died. I'm fortunate he shared some of his soldiering life with me. The Aldrich Journal is in the archives of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.