Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

June 7, 2023
Desert Odyssey: Howard Egan and the ‘Indian No Legs’

“When it comes time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so when their time comes, they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home”

– Chief Aupaumut

Back in the days of the Overland Stage and Pony Express in Utah’s West Desert, no white man knew the desert better than Major Howard Egan. Egan first explored the desert in 1851. He made numerous treks alone through the vast Great Basin wilderness all the way across what would later become Nevada to California. 

Egan soaked up the knowledge he gained while on these adventures of the springs, mountain ranges and high desert valleys like a sponge — remembering everything and all the minute detail the desert had to show him. This knowledge served him well while in the employ of George Chorpenning as he assisted his boss in establishing the Overland Stage Route west of Camp Floyd all the way to the Carson Valley in 1858 and 1859. 

By 1860, Egan was serving as the superintendent of the Pony Express line from Salt Lake City to Roberts Creek in the center of what is now the state of Nevada.  It was a daunting task to build the stations, hire riders and station men, stock the stations with supplies and keep the stations supplied. The stations were built of whatever was on hand and were sometimes nothing more than a dugout in a hill. At some stations there were no resources so everything the station men relied on for survival had to be hauled in on a regular basis. Freight hauling was a big deal in the desert and without it, the stations could not have existed. 

Egan had to personally keep the line stocked at times driving his “mud” wagon out and back across the desert. The mud wagon was a smaller vehicle that could negotiate the soft desert terrain — whether mud or dust, better than a large stage.  All of this travel in the desert put Egan in constant contact with the indigenous peoples who were living there when he arrived — the Goshute Indians. 

Just like his knowledge of the desert, Egan likely had a better understanding of the Goshutes, their customs, and the problems and issues that hurled them into utter abject poverty than anyone else. Howard was on friendly terms with most of the Goshutes he came in contact with and he took advantage of every opportunity to learn their language, observe their customs and unique and the fascinating processes they had developed to survive in the most inhospitable environments. 

As stated, Howard made numerous trips or resupply missions for the remote desert stations and on one such endeavor on his way to restock the station at Fish Springs, he stopped for the night at Simpson Springs. Back in those days of no TV or internet, the station men, stage drivers, pony riders, passengers and emigrants who traveled the trail, swapped stories over the dinner cook fire about tall tales, horses, famous gunfighters, politics or outlaws and other interesting things they had seen in the wilderness. 

That night at Simpson Springs was when through such a tale, Egan heard about the Indian “No Legs.” Egan documented his experience with this interesting character in his journal which makes up the bulk of the book “Pioneering the West.” Anyone interested in the Utah West Desert should seek this book out and give it a read. Most of the information that follows comes from that source. 

“The Boys” as Egan referred to the men working at the station, stated that during the morning of the previous day, an Indian with no legs had left the station intent upon crossing the desert to the Dugway Mountains. They told Egan that they didn’t think he had any chance to make it because they were sure he would die in the desert of thirst. Egan thought the story was curious but he had work to do so he readied his mud wagon and the two mules he used to pull it, organized his heavy load of supplies for Fish Springs station in anticipation of an early start. 

Egan was on the road by 6 a.m. and by 8 a.m. he was about 10 miles west of Simpson Springs, just beyond the Old River Bed when he noticed something strange in the distance, bobbing up and down along the side of the road. He then looked down at the road for tracks and he saw the imprint of what looked like a basket being pressed into the dust in a long series of prints, each spaced about a foot apart. He then realized that the story the station boys told was true. He hurried his team up alongside of the Indian who had turned out of the road to let him pass.  

Egan stopped and asked him, “Where are you going?” The man replied that he was going to the Indian camp over that mountain (Dugway), pointing to a place about 15 miles away. Egan asked him how long it would take him to get there and he said “One day and one half day”.

The man then asked Egan, “You got water?” Egan replied that he did and he then asked the Indian if he had any. The Indian replied that he had a little. 

Egan then asked the Indian if he had anything to eat. And he replied that he had a little bread that the boys at the station had given him. 

“Are you tired?” Egan asked. 

“Yes”, he replied “Indian all the time tired.”

Egan then told the Indian that he would give him a ride if he could get up on the wagon seat. “Me go alright” was the reply and before he knew it, the Indian somehow managed to quickly climb himself up into the seat of the wagon next to him. 

Egan stated “He seemed as tickled as a little child on his first ride and would watch the brush go by as fast as it did before he lost his legs” which was some 15 years before.  He told Egan that he had lost his legs by having them frozen in a blizzard and a doctor had to cut them off to save his life. 

Egan was curious why the man was alone and asked him if the other Indians ever helped him and he said no.  “They have no horses and can’t carry me everywhere they go.” 

“Do they ever give you food?” Egan asked. 

“Yes, when I am at their camp but not at any other time,” he answered. 

Egan asked the man how he carried water enough to get him across a place like the 20-mile desert they were in. The man showed him a willow water jug slung around his neck that held about a gallon of water.

Just think of that. Crossing a barren desert, one foot at a jump, in the hottest weather with only one gallon of water! 

He told Egan that whatever food he left the camp with he made to last as long as possible by catching mice or the chipmunks that he could reach with his stick or dig out of their holes when he saw them go in. 

The two men rode along together, talking for a while and then after about 10 miles the Indian asked Egan to stop and told him he wanted to go that way — pointing off to a place about 5 miles distant to the north in the Dugway Mountains. 

Egan stated, “Before I could get to help him, he had taken hold of the side of the wagon and swung his body over the side and dropped to the ground all smiles and talking as fast as he could make his tongue travel and that was not slow.”

 Egan continued, “I gave him a full bottle of water and all of my dinner. A handful of matches and my big red cotton handkerchief. He seemed a very proud Indian. I asked him when he would get to camp. He said, “Sunrise tomorrow.” 

Egan paused his wagon a minute to observe the Indian as he went about his journey and described his locomotion in this way, “Now when he started off I noticed that he twisted his body at every jump, placing one end of his stout stick on the ground by his side, and by force of his arms, lifts his body, and at the same time shoves it ahead about one foot or less. This he could repeat very fast which made it look to me as if his body was moving ahead all the time. He had a rawhide sack arrangement which was made to fit around his body, fastened around him above the hips. The sole or bottom of this sack was made of the thickest hide. I do not know if he had any soft material in the bottom or not, but I presume he had or how could he stand the shock of jumping out of the wagon? Or the continual bump, bump, while traveling.”

Howard Egan was a decent man who showed great kindness and charity to the Goshutes, giving them anything he could spare whenever he could when he found them in need of food, clothing or water. He also put great pressure upon the government Indian Agent who was responsible for distributing promised supplies to the Goshutes in exchange for a right of way across their lands, to deliver supplies to the Indians.  As in most cases throughout the history of the expansion of the United States, the government did not keep its promises. 

Egan said he heard of the Indian No Legs several times after that along the trail and at the stations, but he never saw him again. As I travel the west desert and wander the empty canyons, walk through the cedars on the high ridges, admire the gray sheeting of a far off rain squall or sit on a rock and watch the cloud shadows drift across the land. I think of the Indian No Legs, Cpt. Simpson’s encounter with Quah-not, the Good Indian, and all of the other incredible people of this tribe who somehow, survived against all odds, maintained a positive outlook. I have no doubt that when the time came, the Indian No Legs expired like he lived and died like a hero going home.

Jaromy Jessop has been a frequent contributing writer to the Transcript Bulletin. He enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the West Desert with our readers. Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He can be followed on Facebook at “JD Jessop” and on his Facebook group “American Tales & Trails.” Jessop retains the rights to his writing and photographs. His permission is required for any republication.

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