“Run to the Hills, Run for your Life”
I’m sitting out here in Skull Valley on the White Rocks Road looking up at the sky after climbing the largest of the White Rocks while the moon rose over the Onaqui. It’s just after midnight and I can hear far off crickets chirping somewhere out in the dark. The moonlight is casting black shadows from anything that rises above the surface of the valley floor. The desert is brightly lit with pale light from the white, staring, silent moon. Each individual shrub casts its own shadow in the windless silence.
Even though it is 20 miles or more to the south, I can see Indian Mountain rising through the night time desert haze. It is amazing how dusty it is in the desert, even on a calm evening. Numberless tiny particles of dust drift through the air like an unseen mist but if you shine a flashlight skyward you will see them and then be somewhat worried to know you are breathing all that in. This dust, coupled with the moonlight, the stars that flicker — whose light is strong enough not to be washed out by the moon, and the dead calm of the desert make for a stunning collective spectacle.
This place is a Ghost Desert if there ever was or is such a thing. Even the names — Skull Valley, Dead Man Canyon, Death Canyon etc.and etc. lend credence to the idea that something happened out here, something sad and sometimes so horrible that you would never want to remember it. Those things leave their mark on the land in my opinion. I’ve never seen a ghost but I believe those things are possible. Many people have their own ghosts or things that haunt them. I certainly have mine and Indian Mountain and the southern end of Skull Valley have theirs as well.
It was such a beautiful evening that I decided to drive down to Indian Mountain and camp near Winter Springs. I arrived at that place a little bit after 1 a.m. and got out and looked around for a bit. I wanted to get closer to the Indian peaks but an ocean of hundreds of thousands of old dead sunflowers stood thick upon the land and closed in on the two-track dirt road. Not wanting to scratch my truck, I parked about one-quarter mile south of the Pony Express Trail in the wide open below the Indian Peaks.
The last time I camped in this area was back in 1997. Out on the flat plain here with my sleeping bag on the dirt and grass, I marveled at the blue white stripe of the Hale Bopp comet that was unbelievably bright against the Milky Way. That comet was so bright It was as if someone took a silvery blue paint brush to a black canvas. I often had a transistor radio with me back in those days. I was listening to some country music when a news flash came on after midnight that told of how 39 people, members of the “Heaven’s Gate” UFO cult, had committed suicide in San Diego, believing that they would be released from their body shells so they could join the UFO they thought was trailing the comet. Gave me something unpleasant to think about out there in the dark, alone on the plain.
That unsettling memory made me think of another tragic event that occurred out here along Government Creek, likely not far from where I was now camped. Back in 1863 this area was being hotly contested. The Goshute and other Indians were making war against the Whites because the Stage Stations had been established on the best water and foraging grounds. These were areas the Indians had depended on for their very survival for generations. The scant resources places like Simpson Springs provided were minimal but they were the only thing the nomadic Indians could depend on.
After several confrontations that nearly ground the Overland Stage to a halt, Colonel Patrick Edward Connor, who had his hands full with the Mormons, dispatched one of his most trusted and ruthless officers to head out west and settle the Indian problem once and for all. Captain Samuel P. Smith and his Company K of Cavalry set out from Fort Douglas and laid waste to any and all Indians he could find between Salt Lake City and Ruby Valley in what is now Nevada. This was a brutal war of extermination where no prisoners were taken.
June 10, 1863 found Capt. Smith and Company K camped on Government Creek in the southern end of Skull Valley below the Indian Peaks. Company K operated out of this encampment for about 30 days while searching for Indians along the Overland Trail in this area and this is likely where the name “Government Creek” comes from. On June 20, Capt. Smith and his men found a group of Indians camped in the Cedars near this place. Capt. Smith ordered his men to surround the camp of friendly Goshute Indians and at his signal they were all slaughtered except for one woman. Smith claimed that an Overland horse was found in their possession as an excuse to open fire.
This was Chief Pe-Anum’s band, a man that had been friendly to the whites on many occasions. Henry “Doc” Faust documented the sad and despicable event in his journal.
“I was living at Rush Valley when Captain Smith and his Company came to Rockwell’s Ranch and camped. For some cause or another, they surrounded and killed the men, women, and children that were camped in the cedars nearby. The soldiers only saved one, that was Pe-Anum’s young squaw. Captain Smith took her to his tent, where I saw her and I went over to see what was going on. She told me that he made her sleep with him and she begged me most piteously to take her away. I talked with Smith and he told me that he was holding her in order that she would tell where the rest of the Indians were. I will never forget the poor woman as I left, crying as though her heart would break. It afterwards transpired that Smith kept her as long as he wanted her and then sent Spanish Joe off with her. She was afterwards found with a bullet in her head. I visited the dead Indians camp and found them unburied. I recognized the father and brother of Pe-Anum. It was a ghastly sight. They were all swollen up to twice their natural size, one mother hugging her little papoose to her breast as tight as though she would shield it from the destroyer. There are more savages than Indians”
When I think about this incident it makes my heart hurt for those people and I am astonished by the barbarity and unfeeling cruelty that was dealt out by the so-called “civilized” people who pushed the Indians off the desert. Forget Hale Bopp and anything else, if there are such things as ghosts, these poor souls likely wander the cedars along the bench of Indian Mountain on moonlit nights such as these.
With my mind filled with memories and thoughts about occurrences of the past I drifted off to sleep. Right around 4 a.m., I was awoken by an awful scream that sort of echoed across the plain in the frigid stillness. I sat bolt upright and looked around, wiping the sleep from my eyes. All was silent and the plains were bare all around. I thought it might have been a coyote as I’ve heard them often but I never heard one that sounded like that. I waited for what seemed a long moment, and then I heard the terrible scream again. I was wide awake now and straining my eyes to pick out anything unusual in the fantastic moonlight.
I then heard the far off clomp clomp and thud thud of many hooves and realized it was the horses. These noises turned into a low rumbling sound and I found their location way off toward the Pony Express Trail. The horrible screams were from two fighting horses. Greatly relieved, I pulled on my boots and decided to go for a walk. I headed down the Winter Springs Road and heard more screams that shattered the utter silence of the frigid morning.
For safety purposes, I decided I wouldn’t get too close to the wild beasts so I stood well off from the herd which I could now ascertain numbered well over 100. The horses however had a different idea. As I stood there, they moved out with a purpose on a course that was heading straight towards me so I remained perfectly still. They came up to within 20 feet and then the herd came to an abrupt halt as they realized I was there. 200 horse eyeballs were upon me as they didn’t know what to make of my presence out there on the plain. They soon however went about their horse business — chomping desert grass and shrubs, annoying each other and baying, relieving their bodily functions and stomping their feet. A large black horse came out of the group and stared at me. He dug the ground with his hoof, snorted and then went on his way.
I noticed one dark brown horse with a beautiful light brown mane and white socks standing still and erect, staring straight at me with the dark ridge of the Onaqui behind it and the brilliantly reflecting orb of Jupiter just above the rim in the morning sky. This horse had a white splash on his nose and was truly a magnificent animal. He stared at me and I stared at him for quite some time as I wanted to burn the image in my mind. While standing there at the edge of the road, two large white mares came right up to the edge of it and it seemed as though they were going to touch their nose to me. I stood super still, hoping they wouldn’t. Then they chickened out and walked away.
I noticed another large mare who had two adolescents with her and wherever she went, those two smaller horses followed in a hurry, almost stepping over each other to stay with mom. So many colors of horses — gray, white, brown, black, paint etc. etc. After my teeth started to chatter from the frigid morning, I decided to head back to my camp. Indian Mountain loomed large in the foreground through the moonlight as I trudged along the white path of the road. I noticed Orion in the sky above Porter Valley. Somewhere in this view is where Capt. Smith’s murderous atrocity took place but you’d never know it by the light of the beautiful desert full moon below Indian Mountain.
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.