“We will forever be known by the tracks we leave”
– Dakota proverb
There are very few records or detailed accounts of individual Native Americans who lived in the west desert during the time of the Pony Express. There are, however, a few accounts that give a snapshot of who these people were, how they lived and what their disposition was. One of these individuals was an old man named Quah-not, who lived in and around what is now referred to as Keg Spring on the northern slope of the Keg Mountain. Quah-not is known to us because Cpt. James H. Simpson kept a detailed account of his interactions with him in the West Desert in late July of 1859.
Simpson and his party had left Camp Floyd earlier that year and traveled all the way to Genoa — Carson Valley — in what is now Nevada at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. His account of this trip: “Report of explorations across the great basin of the territory of Utah for a direct wagon-route from Camp Floyd to Genoa, in Carson Valley, in 1859” is a fascinating portal in time that you can look through back into the old west desert. You can read this entire document for free on the University of Michigan’s “Making of America” database on the web.
Simpson and his expedition of 14 wagons and about 60 men ran into trouble on their return trek. They had just passed through the House Range at Dome Canyon and skirted the base of Topaz Mountain in the Thomas Range when they reached the south slopes and knolls of Keg Mountain. On the way out west, when Simpson and his party were entering Shortcut —Dugway — Pass, Simpson stated that a Ute Indian in a red shirt pointed over in the direction of Keg Mountain and said that there was a spring there.
It was now July 29, the hottest time of year in the desert and the men and animals were suffering greatly. They had failed to locate the spring that the Ute Indian told them about a few months before. Simpson sent scouts out in several directions to try to find a spring as he feared his party may perish in the desert. Mr. Reese, one of his guides, through “happy circumstance” came across an old, crippled Indian who told him where a spring was located over in a range Simpson referred to in his report as the McDowell Mountains after Maj. Irvin McDowell. This group of mountains is now collectively known as Keg Mountain. Based on the guide’s information, Simpson and his crew crossed Keg Mountain at Keg Pass and then skirted the heavily wooded northwest base of the Mountain to the spring.
Keg Mountain is an interesting place as it is a rather large jumble of desert mountains separated by Keg Pass which is 5,900 feet in elevation. The mountains to the west of the pass consist of numerous, sparsely vegetated domes with dense juniper trees lapping the bases near Keg Pass. The tallest of these peaks rises in a treeless cone up to 6,881 feet. The mountains to the east of the pass are very different as in places they are heavily forested with a dense blanket of juniper with a smattering of pinyon pine mixed in. The highpoint of these peaks is a long north to south running ridge that has an aptly named northern highpoint called Simpson Point at 7,155 feet and the south highpoint is simply referred to as Keg at 7,305 feet. This is a remarkable and rugged wilderness. I climbed to the highpoint many years ago and the view of the vast jumble of unknown canyons and desert landscapes with a snow clad Mount Nebo far off in the distance to the east, was a scene of desert beauty I will never forget.
The spring was well hidden by a thick growth of trees on the northwest slope of the mountain. When Simpson and his crew arrived at the spring after coming over Keg Pass from the south, he noted there was only a small quantity of water, scarcely enough for cooking. He stated that the flow was so sparse that the men had to fill one bucket of water at a time and it took awhile to fill one up.
Simpson stated that the pitiful mules hung around the spring, wanting to put their noses in it but had to be driven off with a whip. Some of them were so thirsty that they resorted to eating moist mud. Some of the mules drank nine buckets of water before being driven off and one animal drank 14 buckets until he was satisfied. Simpson calculated that their animals would die shortly if they had to continue watering them one bucket at a time so he sent several scouting parties out from the spring to look for water. The first party consisted of several mounted Soldiers named Stevenson and Sanchez. Quah-not agreed to allow his son Ah-Pon, his only caregiver and provider, to go with those strange Soldiers, many miles, to guide them to water.
The second group was led by Mr. Reese and even though his hip was out of joint, Quah-not was perfectly willing to go along to show them where grass and water was, just as long as they would lift him up onto a mule. Simpson stated “He was therefore bodily lifted up and placed on the mule and he went off very cheerfully.”
Simpson was deeply thankful to Quah-not for providing assistance to his expedition. He therefore named the place they were encamped “Good Indian Spring after the good Samaritan Indian”. Quah-not was an interesting fellow. Even though he was paralyzed from the hips down, and forced to move about by using his arms to propel himself forward, he was a good, friendly person who made it his utmost mission to help Simpson and his men. Quah-not told Simpson that the spring on Keg Mountain was made by some horse thieves — white men — about a year earlier.
Quah-not lived at this spring in a wikiup with his son Ah-Pon. Simpson was deeply moved by Quah-not’s disposition and noted that it was only with his help that they were able to find this spring. He was also astonished that Quah-not would allow his only protector and son Ah-Pon to go off with the strange mounted Soldiers in search of water. Simpson went on to say that Quah-not had a “good heart” towards us and that all of his men felt grateful for his “extraordinary” kindness.
As I wander through the junipers in the desert, look upon the landscape, absorbing the silence, It is interesting to consider that these lonely desert places were once the home of people like Quah-not and Ah-pon. It is a sad thing when I realize that they are all gone from the mountains and secret, wonderous places of the desert that they loved and called home.
Quah-not and the Soldiers arrived back at the spring and told Simpson that there was plenty of good grass and water about 12 miles to the East at Death Canyon in the Champlain Mountains — Simpson Mountains. Through words and gestures, Quah-not told Simpson he was very fatigued after his ride but still had a good heart towards the Soldiers. He was so tired he had to be lifted down from his horse and carried to the cook fire where Simpson had a meal prepared for him.
In gratitude for literally saving his expedition, Simpson gave Quah-not a fine Spanish Knife and a pair of leather gloves to protect his hands as he propelled himself through the sagebrush and rocky desert terrain noting that his only mode of “locomotion” was on his haunches and hands. Simpson then offered Quah-not some “Wolf Schnapps” as he believed the alcohol would help with his suffering stating “I handed him some but he immediately smelt of it and replied — No Bueno” and refused to drink it.
Simpson remarked “He is treated so much like a king that he looks upon us occasionally with wonder and seems to ask himself – is this attention real?” and then he breaks out into a laugh, in which is intermingled as much of astonishment as joy.”
Simpson continued: “At his request, I permitted him to sleep in camp, the only strange Indian to whom this privilege has been granted on this trip.” Simpson described it as divine providence, that the Good Indian had saved his party. Simpson had initially dismissed the Goshutes as subhuman when he described them on his outward journey to the Carson Valley. His experience with Quah-not changed his perception somewhat as he realized as Bennion put it that “the virtues of Goshute culture were hidden by the wretchedness of their poverty.” These simple desert dwellers were people who had emotions, felt pain, joy, and sorrow. They were a people capable of kindness, selflessness and charity who loved their families just like Simpson did.
Ah-Pon and the mounted Dragoons soon returned and informed Simpson that they had reached Rush Valley and that there was good grass and water at reasonable distances all the way to that point, so without delay, the expedition skirted the northern base of Keg Mountain through thick cedars, dropped down into the Old River Bed and climbed up to the mouth of Death Canyon. They then skirted around the south bench of the Simpson Range and went up over Erickson Pass, crossing the Sheeprock mountains via a new road they cut over oak canyon and then across Rush Valley to Camp Floyd.
While sitting at the creek at the mouth of Death Canyon, with the men and animals saved through the assistance of Quah-not and Ah-Pon, Simpson enjoyed a fitting end to a long harrowing episode and remarked: “The sunset from our camp this evening is superb. The amber hue of the sky; the purple and roseate clouds in the west and the variegated colors of the clouds in the other parts of the heavens make up a fine view”.
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.