Winter Expedition Over the Rocky Mountains (1857)

Randolph B. Marcy (1812–1887)

Randolph Marcy

Randolph Marcy (1860-1865).


In November, 1857, Captain Randolph Marcy was ordered, by the U.S. Secretary of War, to take a command of 40 enlisted men, and, starting from Fort Bridger, in Utah Territory, to make a winter crossing of the Rocky Mountains “by the most direct route into New Mexico” to procure supplies for a government campaign against the Mormons, who had attacked a civilian emigrant train that year. A report from the Secretary of War later said this: “It may be safely affirmed that, in the whole catalogue of hazardous expeditions scattered so thickly through the history of our border warfare, filled as many of them are with appalling tales of privation, hardship, and suffering, not one surpasses this, and in some particulars it has been hardly equaled by any.”

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With the snow reaching four feet in depth, Marcy had to devise ways to make passage for the pack animals. “Our only alternative now, in the deepest snow, was for the three or four leading men of the party to lie down and crawl upon their hands and feet, each man following in the tracks of the leader, and all placing their hands and feet in the same holes. This method packed the snow . . . The leading man was generally able to go about fifty yards before he became exhausted.”

Provisions ran out. “Notwithstanding I reduced the rations one half, our provisions were all consumed long before we reached the top of the mountains, and we were then entirely dependent upon our famished animals for food. Our first repast upon the novel regime was from a colt belonging to Tim Goodale’s Indian wife, who accompanied us, and underwent the hardships of the trip with astonishing patience and fortitude. She cried very bitterly when the colt was killed, as it had always been her pet; but she realized the necessity of the sacrifice.”

Their guide lost the way, and they traveled a day in the wrong direction, putting the expedition in imminent peril. It was only after they had bivouacked for the night, that one of Marcy’s employees, a Mexican named Miguel Alona, approached the commander and told him they were headed, not towards, but at right angles to the mountain pass over which they must cross. Alona said he knew the country well, and Marcy made this proposition: “I asked the Mexican if he was willing to act as guide, telling him I would, in addition to his regular pay, make him a handsome present for his services, provided he conducted us in safety to New Mexico; but I also informed him that if at any time I discovered he was leading us in a wrong direction, I should hang him to the first tree.”

Alona was quite displeased at this,“saying that he was sorry I should think he would attempt to deceive me. I told him all I required was for him to be sure he was right, and to think over the matter deliberately, and come back and let me know if he was willing to enter into the agreement upon the terms proposed by me. He returned in a short time and said, “I’ll risk my neck on it, captain.” “Very well,” I replied, “you are the guide.”

After 31 days Marcy finally reached New Mexico. He writes: “The exhibition of joy manifest among the command exceeded any thing of the kind ever beheld. Some of the men laughed, danced, and screamed with delight, while others (and I must confess I was not one among the former) cried like children. I had not slept half an hour at a time for twenty days and nights, and was reduced from 170 to 131 pounds in weight, and, of course, my nervous system was not at the juncture under very good control. My joy was too great, under the circumstances, to find utterance in noise or levity; on the contrary, I mentally offered up sincere thanks to the Almighty for delivering us from the horrible death of starvation.”

Marcy Arrives in New Mexico

The expedition arrives in New Mexico; illustration from “Thirty Years on the Border.”

Winter Expedition Over the Rocky Mountains is a chapter from Marcy’s autobiography Thirty Years of Army Life on the Border (1866), which I read for Volume 32 of the Nonfiction Collection.

After reading Marcy’s account, you might try Gallipoli Diary, by┬áJohn Graham Gillam, where brutal winter weather also tries┬áthe fortitude of enlisted men.