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Cowboy, judge, federal official, then business executive, Wilson McCarthy mirrored change and growth in the twentieth-century West. Leading the Denver & Rio Grande back from the brink saved a vital link in the national transportation system. The D&RGW ran over and through the scenic Rockies, developing mineral resources, fighting corporate wars, and helping build communities. The Depression brought it to its knees. Accepting federal assignment to save the line, McCarthy turned it into a paragon of ...
Cowboy, judge, federal official, then business executive, Wilson McCarthy mirrored change and growth in the twentieth-century West. Leading the Denver & Rio Grande back from the brink saved a vital link in the national transportation system. The D&RGW ran over and through the scenic Rockies, developing mineral resources, fighting corporate wars, and helping build communities. The Depression brought it to its knees. Accepting federal assignment to save the line, McCarthy turned it into a paragon of mid-century railroading, represented by the streamlined, Vista-Domed California Zephyr, although success hauling freight was of more economic importance. Prior to that, McCarthy’s life had taken him from driving livestock in Canada to trying to drive the national economy as a director of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the first line of federal attack on the Depression. Always a Cowboy positions McCarthy’s story in a rich historical panorama..
Will Bagley is the author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows
Charles McCarthy Goes West
The American saga of Utah's McCarthy family began when blight struck the fields of Ireland. Black rot destroyed the island's potato crop in 1845. Over the next five years, famine killed a million Irish men, women, and children and drove almost another million to seek a home across the Atlantic Ocean. Among those who fl ed starvation aboard the "coffin ships" that transported Irish emigrants to America were Cornelius McCarty, his wife, Johanna, and their two small children.
Cornelius McCarty was born in Cork, Ireland, in either 1818 or 1819. About three years later, Johanna Driscol (or O'Driscol) was born nearby in Bandon. A son, Daniel, was born about 1846, and the family lost a daughter named Mary before they left Ireland in about 1847. A second daughter, Katie, died at sea. The family landed in New York and settled briefly in Little Falls, Herkimer County, New York, where another son, Timothy, was born about 1848. The family soon joined thousands of other Americans moving west. McCarty worked on a railroad in Fayette County, Ohio, where son Charles W. McCarthy appeared on April 9, 1850. A last daughter, Johanna, was born in Hamilton County, Ohio, on November 25, 1854.
Continuing their western odyssey, the McCartys moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where Cornelius, who never learned to read or write, engaged in construction work. Leavenworth, a Missouri River settlement that had grown up next to the oldest and largest army post in the West, thrived during the 1850s as an outfitting depot and "jumping off" point for overland emigration. The boomtown was also a center for the big business of the Plains, providing the supply trains that hauled freight to military posts. In 1855, Majors & Russell, the premier transportation company west of the Missouri, employed five hundred men to haul four thousand tons of supplies west in 1,700 wagons. "Leavenworth is the principal town of Kansas Territory. It contains already about 10,000 souls, though it has sprung into existence within the last six years. It is beautifully and advantageously situated on the Missouri river," reported the peripatetic Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet in 1859. "It has a bishop, two Catholic churches, a convent with a boarding-school and day-school." Devout Catholics, the McCartys sent their children to the convent school, although poverty and the need to contribute to their family's livelihood limited their education. Charles began selling newspapers and shining shoes when he was eight years old, but he played enough in the Missouri River to became an expert swimmer and diver, a skill that reputedly came in handy when he later rescued drowning swimmers and helped recover bodies from Utah Lake.
Charles ran away from home in about 1860, stowing away on a riverboat bound for New Orleans, his grandson recalled. There he left the boat, and a family took him in "and sent him to school-at least for a short period." The outbreak of the Civil War may have persuaded him to return home to an uncertain welcome. "Grandfather McCarthy never spared the rod as was the custom so often in those days," Charles's daughter Marjorie recalled. "He had a quick temper and little patience with children. Grandmother was just the opposite, all sweetness and kindness, and a patient loving mother." Tragically for her children, Johanna McCarty died on May 15, 1863, at Leavenworth.
With the death of his mother, Charles McCarthy decided to follow Huckleberry Finn's example and "light out for the Territory," the great western frontier that beckoned thousands of young men on the Missouri borderlands. Although he had barely turned thirteen, McCarthy signed on as a teamster to drive an ox team with a train of freight wagons bound for Denver, the commercial center of the recently discovered gold mines in western Kansas Territory. More probably, he was hired to do camp chores, but the job made him part of the fraternity of "independent wagoners" journalist Horace Greeley described four years earlier. Teamsters drove the "lean, wild-looking oxen ... which had probably first felt the yoke within the past week" that powered western expansion. They were "as rough and wild-looking as their teams" and traditionally relied on a "great deal of yelling, beating, [and] swearing" to move the massive loads in their enormous wagons. The leaders of McCarthy's train apparently miscalculated and left the frontier too late, for a blizzard stopped them on the Big Blue River. After storing the freight in a brewery, they took their men back to Atchison, and Charles returned home to Leavenworth.
The next summer, young McCarthy signed on with the same company to haul freight over the Santa Fe Trail to the more forgiving climate of New Mexico. On this venture he "had full charge of" six yoke of oxen and helped haul military stores to Fort Union. The train wintered over on the Arkansas River and had "a very eventful trip, as one of the men got in a fight with a Mexican and killed him. They had to make a hurried retreat and it was necessary to hide the man," allegedly in McCarthy's wagon. By the time the train returned to Leavenworth in the spring, he "had become an expert freighter and driver of oxen and horses" and had learned a trade that would take him all over the West.
McCarthy may have spent the summer of 1866 picking up valuable experience driving freight to the mines in the Montana goldfields, but he found himself in Great Salt Lake City by late October. According to his daughter, Charles spent the winter herding livestock in Rush Valley. His grandson recalled that he spent the season working for the famous "Mormon Triggerite," Orrin Porter Rockwell, who had a ranch at Government Creek and ran cattle on the vast ranges of Tooele and Juab counties. The following spring, the young cowboy herded horses to Denver, where he sold them at auction and spent a short time tending bar. That fall, he drove a mule team to Cheyenne and Fort Laramie and then followed an ox team to Green River, Wyoming. He spent a summer working on the Union Pacific Railroad, but by fall 1867, he had returned to Rush Valley, where he "worked all winter for a horse and a suit of clothes."
The Wild Sense of Freedom
The next spring, the young (and, one might hope, well-dressed) cowpuncher sold his horse for twelve dollars. While walking down a Great Salt Lake City street looking for work he met Hugh White, an old acquaintance who had been one of McCarthy's customers when he shined shoes and sold newspapers in Leavenworth. White, who managed the 350-mile stage line to Pioche, a booming Nevada mining town, hired the eighteen-year-old as a driver. For the next year, McCarthy worked as a "Jehu," or stagecoach driver, one of the most prestigious jobs in the old West, hauling passengers and mail over the wagon road the army had blazed from Salt Lake City to Meadow Valley in 1864. (It was also dangerous: three drivers were killed sitting next to legendary Utah pioneer Howard Egan as he rode shotgun on the overland stage in central Nevada.) Mark Twain loved "the life and the wild sense of freedom" he found on his 1861 stagecoach trip across Utah, but most travelers discovered the experience was less inspiring. "Don't imagine for a moment you are going on a pic-nic," the Omaha Herald warned in "Hints for Plains Travelers" in 1877. "Expect annoyance, discomfort and some hardships. If you are disappointed, thank heaven." Demas Barnes found "the water brackish, the whiskey abominable, and the dirt almost unendurable" on his trip to Denver in 1865. Conditions on "the ragged edge" of the Mormon frontier in southern Utah were probably similar, if not much worse.
Mormon apostle Anthony Ivins recalled that his days as a freighter on the Pioche road had taught him life's most impressive lessons in very simple ways. The rules of the western road required that a wagon going downhill must give way to one going up, but some men "were possessed of the idea that no matter what the etiquette of the road demanded, the other fellow should always turn out." His friend Hank got in a dispute with another teamster over who had the right of way and "climbed down off of the high seat of his wagon and started over to take it out of the boy's hide. A little later some of us drove along," remembered Ivins, "and found him sitting there by the creek washing the blood off of his face. One of the boys said, 'What is the matter, Hank?' 'Oh,' he said, 'nothing. I just made a mistake in judgment; that is all.'"
Hugh White's stage line had an overnight station in American Fork, Utah, a small farming village at the north end of Utah Lake. Charles McCarthy adopted the hamlet as his "home station," and while laying over, he boarded with one Mrs. Green, whom he lovingly called Mother Green. "Her home became his home," his daughter recalled, "and it was really the first he had known since the death of his mother." McCarthy fell in love with the town, set in the morning shadow of Mt. Timpanogos, amidst rich farmland beneath the towering peaks of the Wasatch Range. He gave up his transient life as a stagecoach driver to more or less settle down in the quiet farming community. Over the next few years, he prospected in American Fork Canyon, hauled ore at the new and promising mines in Bingham Canyon, "and worked one winter in Montana on a farm where he milked 20 cows each morning before breakfast."
Like many young westerners, McCarthy dreamed of getting a start in the cattle business: he "saved money with one thought in mind: to acquire land and buy cattle." He also became involved in the Mormon village's social life and met the Mercer family. "Father was a vigorous young man and an excellent dancer, so my mother said," Marjorie McCarthy Woolf remembered. "He was a typical Irishman, happy, optimistic, and good company. He soon made many friends in American Fork." The charming bachelor was invited to Mary Mercer's sixteenth birthday party on January 28, 1871.
That day a love-struck Charles McCarthy may have started what became a five-year courtship of Miss Mercer. It is hardly remarkable that a young and attractive couple would fall in love, but a tremendous gap separated the two. Charles was an itinerant, Irish Catholic roustabout, while Mary was the daughter of a devout Mormon family headed by John Mercer and Nancy Wilson.
Captain of the Hunters: The Mercer Family Heads West
We know little about Nancy Mercer's origins except that LDS Church records indicate she was born in 1817, and she was said to be born in Scotland. Her husband was born September 7, 1818, at Witten Bashel Eves in Yorkshire, England, the son of Thomas Mercer and Margaret Pegg Embley. At the age of twenty, he became one of the first English converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, popularly known as Mormons), and, like many of his fellow Britons who joined the new religion, he followed prophet Joseph Smith's call to all saints to gather to his new Zion at Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1842.
Over the next six years, mobs murdered the young prophet and drove his followers from the state. The Mercers had settled outside of Nauvoo, and, by 1845, they had a prosperous farm and growing family. As mob violence escalated that summer, predatory bands known as "Wolf Packs" preyed on outlying Mormon farmsteads. During the conflict, the Mercers were burned out of their home-all Nancy could save was a bed tick and a chair, which they brought to Utah. Their suffering was not over, however: the Mercers lost a baby daughter at Sugar Creek after the evacuation of Nauvoo during the bitterly cold winter of 1846.
These bitter experiences apparently forged John Mercer into a stalwart believer. He and his growing family followed the main body of the Latterday Saints westward to the Mormon refugee camps at Winter Quarters on the Missouri River in 1846. That October, he answered Brigham Young's call for volunteers "to take the cattle of the sisters whose husbands are in the Mormon battalion and also those of the sick." Mercer joined Asahel Lathrop's camp at Rush Valley, about thirty miles north of Winter Quarters, where a large number of Mormon horses and cattle spent the winter grazing on the rushes that stayed green most of the year.
On December 30, 1847, the family's sorrow over the daughter lost at Sugar Creek was perhaps eased by the birth of another child, named Miriam or Mariam. John Boylston Fairbanks noted that William Key delivered a barrel of wheat flour "for John Mercer up to the rush botom to be turned towards his hearding cattle," so Mercer was able to feed his struggling family.
Three Lakota warriors rode into the Rush Valley camp on January 22, 1847, and accepted the Mormons' hospitality. Lathrop later reported they appeared to be friendly. The next day, about one hundred of their companions appeared, along with Eagle, their leader. "They came near our camp and halted with their flaggs hoisted and discharged there [sic] guns," Lathrop informed Brigham Young. Lathrop rode out to parley and Eagle handed him a letter written by Joseph V. Hamilton, the post trader at Fort Vermillion, a trading station in today's South Dakota. The letter introduced Eagle as "the Head Chief of the Santee Sioux" and as "a good man and Friend to the Whites. He visits your camp to shake hands and see you [so] any attention you may show him will be thankfully received. So far as he is conserned." The letter continued:
you have nothing to fear-but I advise you to take good Care of your horses and Cattle, as I have no doubt you will be visited by many Young men-and they will steal your Horses-treat them to a feast (something to eat) and some small presents and you will not be troubled much by them-He wishes you to tell him if you know where the Mohaws are-if you do know do not tell him as he wishes to go to war on them tell him thay are far off on the Platte, or some other place as remote as possible.
The "Mohaws" were the Omaha tribe, on whose land the Mormons were camped, and Hamilton's letter proved prophetic. Lathrop gave the Indians some food and tobacco and invited them to return in three days for a feast. Eagle appeared satisfied, but his warriors-reportedly, there were more than three hundred of them gathered in three bands-left the camp and immediately "commenced killing cattle and stole Bro. Lowry's horse," Lathrop wrote. "They also stole Bro. Mercer's horses, and not being able to catch them both they shot one of them." Mercer's bad luck was somewhat mitigated, however, because the raiders "after wards gave up the one that they had taken." As promised, the Mormons feasted thirty of Eagle's most prominent men and gave them presents. Eagle explained that their purpose was to kill Omahas and not white men, but he sometimes had a hard time restraining his young warriors.
The encounter with a Sioux war party must have been an exotic, and perhaps terrifying, experience for the Mercers, but their adventures were only beginning. At the end of May 1848, the family set out for the new settlement at Great Salt Lake City. On the second day on the trail, as Thomas Bullock, the clerk of the Camp of Israel, drove the "Big Wagon" containing the church's records to Papillion Creek, the team Mercer had provided to help haul the wagon gave out. That the family had oxen enough to spare for the church's use suggests they were relatively prosperous. "John Mercer was chosen Captain of the Hunters" on August 28 by his company at Deer Creek on the North Platte River on a day the party killed a buffalo heifer, a fact that supports the conclusion that Mercer came from a relatively wealthy family, since few poor Englishmen of his day would have had any hunting experience.
Excerpted from Always a Cowboy by Will Bagley Copyright © 2008 by Will Bagley. Excerpted by permission.
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