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Capt. Silas St. John

Pioneer mail stage and railroad man on the frontier in the early 1850's



Capt. Silas St. John
Pioneer mail stage and railroad man on the frontier in the early 1850's

Capt. Silas St. John, a gentleman who is credited with bearing a charmed life, is at present in Council Bluffs the guest of his cousin, Dr. P. J. Montgomery, at 215 South Fourth Street. Capt. St. John, as a pioneer mail stage and railroad man on the frontier in the early 50s, has been through more adventures and experienced more hair breadth escapes from death than would kill off a hundred ordinary men. As a result of these experiences the captain today, and for over forty years, has had to fight his way through life with one arm and a badly crippled limb. Not one man in a thousand could have suffered the fearful injuries that the captain has and still be alive to tell the story.

A representative of The Nonpareil had the pleasure of meeting Capt. St. John and was able to gather a few facts about his extraordinary experiences in California, Arizona and New Mexico in the early 50s when connected with the government mail stage routes.

The captain is a New Yorker and in 1853, when he was about 20 years old, he and a number of companions left St. Louis with Council Bluffs as their objective point, where they intended to fit out for the overland journey to the Pacific coast. Fate decreed otherwise, however, and they never reached Council Buffs, which at that time, was a famous outfitting post. The steamer on which they started from St. Louis was wrecked, the passengers were transferred to another boat, which was likewise shortly after disabled. Again they were transferred to another steamer, but with no better success, for the third steamer became unmanageable and the boat drifted against the shore and nearly broke in two. This happened at a point a little above Lexington, MO. The idea of trying to make Council Bluffs was abandoned and the party outfitted at Wellington, Mo, and started for California. Nothing beyond the usual hardships accompanying an overland journey across the plains happened to the party and California was reached in safety.

In 1857, Capt. St. John helped lay out and manage the first government mail stage route in the United States. The route was from San Diego to San Antonio, Texas, the entire distance being practically through an unsettled country and the greater portion of it an arid desert. This, the first mail route contract made by the United States government, was controlled by James E. Birch, president of the California Stage Company. The contract called for the carrying of the mails twice a month, the consideration being $149,000 a year.

The first time the mails were carried on horseback. Capt. St. John and a companion carried the mail bags the second stage of the route, a distance of 110 miles from Carrissa Creek to Fort Yuma. They were in the saddle constantly from noon of one day until 8 o'clock of the evening following. During the entire long ride they were unable to obtain drinking water. The wells dug by the Indians were filled with dead animals and those dug by Gen. Crook some years previous had become filled with sand. At one of these wells by working their hats and hands they obtained some water for the horses, but it was too brackish for themselves to drink.

The year following the government made a contract with Wells, Butterfield & Co. later reorganized into the Overland Mail Company, for a semi-weekly mail route from Memphis and St. Louis to San Francisco by way of El Paso and Fort Yuma. On account of his knowledge of the country and business ability, young St. John then only about 23 years of age, was engaged to lay out the route and superintend the building of stations. It was while engaged on this work that he met with the adventure that would have killed any other man except himself and which lost him his left arm from the shoulder and crippled his right limb from the hip down.

He started out on the work with six men to help him, three Americans and three Mexicans, and a number of packmules. One night while establishing a station at a place called Dragoon Springs in Arizona, much against his own inclinations, but at the request of the three Americans who were tired out, he consented to allow the three Mexicans to do guard duty. He felt that these Mexicans were treacherous so did not go to sleep himself, but kept one eye open on them. Hardly had the three Americans fallen asleep when the Mexicans each seizing an axe started for the sleeping men.

Before the captain had time to give them any warning, the Mexicans were on them, and with the axes clove their skulls in. They then turned to Capt St. John, who had been lying at a distance from the other three men and advanced on him. He was unable at first to get his pistols out of the saddle bag which he had been using as a pillow, and so was unarmed. As the first Mexican struck at him with his axe he put up his left arm to ward off the blow and with the right fist knocked the man down. The axe, however, struck the arm a few inches below the shoulder completely severing the member except for a small piece of flesh. As the second one advanced he kicked him in the stomach, laying him out, but not until the man had struck him a powerful blow in the right thigh with the axe, cutting it to the bone and severing all the muscles. The third Mexican backed off a little and the captain was able to secure his revolvers. As soon as they saw this the three men ran and that was the last he ever heard of them.

When he Mexicans left he realized for the first time that he was badly injured. On putting up his right hand to see what made his left arm feel so numb, he discovered that it was hanging by a mere shred of flesh and that the blood was pouring from the wound. After considerable difficulty with a pebble and a piece of rag he managed to make a ligature above the cut and partially stop the flow of blood. He also managed to bind up the gash in his thigh with some pieces of sacking. By this time, he was faint from loss of blood and was so weak that he was unable to move any distance. With great exertion he dragged himself onto the top of a pile of gunny sacks and placing his revolvers near him lay down to await developments.

This occurred Wednesday night and he lay on the sacks without a drop of water to drink, with the fierce sun beating down on him until the following Sunday, when help arrived. He was unable to speak, owing to the swollen condition of his tongue and mouth and his wounds were in a state of putrefaction and alive with maggots. A messenger was sent to Fort Buchanan for the regimental surgeon, but, as luck would have it, he was away on a hunting expedition and it was the Thursday following before he arrived.

The doctor, B.J.D. Irwin of the First Dragoons, the regiment occupying Fort Buchanan, amputated the arm immediately and made him as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Dr. Irwin was compelled to return to Fort Buchanan in order to send Captain St. John some necessary medicines and supplies. These arrived a couple of days after and St. John was picking up wonderfully, when the escort that had been left to attend him drank up all the wine and spirits that the doctor had sent him. This enraged Captain St. John, and taking his revolver in his only hand, he ordered the men to hitch up an army wagon and harness six mules to it, and forming a hamock out of a blanket, made them drive him to the fort. This was six days after the amputation of the arm, which shows what wonderful vitality he possessed. After spending five days in the hospital at the fort he was around and walking. Six days later he rode seventy miles on horseback to the nearest stage line and then drove all the way to Los Angeles.

The story of his terrible experience and the facts of his remarkable recovery from injuries which, under the circumstances would have been death to nearly any other man, was published in the American Journal of Medical Sciences of October 1859 by Surgeon Irwin.

Later Capt. St. John was connected in an official capacity with the first railroad ever built in California. The road was from Sacramento to Folsom. In 1865-67 he was interested in the oil fields in West Virginia. He has been in forty two railroad accidents and escaped serious injury in all of them, although men on each side on several occasions have been killed. For years he was connected with one or the other of the express companies in responsible positions but finally on account of failing health had to resign. He has been engaged in the mining business in Colorado and has done considerable journalistic work. For several years he owned and edited the Expressman of New York, a monthly devoted to the interests of the express companies. '

In 1888 tumors formed at the end of the nerves in the stump of the shoulder where the arm was amputated which caused that side of his body to become paralyzed. He underwent an operation in New York and the paralysis disappeared. In spite of his crippled condition he has always led a most active life but thinks that it is now time for him to settle down and spend the remainder of his days in peace and quiet. He may probably make Council Bluffs his home

[Nonpareil, Council Bluffs, Iowa, Published July 5, 1896]
Submitted by Ann



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