Vanished Arizona

Author: Martha Summerhayes

Chapter XV Fording the Little Colorado

At a bend in the road the Mexican guide galloped up near the ambulance, and pointing off to the westward with a graceful gesture, said: "Colorado Chiquito! Colorado Chiquito!" And, sure enough, there in the afternoon sun lay the narrow winding river, its surface as smooth as glass, and its banks as if covered with snow.

We drove straight for the ford, known as Sunset Crossing. The guide was sure he knew the place. But the river was high, and I could not see how anybody could cross it without a boat. The Mexican rode his pony in once or twice; shook his head, and said in Spanish, "there was much quicksand. The old ford had changed much since he saw it." He galloped excitedly to and fro, along the bank of the river, always returning to the same place, and declaring "it was the ford; there was no other; he knew it well."

But the wagons not having yet arrived, it was decided not to attempt crossing until morning, when we could get a fresh start.

The sun was gradually sinking in the west, but the heat down in that alkali river-bottom even at that early season of the year was most uncomfortable. I was worn out with fright and fatigue; my poor child cried piteously and incessantly. Nothing was of any avail to soothe him. After the tents were pitched and the camp-fires made, some warm water was brought, and I tried to wash away some of the dust from him, but the alkali water only irritated his delicate skin, and his head, where it had lain on my arm, was inflamed by the constant rubbing. It began to break out in ugly blisters; I was in despair. We were about as wretchedly off as two human beings could be, and live, it seemed to me. The disappointment at not getting across the river, combined with the fear that the Indians were still in the neighborhood, added to my nervousness and produced an exhaustion which, under other circumstances, would have meant collapse.

The mournful and demoniacal cries of the coyotes filled the night; they seemed to come close to the tent, and their number seemed to be legion. I lay with eyes wide open, watching for the day to come, and resolving each minute that if I ever escaped alive from that lonely river-bottom with its burning alkali, and its millions of howling coyotes, I would never, never risk being placed in such a situation again.

At dawn everybody got up and dressed. I looked in my small hand-mirror, and it seemed to me my hair had turned a greyish color, and while it was not exactly white, the warm chestnut tinge never came back into it, after that day and night of terror. My eyes looked back at me large and hollow from the small glass, and I was in that state when it is easy to imagine the look of Death in one’s own face. I think sometimes it comes, after we have thought ourselves near the borders. And I surely had been close to them the day before.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If perchance any of my readers have followed this narrative so far, and there be among them possibly any men, young or old, I would say to such ones: "Desist! For what I am going to tell about in this chapter, and possibly another, concerns nobody but women, and my story will now, for awhile, not concern itself with the Eighth Foot, nor the army, nor the War Department, nor the Interior Department, nor the strategic value of Sunset Crossing, which may now be a railroad station, for all I know. It is simply a story of my journey from the far bank of the Little Colorado to Fort Whipple, and then on, by a change of orders, over mountains and valleys, cactus plains and desert lands, to the banks of the Great Colorado.

My attitude towards the places I travelled through was naturally influenced by the fact that I had a young baby in my arms the entire way, and that I was not able to endure hardship at that time. For usually, be it remembered, at that period of a child’s life, both mother and infant are not out of the hands of the doctor and trained nurse, to say nothing of the assistance so gladly rendered by those near and dear,

The morning of the 28th of April dawned shortly after midnight, as mornings in Arizona generally do at that season, and after a hasty camp breakfast, and a good deal of reconnoitering on the part of the officers, who did not seem to be exactly satisfied about the Mexican’s knowledge of the ford, they told him to push his pony in, and cross if he could.

He managed to pick his way across and back, after a good deal of floundering, and we decided to try the ford. First they hitched up ten mules to one of the heavily loaded baggage-wagons, the teamster cracked his whip, and in they went. But the quicksand frightened the leaders, and they lost their courage. Now when a mule loses courage, in the water, he puts his head down and is done for. The leaders disappeared entirely, then the next two and finally the whole ten of them were gone, irrevocably, as I thought. But like a flash, the officers shouted: "Cut away those mules! Jump in there!" and amid other expletives the men plunged in, and feeling around under the water cut the poor animals loose and they began to crawl out on the other bank. I drew a long breath, for I thought the ten mules were drowned.

The guide picked his way over again to the other side and caught them up, and then I began to wonder how on earth we should ever get across.

There lay the heavy army wagon, deep mired in the middle of the stream, and what did I see? Our army chests, floating away down the river. I cried out: "Oh! do save our chests!" "They’re all right, we’ll get them presently," said Jack. It seemed a long time to me, before the soldiers could get them to the bank, which they did, with the aid of stout ropes. All our worldly goods were in those chests, and I knew they were soaked wet and probably ruined; but, after all, what did it matter, in the face of the serious problem which confronted us?

In the meantime, some of the men had floated the other boxes and trunks out of the wagon back to the shore, and were busy taking the huge vehicle apart. Any one who knows the size of an army wagon will realize that this was hard work, especially as the wagon was mired, and nearly submerged. But the men worked desperately, and at last succeeded in getting every part of it back onto the dry land.

Somebody stirred up the camp-fire and put the kettle on, and Mrs. Bailey and I mixed up a smoking strong hot toddy for those brave fellows, who were by this time well exhausted. Then they set to work to make a boat, by drawing a large canvas under the body of the wagon, and fastening it securely. For this Lieutenant of mine had been a sailor-man and knew well how to meet emergencies.

One or two of the soldiers had now forded the stream on horseback, and taken over a heavy rope, which was made fast to our improvised boat. I was acquainted with all kinds of boats, from a catamaran to a full-rigged ship, but never a craft like this had I seen. Over the sides we clambered, however, and were ferried across the treacherous and glassy waters of the Little Colorado. All the baggage and the two ambulances were ferried over, and the other wagon was unloaded and drawn over by means of ropes.

This proceeding took all day, and of course we could get no farther, and were again obliged to camp in that most uncomfortable river-bottom. But we felt safer on that side. I looked at the smooth surface of the river, and its alkali shores, and the picture became indelibly impressed upon my memory. The unpleasant reality destroyed any poetic associations which might otherwise have clung to the name of Sunset Crossing in my ever vivid imagination.

After the tents were pitched, and the camp snugged up, Mr. Bailey produced some champagne and we wished each other joy, that we had made the dangerous crossing and escaped the perils of Sanford’s Pass. I am afraid the champagne was not as cold as might have been desired, but the bottle had been wrapped in a wet blanket, and cooled a little in that way, and we drank it with zest, from a mess-cup.


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Chicago: Martha Summerhayes, "Chapter XV Fording the Little Colorado," Vanished Arizona, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 and trans. Boswell, Robert Bruce in Vanished Arizona (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed August 9, 2022,

MLA: Summerhayes, Martha. "Chapter XV Fording the Little Colorado." Vanished Arizona, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, and translated by Boswell, Robert Bruce, in Vanished Arizona, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 9 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Summerhayes, M, 'Chapter XV Fording the Little Colorado' in Vanished Arizona, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, Vanished Arizona, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 9 August 2022, from