JEREMIAH CHAMBERLAIN was the D'Artagnan of our family. (He made the fourth Musketeer.) The oldest brother of my grandmother, Josephine Chamberlain Livingston, he was the stuff of which legends are made, and provided "supper table" talk for two generations of us.
Sometime around 1870 Jerry followed the Chisholm Trail far from what he called his "native pickin's", Burnet, Texas. In the years stretching down through the '90s, his mother scanned the horizon at the whistle of each incoming train, and each time had to accept the fact that the wailing engine had not returned her son. Once in a while there would be a "Dear Ma, pickin's are pretty good here now ..." letter, and my mother, who was a child then, confessed that she used to daydream over various strangers who passed, "There's Uncle Jerry".
Jerry drifted to the Dakotas. One of his "Dear Ma" letters told that he had met up with Buffalo Bill Cody. Cody had a contract to supply a fort with buffalo meat. He hired Jerry and another man to help do the hunting. Every third day a wagon filled with buffalo was driven in. One day Indians routed the hunters and ran them all the way to the fort. They had to leave their wagons of meat behind. Jerry was very fond of Mrs. Cody. Someone once told him that Bill had mistreated his wife in later life. Jerry said, "If I knew it was so, I'd go and kill the --- ---!"
Jerry's communications were few and tantalizingly brief. One of them observed that an Oregon outlaw had ordered him to leave town or suffer the consequences. The desperado didn't accomplish his threat, according to Jerry. (Did Jerry dispatch him?) What information the family had of him was picked up from letters he wrote to Josephine, his sister; letters he wrote to his friend Tobe Reed; a few to his niece Allie Livingston Compton of Portales, New Mexico; and conversations he had with his nephew John B. Chamberlain, of Bertram, Texas.
Jerry, after a sojourn in Mormon Territory, took up prospecting in the gold mining district of southwestern Oregon. He stayed for awhile at Anton and Grant's Pass. Finally he filed a claim where the Spanish and Mule Gulches join near Dayville. In 1914 John B. Chamberlain, the son of Jerry's younger brother Tom, decided to make a pilgrimage to find him. John B. and his cousin, Lou Chamberlain Clements, were the only ones of their generation to see their legendary uncle, and only John B. ever saw Jerry in his adopted habitat.
John B., "who wouldn't give a cent for the cities", stayed the winter of 1914 with Jerry to help do the assessment work. He was fascinated by it. "You have to do ten days' work on a claim each year in order to hold it," he said, "and this has to be checked up. A million dollars worth of gold was panned out in the area between 1880 and 1890." Jerry had a rocker rigged up to pan the gravel. The gold diminished in time, but "there was always enough to make a living", according to Jerry. On some days $10 worth would be panned out, on others less or none. "There is always the prospect of a rich vein coming in," Jerry wrote to his niece Allie.
Jerry lived in a log cabin that he built on top of the mountain. He had to walk seven miles away and a thousand feet down to get his groceries. Because of the climate he could work only in the summer. "It's cold as heck and twice as steep" reported John B.
In 1914 a giant yellow rose overhung the cabin door.
"Where did you get the yellow rose?" John B. asked.
"That's my Mormon rose" he was told.
John B. already knew of a letter Jerry wrote to Tobe Reed after a prolonged silence that caused the family to fear that Jerry was dead. It was after his job with Buffalo Bill. Jerry drifted from the Dakotas to Mormon Territory. ("Did Buffalo Bill send Jerry packing because of Jerry's devotion to Bill's wife?" the family speculated.
The letter to Tobe Reed confided that later one of Brigham's nineteen wives wanted Jerry to help her escape in a wagon. "But," said Jerry, "a wagon creaking out of here in the still desert night air would raise the dead Mormons, let alone the living." (So did he or didn't he? Ann Young in 1875 related in her book "Wife No. 19" how she took leave from Salt Lake City by rail . . . On the evening of the 27th of November, I left the hotel by the back door . . . ostensibly to walk home . . . I got in and was rapidly driven out of the city . . . I was to take the cars on the Union Pacific road at Uintah, and thus avoid traveling at all on the Utah railroad . . . We were not sure we had succeeded in eluding . . . the 'Danites' . . . I could not cast off the feeling that every moment brought us nearer to some dreadful death.")
Jerry told John B. that when he reached Mormon Territory he was hired to take care of the farm where Young "kept his youngest and prettiest wife". They had been married a year. "I guess he was runnin' short of Saints who were good cowhands." The ranch, or farm, was about four miles out of Salt Lake and supplied Brigham's family with milk, butter, cheese, and vegetables. The farm was a very pretty place with vines draped all over the front porch.
"And the yellow rose over your cabin door?" suggested John B. "Yep. That's my Mormon rose," said Jerry. "After I came to, when I was shot (the circumstance of which he never explained) I thought I was dead. I lifted up my hand, though, so I wasn't! There was a bouquet of yellow roses and the purtiest girl I ever did see. She said her name was Ann Eliza, and that she was old Brigham's wife. 'I'll bet you're his youngest wife,' I told her, ' and I know you're the purtiest.'"
I was a pretty well-seasoned cowboy and it was hard for me to be an invalid, but I did the best I could. Ann Eliza was a good nurse. I nearly had a relapse, though, when she told me she wanted a divorce from the Big Mormon. Wanted me to help. (Was the carriage that whisked Ann Eliza out of Salt Lake driven by Jerry Chamberlain?)
"When you was away from old Brigham-he was about seventy-five then, had a ruff of beard that made his jaw stick out that much more, had a barber come in every day to fix him up-you could hate him and fear him and feel disgusted at his ways, but in his presence I felt like I had been caught stealin' jam. Higher authorities than I have felt the same way on occasion. After all, there is something impressive about a man who feels that the United States government and the Holy Bible are wrong and that he is right."
All this came in pieces, however. "Uncle Jerry didn't talk much", said John B. He had to fit together the fragments of experience that Jerry let fall. And he was as fascinated by it as he was by his work - maybe more so. But he never did find out whether Jerry actually helped Ann Eliza flee from Salt Lake City.
World War I came along and John B. went into the service. At its end, he came home and married. Years passed with little word of Jerry. Then Allie, his niece, traced him to Caleb, Oregon. The postmaster there wrote that Jerry had grown old and didn't come to town often. He was a veteran juryman, however. "You knew" wrote the postmaster "when he didn't show up for a trial that he was sick or that something was wrong." And then one day Jerry was dead.
In 1939 John B., this time with his wife Susan, revisted Uncle Jerry's "pickin's". There was a chance that his claim had been incompletely filed by those who assumed it. Jerry Chamberlain had been dead for fifteen years.
"Being optimistic by nature", said John B., "I thought I might prospect, so I bought a gold pan". High up in the mountains, the couple reached a point which a car could not pass. Up the practically obliterated "grocery trail" they made their way to the old log cabin, rotting and windowless by this time. Densely enclosed by tall pines grown up since John B.'s previous visit, the door overhung by rank yellow roses, the cabin was an unmolested monument to the one who built it. A mountain peak stood guard behind. The cold compelled John B. and Susan to stay in the cabin overnight, and that night was haunted by fear of the dread spotted fever, the plague spread by ticks.
"The mine" said John B., "which was never developed, merely worked, might have been of value to some of the Chamberlains had they taken up the claim when Jerry died fifteen years earlier. Jerry's neighbor had a working claim."
Before returning home they visited the Derrs, a fine family of old settlers - ranchers - who were Jerry's special friends. It was they who, when told by one of their sheepherders that Uncle Jerry was a victim of the fever and was wandering around delirious, sent a wagon to bring him to their home for care. Mrs. Derr said he wanted "to come back to Burnet to see his baby sister".
The Derrs buried Jerry near his cabin where he had sat under the "Mormon rose" and smoked, and contemplated at sundown the prospect of a rich strike on the morrow. Yet I've never thought it mattered much to Jerry Chamberlain that the big strike never came - any more than it mattered that his Mormon rose was most likely the bountiful Oregon grape. If its blooms served to recall a young woman and a brief attachment which really didn't enter into either his or her scheme of things - what's in a name?