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Diane Merkel

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Carter Military Road
Ashley National Forest, Utah

by Steve Wilk

[Note: Steve Wilk sent me the following account by e-mail and has given me permission to post it on this website. Steve volunteers his time and muscles at historic sites throughout the West and is to be commended for his volunteerism. — Diane Merkel]


I promised to share with you my recent vacation working on the Carter Military Road. This was through the Forest Service's Passport In Time program. This is a volunteer program involving archaeology and historic preservation. This was my second project since discovering the program a few years back. My first was at Camp Rucker, Arizona, a small outpost active from 1878-1880. If you are ever down in Cochise County, northeast of Douglas in the Coronado National Forest, up the dirt road into Rucker canyon you'll find this remote outpost. You can view the adobe post bakery, still standing, with its recently restored shingle roof, which I helped put on.

Since I found out about the PIT program, they have had at least one frontier military related project each year. Last year they surveyed an area near Big Hole, trying to locate the site of the 7th Infantry's supply train at the time of the battle. Another project a few years ago involved surveying at Warbonnet Creek battlefield. Another in Dog Canyon, New Mexico, site of skirmishes with Apaches. Most recently there was a project at Ft. Ruby, Nevada. This post, abandoned in 1869, was dubbed the loneliest outpost in the west. (Ft. Fetterman may have taken that title afterward).

But on to the Carter Road and the findings. The road was built from 1881-1884 as a supply road between Ft. Bridger Wyo. and Ft. Thornburgh Utah. This latter post was established to guard the Ute Reservation, named of course for Maj. Thomas Thornburgh, Fourth Infantry, killed the battle of Milk Creek, Colorado in 1879. The location was about six miles northwest of present day Vernal UT. The areas we surveyed are about 20 miles southwest of the tiny town of Manila UT, (near the south end of Flaming Gorge) in the Ashley National Forest. The road was named for Judge William A. Carter, a Virginian who had fought in the Seminole War in Florida, and who, when he could not obtain a commission in the army, became post trader at Ft. Lauderdale. When Johnston's army was sent to Utah to quell the "Mormon Rebellion" in 1857, Carter accompanied the troops as civilian supplier. He amassed quite a fortune as trader at Ft. Bridger. His business ventures suffered when troops were withdrawn from Bridger in 1878. However the Ute War flared up the following year and Carter lobbied Washington for a return of troops. He was successful. Troops returned to Bridger and in addition a new post, Ft. Thornburgh was to be established. Carter was of course awarded the contract to supply the new post, but first a wagon road had to be built through the rugged Uinta Mountains. The route for this road was shortest, though not the easiest, and chosen to accommodate Carter. The route was approved by General George Crook (and his forked beard) and work began immediately in 1881. Judge Carter took ill and died in November; his son Willie returned from Cornell University to assume supervision of the building of the road. The first freight wagons rolled over the road in May of 1882.

During that summer and the next, infantry companies from Ft. Bridger and Ft. Thornburgh were sent to work on the road. In addition they erected a telegraph line between the two posts. Several of these posts still stand today, 125 years later. I saw four of them myself, two being in the meadow across from our campsite.

This year's project included surveying three suspected army campsites from summer of 1882. These were on the north slope of the Uintas. ( Last summer the south slope was surveyed.) The areas were Sheep Creek, Icy Brook, and Lodgepole Creek. The surveying involved, of course, metal detectors. I don't own one but luckily another volunteer brought an extra detector and was kind enough to let me use it. I found nothing but junk; ie pull tabs, beer cans, metal scraps and two cartridges but they were modern. Several period artifacts were, however found by others with more sophisticated detectors. Other than the ubiquitous square nails, of which dozens were found, some of the period finds follow:

• several .45/70 cartridges and casings
• horseshoes and pieces of horseshoes
• tent pegs (army issue pegs were wooden, unsuitable for the rocky soil of the Uintas;iron pegs were made by the blacksmiths out of horseshoe pieces
• knife handle from a mess knife
• a heart shaped lock
• a few trouser or shirt buttons
• yet more square nails!

Some of the more interesting finds were:

a hat vent (likely from the 1876 campaign hat)
uniform "eagle" buttons; three or four cuff buttons and one blouse button
coins: an 1858 dime and get this; an 1828 half cent piece! Perhaps dropped by a fur trapper? Can't see a soldier in 1882 carrying a half century old coin

However my two favorite finds were

shoes: at the Icy Brook site, amongst the rocks adjacent a dry creek bed were the remains of shoes. One sole still intact, with screws still in them. As if some soldier had taken them off one summer day in 1882, maybe to wash clothes or bathe in the creek, and left his shoes on those rocks. Perhaps they were worn out or the screws were killing his feet. At any rate they lie there for 125 years until found just last month.

What I think was the artifact of the week:

found at Lodgepole Creek was a Ninth Cavalry forage cap insignia. The saber handles and tips were broken off but the safety pin fastener was still intact along with the regimental numeral. Wow. What a thrill for me to hold it the palm of my hand! This find dates to 1886; in August of that year two troops of the Ninth passed along the Carter Road on their way to establish the new post of Ft. Duchesne, Utah. This was a likely bivouac site. Just imagine, some Buffalo Soldier dropped that insignia; maybe he took his cap off and it came loose and dropped off. He didn't notice this and rode on; his insignia lie there in that meadow 121 years. Until found by some guy with a metal detector just last month. Oh, by the way, who was in command of those two troops of the Ninth? None other than old "Gray Head" himself, Major Frederick Benteen.

I had never heard of the Carter Road until I volunteered for this project. None of the scores of books I have read on the Indian Wars have ever mentioned it. Yet it is typical of the type of work performed by the average soldier on the frontier, especially the infantry. It was a thrill for me to hold these artifacts and examine them before they end up behind a glass case in some museum. I look forward to possibly returning next year to survey more sites. I felt rather bonded with those "dougboys" who worked on the road. I camped where they camped, bathed in the creek where they must have bathed. Only thing missing was the hardtack!

I'll send a couple links with more information on the road and telegraph line. You and Chuck should look into volunteering on one of these. There was one retired couple from Alabama who came up in their motorhome. You can check out the PIT at


For more information about Carter Military Road in Ashley National Forest, see