Covered wagon? Sixshooter? Spurs? Chaps? Saddle, bow and arrow or a bleaching buffalo skull?
Pooh, says Norman Edward Wright, professor of computer science at Brigham Young University. The quintessential symbol of the Old West is the odometer - that reliable instrument that counts the dreary miles you've traveled.How a computer scientist, the odometer and the Wild, Wild West all got together is an interesting blend of stories. They lend legitimacy to Wright's belief that the odometer deserves more recognition for the important part it played in history.
When John C. Fremont made a survey for the transcontinental railroad, he used an odometer. When Howard Stansbury surveyed the Great Salt Lake in 1849, the odometer was there. When Brigham Young trekked across the plains to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, there was an odometer in his company. Early odometers were usually just a few inches long and fit inside a container that was attached to a wagon wheel. Activated by the turning of the wheel, an odometer counted each rotation. Before the Civil War, odometers were used mainly by explorers and topographical engineers in the U.S. Army.
With all its problems, the odometer was more accurate and practical than estimates and other attempts at measurement.
Wright recently obtained a military odometer and added it to his Repository of Historical Counting Devices, a collection he plans to display. Geraldine Wright (no relation) of Grantsville donated the instrument, which has been in her family for 130 years and was undoubtedly used by Capt. John W. Gunnison, a topographical engineer.
In 1853, Gunnison was assigned to lead one of the four Pacific Railroad surveys that Congress authorized to determine the most feasible route for a transcontinental railroad.
On the morning of Oct. 26, a detachment of the main survey party was camped on the banks of the Sevier River in central Utah. They knew that a California-bound group of emigrants had recently had a run-in with some Pahvant Indians and that an old Pahvant chief had been killed. However, they did not fear for their safety.
As Gunnison's detachment prepared their breakfast, a hail of bullets and arrows cut down eight of the 12 men, including Gunnison.
Moshoquop, son of the chief, had avenged his father's death.
The Pahvants took everything in the camp, including the survey rec-ords and instruments. Eventually, all the government property was recovered - everything, that is, except the odometer.
Several years later, two Utah pioneers - Harrison Severe and Matthew Orr - were riding horseback on an old Indian trail about 70 miles west of the massacre site in Skull Valley.
"On the trail, in its leather case where it had fallen or been discarded, lay an odometer, undoubtedly the one that belonged to the Gunnison party," said Wright.
The odometer was passed to Orr after Severe died. Orr later gave it to Dan Orr of Grantsville, and "Uncle Dan" gave it to Geraldine Wright.
Now it rests in Wright's repository under the aegis of the Museum of Peoples and Cultures.