Coming of the Argonauts

The rendezvous for overland emigrants was usually IndependenceMissouri for both the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. Throughout the eastern states the winter of 1848-49 was one of preparation. Emigration parties were formed in almost every town, each member contributing a fixed amount for outfit. These were as elaborate as the taste of the members suggested or their means permitted. Provisions for the journey and for one or two years in California with every known implement for digging and washing gold, arms, ammunition, large supplies of clothing, blankets, etc., and in some cases, goods for barter or sale, characterized the equipment of the emigration of 1849. Vehicles of every conceivable kind and quality were seen, from the ponderous “prairie schooner” drawn by three yoke of oxen, to the light spring wagon; riding horses and pack mules; together with relays of animals for heavy hauls.

Albert Bierstadt's Oregon Trail, 1869

Albert Bierstadt’s Oregon Trail, 1869

Arriving at the rendezvous the small parties were joined in a large party together with such individuals and families as came in singly, a captain was selected and the caravan set out on its two thousand mile journey. The northern route was by the so-called Oregon Trail, up the north fork of the Platte to the Sweetwater, up the Sweetwater, through the South pass, to the Green River, down the Bear to Soda Springs, to Fort Hall on the Snake River, to the Humboldt, down the Humboldt to the sink, across the desert to the Truckee River, over the Sierra Nevada to the head waters of the Bear River, thence down the river to the Sacramento and to Sutter’s Fort. From the sink of the Humboldt, three routes offered themselves: northerly to the Pitt River pass; west, across the desert to the Truckee, and southerly to Carson valley, where grass and water was, and thence over the sierra to the south fork of the American River.

It is estimated that by the end of April 1849, twenty thousand emigrants were in camp on the Missouri waiting for the grass on the plains to be high enough to feed. Many companies had started earlier and by the middle of May the trail from the Missouri River to Fort Laramie presented a continuous line of wagons and pack trains. Through the valley of the Platte the cholera broke out, claiming many victims and spreading terror through the ranks of the emigrants. This began to disappear as they approached the Rocky mountains. At last, after some days of travel through a rugged and broken country where high bluffs force them from the river to make long detours, Fort Laramie is reached and the first stage of the journey is completed.

For the next three hundred miles the country is a desert, with little grass and less water, through the forbidding Black hills, up the Sweetwater, across the continental divide by the South pass, at an elevation of seven thousand and eighty-five feet; thence through a somewhat better country, the Green river valley, to Bear river, which here flows northward, making a horseshoe around the mountains. Down the Bear they travel for a distance of about ninety miles to Soda Springs. Here the Bear turns southward and the emigrants proceed westerly to the Portneuf River down which they travel to Fort Hall, on the Snake River. The route is now down the Snake to Raft River, thence over the hills to Goose creek and up Goose creek to the head waters of the Mary, or Humboldt, as the river now began to be called. This was the regular route. There were a number of short cuts which saved the travelers from one to two hundred miles of distance, but cost them weeks of extra time to get through; short cuts which were all right for pack-trains, but all wrong for wagons.

On reaching the Humboldt the traveler has two-thirds of the whole distance behind him and is on the last stage of his journey. And what a journey it has been, and how changed he is from the one who set out so blithely from Independence three months ago. How bright the anticipations then! how cozy the snug family retreat within the great canvas-covered “prairie schooner!” how jolly the conversation and the stories around the camp fire! the song and music after the day’s toil was over.

California Trail Ruts

California Trail Ruts

The long weary journey, the dreadful monotony of the endless plains, the barren desert, the bleak and almost impassable mountains, the heat and dust, the scorching sun and the drenching rains, the sickness and suffering, and the deaths that have thinned his party, have long since dulled his spirits and left in place of the joyous buoyancy of the start, a sullen, dogged determination to push forward. The faint-hearted abandoned him at the Platte, at Laramie, and at Salt Lake; the weak died; and before him now was the greatest trial of the journey, the greatest test of strength. Many were yet to fail, to die of starvation, of cholera, of scurvy, and some, who had passed through so much of hardship and suffering, were to die by their own hands as they approached the fatal desert and saw in the distance the lofty barrier of the Sierra Nevada.

Almost before the trains had reached the Platte the emigrants realized that they had overloaded their wagons and already began to throw away useless freight and baggage. As the difficulties of the journey increased and animals gave out, wagons, provisions, and property of all kinds were abandoned. Large quantities of bacon were tried out and the fat used for axle grease. During the latter part of the emigration of 1849, the difficulties were greatly increased. Feed became very scarce; the water of the Humboldt had a bad effect on the horses and they died in great numbers; the Indians, ever on the alert became more aggressive, stealing the stock and leaving many families from four to six hundred miles from the settlements without teams or means of conveyance.

The remaining animals are now giving out. Everything that can be dispensed with is thrown away that the loads may be lightened for the weakened oxen. The destruction of property is immense and the road is lined with abandoned wagons, sheet iron stoves, shovels, picks, pans, clothing, and other articles — even guns. From halfway down the Humboldt to the sink the carcasses of animals were so thick that had they been lain along the road, one could walk over them without putting foot to ground.

Pioneers in Covered Wagons, by Thomas Fogarty

Pioneers in Covered Wagons, by Thomas Fogarty

At last the sink of the Humboldt is reached and before the emigrant lies the most dreaded desert of all. Here are long stretches of alkali with drifts of ashy earth in which the cattle sink to their bellies and go moaning along their way, midst a cloud of dust and beneath a broiling sun. The road is covered with putrefying carcasses and the effluvia arising from them poisons the air. Even feeble women must walk and the animals relieved of every possible burden. To add to the general distress the cholera again broke out and carried the emigrants off by hundreds. The march now resembles the rout of an army. All organization is at an end and each one pushes on with what strength he has. Wagons come to a stop and are abandoned, while the animals are detached and driven forward. No one now thinks of gold. It has become a struggle for life.

In an effort to avoid the desert a large part of the emigration of 1849 was diverted to the northern route through Lassen’s Pass. They left the Humboldt at the big bend, sixty-five miles above the sink, and took a northwesterly course. They were told they would find grass in ten miles, grass and water in twelve, and at Rabbit Springs, thirty-five miles distant, abundance of both, and from there on they would have no further trouble. It was false information and it lured thousands to their ruin. There was little water or grass; the deserts to be crossed were much greater in extent than those of the Humboldt; the emigrants traveled some three hundred miles out of their way and those late in the season found themselves in a rugged mountain region, in three feet of snow, and two hundred and fifty miles from the nearest settlement. The Pitt River Indians were hostile and active, and many lives were lost. Major Rucker, commanding the relief expedition, reported that between seven and nine thousand emigrants with from one thousand to twelve hundred wagons had taken this route.

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