Coming of the Argonauts to California

Oregon Trail pioneers pass through the sand hills, painting by William Henry Jackson

Oregon Trail pioneers pass through the sandhills, painting by William Henry Jackson

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 River, 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 the 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, amidst 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 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, 35 miles distant, an 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.

Many took the lower or Carson River Route. Crossing from the sink of the Humboldt to the sink of the Carson, a distance of fifteen miles, they followed up the Carson river some eighty miles to Eagle Valley, where there was abundant grass, then southerly through Carson Valley and over the Sierra to the south fork of the American River.

In the latter part of July, the advance trains of the emigration began to arrive in the Sacramento Valley and soon a steady stream poured in. Gaunt, hollow-eyed men and women leading or carrying children told tales of horror. Behind these, in the great basin, were thousands battling with famine and pestilence. Notwithstanding the absorbing character of their occupation, the rough miners did not hesitate to go to the relief of the sufferers or to contribute generously of their gold. General Smith ordered all available troops to the Sacramento Valley and Major Rucker of the First Dragoons was put in charge of the relief operations, while one hundred thousand dollars was appropriated for supplies.

Parties were sent in all directions with hard bread, pork, flour, rice, and barley, beef cattle and work oxen, and riding mules. A relief station was established at the Truckee lower crossing (Wadsworth), at the Hot springs in the Carson Valley (Genoa), and on the upper Feather River. From the relief stations, men were sent out on the desert as far as the sink of the Humboldt, and the sufferers brought in. They met whole families, men, women, and children on foot, without food.

Cholera notice

Cholera notice

Women, whose husbands had died of cholera, with their little children, without water or food; men scarcely able to walk, who said that for two hundred miles back they had eaten nothing but dead mules; one old man with his wife and daughter, on foot, had nothing but a few blankets which they carried on their backs. The number of sufferers was so great the relief corps could furnish barely enough food to enable them to reach the nearest station. It is said that in the emigration of this year five thousand died on the plains from cholera alone.

In 1849 the rains began much earlier than usual and the fall was heavy. In the mountains, the snow was of prodigious depth. The northern relief station on the Feather River sent out men on all the trails with food and riding mules, to meet the emigrants coming through by the Lassen Route. The amount of suffering was dreadful. Many of the emigrants had been two or three days without food when the government trains reached them. There were three feet of snow on the ground through which many were making their way on foot. Three men made desperate efforts to get through. For some days they had been on an allowance of one meal per day. When still seventy miles distant from the nearest settlement they took stock and found they had bread for two days only.

Pushing on through the snow they came in a few miles to a wagon containing two women and two or three children who had eaten nothing for two days. With a generosity which was rare under the circumstances, they gave all they had to these helpless ones and went on without. They got through. The relief corps met women wading through the deep snow carrying their children, and strong men who had fallen through utter exhaustion. The officer in charge of the camp wrote: “A more pitiable sight I never beheld as they were brought into camp; there were cripples from scurvy and other diseases, women prostrated by weakness, and children who could not move a limb, and men mounted on mules who had to be lifted off the animals, so entirely disabled had they become from the effects of the scurvy.” On December 20th, Major Rucker reported that he had brought in all who had crossed the mountains and had closed the relief camps.

In 1850, the suffering was even more severe than in 1849. Throughout the States, the reports of the overloaded wagons had been received and many went to the opposite extreme. By the time Fort Laramie was reached provisions had begun to give out, but the emigrants went forward recklessly, trusting to chance to get through. The Mormons at Salt Lake were able to afford some relief but they were short of provisions themselves. The supplies of many of the trains held out until the Humboldt River was reached when their stores became exhausted.

Pushing on through the snow they came in a few miles to a wagon containing two women and two or three children who had eaten nothing for two days. With a generosity which was rare under the circumstances, they gave all they had to these helpless ones and went on without. They got through. The relief corps met women wading through the deep snow carrying their children, and strong men who had fallen through utter exhaustion. The officer in charge of the camp writes: “A more pitiable sight I never beheld as they were brought into camp; there were cripples from scurvy and other diseases, women prostrated by weakness, and children who could not move a limb, and men mounted on mules who had to be lifted off the animals, so entirely disabled had they become from the effects of the scurvy.” On December 20th, Major Rucker reported that he had brought in all who had crossed the mountains and had closed the relief camps.

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