Coming of the Argonauts to California

Oregon Trail in Wyoming by Terry Del Bene

Oregon Trail in Wyoming by Terry Del Bene

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.

Emigrants arriving at Sacramento in July 1850, reported the desperate condition of those in the desert; that Mary’s River (Humboldt) was six or seven feet higher than it was ever known to be before, and that the bottoms, where the only feed grew, were almost entirely underwater. One traveler hired some Indians for fifteen dollars to swim the river and float some grass across to him, thus saving the lives of his oxen. Another said that what little grass they procured on the way down the Humboldt they had to swim for, sometimes cutting it and sometimes being compelled to pull it while standing in the water up to their waists. “I have seen hundreds, more than150 miles on the other side of the Sink of Mary’s River,” wrote W. Crum to the Sacramento Transcript, “that were out of provisions, or had but a few pounds to sustain a miserable and wretched existence, with animals that could never reach the Desert, by reason of the scarcity of forage. From this circumstance alone it may be possible that three-fourths of the animals now on the plains must perish from hunger, and the emigrant, with his scanty fare, must foot until life itself becomes a burden.

Those who started late will fare still worse; as the season becomes warmer, feed less, and provisions shorter. I saw one man with two small boys 120 miles beyond the Sink, who had left his wagon and lost all his animals but one, and all the provisions he had was three or four pounds of rice; another, with his wife and children, I overtook seventy miles beyond the Sink, with four horses that were just able to move with the empty wagon, the wife walking ahead in the burning sand and scorching sun, to relieve the poor laden animals that were destined never to see the Sink.”

M. Sheppards, who arrived about August 1st, reported that only about one wagon out of five would get through. His company started with 12 wagons of which two would get in; many that start with three or four horses get in with one; many emigrants on arriving in Carson Valley sell their finest horses for 10 or 15 pounds of flour. After arriving at the Truckee River or the Carson Valley, the emigrants still had the difficult passage of the Sierra Nevada to make and most of them were destitute of animals or food and many of both.

Tales of distress were brought by each arrival. Cholera had again broken out and its ravages were appalling. Nine-tenths of those in the desert were on foot and starving. “Mothers may be seen wading through deep dust or heavy sand of the desert, or climbing mountain steeps, leading the poor children by the hand; or the once strong man, pale, emaciated by hunger and fatigue, carrying upon his back his feeble infant, crying for water and nourishment, and appeasing a ravenous appetite from the carcass of a dead horse or mule; and when they sunk exhausted on the ground at night overcome with weariness and want of food, it was with the certainty that the morning sun would only be the prelude to another day of suffering and torture.”

The miners contributed liberally to succor the unfortunate emigrants. From lack of organization and direction, much of the effort was wasted and supplies were slow in reaching the desert. Captain William Waldo left Johnson’s ranch on August 27th with a drove of beef cattle, after waiting three days for the trains promised from Marysville and Yuba City. Seventeen hundred pounds of flour were deposited on the western side of the Sierra, the committee being unable to get it across for lack of mules. At the Truckee lower crossing beef was deposited with the relief committee and Waldo left with them ten good horses and mules to help the sick and destitute to cross the desert. He entered the desert on September 7th and pushed on as far as the Great Meadows of the Humboldt, about the locality of the present town of Palisade. About midway of the desert, he came upon two men who had laid themselves down to die. They had been living on the putrefied flesh of the dead animals on the road which had made them sick and for three days had eaten nothing. He relieved their needs and they reached the station. Two other men had died of starvation. From Boiling Springs to the Great meadows he met few who had any provisions at all. One-fourth of the entire number on the road was reduced to the necessity of subsisting on the putrefied flesh of dead animals. This had produced the most fatal consequences and disease and death were mowing them down by hundreds. “The cholera has carried off eight in one small train in three hours, and seven others are attacked and, it is thought, will die ere three hours more have elapsed.”

From the sink westward the havoc was fearful. “Sir,” he wrote, “by the time this reaches you I presume that you will need no evidence from me to satisfy you of the alarming and wretched condition of these people. It appears that the judgment of God has pursued them from the time they set out up to the present. First cholera — then starvation — next war, starvation, and cholera. The day has now passed when anyone will have the hardihood to say that there is no suffering amongst the Overland Emigrants; at least no one who is within 200 miles of this place will make such a declaration.  When I tell them (the emigrants) that they are 400 miles from Sacramento, they are astonished and horrified; many disbelieve me. They were induced to believe when at Salt Lake, that they were then within 450 miles of Sacramento City.” Indians have stolen a great number of the emigrants’ stock, he says, and scarcely a day passes when there is not a skirmish with them. Many women are on the road with families of children, who have lost their husbands by cholera, and who will never cross the mountains without aid. There are yet twenty thousand back of the desert, and fifteen thousand of this number are now destitute of all kinds of provisions, yet the period of the greatest suffering has not arrived. It will be impossible for ten thousand of this number to reach the mountains before the commencement of winter.

The Donner Party by Andy Thomas

The Donner Party by Andy Thomas

All remember the fate of the Donner Party. On September 15th Waldo is back on the Truckee river sending in frantic appeals for supplies. He is issuing, he says, from five to eight thousand pounds of beef per day, and flour only to the sick. The station is surrounded by sick, unable to proceed on their journey. The flour deposited at Bear Valley by the Marysville train has not arrived. The relief raised by the Feather river towns has failed for want of system. If the people of California wish to extend efficient relief to the emigrants, their supplies must be placed under the control of one agent. The emigrants must have bread; thousands must die unless they can be supplied with bread. The cholera is killing them off from this point to the head of the Humboldt.

Ten thousand pounds of flour should be immediately forwarded to the Truckee station and another station established near the summit with the same amount, and such other articles as are necessary for the sick.

If the money cannot be raised for this, he offers to turn over to the committee, or to any other body of men, real estate in Sacramento which has cost him $10,000, if they will advance at once $8,000 or $10,000, forwarded in flour and other necessary articles for the sick, to the summit and to the Truckee station to save 10,000 human beings from starvation.

He says that if he were to describe the cases of extreme suffering that he has seen in the last 15 days the account would occupy a quire of paper. He was to leave on the morning of the 16th for the head of the Humboldt to induce all that are yet from four to six hundred miles back to return to Salt Lake. Ten people died of cholera, the day before while trying to cross the desert.

By September traders were flocking to the desert with supplies, selling flour at one dollar and seventy-five cents to two dollars and fifty cents per pound. They also carried water and grass into the desert and gathered up the animals they found abandoned. They sold water at half a dollar a pint. Many of the emigrants had no money and were obliged to part with their property. In starting out many put nearly all they had into the outfit; others thinking they were going to a land of gold did not bring much money with them. It was a great mistake. Money was required for ferriage across streams, for supplies, and for various purposes, and the want of it caused loss and hardship.

Sacramento Mining District in the 1850s

Sacramento Mining District in the 1850s

At length the emigrants reached the end of their journey, but their troubles were not over; they were attacked with fevers and bloody flux, and many perished miserably after having endured all but death in crossing the plains; they reached the Sacramento Valley sick and weary, with the horror of the scenes through which they had passed still upon them. For a time they were distressed and unsettled. Their numbers were so great that the relief extended by the miners, large as it was, could not reach them all, and many suffered and died for want of proper care and the nourishment which their condition required. Many were happy at first to get employment to pay their board, and even those accustomed to the luxuries of life were glad to get any servile employment suited to their strength and ability. Gradually the dark gloom that over-shadowed them was dispelled by the kind treatment and aid they received on all sides, the memory of their suffering faded, and with returning health hope revived and ambition again awoke.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *