Coming of the Argonauts

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 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.

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 under water. 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 than one hundred and fifty miles on the other side of the Sink of Mary’s River,” writes 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 twelve 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 ten or fifteen 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.

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