Illinois to the California Goldfields in ’49

Covered Wagon

Covered Wagon

By Lorenzo Dow Stephens in 1916

At the age of 21, Lorenzo Dow Stephens heard the call of adventure and fortune and on March 28, 1849, joined an Illinois party bound for California goldfields.

In his words:

The outfits generally consisted of three to four yoke of oxen, good strong wagons well loaded with provisions, bedding, and clothing. In fact, we found later that we were too heavily loaded. Let me say here that the hardest pull we had was the leave-taking. We were leaving behind home, all that was near and dear, all the friends among whom our youthful days were spent. In fact, I never realized how hard a pull it was until I came to bid goodbye and started to drive away. I never felt so much like backing out of any undertaking as I did then, but, I had too much pride to stand laughter, so the reins were gathered up and the expedition moved.

That spring happened to be a very wet one, and the roads were almost impassable. The streams were swollen and overflowing their banks, bridges were washed away, and consequently, much time had to be spent repairing and building new ones. On many of the larger streams we constructed rafts of logs and rafted the wagons over, and the cattle were made to swim. Through Iowa, we found many prairie sloughs, and they seemed bottomless. Here, we had to cut sod and lay several thicknesses before we could pass over.

Having started early in the season we had to buy feed for the stock until we reached the Missouri River, as the grass wasn’t high enough to keep the stock in traveling condition.

Iowa, at this time, was very sparsely settled. Farmhouses were 20 miles and more apart, and we found, here and there, villages of cheap unpainted houses. We found game in plenty, consisting chiefly of deer, wild turkeys, and prairie chickens. When we reached the Missouri River at Council Bluff, Iowa we traveled down the river to Traders’ Point, a distance of 10-12 twelve miles. Here, we remained for a week, waiting for the grass to get a good start, arranging for a larger expedition. This point was the end of the settlements, and further on, lay the Indian country. We realized a larger body would be safer, but, we found that it took more time and we could make little headway with so large an expedition. So we divided into companies, and in this way, traveled faster.

Jumping Off Point by William Henry Jackson

Jumping Off Point by William Henry Jackson

We had quite an experience crossing the Missouri River. The ferry was a small scow and could carry but one empty wagon at a time. The scow was propelled by two oars, two men at an oar and the current was very swift. Imagine the time it took to transport 50 wagons and the loads; we had difficulty getting the cattle to swim at first. We didn’t realize that the sun shining on the water made much difference, so the first time the cattle swam round and round for two hours, and we were compelled to let them land again where they started. But, the next morning before sunrise we started a small boat with a couple of men having a steer in tow, all the rest of the cattle followed without any trouble and made the opposite shore safely.

Our first experience with the Indians came with our first camp across the river. Our campfires were going nicely, supper was started when we heard gunshots, volley after volley. In a few minutes from over the ridge came 200-300 Pawnee Indians, riding at full run straight for our camp. It was a few minutes work for us to get our rifles in readiness, but, the Indians put up a white flag, and they were allowed to enter the camp. It seemed that a party of the Sioux tribe had given them battle, the two being at war, and the Pawnee had rushed to our camp expecting protection, but, we ordered them off, telling them we wished no trouble with the Sioux as we had to travel their country, and wanted no enemies. We took the precaution to organize our body with regular military-style with Colonels and Captains. For a while, we were very vigilant. Our picket guards were stationed 300 yards from camp, and had to lie down to see any approaching object, but, firing was strictly prohibited unless you thought an enemy approached.

We did not want any false alarms, but, like many others, we grew careless of danger. Many of us went two or three miles from camp, often being away all day hunting and looking over the country. I remember that two of us traveled a long distance on the bank of the river, when, without any warning, an Indian appeared before us. At the same time, geese were flying overhead and the Indian said, “Shoot, shoot.” My companion raised his gun, and I made a quick dash to lower it, and said: “We had better not waste our shot, for I don’t like the looks of things.” We had moved but a few steps when arrows rained down all about us, but, not an Indian in sight, except the one we had spoken with. After a short distance more, beyond the range of arrows, we turned and saw over a dozen Indians raising up out of the grass.

I was carrying a very fine rifle with 27 pieces of silver mounting, and I think this was what they wished. We must have been a little out of range for them to shoot directly at us, but, a falling arrow would answer their purpose just as well. It is needless to relate that all possible haste was made for our train, ten miles away. Of course, our story was rather doubted by the other boys, and we were joshed about the scalps we didn’t take.

Chief Black Hawk, W. Greenough

Chief Black Hawk, W. Greenough

Somewhere in the western part of Iowa, we passed the grave of the Indian Chief Black Hawk, of Black Hawk War fame. It was near the bank of a small stream, the name of which I’ve forgotten. We had a little mishap here in rafting the stream. Our raft was going along nicely when, in some way, the wagon went to the bottom of the river, out of sight. The stream was sluggish, and we didn’t have much difficulty in fishing the wagon out. Fortunately, the load had been transferred to another wagon, but, we did have one load damaged on another occasion when the wagon turned over crossing a stream. This was quite serious, as three barrels of hard bread were entirely ruined.

About 20 miles from the Missouri River we came to the winter quarters of the Mormon excursion of 1846 and 1847. There was no one there, but, we secured a Mormon Guide Book, and it proved of great assistance. They had measured the roads, and distances from camp to camp were recorded. The entire distance from the winter quarters to Salt Lake City was 1,031 miles, and but, two houses in the entire distance. These were at Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger, Wyoming.

At the first fort there were 20 soldiers and at the latter only James Bridger and some Indians. I just mention a little incident here. Several of us boys had gone ahead of the train and were enjoying ourselves asking Bridger questions. He was an old mountaineer and could give us good advice. While we were talking, Indians began to pour in from different quarters, very much excited and saying Indians were coming. Everybody hustled around, the Indians flocked in, the doors were barred, rifles made ready for the scrap when a pack train came in sight. It was an emigrant train from Arkansas, and being the first one from that direction, from a distance, it was natural to infer they were Indians.

Things like this and happenings of interest, made the time pass rapidly. Soon after passing Wood River, we came into the buffalo country. Here, we saw thousands at one time, all with their massive heads pointing to the north and feeding as they passed along. They didn’t seem wild, and it was no trouble to get in range with them when we wished to. Some of the boys shot them down for the sake of the sport. It seemed wrong to me and sinful, but, in after years they were slaughtered by the thousands just for their hides. But, a few years elapsed before the buffalo became practically extinct on the plains, and only here and there in the fastnesses of the mountains could be seen a small number.

There were many different classes of wolves to be seen on the prairies: the common prairie wolf, the gray, the black and another, a large long-legged wolf, the latter being found always near the herds of buffalo and was a constant terror to the calves. While the herds were traveling, the cows and calves always kept the center with the bulls on the outside, affording protection against the Buffalo Rangers, as these wolves were called. These wolves were ferocious, and a band of them would attack men, if hungry.

On one occasion, some of the boys were out and away from the train, when a hard rainstorm overtook them at nightfall. They sought shelter under a bank seven to eight feet in height, all loaded with the choicest of buffalo meat, the tongues, and the hump. In a short time, they were attacked by a band of wolves. They would have surrounded the boys had it not been for the bank on one side, as it was they attacked from every side and came so close the boys had to poke them away with their guns. There were five boys, and they fought the wolves all night long, as shooting them had no effect at all. When daylight came the wolves sneaked away. They had left the imprint of their teeth in the gun barrels that could be seen very distinctly. The boys were glad enough to get back to camp and good and hungry after their night’s fight.

Men in a Wagon Train

Men in a Wagon Train

We did not lack for amusements; we had some very good musicians in our company and almost every night we had a dance around the campfire. To avoid confusion, half wore handkerchiefs on their heads, so there was no trouble telling the girls from the boys, for out of the 50 wagons, there was not a single woman in the crowd. During the emigration of 1849, I think the average of women was about one in 500, so our chances for being bachelors was pretty good for a number of years. I know I roamed about for 20 years before I found my mate, and have never regretted the waiting.

The cholera was bad that year. We passed trains every day laying by on account of cholera. Many died along the Platte River. I had it myself after passing Fort Laramie, Wyoming, but we lost only one night and a half a day on my account. The slightest jolt of the wagon created intense suffering, but, I had started for California, and I was bound to come through. I am satisfied that there were many people who died with fever as well as with cholera, for, once attacked, death seemed certain.

Many amusing incidents happened every day hardly worth recording. In the evenings, many times friendly Indians came into camp numbering 30-40. Sometimes they brought things to trade and many times they begged for food. Indians seem to be hungry at all times. One evening, while the Indians were in camp, a man with false teeth went up to them smiling a most pleasing smile and showing his beautiful white teeth. He would turn around, grin at them again, this time showing his gums. He had only to repeat this several times when the Indians would back away, walk off, and in a few moments, start into a trot until they were out of sight. They thought, of course, that the man was an evil spirit, but, I have often wondered just what they did think.

Along the Platte River, we found the corpses of Indians, well wrapped in bark and tied to the limbs of trees with bark. This was the custom of the Pawnee, but, after we got further on the plains there were no trees, in fact, no trees for 500 miles. So we had no fuel and had to use the buffalo chips, which, if dry, made a very hot fire. Just before camping time, we each of us took a sack, scattered out, and came back to camp with sacks full, having a generous supply for cooking our supper and breakfast. But, if the rain came on, our much-prized chips would not burn at all, and we had to be content with hardtack and raw bacon, and no hot coffee for breakfast.

Chimney Rock in Nebraska, Kathy Weiser.

Chimney Rock in Nebraska, Kathy Weiser.

It was well nigh impossible to measure distance by the eye, objects that appeared close would often prove to be days travel away. A party of us started for Chimney Rock, and as it seemed a short distance away we started early in the morning. We walked fast until afternoon, and then seemed no nearer, so we held a council and came to the conclusion to retrace our steps, arriving at camp tired and hungry. There being no settlements and no smoke, the atmosphere was as clear as could be. I think we sighted Pikes Peak, over 200 miles away, and it seemed as if we should never pass it.

In the Black Hills we came into the Crow Indian country, but, we never saw one. They were not friendly to the whites, and when an Indian is not friendly you never see them in their own country. We came to the Shoshone Tribe, or Snake, as they were sometimes called, but, they disliked that name. They were friendly to us. At one time my chum and I slipped away and visited their camp and they treated us royally. The chief’s wife talked good English, and we were shown all through the camp, there being over 500 in number. They had many pets, both birds and beasts. We were invited to go with them on a buffalo hunt, and I should have enjoyed it, but, all my possessions were with the train, so we remained only the day. But, this was long enough to worry the older men of the party, especially the father of my friend, and all thought we had been murdered by the Indians.

About four to six weeks later, as I was walking in the streets of Salt Lake City, I heard a horse galloping behind me, and here was the same Indian Chief, and he appeared to be tickled to see me, as a boy with his first toy. His wife, on her pony, appeared equally glad. She had been educated at some mission, and so had acquired English.

All up the Platte River, and well as into the Black Hills, we had many thunderstorms; the lightning seemed to strike all around us, and sometimes very near. On one occasion we came to a team of four yokes of oxen, hitched to a wagon in regular order, and everyone dead, having been struck by lightning. This must have been a terrible misfortune to the owners.

There were all kinds of disagreements and quarrels over trivial matters, and the only way of settling the difficulty would be to make a division of property. The wagon would be cut in two, one party taking the front and the other the hind part, dividing the team and provisions, and each party proceeded on the cart of two wheels.

Independence Rock, Wyoming

Independence Rock, Wyoming

We reached the Sweet Water River, a small but swift stream a distance from the Platte River. We forded without any trouble and found the noted landmark, Independence Rock, covering an acre of ground and 200 feet high. It was discovered, I believe, on the Fourth of July, and so received its name. A little further on, we came to the Devils Gate, a narrow cut or gorge through the mountains like a crevice. It was reported that no one had ever passed through its passage. Many had started but had to turn back. So it was a great incentive for us to try. A party of us started, but, there were only two to complete the trip, one other fellow, who nearly lost his life, and myself.

We crossed and recrossed several times, and at one crossing he was swept downstream by the current, and under a shelving rock. He held to the rock with his hands, his body swept under the rock by the current.

I had crossed the stream safely a little further up, and so was able to come to his rescue. In some places we had to climb almost perpendicular walls, almost 100 feet in height, then walk along a narrow ledge where a mountain goat would hardly venture.

I have heard of foolhardy escapades, and have often wondered how we ever managed to come through with our lives, but, luck must have been with us, for it makes me shudder even now to think of the danger we were constantly in.

Passing up the Sweet Water River for quite a distance, then turning to our right, we traveled up a long gentle grade for almost 20 miles, where we came to the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains. There, we camped on a large flat, finding many springs, the water from these springs taking their course to either side, some to the Atlantic and some to the Pacific Ocean. We had heavy frosts, and some ice and this was in the latter part of July.

Great Salt Lake by Thomas Moran

Great Salt Lake by Thomas Moran

Traveling on we came to the Little and Big Sandy Rivers, where the roads forked, one leading to Fort Hall, and the other to Salt Lake City. Here, a discussion arose as to the proper course to take. We argued the advantages and disadvantages, and the result was a natural one, a disagreement. We parted company, each man choosing his company to travel in, so all were entirely satisfied.

Our next stream of any size was Green River, where we ferried again. The Mormons owned the ferry and charged five dollars a wagon; this was a regular gold mine for them, for the travel was heavy. We had to swim the cattle as before, but, happily lost none. For many days we pursued our way; nothing transpiring of note beyond the usual occurrences found on the plains. We reached Emigrant Canyon shortly, a canyon that required six weeks of work on the part of the Mormons who had passed through two years before. We crossed the stream 26 times, and it was but a small stream too, emptying into Salt Lake Valley.

Salt Lake City by Carleton E. Watkins, about 1880

Salt Lake City by Carleton E. Watkins, about 1880

At this juncture, we were approaching Salt Lake City, Utah, so three of us decided to forge ahead of the train. When we reached the first bench or tableland we saw spread out before us the city itself and in the greater distance the Great Lake. When we reached the first little farm our attention was attracted to the garden, full of vegetables of all kinds.

How our mouths watered at this welcome sight. We approached the house, asked for accommodations. They made excuses about sleeping quarters, but, that didn’t trouble us, as we could sleep anywhere out of doors if one could just have a meal or so. We kept our eyes on the garden and were willing and glad to help in the preparation of the vegetables. No one knows how willing we were to pod the peas. We had green corn, peas, and other vegetables, something we had longed and starved for four months. Never before or since have I tasted anything that was so good, and we ate and ate until we could eat no more, and only felt sorry that our capacity was so limited.  We were up bright and early getting peas ready for breakfast. This was a regular bonanza for us, and our bill was only fifty cents each. It was well worth five dollars to us if worth a cent.

Four miles distant, lay the city, and a smart walk soon brought us in, where we inquired for a good camping place for the train which had not yet arrived. We soon found a suitable place, convenient to water and grass, the two most essential features for a camping place. We camped between the city and Jordan River, as all emigrants had to camp on that side of the city.

Our train arrived the same day and we were soon surrounded by the Mormons, principally women inquiring for tea, and if we had any to sell. They seemed to be as much starved for tea as we were for vegetables. We wouldn’t sell tea, but we said we would trade for vegetables. Tea was three dollars a pound, and we could get vegetables a week for a pound of tea. Some of the women said they had not tasted tea for two years past. They were also short of groceries and wearing apparel. Many women were entirely barefooted, and many scantily dressed. All the clothes had been practically worn out, as there had been no supplies brought in for two years, consequently many of them were greatly in need of the luxuries of life. They had seeds and plenty of cattle with them, so they were well provided with the substantials, all having good gardens, beef, milk, and butter.

Mormon Women

Mormon Women

They raised wheat and ground their own flour, but, had no way to bolt it, so had to live on unbolted flour. The women were doing mens’ work in the fields, pulling up the wheat and thrashing it with flails, they having no harvesting implements, as they were yet very scarce. We saw other women with their three or four yokes of oxen and team going into the canyon, a distance of twelve miles, and bringing downloads of wood. There were no men on the load, and perhaps there would be two or three women to handle the team. After seeing the scheme of things I didn’t wonder so much they advocated the plurality of wives, the advantages were so great.

I became tired of camp life in a few days and decided a change was good for me, so found board with a family named Smithson. There was a large family of children, some of the girls almost grown. The old gentleman was well up in the seventies and concluded he wanted another wife. His wife was much opposed naturally, and I heard her tell him she would leave if he brought another wife home. The old fellow justified himself by declaring that “more wives meant more stars in his crown of glory.” This was a heavy argument, but, his wife couldn’t see the force of the argument. No doubt she felt it better for him to do with fewer stars in his crown, than for her to suffer the presence of another woman in the house.

Years afterward, I heard he never had a chance to add stars to his crown, probably he was too old. I stayed with these people a week, then boarded with one of the elders of the church who already had two wives, and had his eyes on a third, a young grass widow, but she said she wouldn’t be number three to the best man living. I boarded with the elder’s family during the remainder of my stay in Salt Lake.

The officers of the Church consisted of a Prophet, 12 Apostles, and 70 elders, then come the teachers, and so on down to the laymen. They believe in baptizing for the dead, by baptizing the living for any relative who had passed away, and that by immersion. One old lady came near being drowned, for she was trying to save 70 that had gone before. One reason why I had gone to board with the elder was to learn what I could of the Mormon people. The women would talk more than the men, and through them, I learned many things. I found none of them were exactly happy, and would enjoy getting away, but, such a thing was impossible at that time. They were there, and there, they had to remain. In speaking of the officers of the Church, I forgot the Angels. The destroying Angels, whose duty it is to put away all undesirable beings. I have often thought these destroying Angels might have had a great deal to do with the Mountain Meadows Massacre.