Across The Plains

The overland migration attracted the more hardy and experienced pioneers, and also those whose assets lay in cattle and farm equipment rather than in money. The majority came from the more western parts of the then United States, and therefore comprised men who had already some experience in pioneering. As far as the Mississippi or even Kansas these parties generally traveled separately or in small groups from a single locality. Before starting over the great plains, however, it became necessary to combine into larger bands for mutual aid and protection. Such recognized meeting-points were therefore generally in a state of congestion. Thousands of people with their equipment and animals were crowded together in some river-bottom awaiting the propitious moment for setting forth.

The journey ordinarily required about five months, provided nothing untoward happened in the way of delay. A start in the spring therefore allowed the traveler to surmount the Sierra Nevada mountains before the first heavy snowfalls. One of the inevitable anxieties was whether or not this crossing could be safely accomplished. At first the migration was thoroughly orderly and successful. As the stories from California became more glowing, and as the fever for gold mounted higher, the pace accelerated.

A book by a man named Harlan, written in the County Farm to which his old age had brought him, gives a most interesting picture of the times. His party consisted of fourteen persons, one of whom, Harlan’s grandmother, was then ninety years old and blind! There were also two very small children. At Indian Creek in Kansas they caught up with the main body of immigrants and soon made up their train. He says: “We proceeded very happily until we reached the South Platte. Every night we young folks had a dance on the green prairie.” Game abounded, the party was in good spirits and underwent no especial hardships, and the Indian troubles furnished only sufficient excitement to keep the men interested and alert. After leaving Salt Lake, however, the passage across the desert suddenly loomed up as a terrifying thing. “We started on our passage over this desert in the early morning, trailed all next day and all night, and on the morning of the third day our guide told us that water was still twenty-five miles away. William Harlan here lost his seven yoke of oxen. The man who was in charge of them went to sleep, and the cattle turned back and recrossed the desert or perhaps died there…. Next day I started early and drove till dusk, as I wished to tire the cattle so that they would lie down and give me a chance to sleep. They would rest for two or three hours and then try to go back home to their former range.” The party won through, however, and descended into the smiling valleys of California, ninety-year-old lady and all.

These parties which were hastily got together for the mere purpose of progress soon found that they must have some sort of government to make the trip successful. A leader was generally elected to whom implicit obedience was supposed to be accorded. Among independent and hot-headed men quarrels were not infrequent. A rough sort of justice was, however, invoked by vote of the majority. Though a “split of blankets” was not unknown, usually the party went through under one leadership. Fortunate were those who possessed experienced men as leaders, or who in hiring the services of one of the numerous plains guides obtained one of genuine experience. Inexperience and graft were as fatal then as now. It can well be imagined what disaster could descend upon a camping party in a wilderness such as the Old West, amidst the enemies which that wilderness supported. It is bad enough today when inexperienced people go to camp by a lake near a farm-house. Moreover, at that time everybody was in a hurry, and many suspected that the other man was trying to obtain an advantage.

Hittell tells of one ingenious citizen who, in trying to keep ahead of his fellow immigrants as he hurried along, had the bright idea of setting on fire and destroying the dry grass in order to retard the progress of the parties behind. Grass was scarce enough in the best circumstances, and the burning struck those following with starvation. He did not get very far, however, before he was caught by a posse who mounted their best horses for pursuit. They shot him from his saddle and turned back. This attempt at monopoly was thus nipped in the bud.

Probably there would have been more of this sort of thing had it not been for the constant menace of the Indians. The Indian attack on the immigrant train has become so familiar through Wild West shows and so-called literature that it is useless to redescribe it here. Generally the object was merely the theft of horses, but occasionally a genuine attack, followed in case of success by massacre, took place. An experience of this sort did a great deal of good in holding together not only the parties attacked, but also those who afterwards heard of the attempt.

There was, however, another side to the shield, a very encouraging and cheerful side. For example, some good-hearted philanthropist established a kind of reading-room and post-office in the desert near the headwaters of the Humboldt River. He placed it in a natural circular wall of rock by the road, shaded by a lone tree. The original founder left a lot of newspapers on a stone seat inside the wall with a written notice to “Read and leave them for others.”

Many trains, well equipped, well formed, well led, went through without trouble–indeed, with real pleasure. Nevertheless the overwhelming testimony is on the other side. Probably this was due in large part to the irritability that always seizes the mind of the tenderfoot when he is confronted by wilderness conditions. A man who is a perfectly normal and agreeable citizen in his own environment becomes a suspicious half-lunatic when placed in circumstances uncomfortable and unaccustomed. It often happened that people were obliged to throw things away in order to lighten their loads. When this necessity occurred, they generally seemed to take an extraordinary delight in destroying their property rather than in leaving it for anybody else who might come along. Hittell tells us that sugar was often ruined by having turpentine poured over it, and flour was mixed with salt and dirt; wagons were burned; clothes were torn into shreds and tatters. All of this destruction was senseless and useless, and was probably only a blind and instinctive reaction against hardships.

Those hardships were considerable. It is estimated that during the height of the overland migration in the spring of 1849 no less than fifty thousand people started out. The wagon trains followed almost on one another’s heels, so hot was the pace. Not only did the travelers wish to get to the Sierras before the snows blocked the passes, not only were they eager to enter the gold mines, but they were pursued by the specter of cholera in the concentration camps along the Mississippi Valley. This scourge devastated these gatherings. It followed the men across the plains like some deadly wild beast, and was shaken off only when the high clear climate of desert altitude was eventually reached.

But the terrible part of the journey began with the entrance into the great deserts, like that of the Humboldt Sink. There the conditions were almost beyond belief. Thousands were left behind, fighting starvation, disease, and the loss of cattle. Women who had lost their husbands from the deadly cholera went staggering on without food or water, leading their children. The trail was literally lined with dead animals. Often in the middle of the desert could be seen the camps of death, the wagons drawn in a circle, the dead animals tainting the air, every living human being crippled from scurvy and other diseases. There was no fodder for the cattle, and very little water The loads had to be lightened almost every mile by the discarding of valuable goods. Many of the immigrants who survived the struggle reached the goal in an impoverished condition. The road was bordered with an almost unbroken barrier of abandoned wagons, old mining implements, clothes, provisions, and the like. As the cattle died, the problem of merely continuing the march became worse. Often the rate of progress was not more than a mile every two or three hours. Each mile had to be relayed back and forth several times. And when this desert had sapped their strength, they came at last to the Sink itself, with its long white fields of alkali with drifts of ashes across them, so soft that the cattle sank half-way to their bellies. The dust was fine and light and rose chokingly; the sun was strong and fierce. All but the strongest groups of pioneers seemed to break here. The retreats became routs. Each one put out for himself with what strength he had left. The wagons were emptied of everything but the barest necessities. At every stop some animal fell in the traces and had to be cut out of the yoke. If a wagon came to a full stop, it was abandoned. The animals were detached and driven forward. And when at last they reached the Humboldt River itself, they found it almost impossible to ford. The best feed lay on the other side. In the distance the high and forbidding ramparts of the Sierra Nevadas reared themselves.

One of these Forty-niners, Delano, a man of some distinction in the later history of the mining communities, says that five men drowned themselves in the Humboldt River in one day out of sheer discouragement. He says that he had to save the lives of his oxen by giving Indians fifteen dollars to swim the river and float some grass across to him. And with weakened cattle, discouraged hearts, no provisions, the travelers had to tackle the high rough road that led across the mountains.

Of course, the picture just drawn is of the darkest aspect. Some trains there were under competent pioneers who knew their job; who were experienced in wilderness travel; who understood better than to chase madly away after every cut-off reported by irresponsible trappers; who comprehended the handling and management of cattle; who, in short, knew wilderness travel. These came through with only the ordinary hardships. But take it all in all, the overland trail was a trial by fire. One gets a notion of its deadliness from the fact that over five thousand people died of cholera alone. The trail was marked throughout its length by the shallow graves of those who had succumbed. He who arrived in California was a different person from the one who had started from the East. Experience had even in so short a time fused his elements into something new. This alteration must not be forgotten when we turn once more to the internal affairs of the new commonwealth.

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