Experience of Edward Coker

Edward Coker was one of a party of twenty-one men who left their wagons, being impatient of the slow progress made by the ox train, and organized a pack train in which they were themselves the burden carriers. They discarded everything not absolutely necessary to sustain life, packed all their provisions into knapsacks, bravely shouldered them and started off on foot from the desert to reach California by the shortest way.

Among those whom Mr. Coker can recollect are Capt. Nat. Ward, Jim Woods, Jim Martin of Missouri, John D. Martin of Texas, “Old Francis,” a French Canadian, Fred Carr, Negro “Joe” and some others from Coffeeville, Miss., with others from other states.

Mr. Coker related his experience to the Author somewhat as follows:–

“One other of the party was a colored man who joined us at the camp when we left the families, he being the only remaining member of a small party who had followed our wagon tracks after we had tried to proceed south. This party was made up of a Mr. Culverwell who had formerly been a writer in a Government office at Washington, D.C., a man named Fish claiming to be a relative of Hamilton Fish of New York, and another man whose name I never knew. He, poor fellow, arrived at our camp in a starving condition and died before our departure. The other two unfortunates ones died on the desert, and the colored man reported that he simply covered their remains with their blankets.

I well remember that last night in camp before we started with our knapsacks and left the families, for it was plain the women and children must go very slow, and we felt we could go over rougher and shorter roads on foot and get through sooner by going straight across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Our condition was certainly appalling. We were without water, all on the verge of starvation, and the three poor cattle which yet remained alive were objects of pity. It seemed almost a crime to kill the poor beasts, so little real food was there left on their skeleton frames. They had been so faithful and had plodded along when there seemed no hope for them. They might still serve to keep the party from starvation.

It was at this camp that Mr. Ischam died. The night before our departure he came wandering into camp and presented such an awful appearance, simply a living skeleton of a once grand and powerful man. He must have suffered untold agony as he struggled on to overtake the party, starving and alone, with the knowledge that two of his companions had perished miserably of starvation in that unknown wilderness of rocks and alkali.

Our journey on foot through the mountains was full of adventure and suffering. On our arrival at the shores of Owen’s Lake not a man of the party had a mouthful of food left in his pack, and to add to our difficulties we had several encounters with the hostile Indians. There was a fearful snow storm falling at Owen’s Lake on the evening that we arrived there, and we could make no fire. The Indians gathered around us and we did not know exactly what to make of them, nor could we determine whether their intentions were good or bad. We examined the lake and determined to try to ford it, and thus set out by the light of the moon that occasionally peeped out from behind the clouds, while the red devils stood howling on the shore.

The following morning we found what was then known as the Fremont Trail, and by the advice of some friendly Indians who came into our camp, we kept the “big trail” for three days and came to Walker’s Pass. While on this trail we were followed at night by a number of wild Indians, but we prudently avoided any collisions with them and kept moving on. Going on through the pass we followed the right hand branch of the trail, the left hand branch leading more to the south and across a wide plain. We soon came to a fair-sized stream, now known to be the south fork of the Kern River, which we followed until we came to its junction with a larger river, the two making the Kern River. Here we were taken across by some friendly Indians who left the Missions farther west during the Mexican war and took to their own village located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. At this village we were on exhibition for several hours with an audience of five hundred people or more, of the red men, and on the following morning we commenced the ascent of the mountains again, the Indians furnishing us with a guide in the person of an old Pi-Ute. He brought us over the range, through the snow and over the bleak ridges, in the month of December, 1849, and we made our first camp at an Indian village in Tulare Valley, a few miles south of where Porterville now stands.

From this Indian village we walked on until we arrived at the present site of Millerton on the south bank of the San Joaquin River. Our sufferings were terrible from hunger, cold, and wet, for the rains were almost continual at this elevation, and we had been forced several times to swim. The sudden change from the dried-up desert to a rainy region was pretty severe on us. On our arrival at the San Joaquin River we found a camp of wealthy Mexicans who gave us a small amount of food, and seemed to want us to pass on that they might be rid of us. I can well believe that a company of twenty-one starving men was the cause of some disquietude to them. They gave us some hides taken from some of the cattle they had recently slain, and from these we constructed a boat and ferry rope in which we crossed the river, and then continued our journey to the mining camp on Aqua Frio, in Mariposa county.

It is very strange to think that since that time I have never met a single man of that party of twenty-one. I had kept quite full notes of the whole trip from the state of New York to the mines, and including my early mining experience up to the year 1851. Unfortunately this manuscript was burned at the Russ House fire in Fresno, where I also lost many personal effects.”

In the year 1892 Mr. Coker was living in Fresno, or near that city, in fairly comfortable health, and it is to be hoped that the evening of his days, to which all the old pioneers are rapidly approaching, may be to him all that his brightest hopes pictured.

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