- Historic Sites
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
Travelers began gathering in March at the three Missouri River towns that became the outfitting places for the overland trip: Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri, and Kanesville (now Council Bluffs), Iowa. Accommodations in the towns were quickly filled and tent cities grew up on the outskirts. Steamboats arrived almost daily with men, mules, and supplies to add to the growing chaos; the river front was a continual jam of wagons, herds of oxen and mules, and cursing teamsters. Almost every man wore a gun and a bowie knife, but more as a sort of California Ho! uniform than because he had any thought of using them. This was not a gun-fighting crowd, and there was remarkably little shooting or stabbing.
The trip had a rigid timetable. The wagons could not start before late April, when the grass on the prairie was green and high enough to provide food for teams, and they had to be over the Sierra Nevada in California before snow began to fall in the high passes, which meant the last wagon had to be on its way before June was over.
A great many men on the trail never should have been there. There were carts pulled by a single mule or ox, wagons with a mule and oxen hitched together, and various other makeshift evidences of shoestring ventures. A man with a rifle and bulldog was in Independence in 1849, planning to walk all the way to California; he very well might have, because he had already walked from Maine. Another man was planning to push a wheelbarrow to the gold fields.
The first part of the trip presented no undue difficulties or dangers. The grass was new and plentiful, the ground solid, animals and men fresh, and equipment still new. But the picnic atmosphere soon began to evaporate. The wagons formed an almost continuous line at times, and all but those in the lead drove in a cloud of choking dust. In the western part of present-day Nebraska, sandier ground and the upward-trending trail made pulling difficult, and animals began to show the effects; breakdowns occurred more often as equipment became worn, and more and more of the faint-hearted turned back.
Now the Argonauts began divesting themselves of excess baggage until the trail looked like the line of retreat of a routed army. Alonra Delano, a fortyniner, wrote on June 3, We were compelled to throw away a quantity of iron, steel, trunks, valises, old clothes, and boots, of little value and I may observe here that we subsequently found the road lined with cast-off articles, piles of bacon, flour, wagons, groceries, clothing, and various other articles which had been left, and the waste and destruction of property was enormous. In this the selfish nature of man was plainly exhibited. In many instances the property thus left was rendered useless. We afterwards found sugar on which turpentine had been poured, flour in which salt and dirt had been thrown, and wagons broken in pieces or partially burned, clothing torn to pieces, so that they could not be worn, and a wanton waste made of valuable property, simply because the owners could not use it themselves and were determined that nobody else should.
Besides being marked with debris, wrecked wagons, and animal carcasses, the trail was soon lined with graves, mainly those of cholera victims. The disease had come to New Orleans from Emope late in 1848, had been spread by steamboat up the Mississippi Valley, and was carried onto the plains by the wagon trains. It is a disease spread by human filth, and with the travelers’ lack of concern for sanitation, it rampaged among the gold seekers. Their comrades buried the victims and hurried on—though there were dark stories of stricken men carried out of sight of the trail and left to die.
Travel through the mountains was hard going; there were places where wagons had to be eased down some of the steeper slopes with ropes, and spots on one or two of the cutoffs where they were actually lowered down cliffs. But beyond the Rockies the way really got difficult. In Utah and Nevada water and grass, scarce enough anyhow, were very often bitter, and even poisonous, from the alkali, salt, and sulphur they contained. The worst part of this dry stretch was the final drive over a searing, lifeless desert that had to be crossed in one single .stage, requiring usually about twenty-four hours. Here, a traveler had the option of two routes. One took him to the life-giving water of the Truckee River with Boiling Springs at the midpoint, where unappetizing but drinkable water for the animals could be had by pouring it from the hot springs into troughs and allowing it to cool. The other way led to the Carson River across the Forty-Mile Desert, where there was no water of any kind.