The Smart Ones Got Through

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So they pushed off from the Missouri River that spring day, numbering 26 men, eight women, and about seventeen children. During the first part of the journey they traveled in company with a larger party bound for Oregon. The swollen Elkhorn River blocked the way, but they emptied the wagons, ferried everything across in a waterproofed wagon bed, swam the cattle, and kept ahead. They chased buffalo, saw their first wild Indians at Fort Laramie. At Independence Rock they halted a week to rest the oxen, “make meat” by hunting buffalo, and allow Helen Independence Miller to be born. They were the first to take wagons across the Green River Desert by what was later known as Sublette’s (or Greenwood’s) cutoff. On the cutoff they suffered from thirst, had their cattle stampede (but got them buck), were scared by a Sioux war party (but had no real trouble). All this, of course, is mere routine for a covered wagon journey, nothing to make copy of.

At Fort Hall they separated from the Oregon party. At Raft River, eleven wagons in the line, they left the Oregon Trail, and headed south and west, following the wheel tracks of an emigrant party that Joe Walker, the famous mountain man, had tried to take to California the year before. Whether the people in the Stevens Party knew of his failure—the people got through, but the wagons were abandoned—is only one of the many details we do not know. Uneventfully and monotonously they followed his trail all the way to Humboldt Sink, a matter of 500 miles. Then, after careful scouting and on the advice of an intelligent Paiute chief, whom they called Truckee, they decided to quit following Walker and strike west.

From that point they were on their own, making history by breaking trail for the forty-niners, the Central Pacific, and U.S. 40. They made it across the Forty-Mile Desert with less trouble than might have been expected, considering that they were the first. Even so, the crossing took 48 hours, and the oxen were thirst-crazed by the time they approached the cottonwoods marking the line of a stream. The men of the party, with their usual good sense, unyoked the oxen some distance from the stream to prevent them from scenting water while still attached to the wagons and stampeding toward it. Thankful to their guide, the emigrants named the stream the Truckee, and prudently camped two days among its cottonwoods for rest and recuperation.

They knew no route, except to follow the river. The canyon got tighter and tighter until in places they merely took their wagons upstream like river boats. The oxen began to give out, hoofs softening because of being in the water so much. Now it came November, and a foot of snow fell. The oxen would have starved except for some tall rushes growing along the water.

Finally they came to where the river forked. Which way to go? They held “a consultation,” which must have been close to a council of desperation. It was past the middle of November—snow two feet deep now, high mountain crags in view ahead, oxen footsore and gaunt, food low, womenfolks getting scared. But they were good men and staunch. They must have been—or we would have had the Donner story two years earlier.

 

Yes, there must have been some good men, and we know the names, if not much else about them. Old Caleb Greenwood the trapper was there, and he would have been heard with respect, though personally I do not cast him for the hero’s part, as some do. Neither do I have much confidence in “Doc” Townsend, though his name is sometimes used to identify the whole party; he was full of wild ideas. But “Young” Martin Murphy, Irish as his name, was probably a good man, and so, I think, was Dennis Martin, Irish too. Then there was Hitchcock, whose Christian name has been lost because everyone has referred to him just as “Old Man” Hitchcock; he should have been valuable in the council, having been a mountain man in his day. But the one on whom I put my money is Stevens himself, who had taken them all the way, so far, without losing a man.

He or some other, or all of them together, worked out the plan, and it came out in the end as what we would call today a calculated risk, with a certain hedging of the bets. Leave five wagons below the pass at what is now called Donner Lake, and three young men with them, volunteers, to build a cabin and guard the wagons and goods through the winter. Take six wagons ahead over the pass, and with them the main body including all the mothers and children. Up the other fork of the river, send a party of two women and four men, all young, well-mounted and well-armed, prepared to travel light and fast and live off the country. Unencumbered they can certainly make it through somewhere; when they get to Sutter’s Fort, they can have help sent back, if necessary.

So Captain Stevens and the main body took the six wagons ahead to the west, and with a heave and a ho, in spite of sheer granite ledges and ever-deepening snow, they hoisted those wagons up the pass, which is really not a pass so much as the face of a mountain. Even today, when you view those granite slopes, close to precipices, and imagine taking wagons up through the snow, it seems incredible.