New Light on the Donner Party
What I Saw in California
by Edwin Bryant
Hastings Cutoff to California, July 15-September 1, 1846.
Green River – Terrific storm – Desolate scenery – Black’s Fork – Rainbow bluffs – Remarkable butte – Arrival at Fort Bridger – Messrs. Hastings and Hudspeth – Traders and trappers from Taos – Capt. Walker – Californian horses – Snow showers on the mountains – Resume our march by the new route via the Great Salt Lake – Cold weather – Ice in July – Bear River – Difficult passage through the mountains – Elephant statue.
JULY 15. – About eight miles from our last encampment we struck and
forded Green river, the head of the Colorado or Red River of the West, which
empties into the Gulf of California.
The river at the ford is between fifty and one hundred yards in breadth, and the water in the channel is about two and a half feet in depth. The bed of the channel is composed of small round stones. The stream runs with a clear rapid current. Cotton-wood and small willows border its banks as far as we travelled upon it. These, with some green islands, afford an agreeable and picturesque contrast to the brown scenery of hill and plain on either side. Continuing down the river we halted at noon to rest our animals under the shade of some large cotton-wood trees. There was but little grass around us. A dark cloud, across which there were incessant flashes of lightning, rose in the west soon after we halted.
At half-past two o’clock, P.M. resuming our march we travelled about two miles farther down the stream, and left it near a point where I saw the ruins of several log-cabins, which I have since learned were erected some years ago by traders and trappers, and have subsequently been deserted. The trail here makes a right angle and ascends over the bluffs bordering the valley of the stream, in nearly a west course. We had scarcely mounted the bluffs when we were saluted by a storm of rain, lightning, thunder, and wind, which raged with terrific fury and violence over the broken and dreary plain, for several hours.
It is scarcely possible to conceive a scene of more forbidding dreariness and desolation than was presented to our view on all sides. Precipitous and impending cliffs of rock and concrete sand and clay, deep ravines and chasms plowed out by the torrents of water or by the fierce tornadoes which rage with unrestrained force and fury over this desert, with a few straggling and stunted sage-shrubs struggling for an existence in the sandy and gravelly soil, were the prominent objects that saluted our vision. Far to the left of us, the Utah mountains lift their summits covered with perpetual snows, presenting to the eye a wintry scene in the middle of July.
While travelling onward at a slow pace, being some hundred yards in advance of the main party, (the storm having in some degree subsided,) with skins thoroughly wet and in no very cheerful mood, one of the party behind struck up in a sonorous voice the serio-comic elegy of "Lord Lovell and Lady Nancy." Shouts of merry laughter succeeded the rehearsal of each stanza, and the whole party, from being in a most gloomy and savage state of mind, were restored to the best possible humor. The strong contrast between the sublime which they had seen and felt, and the ridiculous which they heard, operated upon them something like a shock of galvanism on a dead body.
Just before sunset, we reached the summit of the ridge between Green river and Black’s Fork, a tributary of the former. From this, at a distance of six or eight miles, we could see the last-named stream, and the smoke rising from the fires of an emigrant encampment. We reached Black’s Fork of Green river, and encamped upon it some time after dark. There was no wood except some small green willows which resisted ignition; and weary and wet, we soon made our beds and fell asleep. Distance 35 miles.
July 16. – Black’s Fork is a stream varying in width from fifty to one
hundred feet. Its waters are limpid and cold. The trail crosses this stream
several times during the day’s march leaving it as often to cut off the
bends, and returning to it again. The scenery along our route to-day has
been interesting, although the soil of the country for the most part is
The bluffs, assuming the forms and elevation of buttes, which border the valley of the stream through which we are travelling, are composed of soft sandstone and a concrete combination of sand and clay. Their perpendicular walls are colored with nearly all the hues of the rainbow, in stratified lines. Red, green, blue, yellow, and purple are distinctly represented. These bluffs are worn by the action of water and wind into almost every conceivable shape. A very remarkable isolated elevation or butte, rises abruptly from the flat surface of the plain, about eighteen miles from our last encampment. Its shape is irregularly oval. It is about two or three miles in circumference, and its extreme height is probably five hundred feet above the level of the plain. In general shape and ornament it presents the appearance of a magnificent structure erected by human labor, but crumbling into ruins. Surrounding it there are a multitude of columns of unknown architectural orders, (orders of nature,) and grotesque figures in statuary, and carvings in alto and basso relievo. Some of these would be substitutes for the sphynxes of Egyptian architecture; others for caryatides, etc., etc. But it is useless to multiply similitudes, for there is scarcely a prominent animal figure in nature, or a distorted and unnatural shape conceived by man for architectural ornament, that has not some feature represented here, sculptured and carved upon the soft rock by the winds and the rains. A well-defined cornice surrounds the western and southern sides of this temple of nature, and its roof is surmounted by three immense domes, in comparison with which those of the Capitol, St. Peter’s, and St. Sophia are toys. A few miles beyond this, there is a labyrinth of columns formed in the bluffs by the action of water and wind, through which when you enter it, the voice and sound of footsteps are echoed and re-echoed a long distance.
The mirage displayed here its illusory invitations with great distinctness. The presentations of this phenomenon were not, however, different from those previously noticed. Just before sunset, we once more struck the stream on which we were travelling, and had a view of the landmarks which, we supposed, were near Fort Bridger. The trail at this point diverged again from the stream, and we travelled over a barren plain, with no vegetation upon it except the wild sage. We were overtaken by darkness some miles before reaching our destination for the day. The trail was lost by my mule, upon the natural instinct of which I relied more than upon myself, in the dark. We proceeded onward, and finally saw the faint light of camp-fires, apparently very near, but really at a long distance. Striking in a direct line for them, we met many obstacles and obstructions, some of which were imaginary, others real. We were at last successful in crossing, in the dark, a ravine, bordered on each side by timber, and entering upon the bottom of grass where the lights appeared that we had so intently watched.
Proceeding on, we reached the encampment of Mr. Hastings about eleven o’clock at night. A shower of rain, which fell during the afternoon, had wet us to our skins, and shivering with the dampness and cool temperature, we let our mules loose, and gathered around a miserable fire, the fuel of which was composed of small, green willows. Distance 40 miles.
July 17. – We determined to encamp here two or three days, for the
purpose of recruiting our animals, which, being heavily packed, manifest
strong signs of fatigue. We pitched our tent, for the first time since we
left Fort Laramie, near the camp of Messrs. Hastings and Hudspeth. These
gentlemen left the settlements of California the last of April, and
travelling over the snows of the Sierra, and swimming the swollen
water-courses on either side, reached this vicinity some two weeks since,
having explored a new route, via the south end of the great Salt Lake, by
which they suppose the distance to California is shortened from one hundred
and fifty to two hundred miles. My impressions are unfavorable to the route,
especially for wagons and families; but a number of the emigrant parties now
encamped here have determined to adopt it, with Messrs. Hastings and
Hudspeth as their guides; and are now waiting for some of the rear parties
to come up and join them.
"Fort Bridger," as it is called, is small trading-post, established and now occupied by Messrs. Bridger and Vasquez. The buildings are two or three miserable log-cabins, rudely constructed, and bearing but a faint resemblance to habitable houses. Its position is in a handsome and fertile bottom of the small stream on which we are encamped, about two miles south of the point where the old wagon trail, via Fort Hall, makes an angle, and takes a northwesterly course. The bottom produces the finest qualities of grass, and in great abundance. The water of the stream is cold and pure, and abounds in spotted mountain trout, and a variety of other small fish. Clumps of cottonwood trees are scattered through the valley, and along the banks of the stream. Fort Bridger is distant from the Pacific Spring, by our estimate, 133 miles.
About five hundred Snake Indians were encamped near the trading-post this morning, but on hearing the news respecting the movements of the Sioux, which we communicated to them, most of them left immediately, for the purpose, I suppose, of organizing elsewhere a war-party to resist the threatened invasion. There are a number of traders here from the neighborhood of Taos, and the head-waters of the Arkansas, who have brought with them dressed buckskins, buckskin shirts, pantaloons, and moccasins, to trade with the emigrants. The emigrant trade is a very important one to the mountain merchants and trappers. The countenances and bearing of these men, who have made the wilderness their home, are generally expressive of a cool, cautious, but determined intrepidity. In a trade, they have no consciences, taking all the "advantages;" but in a matter of hospitality or generosity they are open-handed – ready, many of them, to divide with the needy what they possess.
I was introduced to-day to Captain [Joseph R.] Walker, of Jackson county, Missouri, who is much celebrated for his explorations and knowledge of the North American continent, between the frontier settlements of the United States and the Pacific. Captain W. is now on his return from the settlements of California, having been out with Captain Fremont in the capacity of guide or pilot. He is driving some four or five hundred Californian horses, which he intends to dispose of in the United States. They appear to be high-spirited animals, of medium size, handsome figures, and in good condition. It is possible that the trade in horses, and even cattle, between California and the United States may, at no distant day, become of considerable importance. Captain W. communicated to me some facts in reference to recent occurrences in California, of considerable interest. He spoke discouragingly of the new route via the south end of the Salt Lake.
Several emigrant parties have arrived here during the day, and others have left, taking the old route, via Fort Hall. Another cloud, rising from behind the mountains to the south, discharged sufficient rain to moisten the ground, about three o’clock, P.M. After the rain had ceased falling, the clouds broke away, some of them sinking below and others rising above the summits of the mountains, which were glittering in the rays of the sun with snowy whiteness. While raining in the valley, it had been snowing on the mountains. During the shower the thermometer fell, in fifteen minutes, from 82o to 44o.
July 18. – We determined, this morning, to take the new route, via the
south end of the great Salt Lake. Mr. Hudspeth – who with a small party, on
Monday, will start in advance of the emigrant companies which intend
travelling by this route, for the purpose of making some further
explorations – has volunteered to guide us as far as the Salt Plain, a day’s
journey west of the Lake. Although such was my own determination, I wrote
several letters to my friends among the emigrant parties in the rear,
advising them not to take this route, but to keep on the old trail, via Fort
Hall. Our situation was different from theirs. We were mounted on mules, had
no families, and could afford to hazard experiments, and make explorations.
They could not. During the day I visited several of the emigrant corrals.
Many of the trappers and hunters now collected here were lounging about,
making small trades for sugar, coffee, flour, and whiskey. I heard of an
instance of a pint of miserable whiskey being sold for a pair of buckskin
pantaloons, valued at ten dollars. I saw two dollars in money paid for half
Several Indians visited our camp, in parties of three or four at a time. An old man and two boys sat down near the door of our tent, this morning, and there remained without speaking, but watchful of every movement, for three or four hours. When dinner was over, we gave them some bread and meat, and they departed without uttering a word. Messrs. Curry and Holder left us to-day, having determined to go to Oregon instead of California. Circles of white-tented wagons may now be seen in every direction, and the smoke from the camp-fires is curling upwards, morning, noon, and evening. An immense number of oxen and horses are scattered over the entire valley, grazing upon the green grass. Parties of Indians, hunters, and emigrants are galloping to and fro, and the scene is one of almost holiday liveliness. It is difficult to realize that we are in a wilderness, a thousand miles from civilization. I noticed the lupin, and a brilliant scarlet flower, in bloom.
July 19. – Bill Smith, a noted mountain character, in a shooting-match burst his gun, and he was supposed for some time to be dead. He recovered, however, and the first words he uttered upon returning to consciousness were, that "no d – d gun could kill him." The adventures, hazards, and escapes of this man, with his eccentricities of character, as they were related to me, would make an amusing volume. I angled in the stream, and caught an abundance of mountain trout and other small fish. Another shower of rain fell this afternoon, during which the temperature was that of a raw November day.
July 20. – We resumed our march, taking, in accordance with our previous
determination, the new route already referred to. Our party consisted of
nine persons. Mr. Hudspeth and three young men from the emigrant parties,
will accompany us as tar as the Salt Plain. We ascended from the valley in
which Fort Bridger is situated, on the left of a high and rather remarkable
butte which overlooks the fertile bottom from the west. There is no trail
and we are guided in our course and route by the direction in which the Salt
Lake is known to lie. The face of the upland country, after leaving Fort
Bridger, although broken, presents a more cheerful aspect than the scenery
we have been passing through for several days. The wild sage continues to be
the principal growth, but we have marched over two or three smooth plains
covered with good grass. The sides of the hills and mountains have also in
many places presented a bright green herbage, and clumps of the aspen poplar
frequently ornament the hollows near the bases of the hills.
We crossed a large and fresh Indian trail, made probably by the Snakes. Many of their lodge-poles were scattered along it, and occasionally a skin, showing that they were travelling in great haste. As usual for several days past, a cloud rose in the southwest about three o’clock, P.M., and discharged sufficient rain to wet us. The atmosphere during the shower had a wintry feel. On the high mountains in sight of us to the left, we could see, after the clouds broke away, that it had been snowing.
We reached a small creek or branch called "Little Muddy" by the hunters, where we encamped between four and five o’clock. Our camp is in a handsome little valley a mile or more in length and half a mile in breadth, richly carpeted with green grass of an excellent quality. An occasional cotton-wood tree, clumps of small willows, and a variety of other shrubbery along the margin of the stream, assist in composing an agreeable landscape. The stream is very small, and in places its channel is dry. The wild geranium, with bright pink and purplish flowers, and a shrub covered with brilliant yellow blossoms, enliven the scenery around. The temperature is that of March or April, and winter clothing is necessary to comfort. Many of the small early spring flowers are now in bloom, among which I noticed the strawberry. Large numbers of antelopes were seen. Distance 15 miles.
July 21. – Our buffalo-robes and the grass of the valley were white with
frost. Ice of the thickness of window-glass, congealed in our buckets.
Notwithstanding this coldness of the temperature, we experience no
inconvenience from it, and the morning air is delightfully pleasant and
invigorating. Ascending the hills on the western side of our camp, and
passing over a narrow ridge, we entered another grassy valley, which we
followed up in a southwest course, between ranges of low sloping hills,
three or four miles. Leaving the valley near its upper end, or where the
ranges of hills close together, we ascended a gradual slope to the summit of
an elevated ridge, the descent on the western side of which is abrupt and
precipitous, and is covered with gnarled and stunted cedars, twisted by the
winds into many fantastic shapes. Descending with some difficulty this steep
mountain-side, we found ourselves in a narrow hollow, enclosed on either
side by high elevations, the bottom of which is covered with rank grass, and
gay with the bloom of the wild geranium and a shrub richly ornamented with a
bright yellow blossom. The hills or mountains enclosing this hollow, are
composed of red and yellow argillaceous earth. In the ravines there are a
few aspen poplars of small size, and higher up some dwarfish cedars bowed by
winds and snows.
Following up this hollow a short distance, we came to an impassable barrier of red sandstone, rising in perpendicular and impending masses, and running entirely across it. Ascending with great difficulty the steep and high elevation on our right hand, we passed over an elevated plain of gradual ascent, covered with wild sage, of so rank and dense a growth that we found it difficult to force our way through it. This ridge overlooks another deeper and broader valley, which we entered and followed in a southwest course two or three miles, when the ranges of hills close nearly together, and the gorge makes a short curve or angle, taking a general northwest direction. We continued down the gorge until we reached Bear river, between one and two o’clock, P.M.
Bear river, where we struck and forded it, is about fifty yards in breadth, with a rapid current of limpid water foaming over a bed so unequal and rocky, that it was difficult, if not dangerous to the limbs of our mules, when fording it. The margin of the stream is thinly timbered with cotton-wood and small willows. The fertile bottom, as we proceeded down it, varying in width from a mile and a half to one-eighth of a mile, is well covered with grasses of an excellent quality; and I noticed, in addition to the wild geranium, and several other flowers in bloom, the wild flax, sometimes covering a half acre or more with its modest blue blossom. Travelling down the stream on the western side, in a course nearly north, six miles, we encamped on its margin about 3 o’clock, P.M.
The country through which we have passed to-day, has, on the whole, presented a more fertilized aspect than any we have seen for several hundred miles. Many of the hill-sides, and some of the table-land on the high plains, produce grass and other green vegetables. Groves of small aspen poplars, clumps of hawthorn, and willows surrounding the springs, are a great relief to the eye, when surveying the general brownness and sterility of the landscape. I observed strawberry-vines among the grass in the hollows, and in the bottom of Bear river; but there was no fruit upon them. We have passed the skeletons of several buffaloes. These animals abounded in this region some thirty years ago; but there are now none west of the Rocky Mountains.
Brown shot three antelopes near our camp this afternoon. A young one, which was fat and tender, was slaughtered and brought to camp; the others were so lean as not to be considered eatable. The sage-hens, or the grouse of the sage-plains, with their broods of young chickens, have been frequently flushed, and several shot. The young chickens are very delicate; the old fowl is usually, at this season, lean and tough.
McClary has been quite sick with a fever which has prevailed among the emigrants, and frequently terminated family. This afternoon he was scarcely able to sit upon his mule, from weakness and giddiness. Distance 25 miles.
July 22. – Cold, with a strong wind from the snowy mountains to the
southwest, rendering the atmosphere raw and uncomfortable. We rose shivering
from our bivouacs, and our mules picketed around were shaking with the cold.
McClary was so much relieved from his sickness, that he considered himself
able to travel, and we resumed our march at seven o’clock. Crossing the
river bottom on the western side, we left it, ascending and descending over
some low sloping hills, and entering another narrow, grassy valley, through
which runs a small stream in a general course from the southwest. We
travelled up this gradually ascending valley about twelve miles, to a point
were the stream forks. Near this place there are several springs of very
cold water. Following up the right-hand fork some miles farther, in a
northwest course, we left it by climbing the range of hills on the right
hand, passing along an elevated ridge, from which we descended into a deep
mountain gorge, about one o’clock, P.M.
The mountains on either side of the canada or gorge are precipitous, and tower upwards several thousand feet above the level upon which we are travelling. At 3 o’clock we crossed a small stream flowing into the canada from the northeast. Continuing down, the space between the ranges of mountains becomes narrower, and choked up with brush, prostrate trees, and immense masses of rock (conglomerate) which have fallen from the summits of the mountains, affording us no room to pass. We were compelled to leave the bottom of the gorge, and with great caution, to find a path along the precipitous side of the mountains, so steep in many places that our mules were in constant danger of sliding over the precipices, and being thus destroyed.
The snows have recently disappeared. Their fertilizing irrigation has produced a verdant carpet of grass in the bottom of the small hollows, bespangled with a variety of blooming plants and shrubs. The geranium, wild flax in bloom, and a purple phlox, have been the most conspicuous. In some places the blight of. recent frosts is visible. I noticed several fir-trees in one place, while descending through the gorge, from 20 to 100 feet in height. Some of them were standing upon inaccessible projections from the mountain-side. The mountains on either side of us, during our march this afternoon, have raised their rocky and barren summits to a great height, presenting in places perpendicular walls and impending projections of red sandstone and conglomerate rock. Immense masses of many thousand tons’ weight have fallen from the sides, and rolled from the summits into the trough of the gorge, where they lie imbedded deep in the earth, or shattered by the concussion of the fall. In other places, the soft red sandstone has been worn by the action of the atmosphere into many remarkable and some times fantastic shapes. Some of these are spiral and columnar, others present the grotesque forms of nondescript animals and birds. A very conspicuous object of this kind, of colossal magnitude, exhibited the profile of a rhinoceros or elephant. We named it the "Elephant’s Statue."
The dislocated skeletons of buffaloes which perished here many years ago, have been frequently seen. Large flocks of antelope have been in sight during the day’s march. We have seen as many as five hundred. A red fox, and an animal of a brown color, which I never saw described, approached within a short distance this afternoon.
Just before sunset we reached a small opening between the mountain ranges, covered with a dense growth of willows, wild currants, and wild rose-bushes. The ‘mountain-sides presented clumps of hawthorn, and a few diminutive and scattering cedars. Here we encamped in the small openings among the willows and other shrubbery, where we found grass and water sufficient for our animals. Distance 35 miles.
More extreme cold weather – Ogden’s Hole – Utah Indians – Weber River – Cañons – Indian visitors – Disgusting practice – Great fires in the mountains – First view of the great Salt Lake – Salmon-trout – Great Salt Lake – A sunset on the lake – Broke my thermometer – Indian chase – Warm sulphur springs – More Indian visitors – Indian fruit-cake – Grasshopper jam – Mode of taking grasshoppers by the Indians.
JULY 23. – Ice froze in our buckets and basins one-fourth of an inch in thickness. On the surface of the small shallow brook which runs through the valley, the congelation was of the thickness of window-glass. At home, in the low and humid regions of the Mississippi valley, at this stage of the thermometer we should suffer from sleeping in the open air. But here the atmosphere is so elastic, dry, and bracing, that we experience no inconvenience. Continuing our march down the narrow defile in a southwest course, generally along the side of the mountain, (the bottom being choked up with willows, vines, briers, and rosebushes,) we crossed the channels at their mouths, of two small streams emptying into the branch upon which we are travelling. These streams flow through narrow mountain defiles which, as far as we could discern, were timbered with cedars and poplars. One of these gorges presents a most savage and gloomy aspect. It is so narrow and deep that the rays of the sun never penetrate to its bottom. Mr. Hudspeth thinks this is what is called by the hunters, "Ogden’s Hole." It derives this name from the circumstance that a trapper by the name of Ogden concealed himself here from a body of pursuing and hostile Indians, and perhaps perished. I am not sufficiently acquainted with the facts to relate them with accuracy. The romantic interest of the story is doubtless much enhanced by a view of the wild and forbidding spot where its incidents and catastrophe occurred. The ranges of mountains, as we proceeded down the gorge, became more and more elevated, but less precipitous. I noticed, at a height of six or eight hundred feet above the level of the stream, numberless small white fossil shells, from half an inch to an inch in diameter. In places bare of vegetation, the ground was white with these crustaceous remains. About eleven o’clock, we passed through a grove of small poplars, at the upper end of a triangular valley. The stream down which we have been travelling, here runs through a perpendicular cañon of great elevation, and empties into the main Weber river, which flows into the Great Salt Lake, running in a nearly west course. Ascertaining by examination that we could not pass this cañon, without following a considerable distance the rocky channel of the stream, we crossed some low hills, or a gap in the mountains at the northeast corner of the valley. While marching over these hills, we were overtaken by five or six Indians mounted on horses. The Indians rode up and saluted us with much apparent friendship and cordiality. They were a small party encamped in the valley that we had just left, whose animals and lodges we had seen at a distance in the brush skirting the stream. After riding two miles, we entered a fertile valley several miles in length and breadth, covered with luxuriant grass, through which flows Weber river; but tracing the channel down to where it enters the mountains, we found a cañon more difficult to pass than the one we had just left. Observing at a distance a party of Indians, whose encampment was some two miles up the valley, coming towards us, we determined to halt for an hour or two, and gather from them such information as we could in reference to the route to the Salt Lake. The first Indians that came up were two men and a small boy. One of the men called himself a. Utah, the other a Soshonee or Snake. The Utah appeared to be overjoyed to see us. He was not satisfied with shaking hands, but he must embrace us, which, although not an agreeable ceremony, was submitted to by several of our party. This ceremony being over, he laughed merrily, and danced about as if in an ecstasy of delight in consequence of our appearance. He examined with great curiosity all of our baggage; tried on, over his naked shoulders, several of our blankets, in which costume he seemed to regard himself with great satisfaction. He was, for an Indian, very comical in his deportment and very merry. The number of Indians about our camp soon accumulated to fifteen or twenty, all of whom were Utahs, except the one Snake mentioned, who had married a Utah squaw. A hasty dinner was prepared, and we distributed very sparingly among them (for our stock of provisions is becoming low) something from each dish, with which display of hospitality they appeared to be gratified. Most of these Indians were armed with bows and arrows. There were among them a miserable rifle and musket, which they had evidently procured from Mexican trappers or traders, as, when I inquired of the owner of one of them its name, he pronounced the word carabina. Those who had these guns were desirous that we should wait until they could ride some distance and bring dressed deer or elkskins, which they wished to trade for powder and balls. They were all miserably clothed, some wearing a filthy, ragged blanket, others a shirt and gaiters made of skins, and others simply a breech-cloth of skins. Their countenances, however, were sprightly and intelligent, and several of them were powerfully formed. The result of our inquiries in reference to the route was not satisfactory. The merry old fellow we first met, advised us by signs to go southwest a distance until we struck water, and then go northwest. Another advised us to return to the small valley, and from thence to pass through the mountains parallel with Weber river. We determined on the latter route, it appearing to be the shortest. Saddling up, we retraced our trail into the small valley, where we were overtaken by the Indians, desirous of trading skins for powder and balls. Several trades were made, generally at the rate of twelve charges of powder, and as many ounce-bullets, for a large elk or deer skin well dressed. We ascended from the valley through a winding and difficult ravine, to the summit of the range of mountains on the west, from which we could see nothing but mountain after mountain, one rising behind another, in the course we designed taking. A halt was called, and Mr. Hudspeth and myself, leaving our party, entered a ravine and followed it down steep declivities, (our mules frequently sliding ten or fifteen feet over bare and precipitous rocks,) with a view of ascertaining the practicability of passing along the bank of the river. Forcing our way, after our descent, through the thick brush and brambles, and over dead and fallen timber, we finally reached the stream and crossed it. The result of our observations was that the route was impracticable, without the aid of axes to clear away the brush and dead and fallen timber, unless we took the rocky bed of the river for a road, wading water generally three feet deep, and in places, probably of swimming depth to our animals. We returned after considerable difficulty to our party, and countermarching, encamped just as the sun was setting, in the small valley so often referred to. There are two Indian lodges near our camp. We visited them, and made exchanges of small articles with the women for parched and pulverized sunflower and grass seeds. Its taste was much like that of parched corn, and agreeable. All the men, women, and children, some eight or ten in number, visited us during the preparation and discussion of our supper, watching with much curiosity and interest the culinary operations and other movements. They were good-natured and sociable, so fax as there can be sociability between persons making known their thoughts by vague signs. Our supper to-night, with the exception of bread and coffee, consisted of a stew made of antelope flesh, which, as it happened, was very highly seasoned with pepper. I distributed several plates of this stew among the Indians. They tasted of it, and immediately made most ludicrous grimaces, blowing out and drawing in their breath, as if they had been burnt. They handed back the plates without eating their contents. To satisfy them that we were playing no tricks upon them, which they seemed to suspect, I ate from the same dishes; but they could not be prevailed upon to eat the stew. Coffee, bread, and a small lump of sugar to each was distributed among them, with which they seemed much pleased. The sugar delighted them beyond measure, and they evidently had never seen or tasted of it before. During the visit of these Indians, I noticed the females hunting for the vermin in the heads and on the bodies of their children; finding which, they ate the animals with an apparent relish. I had often heard of this disgusting practice, but this is the first instance of it I have seen. They retired to their lodges about nine o’clock, and so much confidence did we feel in their friendship, that no watch was set for the night. Distance from our last camp, seven miles.
July 24. – Crossing for the third time the low gap at the southeastern corner of the small valley, we entered the large, level, and fertile bottom, on the edge of which we had halted yesterday. Fording the river, we took a south course over this bottom, which is about three miles in breadth, covered with tall grass, the bloom upon which shows that, when ripe, it must be heavily seeded and nutritious. From the valley we ascended gradually five or six miles to the summit of a ridge of hills, from which, descending about the same distance in a southwest course, we struck another branch of Weber’s river, flowing in a northwest course. Following the stream about a mile, much to our disappointment we found another impassable canyon. This cañon resembles a gate, about six or eight feet in width, the arch and superstructure of which have fallen in immense masses, rendering a passage by the channel of the stream impossible. The mountains on either side raise their perpendicular walls of red sandstone to a great elevation. Looking up the side of the mountain on our right, we saw a small Indian trail winding under and over the projecting and impending cliffs. This evidence that the Indians had passed this way, satisfied us that we could do the same; although to the eye, when standing in the valley and looking upwards, it seemed impossible. We commenced the ascent, mules and men following each other along the narrow and dangerous path in single file. After much labor we reached the summit of the ascent. This first difficulty being over, we travelled about two miles along the side of the mountain, in a path so narrow that a slight jostle would have cast us over a precipice to the bottom of a gulf a thousand feet in depth. Continuing down the stream five miles, our progress being obstructed by many difficulties, we at length, much to our gratification, reached an opening between the mountains, displaying an extensive valley covered with grass, and the meanderings of the stream upon which we were travelling by the line of dark green shrubbery and herbage upon its banks. We reached the junction of this stream with Weber river between four and five o’clock, and encamped for the day. A number of Utah Indians accompanied us several miles this morning. Among them was the pleasant and comical old fellow, who amused us so much yesterday. They all appeared to be much gratified by our visit, and were very pressing in their invitations to us to stop and trade with them. Near the last canyon there was a solitary lodge, from which the inhabitants, with the exception of an old man and woman, fled as soon as they saw us, driving before them their horses. The old man and woman, being unable to run, hid themselves under the bank of the stream. I noticed in one of the ravines to-day, the scrub-oak, or what is commonly called black-jack, also a few small maple-trees. The trunks of none of these are more than two inches in diameter. Distance 24 miles.
July 25. – We determined to remain encamped to-day, to rest and recruit our mules, the grass and water being good. The valley in which our camp is situated is about fifteen miles in length, and varies from one to three miles in breadth. The mountains on both sides rise in benches one above another, to an elevation of several thousand feet above the level of the valley. The summits of this range, on the west, exhibit snow. It as scarcely possible to imagine a landscape blending more variety, beauty, and sublimity, than is here presented. The quiet, secluded valley, with its luxuriant grass waving in the breeze; the gentle streamlet winding through it, skirted with clumps of willows and the wild rose in bloom; the wild currant, laden with ripe fruit; the aspen poplar, with its silvery, tremulous foliage; the low, sloping hills, rising at first by gentle ascents, and becoming gradually more and more elevated and rugged, until their barren and snowy summits seem almost to cleave the sky, compose a combination of scenery not often witnessed. I noticed this morning, about ten o’clock, a column of smoke rising from the mountains to the west. The fire which produced it continued to increase with an almost frightful rapidity, and the wind, blowing from that quarter, has driven the smoke into the valley, darkening the sun, and imparting to every thing around a lurid and dismal coloring. Jacob, Buchanan, and Brown started early this morning, with the intention of ascending one of the snowy mountain peaks. They returned about four o’clock, P.M., overcome with the fatigue of their walk, and without having accomplished their design, being prevented by distance, and the tangled brush in the hollows and ravines. Mr. Hudspeth rode down the valley to explore Weber’s river to the Salt Lake. He returned in the afternoon, having passed through the next cañon. I noticed several magpies, and other small birds, in the valley during the day.
July 26. – The fires in the mountains were burning with great fury all night, threatening, although probably at a distance of twenty miles, to reach us before we decamped. Burnt leaves and ashes, driven by the winds, whirled through the atmosphere, and fell around us in the valley. Mr. Hudspeth and two of the men with him left us here, to explore the cañon above, and ascertain the practicability of wagons passing through it. Resuming our march, we proceeded down the valley about ten rates, passing through, at its lower end, a grove of poplars, in which a fire had been burning, and some of the fallen trees were yet blazing. Entering between the walls of the mountains forming the cañon, after laborious exertions for several hours, we passed through it without any serious accident. The cañon is four or five miles through, and we were compelled, as heretofore, to climb along the side of the precipitous mountains, frequently passing under, and sometimes scaling, immense overhanging masses and projections of rock. To be thus safely enlarged from this natural prison-house, locked at every point, was an agreeable, if not an important event in the history of our journey. At four o’clock, P.M., we encamped on the bank of the Weber river, just below the cañon. The stream, at this point, is about thirty feet in breadth, with a limpid and rapid current, and a rocky channel. The grass along its margin is dry and dead, but well seeded, and consequently nutritious to our animals. A few small poplars, generally from two to three inches in diameter at the trunk, skirt the stream. I ascended the range of hills bordering the valley of the river to the south, from which I had a most extensive and interesting view of the Great Salt Lake. My position was about ten miles distant from the lake, but my elevation was such that I could discern its surface from the north to the south, a distance which I estimated at sixty or eighty miles. The shore next to me, as far as I could see it, was white. Numerous mountainous islands, dark and apparently barren, sometimes in ranges of fifteen or twenty miles, sometimes in solitary peaks, rise to a considerable elevation above its surface; but the waters surrounding these insulations could be traced between them as far as the eye could reach. The evening was calm, and not a ripple disturbed the tranquil bosom of the lake. As the sun was sinking behind the far distant elevations to the west, the glassy surface of this vast inland ocean was illuminated by its red rays, and for a few minutes it appeared like a sea of molten fire. The plain or valley of the lake, to the right, is some eight or ten miles in width, and fertile. The Weber river winds through it, emptying into the lake some ten miles to the north of our camp. A few trees fringe its margin. I could smell a strong and offensive fetor wafted from the shore of the lake. Returning to camp, Miller, who had employed his leisure in angling, exhibited a piscatory spectacle worthy the admiration of the most epicurean ichthyophagist. He had taken with hook about a dozen salmon-trout, from eight to eighteen inches in length; and the longest weighing four or five pounds. delicacy such as this, and so abundant, we determined to enjoy, and from the results of Miller’s sport we feasted this evening upon a viand which epicures would give much to obtain; but they nor my "Tonglythian" friends, Higgins and Frazer, would scarcely undergo the fatigues and privations to which we had been subjected for its acquisition. Distance 16 miles.
July 27. – By an arrangement with Mr. Hudspeth, we remained encamped, awaiting his return from his exploring trip through the upper canyon of Weber river. Fishing apparatus was m great demand this morning; and most of the party, as soon as breakfast was over, were enjoying the Waltonian sport, in angling for the delicious salmon-trout with which the stream abounds. Our bait is the large insect resembling the cricket, heretofore described, myriads of which are creeping and hopping among the grass, and other vegetation of the valley. Every angler was more or less successful, according to his luck or skill. A quantity of fish, weighing each from two to five pounds, was taken, – more than sufficient for our wants, although our appetites at this time are not easily satisfied. The fires noticed day before yesterday, and yesterday, have continued to burn; and this afternoon they seemed to have found fresh fuel. The wind changing to the southeast, and blowing a gale, just before sunset, dense clouds of smoke and ashes were driven down upon us.
July 28. – Some of the party went into the hills to gather service-berries. (I do not know that this orthography is correct. It is in accordance with the orthoepy.) The service-berry is produced by a shrub, generally from four to six feet in height. It is of a dark color, larger than the whortleberry, and not very unlike it in flavor. This fruit is abundant here.
July 29. – Mr. Hudspeth and two young men came into camp early this morning, having bivouacked last night a short distance from us, on the opposite side of the river. They had forced their way through the upper cañon, and proceeded six miles further up Weber river, where they met a train of about forty emigrant wagons under the guidance of Mr. Hastings, which left Fort Bridger the same day that we did. The difficulties to be encountered by these emigrants by the new route will commence at that point; and they will, I fear, be serious. Mr. Hudspeth thinks that the passage through the canyon is practicable, by making a road in the bed of the stream at short distances, and cutting out the timber and brush in other places. Resuming our march, we took a south course over the low hills bordering the valley in which we have been encamped; thence along the base of a range of elevated mountains which slope down to the marshy plain of the lake. This plain varies in width from fifteen to two miles, becoming narrower as we approach what is called the "Utah Outlet," the channel through which the Utah Lake empties its waters into the Salt Lake. The Great Salt Lake has never been accurately surveyed. It is situated between 40 and 42 degrees of north latitude, and between 35 and 36 degrees of longitude west from Washington. Its length is variously stated by the hunters and trappers who have travelled along its shores, at from one hundred and fifty to one hundred and eighty miles. But in this estimate, the numerous large bays and other irregularities are included. Its extreme length in a straight line is probably one hundred miles, and its extreme breadth between forty and sixty miles. At this season the shore, as we pass along it, is white with a crust of the muriate and carbonate of soda combined. The muriate of soda predominates, but the alkali combined with it is sufficient to render the salt bitter and unfit for use in its natural state. When the wind blows from the lake, the stench arising from the stagnant water next to the shore is highly offensive to the smell. The surface of the lake does not present that rippling and sparkling appearance when the sudden breeze passes over it, so frequently seen on fresh-water lakes, and on the ocean. The waters undoubtedly are thoroughly saturated with saline matter, and hence, from their weight, when they move at all, it is with a lazy and sluggish undulatory motion. It is stated that no fish exist in the lake. I have already mentioned that there are numerous mountainous islands in the lake. There are also several large bays indenting its shores. The plain or valley along which we have travelled to-day is in some places argillaceous, in others sandy and gravelly. Where there is a soil, it is covered with a growth of luxuriant vegetation, – grass, a species of cane, rushes, and a variety of small shrubs and flowering plants. A few scrub-oaks and stunted cedars can be seen on the mountain-sides, and along the ravines. There are many small streams of pure cold water flowing from the mountains. The heat of the sun during our march this afternoon was excessive. My bridle reins were frequently so hot that it was painful to hold them in my hands. The road has been difficult, and our progress slow. We encamped about three o’clock for the day, on a small spring branch. The sunset scene this evening was splendid. The surface of the lake appeared like a sheet of fire, varying in tint from crimson to a pale scarlet. This flame-like ocean was bordered as far as we could see to the north and south of us, with a field of salt, presenting all the appearances of freshly fallen snow. When I took out the thermometer this evening, much to my regret I discovered that the bulb was broken. I hung the frame and glass tube on a willow for the observation of the Indians. It will be some time before they will venture to touch it. They stand in great awe of the mysterious instruments which science has invented, and never handle them except with due caution. Distance 18 miles.
July 30. – At sunrise, clear and calm, with an agreeable temperature. The morning scene was beautifully grand. Our camp being in the shadow of the mountains, the face of the sun was invisible to us, long after his golden rays had tipped, one after another, the summits of the far-distant islands in the lake. By degrees the vast expanse of waters became illuminated, reflecting the bright beams of the god of day with dazzling effulgence. Our route to-day continued south, near the base of the range of mountains on our left. We frequently crossed deep ravines and piles of granite debris, with which the slope of the mountains in places is covered. Travelling about ten miles we reached the southern extremity of one of the bays of the Salt Lake. Beyond this there is a basin of water some three or four miles in circumference, surrounded by a smooth sandy beach. An immense number of ducks were walking and flying over this beach and playing in the basin. Approaching the shore of the pond, a solitary Indian rose from the weeds or grass near the water, and discovering us, he started immediately and ran with considerable speed towards a point of the mountains on our left. Several of us pursued and overtook him. He appeared much alarmed at first, but after shaking hands with us, and discovering that we had no hostile intentions, he soon forgot his fright. He carried in his hand a miserably lean duck, which he had just killed with an arrow. A quiver slung across his bare and tawny shoulders, was well supplied with this weapon. He was naked, with the exception of a small covering around his loins, and his skin was as dark as a dark mulatto. Learning from him that he was a Utah, we endeavored to make him comprehend that we wished to trade with his tribe for elk-meat. He shook his head, and appearing desirous of leaving us, we dismissed him. He was soon out of sight, hurrying away with long and rapid strides. Proceeding about two miles and turning the point of the mountain, we came to seven warm springs, so strongly impregnated with sulphur as to have left a deposite of this mineral in some places several feet in depth. These springs gush out near the foot of a high precipice, composed of conglomerate rock and a bluish sandstone. The precipice seems to have been uplifted by some subterraneous convulsion. The temperature of the water in the basins was about 90¡. The water of most of them was bitter and nauseous. From these springs we crossed a level plain, on which we encamped at 11 o’clock, A. M., near a small stream of cold water flowing from the mountains, which is skirted with a few poplars and small willows. The grass immediately around our camp is fresh and green, but a short distance from us it is brown, dry, and crisp. After dinner we were visited by three Indians, one of whom was the man with the duck we saw this morning. The eldest of the three signified that he wished a friendly smoke and a "talk." A pipe was produced and filled with tobacco. Lighting it, I drew two or three puffs and handed it to the old man, and it passed from him to his comrades until the tobacco was consumed. They appeared to enjoy the fumes of the smoke highly. We informed them of our wish to trade for meat. They signified that they had none. Three females of middle age, miserably clad and ugly, soon made their appearance, bringing baskets containing a substance, which, upon examination, we ascertained to be service-berries, crushed to a jam and mixed with pulverized grasshoppers. This composition being dried in the sun until it becomes hard, is what may be called the "fruitcake" of these poor children of the desert. No doubt these women regarded it as one of the most acceptable offerings they could make to us. We purchased all they brought with them, paying them in darning-needles and other small articles, with which they were much pleased. The prejudice against the grasshopper "fruit-cake" was strong at first, but it soon wore off, and none of the delicacy was thrown away or lost. Two of our party mounted their mules and rode to the Indian encampment to ascertain if there were not more Indians, and some from whom meat could be obtained. As soon as the men and women in our camp saw them riding in the direction of their lodges, they hastened away with great speed and in much alarm. Returning from the Indian encampment, Jacob and Brookey reported that there were no more Indians, and that no meat could be obtained. They saw a large quantity of grasshoppers, or crickets, (the insect I have before described,) which were being prepared for pulverization. The Indians of this region, in order to capture this insect with greater facility, dig a pit in the ground. They then make what hunters, for brevity of expression, call a surround ; – that is, they form a circle at a distance around this pit, and drive the grasshoppers or crickets into it, when they are easily secured and taken. After being killed, they are baked before the fire or dried in the sun, and then pulverized between smooth stones. Prejudice aside, I have tasted what are called delicacies, less agreeable to the palate. Although the Utahs are a powerful and warlike tribe, these Indians appeared to be wretchedly destitute. A fire was raging on the mountain-side all night, and spread down into the valley, consuming the brown vegetation. The water of the small stream was made bitter with the ashes. Our campground, we conjecture, is the same that was occupied by Captain Fremont last year. Distance 15 miles.
Utah Outlet and Lake – Enter the desert – Utah language – Col. Russell’s nine-shooter – Digger Indians – Utter sterility.
July 3l. – Morning clear, with a delightful temperature, and a light
breeze blowing from the west. Our route to-day runs in a west course across
the valley of the "Utah Outlet," about ten miles south from the bay or arm
of the Salt Lake upon which we have been travelling. The waters of the Utah
Lake are emptied into the Salt Lake through this channel. The Utah Lake is a
body of fresh water between sixty and eighty miles in circumference,
situated about twenty miles south of the Salt Lake. The shape of the
extensive plain of this lake was made apparent to us by the mountains
surrounding it. The plain of the lake is said to be fertile, but of the
extent of its fertility I have no certain knowledge. The eastern side of the
valley of the "Outlet" is well watered by small streams running from the
mountains, and the grass and other herbage on the upland are abundant, but
there is no timber visible from our position. (In 1847 the Mormons made a
settlement between the Utah and the Salt Lake.)
Descending from the upland slope on which we encamped yesterday, we crossed a marsh about two miles in width, covered with grass so dense and matted that our animals could scarcely make their way through it. This grass is generally from five to eight feet in height. A species of rush called tule is produced on the marsh. It grows to the height of eight and ten feet. The ground is very soft and tremulous, and is covered for the most part with water to the depth of two or three inches. But our mules were prevented from sinking into it by the forest of herbage which they prostrated under their feet as they advanced. From the marsh we ascended a few feet upon hard, dry ground, producing a coarse grass with an ear resembling our small grains, wheat or barley, and some few flowers, with bunches of wild sage. The colors of the flowers were generally yellow and scarlet. We reached the Utah Outlet after travelling four miles, and forded it without difficulty. The channel is about twenty yards in breadth, and the water in the deepest places about three feet. The bed of the channel is composed of compact bluish clay. The plain or valley, from the western bank of the " Outlet" to the base of the range of hills to the west, is level and smooth, and in places white with a saline deposite or efflorescence. There is but little vegetation upon it, and this is chiefly the wild sage, indicative of aridity, and poverty of soil. From this plain we struck the shore of another bay of the Salt Lake, bordered by a range of mountains running parallel with it. The shore, next to the white crust of salt, is covered with a debris precipitated from the rocky summits of the mountains. Our route for several hours described nearly a semicircle, when there was a break in the range of mountains, and we entered upon another plain. About three o’clock, P. M., we passed several remarkable rocks rising in tower-like shapes from the plain, to the height of sixty or eighty feet. Beyond these we crossed two small streams bitter with saline and alkaline impregnation. The plain presents a sterile appearance, but little vegetation appearing upon it, and that stunted and withered. At seven o’clock, P. M., we reached a spring branch descending from a mountain range, and fringed with small willows, the water of which is comparatively fresh and cool. Here we encamped after a march without halting, of twelve hours. There is a variety of vegetation along the stream—grass, weeds, some few flowers, briers, and rose-bushes. Soon after we encamped, three Utah Indians visited us. They were mounted on horses, rather lean, and sore-backed from hard usage. The men appeared to be of a better class and more intelligent than those we had before met with. They were young and manifested much sprightliness, and an inquisitive curiosity, which they took no pains to conceal. We invited them to sup with us, and they partook of our simple viands with a high relish. A renewal of our overtures to trade for meat met with no better success than before. They had no meat to dispose of. They were dressed in buckskin shirts, gaiters, and moccasins; and armed with bows and arrows. Two of these men, the most intelligent, concluded to encamp with us for the night. The principal of these, a young man of about twenty-five, with an amiable but sprightly expression of countenance, was so earnest and eager in his inquiries respecting every thing appertaining to us, and into our language, that I sat conversing with him until a late hour of the night. From him I learned the names of many things in the Utah dialect. I give some of these below. The orthography is in strict accordance with the sound.
|Mule ........||Moodah.||Blanket ....||Tochewanup.|
These are some of the words of the Utah language which I wrote down, from his pronunciation, by the light of our campfire. Furnishing him and his companion some skins, we requested them to retire for the night, which they seemed to do with reluctance. Distance 40 miles.
August l. – Morning clear, with a delightfully soft breeze from the
south. I purchased, this morning, of one of the Utahs, a dressed grisly
bear-skin, for which I gave him twenty charges of powder and twenty bullets.
Several other small trades were made with them by our party. Having
determined to cross a range of mountains, instead of following to avoid it,
the shore of another cove or bay of the Salt Lake, – by doing which we
should lose in distance twenty-five or thirty miles,—we laid our course
nearly west, towards the lowest gap we could discover in the range.
After we had proceeded two or three miles up the sloping plain, towards the base of the mountains, Colonel Russell recollected that he had left his rifle at the camp – a "nine-shooter." Accompanied by Miller, he returned back to recover it. I was very well satisfied that the Indians would have discovered it, and, considering it a valuable prize, would not wait for the return of the loser. According to their code of morals, it is not dishonest to take what is left in camp, and they never fail to do it. I halted for an hour, and long after our party had disappeared in a gorge of the mountains, for the return of Colonel Russell and Miller. I could see, from my elevated position, the dust raised by the horses of the retreating Indians on the plain, at a distance of six or eight miles from the camp. Becoming impatient, I commenced a countermarch, and while moving on, I saw, at a distance of a mile and a half, a solitary horseman, urging his animal with great speed towards me. There being but one instead of two, I felt considerable anxiety, not knowing but some disaster might have occurred. I moved faster towards the horseman, and, at the distance of a quarter of a mile, discovered that it was Colonel Russell. Riding towards him, I inquired what had become of Miller? He did not know. He had lost him in hunting through the willows and ravines. My anxiety was much increased at this report, and I started to return to the camp, when Miller, proceeding at a slow gait, appeared on one of the distant elevations. The result of the search for the "nine-shooting" rifle was fruitless. The Indians had carried it away with them. The only consolation I could offer to Colonel Russell for his loss was, that a more useless burden was never carried on the shoulders of man or mule. It was a weight upon the beast, and an incumbrance to the rider, and of no practical utility on this journey. This consolation, however, was not very soothing.
[I will state here, that this rifle was recovered by Mr. Hudspeth, brought into California, and returned to Colonel Russell. The Indian who took it from our camp, after he had returned to the village of his tribe, was much elated by his prize. But in discharging it, the ball, instead of making its passage through the barrel, took another direction, and wounded him in the leg. An instrument so mysterious and eccentric it was considered dangerous to retain, and the chief ordered its restoration to the emigrant parties following us. It was recognised by Mr. Hudspeth, and returned to its owner, as above stated.]
Following the trail of our party, we entered the narrow mountain-gorge, or valley, where I saw them disappear. Proceeding up this valley, we passed several temporary wigwams, erected by the Indians along the side of the small stream which flows through it from the summit of the mountain. These wigwams were all deserted; but fires were burning in front of them, dogs were barking, and willow-baskets, some of which contained service-berries, were standing about. A few poplar and pine trees, service-bushes, willows, and a variety of small shrubbery, with an occasional sunflower, ornament this narrow and romantic gorge. As we ascended, the sides of the mountain presented ledges of variegated marble, and a debris of the same was strewn in our path. We overtook our party when they were about halfway up the steep ascent to the crest of the range. Mules and men were strung out a mile, toiling and climbing up the almost insurmountable acclivity.
The inhabitants of the wigwams, who had fled and concealed themselves until we had passed, now commenced whooping far below us, and we could see several of them following our trail. After much difficulty in urging our animals forward, and great fatigue to ourselves and them, we reached the summit of the ridge. Here we halted to take breath. Several of the Indians, whose whoops we had heard, came up to us. They were naked, and the most emaciated and wretched human objects I had ever seen. We shook hands, however, and greeted them kindly. The descent on the western side of the mountain, although steep, is not difficult, there being but few obstructions. Four miles from the summit brought us to a gentle slope, and to a faint stream which flows from the hills and sinks in the sands just below. Here we encamped for the day. Near us, on the slope, there is a grove of small cedars, the deep verdure of which is some relief to the brown and dead aspect of vegetable nature surrounding us. Distance 15 miles.
August 2. – Morning clear, with a soft breeze from the south. We were
visited early by three miserable Digger Indians, calling themselves
Soshonees. They were naked, with the exception of a few filthy, ragged
skins, fastened around their loins. They brought with them a mixture
composed of parched sunflower seed and grasshoppers, which they wished to
exchange with us for some articles we possessed. We declined trading with
them. One of them signified, that he knew where there was water over the
next ridge of mountains. Water at the western base of the next range would
diminish the long march without this necessary element, over the great Salt
Plain, some ten or twelve miles. For a compensation in shirts and
pantaloons, he consented to accompany and guide us to the water; but when we
started, he declined his engagement.
Descending into the plain or valley before us, we took a northwest course across it, striking Capt. Fremont’s trail of last year after we had commenced the ascent of the slope on the western side. The breadth of this valley at this point, from the base of one range of mountains to the other, is about twenty miles. Large portion sol it are covered with a saline efflorescence of a snowy whiteness. The only vegetation is the wild sage; and this is parched and shriveled by the extreme drought. Not a solitary flower or green plant has exhibited itself. In our march we crossed and passed several deep ravines and chasms, plowed by the waters from the mountains during the melting of the snows, or hollowed out by the action of the winds. Not a living object, animal, reptile, or insect, has been seen during our day’s march.
We encamped at two o’clock, P.M. There are a few dwarf cedars in our vicinity, and scattered bunches of dead grass. In a ravine near us the sand is moist; and by making an excavation, we obtained a scant supply of water, impregnated with salt and sulphur. A dense smoky vapor fills the valley and conceals the summits of the distant mountains. The sun shining through this, dispenses a lurid light, coloring the brown and barren desert with a more dismal and gloomy hue. As soon as our afternoon meal had been prepared and discussed, we commenced preparations for the march over the Salt Desert to-morrow, which employment occupied us until a ]ate hour of the night. Distance 20 miles.
March over the great Salt Desert – Preparations – Singular illusion – Volcanic debris – Distant view of the great Salt Plain – Utter desolation – The mirage – Gigantic phantoms – Fata Morgana – Spectral army – Tempest on the Salt Plain – Clouds of salt – Instinct of mules – Mule-race – Excessive thirst – Arrival at oasis, and spring – Buchanan’s well.
AUGUST 3. – I rose from my bivouac this morning at half-past one o’clock.
The moon appearing like a ball of fire, and shining with a dim and baleful
light, seemed struggling downwards through the thick bank of smoky vapor
that overhung and curtained the high ridge of mountains to the west of us.
This ridge, stretching far to the north and the south as the eye can reach,
forms the western wall (if I may so call it) of the desert valley we had
crossed yesterday, and is composed of rugged, barren peaks of dark basaltic
rock, sometimes exhibiting misshapen outlines; at others, towering upwards,
and displaying a variety of architectural forms, representing domes, spires,
and turreted fortifications.
Our encampment was on the slope of the mountain; and the valley lay spread out at our feet, illuminated sufficiently by the red glare of the moon, and the more pallid effulgence of the stars, to display imperfectly its broken and frightful barrenness, and its solemn desolation. No life, except in the little oasis occupied by our camp, and dampened by the sluggish spring, by excavating which with our hands we had obtained impure water sufficient to quench our own and our animals’ thirst, existed as far as the eye could penetrate over mountain and plain. There was no voice of animal, no hum of insect, disturbing the tomb-like solemnity. All was silence and death. The atmosphere, chill and frosty, seemed to sympathize with this sepulchral stillness. No wailing or whispering sounds sighed through the chasms of the mountains, or over the gully and waterless ravines of the valley. No rustling zephyr swept over the scant dead grass, or disturbed the crumbling leaves of the gnarled and stunted cedars, which seemed to draw a precarious existence from the small patch of damp earth surrounding us. Like the other elements sustaining animal and vegetable life, the winds seemed stagnant and paralyzed by the universal dearth around. I contemplated this scene of dismal and oppressive solitude until the moon sunk behind the mountain, and object after object became shrouded in its shadow.
Rousing Mr. Jacob, who slept soundly, and after him the other members of our small party, (nine in number,) we commenced our preparations for the long and much-dreaded march over the great Salt Desert. Mr. Hudspeth, the gentleman who had kindly conducted us thus far from Fort Bridger as our pilot, was to leave us at this point, for the purpose of exploring a route for the emigrant wagons farther south. He was accompanied by three gentlemen, Messrs. Ferguson, Kirkwood, and Minter. Consequently, from this time forward we are without a guide, or any reliable index to our destination, except our course westward, until we strike Mary’s river and the emigrant trail to California, which runs parallel with it, some two hundred miles distant. The march across the Salt Plain, without water or grass, was variously estimated by those with whom I conversed at Fort Bridger, at from sixty to eighty miles. Captain Walker, an old and experienced mountaineer, who had crossed it at this point as the guide of Captain Fremont and his party, estimated the distance at seventy-five miles, and we found the estimate to be nearly correct.
We gathered the dead limbs of the cedars which had been cut down by Captain Fremont’s party when encamped here last autumn, and igniting them, they gave us a good light during the preparation and discussion of our frugal breakfast; which consisted to-day of bread and coffee, bacon being interdicted in consequence of its incitement to thirst – a sensation which at this time we desired to avoid, as we felt uncertain how long it might be before we should be able to gratify the unpleasant cravings it produces.
Each individual of the party busied himself around the blazing fires in making his various little but important arrangements, until the first gray of the dawn manifested itself above the vapory bank overhanging the eastern ridge of mountains, when the word to saddle up being given, the mules were brought to the camp-fires, and every arm and muscle of the party was actively employed in the business of saddling and packing "with care !" – with unusual care, as a short detention during the day’s march to readjust the packs might result in an encampment upon the desert for the coming night, and all its consequent dangers, the death or loss by straying in search of water and grass of our mules, (next to death to us,) not taking into the account our own suffering from thirst, which for the next eighteen or twenty hours we had made up our minds to endure with philosophical fortitude and resignation. A small powder-keg, holding about three or four pints of coffee, which had been emptied of its original contents for the purpose, and filled with that beverage made from the brackish spring near our camp, was the only vessel we possessed in which we could transport water, and its contents composed our entire liquid refreshment for the march. Instructions were given to Miller, who had charge of this important and precious burden, to husband it with miserly care, and to make an equitable division whenever it should be called into use.
Every thing being ready, Mr. Hudspeth, who accompanied us to the summit of the mountain, led the way. We passed upwards through the canada [pronounced kanyeada] or mountain-gorge, at the mouth of which we had encamped, and by a comparatively easy and smooth ascent reached the summit of the mountain after travelling about six miles. Most of us were shivering with cold, until the sun shone broadly upon us after emerging, by a steep acclivity, from the gorge through which we had passed to the top of the ridge. Here we should have had a view of the mountain at the foot of which our day’s journey was to terminate, but for the dense smoke which hung over and filled the plain, shutting from the vision all distant objects.
Bidding farewell to Mr. Hudspeth and the gentleman with him, (Mr. Ferguson,) we commenced the descent of the mountain. We had scarcely parted from Mr. H. when, standing on one of the peaks, he stretched out his long arms, and with a voice and gesture as loud and impressive as he could make them, he called to us and exclaimed – "Now, boys, put spurs to your mules and ride like h – !" The hint was timely given and well meant, but scarcely necessary, as we all had a pretty just appreciation of the trials and hardships before us.
The descent from the mountain on the western side was more difficult than the ascent; but two or three miles, by a winding and precipitous path through some straggling, stunted, and tempest-bowed cedars, brought us to the foot and into the valley, where, after some search, we found a blind trail which we supposed to be that of Captain Fremont, made last year. Our course for the day was nearly due west; and following this trail where it was visible, and did not deviate from our course, and putting our mules into a brisk gait, we crossed a valley some eight or ten miles in width, sparsely covered with wild sage (artemisia) and grease-wood. These shrubs display themselves and maintain a dying existence, a brownish verdure, on the most arid and sterile plains and mountains of the desert, where no other vegetation shows itself. After crossing the valley, we rose a ridge of low volcanic hills, thickly strewn with sharp fragments of basaltes and a vitreous gravel resembling junk-bottle glass. We passed over this ridge through a narrow gap, the walls of which are perpendicular, and composed of the same dark scorious material as the debris strewn around. From the western terminus of this ominous-looking passage we had a view of the vast desert-plain before us, which, as far as the eye could penetrate, was of a snowy whiteness, and resembled a scene of wintry frosts and icy desolation. Not a shrub or object of any kind rose above the surface for the eye to rest upon. The hiatus in the animal and vegetable kingdoms was perfect. It was a scene which excited mingled emotions of admiration and apprehension.
Passing a little further on, we stood on the brow of a steep precipice, the descent from the ridge of hills, immediately below and beyond which a narrow valley or depression in the surface of the plain, about five miles in width, displayed so perfectly the wavy and frothy appearance of highly agitated water, that Colonel Russell and myself, who were riding together some distance in advance, both simultaneously exclaimed – " We must have taken a wrong course, and struck another arm or bay of the Great Salt Lake." With deep concern, we were looking around, surveying the face of the country to ascertain what remedy there might be for this formidable obstruction to our progress, when the remainder of our party came up. The difficulty was presented to them; but soon, upon a more calm and scrutinizing inspection, we discovered that what represented so perfectly the "rushing waters" was moveless, and made no sound! The illusion soon became manifest to all of us, and a hearty laugh at those who were the first to be deceived was the consequence; denying to them the merit of being good pilots or pioneers, etc.
Descending the precipitous elevation upon which we stood, we entered upon the hard smooth plain we had just been surveying with so much doubt and interest, composed of bluish clay, incrusted, in wavy lines, with a white saline substance, the first representing the body of the water, and the last the crests and froth of’ the mimic waves and surges. Beyond this we crossed what appeared to have been the beds of several small lakes, the waters of which have evaporated, thickly incrusted with salt, and separated from each other by small moundshaped elevations of a white, sandy, or ashy earth, so imponderous that it has been driven by the action of the winds into these heaps, which are constantly changing their positions and their shapes. Our mules waded through these ashy undulations, sometimes sinking to their knees, at others to their bellies, creating a dust that rose above and hung over us like a dense fog.
From this point on our right and left, diagonally in our front, at an apparent distance of thirty or forty miles, high isolated mountains rise abruptly from the surface of the plain. Those on our left were as white as the snow-like face of the desert, and may be of the same composition, but I am inclined to the belief that they are composed of white clay, or clay and sand intermingled.
The mirage, a beautiful phenomenon I have frequently mentioned as exhibiting itself upon our journey, here displayed its wonderful illusions, in a perfection and with a magnificence surpassing any presentation of the kind I had previously seen. Lakes, dotted with islands and bordered by groves of gently waving timber, whose tranquil and limpid waves reflected their sloping banks and the shady islets in their bosoms, lay spread out before us, inviting us, by their illusory temptations, to stray from our path and enjoy their cooling shades and refreshing waters. These fading away as we advanced, beautiful villas, adorned with edifices, decorated with all the ornaments of suburban architecture, and surrounded by gardens, shaded walks, parks, and stately avenues, would succeed them, renewing the alluring invitation to repose, by enticing the vision with more than Calypsan enjoyments or Elysian pleasures. These melting from our view as those before, in another place a vast city, with countless columned edifices of marble whiteness, and studded with domes, spires, and turreted towers, would rise upon the horizon of the plain, astonishing us with its stupendous grandeur and sublime magnificence. But it is in vain to attempt a description of these singular and extraordinary phenomena. Neither prose or poetry, nor the pencil of the artist, can adequately portray their beauties. The whole distant view around, at this point, seemed like the creations of a sublime and gorgeous dream, or the effect of enchantment. I observed that where these appearances were presented in their most varied forms, and with the most vivid distinctness, the surface of the plain was broken, either by chasms hollowed out from the action of the winds, or by undulations formed of the drifting sands.
About eleven o’clock we struck a vast white plain, uniformly level, and utterly destitute of vegetation or any sign that shrub or plant had ever existed above its snow-like surface. Pausing a few moments to rest our mules, and moisten our mouths and throats from the scant supply of beverage in our powder-keg, we entered upon this appalling field of sullen and hoary desolation. It was a scene so entirely new to us, so frightfully forbidding and unearthly in its aspects, that all of us, I believe, though impressed with its sublimity, felt a slight shudder of apprehension. Our mules seemed to sympathize with us in the pervading sentiment, and moved forward with reluctance, several of them stubbornly setting their faces for a countermarch.
For fifteen miles the surface of this plain is so compact, that the feet of our animals, as we hurried them along over it, left but little if any impression for the guidance of the future traveller. It is covered with a hard crust of saline and alkaline substances combined, from one-fourth to one-half of an inch in thickness, beneath which is a stratum of damp whitish sand and clay intermingled. Small fragments of white shelly rock, of an inch and a half in thickness, which appear as if they once composed a crust, but had been broken by the action of the atmosphere or the pressure of water rising from beneath, are strewn over the entire plain and imbedded in the salt and sand.
As we moved onward, a member of our party in the rear called our attention to a gigantic moving object on our left, at an apparent distance of six or eight miles. It is very difficult to determine distances accurately on these plains. Your estimate is based upon the probable dimensions of the object, and unless you know what the object is, and its probable size, you are liable to great deception. The atmosphere seems frequently to act as a magnifier; so much so, that I have often seen a raven perched upon a low shrub or an undulation of the plain, answering to the outlines of a man on horseback. But this object was so enormously large. considering its apparent distance, and its movement forward, parallel with ours, so distinct, that it greatly excited our wonder and curiosity. Many and various were the conjectures (serious and facetious) of the party, as to what it might be, or portend. Some thought it might be Mr. Hudspeth, who had concluded to follow us; others that it was some cyclopean nondescript animal, lost upon the desert; others that it was the ghost of a mammoth or Megatherium wandering on "this rendezvous of death ;" others that it was the d – l mounted on an Ibis, &c. It was the general conclusion, however, that no animal composed of flesh and blood, or even a healthy ghost, could here inhabit. A partner of equal size soon joined it, and for an hour or more they moved along as before, parallel to us, when they disappeared, apparently behind the horizon.
As we proceeded, the plain gradually became softer, and our mules sometimes sunk to their knees in the stiff composition of salt, sand, and clay. The travelling at length became so difficult and fatiguing to our animals that several of the party dismounted, (myself among the number,) and we consequently slackened our hitherto brisk pace into a walk. About two o’clock, P. M, we discovered through the smoky vapor the dim outlines of the mountains in front of us, at the foot of which was to terminate our day’s march, if we were so fortunate as to reach it. But still we were a long and weary distance from it, and from the "grass and water" which we expected there to find. A cloud rose from the south soon afterwards, accompanied by several distant peals of thunder, and a furious wind, rushing across the plain and filling the whole atmosphere around us with the fine particles of salt, and drifting it in heaps like the newly fallen snow. Our eyes became nearly blinded and our throats choked with the saline matter, and the very air we breathed tasted of salt.
During the subsidence of this tempest, there appeared upon the plain one of the most extraordinary phenomena, I dare to assert, ever witnessed. As I have before stated, I had dismounted from my mule, and turning it in with the caballada, was walking several rods in front of the party, in order to lead in a direct course to the point of our destination. Diagonally in front, to the right, our course being west, there appeared the figures of a number of men and horses, some fifteen or twenty. Some of these figures were mounted and others dismounted, and appeared to be marching on foot. Their faces and the heads of the horses were turned towards us, and at first they appeared as if they were rushing down upon us. Their apparent distance, judging from the horizon, was from three to five miles. But their size was not correspondent, for they seemed nearly as large as our own bodies, and consequently were of gigantic stature. At the first view I supposed them to be a small party of Indians (probably the Utahs) marching from the opposite side of the plain. But this seemed to me scarcely probable, as no hunting or war party would be likely to take this route. I called to some of our party nearest to me to hasten forward, as there were men in front, coming towards us. Very soon the fifteen or twenty figures were multiplied into three or four hundred, and appeared to be marching forward with the greatest action and speed. I then conjectured that they might be Capt. Fremont and his party with others, from California, returning to the United States by this route, although they seemed to be too numerous even for this. I spoke to Brown, who was nearest to me, and asked him if he noticed the figures of men and horses in front? He answered that he did, and that he had observed the same appearances several times previously, but that they had disappeared, and he believed them to be optical illusions similar to the mirage. It was then, for the first time, so perfect was the deception, that I conjectured the probable fact that these figures were the reflection of our own images by the atmosphere, filled as it was with fine particles of crystallized matter, or by the distant horizon, covered by the same substance. This induced a more minute observation of the phenomenon, in order to detect the deception, if such it were. I noticed a single figure, apparently in front in advance of all the others, and was struck with its likeness to myself. Its motions, too, I thought, were the same as mine. To test the hypothesis above suggested, I wheeled suddenly around, at the same time stretching my arms out to their full length, and turning my face sidewise to notice the movements of this figure. It went through precisely the same motions. I then marched deliberately and with long strides several paces; the figure did the same. To test it more thoroughly, I repeated the experiment, and with the same result. The fact then was clear. But it was more fully verified still, for the whole array of this numerous shadowy host in the course of an hour melted entirely away, and was no more seen. The phenomenon, however, explained and gave the history of the gigantic spectres which appeared and disappeared so mysteriously at an earlier hour of the day. The figures were our own shadows, produced and reproduced by the mirror-like composition impregnating the atmosphere and covering the plain. I cannot here more particularly explain or refer to the subject. But this phantom population, springing out of the ground as it were, and arraying itself before us as we traversed this dreary and heaven-condemned waste, although we were entirely convinced of the cause of the apparition, excited those superstitious emotions so natural to all mankind.
About five o’clock, P.M., we reached and passed, leaving it to our left, a small butte rising solitary from the plain. Around this the ground is uneven, and a few scattering shrubs, leafless and without verdure, raised themselves above the white sand and saline matter, which seemed recently to have drifted so as nearly to conceal them. Eight miles brought us to the northern end of a short range of mountains, turning the point of which and bending our course to the left, we gradually came upon higher ground, composed of compact volcanic gravel. I was here considerably in the rear, having made a detour towards the base of the butte and thence towards the centre of the short range of mountains, to discover, if such existed, a spring of water. I saw no such joyful presentation nor any of the usual indications, and when I reached and turned the point, the whole party were several miles ahead of me, and out of sight. Congratulating myself that I stood once more on terra firma, I urged my tired mule forward with all the life and activity that spur and whip could inspire her with, passing down the range of mountains on my left some four or five miles, and then rising some rocky hills connecting this with a long and high range of mountains on my right. The distance across these hills is about seven or eight miles. When I had reached the most elevated point of this ridge the sun was setting, and I saw my fellow-travellers still far in advance of me, entering again upon a plain or valley of salt, some ten or twelve miles in breadth. On the opposite side of this valley rose abruptly and to a high elevation another mountain, at the foot of which we expected to find the spring of fresh water that was to quench our thirst, and revive and sustain the drooping energies of our faithful beasts.
About midway upwards, in a canada of this mountain, I noticed the smoke of a fire, which apparently had just been kindled, as doubtless it had been, by Indians, who were then there, and had discovered our party on the white plain below; it being the custom of these Indians to make signals by fire and smoke, whenever they notice strange objects. Proceeding onward, I overtook an old and favorite pack-mule, which we familiarly called "Old Jenny." She carried our meat and flour – all that we possessed in fact – as a sustenance of life. Her pack had turned, and her burden, instead of being on her back was suspended under her belly. With that sagacity and discretion so characteristic of the Mexican pack-mule, being behind and following the party in advance, she had stopped short in the road until some one should come to rearrange her cargo and place it on deck instead of under the keel. I dismounted and went through, by myself, the rather tedious and laborious process of unpacking and repacking. This done, "Old Jenny" set forward upon a fast gallop to overtake her companions ahead, and my own mule, as if not to be outdone in the race, followed in the same gait. "Old Jenny," however, maintained the honors of the race, keeping considerably ahead. Both of them, by that instinct or faculty which mules undoubtedly possess, had scented the water on the other side of the valley, and their pangs of extreme thirst urged them forward at this extraordinary speed, after the long and laborious march they had made, to obtain it.
As I advanced over the plain – which was covered with a thicker crust of salt than that previously described, breaking under the feet of the animals like a crust of frozen snow – the spreading of the fires in the canada of the mountain appeared with great distinctness. The line of lights was regular like camp-fires, and I was more than half inclined to hope that we should meet and be welcomed by an encampment of civilized men – either hunters, or a party from the Pacific bound homewards. The moon shone out about nine o’clock, displaying and illuminating the unnatural, unearthly dreariness of the scenery.
"Old Jenny" for some time had so far beat me in the race as to be out of my sight, and I out of the sound of her footsteps. I was entirely alone, and enjoying, as well as a man could with a crust of salt in his nostrils and over his lips, and a husky mouth and throat, the singularity of my situation, when I observed, about a quarter of a mile in advance 0¢ me, a dark, stationary object standing in the midst of the hoary scenery. I supposed it to be "Old Jenny" in trouble once more about her pack. But coming up to a speaking distance, I was challenged in a loud voice with the usual guard-salutation, "Who comes there ?" Having no countersign, I gave the common response in such cases, "A friend." This appeared to be satisfactory, for I heard no report of pistol or rifle, and no arrow took its soundless flight through my body. I rode up to the object and discovered it to be Buchanan sitting upon his mule, which had become so much exhausted that it occasionally refused to go along, notwithstanding his industrious application of the usual incentives to progress. He said that he had supposed himself to be the "last man," before "Old Jenny" passed, who had given him a surprise, and he was quite thunderstruck when an animal, mounted by a man, came charging upon him in his half crippled condition. After a good laugh and some little delay and difficulty, we got his mule under way again, and rode slowly along together.
We left, to us, in our tired condition, the seemingly interminable plain of salt, and entered upon the sagey slope of the mountain about 10 o’clock. Hallooing as loudly as we could raise our voices, we obtained, by a response, the direction of our party who had preceded us, and after some difficulty in making our way through the sage, grass, and willows, (the last a certain indication of water in the desert,) we came to where they had discovered a faint stream of water, and made their camp. Men and mules, on their first arrival, as we learned, had madly rushed into the stream and drank together of its muddy waters, – made muddy by their own disturbance of its shallow channel and sluggish current.
Delay of gratification frequently gives a temporary relief to the cravings of hunger. The same remark is applicable to thirst. Some hours previously I had felt the pangs of thirst with an acuteness almost amounting to an agony. Now, when I had reached the spot where I could gratify my desires in this respect, they were greatly diminished. My first care was to unsaddle my mule and lead it to the stream, and my next to take a survey of the position of our encampment. I then procured a cup of muddy water, and drank it off with a good relish. The fires before noticed were still blazing brightly above us on the side of the mountain, but those who had lighted them, had given no other signal of their proximity. The moon shone brilliantly, and Jacob, Buchanan, McClary, and myself, concluded we would trace the small stream of water until we could find the fountain spring. After considerable search among the reeds, willow, and luxuriant grass, we discovered a spring. Buchanan was so eager to obtain a draught of cold, pure water, that in dipping his cup for this purpose, the yielding weeds under him gave way, and he sank into the basin, from which he was drawn out after a good "ducking," by one of those present. The next morning this basin was sounded to the depth of thirty five feet, and no bottom found. We named this spring "Buchanan’s well." We lighted no fires to-night, and prepared no evening meal. Worn down by the hard day’s travel, after relieving our thirst we spread our blankets upon the ground, and laying our bodies upon them, slept soundly in the bright moonshine. Several of our party had been on the road upwards of seventeen hours, without water or refreshment of any kind, except a small draught of cold coffee from our powder keg, made of the salt sulphur-water at our last encampment, and had travelled the distance of seventy-five miles. The Salt Plain has never at this place, so far as I could understand, been crossed but twice previously by civilized men, and in these instances two days were occupied in performing the journey. Distance 75 miles.
The oasis – Anxiety respecting our animals – Prodigious tall grass – Deserted Indian huts – Old trail of lost wagons – Desert valley – Extinct volcanoes – Mountain spring – Elevated camp – Vast extent of the Salt Plain – Sublimity of scenery – Moonlight view – Sunrise – Indian picket or game-trap – Another oasis – Altercation – Extreme heat of the sun – Wells in the desert – More desert valleys – Stream of running water – View of Mary’s River, and valley – Indian signal-fires
August 4. – We did not rise from our grassy couches this morning until
the sun shone broadly and bright upon us, above the distant mountain ridges
to the east. The scene around, with the exception of the small but highly
fertile oasis encircling our encampment, is a mixture of brown and hoary
barrenness, aridity, and desolation, of which no adequate conception can be
conveyed by language. The fires in the canada of the mountain were still
smoking, but no blaze was discernible. Last night they appeared as if not
more than half a mile or a mile distant; but considerably to our surprise
this morning, by a daylight observation, we saw that the canada, from whence
the smoke was curling upwards in graceful wreaths, was some four or five
miles from us. Our first care was to look after and collect together the
animals, which, upon our arrival last night, we had let loose to refresh
themselves in the manner most agreeable to them. We found them busily
employed in cropping the tall seeded grass of the oasis. The anxieties
respecting the health, strength, and safety of our animals, constitute one
of the most considerable drawbacks upon the pleasures of our trip, –
pleasures, as the reader may suppose, derived almost exclusively from the
sublime and singular novelties presented to the vision. The significance of
the word is in no other respect applicable to this stage of our journey. To
fathom the motives of an all-wise Providence, in creating so vast a field of
desolation; to determine in our minds whether the little oases we meet with
are the beginnings of a system or process of fertilization which is to
ramify and extend, and to render this hitherto abandoned and uninhabitable
waste a garden of flowers, teeming with its millions of life; or whether
they are evidences of the last expiring struggles of nature to sustain
animal and vegetable existence, which will leave this expansive region
impenetrable to the curiosity of man, furnish a study for the thoughts,
fruitful of interest and provocative of investigation.
For the purpose of resting and recruiting our over-labored mules, we had predetermined to remain encamped to-day. We cleared away with our hands and willow sticks the thickly matted grass and weeds around "Buchanan’s well," making a handsome basin, some five or six feet in diameter. The water is very cold and pure, and tasted to us more delicious than any of the invented beverages of the epicure to him. While engaged in this work, Brown brought forward a remarkable blade of grass which he had pulled up a short distance from us, to which he called my attention, and desired its measurement. It was measured, and found to be thirty-five feet in length. The diameter of the stalk was about half of an inch, and the distance between the joints about eighteen inches. It was heavily seeded at the top. With this prodigiously tall vegetable production, we endeavored to sound the depth of the spring; but after thrusting it down to its full length we could discover no bottom.
In the afternoon we saw two antelopes above us. Col. Russell and Miller saddled their mules and rode further up the slope of the mountain, for the purpose of hunting and to make other discoveries. During their absence a very dark cloud rose from the west, accompanied by distant thunder and a strong wind. The indications, judging as we would of the signs on the Atlantic side of the continent, were that we should have a heavy shower of rain; but our experience in this dry region had been such, that we felt but little dread of all the waters in the clouds. A few sprinkling drops of rain fell; just enough to leave a scarcely perceptible moisture upon the grass. Col. R. and M. returning, reported that they had killed no game. They found a small running stream of water from the canada where the fires were burning, which sank in the sands and debris of the mountain before it reached the valley; and they also saw three Indian huts, constructed of cedars and grass, but unoccupied. The occupants of these huts, doubtless, after making their signal-fires upon discovering us, had all fled. Their probable motive for inhabiting temporarily this dismal region, was to trap for the few animals which roam in the neighborhood of the spring, and are compelled to approach it for water and grass.
During the course of our journey, nothing has contributed so largely to the depression of the spirits of our small party as inaction. I found to-day that the absence of our usual active employments, added to the desolate aspect of the scenery surrounding us, had produced much despondency in the minds of several of our company; and I felt a strong desire myself to be moving forward, to throw off those formidable mental incubi, ennui and melancholy.
August 5. – A most delightful, clear morning, with a light, soft breeze
from the south fanning the parched and arid desert, playing over the waving
grass, and sporting with the silvery leaves of the willows of the oasis.
Our mules, notwithstanding the day’s rest we had allowed them after the long and laborious ride over the Salt Plain, evinced much stiffness and exhaustion. We took a southwest course along the slope of the range of mountains under which we had encamped. This slope is covered with a debris of gravel and sharp fragments of dark volcanic rock, and is furrowed from the base of the mountains down to the verge of the plain with deep and almost impassable ravines. The hoary and utterly desolate plain of salt on our left expands in breadth, and stretches, interminably to the eye, away to the southeast and the southwest. The. brisk breeze having cleared the atmosphere of the smoke, our view is much more extensive than it was yesterday.
After travelling about ten miles we struck a wagon-trail, which evidently had been made several years. From the indentations of the wheels, where the earth was soft, five or six wagons had passed here. The appearance of this trail in this desolate region was at first inexplicable; but I soon recollected that some five or six years ago an emigrating expedition to California was fitted out by Colonel Bartlettson, Mr. J. Chiles, and others, of Missouri, who, under the guidance of Captain Walker, attempted to enter California by passing round the southern terminus of the Sierra Nevada; and that they were finally compelled to abandon their wagons and every thing they had, and did not reach their destination until they had suffered incredible hardships and privations. This, it appeared to me, was evidently their trail; and old as it was, and scarcely perceivable, it was nevertheless some gratification to us that civilized human beings had passed here before, and left their mark upon the barren earth behind them. My conjectures, above stated, have been subsequently confirmed by a conversation with Mr. Chiles.
Following this old trail some two or three miles, we left it on the right, and crossed some low and totally barren hills, which appear to have been thrown up by the action of volcanic fires at no very remote period of geological history. They are composed of a white, imponderous earth, resembling ashes, intermingled with fragments of scoria, resembling the cinders from an iron-foundry, or a blacksmith’s furnace. A vitreous gravel, or glass, was also thickly strewn over the surface, and glittered brightly in the sunbeams.
From these hills, changing our course more to the west, we descended into a spacious and level valley, about fifteen miles in width, and stretching north and south as far as the vision could penetrate. A continuous range of high mountains bounds this valley on the west, and a broken and irregular range on the east. The only vegetation consists of patches of wild sage, and a shrub ornamented with a yellow flower, resembling the Scotch broom of our gardens. A considerable portion of the plain is covered with salt, or composed of a white, barren clay, so compact that our horses’ hoofs scarcely left an impression upon it. Crossing this valley, we entered the range of mountains on the west of it by a narrow gorge, and following its windings, we reached the foot of the steep dividing ridge about six o’clock, P.M. Here we had expected to find water, but the ravine was entirely dry, and the grass bordering it was brown and dead. An elevated butte of red sandstone towered upwards on our right, like the dome of some Cyclopean cathedral. On our left was a high but more sloping mountain; and in front, the steep and apparently impassable crest of the Sierra.
After a fruitless search for water at the bottom of the gorge, among the rocks and crevices of the ravine, I accidentally discovered, near the top of the mountain on our left, a few straggling and stunted cedars, and immediately beneath them a small patch of green shrubs, which I conjectured were willows, a most welcome indication of water, after a ride of eleven hours without rest or refreshment of any kind. Dismounting from my mule, and accompanied by McClary, I ascended the mountain as far up as the little green oasis, in the centre of which, much to our joy, we found a small spring. No water flowed from its basin, although the ground immediately around was damp, and the grass green and luxuriant. Our party was soon apprized of the discovery, and following us up the mountain, we made our camp near the spring, which the mules soon completely exhausted of its scant supply of water, without obtaining sufficient to quench their thirst.
Ascending to the summit of the mountain, just as the sun was setting, I had a more extended view of the great Salt Plain than at any time previously. Far to the southeast, apparently from one hundred to one hundred and fifty miles, a solitary mountain of immense height rises from the white surface of the desert, and lifts its hoary summit so as almost to pierce the blue ceiling of the skies, reflecting back from its frozen pinnacle, and making frigid to the eye the warm and mellow rays of the evening sun. No words can describe the awfulness and grandeur of this sublime desolation. The only living object I saw to-day, and the only sign of animal existence separate from our party, was a small lizard.
About three o’clock, P.M., while we were on the march, a violent storm of wind, with some rain, raged in the valley to the south of us, raising a dense cloud of dust, which swept furiously up the eastern side of the valley in drifting masses that would have suffocated us, had we been travelling within its range. Fortunately, we were beyond the more disagreeable effects of the storm, although where we were the wind blew so violently as almost to dismount us from our horses.
We grazed our mules on the dry grass along the ravine below us, until nine o’clock, when they were brought up and picketed around the camp, as usual. The basin of the spring was enlarged so as to hold water enough, when filled, to satisfy the wants of our mules in the morning. These matters all being attended to, we bivouacked on the side of the mountain. Distance 30 miles.
August 6. – The knowledge that our mules had fared badly, and were in a
position, on the steep side of the mountain, where they could neither obtain
good rest nor food, kept me more wakeful than usual. The heaviest calamity
that could befall at this time, would be the loss, by exhaustion or
otherwise, of our animals. Our condition in such an event would be
deplorable. I rose at two o’clock, and having first filled all our buckets
and vessels with water from the spring, let the mules loose to satisfy their
thirst. One of them I found tangled in its rope, thrown down, and strangled
nearly to suffocation.
The night was perfectly serene. Not a cloud, or the slightest film of vapor, appeared on the face of the deep blue canopy of the heavens. The moon and the countless starry host of the firmament exhibited their lustrous splendor in a perfection of brilliancy unknown to the night-watchers in the humid regions of the Atlantic; illuminating the numberless mountain peaks rising, one behind the other, to the east, and the illimitable desert of salt that spread its wintry drapery before me, far beyond the reach of the vision, like the vast winding-sheet of a dead world! The night was cold, and kindling a fire of the small, dead willows around the spring, I watched until the rich, red hues of the morning displayed themselves above the eastern horizon, tinging slightly at first, and then deepening in color, the plain of salt, until it appeared like a measureless ocean of vermilion, with here and there a dark speck, the shadow of some solitary buttes, representing islands, rising from its glowing bosom. The sublime splendors of these scenes cannot be conveyed to the reader by language.
As soon as it was light, I saddled my mule, and ascended to the crest of the ridge to observe the features of the country, and determine our route for the day. I returned just as our morning meal was prepared, and at seven o’clock we were all in our saddles and on the march. We passed around the side of the mountain on which we had encamped, and rose gradually to the summit of the range. Here we were delayed for some time in finding a way to descend. There are several gorges or ravines leading down, but they appeared to be choked up with rocks and brush so as to render them nearly impassable.
In searching to find a passage presenting the fewest difficulties, I discovered, at the entrance of one of these gorges, a remarkable picketing or fence, constructed of the dwarf cedars of the mountain, interlocked and bound together in some places by willow withes. It was about half a mile in length, extending along the ridge, and I supposed it at the time to have been constructed for defensive purposes, by some of the Indian tribes of this region, against the invasion of their enemies. At the foot of the mountain there was another picketing of much greater extent, being some four or five miles in length, made of the wild sage; and I have since learned from trappers that these are erected by the Indians for the purpose of intercepting the hares, and other small game of these regions, and assisting in their capture.
We descended the mountain through a very narrow gorge, the rocky walls of which, in many places, are perpendicular, leaving us barely room to pass. Emerging from this winding but not difficult passage, (compared with our former experience,) another spacious and level valley or plain spread itself before us. The breadth of this valley is about twenty miles, and its length, judging from the apparent distance of the mountains which exhibit their summits at either end, is about one hundred and fifty miles. The plain appears to be an almost perfect level, and is walled in by ranges of mountains on both sides, running nearly north and south. Wild sage, grease-wood, and a few shrubs of a smaller size, for the most part leafless, and apparently dead or dying, are the only vegetation of this valley. The earth is composed of the same white and light composition, heretofore described as resembling ashes, imbedded in and mixed with which is a scorious gravel. In some places it is so soft that the feet of our animals sink several inches; in others it is baked, and presents a smooth and sometimes a polished surface, so hard that the hoofs of our mules leave but a faint impression upon it. The snowy whiteness of the ground, reflecting back the bright and almost scorching rays of the sun, is extremely painful to the eyes, producing in some instances temporary blindness.
About two o’clock, P.M., after travelling three-fourths the distance across the valley, we struck an oasis of about fifty acres of green grass, reeds, and other herbage, surrounding a number of springs, some or cool fresh water, others of warm sulphur water. These waters rise here, and immediately sink in the sands. Our information at Fort Bridger led us to expect a spring and grass at this point, and in order to make sure of it, we extended the flanks of our small party some three or four miles from the right to the left. The grass immediately around the springs, although not of the best quality, is very luxuriant, and on the whole, it being a favorable place for grazing our mules, – no apprehensions being entertained of their straying, or of Indian depredations, – we determined to encamp for the day.
In the course of our march to-day, we saw three hares, and near the spring; Miller saw an antelope. McClary and Brookey each killed a duck in one of the basins of the spring soon after our arrival, and later in the afternoon Brown killed a hawk. The signs of animals around the springs are numerous, and the wolves were howling near our camp until a late hour of the night. Distance 18 miles.
August 7. – A disagreeable altercation took place between two members of
our party about a very trivial matter in dispute, but threatening fatal
consequences. Under the excitement of angry emotions, rifles were levelled
and the click of the locks, preparatory to discharging the death-dealing
contents of the barrels, was heard. I rushed between the parties and ordered
them to hold up their pieces, and cease their causeless hostility towards
each other. I told them that the life of every individual of the party was,
under the circumstances in which we were placed, the property of the whole
party, and that he who raised a gun to take away a life, was, perhaps
inconsiderately, worse than a common enemy or a traitor to all of us, and
must be so considered in all future controversies of this nature, and be
denied all further intercourse with us. It was truly a startling spectacle,
to witness two men, in this remote desert, surrounded by innumerable
dangers, to guard against which they were mutually dependent, so excited by
their passions as to seek each other’s destruction. The ebullition of insane
anger was soon allayed, and we commenced our day’s march about the usual
hour of the morning.
Our course was due west, and after travelling some four or five miles, we commenced the ascent of the range of mountains in our front. We ascended and descended this range through winding cañadas such as I have previously described. Another spacious valley or plain opened to our view from the western side of this sierra, nearly as large in dimensions as that which we entered upon and partly crossed yesterday, and varying but little from it in its general characteristics. Crossing this valley, the sun pouring its scorching rays down upon us with such fervor as nearly to parch our bridle reins into a crisp, we found on the slope of the western side, near the foot of the mountain, another small oasis, of an acre or two of green vegetation, near the centre of which were one or two small springs or wells of cool fresh water. The waters of these springs rise to the surface and sink immediately, moistening only the small patch of fertile ground which I have described.
Refreshing ourselves and our animals with the most grateful beverage of this fountain of the desert, we pursued our wearisome journey over the next sierra, through a narrow gap, which brought us into another broad valley of an oval shape, walled in on all sides, apparently, by an elliptical circle of elevated mountains. The hue of the wild sage and grease-wood of this valley, is a shade greener than in the other valleys we have crossed since we entered the Desert Basin. The composition of the earth is nearly the same. A fine white sand, impalpable almost as ashes, mingled with which is a scorious gravel, in some places soft and yielding to the hoofs of our mules, in others baked and compact almost to the hardness of brick, are the leading characteristics of the soil, if soil it can be called.
Fifteen miles brought us to the slope of the mountain on the western side of this valley, where we found a bold spring gushing forth a volume of water sufficient to turn the most powerful mill-wheel, but like all the other springs of this desert which we have seen, after running a short distance, the water sinks and disappears in the thirsting sands. Around this spring there are a few small willows and a luxuriant growth of grass, with some handsome yellow flowers. Here we encamped at six o’clock, after a march of eleven hours, without rest to ourselves or our animals, which begin to manifest much fatigue and exhaustion.
The signs of game around our encampment are numerous, but nothing in the shape of bird or beast shows itself. In the course of our day’s journey we started three hares, which are all of animal life that has been seen.
Nothing can exceed the grandeur and sublimity of these magnificent valleys, walled in by the tall and spiral mountains, when lighted as they now are, by the brilliant and powerful rays of the moon, and the sparkling radiance of the starry host, suspended as it were, like chandeliers from the deep, soft, blue canopy of the heavens. Their desolation is mellowed, and there is a purity, a holiness about them, which leads the imagination to picture them as vast saloons of nature, fashioned by the hand of the Almighty for the residence of uncontaminating and unsinful essences, and not for the doomed children of passion, want, sorrow, and care. Should the economy of Providence, in the course of centuries, fertilize and adapt them to the residence of man, the fabled glories of Elysium would scarcely exceed their attractions. Distance 35 miles.
August 8. – The morning was clear and cool. A slight dew was perceptible
on the grass and on our blankets. Our course to-day was nearly the same as
yesterday. We passed over the range of mountains under which we had
encamped, by ascending one of its most elevated peaks. When we reached the
summit of this peak, after repeatedly stopping on the side of the mountain
to breathe our mules, they seemed nearly exhausted and scarcely able to
proceed on the journey. The descent on the western side was so steep and
difficult, that our animals and ourselves (dismounted of course) slid or
jumped down rather than walked. At the foot, we entered a small valley, with
comparatively strong signs of fertility. A faint stream of water runs
through it, from north to south, the margin of which is fringed with green
grass; and a few stunted cotton-wood trees and other shrubbery relieve the
everlasting monotony of sage. The sight of these trees and of a stream of
running fresh water, was more agreeable to us than can be conceived by those
who have never been deprived of such scenic objects.
Crossing this stream and the bottom opposite, we passed through a low gap of a range of hills, on the western side of which we struck another small stream of water, which flows through a fertile, grassy valley, in a northwestern course. After descending this valley some five or six miles, the stream cañons between high and precipitous hills, along the sides and over the tops of which we were compelled to select our way to the best advantage, until we emerged into the spacious valley of Mary’s river, the sight of which gladdened our eyes about three o’clock, P.M.
At this point the valley is some twenty or thirty miles in breadth, and the lines of willows indicating the existence of streams of running water are so numerous and diverse, that we found it difficult to determine which was the main river and its exact course. After wandering about for some time, in compliance with the various opinions of the party, I determined to pursue a course due west, until we struck the river; and at sunset we encamped in the valley of the stream down which we had descended, in a bottom covered with most luxuriant and nutritious grass. Our mules fared most sumptuously both for food and water.
After dark, fires lighted by Indians were visible on the mountains through which we had passed, and in several places in the valley a few miles distant. Our watch, with which we had dispensed in crossing the desert, was set to-night, and it was fortunate for us that we were thus cautious, as an attempt was made by the Indians to steal our mules, which was frustrated by the man on duty at the time.
The mountains on either side of the valley of Mary’s river, at this point, tower upwards to a great elevation, and are composed of dark basalt. I noticed near the summits of some of the peaks, small patches of snow. Distance 23 miles.
Mary’s river Indians – Their fleetness – Mary’s river – Unexpected and singular meeting – Applegate’s exploring party from Oregon – Energy of the emigrant population on the Pacific – More Indian visitors – Large herds of antelopes – Flora of Mary’s river – A merry Indian – Indian fish-trap – Extensive boiling springs – Rain in the desert – Large body of Indian – Indian foot-race with our mules.
AUGUST 9. – We. had scarcely commenced our march when the Indian
signal-fires were relighted, and we could discover far up and down the
valley, many columns of smoke ascending from the most conspicuous positions
on the sides of the mountains.
We took a west course down the grassy bottom of the stream on which we encamped last night, and after travelling some four or five miles, discovered at the distance of about a mile, six Indians running towards us with an apparent speed, greater than could be achieved by any of the animals we were riding. Notwithstanding we proceeded at our usual gait, they soon came up to us, and holding out their hands as we did to them, greeted us with much kindness and cordiality. By signs, we inquired of them their tribe, to which they answered that they were Soshonees, (Snakes.) All the Digger Indians of this valley claim to be Soshonees. The bodies of two or three of them were partially covered with the skins of hares sewn together. The others were entirely naked. Their skins are dark – nearly as dark as that of the negro. The distinguishing features between these Indians and the negro, are in the nose, which is aquiline, the long hair, and their handsome Arabian-shaped feet. Their average stature is about five feet six or seven inches in height. These Indians, doubtless, were the same that disturbed our camp and attempted to steal our mules last night.
One of them had a miserable gun, and was very desirous to trade some roots prepared in a curious manner, for powder and balls. We declined all trades of this nature, but upon his earnest solicitations I presented him with a few charges of powder without the balls. Two or three of the others were armed with bows and well-filled quivers of iron-pointed arrows. These arrow-points they must have obtained at the northern trading posts, or they have ]earned the art of smelting from trappers or emigrants passing down this valley, who have supplied them with iron. Some of them had small pouches or bags made of hare-skins, upon which they seemed to set a great value, and wished to trade them for blankets and other clothing. But our estimate of their wares did not equal their own appraisement, and we could effect no trades. We distributed among them a few pieces of bread and some fried bacon, the residuum of our breakfast, and bid them a very courteous and affectionate good morning.
Continuing our course along the fertile bottom of the mountain branch, after travelling about two miles farther we struck and crossed Mary’s river, which at this point, and at this season, is a very small stream. The channel is of considerable depth and about thirty or forty feet in width, with steep, perpendicular banks. In many places the channel is nearly dry; the water having been absorbed by the spongy earth, stands in stagnant pools with no flowing current to enlivent [sic] its sluggishness and cool its offensive warmth, or to purge it of the saline, alkaline, and sulphurous substances with which the contiguous soil is strongly impregnated. Clumps of small willows, an inch in diameter, with here and there a few wild currant-bushes, fringe the margin of the river, and constitute the only "timber" that displays itself in this valley.
Just as I was crossing Mary’s river, Colonel Russell being with me, considerably in advance of the main body of our party, I saw at the distance of about half a mile a party of some ten or fifteen men mounted on horses and mules, marching towards the north. Spurring our animals, we rode with as much speed as we could make, in a direction to intercept them. They soon discovered us, and halted until we approached them.
From their costume and color it was impossible, at a distance, to determine to which of the classes of the human race they belonged. But their demeanor was entirely pacific. Their rifles lay quietly on the pommels of their saddles, and they seemed to take advantage of the few moments of stoppage allowed them by our interruption of their progress, to rest in their saddles from the weariness of a long journey. I felt quite confident that they were a party from California, who, probably, had been compelled to leave the country in consequence of the war between the United States and Mexico, and were returning to the Atlantic side of the continent, their original homes.
We rode up to them, when they extended their hands and saluted us like brothers who had been long parted, and had met unexpectedly, and under difficult and trying circumstances. We spoke to them in our own language and they answered us in the same dialect, a sound not disagreeable to our ears. We soon learned that they were a party of men from the Wilhamette valley in Oregon, headed by the Messrs. Applegate, who had left their homes on the 10th of May, and since that time had been engaged in exploring a new and more feasible wagon-route to Oregon, by descending Mary’s river some distance below this point, and from thence striking the head-waters of the Wilhamette river. Having completed their labors, they were now on their way to Fort Hall for the purpose of meeting the emigrant trains bound to Oregon, and guiding them by this route to their destination. Five members of their party had preceded them several days, having been supplied with their best animals, for the purpose of reaching Fort Hall, or meeting the emigrants this side as soon as possible, and returning immediately with supplies for the relief of the main party, they being nearly destitute of all provisions, and having been on very short allowance for several days. Such was their condition in regard to provisions, that they expected to be compelled to slaughter one of their horses for food, unless they met some of the emigrant trains within a day or two. They all manifested great interest in the "Oregon question," and with much cheerfulness we gave them such information in regard to it as we possessed before leaving our homes. They informed us that there were two emigrant wagons with ten or twelve men, about four or five days in advance of us.
It would be difficult to decide which of the two parties, when confronted, presented the most jaded, ragged, and travel-soiled aspect, but I think the Oregonese had a little the advantage of us in this respect. None of us, within the settlements of the United States, would have been recognised by our nearest kindred as civilized and christianized men. Both parties had been in the wilderness nearly three months, the Oregon party, as we learned, having started on the tenth of May, and our party on the fifth of the same month; they from the shores of the Pacific travelling east, we from the waters of the Missouri travelling west. A singularity of the incident was, that after having travelled across a desert by a new route some three or four hundred miles, we should have met them just at the moment when they were passing the point of our junction with the old trail. Had we been ten minutes later, we should not have seen them. We met them with pleasure, and parted from them with regret, to pursue our long and toilsome journey, which seems to lengthen out as we proceed, – our point of destination, like the blue wall of the arch of the skies, receding from us as we advance.
I could not, however, but reflect upon and admire the public spirit and enterprise of the small band of men from whom we had just parted. Our government, doubtless, has been desirous of exploring and pointing out the most favorable routes to the Pacific, and has appropriated large sums of money for this purpose. But whatever has been accomplished in the way of explorations, which is of much practical utility, has resulted from the indomitable energy, the bold daring, and the unconquerable enterprise, in opposition to every discouragement, privation, and danger, of our hardy frontier men and pioneers, unaided directly or remotely by the patronage or even the approving smiles and commendations of the government. To them we are indebted for the originally discovered wagon-route to Oregon and California, and to them we are indebted for all the valuable improvements and cut-offs on this route. To them we are indebted for a good, well-beaten, and plain trail to the Pacific ocean, on the shores of which, in the face of almost insurmountable difficulties, unsupported, they have rounded an empire. Let us honor those to whom honor is due.
Proceeding down the river about two miles, we encamped at eleven o’clock for the day, in a handsome bottom of green nutritious grass, which the mules cropped with an apparent high relish. The varieties of grasses which I have seen since we entered this valley are numerous, and although they are not as fine and tender as the grasses of the Rocky Mountains, they are all heavily seeded and must be highly sustaining.
Jacob and Miller, unknown to me, when we left our encampment this morning, returned back upon our trail to search for a pocket-compass and some other small articles which Jacob accidentally dropped on the march yesterday, and they had not come up with us when we encamped.
Five more naked Indians, with which the valley and the cañadas of the mountains seem to teem, judging from the numerous trails, footprints, and signal-fires, came into our camp immediately after we halted. They brought with them a small quantity of dried meat and roots, with which they professed a desire to make trades with us. The meat I judged was that of the ground-hog. It did not present a very inviting or provocative aspect to the palate. The roots, if roots they were, were still more repulsive, but the Indians seemed to set an extraordinary value both upon the meat and the roots. We could effect no trades with them, their demands being quite too exorbitant. The truth, without doubt was, that they came into our camp for the purpose of discovering what chance there might be for theft and plunder. I requested such of our party as were present, (only four in number,) to display as much as possible their guns, pistols, and knives, in order to give them to understand the consequences of any attempt at thieving or depredation. I set up a small mark and shot my pistols several times into the centre of it, which seemed to strike them with much astonishment. At each report of the pistol, and the splintering of the small willow stick shot at, glances of surprise passed from one to another. They soon took their leave, much to my gratification. Nothing can be more troublesome than Indians about the camp. They compel us to keep a vigilant and constant watch upon every article we possess, to prevent and detect their thievish propensities. We gave each of them a small piece of bread when they were leaving. Buchanan and Brown killed an antelope soon after we encamped, on the opposite side of the river. It was one of a drove of about twenty, which they succeeded in approaching behind a clump of willows. It was brought to camp and cooked for dinner, and enjoyed with a gusto unknown to the epicure whose delicacies are prepared in the kitchens of civilization.
I began to feel considerable uneasiness respecting the nonappearance of Jacob and Miller, and was preparing to return back upon the trail to ascertain what delayed them, when about two o’clock, much to my relief, they appeared in light, coming down the valley. They had mistaken the Oregon party which we met in the morning for us, and had travelled on after them, coming up to them when they halted at noon.
I noticed, during the day, several grouse or sage-hens, as they are commonly called, sand-hill cranes, and many other small birds, flying near the banks of the river. The day has been one of intense and scorching heat, mitigated occasionally by a few light clouds, shading us momentarily from the almost blistering rays of the sun. Distance 10 miles.
August 10. – A cloudy morning with a pleasant temperature. A sprinkle of
rain fell in the course of the night, which dampened the grass and moistened
our blankets. Some Indians were seen lurking in the willows near our camp
about midnight; but discovering our watch, they made no further attempt to
steal our animals. Our camp, around which the mules are picketed, is more
than arrow-shot from the willows; and these Indians will not make any
hostile demonstrations unless they are sheltered by ravines or bushes.
Having reached the wagon-trail to California, although in many places it is blind and overgrown, yet we shall have less difficulty in searching out our road, and less anxiety respecting our course. The course of the river at this point is nearly southwest, and the trail runs through the bottom, occasionally crossing the low sand-hills, to cut off the bends and avoid the cañons. We passed around a cañon early this morning. The road being smooth, and generally hard and level, our mules travel off at a brisk trot, with comparative ease.
During the day’s march we have seen not less than three or four hundred antelopes, with which the valley seems to teem. They are exceedingly timid and wild, discovering us usually by the scent, at the distance of a mile, and running almost with the fleetness of the wind into the hills and mountains.
The lupin is the only flower I have seen to-day. A coarse, heavily-seeded grass has been the prevailing vegetation of the river bottom. Benches of low hills, covered with sage and grease-wood, slope down to the fertile land, beyond which high mountains raise their rocky, totally barren, and inaccessible peaks. The river is now more a succession or chain of stagnant pools than a stream of running water,. and its banks are skirted, as heretofore, with small willows and wild currant-bushes. The soil of the bottom is highly fertile, wherever it is moistened by the waters of the river.
We encamped at three o’clock, P. M, as near the margin of the stream as safety would permit. The wind blew a gale from the south for two hours this afternoon; and some sparks of fire catching in the dead grass around our camp, so rapid was the conflagration that we had great difficulty in saving our baggage from destruction. A panther approached within three hundred yards of our camp about sunset. We discharged a rifle at him, but he escaped. The heat of the afternoon has been intense. Distance 30 miles.
August 11. – At eight o’clock we resumed our march down the river, which,
at the distance of ten miles from our last encampment, cañons between ranges
of elevated mountains, composed of rugged, precipitous rocks, at the bottom
of which is a coarse debris of sharp broken flint and sandstone. The trail
here runs immediately upon the banks of the river, and crosses it in the
course of five or six miles, as many times, in order to take advantage of
the narrow bottoms made by the abrupt and worm-like windings of the stream.
The small bottoms are highly fertile, and are covered with a luxuriant
growth of grass and flowers. Among the flowers which ornamented these little
parterres, I noticed the lupin, the sunflower, a small trumpet-shaped
flower, the corol of which is blue and scarlet, a rare combination of
colors, and a flower with a flaming, torchlike development of brilliant
Emerging from this cañon we passed over another wide and fertile bottom, at the lower end of which a naked Indian, more bold than his hidden associates, made his appearance from the willows at some distance, and ran towards us with great speed. Approaching us, he extended his arm; and when he came up, shook all of us by the hand with great cordiality. A grin, illustrative of a feeling of much delight, distorted his swarthy countenance, over which, and down his neck, the long, coarse, coal-black, and matted hair fell in neglected rankness and profusion. His delight at seeing and saluting us, was apparently so overwhelming, that he could not restrain his emotions, but laughed outright, (an unusual phenomenon in an Indian,) and shouted a gleeful shout.
We did not suspend our march on his account, but he trotted along by my side for a mile or more, his garrulous tongue rolling out with an oily fluency an eloquence quite as incomprehensible as that of many a member of congress. Three more of his brethren made their appearance from the distant willows, when our good-natured and nearly overjoyed friend left us and joined them. We gave him, as usual, a small piece of bread, which has become a scarce commodity with us.
The trail at this point, to avoid a cañon, leaves the river, turning abruptly from it to the right, and ascending over low gravelly hills, with the usual growth in such places, of wild sage, until it gradually mounts an elevated ridge, about a mile down the western slope of which we found a small spring of cold, pure water. There being a sufficiency of grass around this spring for our mules, we determined to encamp for the day and enjoy the luxury of good water. A large number of antelopes, as usual, were in sight of us to-day, and I saw several wild geese and sage-hens, but we have killed nothing. Distance 32 miles.
August 12. – Morning clear and cool, with a light breeze from the west.
Continuing down the narrow valley or gorge, and passing within a mile or two
of our camp several springs of cold, fresh water, we again, after travelling
some eight or nine miles, came in sight of the river, winding through a
spacious valley which stretches far to the south, with a range of high
mountains bounding it on the west. The river here makes a long bend, turning
to the north, in which course it runs about fifteen miles. We left this
valley through a narrow gap, through which the river forces its way; and
about one o’clock, P. M., turning the point of the mountain, we entered
another large and level valley, which stretches to the north as far as the
vision can penetrate through the smoky vapor. We travelled down this valley,
in a southwest course, about ten miles, when we encamped for the day, at
There has been little or no variation in the general characteristics of the country and its productions. Sage, grease-wood, etc., cover the low hills and benches of the mountains, and grass and willows the margin of the river. The soil is extremely light and porous, resembling ashes; and whenever it is disturbed by the feet of our mules, we are enveloped in clouds of dust. Our hair and beards look white and frosty, and our complexions are as cadaverous as so many corpses, until we perform our evening ablutions.
I saw to-day, while on our march, several Indians standing on a bluff at no great distance from the trail, but they did not venture to approach us. Near our encampment is the miserable dwelling of a Digger, but deserted. We discovered, on the bank of the river, a fish-trap, ingeniously constructed of willows interwoven. It was about ten or twelve feet in length, and shaped like the cornucopia. Multitudes of wolves serenade us every night with their harsh and discordant howlings. The day has been excessively hot, and the sky is of the color of copper, from the effects of the dense smoke with which the atmosphere of the valley is filled. Distance 30 miles.
August 13. – About nine o’clock, A. M, the temperature became intensely
hot, the wind changing to the south, and blowing a breeze that was almost
scorching. Nothing can be more oppressive than the currents of hot winds
from the desert, whose fire-like fervency, sustained by the almost scorching
rays of the sun, is sometimes nearly suffocating.
We travelled down the margin of the river about twelve miles, when we left the wagon-trail, turning to the right over some low hills, from which we descended into a wide valley, through which the river winds its serpentine channel in a northwest direction. Laying ore’ course across this valley, after travelling about ten miles we again struck the river and the wagon-trail, and continued our course along the margin of the stream until we encamped, about two o’clock.
The low hills over which we passed are covered with a debris of sharp fragments of basalt. The dark sides of the mountains beyond them indicate that they are composed of the same scorious substance. The general features of the country and scenery are the same as heretofore described. Several miles of our route, to-day, the ground was thickly incrusted with the carbonate of soda. A few antelopes were seen at a distance, and occasionally a sage-hen was flushed.
During the afternoon some heavy, but dry-looking clouds obscured the sun, and I heard distant thunder in several directions, but no rain fell to moisten the parched ground. The smoke in the valley continues very dense, and the coppery hue of the heavens increases the atmosphere feeling as it looks, heated almost to blistering. Distance 30 miles.
August 14. – The morning was hazy with thick, smoky vapor. About ten
o’clock last night, a black cloud rose from the south, and continual and
almost dazzling flashes of lightning were darting athwart its face in all
directions, illuminating that portion of the heavens with a blaze of
electrical light. The wind blew with violence, and a few drops of rain fell,
but not enough in this arid region, where all humidity seems almost
instantly be evaporated, to leave a perceptible moisture in the morning.
The channel of the river is very serpentine, winding abruptly to the right and left through the valley, to irrigate, in obedience to the economy of nature, and fertilize its ashy and spongy soil. Our general course to-day has been nearly west, bearing a little to the north of west, crossing two extensive valleys or plains, and passing through a narrow defile of the mountains, through which the river forces its way. The waters of the river appear to be decreasing, and the channel occasionally is quite dry, ex- posing in some places a sandy, in others a soft, muddy bed. Extensive portions of the valleys through which we have passed have been incrusted with an alkaline efflorescence.
We encamped near the bank of the river at four o’clock, P. M About two miles from our camp, near the base of the mountains, we discovered a circle of dark green herbage. A phenomenon so unusual in such a position, excited my curiosity, and notwithstanding my fatigue, I determined to visit the spot, and ascertain its cause. Accompanied by Jacob and Nuttall, walked to the place, and discovered that what produced the remarkable verdure was the water flowing from a number of boiling springs, which, cooling as it flowed down the slope of the valley, irrigated and fertilized the earth, producing luxuriant grass in the small circle dampened by it, before sinking and disappearing in the sands. There are some ten or twelve of these springs, the basins of the largest of which are ten feet in diameter. The temperature of the water is boiling heat. To test it by the best method within our power, (our thermometer having been broken,) we procured from camp a small piece of bacon, which, being placed on the end of a stick and thrust into the boiling basin, was well cooked in fifteen minutes. The water is slightly impregnated with salt and sulphur. Immediately around these basins, the ground is whitened with a crust of the carbonate of soda, beneath which is a stratum or shell of reddish rock, which appears to have been formed by a deposite from the springs.
Our observations and experiments detained us until it was quite dark, and we had great difficulty, the fires being extinguished, in finding the camp. Distance 36 miles.
August 15. – A drizzling rain commenced falling this morning, about one
o’clock, which did not cease until eight o’clock. Our blankets and skins
were pretty thoroughly drenched with water; but the clouds clearing away,
and the sun shining out before nine o’clock, such is the rapidity of
evaporation here, that fifteen or twenty minutes sufficed to dry our baggage
and the ground. Judging from appearances, no rains sufficient to penetrate
the earth to any extent, have fallen in the valley since the wagons passed
along last year. In those places over which the trail passes, where there is
no vegetation except the sage, the marks of the wagon-tires, and the
footprints of the oxen and horses, are quite distinct, and do not appear to
have been made more than a month. The grass, except immediately on the
margin of the river, is perfectly dry, and crumbles to powder under our
Our course this morning run in a direction north of west for ten miles, when we turned the point of a range of mountains on our left, and the trail takes nearly a southwest course; sometimes through the bottom, near the banks of the river, at others over the elevated, barren portions of the valley, and through the wild sage.
About twelve o’clock, I saw on a bluff on the opposite side of the river, across a low bottom at the distance of two miles, a large body of Indians – some two or three hundred. Four of them left the main body, and running across the bottom with incredible celerity, soon overtook us, notwithstanding we were travelling at a brisk trot. They were naked, and armed with bows and arrows. When they came up to us, they held out their hands in token of friendship, and falling behind, I entered into such a conversation with them as my knowledge of their signs permitted. All I could learn was, that they wished us to make presents to them of shirts, and something to eat. This request, of course, we could not comply with, our stock of clothing and provisions being too scant. Two of them fell behind very soon; the other two travelled along with us, without any apparent fatigue, for four hours, at the rate of five miles per hour.
They have a great dread of a rifle when its muzzle is pointed towards them, and were always careful to keep out of the range of our pieces. About a mile before we encamped for the day, Buchanan and Brown being behind, killed a wolf, and a sandhill crane. They were greatly astonished at the report of the rifle, and to them its mysterious and deadly effects. They looked in wonder, first at the muzzle of the gun, and then at the mortal wound made in the wolf, causing instant death. To them it was incomprehensible. The wolf and the crane were presented to them, with which they seemed to be delighted, and started to return to their fellows, with as much fleetness as if they had not travelled a mile during the day.
We encamped at half-past four o’clock, descending a steep bluff into a small low bottom of the river, where the grass was rank and green. Another cloud rose from the southwest just before sunset, and it rained enough before we retired for the night, to moisten the grass and the surface of the ground. The mountains bordering the valley of the river have exhibited every variety of rugged form, during the day’s march. The rock of which they are composed is volcanic and of a dark hue; they are entirely destitute of vegetation, and the scenery, consequently, is most gloomy and repulsive to the eye. Distance 30 miles.
Refreshing rain – Dense smoky vapor – Scarcity of provisions – Horses giving out – Dismal journey – Soup of fresh-water shellfish – Agreeable meeting – Obtain a supply of provisions – Merry Digger Indian visitors – An Indian coil – Petrifactions – Sink of Mary’s river – Bitter waters – The desert between Mary’s and Truckee river – Toilsome march – Unexpected refreshment – Remarkable boiling springs.
AUGUST 16. – When I woke this morning it was cloudy, and rain was falling
copiously. From appearances, it had been raining several hours, and those of
our party who had bivouacked were quite wet. Nothing could be more agreeable
to us than this rain. By it the dust which in places is almost suffocating,
has been laid for a short distance at least, and the sultry and dry
atmosphere has been cooled and moistened.
Our course for the day has generally been southwest, and the trail which we have followed has sometimes passed through the grassy bottoms next to the river, and at others over the high and barren slopes of the valley, with a growth of leafless sage upon them.
We passed some places where water was standing in pools from the effects of last night’s rain, a most unusual, but not unpleasing sight in this arid region. The atmosphere is so charged with smoke, upon which the rain of last night seems to have produced no effect, that distant objects are not discernible. The outlines of the nearest mountains, dimly seen through the thick vapor, present the same dark, rugged, and barren aspect as has heretofore been described.
I saw several Indians to-day at a distance, but they ran from us and concealed themselves in the willows bordering the river. The water of the river has become strongly impregnated with alkali, and being exposed to the sun, when taken from the pools is nearly blood heat. It is not, however, more distasteful than we expected to find it, and bad as it is, our excessive thirst renders it palatable.
This evening I made an inspection of the provisions of my mess, and found, owing to its increase of numbers from unavoidable circumstances since we left Fort Laramie, that there would be a deficiency, although we have been on short allowance for the last ten days, restricting ourselves to a single small slice of fried bacon and a very diminutive piece of bread, for each, twice a day, morning and evening. We estimate our journey to the settlements of California at fourteen days; and our provisions will not last us more than five or six days.
Brown’s and Brookey’s riding-horses nearly gave out to-day. This is a very great misfortune, as we have not a single animal whose services we can well dispense with. The sun sunk down behind the mountains this evening, appearing through the smoke like an immense ball of fire. Distance 30 miles.
August 17. – Turning our course considerably to the left, the trail
following the winding and sluggish current of the river, and passing through
a narrow gap of the mountains, we entered upon an extensive and level plain,
upon which we saw large numbers of antelopes, frequently in droves of a
hundred or more. Leaving this bottom, we again ascended upon high ground
composed of ashy earth mixed with sharp volcanic gravel, with a growth of
sage, over which we continued our monotonous march the remainder of the day.
The river is crowded between steep sandy bluffs, for many miles, and the
entire valley on both sides of it presents a most barren and desolate
aspect. About five o’clock, P.M., we found an opening in the bluffs, and
descended into a large circular basin covered with a growth of willows and
other small brush, which I conjectured was the "Sink," but I was mistaken.
We descended into this basin down a steep bank or precipice, and encamped in
a small opening among the willows, under the bluff.
Brown’s horse gave out entirely to-day, and was left on the road about six miles from our camp. Brookey did not reach our camp until dark. It has been a miserable and most fatiguing day’s journey, the sun shining with such intense heat, that the perspiration rolled from my face in large drops.
After considerable labor, we cut a way through the thick brush and willows to the river, and got our mules down to the water. In the bed of the stream we found large quantities of muscles. Miller brought a bucketful of them to camp, and made of them a soup, which was not ungrateful to the palate. Distance 30 miles.
August 18. – We were in our saddles, and under way, as the sailors say,
very early this morning, there being nothing in the features of our camp to
entice delay a moment beyond the time necessary to prepare our coffee and
fried bacon; the last of which, by the way, has become very rancid, and is
covered with a thick coating of the dust of the desert. The extreme heat of
the sun during the day, has melted and wasted nearly all the unctuous
qualities of our meat, leaving little else than the skin and cartilage, and
these in a very bad condition.
Travelling usually in front of our party, I had watched with much interest and scrutiny the trail of the two emigrant wagons in advance of us when we struck Mary’s river. I was fully satisfied from the freshness of the signs on the trail, and the number of their encampments, that we could not be more than a day in the rear at this point; and I determined, if possible, to overtake them this morning, and obtain from them, if they had it to spare, provision sufficient to carry us into the settlements of California. As soon, therefore, as our party were all fairly on the march, I urged my mule forward at a rapid pace, leaving my fellow-travellers, in a short time, far behind me, and out of sight.
After crossing a totally barren plain, ten miles wide, I saw at an apparent distance of five or six miles, two white specks upon a gentle swell of the plain, surrounded by verdant vegetation. These specks I instantly knew to be the wagons; and as I could perceive no motion, I was satisfied that they were encamped. Increasing the speed of my mule by a liberal application of spur and whip, it was not long before I approached the wagons.
I must remark here, by the way, that the sight of an emigrant wagon in these wildernesses and deserts, produces the same emotions of pleasure as are felt by the way-worn and benighted traveller, within the boundaries of civilization, when approaching some hospitable cottage or mansion on the roadside. More intense, perhaps, because the white tent-cloth of the wagon is a certain sign of welcome hospitality, in such form as can be afforded by the ever liberal proprietor, who without stint, even though he might have but a single meal, would cheerfully divide it among his stranger visitors. Civilization cannot always boast of such dispensers of hospitality; but among the emigrants to the Pacific, it is nearly universal.
When the company of men belonging to the wagons discovered me at a distance, much apparent surprise was manifested. A solitary individual in this abandoned region, was well calculated to excite curiosity. I saw several of them mounted upon the tops of their wagons, to obtain, as I supposed, a correct idea of my nationality and purposes. When I came up to the camp, I was greeted in the most cordial manner, with every mark of kindness that I should expect from my dearest friends. I soon explained to them the nature and purpose of my visit, and received such a response as was entirely satisfactory.
The proprietors of the two wagons were Messrs. Craig and Stanley, from Ray county, Missouri, accompanied by six or eight young men. I learned from them that they left Fort Hall on the 23d day of July, and are some twelve or fifteen days in advance of all the other emigrant trains bound for California. The intentions of Messrs. Craig and Stanley, are to visit California first; and after travelling over it, to explore the fertile districts of Oregon; and if upon an examination they are pleased with either of these countries, they design to dispose of their property in the United States, and settle on the Pacific. Messrs. C. and S. are highly intelligent and respectable gentlemen, and I derived from them much interesting and useful information in regard to the emigrant route, via Fort Hall.
Our party came up in about an hour and a half after my arrival; and the grass being good, with a plentiful supply, in a reedy slough., of tolerable cool and fresh water, we determined to encamp for the day. Messrs. Craig and Stanley are impressed with the belief, that we have reached the "Sink" of Mary’s river; that is, the place where the waters of the river cease to flow, and disappear in the dry and thirsting sands of the desert. They informed me that some of the members of the party had made a reconnaissance of several miles to the south and southeast, and had not been able to discover any water beyond this point. I nevertheless felt doubtful in regard to this supposition, as the place did not entirely correspond with the description I had received of the "Sink."
Messrs. Craig and Stanley, in the course of the afternoon, although their supply of provisions was not more than equal to their probable consumption, before they would reach the settlements of California, generously furnished us with a quantity of flour and bacon, which I believed would be nearly or quite sufficient for our wants. They would accept of no compensation for this very great favor; and I consider myself, as well as every member of our party, under the highest obligations to them, for their most liberal manifestation of kindness and hospitality.
Two Digger Indians came into our camp about sunset. One of them mounted on a miserably lean and broken down horse; and the other walking by the side of the swarthy, and nearly naked savage Caballero. The mounted man was the spokesman; the other appearing to act in the capacity of a servant, or a personage of inferior consequence. After the first salutations, and shaking of hands, the principal desired a smoke. A pipe was produced, filled with tobacco, and lighted. Most of our party, as usual, declined a participation in this friendly ceremonial of the savages; but I took my turn at the pipe, and puffed with a gusto equalling that of our two sable and naked visitors.
The ceremony of smoking being concluded, the several members of the party commenced a conversation with our good natured visitors. When one of the party spoke in English, the chief Indian would invariably imitate with great precision the sound of each word to the end of the sentence. The remarkable accuracy of this repetition or imitation, accompanied as it was with an indescribable comic action, was highly amusing, and produced peal upon peal of loud laughter. This sport continued around our willow fires long after dark.
A member of Messrs. Craig and Stanley’s party, who for a number of years had been a trapper in the mountains, and was considerably skilled in the significance of Indian signs, afterwards held a conversation with the principal Indian, and learned from him, that a short day’s journey would bring us to some pools of standing water, and that after this, we would find no water or grass for a long distance. The time was indicated by pointing to the course of the sun and its positions when the incidents respecting which we inquired would take place. Other matters were explained by a similar reference to objects connected with and illustrative of those inquired about. The information derived from this conversation was not sufficiently clear to solve the doubt, as to whether this was or was not the "Sink" of Mary’s river.
Before our company retired to rest, I instructed the sentinel first on duty, to communicate to those who succeeded him, that the two Indians were not to be permitted to leave the principal camp-fire until morning, under any pretext. I did not know what designs upon our animals they might entertain themselves, or what concealed associates they might have to assist them. This order was communicated to the Indians in a manner which they could not misunderstand, and they submitted without the slightest opposition. One of them (the serving man, who was so obliging as several times during the evening to bring us water from the slough) had a small garment or shawl, made of hare-skins sewn together, about a yard in diameter. We gave the two a skin to spread on the ground for their bed, and coiling themselves up in an incredibly small space, the hare-skin shawl or blanket covered their bodies, heads and feet entirely. How they managed to compress their persons into so small a space, is a marvel. Distance 16 miles.
August 19. – I rose this morning before it was light, and approaching the
embers of our watch-fire, which had been kept burning during the night by
those on duty, the first object I discovered was the two Indians coiled up,
and enveloped in the yard-square of rabbit-skins, as I had left them when I
retired to my bivouac last night. They were in a profound slumber, evincing
their perfect confidence in our good faith in regard to them. I touched this
small round heap of human flesh gently with my foot, when they roused from
their sleep, and rubbing their eyes, sat upright before the faint blaze made
by the dry willow twigs I had placed upon the fire. The eider and more
consequential of the two, ordered the other to go and collect some fuel,
which service he performed with much promptitude, bringing in a large bundle
of dead sage-bushes, which igniting upon the fire, burned with a brilliant
blaze. During the absence of the junior or serving Indian, his nakedness,
the seignior or master, gave many shrugs and shivers, showing conclusively
that the cool morning atmosphere did not strike agreeably upon his bare
skin, and he pointed with much meaning and earnestness to my coarse palto,
as being an excellent protection against the chills of the morning.
Daylight dawning, our party was roused, and our morning meal prepared and discussed with all practicable dispatch – we felt certain that we had a long and dreary day’s march before us. The two Indians were regaled with such food as we subsisted upon ourselves, and then dismissed, apparently well satisfied with our treatment and attention, parting from us with the most good-natured countenances and gesticulations.
Leaving the grassy oasis upon which we were encamped a little after sunrise, and travelling a few miles, we turned the point of a mountain, the slope of which juts into the plain on the right. From this point the trail takes a southwest course, and runs across a totally barren plain, with the exception of a few clumps of sage-bushes, a distance of twenty miles. No sign of the river or of the existence of water indicated itself within this distance. Some remarkable petrifactions displayed themselves near the trail early this morning. They had all the appearance of petrified fungi, and many of them were of large dimensions. The surface of the plain is generally soft and light. In places a dark scorious and vitreous gravel is mingled with the ashy and alkaline composition. This gravel is sharp and very severe upon the hoofs of our animals.
At the southern edge of this plain we came to some pools of standing water, as described by the Indians last night, covered with a yellowish slime, and emitting a most disagreeable fetor. The margins of these pools are whitened with an alkaline deposite, and green tufts of a coarse grass, and some reeds or flags, raise themselves above the snow-like soil. I procured from one of the pools a cup of the water, and found it so thoroughly saturated with alkali, that it would be dangerous for ourselves or our animals to make use of it. It was as acrid and bitter as the strongest lye filtered through ashes. Many of our animals being excessively thirsty, rushed to the pools immediately after we approached them, but upon tasting the water, they turned from it with disappointment and disgust.
A ridge of low sand-hills runs entirely across the plain or valley immediately below these pools, and from these features corresponding in some particulars with the description I had previously received of it, I was compelled to believe that this was the "Sink of Mary’s river," instead of the place where we had encamped last night.
It was nearly two o’clock, P.M., when we reached these pools, and from them (supposing them, as was the fact, to be the "Sink") to the waters of Truckee, or Salmon Trout river, by the best information and estimate, it is forty-five miles. Some of our party were in favor of encamping here, forbidding as the place was in all its aspects. But I immediately came to the conclusion that to encamp at this place, would be not only useless to ourselves, so far as rest and comfort were concerned, but dangerous, in our thirsty state, both to us and our animals. In preference, therefore, I determined to proceed on our march, and encamp in the desert beyond, without grass or water. Adopting this plan, we would by diligence, before sunset, approach to within twenty or twenty-five miles of water and grass, and by starting early, after resting our animals six or eight hours, we could reach Truckee river before our own thirst and the thirst and hunger of our mules became unbearable.
We passed from the pools or "Sink" over the low ridge of sand-hills, in a south course. Our mules waded through these hills, or heaps of dry and ashy earth, rather than walked over them, sinking in many places nearly to their bellies, and manifesting the strongest signs of exhaustion. The dim outlines of mountains could be seen through the dense smoky vapor impregnating the atmosphere, about fifteen or twenty miles in front. The plain is utterly destitute of vegetation, with the exception of an occasional strip of sage on the swells, and a few patches of brown grass, and here and there a small clump of straggling flags or reeds, which seem to wax for an existence with the parched and ungenerous soil.
We ascended the ridge of mountains just noticed, by an easy inclined plain. Some miles before we commenced the ascent, I observed on the slope of the plain a line of perpendicular rocks, forming a wall, with occasional high elevations, representing watch-towers and turrets. A low gap afforded us an easy passage between the mountains, which are composed of nearly black basaltic rocks. The whole country in this vicinity, at no very remote period, has evidently been under the action of volcanic fires. The rocks are cinders, and the earthy substances with which they are mingled are ashes.
From the summit of the ridge, I had a view of the shadowy outlines of another range of mountains to the west of us, at an apparent distance of twenty miles. The smoke was so dense that ! could determine nothing satisfactorily in regard to the valley between us and this range of mountains, but I entertained a strong hope that we should find a stream of water here. This hope, however, was disappointed. Just as the sun was sinking behind the spiral and dismal-looking summits of the western mountains, and before we had descended into the bottom, the trail turned abruptly to the left, keeping along the slope on the eastern side of the valley. I immediately gave up all expectations of water or grass to-night, as a more utterly barren prospect than that presented before us is not conceivable. It was impossible for us to proceed much further, as several of our party, whose mules were nearly exhausted, were at this point a long distance in the rear, and would find it difficult to urge their over-labored animals even a few miles.
A point in the valley, formed by the jutting of a low hill or bench of the mountain, about two miles before me, seemed to be a suitable position for our encampment, under the circumstances, for the night, or for the few hours necessary to rest our mules, before continuing our march. While marching towards this point, I noticed to the left, on the declivity of the mountain, a small patch of ground displaying a pale yellowish vegetation. A phenomenon so singular amidst the brown sterility of mountain and valley, excited my curiosity, and I thought it not impossible that we might find there a small quantity of water. Calling Miller, I requested him to ride up to the spot and ascertain what the yellowish growth might be. He was quickly at the place designated, and very soon afterwards, taking off his cap, swung it round and round, nearly overjoyed at the discovery he had made, which we all immediately knew to be a spring. Had he discovered a mine of solid gold, or a ton of diamonds, it would, in our thirsty condition, have produced no other sensations than those of extreme disappointment. Water was what we craved, and a universe of glittering wealth would not have weighed in the balance of our desires against it.
Turning short to the left, I rode up the slope to where Miller was still standing. Before I reached him, I could perceive a sensible moderation in his joyous manifestations. I asked him if he had found water ? He answered that he had, but that his mule, in attempting to drink out of a hole, had nearly scalded its tongue off. I could see that the mule was suffering considerable pain from the effects of the boiling hot water which, cautiously, it had attempted to drink.
Passing a little further along, I found myself in the midst of a hundred or more holes or small basins, varying from two to ten feet in diameter, of boiling water. Searching about, I found in a ravine a small basin of water, that oozed sluggishly through a stratum of earth, which, although quite warm, was not burning hot. I drank copiously of this water, and the other members of our party, and our mules, coming up, one after another, drank likewise. But as soon as the stock in the basin was exhausted, the new supply that flowed in became too hot for use. We encamped here, after a ride of twelve hours, tying our mules closely to the wild sage-bushes, to prevent them from falling into the boiling holes by which they were surrounded.
These springs are a great curiosity, on account of their variety and the singularity of their action and deposites. The deposite from one had formed a hollow pyramid of reddish clay, about eight feet in height, and six feet in diameter at the base, tapering to a point. There were several air-holes near the top, and inside of it the waters were rumbling, and the steam puffing through the air-holes with great violence. Miller threw stones at the cap of this pyramid. It broke like brittle pottery, and the red and turbid waters ran down the sides of the frail structure which they had erected. Not far from this was a small basin, and a lively but diminutive stream running from it, of water as white as milk, which, indeed, it greatly resembled. I cooled some of it in my cup, and drinking, found it not unpalatable. It was impregnated with magnesia, In another basin, the water was thickened, almost to the consistence of slack mortar, with a blue clay. It was rolling and tumbling about with activity, and volumes of steam, accompanied with loud puffing reports, ascended from it. The water of the largest basin (about ten feet in diameter) was limpid, and impregnated with salt and sulphur. From this basin, when we encamped, a small stream ran down the slope. The rock surrounding these springs is a mere shell or crust, formed, doubtless, by a deposite from the overflowing waters from the basins or holes, which are so many ventilators for the escape of the steam from the heated and boiling mass of liquid beneath.
We made a dam across the stream flowing from the large basin, some distance below it, by raking together the slight covering of earth upon the rocks. We thus collected a considerable body of water, which, cooling, was more palatable to ourselves and our mules than any which we had before obtained. This dam was enlarged before we retired for the night, in order that we might have an abundant supply of cool water, brackish and bitter though it was, in the morning.
As we moved about our camp after dark, we were in constant danger of falling into the scalding and bottomless basins or holes by which we were surrounded. Fortunately no accident occurred. The ground under our blankets was quite warm, from the effects of the heated matter rolling, bubbling, and puffing in the bowels of the earth. Every thing around is sufficiently cheerless and desolate to depress the most buoyant temperament. The sable and utterly sterile mountains, the barren and arid plain, incapable of sustaining either insect or animal, present a dreariness of scenery that would be almost overpowering in its influences, but for the hope of more pleasing scenes beyond. Distance 45.
Mirage Phantom cataract – Signs of water – Truckee river – Insanity produced by apprehension and excitement – Enter the California mountains – Mountain forests – Mountain valley – Truckee river Indians – Cold nights – Mountain lake – Origin of the name of Truckee river and lake – Scenery of the Sierra Nevada – Log-cabin erected by emigrants in distress – Mountain raspberry – Pass of the Sierra – Uber valley – Spring in August – An attack by hornets – Beautiful encampment – Human skull.
AUGUST 20. – The disquiet of our animals, thirsting for water, and
famishing for food, kept me awake nearly the whole night. As soon as the
stars indicated the approach of the morning, I woke my fellow-travellers,
and a cup of coffee having been made from the hot water of the springs, a
little after daylight, we were ready to take leave of our dismal encampment.
Much to our astonishment and disappointment, when we visited the dam and reservoir of water constructed last night, it was entirely dry. Not a drop of water was contained in it. The stream from the basin had ceased to flow. When I first woke this morning, there was no sound of the agitation of water in any of the basins; but just as we were about to depart, the rumbling and rolling, and the loud puffs, accompanied by fog-like volumes of steam from the boiling liquid beneath us, were resumed with an energy greatly increased from what I observed on our first arrival. One of our party noticing this display of infernal steam-power, exclaimed, "Let us be off; – h–ll is firing up;" and it did, indeed, seem as if the machinery of the vast workshops in the subterranean recesses of nature, had just been put in operation for the day, by the spirits and powers of the middle earth.
About three miles from our encampment, I discovered in the bank of a ravine, crossed by the trail, a faint spring. The water barely oozing from the earth, although cool, was bitter, and the quantity was so small, that we could with difficulty obtain a cupful. A ride of several hours down the valley, brought us to a ridge of sandy hills running entirely across it.
In the course of the morning, I noticed the phenomenon of mirage in great perfection.. A wide cascade or cataract of glittering, foaming, and tumbling waters was represented and perfectly well defined on the slope of the mountain to our left, at an apparent distance of five or six miles. Below this, was a limpid lake, so calm and mirror-like that it reflected with all the distinctness of reality, the tall, inverted shapes of the mountains and all the scenery beyond its tempting but illusory surface. Nature, in this desert region, if she does not furnish the reality, frequently presents the ghosts of beautiful objects and scenery.
The distance across the ridge, or rather elevated plain of sandy undulations, is about ten miles. Over this plain the travelling is very laborious. We were compelled to dismount from our animals, weakened as they were by thirst and hunger, in order to get them along through the deep sand. Soon after rising upon this plain, I noticed first the footprints on the sand of hares, afterwards of wolves, and presently of a variety of animals, all of which seemed to have travelled in the same direction that we were pursuing ; – a certain indication that we were on the right course for water, and no great distance from it. We crossed an Indian foot-trail very deep, wide, and fresh, showing that Indians to the number of several hundred must have passed along within a short time. This trail leads to the Pyramid lake into which the waters of Truckee river debouche, and sink or evaporate. The Indians of this region take large quantities of salmon-trout from this lake.
At half-past 12 o’clock, we saw at the distance of about two miles, the course of Truckee river, indicated by a line of willows, grass, and other green herbage, and a number of tall trees, – the last a sight that has not saluted us for five hundred miles. Our animals, as if reinvigorated by the prospect of grass and the scent of water, rushed forward with great speed, and we were soon in the middle of the stream, from the clear current of which all drank copious draughts: We immediately crossed to the bottom on the opposite side and encamped, much fatigued, as the reader may imagine.
Truckee river at this point is about fifty feet in breadth, with a rapid current of clear water about two feet in depth and a gravelly bed. The bottom, or fertile land, is here about a mile in width, with a growth of small willows, hawthorns, and a few tall cotton-wood trees. In the openings, wild peas and a variety of grasses and other herbage, grow with luxuriance. The shade of the trees is most agreeable, and adds greatly to the pleasantness of our encampment, when contrasting our cool shelter from the sun, with its scorching fervor -upon the surrounding desolation. We angled in the river, but contrary to our expectations, caught no fish. Some of our party killed a duck or two. Game sign is abundant, but the Indians, who have recently been here in large numbers, have driven off the game. Distance 20 miles.
August 21. – I was wakened from a profound slumber, this morning, by
piercing shrieks and wailings. I was not quite certain when I woke, whether
it was a dream or reality. Satisfying myself that I was not asleep, I
listened attentively for a repetition of the strange and mournful sounds
which had disturbed my repose. They were soon renewed with greater
distinctness than before, and appeared to proceed from some animal, or
person in distress or danger, on the opposite side of. the river. They soon,
however, ceased altogether, and it being quite dark, exhausted as I was, I
concluded that I would lie down again, and when daylight dawned, ascertain
the cause of these singular vocal performances in this desert region. I soon
fell asleep again, however, and did not wake until after sunrise.
When I rose, Messrs. Craig and Stanley were riding towards our camp, and they informed us that their wagons had reached the opposite bank of the river just before daylight, having travelled all night, and that they were now crossing the stream for the purpose of encamping for the day. I was much gratified that these, our good friends, had crossed the desert in safety, and had reached a point where they could recruit their animals. I inquired of them, if they had heard the shrieks and wailings which had disturbed my slumbers early in the morning?
Mr. Craig informed me that one of their party, soon after leaving the boiling springs, from some cause had become quite frantic, with, as he hoped, temporary insanity, brought on by the fatigues and hardships of the march, or from drinking the impure water of the desert. They had been compelled to place him inside of one of the wagons and confine him to it, in order to get him along. When, early this morning, they commenced the descent of the bluffs to the river, he leaped from the wagon, under the influence of a paroxysm of insanity with loud cries and shrieks, and after describing several times by his movements, a circle, he declared that the destiny of Providence, so far as regarded himself, was accomplished; that nothing more was expected of him or could be demanded from him, and he was willing to submit to his fate and die on that spot, and be buried within that circle. It was some time, and the united strength of two or three men was required, before he could be got back again into the wagon.
By the request of Mr. Craig, after his camp was made, I visited the man so strangely attacked. His paroxysms had considerably abated in their strength, and he seemed to be returning to a more rational state of mind. He was continually endeavoring to vomit. Being a stout, vigorous young man, with an abundance of hard muscular flesh upon him, and having an excited pulse, but not one indicating physical disease, I inquired of him why he so frequently endeavored to vomit ? He answered, that soon after he left the boiling springs, strange sensations of pain and apprehension came over him, and he demanded some remedy for them ; – that a large vial containing camphor partially dissolved in alcohol was the only medicine they possessed, which was given to him ; – that he had first drank the liquid solution, and then, as he supposed, in an unconscious state, had swallowed a quantity of the undissolved gum, for he had already thrown up several pieces of the size of the end of his thumb, and still he believed there was a large quantity inside of him. I told him that I would prepare an emetic for him, by which he would be entirely relieved and restored to perfect health – that nothing was the matter with him but over-excitement. He said that he was willing to take the emetic to please me and Mr. Craig, but did not conceive it to be of any utility. He was not superstitious or given to superstitious freaks and notions. On the contrary, he was a cool, calm, calculating man, and he was fully satisfied that his appointed time under the dispensations of Providence had arrived, and he must die, and be buried near this place. It was in vain that I argued against this delusion, and told him that one so robust and healthy could not die even if he wished it, unless he took his own life. The response was the same Providence had ordered it – he had fulfilled his destiny, and here he must die and be buried.
I returned to my own camp, and procuring a quantity of ipecacuanha, it was administered to him. Under the operation of the emetic, he threw up nearly an ounce of the concrete gum of camphor. I could not wonder after this exhibition, that he imagined that his destiny was fulfilled! I visited him again in the afternoon, and although much more composed than in the morning, he was still laboring under his original delusion, and in this state of mind I left him.
The morning was clear, cool, and calm, but as usual, the sun’s rays in the middle of the day were intensely hot. We remained encamped, to recruit the strength of our animals, which have become much exhausted by the rapid drives down Mary’s river, and thence across the desert.
August 22. – We resumed our journey at seven o’clock. Our mules are
considerably recruited by the rest we have allowed them, and by the
nutritious grass and refreshing water at our last encampment.
The valley of the river for a few miles, as we travelled up it, is of nearly the same width as described at our encampment; but it soon contracts, and the river and narrow bottom are walled in on both sides by high ranges of barren mountains. Some of these mountains are composed of a reddish or brown sandstone, others, higher up, of basalt. A few tall cotton-wood trees occasionally skirt the margin of the river. These, with small willows, and a variety of diminutive shrubs and rank weeds, with an occasional opening of grass, make up the vegetation of the valley.
The river flows down, with a lively current of limpid water, over a rocky bed; and the green vegetation along its banks contrasts finely with the brown sterility of the adjacent mountains. My sensations while travelling along its banks and in sight of its sparkling waters, are something like those experienced in a stormy and wintry day, when comfortably seated in a warm library or parlor, with a view from the window of the violent strife and bitter frigidity of the elements without. The water and grass are our comfort, and our security for the realization of our hopes, in regard to our destination.
We travelled at a rapid gait, the trail being good and our spirits buoyant; and at three o’clock, coming to an excellent camping-ground, with fine grass, water, and wood, we halted, and encamped for the day. During the day’s march we have forded the river about twenty times. This is necessary, in order to avoid the cañones, on one side or the other of the narrow valley. Among numerous footprints of Indians, to-day, I saw a plain and fresh shoe-track, showing that some person who has walked here has had communication with civilization.
I experimented with the hook and line in the river again, but without success. Not even a nibble compensated my patient perseverance.. Along the banks of the river there are myriads of diminutive toads, or frogs, about an inch in length, which, when disturbed, leap into the water, furnishing abundant food for all the fish in the stream. The bait on the hook, therefore, has no temptations for these well-fed gentry of the clear mountain torrent. Distance 25 miles.
August 23. – When I rose this morning, just after the dawn of day, I
discovered that the dew-drops condensed upon an India-rubber cloth lying by
my side, were congealed, and that my buffalo-skins were hoary with frost.
Ice as thick as window-glass, had also formed upon the water left in our
buckets. The dawn was glorious, and the sun, when it rose above the mountain
peaks, shone with unusual splendor through the clear atmosphere.
We commenced our day’s march about eight o’clock, continuing up the river, the general course of which, as far as we have followed it, is nearly from the southwest to the northeast. Of course, there are many turns and windings which vary from this usual direction of the current of the stream. About twelve o’clock we emerged from the confined limits between the high ranges of mountains, affording us, in many places, room barely sufficient to pass, without leaving the bottom of the river, into a spacious and highly fertile valley, eight or ten miles in diameter. The grasses in this valley are very luxuriant, and their varieties numerous. There is no timber, with the exception of the clumps of small willows belting the stream, and fringing the margin of a deep and miry slough, which runs entirely across it. Pine timber, however, of stately dimensions, begins to exhibit itself on the sides and summits of the surrounding mountains. In crossing the valley on the southern side, we passed through several miles of tule, a species of rush, or reed, which here grows to the height of eight feet, on the wet or swampy soil. We saw numbers of deer and antelope in the valley, and I noticed in several places fresh footprints of a horse.
After leaving the fertile land of the valley, the trail runs over an elevated and undulating barren plain, with a growth of stunted sage, and a soil mixed with sharp volcanic gravel, very injurious to the feet of our animals, some of which have become foot-sore and lame. We gradually approached the river, which again becomes walled in by high mountains, leaving the channel and a narrow bottom alternating from one side to the other, for a road or passage. During the afternoon we passed several yellow-pine trees in the bottom, of large dimensions, the trunk of one of them measuring eighteen feet in circumference. A number of Indians were seen on the opposite bank of the river, one of whom had some fish. We beckoned to them to come over and trade with us, but they were either alarmed or would not heed our signs, and soon disappeared.
We encamped at four o’clock, much fatigued with our day’s ride. The road has generally been rough and rocky, and very exhausting to our mules. In front of us, to the west, there is an elevated range of densely timbered mountains. Distance 20 miles.
August 24. – Our mules were greatly alarmed several times during the
night, breaking their picket-ropes, and running in all directions. Indians
were doubtless prowling about for the purposes of theft, but we saw none.
We resumed our march at the usual hour. Following the river between two and three miles farther up, we turned abruptly to the right, crossing its channel about the thirtieth time, and, through a ravine or gorge, ascended the range of mountains on our fight. We reached the summit of the range by a comparatively easy and gradual ascent, passing over some rocky, but not difficult places.
The mountains are covered with a thick growth of tall and symmetrical timber. Among the varieties of trees I noticed the yellow and white-pine, the fir, the common red cedar, and the Chinese arbor vitae. many of the firs and cedars are two hundred feet in height, with a diameter at the trunk of six or eight feet, beautifully tapering to a point. Nothing could be more agreeable to us than the sight and the shade of these stately giants of the forest, piercing the sky with their tall and arrow straight forms.
We reached the summit of the gap that afforded us a passage over the mountain, about eleven o’clock, and descended a long and very steep declivity on the other side, bringing us into a small, oval-shaped and grassy valley, with a faint spring branch of pure cold water running through it. This hollow is entirely surrounded by high mountains. The soil is rich, and the grass and other vegetation luxuriant. The impersonations of romance and solitude could scarcely find a more congenial abode than this beautiful and sequestered spot.
The trail here turns to the left again, taking a nearly south course, over a rolling country, heavily timbered with pines, firs, and cedars, with occasional grassy openings. At three o’clock, P.M., we struck a small stream, flowing in a southeast course, a tributary of Truckee river. We encamped in a small fertile bottom on this stream.
Soon after we crossed Truckee river this morning, and just as we were commencing the ascent of the mountain, several Indians made their appearance, about fifty yards from the trail. The leader and chief was an old man, with a deeply-furrowed face. I rode towards him, holding out my hand in token of friendship. He motioned me not to advance further, but to pass on and leave him, as he desired to have no communication with us. I insisted upon the reason of this unfriendly demonstration; assuring him, as well as I could by signs, that we desired to be at peace, and to do them no harm. His response was, if I understood it, that we, the whites, had slaughtered his men, taken his women and children into captivity, and driven him out of his country. I endeavored to assure him that we were not of those who had done him and his tribe these wrongs, and held out my hand a second time, and moved to approach him. With great energy of gesticulation, and the strongest signs of excited aversion and dread, he again motioned us not to come nearer to him, but to pass on and leave him. The other Indians, some six or eight in number, took no part in the dialogue, but were standing in a line, several yards from their chief, with their bows and arrows in their hands. Finding that it would be useless, perhaps dangerous, to press our friendship further, we continued our march I have but little doubt, that these Indians are the remnant of some tribe that has been wantonly destroyed in some of the bloody Indian slaughters which have occurred in California. Distance 20 miles.
August 25. – The morning was clear and cold. Ice of the thickness of
window-glass was congealed on the surface of the water left in our bucket
and tin cups. The grass was white, and stiffened with frost. The extremities
of my long hair had the hoary hue of old age Notwithstanding this severity
of the temperature, and our exposure to it, we felt little or no suffering
or inconvenience from it.
Crossing the stream we travelled in a south course, over low hills and a rolling or undulating country, heavily timbered, principally with the yellow-pine, with some few firs and cedars. In the course of our day’s march, we crossed a number of small branches, with green, grassy bottoms. About one o’clock, P. M, we descended a steep declivity, and struck a stream, which I at first conjectured might be one of the tributaries of the Sacramento; but after an examination of its current, I discovered that it ran the wrong way, and was compelled, reluctantly, to believe that we had not yet reached the summit of the Sierra Nevada; and that the stream was a tributary of, or the main Truckee river.
The trail runs along this stream a short distance, and then leaving it on the right hand, winds under a range of high mountainous elevations, until it strikes again the same watercourse, in a distance of a few miles.
About two o’clock, P.M., we suddenly and unexpectedly came in sight of a small lake, some four or five miles in length, and about two miles in breadth. We approached this lake by ascending a small stream which runs through a flat bottom. On every side, except this outlet from it, the lake is surrounded by mountains of great elevation, heavily and darkly timbered with pines, firs, and cedars. The sheet of water just noticed, is the head of Truckee river, and is called by the emigrants who first discovered and named it, Truckee Lake.
[It may not be improper for me in this place to give the origin of this name. A small party of emigrants, with but -little knowledge d the country, and the difficulties obstructing their progress, late in the autumn of 1844, were attempting to force their way through these mountains to California. They were lost, and nearly discouraged. The snows fell in the mountains before they had reached the Pass; and death by starvation, frost, and fatigue, was staring them in the face. At the crisis of their distress, while forcing their way up the river, an Indian made his appearance, and in a most friendly manner volunteered his services to guide a portion of the party over the mountains. His appearance and eccentricities of manner resembled so much those of a man by the name of Truckee, who happened to have been an acquaintance of one of the party, that they gave the Indian the name of Truckee; and called the river and lake, along which he conducted them, after this name. This same Indian (Truckee) was the principal of the two who encamped with us twenty-five miles above the "Sink" of Mary’s river. He and his brother afterwards came over into California with a company of emigrants; and accompanied the California battalion on its march from Monterey to the Ciudad de los Angelos.]
The Alps, so celebrated in history and by all travellers and admirers of mountain landscape, cannot, I am satisfied, present scenery more wild, more rugged, more grand, more romantic, and more enchantingly picturesque and beautiful, than that which surrounds this lake, of which the lake itself composes a part.
Just before we struck the shore of the lake at its lower or eastern end, we came to a tolerably well-constructed log-house* with one room, which evidently had been erected and occupied by civilized men. The floor inside of this house was covered with feathers, and strewn around it on the outside, were pieces of ragged cloth, torn newspapers, and manuscript letters, the writing in most of which was nearly obliterated. The title of one of the newspapers, was that of a religious publication in Philadelphia. It had, from its date, been printed several years. One of the letters which I picked up and examined, bore the frank of some member of congress, and was addressed to "Dr. John Townsend, Bloomfield, Ind." Another letter was dated at Morristown, N.J., but by whom it was written, or to whom addressed, I could not decipher. The emigrant party which erected this cabin is the same to which I have alluded above. They were belated in the mountains, and suffered almost incredible hardships, before they reached the settlements of California. [* This is the place where the horrible disasters to the emigrants of 1846 took place.]
We experienced considerable difficulty in making our way round the northeastern side of the lake, the steep side of the mountain being in many places so boggy that our mules sunk to their bellies in the mire. We reached the upper end of the lake at four o’clock, and encamped on the left of the trail, in a small grassy opening surrounded by tall and dense timber. The forest in the narrow but fertile bottom of the lake, and on the sides of the mountains, where there is any soil for its sustenance, is dense, and the trees are of immense size. A brilliantly green and highly ornamental moss covers the limbs of many of the trees. The rock composing the mountains here, is chiefly granite.
Just beyond us, and overlooking the gap where we expect to-morrow to pass the crest of the Sierra Nevada, is a high mountain with a natural fortification upon its extreme summit, which but for its cyclopean magnitude, the wild and desolate country in which it is situated, and its unapproachable height, the observer would at once say was the work of human hands, so apparently regular and perfect is the construction of its walls, turrets, and bastions.
While travelling along the side of the mountain near the shore of the lake, we found a most delicious variety of the raspberry, ripe and in full perfection. Its flavor is, I think, fully equal, if not superior to any raspberry I have before tasted. Were it cultivated in our gardens, I cannot doubt that it would supersede the varieties which they produce, and which we so much prize.
After we encamped, Jacob and McClary ascended one of the rocky peaks of the mountain, the base of which rested near us. When they returned, which they did not until it was nearly dark, they informed us that they saw on the mountain a female grisly bear with cubs. Brown killed a fat deer just before sunset, on the densely-timbered bottom of the lake near our camp, the meat of which in our nearly destitute condition was highly acceptable. Nothing can exceed the almost awful profoundness of the solitude by which we are surrounded. Distance 24 miles.
August 26. – We did not leave our encampment until the sun, rising above
the lofty mountains to the east, dispensed its warm and cheerful rays
through the openings of the magnificent forest, by which we had been
sheltered for the night. It is quite impossible to convey by language an
adequate conception of the symmetrical beauty and stateliness of the forest
trees surrounding the lake, and covering the sides of the adjacent
mountains. A skilful artist with his pencil and his brush, alone, can do
justice to this contrast of Alpine and Elysian scenery. The sublime altitude
of the mountains, their granite and barren heads piercing the sky; the
umbrageous foliage of the tall pines and cedars, deepening in verdure and density as the forest
approaches the more gentle and grassy slopes along the banks of the lake,
the limpid and tranquil surface of which daguerreotypes distinctly
every object, from the moss-covered rocks laved by its waves to the bald and
inaccessible summits of the Sierra -- these scenic objects, with the fresh
incense of the forest, and the fragrant odor of the wild rose, constituted a
landscape that, from associations, melted the sensibilities, blunted as they
were by long exposure and privation, and brought back to our memories the
endearments of home and the pleasures of civilization.
The trail leaves the shore of the lake on the right hand, ascending over some rocky hills, and after crossing some difficult ravines and swampy ground densely timbered, we reached the base of the crest of the Sierra Nevada. To mount this was our next great difficulty. Standing at the bottom and looking upwards at the perpendicular, and in some places, impending granite cliffs, the observer, without any further knowledge on the subject, would doubt if man or beast had ever made good a passage over them. But we knew that man and horse, oxen and wagon, women and children, had crossed this formidable and apparently impassable barrier erected by Nature between the desert and the fertile districts on the coast of the Pacific. What their energy had accomplished, impelled though it had been by an invincible desperation, we knew could be achieved by us.
In good heart, therefore, we commenced the steep ascent, leaping our animals from crag to crag, and climbing in places nearly perpendicular precipices of smooth granite rocks. One of our mules in this ascent, heavily packed, fell backwards twice, and rolled downwards, until her descent was interrupted by a projecting rock. We thought, each time, that her career of duty and usefulness had terminated; and that her bones would bleach among the barren rocks of the mountain. But she revived from the stunning and bruising effects of her backward somersets; and with great exertions on our own part in assisting her, she reached with us the summit of the Pass.
The view from the crest of the Sierra to the east, is inexpressibly comprehensive, grand, and picturesque. After congratulating ourselves upon the safe achievement of our morning feat, and breathing our mules a few minutes, we proceeded on our journey. A mile brought us to a small dimple on the top of the mountain, in the centre of which is a miniature lake, surrounded by green grass.
It was some time before we could determine our course down the Sierra on the western side. The emigrant wagon-trail was here entirely effaced. Around the small lake we saw the traces of encampments; but beyond it, in no direction, could we discover any signs that man had ever passed. Accompanied by Col. Russell, I rode several miles down the left side of the ravine. We experienced great difficulty in making our way through the rocks, and over fallen timber. After an hour or more spent in this exploration, we returned to the lake, and found that our party had all left it. We could hear faintly, however, at a long distance, an occasional whoop, which was echoed by the caverns and the rocks of the mountain. Searching about, we ascertained, by the fresh trail of our party, that they had left the lake on the fight hand, over a small rocky elevation; on the other side of which, we could discover the indentations of wagon-wheels made last year. Following the fresh trail, which it was difficult to do, over the rocky surface of the ground, and the sound of the whoops of our party, we came up to them after an hour’s hard and difficult riding.
Descending the rocky ravine a few miles, we emerged from it and entered a beautiful level valley, some four or five miles in length from east to west, and about two miles in breadth. A narrow, sluggish stream runs through this valley, the waters of which are of considerable depth, and the banks steep and miry. A luxuriant growth of grasses, of an excellent quality, covered the entire valley with the richest verdure. Flowers were in bloom; and although late in August, the vegetation presented all the tenderness and freshness of May. This valley has been named by the emigrants "Uber Valley ;" and the stream which runs through it, and is a tributary of the Rio de los Plumas, or Feather river, has the same name. It is sometimes pronounced Juba; but I think Uber is the correct etymology. How the name was derived, I never could learn.
We found, after some search, a place where we could ford the stream without stalling our animals in its soft and spongy banks and bed. But it was some time before we could discover at what point the wagon-trail left the valley.
Leaving the valley we crossed a high undulating country, timbered with pines, firs, and cedars, whose symmetrical proportions and rich foliage, with the bright green moss clothing their branches, would baffle the skill and coloring of the most artistical painter, to represent them faithfully on canvass. This country is watered by a connected chain of seven small lakes, between which, and surrounded by the beautiful and fairy-like groves I have mentioned, there are several green grassy lawns and openings, which lend to the scenery a charm and a fascination more like that which the imagination ascribes to the effect of enchantment, or the creations of a beautiful dream, than the presentations of reality. The soil of this rolling country is rich and highly fertile, where there is any moisture to sustain vegetation.
Our course continued nearly south, until we reached and entered another deep ravine or gorge, down which runs a small stream of water, in a direction nearly west. After proceeding down this ravine a few miles, the elevated mountain walls on both sides of the stream, at the foot of which immense granite rocks raise their impassable forms, approach each other so nearly as to form a caZon, to avoid which the trail winds up and down the side of the mountain, over and under steep precipices and impending cliffs.
Our progress during the entire day, owing to the obstructions in our route, has been slow. A little before five o’clock, P.M., after having labored up to the summit of the mountain, we commenced its descent again. I left our party here, riding on as rapidly as I could, or rather plunging down the steep side of the mountain, in order to find and select an encampment for the night. About a mile, after I had reached the foot of the mountain, I found a small opening in the timber, with an easy access to the stream, but deficient in grass, and here, there being no better spot in view, I concluded to encamp for the night.
I had not remained long m this place before two or three of the pack-mules came rushing towards me, with their packs much disarranged, snorting with excitement, and smoking with perspiration. Others soon came following after them, in the same condition. Not being able to account for this singular excitement of the mules, after waiting a few moments, I started back to meet the party, and ascertain what had occurred since I left them to produce so much irregularity in our usual order of march. I met one of them near the foot of the mountain. In response to my inquiries, he said that in descending the mountain they had been attacked by a numerous swarm of yellow hornets, which, stinging the mules, they became frantic with pain and uncontrollable; and rushing down the mountain and through timber and brush, in order to force their venomous assailants to leave them, some of their riders had been thrown, and the baggage had been so much scattered that considerable time had been required to recover it. The party, with most of the baggage, soon came up, and we moved on to our camp. Some of them had their clothes much torn, by the mules, on which they were mounted, rushing into the thick brush.
After we had encamped I crossed the stream, which has a very rocky bed, to ascertain if there was any convenient spot where the grazing would be better for our mules. I found, about a mile distant, two openings in the timber of the bottom, in which the grass was green and rank. Returning to camp, and assisted by McClary, (no other member of the party volunteering,) we drove the mules across the stream, and after picketing them in the tall grass, and kindling a good fire from some dead logs of fallen timber, for their protection, we bivouacked among them in the opening for the night. The timber surrounding the circular space which we occupied is very tall. The bright blaze of our fire defined indistinctly the columnar shapes of the pines, and their overarching branches. Fancy soon pictured our residence for the night a spacious gothic temple, whose walls had mouldered away, leaving the pillars and the skeleton roof, through which the bright stars were twinkling, standing, in defiance of the assaults of time and the fury of the elements. The temperature of the evening is delightful, and the sky serene and cloudless.
One of our party this morning picked up a human skull near the trail. Some unfortunate emigrant, probably, had been interred near the spot, and, being exhumed by the Indians or wolves, this was a portion of his skeleton. I saw large numbers of pheasants during our march to-day, and shot one with my pistol while riding along. Raspberries, and a small, bitter cherry, have been quite abundant in places. Distance 25 miles.
Bear Valley – Provisions exhausted – California quail – Manzanita – The pine-nut – Deep hollow – Evergreen oak – First view of the Sacramento Valley – A body of California Indians – Live-oak acorns – Arrive at Johnson’s – Indian dandy – Cheering and astonishing news from Mexico – Obtain food – A Californian newspaper.
AUGUST 27. – A slight frost was perceptible on the grass this morning. We
descended the stream, on which we were encamped, several miles, keeping
generally in sight of it, and passing around several caZones
by climbing, with much difficulty, the steep sides of the mountains. We
reached at last a caZon
of several miles in length, around which it was impossible to pass without
ascending to the summit of the steep and rocky ridge. Passing from this
ridge, in a southwest course, we crossed a valley in which there is a small
lake. From this lake we returned back to the ridge again, along which we
travelled over a very rocky and difficult road, through tall and dense
timber, until three o’clock, P. M., when we reached a narrow place, so steep
on both sides and so sharp on the top that our mules could with difficulty
stand upon it.
The emigrant wagons of last year were let down this precipice, on the northern side, with ropes. With considerable difficulty we got our mules down it. A descent of two miles brought us into a handsome, fertile valley, five or six miles in length, and varying from one to two in breadth. This is called "Bear Valley." Vegetation is very luxuriant and fresh. In addition to the usual variety of grasses and some flowers, I noticed large patches of wild peas. We found a small stream winding through it, bordered by clumps of willows. We encamped near this rivulet of the lonely mountain-vale, under some tall pines.
Here was cooked the last of our flour. A pint of rice, a skin or scrap of rancid bacon, weighing a half-pound, and some coffee, (our sugar having been exhausted for two weeks,) compose our stock of provisions for the residue of our journey. The truly impoverished condition of our larder produced a slight sensation of uneasiness and regret. But a hope that we were not far from the settlements; a huge, blazing fire, made of the dry pine logs, flashing its cheerful light over our camp; the peaceful and holy serenity of the scenery, illuminated by the rays of the waxing moon shining with brilliant splendor from the vaporless blue arch of the heavens, soon dispelled all unpleasant forebodings in regard to the future.
We flushed, in the course of the day’s march, several flocks of the California quail or partridge. It is not so large as the quail of the Atlantic. Its plumage is dark and glossy, and it has a small tuft or crown of feathers on its head. It is a most graceful and beautiful bird. There has been but little variation in the growth of timber. A few oaks have exhibited themselves among the pines, firs, and cedars. We have met occasionally with a reddish berry called by the Californians, manzanita, (little apple.) The berry is produced by small trees which stand in clumps, about ten or twelve feet in height, shedding their bark annually, leaving a smooth red surface. The flavor of the fruit is an agreeable acid, something like that of our apple. The burrs of the pine, which have fallen to the ground, are sometimes twelve inches in length, and contain a nut, (pi–on,) which, although it is said to be nutritious, is not agreeable to the taste. A shrub, which growing in our gardens is called the waxberry, I saw in several places to-day. The signs of the grisly bear and of the deer have been numerous since we crossed the Pass of the Sierra Nevada, but not one of these animals has been seen on this side. Distance 24 miles.
August 28. – A cup of coffee without sugar constituted our breakfast. Our
march to-day has been one of great fatigue, and almost wholly without
incident or interest. During the forenoon we were constantly engaged in
rising and descending the sides of the high mountain ranges, on either hand
of the stream, to avoid the caZones,
deep chasms and ravines, and immense ledges of granite rocks, with which the
narrow valley is choked. In the afternoon we travelled along a high ridge,
sometimes over elevated peaks, with deep and frightful abysses yawning their
darkened and hideous depths beneath us. About five o’clock, P. M., by a
descent so steep for a mile and a half, that ourselves and our animals slid
rather than walked down it, we entered a small hollow or ravine, which we
named "Steep Hollow." A gurgling brook of pure cold water runs through it
over a rocky bed. In the hollow there was about a quarter of an acre of
pretty good grass, and our mules soon fed this down to its roots, without
leaving a blade standing.
Having nothing else to do, we made large fires of the dead oak timber that had been cut down by the emigrants of previous years, for the purpose of subsisting their animals upon its foliage. A cup of coffee without sugar, was our supper.
The oak timber has been more plentiful to-day than yesterday. The pines, firs, and cedars maintain their majestic dimensions. Our animals are much exhausted. The road has been exceedingly difficult, and consequently our progress has been slow. Distance 20 miles.
August 29. – The morning was clear and severely cold. The keen
atmosphere, as soon as I threw off my blankets, just before daylight,
produced an aguish sensation that I have not previously felt on the journey.
The depth and consequent dampness of our encampment, probably, was one cause
of this affection. Our physical exhaustion ‘from incessant labor, and the
want of adequate nourishment, was another.
Nuttall, a young gentleman of our mess, of fine intelligence and many interesting and amiable qualities of mind and heart, feeling, as we all did, the faintness, if not the pangs of hunger, insisted that if we would delay the commencement of our day’s march a short time, he would prepare a soup from the rancid bacon-skins remaining in our provision-sack. In compliance with his request, the camp-kettle was placed on the fire, and the scraps placed in it, and in about fifteen minutes the soup was declared to be made. We gathered around it, with high expectations of a repast, under the circumstances, of great richness, and a high, if not a delicate flavor. But a single spoonful to each seemed to satisfy the desires of the whole party for this kind of food, if it did not their appetites. It produced a nausea that neither hunger nor philosophy could curb or resist.
We rose from the deep hollow of our encampment by a very steep ascent, and mounting the high ridges once more, continued along them nearly the whole day, in a general southwest course. The mountains have not been so rugged or so elevated to-day, but have approximated nearer the dimensions and features of hills, and we have found less difficulty in our progress over them. This change in the physical formation of the surface of the country, cheered us with the hope that we should obtain a view of the valley of the Sacramento before night. But as we ascended elevation after elevation, with anticipations of a prospect so gratifying, our hopes were as often disappointed by a succession of hills or mountains rising one after another beyond us.
We crossed, near the close of our day’s march, one or two small valleys or bottoms timbered with evergreen oaks, (Quercus Ilex,) giving them the appearance of old apple-orchards. The shape and foliage of this oak, previous to minute examination, presents an exact resemblance of the apple-tree. The channels of the water-courses running through these valleys were dry, and the grass parched and dead. A plant having a yellow flower, dispensing a strong and agreeable aromatic odor, perfumed the atmosphere in many places. Some berries, but not very abundant or pleasant to the taste, were observed. We saw in a number of places, ladders erected by the Indians, for climbing the pine-trees to gather the nuts, and the poles used for the same purpose. An Indian was seen, but he ran from us with great speed, disappearing behind the forest-trees. Some hares and a fox were started, and a hare was killed by one of the party.
One of our pack-mules became so exhausted this afternoon, that she refused to proceed. After stripping and vainly trying various expedients to urge her along, I haltered her with a tight noose around the nose, and fastening the end of the rope to the horn of my saddle, dragged her into camp. She had performed such faithful service, that I could not leave her to perish of hunger and thirst, or to be devoured by the wolves of the wilderness. The feet of all our mules are very tender, and they move with much apparent pain. We encamped at five o’clock in a ravine, half a mile to the left of the trail, where we found. some small pools of water and a little dead grass in their vicinity. A soup of the hare killed on our march to-day, constituted our supper and only meal for two days. Distance 25 miles.
August 30. – The temperature this morning was pleasant, and the
atmosphere perfectly clear and calm. We commenced our march early,
determined, if possible, to force our way out of the mountains and to reach
Johnson’s, the nearest settlement in the valley of Sacramento, about 40
miles, above or north of Sutter’s Fort, before we encamped.
After travelling some three or four miles rising and descending a number of hills, from the summit of one more elevated than the others surrounding it, the spacious valley of the Sacramento suddenly burst upon my view, at an apparent distance of fifteen miles. A broad line of timber running through the centre of the valley indicated the course of the main river, and smaller and fainter lines on either side of this, winding through the brown and flat plain, marked the channels of its tributaries. I contemplated this most welcome scene with such emotions of pleasure as may be imagined by those who have ever crossed the desert plains and mountains of western America, until Jacob, who was in advance of the remainder of the party, came within the reach of my voice. I shouted to him that we were "out of the woods" - to pull off his hat and give three cheers, so loud that those in the rear could hear them. Very soon the huzzas of those behind were ringing and echoing through the hills, valleys, and forests, and the whole party came up with an exuberance of joy in their motions and depicted upon their countenances. It was a moment of cordial and heartfelt congratulations.
Taking a direct course west, in order to reach the valley at the nearest point, we soon struck a small horse-trail, which we followed over low gravelly hills with grassy hollows between, timbered with the evergreen oak, forming in many places a most inviting landscape. About one o’clock we discovered at the distance of half a mile, a number of men, apparently twenty or thirty. Some of them were dressed in white shirts and pantaloons, with the Mexican sombrero, or broad-brim hat, others were nearly naked and resembled the Indians we had frequently seen on the eastern side of the Sierra. They had evidently discovered us before we saw them, for they seemed to be in great commotion, shouting and running in various directions. Some of our party suggested that they might be a body of Mexican soldiers stationed here for the purpose of opposing the entrance of the emigrants into California, a conjecture that seemed reasonable, under the probable existing relations between Mexico and the United States. However, upon a careful examination I could not discover that they had any arms, and felt pretty well assured from their movements, that they were not an organized body of soldiers. But halting until the whole party came up, I requested them to see that all their pieces were charged and capped, which being done, we moved forward to the point (a small grove of oaks on a gentle elevation) where the most numerous body of the strange men were concentrated. We rode up to them, at the same time holding out our hands in token of friendship, a signal which they reciprocated immediately.
They were evidently very much rejoiced to find that we had no hostile designs upon them. With the exception of two halfbreed Spaniards, they were Indians, and several of them conversed in Spanish, and were or had been the servants of settlers in the valley. One of the half-breeds, of a pleasing and intelligent countenance and good address, introduced us to their chief, (El Capitan,) and wished to know if we had not some tobacco to give him. I had a small quantity of tobacco, about half of which I gave to the chief, and distributed the residue among the party as far as it would go. I saw, however, that the chief divided his portion among those who received none. El Capitan was a man of about forty-five, of large frame and great apparent muscular power, but his countenance was heavy, dull, and melancholy, manifesting neither good humor nor intelligence. His long, coarse, and matted hair fell down upon his shoulders in a most neglected condition. A laded cotton handkerchief was tied around his head. I could see none of the ornaments of royalty upon him, but his clothing was much inferior to that of many of his party, who I presume had obtained theirs by laboring for the white settlers. Many of them were in a state of nudity.
We soon learned from them that they were a party engaged in gathering acorns, which to these poor Indians are what wheat and maize are to us. They showed us large quantities in their baskets under the trees. When dried and pulverized, the flour of the acorn is made into bread or mush, and is their "staff of life." It is their chief article of subsistence in this section of California. Their luxuries, such as bull-beef and horse-meat, they obtain by theft, or pay for in labor at exorbitant rates. The acorn of California, from the evergreen oak, (Quercus Ilex,) is much larger, more oily, and less bitter than on the Atlantic side of the continent. In fruitful seasons the ground beneath the trees is covered with the nuts, and the Indians have the providence, when the produce of the oak is thus plentiful, to provide against a short crop and the famine which must necessarily result to them from it, by laying up a supply greater than they will consume in one year.
We inquired the distance to the residence of Mr. [William] Johnson. They made signs indicating that it was but a short distance. After some little delay we prevailed upon one of them who was naked, by promising him a reward, to accompany us as our guide. He conducted us safely, in about an hour and a half, to the house of Mr. Johnson, situated on Bear creek, a tributary of the Rio de los Plumas, near the edge of the valley of the Sacramento. The house of Mr. Johnson is a small building of two rooms, one-half constructed of logs, the other of adobes or sun-dried bricks. Several pens made of poles and pickets surround the house. A building of any kind, inhabited by civilized beings, was almost a curiosity to us. Some of our party, when about a mile distant, fancied from something white which they saw in the door, resembling at a distance the shape of a woman clad in light garments, that it was Mrs. Johnson, who would be there to welcome them with all the hospitality of an American lady. Great was their disappointment, however, when they came in front of the door, to find it closed. A light frame with a raw-hide nailed upon it, was the construction of the door. The central portion of the raw-hide was white, the natural color of the animal from which it had been taken, and into this melted the graceful figure, and the welcome countenance of the white woman in white. Mr. Johnson was not at home, and the house was shut up. This we learned from a little Indian, the only human object we could find about the premises; he intimated by signs, however, that Mr. Johnson would return when the sun set.
We encamped under some trees in front of the house, resolved to do as well as we could, in our half-famished condition, until Mr. J. returned. In looking around the place, we saw where a quantity of wheat had been threshed, consequently there should be flour in the house. In one of the pens there were several young calves, showing conclusively that there must be milk. There was a small attempt at gardening, but no vegetables visible. We tried to prevail upon the Indian to bring us some flour, but the little heathen shook his head, either not understanding us or signifying that he could not get at it. We then made him comprehend that we wanted milk, and after showing him a bright-colored cotton handkerchief, he demanded our bucket and started with it after the cows. They were brought to the pen where the calves were confined, and one of them being fastened by the horns with a raw-hide rope, the calf was admitted to her to keep her gentle during the process of milking. Our bucket was nearly filled with rich milk, and this, with a cup of coffee, took off the edge of our hunger.
In the mean time we performed our ablutions in the creek, and having shed our much-worn clothing, we presented most of it to the naked Indian who acted as our guide. He was soon clad in a complete suit from head to feet, and strutted about with a most dandified and self-satisfied air. A small pocket looking-glass completed his happiness. He left us with a bundle of rags under his arms, nearly overjoyed at his good luck.
At sunset the dogs about the house began to bark most vociferously, and ran off over a gentle rise of ground to the north. Two men on horseback soon made their appearance on the rising ground, and, seeing us, rode to our camp. They were two Franco-Americans, originally from Canada or St. Louis, who had wandered to California in some trapping expedition, and had remained in the country. They were arranging to build houses and settle permanently in this neighborhood. From them we learned the gratifying intelligence, that the whole of Upper California was in possession of the United States. Intelligence, they further stated, had been received, that General Taylor, after having met and defeated the Mexican forces in four pitched battles, killing an incredible number, some forty or fifty thousand, had triumphantly marched into the city of Mexico. The last part of this news, of course, judging from the situation of General Taylor when we left the United States, (war not having then been declared,) was impossible; but sifting the news and comparing one statement with another, the result to our minds was, that General T. had been eminently successful, defeating the Mexicans, whenever he had met them, with considerable slaughter. This, of course, produced much exultation and enthusiasm among us.
We informed the two gentlemen, that we were and had been for some time entirely destitute of provisions, and were in a state bordering upon starvation. One of them immediately started off at a gallop to his cabin not far distant, and soon returned with a pan of unbolted flour and some tallow to cook it with. This, he said, was all he had, and if such had not been the case, he would have brought us something more. But we could not comprehend the use of tallow in cooking. We, however, afterwards learned that beef-tallow in California is used for culinary purposes in the same manner that hog’s-lard is with us; and, on the whole, the prejudice against it being done away with by habit, I do not know that the former is not preferable to the latter - so much does habit and prejudice enter into the account and make up the sum of our likes and dislikes. We felt very grateful to this gentleman for his opportune present, for he would receive- no compensation for it; and the fires were immediately blazing to render his generous donation of practical benefit.
Mr. Johnson returned home about nine o’clock. He was originally a New England sailor, and cast upon this remote coast by some of the vicissitudes common to those of his calling, had finally turned farmer or ranchero. He is a bachelor, with Indian servants, and stated that he had no food prepared for us, but such as was in the house was at our service. A pile of small cheeses, and numerous pans of milk with thick cream upon them, were exhibited on the table, and they disappeared with a rapidity dangerous to the health of those who consumed them.
Mr. J. gave us the first number of the first newspaper ever published in California, entitled "THE CALIFORNIAN," and published and edited at Monterey by Dr. ROBERT SEMPLE, a native Kentuckian. It was dated about two weeks back. From the columns of this small sheet we gleaned some farther items of general intelligence from the United States, all of great interest to us. The leading paragraph, under the editorial head, was, in substance, a call upon the people of California to set about the organization of a territorial government, with a view to immediate annexation to the United States. This seemed and sounded very odd. We had been travelling in as straight a line as we could, crossing rivers, mountains, and deserts, nearly four months beyond the bounds of civilization, and for the greater distance beyond the boundaries of territory claimed by our government; but here, on the remotest confines of the world as it were, where we expected to visit and explore a foreign country, we found ourselves under American authority, and about to be "annexed" to the American Union. Events such as this are very remarkable, and are well calculated to excite the pride and vanity, if they do not always tally with the reason and judgment, of American citizens and republicans. Distance 17 miles.
Soil of Johnson’s rancho—His crops—Price of flour—Soil of the Sacramento valley—Sinclair’s rancho—A white woman—Sutter’s Fort— New Helvetia—Interview with Captain Sutter—Reflections upon our journey—Table of distances from Independence to San Francisco.
AUGUST 31.—The soil of the bottom-land of Mr. Johnson’s rancho appears to
be fertile and productive of good crops. He settled here last. October. A
small wheat-field, although the season was not regarded as a good one,
produced him 300 bushels, an average of 25 or 30 bushels to the acre. In
addition to this he raised a crop of barley, the kernel of which is the
largest I have ever previously seen. I saw corn standing -in the field, but
it did not look promising,—the ground was evidently too dry for it.
We procured of Mr. Johnson a quantity of unbolted flour at the rate of $8 per 100 lbs.; also some fresh beef, cheese, and butter, (the last three luxuries, which we had not for a long time tasted.) At 1 o’clock we marched south seven miles, and encamped on the bank of a chain of small ponds of water. The grass around the ponds was rank and green, and we were protected from the hot rays of the afternoon sun by the shade of evergreen oaks. This oak, which is the prevailing timber in the valleys of Upper California, although it much resembles the live-oak of Florida, is not precisely the same species. It is much more porous and brittle. We saw on the plain several flocks of antelope, one of which numbered at least two hundred. A species of the jackal, called here the coyote, frequently approached within a few rods of us. Large numbers of wild ducks were flying about and swimming in the ponds. We shot several of these. Distance 7 miles.
September 1.—A clear, pleasant morning. We took a south course down the
valley, and at 4 o’clock, P. M., reached the residence of JOHN SINCLAIR,
Esq., on the Rio de los Americanos, about two miles east of Sutter’s Fort.
The valley of the Sacramento, as far as we have travelled down it, is from
30 to 40 miles in width, from the foot of the low benches of the Sierra
Nevada, to the elevated range of hills on the western side. The composition
of the soil appears to be such as to render it highly productive, with
proper cultivation, of the small grains. The ground is trodden up by immense
herds of cattle and horses which grazed here early in the spring, when it
was wet and apparently miry. We passed through large evergreen oak groves,
some of them miles in width. Game is very abundant. We frequently saw deer
feeding quietly one or two hundred yards from us, and large flocks of
Mr. Sinclair, with a number of horses and Indians, was engaged in threshing wheat. His crop this year, he informed me, would be about three thousand bushels. The soil of his rancho, situated in the bottom of the Rio de los Americanos, just above its junction with the Sacramento, is highly fertile. His wheat-fields are secured against the numerous herds of cattle and horses, which constitute the largest item in the husbandry of this country, by ditches about five feet in depth, and four or five feet over at the surface. The dwelling-house and out-houses of Mr. Sinclair, are all constructed after American models, and present a most comfortable and neat appearance. It was a pleasant scene, after having travelled many months in the wilderness, to survey this abode of apparent thrift and enjoyment, resembling so nearly those we had left in the far-off country behind us.
In searching for the ford over the Rio de los Americanos, in order to proceed on to Sutter’s Fort, I saw a lady of a graceful though fragile figure, dressed in the costume of our own countrywomen. She was giving some directions to her female servants, and did not discover me until I spoke to her and inquired the position of the ford. Her pale and delicate, but handsome and expressive countenance, indicated much surprise, produced by my sudden and unexpected salutation. But collecting herself, she replied to my inquiry in vernacular English, and the sounds of her voice, speaking our own language, and her civilized appearance, were highly pleasing. This lady, I presume, was Mrs. Sinclair, but I never saw her afterwards.
Crossing the Rio de los Americanos, the waters of which, at this season, are quite shallow at the ford, we proceeded over a well-beaten road to Sutter’s Fort, arriving there when the sun was about an hour and a half high. Riding up to the front gate I saw two Indian sentinels pacing to and fro before it, and several Americans, or foreigners, (as all who are not Californians by birth are here called,) sitting in the gateway, dressed in buckskin pantaloons and blue sailors’ shirts with white stars worked on the collars. I inquired if Captain Sutter was in the fort? A very small man, with a peculiarly sharp red face and a most voluble tongue, gave the response. HQ was probably a corporal. He said in substance, that perhaps I was not aware of the great changes which had recently taken place in California;—that the fort now belonged to the United States, and that Captain Sutter, although he was in the fort, had no control over it. He was going into a minute history of the complicated circumstances and events which had produced this result, when I reminded him that we were too much fatigued to listen to a long discourse, but if Captain Sutter was inside the walls, and could conveniently step to the gate a moment, I would be glad to see him. A lazy-looking Indian with a ruminating countenance, after some time spent in parleying, was dispatched with my message to Captain Sutter.
Capt. S. soon came to the gate, and saluted us with much gentlemanly courtesy, and friendly cordiality. He said that events had transpired in the country, which, to his deep regret, had so far deprived him of the control of his own property, that he did not feel authorized to invite us inside of the walls to remain. The fort, he said, was occupied by soldiers, under the pay of the U. S., and commanded by Mr. Kern. I replied to him, that although it would be something of a novelty to sleep under a roof, after our late nomadic life, it was a matter of small consideration. If he would supply us with some meat, a little salt, and such vegetables as he might have, we neither asked nor desired more from his hospitality, which we all knew was liberal, to the highest degree of generosity.
A servant was immediately dispatched with orders to furnish us with a supply of beef, salt, melons, onions, and tomatoes, for which no compensation would be received. We proceeded immediately to a grove of live-oak timber, about two miles west of the fort, and encamped within a half a mile of the Sacramento flyer. Our fires were soon blazing brightly, added to the light of which was the brilliant effulgence of the moon, now near its full, clothing the tree-tops, and the far-stretching landscape, with a silvery light; and rendering our encampment far more agreeable to me than the confined walls of any edifice erected by human hands.
With sincere and devout thankfulness I laid myself on my hard bed, to sleep once more within the boundaries of civilization. Since we left our homes none of our party have met with any serious accidents or disasters. With the small number of only nine men, we have travelled from Fort Laramie to Sutter’s Fort, a distance of nearly 1700 miles, over trackless and barren deserts, and almost impassable mountains; through tribes of savage Indians, encountering necessarily many difficulties, and enduring great hardships and privations; and here we all are, in good health, with the loss of nothing materially valuable belonging to us, except a single animal, which gave out from fatigue, and was left on the road. We have had no quarrels with Indians, rendering it necessary in self-defence to take their lives; but on the contrary, whenever we have met them on our journey, by our deportment towards them, their friendship has been conciliated, or their hostility softened and disarmed, without striking a blow. We uniformly respected their feelings and their rights, and they respected us.. Results so favorable as these, to expeditions constituted as was ours, and acting under such circumstances, are not often recorded. Distance 28 miles.
TABLE of distances from Independence, Missouri, to Sutter’s Fort, on the Sacramento river, Upper California.
The following is a table of distances from Independence to Sutter’s Fort, in California, by the route which I travelled, according to the daily estimate of our marches.
|From Independence, Mo., to Fort Laramie,||672 miles.|
|From Fort Laramie to "Pacific Springs," (South Pass,)||311 "|
|From the "South Pass," (Pacific Springs,) to Fort Bridger||133 "|
|From Fort Bridger to Salt Lake||106 "|
|From Salt Lake to Mary’s river||315 "|
|Down Mary’s river to the "Sink,"||274 "|
|From the "Sink" to Truckee Lake||134 "|
|From Truckee Lake to Johnson’s,||111 "|
|From Johnson’s to Sutter’s Fort,||35 "|
|Total distance from Independence, Mo., to Sutter’s Fort, in California||2091 "|
|The distance from Sutter’s Fort by land, to the town of San Francisco, (via the Puebla of San Jose,) near the mouth of the Bay of S. F., and five miles from the Pacific Ocean, is||
What I Saw in California:
Part 1: Independence, Missouri, to the Green River
Part 2: Hastings Cutoff to California
Part 3: The Donner Party
Part 4: In Northern California
Part 5: To Southern California and Back
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