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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


Placerville, Cal., July 31, 1859.

There are two emigrant trails from Salt Lake City to Carson Valley and the pass thence into California—the older and more favored, starts north-west from the Mormon Zion, passes north and west of Salt Lake, crossing Weber and Bear Rivers near their mouths, with several small creeks, and gradually veering west and south-west so as to strike the head springs of the Humboldt, which stream it follows more than three hundred miles to its “sink,” within a hundred miles of the eastern Base of the Sierra Nevada. The other route leaves the Mormon capital in a south-westerly direction, touches Lake Utah on the north, passes west of that Lake through Provo, and thence southerly through Fillmore, the nominal capital of the territory, and so down by Soyier River and Lake nearly to the southern boundary of Utah, whence it stretches west, nearly upon the southern rim of the Great Basin, on which are the “Mountain-Meadows,” where a large emigrant party from Arkansas was so atrociously massacred in 1857. Thence this trail turns north-west to hit the sink of Carson River. (I can get no tolerable map of Utah, and the above may not be entirely correct, but is nearly so.) It will be seen that each of these routes must necessarily be very circuitous, and that almost, if not quite half the territory lies between them. So, last year, Major Chorpening,, the contractor for carrying the Salt Lake and California Mail, resolved to seek a shorter route midway between them, which he partially succeeded in establishing. This route passes Camp Floyd, forty-three miles south of Salt Lake City, and thence strikes west south-west through “the Desert,” so called, which it penetrates for one hundred and fifty miles or more; thence turning north-west to reach and follow the original emigrant and mail-route down the Humboldt. Even thus, it is somewhat shorter than any other traveled route from Salt Lake to Carson Valley, but still very tortuous, and at least one hundred and fifty miles longer than it should be. Capt. Simpson, of the U. S. Topographical Corps, has recently made his way quite through the desert, on a route which makes the distance only five hundred and sixty-one miles from Camp Floyd to Carson Valley; whereas it is six hundred and seventy by the present mail-route, and further by any other. Capt. Simpson is now engaged in further surveys, whereby he hopes* [* These hopes have since been fully realized. The new direct central route is not only one hundred miles shorter, but is said to be better supplied with grass and water, than that I traveled.] to shorten the distance from Salt Lake City to Genoa, near the head of Carson Valley, to about five hundred and fifty miles; and two of Major Chorpening’s superintendents are now examining the new portion of this route, intending, to recommend a transfer of the mail to it should they deem it practicable for wagons, and not hopelessly destitute of grass and water. I trust they will find it passable; meantime, let me give some account of so much of it as I have traveled, as I am not aware that any is yet extant.

I left Camp Floyd in the mail-wagon from Salt Lake City, on the morning of Thursday, July 21st, pursuing a south-west course over a low mountain pass. Twenty miles on, we found a small brook making, from the mountains south of us across a thirsty plain, which, I presume, soon drank it up. The vegetation was the same eternal sage-bush and grease-wood, which I am tired of mentioning, but which, together or separately, cover two-thirds of all the vast region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. In places, the sage-bush, for miles in extent, is dead and withering, seemingly parched up by the all-pervading drouth; the grease-wood is either hardier, or chooses its ground more judiciously; for it is rarely found dead by acres. There is some bunch-grass on the sides of two or three mountains, but very little of aught that can be relied on to sustain human or animal life. The mountains and plains seem to divide the ground very fairly between them—the soil of both being mainly a white clay; while the former have that creased, gullied, washed-away appearance, which I have repeatedly noticed. Sometimes they are nearly perpendicular on one or more sides, like the Buttes further east; but usually they can be ascended on any side, and seem to rise but one to three thousand feet above the plains at their bases. These plains appear from a distance to be level as so many tables; but, on attempting to cross them in a wagon, you find them creased and scored by innumerable water-courses, now dry, but showing that, in the wet season, water is most abundant here. In most instances, a gradual slope of a mile or two intervenes between the foot of a mountain and the adjacent plain or valley; this slope is apt to be intensely dry, sterile, and covered with dead or dying sage-bush. I judge these slopes to be composed of the rocky, gravelly material of the mountains, from which the lighter clay has been washed out and carried off. They often seem to be composed almost wholly of small bits of rock. The valleys or plains are from five to fifteen miles across, though they seem, in the clear, dry atmosphere of Utah, not half so much. These plains have an imperceptible slope to some point near their respective centers, where a wider water-course runs toward some adjacent valley; in some cases, a marsh or naked space near the center indicates that the surplus water from the surrounding mountains forms here in winter and spring a petty, shallow lake, which the hot suns soon evaporate or the thirsty soil absorbs. The mountains are thinly belted or dotted with low, scrubby cedar, seldom ten feet high, and often nearly as far across the green top formed by three or four stalks or stems starting from a common root. The mountains seem to have no particular, or rather no general direction; some of the valleys being nearly or quite surrounded by th.emn. Even in the wettest seasons, I cannot perceive that this region sends off any surplus water to Salt Lake or any other general reservoir. Such is the face of the country for some two hundred miles directly south-west of Camp Floyd.

We found a station, a change of horses, and something that was called dinner, on the little stream I have already mentioned, and halted here, twenty miles or more from Camp Floyd. In the afternoon, we came on, over a higher, rockier mountain-pass and a far rougher road, to the next station—Simpson’s Spring, nearly fifty miles fromin Camp Floyd—where we halted for the night. I fear the hot suns of August will dry up this spring; while there is no other fit to drink for a weary distance south and west of this point.

The station-keeper here gave me an incident which illustrates the character of the country. Some few days previously to our arrival, he ascertained that his oxen, eight in number, had gone off, two or three nights before, taking a southerly course; so he mounted a horse and followed their trail. He rode upon it one hundred miles without reaching water or overtaking, the cattle, which had lain down but- once since they started, and were still a day’s journey ahead of him. If he continued the pursuit his horse must die of thirst, and then he too must perish; so he turned about and left his oxen to die in the desert or be found and eaten by savages. There was not a shadow of hope that he would ever see them again.

We had to drive the same team (mules of course) all next day, making fifty miles; but we stopped to rest and feed them at a sub-station, only twenty miles from our starting-point. It was about the forlornest spot I ever saw. Though at the foot of a low mountain, there was no water near it; that which was given our mules had been carted in a barrel fiom Simpson’s Spring, aforesaid, and so must be for most of each year. An attempt to sink a well at this point had this far proved a failure. The station-keeper here lives entirely alone —that is, when the Indians will let him—seeing a friendly face but twice a week, when the mail-stage passes one way or the other. He deeply regretted his lack of books and newspapers; we could only give him one of the latter. Why do not men who contract to run mails through such desolate regions comprehend that their own interest, if no nobler consideration, should impel them to supply their stations with good reading matter! I am quite sure that one hundred dollars spent by Major Chorpening in supplying two or three good journals to each station on his route, and in providing for their interchange from station to station, would save him more than one thousand dollars in keeping good men in his service, and in imbuing them with contentment and gratitude. So with other mail-routes through regions like this.

We drove on that day thirty miles further, to Fish Springs station, just before reaching which we passed one of the salt wells which are characteristic of this country, though not absolutely peculiar to it. This one is about six or eight feet in diameter, and perhaps an equal distance from the surface of the surrounding earth to that of the water, which has a whitish green aspect, is intensely salt, and said to be unfathomable, with a downward suction which a man could hardly or not at all resist. I had no desire to try, badly as I needed ablution.

Fish Springs form quite a large pool at the north end of a low mountain range, and send off a copious stream to be drank up in the course of three or four miles by the thirsty clay of the plain. The water is brackish, and I think sulphurous, as that of a spring in the adjacent marsh near the station clearly is. There are many fish in the pool and stream, and they are said to be good. I should have liked to verify the assertion; and if they bite a hundredth part so freely as the musketoes do hereabout, it were an easy matter to afford the stage passengers here a change from their usual rations of pork, bread and coffee; which, when the flour, or the pork, or the coffee, happens to be out, as it sometimes is, renders the diet unsatisfactory, even to those who would seem to have been seasoned to the like by a passage across the plains and the Rocky Mountains. Fish Springs are just fifty miles from living water on either side, and the stages have to run at least ten miles out of their course to strike them. There is some coarse grass here.

July 23d.—We traveled this forenoon over a plain nearly surrounded by mountains. Said plain is very level to the eye, but the rapid traveler’s sense of feeling contradicts this, for he finds it full of dry-water-courses, which give him most uncomfortable jolts. Before noon, we came to the spot, where the stage-mules are turned out to feed and rest, by the side of a sink or depression in the plain, which is covered with coarse grass and reeds or bulrushes. By digging in the side of this sink, water has been easily obtained, but so sulphurous, and generally bad, as to be barely drinkable. Even the mules, I noticed, practice great moderation in the use of it. At one, we harnessed up, and were soon rising over a long mountain-pass, hardly less than ten miles from the level plain to its summit, where a light thunder-shower—that is, a light rain with heavy thunder—overtook us. We drove rapidly down its western declivity, and, a little after 5, p. m., reached our next station in “Pleasant Valley,” a broad ravine, which descends to the south-west. Here we found water-bright, sweet, pure, sparkling, leaping water—the first water fit to drink that we had reached in a hundred miles; if Simpson’s Spring ever dries up, the distance will then be at least a hundred and twenty. We were now across what is here technically known as “the desert”—that is to say, we had crossed the north-east corner of it. I believe it extends at least two hundred miles south from this point, and is at least as far from east to west across its center. If Uncle Sam should ever sell that tract for one cent per acre, he will swindle the purchaser outrageously.

Let me endeavor, on quitting it, to give a clear idea of this desert, and thus of about half the land inclosed between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada—the other half being mainly covered by mountains and the narrow ravines or cañons which separate them.

The plains or valleys of Utah, then, have generally a soil of white clay, sometimes rocky, at others streaked by sand or gravel; but usually pure clay, save as it is impregnated with some alkaline substance—usually salaeratus; but in places niter, in others, salt or sulphur. Sometimes, but rarely, considerable areas of this alkali in a nearly pure state are exposed on the surface; in many places, it covers the beds of shallow, dried-up lakes, and even streams, with a whitish incrustation; but it is more generally diffused through the soil, and thus impregnates the springs and streams. Irrigating a piece of ground, strongly imbued with alkali, will often bring an incrustation of it to the surface, after which no trouble from it is experienced in that place. I think the greater proportion of these plains ar[e] valleys —which could easily be cleared of their grease-wood and sage—bush and plowed—would produce large crops of wheat, and of almost anything else, if they could be irrigated. But that can never be, unless by Artesian wells. But little rain falls in summer, and that little is speedily evaporated from the hot earth, leaving the clay as thirsty as ever. I fear it is mainly doomed to perpetual barrenness. The mountains which divide these plains exude very little water. Wherever a range is single—that is, with a broad valley each side of it-it is apt to be not more than one to three thousand feet high, and so to be early denuded of snow; its springs are few and generally feeble, and their waters are often dried up before trickling half way down the sides of the mountain which gave them birth. If a spring is so copious, or so many are speedily combined, as to form a considerable stream, they may reach the plain; but only to be speedily drank up by its scorched surface. Cultivation, therefore, save in a very few narrow spots, seems here impossible.

But wherever a chaos or jumble of mountains is presented—still more, where mountains rise behind mountains, range behind range, rank above rank, till the summits of the furthest that may be seen are flecked with snow—there the case is altered. Springs are there more abundant and more copious; the gradual melting of the snows swells the rivulets formed by the speedy meeting of their waters; and thus considerable brooks are formed and poured down upon the subjacent plains, as we observe in and around Salt Lake City, and north and west of Lake Utah. Thus are formed Bear and Weber Rivers; such, I believe, is the origin of the Humboldt. But such instances are far too rare in Utah. From the Jordan to the Humboldt is about three hundred and fifty miles by the route I traveled, and in all that distance the brooks and rills I crossed or saw, could they be collected into one channel, would barely form a decent mill-stream. I thence traveled down the south side of the Humboldt for two hundred and twenty-five miles, and in all that distance not more than two tributaries come in on that side, and their united currents would barely suffice to turn a grindstone. This desolation seems therefore irredeemable.

The mountains of central Utah are less hopeless than the Plains. Contrary to my former impression, they are fairly wooded; by which I mean that wood is procurable on them at almost any point. This wood is for the most part cedar, six to ten feet high, and from a foot downward in diameter near the ground. White pines of like size, and of equally scrubby character, are quite common in the western part of the mountains I traversed, and there is some balsam-fir in the deeper cañons, which attains a diameter of fifteen to twenty inches, and a height of forty to sixty feet. Of this fir, several of the mail-station cabins are constructed; in Ruby Valley, they have one of red or Indian-pine; but they are quite commonly built of stones and mud. One on the Humboldt is built of dwarf—willow canes or wattles —not one any where of cedar nor of the dwarfed white-pine of this region. Neither could be made to answer.

But I must hurry on. At Pleasant Valley, we turned north-west up a broad ravine, and thenceforth held that general course to reach the Humboldt, instead of still making west south-west directly toward Carson Valley, as it is proposed hereafter to do if that be found practicable. For the next one hundred and forty miles or thereabouts, our trail led us mainly up one side of a mountain range and down the other, thence across a valley of some ten miles in width to the foot of another chain, and so on. As the train naturally runs up the deepest cañons and over the lowest passes, the ascent and descent are rarely abrupt for any considerable distance, and we seldom lacked water; but our route was the most devious imaginable—veering from north-east on one hand to south on the other. Sometimes, two or three hundred square miles were visible at a glance—the mountain-sides half covered with cedar and pine, with some dwarf-willows and rose-bushes often fringing their slender rivulets; but not a tree other than evergreen in sight. There is a large, pine-leaved shrub or small tree which a driver termed a mountain-mahogany and a passenger called a red haw, growing sparingly among the evergreens on some mountain slopes, which seems about half way between a thorn-bush and an untrimmed apple-tree, but nothing else deciduous above the size of the dwarf-willow. Even the sage-bush and grease-wood appear to be evergreens. Grass is here not abundant but unfailing, as it must be where water is perennial and wood in fair supply. The plains or valleys remain as further east, save that they are smaller, and, because of the less scanty supply of water, more susceptible of improvement. At Shell Creek, forty-five miles from Pleasant Valley, where we spent our next night, there is a little garden-the first I had seen since Camp Floyd—and at Ruby Valley, fifty miles or so further on, the government has a farm in crop, intended for the benefit, and partly cultivated by the labor of the neighboring Indians. The mail-station also has its garden, and is cutting an abundance of hay. From this station, it is expected that the new cut-off, saving one hundred miles or more in distance to Carson Valley, will be made, so soon as those now scrutinizing it shall have pronounced it practicable. At Ruby, the stage usually stops for the night; but we had been six days making rather less than three hundred miles, and began to grow impatient. The driver had his own reasons for pushing on, and did so, over a road partly mountainous, rough and sideling; but, starting at eight p. m., we had reached the next (Pine Valley) station, forty miles distant, before sunrise. Here we were detained three or four hours for mules-those we should have taken being astray—but at nine we started with a new driver, and were soon entangled in a pole-bridge over a deep, miry stream—a drove of a thousand head of cattle (the first ever driven over this road) having recently passed, and torn the frail bridge to pieces. Our lead-mules went down in a pile, but were got up and out and the wagon ran over, after a delay of an hour. We soon rose from Pine Valley by a long, irregular, generally moderate ascent, to a mountain divide, from which our trail took abruptly down the wildest and worst cañon I ever saw traversed by a carriage. It is in places barely wide enough at bottom for a wagon, and if two should meet here it is scarcely possible that they should pass. The length of this cañon is a mile and a half; the descent hardly less than two thousand feet; the side of the road next to the water-course often far lower than the other; the roadbed is often made of sharp-edged fragments of broken rock, hard enough to stand on, harder still to hold back on. The heat in this cañon on a summer afternoon is intense, the sun being able to enter it while the wind is not. Two or three glorious springs afford partial consolation to the weary, thirsty traveler. I am confident no passenger ever rode down this rocky ladder; I trust that none will until a better road is made here; though a good road in such a gulch is scarcely possible. Fifteen miles further, across a plain and a lower range of hills, brought our mail-wagon at last, about seven p. m. of its seventh day from Salt Lake City, to


I am not going to describe the route down this river, as it is the old emigrant-trail, repeatedly written about already. I only wish to record my opinion, that the Humboldt, all things considered, is the meanest river of its length on earth. Rising in the Humboldt Mountains, hardly one hundred and fifty miles west of Salt Lake, it is at first a pure stream—or rather streams, for there are two main branches—but is soon corrupted by its alkaline surroundings, and its water, for at least the lower half of its course, is about the most detestable I ever tasted. I mainly chose to suffer thirst rather than drink it. Though three hundred and fifty miles in length, it is never more than a decent mill-stream; I presume it is the only river of equal length that never had even a canoe launched upon its bosom. Its narrow bottom, or intervale, produces grass; but so coarse in structure, and so alkaline by impregnation, that no sensible man would let his stock eat it, if there were any alternative. Here, however, there is none. Cattle must eat this, or die—many of them eat it, and die. One of the most intelligent emigrants I conversed with on its banks informed me that he had all the grass for his stock mowed, as he had found by experience that his cattle, if grazed upon it, pulled up much of their grass by the roots, and these roots were far more alkaline than the stalks. I believe no tree of any size grows on this forlorn river from its forks to its mouth—I am sure I saw none while traversing the lower half of its course. Half a dozen specimens of a large, worthless shrub, known as buffalo-bush or bull-berry, with a prevalent fringe of willows about the proper size for a schoolma’am’s use, comprise the entire timber of this delectable stream, whose gad-flies, musketoes, gnats, etc., are so countless and so blood-thirsty as to allow cattle so unhappy as to be stationed on, or driven along this river, no chance to eat or sleep. Many have died this season of the bad water, that would have survived the water, but for these execrable insects, by which the atmosphere, at times, is darkened. It certainly is not a pleasure to ride, night and day, along such a stream, with the heat intense, the dust a constant cloud, and the roads all gullied, and ground into chuck-holes; but then, who would stay in such a region one moment longer than he must?

I thought I had seen barrenness before—on the upper course of the Republican—on the North Platte, Green River, etc.—but I was green, if the regions washed by by those streams were not. Here, on the Humboldt, famine sits enthroned, and waves his scepter over a dominion expressly made for him. On the above-named rivers, I regarded cotton-wood with contempt; here, a belt, even the narrowest fringe, of cotton-wood would make a comparative Eden. The sage-bush and grease-wood, which cover the high, parched plain on either side of the river’s bottom, seems thinly set, with broad spaces of naked, shining, glaring, blinding clay between them; the hills beyond, which bound the prospect, seem even more naked. Not a tree, and hardly a shrub, anywhere relieves their sterility; not a brook, save one small one, runs down between them to swell the scanty waters of the river. As the only considerable stream in the Great Basin that pursues a general east and west direction, the Humboldt may continue for years to be traveled; but I am sure no one ever left it without a sense of relief and thankfulness. There can never be any considerable settlement here.

After a course, at first west by south, then north by west, afterward south-west, and for the last fifty miles due south, the river falls into Lake Humboldt, a fine sheet of clear water, perhaps fifteen miles in length and forty in circumference. I tried to obtain an approximation to its depth, but could not; those who have staid beside it longest assuring me that no boat had ever floated upon its waters—a statement which the destitution of wood in all this region renders credible. I am satisfied, however, that this lake is being slowly filled up from the gradual washing down, and washing in, of the hills which approach it on the east and south, and that time will make great changes in its configuration and the volume of its waters.

A stream, not so copious as the river, runs from the lake on the south, and flows with a gentle, sluggish current into a large tulé or reed-marsh, which has no outlet, and is said to be but moderately salt. The lake water is accounted sweeter than that of the river. Here the Humboldt is said to sink, like the Carson, Truckee and Walker, which issue from the Sierra Nevada, and run eastwardly into the adjacent desert; but I suspect they are all drank up by evaporation and by the thirsty sands which surround them. The Mississippi, if it ran across the Great Basin and kept clear of mountains, would be threatened by a similar fate. We reached the Sink at 6 1/2 p. m. on Thursday, the 29th—scarcely two days from Gravelly Ford, where we struck the river, having in those two days traversed some two hundred and twenty miles of very bad and intensely hot, dusty road. At eight, we were ready to pass “the Desert”—that is, the desolate plain which separates the Sink of the Humboldt from that of the Carson. But one of our fresh mules was sick and could not be replaced, which made our first drive a tedious one, and we contrived, by dexterous mismanagement, to get stuck in a bayou or back-set of the Humboldt Sink, where we for a while seemed likely to spend the night. Our lead-mules, having been mired and thrown down, would not pull; the sick wheeler could not. At length, by putting one of the leaders in his place, we made a start, and come through, finding the bottom firm and the water not deep, a yard either way from the place of our misadventure. By a little past midnight, we were at the half-way station, where a well of decent brackish water has been dug, and which a drove of four or five hundred mules reached about the time we did. They stopped here to rest, however, while we pushed on with a fresh team—for ten miles of the way, over as heavy a drag of sand as I ever endured, whereas most of this desert is a hard, alkaline clay. By five a. m., after riding four days and the intervening nights without rest, we drew up at the station near the sink of the Carson.

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