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


Big Sandy, Oregon, July 6, 1859.

I wrote last from the Mail Company’s station-tent in “Quaking Aspen Cañon,” at the east end of the South Pass, three miles off the direct and well-beaten road from the Missouri to Salt Lake, and so to California, which was formerly the road to Oregon as well. But Col. Lander, at the head of a U.S. exploring and pioneer party, has just marked and nearly opened a new road through the Cañon aforesaid, which makes a Northern cut-off, and strikes the old Oregon Trail some fourteen miles south of Fort Hall, saving sixty miles on the journey to Oregon, and striking through to California on a northerly route, which I think passes to the north of Honey Lake, and thence over the Sierra down one of the forks of the Yuba. I cannot, of course, say that this is better than the old route, but it can hardly be more destitute of grass; while the naked fact that it divides the travel, affords cheering hope of a mitigation of the sufferings and hardships of the long journey. I missed seeing Col. Lander, to my regret; but I am sure he is doing a good work, for which thousands will have reason to bless him. At all events, a great majority of the California, with all the Oregon emigration, are turning off on the new route, and I pray that they may find on it food for their weary, famished cattle, and a safe journey to their chosen homes.

Though the elevation of the Pass is nearly 8,000 feet above the ocean level, I never endured heat exceeding that of yesterday in and about the station-tent. The sun rose clear, as it almost always does here in Summer, soon dispelling the chill which attends every night in this region; and by nine o’clock the heat was most intense. But the afternoon brought clouds, a wind and a petty rain-squall, and the following night was cold enough to still any mosquitoes but those of the Rocky Mountains. I suspect these would sing and bite even with the mercury at zero.

Toward evening, I climbed the hill on the east of the Cañon, and obtained from its summit a wide prospect, but how desolate! These hills are of volcanic formation, a kind of coarse slate, the strata upheaved almost perpendicularly, the surface shattered and shingly, with veins of hard quartz running across them. There is scarcely a bushel of soil to each square rod, of course no grass, and little vegetation of any kind. To the north, say ten to twenty miles away, is a snow-streaked range of the Rocky Mountains; to the south, some miles across the Sweetwater, are lower and less barren hills, with some snow-banks and some wood—quaking-asp and yellow-pine—on their northern slopes. The Sweetwater heads among the mountains to the north and north-west. There is a little well-gnawed grass on its immediate banks and on those of its tributaries—on the high rolling land which fills all beside of the wide space between the mountains north and those south, there is not a mule-feed to each acre. Some grease-wood at intervals, the eternal sage-bush, and a few weeds, with the quaking-asp and yellow-pine aforesaid, and a thick tangle of bitter cotton-wood (which is a bad caricature of our swamp-alder) thatching portions of a few of the smaller streams, comprise the entire vegetation of this forlorn region.

We started at seven this morning, came down to the old Salt Lake, Oregon, and California Trail at the Sweetwater, crossed and left that creek finally, and traversed a slightly rolling country for seven miles to the “Twin Buttes,” two low, clay-topped mounds which mark the point from which the water runs easterly to the Gulf of Mexico, and westerly to the Pacific. If any one has pictured to himself the South Pass as threading some narrow, winding, difficult, rocky mountain-gorge, he is grievously mistaken. The trail through the South Pass is the best part of the route from Atchison to California; the clay has here been almost wholly washed away and carried off, so that the road passes over a coarse, heavy, gravelly sand, usually as compact and smooth as the best illustrations of the genius of MacAdam. I never before traversed forty-five miles of purely natural road so faultless as that through the South Pass which I have traveled to-day. But this tract would be good for roads, as it seems absolutely good for nothing else. The natural obstacles to constructing a railroad through this region are not comparable to those overcome in the construction of the Camden and Amboy.

Passing the TwinButtes—the distance between the mountains on the north and the hills on the south being not less than thirty miles, and thenceforth westward rapidly widening—we ran down the side of a dry, shallow water-course some five miles, to a wet, springy marsh or morass of fifteen or twenty acres, covered with poor, coarse grass, in which are found the so-called “Pacific Springs.” The water is clear and cold, but bad. Perhaps the number of dead cattle of which the skeletons dot the marsh, made it so distasteful to me. At all events, I could not drink it. This bog is long and narrow; and from its western end issues a petty brook, which takes its way south-westwardly to the Sandy, Green River, the Colorado and the Gulf of California. Hence, toward the south and west, no hills are visible—nothing but a sandy, barren plain, mainly covered with the miserable sage-bush.

Twelve miles further on, we crossed Dry Sandy—not quite dry at this point, but its thirsty sands would surely drink the last of it a mile or so further south. Five miles beyond this, the old and well-beaten Oregon Trail strikes off to the northwest, while our road bends to the southwest. We are now out of the South Pass, which many have traversed unconsciously, and gone on wondering and inquiring when they should reach it. Seven miles further brought us to Little Sandy, and eight more to Big Sandy, whereon is the station at which, at four p. m. we (by order), stopped for the night. All these creeks appear to rise in the high mountains many miles north of us, and to run off with constantly diminishing volume, to join the Colorado at the south. Neither has a tree on its banks that I have seen—only a few low willow bushes at long intervals—though I hear that some cotton-wood is found on this creek ten miles above. Each has a “bottom” or intervale of perhaps four rods in average width, in which a little grass is found, but next to none on the high-sandy plains that separate them. Drouth and sterility reign here without rival.

Fort Bridger, Utah, July 8, 1859.

We crossed Big Sandy twice before quitting it—once just at the station where the above was written, and again eighteen miles further on. Twelve miles more brought us to Green River—a stream here perhaps as large as the Mohawk at Schenectady or the Hudson at Waterford. It winds with a rapid, muddy current through a deep, narrow valley, much of it sandy and barren, but the residue producing some grass with a few large cotton-woods at intervals, and some worthless bushes. There are three rope ferries within a short distance, and two or three trading-posts, somewhat frequented by Indians of the Snake tribe. Eighteen miles more of perfect desolation brought us to the next mail company’s station on Black’s Fork, at the junction of Ham’s Fork, two-large mill-streams that rise in the mountains south and west of this point, and run together into Green River. They have scarcely any timber on their banks, but a sufficiency of bushes—bitter cotton-wood, willow, choke-cherry, and some others new to me —with more grass than I have found this side of the South Pass. On these streams live several old mountaineers, who have large herds of cattle which they are rapidly increasing by a lucrative traffic with the emigrants, who are compelled to exchange their tired, gaunt oxen and steers for fresh ones on almost any terms. R. D., whose tent we passed last evening, is said to have six or eight hundred head; and, knowing the country perfectly, finds no difficulty in keeping them through summer and winter by frequently shifting them front place to place over a circuit of thirty or forty miles. J. R., who has been here some twenty-odd years, began with little or nothing, and has quietly accumulated some fifty horses, three or four hundred head of neat cattle, three squaws, and any number of half-breed children. He is said to be worth seventy-five thousand dollars, though he has not even a garden, has probably not tasted an apple nor a peach these ten years, and lives in a tent which would be dear at fifty dollars. I instance this gentleman’s way of life not by any means to commend it, but to illustrate the habits of a class. White men with two or three squaws each are quite common throughout this region, and young and relatively comely Indian girls are bought from their fathers by white men as regularly and openly as Circassians at Constantinople. The usual range of prices is from forty to eighty dollars—about that of Indian horses. I hear it stated that, though all other trade may be dull, that in young squaws is always brisk on Green River and the North Platte. That women so purchased should be discarded or traded off, as satiety or avarice may suggest, and that they should desert or deceive their purchasers on the slightest temptation, can surprise no one. I met an Irishman on Big Sandy whose squaw had recently gone off with an Indian admirer, leaving him two clever, bright, half-breed children of seven and five years. I trust that plank in the republican national platform, which affirms the right and duty of Congressional prohibition, not only of slavery in the territories but of polygamy also, is destined to be speedily embodied in a law.

We passed yesterday the two places at which a body of Mormons late in 1857, surprised and burned the supply-trains following in the rear of the federal troops sent against them. The wagons were burned in corral, and the place where each stood is still distinctly marked on the ground. It seems incredible, yet I am assured it is undoubtedly true, that none of the military officers who were severally dispatched from Kansas, late that season on the road to Salt Lake without a commander and with no definite instructions, was directed to afford any protection or give any feed to these important towns. It is lamentable that presidents and secretaries of war are not subject to court-martials.

We have for the last two days been passing scores of good log or ox-chains—in one instance, a hundred feet together—which, having been thrown away by California emigrants to lighten the loads of their famished, failing cattle, have lain in the road for months, if not years, passed and noted by thousands, but by none thought worth pickling, up. One would suppose that the traders, the herdsmen, the Indians, or some other of the residents of this region, would deem these chains worth having, but they do not. I had already become accustomed to the sight of wagon-tire, wagon-boxes, etc., rejected and spurned in this way; but good, new chains thus begging for owners, I have only noted this side of the South Pass. They are said to be still more abundant further on.

This morning, I was agreeably surprised by a greeting from three acquaintances I made in Denver, who invited me to share their outfit and journey to California, who left Denver the morning before I did, and beside whom I camped my first night on the road to Laramie. They are just through the Cherokee Trail, entering the mountains at Cache-la-Poudre and crossing Green River by a ferry some thirty miles below the point at which I did. They were detained one day making a raft on which to ferry their wagon over the North Platte, and found some rough places in the mountains; at one of which they were obliged to unhitch their horses and let their wagon down a steep pitch by ropes. They found the water of Bitter Creek—along which lies their road for a hundred miles or so—bitter indeed; and in some places grass was deficient; but their horses look nearly as well as when they left Denver. Their route has of course been some two hundred and fifty miles shorter than mine, and they will reach Salt Lake scarcely a day behind nme. I wish I had been able to accompany them on their rugged and little-traveled route.

On the other side of the Pass, we had mainly clear, hot days; on this side, they are cloudy and cool. We had a little shower of rain with abundance of wind night before last, another shower last night, and more rain is now threatened. Yet all old residents assure me that rain in Summer is very rare throughout this region. We stop to-night at a point only one hundred miles from Salt Lake, with two rugged mountains to cross, so that we are not to reach that stopping-place till Monday.

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