It was just one of those vagaries of the American frontier that the most challenging and perilous stretches of the overland trails to Oregon and California lay at the very end. The first weeks on the road west, beginning at various jumping-off towns on the Mississippi-Missouri River, led through a vast ocean of grass, and then along the veritable highway of the Platte River Valley. Game was plentiful, grass for the draft animals to eat was plentiful, as was water – and the terrain was mostly level to rolling. In a way, this was good, as it allowed the emigrants a kind of shake-down period, in which everyone involved could accustom themselves to the challenge of the wilderness, of moving their wagon or mule train the required fifteen or twenty miles daily, and for able leaders to emerge.
But such was the peculiar geography of the Oregon-California trail that those who embarked on that journey would face the most grinding challenge just at that very point when they and their draft animals were exhausted and worn-down from constant travel and their supplies of food for humans and animals alike dwindling. Implacable winter threatened to strand the late- season travelers either in the mountains or on the near side of them, starving, sick and weak. A number of early parties on the emigrant trail diced with disaster in this respect, arriving in California on foot with barely more than the clothes on their back, having subsisted on the dried meat from the last of their draft oxen. And everyone knew of the sufferings of the Donner-Reed party of 1846-47, stranded high in the Sierra Nevada range, in ten feet and more of snow. This tragedy would live long in the memories of emigrants and would-be emigrants, most of whom had been careful and prosperous bourgeoisie, intent on improving their lives by removing to a healthier climate and richer land. They did gamble, in venturing the 2,000 mile journey, but they usually had calculated carefully in doing so.
All of that went out the window when gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierras, in a green little valley along the South Fork of the American River, where men hired by John Sutter were building a saw-mill. In January of 1848, they were digging out the millrace, which would power the mill. In the mud of the millrace, they found gold. Those driven by curiosity soon began looking along other streams – and finding more. Gold nuggets, flakes, dust – all washed down in the rivers and streams from higher up. The early casual miners venturing into the gold fields needed nothing more than a pen-knife or a shovel, and only a cursory search to hit pay dirt. Fortunate were those farmers, ranchers, and merchants who were in California before 1848 ended and availed themselves of a quick visit to the gold fields; within months California would change utterly, as word about the discovery of gold reverberated world-wide. It seemed as if half the world took ship for San Francisco, or took to the various trails leading west. Estimations put the 1849 influx of gold-seekers, or Argonauts, at 90,000; half arriving by sea, and the other half over the various overland trails. By autumn of the year it was very clear that there were still hundreds, perhaps thousands of Argonauts still on the trail, many of them weary, near-starving and on foot – crossing the desert between the Humboldt Sink and the passes up the Truckee and Carson River, or on an alternate cut-off proposed and widely advertised by Peter Lassen, a Dane who had settled down as a rancher in Northern California in the early 1840s. Lassen owned a trading post near present-day Chico – which, by fortunate coincidence – was located on just that route which he had done so much to publicize.
At the time of the discovery of gold, California had only just been ceded to the United States by Mexico, a sleepy, pleasant and near empty backwater of a territory. What overall civil authority there was in place was represented was General Persifor Frazer Smith, commander of the US Army’s Pacific Division, and di facto governor of California. Knowing full well that the ordeal of the Donner-Reed party could be repeated times ten or a hundred, General Smith financed a rescue expedition through donations from San Francisco residents and a large contribution from his government funds. Major Daniel H. Rucker, of the Army Quartermaster department was detailed to take charge on scene. Rucker was a career soldier, who had served heroically in the Mexican War, and with energetic distinction on the frontier ever since. Rucker arrived in Sacramento late in September – just about the time that the first winter blizzards were expected in the high mountains. Entrusted with practically every penny of the funds raised, he hired men, purchased wagons, mules and supplies, and set up relief stations – and sent out three relief parties, heading one of them personally. On Rucker’s instructions, the relief parties were to keep going east, past the straggling parties of Argonauts, handing out supplies as needed, assisting those incapable of moving on, until they found the last pitiful stragglers. One of those was the family of Josiah Royce, with his wife Sarah and their toddler daughter Mary, stumbling through the Forty-Mile Desert with their four exhausted oxen and nearly empty wagon, past the dead teams and abandoned wagons of other emigrants. Struggling up the Carson River, they were met by a pair of Rucker’s men, each on horseback and leading pack-mules with supplies. The first snows had already fallen in the high mountains. The men told the Royces that they had been looking for them, advised by a party farther up the trail. They persuaded Sarah and her daughter onto one of the mules, and directed them to move as fast as they could.
Meanwhile, Rucker and his relief column were moving along the northernmost leg of the trail, the so-called Lassen cutoff. Peter Lassen had touted the cutoff as an improvement on the dry slog across the Forty Mile Desert between the Humboldt Sink and the Truckee River, but the cut-off was really a detour to the north, a miserable journey through the alkali dust of the Black Rock Desert, almost to the border of Oregon – and once into California’s central valley, still a good ways to the gold fields. Nonetheless, a good half of the overland Argonauts in ’49 were convinced to try it – with predictably disastrous results, for it was 200 miles longer, harder than and nearly as waterless as the established trails. Rucker later testified, “A more pitiable sight than those wearied, diseased and starving emigrants, I had never beheld. There were cripples from scurvy and other diseases, women prostrated by weakness, and children who could not move a limb. In advance of the wagons were men, mounted on mules, who had to be lifted on and off their animals, so entirely disabled had they become from the effects of scurvy. No one could view this scene of helplessness without commending the foresight that dictated the relief, without which some of the recipients would have inevitably perished in the snows. It would have been difficult for the most healthy to have worked their way in through the storm without assistance, much less those who had been deprived of the use of their limbs.”
By the skin of their teeth, Rucker and his rescue parties saved hundreds of lives – lives which might have ended as miserably as those who perished with the Donners three years before. Daniel Rucker continued in the Army, serving throughout the Civil War in the Quartermaster Corps. He would eventually retire as a brigadier general after 45 years of very active service and live into the 20th century. Josiah and Sarah Royce settled in Grass Valley; their son – also named Josiah – became a historian and philosopher, and one of the intellectual giants of his day. Sarah Royce also wrote her own account of the journey – one of a handful of first-hand accounts of the Gold Rush written by a woman participant. And Peter Lassen was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1859, traveling over the Black Rock Desert on his way to Virginia City, Nevada, to prospect for silver. His death was initially blamed on local Indians – but there were many who suspected that he had been killed by an Argonaut who blamed him for the sufferings endured by those who had taken his cut-off.
(This came about as I am starting research for the next book by reading or re-reading as many accounts of Gold Rush era California as I can. There are things which give me ideas for plot or characters as I read – and perhaps some of these people will feature in the next book. Or not… it all depends.)