(An early version of this essay began as a sorrowful rant about the lack of good adventure movies a number of summers ago. It turned into a multi-part blog post, and then into a novel about the first wagon-train party to get their wagons over the Sierra Nevada – in winter yet. They got lost, had to break up into separate groups, were caught by winter while still in the mountains, nearly ran out of food … but unlike the Donner Party of two years later, this party managed to hang together and negotiate the mountain obstacle without any loss of life. This is part one of two.)
In comparison to the notorious and hard-luck Donner-Reed Party, hardly anyone has ever heard of a similar wagon-train company who crossed over almost the exact same trail two years previously. The party led by Elisha Stephens and John Townsend, and advised by the old mountain-man, Caleb Greenwood, walked much of the way between the Mississippi-Missouri and the Sacramento Rivers, across plain and desert, blazed a trail up the wilderness of a steep canyon, and finally hauled wagons up a sheer mountain cliff. Generally they remain a footnote in the history books, mostly noted for being the first to bring some of their wagons up the Truckee River canyon and over the Sierra Nevada into California. There was no tireless letter-writer or professional memoirist among them, no extensive first-hand accounts, although John Townsend, a medical doctor and Mason may have kept a diary.
In the year 1844, only a bare handful of explorers, missionaries and fur trappers had ever seen for sure what lay beyond the jumping-off points at Council Bluffs, Independence, St. Joseph. There was southern trail to Santa Fe, and beyond that to the thinly-populated enclave of Spanish and then Mexican territories in California, and a northern track which followed along the Platte River and terminated in Oregon Territory. Lewis and Clarke, and William Ashley’s fur-trapping brigades – all had gone that way, by boat, horseback or on foot. Hearing of the rich lands in the Pacific Northwest, farmers and small tradesmen also began following the siren call. This was not a journey for the impoverished. Besides a wagon, and stock to pull it, the journey required a six-month food supply, tools, clothes, bedding and cooking gear. There might be space in the wagon for books, and other small treasures, for the wagons were small, and food took up most of the space. The draft animal of choice was not the horse, as many would think. Horses were expensive, and the road was too rough in the early days for even the toughest horse in dray harness. Mules made a good showing on the southern trail, but they were also expensive. Most emigrants could better afford ox teams; four to six pair to a wagon, guided by a driver who walked by the lead team and controlled them by verbal commands.
In the spring of every year until the steel rails united the east and west, travelers looked out from the jumping-off places along the Mississippi-Missouri at last years’ tracks and ruts and waited for the new grass to grow tall enough to feed their teams. Late in of May, 1844, ten families – fifty souls all told, and the eleven wagons carrying their stock and worldly goods set out from Council Bluffs, in company with a larger party bound for Oregon. They had elected an ex-trapper and blacksmith named Elisha Stephens as their own leader – and intended striking off the established trail at Fort Hall, and head for California. A little under half of Stephens’ group was an extended clan: Martin Murphy, his three adult sons, their wives and children, and his married daughter and her husband and children. Martin Murphy himself had emigrated from Ireland, to Canada, and then to Missouri. His wife and a grandchild had died in a malaria epidemic; the clan sought a healthier climate, and Martin Murphy thought all the better of California—still held by Mexico—for being nominally a Catholic country. Dr. Townsend also looked to a healthier climate; his wife Elizabeth was supposed to be in frail health. Elizabeth Townsend’s orphaned younger brother, Moses Schallenberger, aged 17, counted as a man for this journey as did the teenaged half-Indian sons of Caleb Greenwood. Greenwood had roamed all over the Rockies and the Great Basin as a fur-trapper, twenty years before. He was was thought to be in his eighties, but still hale and vigorous. Another old mountain-man, Isaac Hitchcock also felt the lure of the west, traveling with his oldest and widowed daughter and her children.
Neither Greenwood nor Hitchcock had been all the way along the trail they proposed to follow to California. It is thought that Stephens may have worked as a teamster or wagon-master on the Santa Fe Trail, and a descendent of Isaac Hitchcock found evidence in archives that Old Man Hitchcock had been in California briefly in the 1820s. Stephens seems also to have been enormously respected for his teamstering expertise by the other men; there were none of the bitter divisions that fractured other parties, under the stress of moving the heavy-laden wagons an inexorable fifteen miles a day, and chivvying the stock herd, finding water and safe pasturage, of being dusty and exhausted and hungry, day after grinding day, and knowing that the hardest part of the journey was at the end of it.
Most accounts of the emigrant trail agree that the first weeks out on the trail are the most pleasant. Dr. Townsend’s journal was lost before the turn of that century, but many other emigrant accounts from various other parties remain. The prairie grass is lush and green, the land gently rolling. The oxen are healthy and rested, and the burden of travel not onerous. Elderly men and women writing down their reminiscences of that journey early in the 20th century will look back on it as the most marvelous adventure of their childhood. They will remember seeing herds of buffalo, a sea of brown woolly backs as far as the horizon goes and how the wagon jolted over every little rock and rut. They will remember the look of the Platte River, wide and shallow — an inch thick and a mile wide, too thick to drink and too thin to plough.
For the eight women of the party, it must have seemed an endless chore of cooking over an open fire, of setting up camp every night, and unrolling the bedding, or carrying buckets of fresh water – all that after an exhausting day of either walking alongside the wagon or riding in it. Women’ work on a farm in those days was grueling enough by our standards, but they had left a community, family, friends, a cherished orderly routine. These eight women and the older girls in the party would have formed their own little community, contriving meals out of cornmeal and flour, dried beans, dried fruit, salt-pork, doing a minimal laundry along the trail, gleaning edible greens and wild plums from the thickets in the creek bottoms. The presence of Dr. Townsend, with his medical expertise, and small range of surgical kit must have also been very reassuring, most especially as the party reached the landmark of Independence Rock, shortly before July 4th. There Mrs. James Miller gave birth to a baby daughter, named Ellen Independence Miller. When the party moved on towards the distant Rocky Mountains and Fort Hall (in what is now Idaho), it was on a shortcut of Isaac Greenwood’s suggesting. It would later be called Sublette’s Cutoff, and it saved them five days of travel.
The westbound trail split at Fort Hall. From that point on, the Murphys, the Townsends, the Millers and their infant daughter, Old Hitchcock and his daughter, and all the others would be on their own, and finding their own trail in the faintest of traces left from wagons who attempted the California route the year before.
(To be continued.)