History Weekend: Stephens, Townsend, Greenwood, Murphy

(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.

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History Friday: Rescue at the End of the Trail

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.

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