Considering all those cinematic or literary occasions in which an emigrant wagon train on the California/Oregon trail was pictured being attacked by a war-party of Indians, it actually happened as represented on very few occasions. That is, a defensive circle of wagons, with the pioneers being well-dug in while the Indians ride around on horseback, whooping and shouting to beat the band, and firing volleys of arrows at them. A little disconcerting for the fan of traditional Wild Westerns to find this out; kind of like discovering that most cowboys didn’t have much actual use for a six-shooter, and that most western towns were actually rather refreshingly law-abiding places. It ruins a whole lot of plots, knowing of these inconvenient verities, but those historians who become passionately interested in the stories of the trail, the frontier, the cattle baronies; they are not terribly surprised. As with everything, the more one looks… the more nuance appears. Of such are books made, non and fiction alike.

Why does this image reoccur, in the face of considerable scholarship to the contrary? Besides the inherent drama in the stories of the westering pioneers and gold-rushers and the desire of those later telling the stories to heighten the drama, probably the biggest reason may be that those who took part in the great transcontinental migrations actually anticipated something of the sort. They had two centuries of bitter history to draw upon, of grudges, warfare, and atrocities on both sides. Of two cultures colliding, of ancient grudges breaking into fresh enmity; why would it be any different west of the Mississippi than it had been east of it?

Amazingly enough, for at least two decades, until well after the Civil War, wagon-train pioneers actually encountered little open hostility from those various tribes whose territories they passed through. Not of the open sort described above, anyway. There was a certain amount of petty thievery, of oxen, horses, and mules stolen or strayed at night, sniping from the badlands along the Humboldt River, and sometimes single wagons and small parties of travelers beset, robbed, or murdered at any point along the way. There are any number of reasons for this, some of them overlapping. In the early years, there were actually relatively few wagon parties venturing over the trail during the course of the trail season. They were transitory, well-armed and usually well led, and had no desire to pick a fight with warrior-tribes like the Sioux, the horse-lords of the upper plains. Other tribes along the route took the opportunity to do business with the wagon-train parties, either trading commodities or labor in helping them to cross rivers, and as historian George Steward pointed out, it must have gotten pretty darned boring in the winter camps in the Rockies and the upper plains. A new set of travelers passing through their lands offered an interruption to the same old routine.

Up until the Civil War there were only a handful of incidents where Indians made a concerted, sustained and ultimately effective attack on a wagon train party; twenty members of the Ward party (including women and children) were overrun and gruesomely massacred near Ft. Hall in 1854, and 44 emigrants of Elijah Utters’ company met a similar fate after being besieged near Castle Butte, Idaho in 1860. Considering the enormous numbers of emigrants and Indians wandering around, fully armed and not particularly inclined to trust each other very much, the length of the trail. and the wide-open nature of the country, this is a very fortunate record indeed.

But there was one single incident which puts the deaths of the Ward and Utter parties into the shade, besides which all the other small incidents pale. There was one particularly brutal and horrendous massacre of wagon-train emigrants which started almost exactly as outlined in all those melodramatic books and movies: the pioneers forted up in a circle of the wagons, and besieged for days while awaiting rescue by the cavalry. And it happened just before the Civil War… More »

28. August 2012 · Comments Off on Snow Bound · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , ,
  • A few years ago, I was offered an opportunity to review a new movie about the Donner Party – which turned to be one of those arty flicks, with some moderately well-known actors in the cast. It appeared at a couple of film festivals and then went straight to DVD. The plot actually focused on a small group of fifteen, who called themselves the Forlorn Hope. As winter gripped hard, in November of 1846, they made a desperate gamble to leave the main party, stranded high in the mountains, and walk out on snowshoes. They took sparingly of supplies, hoping to leave more for those remaining behind, and set out for the nearest settlement down in the foothills below. They thought they were a mere forty miles from salvation, but it was nearly twice that long. (Seven of the Forlorn Hope survived; two men and five women.) The poster art made it seem as if it verged into horror-movie territory – which I usually avoid, having an extremely good imagination and a very low gross-out threshold – but I did watch it all the way through. The subject – a mid 19th century wagon-train party, stuck in the snows of the Sierra Nevada – is something that I know a good bit about. The ghastly experience of the Donners and the Reeds, and their companions in misery, starvation and madness has horrified and titillated the public from the moment that the last survivor stumbled out of the mountain camp, high in the Sierra Nevada, on the shores of an ice-water lake.

    Their doom unfolded inexorably, like a classic Greek tragedy. It seemed to historians, no less than the survivors, that in retrospect, every step taken closed off an escape from the doom of starvation, of murder, betrayal and grisly death which waited for them in the deep mountain snows of the Sierra Nevada. They had departed from the established emigrant trail on advice of a man who had never actually traveled along the route which he had recommended in a best-selling guidebook. They lost precious time, wandering in the desert, where they lost supplies and a portion of their draft animals – and what may have been a worse misfortune, at a critical point, they lost a large portion of their faith and trust in those outside the immediate family circle. (Comprehensive website about their journey, here.)

    And yet, two years earlier, another wagon-train party, the Stephens-Townsend Party had also become marooned in the mountains, on the very same spot. Ten wagons, carrying fifty or so men, women, and children had also gambled against being over the wall of the Sierras before winter blocked the passes. They also had suffered in the Forty-Mile Desert, had also taken short-cuts along the trail, consumed nearly all of their supplies, become lost, and occasionally distracted with personal disputes, and had made the same hard choices. They also had split their party – but by choice rather than chance, exhaustion and accident. They also built rough cabins – barely more than huts and brush arbors – and slaughtered the last of their draft oxen for food. And yet, the Stephens-Townsend Party, with the Murphys and the Sullivans and the Millers, and young Mose Schallenberger and the rest of them – they survived. Better than survived, for they arrived in California with two more than they started with, two wives in the party having given birth along the way. But hardly anyone has ever heard of them. The eighty or so of the Donner Party, the Reed family, with the Breens, the Graves and the rest – under the same circumstances, same kind of gear and supplies – they lost nearly half their party to starvation and perhaps murder, and became pretty much a byword in the annals of the West.

    What made the difference; why did one group manage to hold together, under challenging circumstances, and the other fall apart, spectacularly? I don’t suppose anyone could give a definitive answer at this point, although I wrote a fictional account of the Stephens-Townsend emigrant journey experience in an attempt to explore that question.

    It was my theory that the Stephens-Townsend people were fortunate in two respects and that would be their salvation. (Of course, they were also hampered in one respect – of not actually having a trail to follow once departing from Ft. Hall, save the faint tracks of the Bidwell-Bartleson party from three years before.) Against that handicap, of having to scout the longest and most perilous section of the trail to California themselves, they had men among them who were knowledgeable about what they faced generally, if not specifically. Hired guide Caleb “Old Man” Greenwood was one of the old breed, a mountain man and fur-trapper, who had married a Crow Indian woman. Another member of the party, Isaac Hitchcock, who was traveling with his widowed daughter, had also spent much time in the far west. He is thought by some of his descendents to have been an associate of Jedediah Smith, and to have ventured to California, sometime in the late 1820s. In any case, he also had vast experience, existing in the untracked wilderness which lay beyond the ‘jumping off’ places, all along the Mississippi-Missouri. Their elected leader, Elisha Stephens, one-time blacksmith and all-around eccentric may have been a teamster on the Santa Fe Trail; he appeared to have superior skills when it came to maging the daily labor of moving a number of heavy-laden wagons over rough trails.

    The other fortunate aspect which strikes me, in reading the accounts of these two emigrant parties, is that the Stephens-Townsend group was a more cohesive organization. Over half the party was an extended family group, that of Martin Murphy, Senior – his sons and daughters, son-in-law, and various connections. But although they had lived for a time variously in Canada, and in Missouri, they seem not to have been accustomed to the west in the way that the two old mountain men were, and sensibly accepted the leadership of Elisha Stephens. Indeed, Stephens appears to have been trusted implicitly by everyone in the California-bound contingent, even before splitting off at Ft. Hall from a larger group bound for Oregon.

    The Donner Party was also made up of family groups, but in reading the various accounts of historians, it becomes plain that during the increasing hardships attendant on crossing the worst stretches, they fractured, with each family left to look after their own. James Reed, who emerges as the strongest and most able leader, killed another emigrant in a violent dispute, during the arduous passage along the Humboldt River. Exiled from the wagon-train, he borrowed a horse from his friends, and went on ahead, later bringing back help and spearheading the eventual rescue of his family and friends.

    But at the time when active leadership was most required – the ill-fated emigrants were deprived of it. As historian George R. Stewart described it, their crossing of the 40-Mile Desert – that deathly stretch between the last potable water at the Humboldt Sink, and the Truckee River – turned into a rout. They had lost draft animals, wagons, supplies, many were on foot, straggling up the twisting canyon of the Truckee River. They had no margin for making considered choices after that point. They could only make a desperate gamble on whatever chance seemed to offer slim odds of success over none at all.

    It makes for terrific drama, after all. Still, it has never seemed fair that one party should be infamous, and the other barely known at all.

  • The character in To Truckee’s Trail who goes by the name “Dog” is actually a real dog – she belongs to my daughter. She is actually a boxer-who-knows-what mix, not a mastiff as I described her (although she could very well have a portion of mastiff in the mix.) She does have a white splotch on her nose and at the end of her tail… and she is very loyal, but not quite as obedient and bright as “Dog”. Still – if I am writing a story, I get to make it my way, right?

    22. January 2012 · Comments Off on A Literary Interview · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , ,

    Some time ago for one of the author’s groups that I participated in, we each did a series of interviews with our own characters – in charater, of course. I picked out two of the secondary characters from To Truckee’s Trail, with the following results. I had quite forgotten about this post, until I was shuffling through some archives … and it is just as amusing now as it was then.

    Elisha Stephens (ES) and Isaac Hitchcock  (IH) from To Truckee’s Trail

    Celia H.: So, gentlemen –  thank you for taking a little time from your duties as wagon master and –  er – assistant trail guide to answer questions from The Independent Authors’ Guild about your experiences in taking a wagon train all the way to California.

    ES: (inaudible mumble)

    IH: (chuckling richly) Oh, missy, that ain’t no trouble at all, seein’ as I ain’t really no guide, no-how. I’m just along for the ride, with my fuss-budget daughter Izzy an’ her passel o’ young ones. Heading to Californy, they were, after m’ son-in-law. He been gone two year, now. Went to get hisself a homestead there, sent a letter sayin’ they were to come after. Me, I think he went to get some peace an’ quiet. Izzy, she’s the nagging sort!

    Celia H: Yes, Mr. Hitchcock –  but if I may ask you both – why California? There was no trail to follow once past Ft. Hall in 1844. Neither of you, or your chief guide, Mr. Greenwood had even traveled that overland trail, before Why not Oregon, like all the other travelers that year?

    ES: Nicer weather.

    IH: Waaalll, as I said, Samuel Patterson, Izzy’s man, he was already there, had hisself a nice little rancho, an’ o’ course Izzy wouldn’t hear no different about taking a wagon and the passel o’ young-uns and going to join him. (Winking broadly)  And it ain’t exackly true that I never had been there, no sirreebob. I been there years before, came over with some fur-trapping friends o’ mine. But it was unofficial-like. We wasn’t supposed to be there, but the alcalde and the governor an them, they all looked the other way, like. Beautiful country it were then –  golden mustard on all them hills, and the hills and valleys so green and rich with critters –  you’d believe they walk up and almost beg to be made your dinner! (chuckles and slaps his knee) Missy, the stories I could tell you, folk wouldn’t believe!

    ES: (inaudible mumble)

    Celia H.: Captain Stephens, I didn’t quite hear that; did you have something to add?

    ES: (slightly louder) Most don’t. Believe him.

    Celia H.: And why would that be, Mr. Stephens?

    ES:  Tells too many yarns. Exaggerates something turrible.

    Celia H.: But surely Mr. Hitchcock’s experience was of value …

    ES: Some entertaining, I’ll give him that.

    Celia H: Would you care to explain?

    ES: No.

    IH: (Still chuckling) The Capn’ is a man of few words, missy, an’ them he values as if each one were worth six bits. The miracle is he was ever elected captain, back at the start in Council Bluffs.

    ES: Doc Townsend’s idea.

    IH: And the Doc’s doing, missy! Everyone thought he’d be the captain of the party, for sure, but he let out that he had enough to do with doctorin’, and didn’t want no truck with organizing the train and leading all us fine folk out into the wilderness.

    ES: Sensible man.

    Celia H.: I take that you are referring to your party co-leader, Doctor Townsend. Why do you say that, Captain Stephens?

    ES: Knows his limits.

    IH: Ah, but the Doctor, he’s a proper caution! He’s an eddicated man, no doubt. Took a whole box of books, all the way over the mountains. I tell you, missy –  everyone looked to the Doctor. Everyone’s good friend, trust in a pinch and in a hard place without a second thought. Did have a temper, though –  member, ‘Lisha, with old Derby and his campfire out on the plains, when you gave order for no fires to be lit after dark, for fear of the Sioux? Old Man Derby, he just kept lighting that fire, daring you an’ the Doc to put it out. Onliest time I saw the Doc near to losing his temper!

    Celia H.: (waiting a moment and looking toward ES) Do you want to elaborate on that, Captain Stephens?

    ES: No.

    Celia H.: Very well then – if you each could tell me, in your opinion, what was the absolute, very worst part of the journey and the greatest challenge. Mr. Hitchcock?

    IH: Oh, that would be the desert, missy. They call it the Forty-Mile Desert, but truth to tell, I think it’s something longer than that. All the way from the last water at the Sink –  Me, I’d place it at sixty miles an’more. We left at sundown, with everything that would hold water full to the brim, an’ the boys cut green rushes for the oxen. Everyone walked that could, all during the night, following the Cap’n an’ Ol’ Greenwood’s boy, riding ahead with lanterns, following the tracks that Cap’n Stephens an’ the Doc and Joe Foster made, when they went on long scout to find that river that the o’l Injun tol’ us of. A night and a day and another night, missy  –  can you imagine that? No water, no speck of green, no shade. Jes’ putting one foot in front of the other. Old Murphy, he told them old Irish stories to his children, just to keep them moving. The oxen – I dunno how they kept on, bawlin’ for water all that time, and nothing but what we had brung. We had to cut them loose when they smelled that water in the old Injun’s river, though. Otherwise they’d have wrecked the wagons, and then where would we have been, hey?

    Celia H.: In a bit of a pickle, I should imagine. Captain Stephens, what did you see as the most challenging moment?

    ES: Getting the wagons up the pass.

    IH: Hah! Had to unload them, every last scrap – and haul them wagons straight up a cliff. Give me a surefooted mule anytime, missy – those critters can find a way you’d swear wasn’t fit fer anything but a cat!

    Celia H.: (waiting a moment for more from Captain Stephens.) Did you want to elaborate, Captain Stephens?

     ES: No.

    Celia H.: Well – thank the both of you for being so frank and forthcoming about your incredible journey! I think we’ve managed to use up all the time that we have…

    13. November 2011 · Comments Off on To Truckee’s Trail – The Very Roof of the Mountains · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Uncategorized · Tags: , , , , ,

    Chapter 12 – The Very Roof of the Mountains

     From E.S. Patterson Interview, University of California Local History Archival Project 1932: “There was snow falling every day that we moved the wagons along the river. I don’t think we knew how bad things was, until Ma told Mister Stephens to kill the milk cow. We were only children, you see, but my little sister Sadie, she cried and cried. We all cried, even Ma, I think. That was the one milk cow we took from the old farm inIowa, and Ma, she still scolded us for crying. The men and Ma had consulted and decided to leave six wagons at the lake, and continue on with the teams that were still fit.”

    From Dr. Townsend’s diary: “Twentieth of November, 1844 . . . still encamped at a lake in the mountains, endeavoring to find a way over the rampart of the mountains. There are three notches in the mountain wall to the west, the lower of the three appears to offer the clearest path. Captain Stephens has called another meeting.”

    * * *

    It seemed to John almost a twin of the meeting a week before, when Elizabeth and the others had drawn straws for the fast-moving party to go down the south fork, instead of carrying on west with the wagons: the fire burning on a bed of cherry-red coals, throwing up a shower of sparks, as another armload of wood we tossed into it, Stephens looking like a grim, bearded gargoyle.

    “Folks,” he said, quietly, “Thanks for coming round. It’s too cold for a long palaver, so I’ll bite the bullet first. It’s been brought up before; we ought to leave the wagons –” He held up his hand, at the murmur of disagreement around the fire, and Isabella cried out, “We can’t! How can we manage with the children!”

    “Miz Patterson, we already been all over that ground. I already know how some of you would be in a passel of trouble, trying to pack out enough to keep everyone fed an’ sheltered. So here’s my thought. Leave five or six wagons here, pack the rest with just what we’d need. Pool the fit oxen to double-team those wagons. And,” he looked serenely around the group of faces gilded by firelight, half in flickering shadow, “I’ll be the first to say I’ll leave my wagon here and put my team in the pool and come back in the spring to bring it out. Anyone else?” More »