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Across Nevada in 1850

On July 29th Nevada-today featured "The Ring: A Tale of Western Travel". It was the true story of a families encounter with Native Americans on their way to the Gold Country in California in 1850.

Today we  pick up with their travels as they take a cutoff at Fort Hall Idaho and came to Thousands Springs Valley in Nevada an area of "bottomless wells".

They camped here for several days and then dropped into Nevada, the last territory between them and California.

The pastures and water known as 1000 Springs were a critical resource for travelers on the California Trail, north of Wells, Nevada

They went along the Humboldt[i] river, over the mountains near Elko (Nevada.) 

Humboldt River valley

Alkali dust poured over them into their faces, filled their nostrils, choking them. Their lips were swollen and split open and bleeding.  Their hands were cracked, even with the grease they smeared on them.  The world was blotted out in a nightmare of alkali dust.  The children choked on the powdery clouds and begged constantly for water.  The women had to take the children sometimes and walk far in the rear because the cattle stampeded when the children cried.  Many of the men sucked lead bullets to keep their mouths moist and save on the drinking water for the women and children.

The tongues of the cattle hung out and their eyes stared bulging.  They stopped and pawed the ground and bellowed when they came to a dead animal.  There were many carcasses stretched stark and stiff along the way. 

The travelers came to sloughs in the swamp near Winnemucca  (Nevada.) 

Winnemucca Slough, June, 1911 by Snyder, John Otterbein. Northeastern California, Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Fisheries, vol.35, 1915-1916, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Open Source

More and more starving men on foot begged for food and water.  Their shoes were worn out and their feet bleeding.  Some wrapped their feet in gunny sacks–if they had one.  Hundreds of dead horses, oxen and mules lined the way.  The forty mile desert arose before them. [ii] On rolled the covered wagons:  the ones that were holding together.

From Day 4 on the California Trail – A Deadly Desert to Cross. Public domain.

More than once John was glad that he had bought the best in wagon and oxen. Evan as his cash began to dwindle he knew that “the best was the cheapest,” in the long run.  Besides, California was not far away now, where the gold was to be had for those with a pick and shovel.  Gold waiting to be shoveled up!  Gold for all their needs!  Riches!  In mining you never could tell.  Poor one day, rich the next.  He might be a millionaire before the year was out.

His two slender hands held the reins in a steel grip. The blazing heat burned through his body.  He glanced over looking at the children from time to time.  A wild thought flashed through him like the sear of a branding iron if he could only throw himself face downward in water, and drink, and drink, and never come up.  He caught himself and sucked on the bullet and moved over a little and gave Susan and Charley the baby a little more of the shadow on the canvas.

Susan’s eyes were steady.  She moistened the brownish cloth that was white that morning and lay it on Charley’s forehead.  She glanced back at the other children.  They were sitting or sprawled in the back of the wagon, overcome in various degrees by the heat and the burning dust.

Anyway, they were not walking.  They were conscious of their swollen hot feet and they were resting them as best they could. In a little while they could have another drink of water.  They had to wait.  They had just had water.  All they could think was water, water, water.  It was said that on the last stretch between Desert Wells and Carson River some one counted 350 dead horses, 280 oxen, 120 mules, and one thousand wagons.

At last they reached the Carson River. When the animals smelled the water from the Carson River, their drivers could not hold them.  They tore down the slope and never stopped until they were belly deep in water.  It was said that some people who had gone insane on the trip acted with more control than the sane.

West Fork of the Carson River, just east of Hope Valley in Alpine County, California. Public domain

Maybe everybody went a little crazy when they saw the water and the cottonwood trees!  It was not a dream or a mirage.  There was the Carson River and the trees.  It was hard to get used to the rustling of the leaves of the trees.

They looked farther ahead at the mountains–the mountains that separated them from California.  Never again would they be without water but never again would they take water as a matter of course.  All the days of their lives, water would be a sacred thing to these travelers.

After drinking all the water that was safe for them to drink and bathing themselves, and cooking and feeding and watering the live stock, they lay down that night to sleep.  The first sleep of real relaxation they had known since they started on the trip!  The trip where thirst, starvation, sickness and death stalked close beside them. Where the lucky ones whose teams had held together this long, still had some money and food.

John and Susan had brought six children through safely. The wagon was almost as good as when they started. The oxen were in fairly good condition and now all they had to do was to travel over the mountains, where the gold in the hills of California was theirs for the taking.  Gold, maybe vast riches!  They still had some grub but their money was getting low.  John and Susan smiled at each other as they thought of these things.  They had much for which to be thankful.  They didn’t say this in words, they just smiled at each other.  We’ve done it, their smiles told each other.

Next week, the family faces cholera.

Endnotes:

  • [i]The Humboldt is fed by melting snow flowing from the Ruby Mountains in north central Nevada and runs over 300 miles (480km) mostly westward across the Great Basin to the Humboldt Sink in western Nevada where it disappears into the ground (the Great Basin has no outlet to the sea.) The Humboldt provided a easily followed pathway across the Great Basin. The Humboldt was praised for having water and feed along its banks and also cursed for its poor quality water, barely adequate grass, meandering channel and alkali laden dust. The fire ‘wood’ consisted of occasional junipers and cedars and ever present sagebrush and willows. The trail passed through the narrow Carlin Canyon on the Humboldt, which became nearly impassable during periods of high water. West of Carlin Canyon the trail climbed through Emigrant Gap (Nevada) and then descended again to rejoin the Humboldt at Gravelly Ford. At Gravelly Ford the often muddy Humboldt had a good gravel bottom and was easily forded and there was usually plenty of grass and fresh water springs. Many stayed here a while to rest and recuperate their teams and themselves. After the Ford the trail divided into two branches, following the north and south banks of the river. The trail on the north side of the river was much better allowing an easy miss of the Reese River sink. Those who took the south side would have to travel around a big bend in the Humboldt then cross the usually dry alkali laden Reese River sink. The two branches of the Trail rejoined at Humboldt Bar. The main route of the California Trail is approximated by modern State Route 233 in eastern Nevada.
  • [ii]The Forty Mile Desert was a barren stretch of waterless alkali wasteland that stretched from Humboldt Bar to both the Carson and Truckee rivers and beyond. The desert covered an area of over 70 miles (110 km) by 150 miles (240 km), forming a fire box in which its loose white salt covered sands and baked alkali clay wastes reflected the sun’s heat onto the stumbling travelers and animals. It was one of the most dreaded sections of the California Trail as it showed up just as the emigrants were nearly out of food supplies, very weak and tired, often suffering from the effects of scurvy, with very worn out animals and equipment. They were about 150 miles (240 km) before the end of the 2,000 miles (3,200 km) trail and for many it was the end of their trail. Most emigrants got there in late August through early October–one of the hottest, driest times of the year.

About Author

Michael McGreer Mesquite, Nevada
Dr. Michael Manford McGreer is managing editor of Nevada-today.com and writes on issues that impact public policy.

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