by May Dye Hansen (1878-1966)
They passed through southeastern Idaho and came to Thousands Springs Valley where they were many bottomless wells.
They camped here for several days and then dropped into Nevada, the last territory between them and California.
They went along the Humboldt[i] river, over the mountains near Elko. 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.) 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. A terrible stench arose from them.[ii] On rolled the covered wagons: the ones that were holding together.
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. The 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.
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 livestock, 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.
“That Platte was a tricky old river, wasn’t it”? John said as he rested after the evening meal.
“Yes.,” Susan said.
John, looked over the children.
“We didn’t have to leave any of them back there either. Did we?”
Susan shook her head and looked far out and away. She remembered the littlest grave of them all far back there along the roadside in the desolate prairie. And the grave of the young man who never had a chance to make his stake. Yes, they had much for which to give thanks.
That night, they-slept the deep sleep cf exhaustion. You might say they slept the sleep of the dead. But there were others that night who did not sleep the sleep of the dead. Some who did not sleep at all. Some who had taken note of the good condition of John’s oxen and who had come creeping like shadows in the night and led his oxen away.
John awoke slowly in the morning even though the sun was shining brightly. After moving around for awhile, he knew once more that the Carson river was real and the trees and the mountains were real and that California was close, but something was wrong. Then he came wide awake and knew what was wrong: his oxen were gone.
John’s only consolation was to know that it had not been from any carelessness on his part. This had happened to many others. Thieves were there in waiting. Thieves who stole the best animals. Men told John that sometimes the thieves brought the stolen animals out and resold them after their owners had found a way to travel on. But how could John and Susan move on when they had such a little bit of money left? With six children they could not try to travel on foot. No wonder the pioneers hanged horse thieves. With the means of travel taken away what could he do? He was stranded.
When a man was stranded with his family, in a place like Ragtown (Nevada), what could he do? There was no employment. Food was getting low. Money was short.
The gleaming water of the Carson River might as well have been a mirage. It mocked at them. It would have been less cruel if they had died back there in the blazing sun of the desert, John thought. What good was the water now? It was even more heart breaking to know that California with its gold was so near. John looked over at Susan. She was standing silently beside the covered wagon.
“There is no way to live here, and no way to go on!” He said.
She did not replay but stared before her.
“Why we might as well have died in the blazing sun two or three hundred miles back there!” He said, eyes lighting strangely. “Blazing sun?” Something seemed to snap inside him.
“Why, yes! That was the way out!” He laughed harshly.
“The Sun, Susan!” He said. “That’s the way out. We can all lie out there in the sun, and it will kill us, as it has been trying to kill us. We needn’t drink any water but lie out there, and we will all die of sunstroke!”
He threw himself down on the ground, and dry sobs shook him.
“Come on!” He called to the others.
“Stay in the shade,” Susan snapped at the children.
She looked at John.
“We are not going to die in the sun!” She said.
John sat up and sighed.
“Well I don’t know that I care about it myself !” John said.
A whimsical smile began to play over his face. He never got far away from laughter, even when things were darkest. He stiffly got up to his feet and looked around at what was left of their equipment. He began to clear the camp and move things over to a shadier site.
“If we have to stay here, we might as well have a comfortable camp!” he said.
“Father, what we gonna eat, when we got nothin more to eat?” Rob asked.
“Water!” John said.
“You can gather some wood, Rob, so that we can boil the water.”
They both laughed. John looked over at Susan. She stood beside the wagon in silence. Her eyes were staring as if she were in a kind of in a trance. Suddenly she started up, as if she had returned from some distant place. She began to give orders rapidly to Nancy.
“Keep the children in the shade of the wagon, Nancy! Don’t let them go over by the river. Give them water if they get thirsty. Give them bread when they get hungry!” She said.
She pulled her sunbonnet down over her eyes and started off down the road., as if time counted above everything else.
“Where are you going?” John called after her.
“I don’t know!” she answered.
And she didn’t. All she knew was that she must go down that road and she must hurry, HURRY! Time counted!
“Father, is–er–is mother shown?” Nancy asked with uncertainty.
He did not reply, but stared after Susan in a kind of puzzled way. Jane came and stood close to Nancy and said:
“Maybe mother sees the oxen and will bring our oxen back with her.”
“Sh.” Nancy whispered back .
The road down which Susan went was desolate. She did not know where the road led, if you could call it a road. It was more like a wide trail, littered with rubbish from the many travelers who had passed this way. Papers, cast-off rotting clothing, tin cans, bottles but no houses. No people. Truly she did not know where she was going, but something led her down that way. A Quaker might have said the “Spirit moved” her. A spiritualist might have said she was “guided!” Susan was a Quaker with strong leanings to spiritualism.
As she went along that dusty way she heard a groan but she saw no one. She stopped, looked around, no sign of a camp anywhere, but she heard that groan once more. She had heard that sound be£ore. Some one was in extreme agony not far away.
She had heard that sound come from the dying, when the plague swept their city and neighbors had come to call for help.
Over the rim of the hill, she now noticed the top of a tent. She went nearer and the groans became louder and more agonized.
She walked quickly to the entrance of the camp and looked in. A man was writhing on some blankets on the ground.
“Stay out”! he gasped. “I am dying of cholera! You”ll get it! Stay out! Stay out!
“Friend, I’m not afraid! I can help you!” she said.
“You can’t help me! I am dying! My partner just died. You will die too!” He moaned.
For her answer she stepped inside and began to work over the sick man. Forgotten were her own troubles. Here was someone dying and alone while she had her husband and children. She took off her sunbonnet, rolled up her sleeves, set to work, with the crude means at hand to give first aid.
There was a small camp stove and some firewood. Nancy said, later, that she did not know what method of treatment her mother used, but she thought one of the things she did was to put packs of hot salt over the abdomen.
Nancy said that the neighbors used to come for her mother to help them when the plague swept through Louisville. Some had been given up by the doctors. Whatever she did, she helped the man and he became easier. This enabled her to rush back to their camp for medicine. She did not go near the children, but gave instructions to John for cooking and taking care of things until she returned.
He knew it was no use to caution her of the risk she was taking and the danger. She might bring the sickness back to the children. When she set out to save a life, nothing could stop her. She always changed all her clothing and bathed herself before going near them after she had been attending the sick. If she had lived in this day she might have been a great doctor.
She now gave orders to John to have plenty of water ready for her and a change of clothing. Before she left the sick man that day, she cleaned up the camp, fixed medicine and made things handy for him, so that he could wait on himself through the night. She did not leave him until she felt that he would be able to help himself. She promised to return early the next morning, which she did.
The man’s name was Smith. He told her his ‘partner had died of the cholera and then he had been taken down. He said one or two men had passed by but when they found out he had the cholera, they had hurried away in terror of getting it too. From that time Susan, started caring for Mr. Smith, he grew better and when he was out of danger, John moved his camp nearer to theirs so that Susan would not have so far to go. They burned some of his stuff, and washed everything else. Mr. Smith continued to grow stronger.
Among Mr. Smiths stock of supplies, Susan noticed he had a sack of dried apples that had never been opened. She asked him if he cared to sell any of the Apples. He said anything he had was for sale but not to her. He said she could have the apples for a gift.
She refused to take them unless he would let her pay something for them, which she did. She then put the apples to soak, rendered out some fat bacon for shortening and began to make apple pies. She had John pull their wagon up nearer the road, and take a plank from the bed of the wagon and fasten it on to the tongue of the wagon. She then lined her steaming pies along this make-shift counter. Rob got a board and wrote on it with charcoal in large black letters:
Wagons began pulling up at once. Everybody was laughing. The pies sold faster than Susan could bake them and the once flattened purse bean to bulge once more. Some men said they hadn’t seen a pie in years. They threw down nuggets and gold dust far in excess of the price asked for the pies and refused to take change. One customer especially paid with great generosity but made one request: that the little girl hand him the pies. He pointed to Nancy.
Men told John to keep a sharp eye on him as he was a very bad man and might try to kidnap Nancy. He was known as White-haired~Brown. He had many notches on his gun. He wore his white hair long, and men said they thought his ears might have been cut off or at least notched for some crime he had committed. No one ever dared to lift his hair and find out because he was too quick on the trigger. This may have been true for he hated all white men with a deep hatred. He lived with the Indians. His one link with the white men was that he asked for this little girl to hand him things.
Nancy also got a job handing things to a sick woman. This woman had a baby. She was too weak to get up and get things for herself. Her husband did all the cooking and washing and heavy work. Nancy just handed things to her. She paid Nancy fifty-cents a day. Sometimes she paid her more.
When Mr. Smith was well enough to travel, he offered to couple John’s wagon on to his and pull him over the mountains into California. This is how they at last reached the sprawling mining camp in the high Sierras, with its red dirt and black history of many hangings known as Hangtown.[iii]
Hangtown once started out with the name of Dry Diggin’s, and then after so many brutal hangings became known as HANGTOWN!
Perhaps the best known of the hangings was that some men who attempted to rob a gambler named Lopez. They entered his room and attempted to rob him, but he made such loud outcries that people came to his aid and arrested the men.
There was no jail in which to hold the would-be robbers so they were sentenced to 39 lashes. As they were lying on the ground bleeding and exhausted from the terrible beating they had received, some men rode up and said they looked like the men who had committed a robbery and attempt to murder a man down the Stanislaus river. The mob then passed sentence of hanging on the men, although they were not sure they were the ones who had committed the robbery on the Stanislaus river.
The men were too weak to stand up and defend themselves and could speak little English. A man jumped up on a stump and pleaded that the men be given a fair trial. “In the name of God and humanity,” he pleaded that they must first establish the guilt of the men. The mob threatened to hang the men speaking for the prisoners. The men who had been lashed for one attempted crime, were then dumped in a cart and driven to a tree and hanged for another crime which they may not have committed.
There were many other hangings in Dry Diggin’s and so people began to call the place Hangtown. John and Mr. Smith did some placer mining and staked claims, but Mr. Smith was still weak from his recent sickness. John staked one claim next to the “Yankee Jim,” and it was there that he learned, as most miners soon learn, that the ledge which runs rich on one claim may “peench out” on the claim right alongside it. But then in mining you never can tell.
Note: This story is from “All Rivers Flow West,” by May Dye Hansen (1878-1966). Ms. Hansen was the daughter of Nancy, mentioned in the story. The original document was preserved by Helen Irene Lewis, great-granddaughter of John and Susan.
[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.
[iii] Dry Diggins was the first of thirty mining camps to spring up around Coloma, where gold was discovered by James Marshall on January 24, 1848. While other camps, such as Bottle Hill, Georgia Slide, and Murderer’s Bar just faded away, Hangtown, or Placerville, was a survivor, along with Diamond Springs, El Dorado, Shingle Springs and Georgetown. Dry Diggins became known as Hangtown in the fall of 1849, due to vigilante hanging of criminals. Hangings were often accomplished at the giant old oak tree on the main thoroughfare through town. The camp eventually grew in population, becoming the third largest city in California, behind Yerba Buena (San Francisco) and Sacramento. Los Angeles came in a distant 15th place at the time. In 1854, the townsfolk renamed the camp to “Placerville.” When the mining camps disappeared, Placerville became a prime stop along the transportation route over the Sierras, from Sacramento to Nevada. The Pony Express, stage lines, Wells Fargo & Co. and freighters passed through Placerville on their route to and from the Comstock Lode in Nevada. After the turn of the century, Placerville Road became a part of the first transcontinental highway, U.S. 50. Today Placerville is the government seat for El Dorado County and a bedroom community for Sacramento commuters.