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49ers come through Carson Valley, find wagons are difficult to haul

by David Jennings and Robert Ellison

Friday, July 27, 1849

On an unknown date during the last week of July, Col. Vital Jarrot of St. Louis and most of his party pass through Carson Valley. No one is keeping a diary, but in a letter, the colonel will write home later in August, he will confirm that Capt. Paul will become the first man of the season to bring a wheeled vehicle all of the way through to the gold fields. Jarrot will brag that Paul, who had started with three or four wagons, entered the gold camps in a lone buggy, while he arrived with all of his five wagons intact. Jarrot’s claim is that only 18 wagons got in ahead of him.

Today, Jasper Morris Hixson made an early start (from his camp near Dayton) and after traveling 27 miles, he has camped near what will later be named Clear Creek. He notes that it is the first rivulet flowing from the mountains to cross their trail. Someone in the group rode his mule up to the timberline, put his lariat around a small downed pine tree and dragged it into camp for firewood. As Hixson looks south at Carson Valley, he describes the view,

“On the bank of the brook where we crossed was clover that almost hid the animals… (It) presented a sea of the finest feed I had ever seen, untrod by domestic animals. By acclamation this was pronounced the most delightful spot we ever beheld.”

Hixson is riding a fresh horse and wearing fringed buckskins and moccasins, all of which he purchased at Fort Hall (present-day Idaho). He is carrying what he calls, “the boss gun of all…an old-time rifle, thirty-two balls to the pound.” He is a merchant by trade but, for this trail company, he is both the cook and the point man picking each camp. His party had started as eight friends and relatives when they rode out of Liberty, Clay County, Missouri. They drove their three wagons from the city’s streets on Tuesday, May 1. At times they have joined and been joined by other small companies for safety, only to separate for better time or greater mileage. Today the men are driving two light wagons, “stage style” as they say. One is pulled by six mules and the other is pulled by four. They are running nine extra mules, some with packs and riders. They have made amazing time, pushing hard every day. Earlier on the trail, Hixson estimated that the usual train traveled at 3 miles an hour, but they were able to move along at about 4 miles an hour. Back on June 15. Hixson noted that they had passed 7,034 teams since leaving the states. The company had made a lot of people eat the dust of their passing. However, for the past week, some of those people were now providing dust and passing Hixson. Many men had given up on ox teams in the race for gold. They sold their outfits for pack animals at Fort Kearny, Fort Hall, Salt Lake and Peg-leg Smith’s to get back into the race for the early claims at the diggings. Hixson reminded himself in his journal of the old adage, “Every dog has his day.”

About this time, another group of, possible, 23 men are in Carson Valley with their mule-drawn wagons. Recording their trip is an Irish writer who sailed from England to make this adventure and sell the book it will provide. He will publish in London during 1851 and 1852 under the name of William Kelly. He was voted the captain of this company. He claims his group had initially totaled 25, eight of whom were Yankees, two Scots, two Irish and the rest were lately from England. However, at this point, Kelly has chronicled the death of two of his companions (though future readers may think he may have borrowed one of the incidents from another company to help his manuscript). Kelly will write that one man drowned at a river crossing and the other accidentally shot himself-two forms of death that will become common on the trail.

Kelly’s company originally purchased five light wagons and sixty-one animals. There were three riding horses for each “mess” they have formed into and mules to pull the wagons. There was also a bell mare to keep the mules together for, as Kelly writes, “they (mules) form a particular attachment to a horse, and still greater to a mare; the bell mare they will follow through fire or water, superseding the necessity of herding or driving them. In case of fright, they crowd and crouch around her like a flock of sheep.”

No one in Kelly’s company has had any previous experience in the West, but they are men of financial substance who understand travel, animals and adventure. They had taken an early start on the trail at Independence, Missouri, on April 16, and Kelly claims that they also had hired a man with a wagon load of corn to travel a short distance with them.

Kelly watches the wheels of the wagons as they roll through Carson Valley. The Nevada deserts had dried and shrunk the wood, allowing the wheels to almost rattle apart. The men had thus soaked the wheels in the Carson River for two days and resulting swelling seems to have worked. As they ride towards the base of the Sierras, Kelly, with his Victorian verbosity, put together this view, “…leading into a valley that lay along the foot, embraced by the Carson…and which for soil, situation and natural charms, eclipsed the most favored localities in our journey. I got into an ecstatic mood on entering it, feeling as though I stood in fairy-land; and in the blissful serenity that reigned around, feared almost to breathe, lest the mortal contamination should dissolve the delicious spell by which I was entranced. It looked peacefully hallowed in its Elysian loveliness; too happy, too divine a spot for the dwelling-place of other than pure unsinful essences, where the cankers of worldly ambition could never take root, or spread their baleful influences.”

Saturday, July 28, 1849

Hixson and his camp are up and on the trail at 5 a.m. They enjoy each beautiful, clear stream they cross as they follow the trail along the base of the mountains (traveling close to the same route as today’s Foothill Road). They pass what will later be called Walley’s Hot Springs and note its pond and drainage into the Carson River. Hixson continues to be impressed by the scene.

“Almost as far as the eye could see, was a meadow of the most luxuriant and nutritious grasses…if there ever was a spot designed by nature for a stock ranch, it was this. This was the great Carson Valley.”

When Hixson finishes his 25 miles for the day at the mouth of Carson Canyon, he encamps near present-day Woodfords. During the day’s travel he had “bought some fine mountain trout from the Indians.” Even though the “rush” of miners through the valley has barely begun, Washoe entrepreneurs are already at work. William Kelly’s company has also bought “two glorious trout” that weighed about five pounds each. The cost was two tattered flannel shirts, some hard bread and hot buns.

After dinner, some of Kelly’s men are allowed to take up the bows and arrows of their vendors and try to hit a nearby tree. They miss. The Washoes are then asked to demonstrate, but they decline. When they are pressed, they consent, shoot and miss by as wide a mark as their hosts. Kelly suspected that they did not want to demonstrate their skills. Kelly then picks up the last bun, “and sticking it in the bark of the tree, made signs that whoever hit it should have it to eat; on hearing which, one of them took up his bow and without any studious aim, drove his arrow right into the dimple of the crust.”

Sunday, July 29, 1849

While traveling up Carson Canyon, one of the Hixson company’s two wagons broke and was cut down into a two-wheel cart. At the end of the day, Hixson’s comments were like those before him, “…traveled seven miles, and a harder day’s travel we had not made on the entire trip.” At the mouth of the canyon they had found a piece of paper serving as a register for those travelers ahead of them with wagons. Hixson noted there were 83 and now their two wagons have made it 85. William Kelly will later write that the same thing happened to his wagon in the canyon, turning it into a balanced cart.

Monday, July 30, 1849

This afternoon, members of a joint stock company calling themselves the California Association arrive in Carson Valley. The group is out of Monroe, Michigan and partially financed by two investors that remained behind. They have bound themselves together by legal contract for a period of two years. However, the captain has recently resigned and others are already talking about leaving the company. The group started as 10 men well equipped with supplies for six months, but the trail has taken its toll. When they left home on March 6, they were in two covered wagons drawn by four horse teams, with two spare horses following. They left Independence on April 21, joining in with the William H. Russell Company for added protection. As they arrive here, the events are recorded by the company’s purser, Delos R. Ashley. He is keeping this record by legal agreement with the investors and according to the by-laws of the company. Ashley tersely notes, “rounded bluff, and down river 10 miles. Good grass.”

About this time, some other men are entering the valley that will long be remembered by the future citizens of Carson Valley. One is James W. Haines, and he had also started out on the trail traveling with three joint stock companies from Ohio. On his trip West, he was elected captain of about 64 men from what was left of this group called the Ohio Company. However, from Fort Hall (Idaho) he has been traveling ahead of them as a packer. He briefly fell sick with mountain fever at the head of the Humboldt River and fell in with another group of packers that had a doctor with them. The doctor was J.S. Ormsby, traveling with his brother, Major William Ormsby. Another person in the group was John K. Trumbo. They all traveled together briefly. Now, as Haines travels through Carson Valley, he and the four men that have stayed with him are living off jerky made from an antelope Haines shot out on the big bend (near present day Lake Lahontan) of the Carson River. Other provisions will come in a few days when, as Haines will later remember, “we found Mormons returning to Utah who furnished us with bread without money and without price.” In the 1860s, after becoming a successful California businessman, a founder of Colusa, California, and a Sacramento City Marshal, Haines will come back to Carson Valley. He will then have many business interests in both states. He will buy the town of Sheridan from Moses Job, the Cary ranch at the base of Kingsbury grade and also build a prestigious ranch and residence at the north end of Genoa. He will serve in Nevada’s first and second Constitutional Conventions. He will spend many years as a State Senator from Douglas County. Haines will also claim to be the inventor of the V-flume used to bring wood down out of the Sierra.

Major Ormsby and his party have traveled through Carson Valley just ahead of the Haines party. Ormsby will return to run a trading post in Genoa, then move to the infant Carson City. In May 1860, he will become th most celebrated martyr of the Paiute Indian battle at Pyramid Lake. John K. Trumbo will return to Carson Valley and marry the daughter of Col. John Reese. During the late 1850s, he will be Reese’s resident agent.

Tuesday, July 31, 1849

The California Association has finished breakfast and is on the trail at 5 a.m. They pass the hot springs and put in 14 miles before they stop at noon and rest the stock until 2 p.m. Then it is 8 more miles to the mouth of Carson Canyon and the evening’s camp. Ashley looks back at the valley and records, “Valley fertile.” In the coming week, the group will camp with an eastbound Mormon party in Hope Valley and hear more of the California gold camps. Their excitement will grow. The following day, upon crossing over Carson Pass and while encamped in the valley now flooded by Caple’s Lake, they further fragment their association. The malcontents will demand the medicine liquor and some will ride ahead, refusing any duty assignments.

Bob Ellison and David Jennings are Carson Valley historians.