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Gold Rush diaries are mined for historical nuggets

by David Jennings and Bob Ellison

Friday, Aug. 24, 1849

Here in the valley, the season has turned to late summer and, as the next emigrant passing through writes in his log book, “… we are encamped in one of the largest and most extensive valleys of grass we have seen anywhere on our route … enclosed on each side with pine covered mountains whose summits seemed to reach to the clouds and whose sides were more or less whitened with snow.”

The diarist is Prince Allen Athearn, a 39-year-old emigrant from Switzerland County, Indiana. He, like so many others, is impressed that despite that the valley’s heat, thousands of feet above him the mountains still retain some of their frozen cover.

After weeks of seeing only willows, the cottonwoods of the Carson River were a comforting sight, but now the giant pine sentinels along the western edge of the valley impress all travelers through this land. As many emigrants before him have done, P.A. Athearn chooses a pine near his camp to measure. At a height of 4-1/2 feet above the ground, he finds its circumference to be 18 feet. None of the emigrants has seen a forest to equal this during their journey west. No one fails to be impressed with the beauty, but not everyone measures a sample as did Athearn. Another man passing through about this time is so impressed that his estimates become exaggerated. P. Howe will write a letter from Coloma, California to the Marietta Gazette (Ohio) on Nov. 22 describing his trip. Of Carson Valley he will write, “Here the dusty way-worn traveler is immersed in a dense forest of timber, not a stick of which he has seen for the last 600 miles until he gets here, the best kind of timber too; pine and fir trees from one to three hundred feet in height, and from eight to twelve feet in diameter.”

Close to Athearn is a company whose trip is being recorded by Joseph Henry Merrill, an 18-year-old from Boston. The company, mostly out of West Virginia, arrive in the valley about mid-morning and some of the men go hunting. One man goes down to the river and digs mussels for the cook to prepare. In the evening the hunters return with some game and Merrill reports, “they saw large numbers of antelope, grouse, wolves and hares, with plenty of signs of bears.” The mussels, cooked in a soup, are so tough that few care for the dish. Other foods have to make up for the soup.

Saturday, Aug. 25, 1849

The mule teams of P.A. Athearn and his companions are pulling at their loads at 5 a.m. this morning. They will spend the day continuing upstream through the valley. It will be slow because of the large number of ox teams backing up in Carson Canyon.

Merrill, who disliked the Humboldt River, calling it the Humbug River because it provided more dust and rocks than water, now enjoys a different setting. He records, “It is really a luxury to have good wholesome water once more and to see such fine timber growing.” However, the water also has its down side. At the end of the day, after passing “several large boilers as the boys call them” (Walley’s Hot Springs), and mud holes made by the wagons crossing the creeks too far down the hill, Merrill decides he has had a tough day. “I have a bad headache tonight, perhaps caused by getting shockingly out of humor this afternoon. Contrary mules getting stuck in the mud and the like are of frequent occurrence, but this time worse than the devil, so I got mad.”

As the Athearn and Merrill groups are moving to the south end of the valley, the Louisiana Company is arriving at the north end. The man keeping a journal in the group is Benjamin M. Watts from Bowling Green, Kentucky. He is a 21-year-old schoolteacher with impeccable spelling.

Sunday, Aug. 26, 1849

Athearn’s company has concluded to travel part of the day today. They would like to lay over and observe the Sabbath day of rest; however, they feel they have lost too much time from the ox teams crowding up at “Rock Creek Canon or Kanyon,” as he has heard Carson Canyon called. They get two-thirds of the way up the canyon with their wagons before they stop and unhook their exhausted mules to walk them higher up to Hope Valley for grass.

Merrill’s group arrives at “Pass Creek Canyon,” as he knows it, at 9 a.m. His bad humor is gone and he sees the canyon as, “all in all a romantic and wild pass in the mountains…”

At the end of the day, Tipton Lindsey from South Bend, Ind., arrives at the mouth of “Pass Creek Canyon.” He notes that they found good “accommodations” two miles from the road. His statement indicates that the bottleneck for traffic and the resulting feed problems developing at this site are causing groups to seek camps nearby. Lindsey’s companions, calling themselves the South Bend California Joint Stock Mining and Operating Company, started as an expedition with over 100 men. They are on the trail amid the height of the emigration and, earlier, on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, Lindsey had recorded that the traffic was so thick that sometimes there were three teams abreast of each other. Here the wagons have to travel single file and the South Bend company adds significantly to the crowd.

Just about 7 miles north of the canyon, at the base of present-day Luther Creek (where Luther Olds will later establish his ranch and way station), the Louisiana Company has encamped for the night. Even though there is plenty of pine nearby, the cook continues to use willow for fuel, despite its unusual and somewhat foul smell when it burns. He used it the night before and almost every day before that for some time. He has long since calibrated his cooking to its level of heat. He probably doesn’t think about it, but this will be his last night to do this. Tomorrow night they will be stuck half-way up the canyon and it will be pine fuel from there on.

Monday, Aug. 27,1849

This morning the Louisiana Company heads up the rocky, sometimes sandy, uneven trail that climbs over the high ridge behind today’s Bruns Ranch. It passes by where Fredricksburg will later stand, then follows close to the path of much of Alpine County’s Emigrant Trail Road. The wagon wheels sink into the decomposed granite, making it a tough pull as the company climbs 1,000 feet in altitude to the mouth of the canyon.

W.W. Call, a traveler from Boscawen, Massachusetts, who was entering the mountains about this same time, reports that his group found an American horse that seemed to have been running at large for some time. He felt that it had been stolen by Indians, “who had shaved his mane and tail to get the hair for lariats. We appropriated him and found him very serviceable in crossing the Sierras.”

As this month comes to an end, the tide of migration is in the ebb. Earlier, on the trail at Fort Laramie, the traffic was heaviest on May 28, when 460 wagons passed by. On the 29th, the count dropped to 381 wagons and rapidly declined from there. The majority of those 49ers who have chosen to travel through Carson Valley are now in California. At one point, the migration had spread out over a thousand miles of trail. That traffic across what will become Nevada is about 500 miles of trail littered with tools, furniture, food, cooking equipment, scientific instruments, clothes, personal items, wagons, numberless dead animal carcasses and occasional graves. However, the Valley of the Carson River has been the saving oasis. Carson Valley has only one grave of record thus far and, despite the crowd of the last few weeks, all those passing through have been refreshed. Good grass and game have enabled them to prepare for the final test of their strength. Still to come are the less fortunate wayfarers whose difficulties have slowed them down.

Note:Bob Ellison and Dave Jennings are Carson Valley historicans.