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History of Carson Valley

by Bob Ellison and Dave Jennings

Friday, Sept. 21, 1849

Amos Steck, who will go on to become a famous pioneer, businessman and politician in Denver, Colorado, is today, a pioneer in Carson Valley. Someone has warned him of the changing conditions ahead of him. Last night he noted the mountains were lit up by the campfires of the natives but he took no worry in that. Two days earlier, however, Charles Gould also noticed the fires, but did not think they were controlled. As he looked at the Sierras, he commented, “They are on fire in many places, which are probably the work of Indians.” For Amos Steck, today the problem is with grass, not fires. He marvels at the “uncommon luxuriance of the grass,” but it is running out. Part of the day is spent cutting grass to feed his animals while they wait in the canyon for their turn to climb it. At 8:30 tonight, when he arrives there, he notes, “No grass whatever and we were fortunate in having it on board.”

There is another man looking at the pine trees, the grass, the streams, the river, the soil, and then summing it up altogether to declare, “that it is one of the best tracks of land we have seen since leaving the states.” However, this note-taker is not just painting a word picture; he is also making watercolor sketches along the trail. He is an Englishman, about 41 years of age, from St. Louis, Missouri. His name is James F. Wilkins. He is a survivor, but suffering from scurvy. What he doesn’t know is that, back home, his wife and children have recently died of cholera.

Wilkins has no desire to dig for gold and will not even try his luck when he gets to the diggings. He will quickly return to St. Louis, find financial backing and then convert his 200 or so sketches to the painting of a news reel. Actually, it will be three reels, ten feet high and hundreds of feet long, painted on a thin cloth and wound across a stage as he provides a lecture on the California Trail. The rolling diorama will include all of the activities and scenic wonders along the way. The show will play to packed houses in the cities of Illinois and Kentucky before Wilkins returns to portrait painting.

Sunday, Sept. 23, 1849

The oxen pulling the sawed-off wagon used by James Wilkins are still very weak. Wilkins and his traveling companions have slowly traveled south in Carson Valley for the last two days in order to allow the animals some recovery time and good feed. However, they are so late on the trail that feeding conditions have changed dramatically. Today they are stopped near the mouth of Luther Canyon to cut grass for their animals. They have been told that everything has been eaten off from this point to about four miles beyond the head of the canyon in Hope Valley.

Tuesday, 25 September 1849

After a day’s delay, at sunrise this morning, the party of James Wilkins is finally able to take its turn in the attempt to get up through Carson Canyon. It takes them eight hours and during that time Wilkins makes three hasty sketches of the scenes. Safely at the top, they congratulate themselves by taking a “horn” of whiskey.

Wilkins has traveled near the Pioneer Line for part of the trip and, about this time, the remaining wagons, stock, employees and passengers are also in Carson Valley. Many of the healthier passengers have left the train and have already walked through the valley. Of those coming through at this time, many are affected by “land scurvy” and some will die in the days to follow. In contrast to their condition when they first began their overland journey, they are now a pitiful looking lot. Their gums have withdrawn from around their teeth. Their skin has taken on a yellow, blotched look and the painful movement of their joints is very limited.

One of the Pioneer Line passengers in this group is Niles Searls. He is just beginning to feel the effects of the scurvy. Three of the six men in his original mess have died on the trip west. Niles will survive and go on to become the Chief Justice of California’s Supreme Court. His diary will tell the story of this ordeal when it is published by his descendants in 1940.

Another of the more healthy men in this group is a gambler named William Rogers. When Searls and the other sick men were left in a wagon on the 40 Mile Desert while the exhausted mules were driven on to the Carson River, Rogers was one of the angels of mercy that returned to the sick with canteens full of water. This will not be his only trip through Carson Valley. Rogers will go on to become a member of the San Francisco Vigilante Committees of 1851 and 1856. He will then become the first Sheriff of El Dorado County, California. He will return to this valley and claim 160 acres of it in 1858.

Tuesday, Sept. 26, 1849

One group after another keep coming through what will be known as Eagle, Jack’s and Carson Valleys, although a large portion of the emigration has recently been diverted onto a new cut-off on the California Trail. Around 11 August, out on the Humboldt River, near present-day Imlay and Rye Patch Reservoir, the Lassen Cut-off was opened to the northwest, through the Black Rock Desert. Many travelers chose this seemingly more direct yet untested route much to their regret.

Today, Jackson Thomason and his mess mates have entered Carson Valley, having wisely chosen to stay with the proven route. He was a well-established merchant, 33 years of age, with a wife and three children living in Pontotoc, Mississippi. He left there and traveled with friends and neighbors in a constitutionally organized group they called the California Exploring and Mining Company. Each man had paid $150 for his membership and some of the men brought slaves with them. Thomason is a city man that had never camped out before his first day on the trail. He is a deeply religious man with a positive attitude undamaged by his recent travel. Cholera, measles and mumps plagued the group at the outset. The organization ultimately disbanded in Salt Lake City and Thomason formed a partnership with three other men. They took one wagon and four yoke of oxen. The men and the oxen have had good health from that point, except for one man, I.P. Carr. As they camp in Carson Valley, Carr begs that they lay over until a doctor they know can catch up with them. Thomason notes that, “Mr. Carr has been rather unwell for the last two days…If he was not sick he would not think of waiting for them (referring to his mess mates).” However, they hold the travel down to 13 miles and let the cattle enjoy the luxury of what yet remained of this season’s grasses.

Thursday, 27 September 1849

Because of Carr’s sickness and pleas to lay over, the Thomason group starts late in the morning and only travels 8 miles until noon. They have already been warned that there is no grass left near the mouth of Carson Canyon and so they spend the afternoon cutting grass and putting it into their wagon for the trip to and up the canyon. In the evening, their former company members catch up to them and the doctor is able to prescribe’ for Carr.

Friday, 28 September 1849

Today, Thomason’s group has covered the final distance to the end of the valley and are camped at the mouth of “the Kanyon.” They find the trail information correct. Thomason records, “No feed here.” All of the meadow land near the mouth of Carson Canyon has been grazed off.

As the emigrants arrive in California, the stories of suffering and stragglers is being told. General Persifor F. Smith, commanding California’s military interim government has already appropriated $100,000 for an emergency fund to assist in getting the emigrants in to California. He is also taking private donations to supplement that sum. Preparations are already underway for members of the military and hired civilians to journey into Carson Valley, the Truckee Meadows and along the new Lassen Route. They are to take the supplies and animals necessary to bring the stragglers safely over the Sierras to their destinations.

Editor’s note: Bob Ellison and Dave Jennings are Carson Valley historians.