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The Trail Through Carson Valley – 1849

by David Jennings and Bob Ellison

Wednesday, Aug. 1, 1849

Today is the 114th day on the trail for Joseph Waring Berrien. He is a young, unmarried New Yorker who had recently resided in Belleville, Illinois. He and his partner, “Mercure,” had started out with the company of Col. Vital Jarrot, but at this point they have fallen behind. Following dinner, his mule-drawn wagon is one of those to move up the valley. The emigrants pass what is today’s Walley’s Hot Springs and camp near the present Van Sickle Station. As Berrien described it (in his own spelling):

“We passed close by the foot of a mountain, from the base of which, a number of hot springs issued forth, so hot as almost to scald the hand when immersed in them. We campd at a spot where the sleughs and swampy land first recedes from the mountain, leaving a large extent of well watered and fertile land coverd with fine grass, for the benefit of the jaded teams of the emigrants. We are favored with bright and beautifull moonlight nights but they are unpleasantly cold.”

Doctor Charles Elisha Boyle is also in Carson Valley today. By the end of the day, he will be at the mouth of Carson Canyon. He is a physician from Columbus, Ohio, who has never been financially successful. He has left his family behind in search of his dream. As he left home, he wrote in this diary, “I feel determined to make one mighty effort to disenthrall myself from the slavery of the dreaded sin of being poor.” He is from Ohio and traveling as the physician with the Columbus and California Industrial Association, a group of 30 men. During this trip, he has spent his time in camp whittling objects that will become the heirlooms of future generations when he returns to his family in two years.

One of those traveling in the Columbus Company with Dr. Boyle is the secretary for the organization, Peter Decker. He is a 26-year-old bachelor and he is keeping a record of its overland journey. According to the Articles of Agreement for the company, he is “of good character and sound constitution.” He has also put up his capital of $225 as required of all 30 members. Just one of the things that has made this trip a unique experience for Decker has been the consumption of all forms of game from squirrel to buffalo. For the 10 years prior to the trip, the only meats he would eat were fish and fowl.

Another man in the Columbus Co. is Charles Breyfogle, one of its directors. He had started the trip as a sick man under the care of Dr. Boyle. Charles will make this trip again in 1850. What seems to be Breyfogle’s cousins are traveling nearby in the group from Delaware, Ohio, calling themselves the Delaware Mining Company. They were all going to travel in one group originally; however, the Delaware boys became impatient and left about a week ahead of the Columbus company. The Delaware company went by way of Salt Lake while the Columbus crew went to Fort Hall via the older established route. Since July 6, when they once again met on the trail, they have been traveling close together.

The cousins are Joshua D. Breyfogle, Israel Breyfogle and Charles C. Breyfogle. Joshua is keeping a record in the Delaware Company. Charles C. Breyfogle will return to Nevada after his next decade in California. Charles C. Breyfogle will be elected as the Alameda County Assessor in 1854. Because of financial shortages in his office in 1859, he will be tried and convicted, only to be pardoned by Governor Leland Stanford in 1861. At that time, he will return through Carson Valley on his way to Virginia City, then Austin and eventually the Big Smokey Valley. As a Nevada miner, his name will become famous over the next century in the legends about the Lost Breyfogle Mine.

As the Columbus Company passes through the valley, Peter Decker is probably flying the company flag on his wagon. It was made by his sisters and presented to the group. Just as others have distinguished themselves by uniforms, brands and other means, the Columbus boys have used their flag.

Decker’s group, mess #2, came into Carson Valley yesterday evening, passing over a few of the streams along the base of the Sierra before they encamped. This morning, they arose, had breakfast and were on the trail by 5 a.m. As he leaves camp to closely follow today’s Foothill Road, he decides that he will name this camp Beautiful. Of the area north of present day Genoa, he wrote:

“Starting out as the sun rose gorgeous splender, casting her beams over valley & peaks, I viewed the scene and was properly delighted & felt myself as fully repaid for all the vexation & sacrifices made for & during this trip… Sunflowers are abundant as well as other kinds of flowers, among which is a large white one singular beauty…”

Peter Decker and his companions ended their day’s trek at the mouth of Carson Canyon, where “Pass Creek” (as the West Fork was then known) issues forth as the main stream of the Carson. He dubbed this “Camp Romantic.”

Decker’s views were widely shared. J. Watt Gibson, another emigrant traveling through at the same time wrote, “As I recall my whole journey, I can think of no place that so impressed me with beauty.”

Thursday, Aug. 2, 1849

Joshua Breyfogle seems to have fallen a day behind some of the others at this point in the journey. His Delaware Company has lost seven horses. His part of the company broke camp at 6 a.m. and, at 10 a.m., he is now waiting for his horse-wagon and cart to catch up. Almost all of the large “Ohio” horses that they started with have broken down and are unfit for pulling the wagon and cart. The men are driving the 25 or 30 animals along with them. They take their noon break overlooking Carson Valley (just south of where the Nevada Emigrant Trail Marking Committee has placed its ‘T’ marker #20 on the right side of Jack’s Valley Road). Breyfogle writes, “We nooned on a beautiful mountain stream at the foot of the snow capped mountain.” After “nooning,” they will travel south to a point around the base of Daggett Creek before they camp for the night.

Breyfogle’s companions shared their noon stop with James Avery Pritchard, another diarist on the trail. Pritchard writed, “This valley is walled in with eternal snows and evergreen pine. It is a strange contradiction that winter and summer should stand upon the same spot of earth, but it is neverless true.” Pritchard and his companions refer to Carson Valley as Pleasant Valley. He went on to write:

“This is a most spacious valley and abundantly fertile, and covered with various kinds of the most nutricious grasses, and amongst the rest we found large fields as it were, of a most luxuriant growth of red clover to which our mules did ample justice during the 3 hours we gave them to noon.”

Another man moving quickly through the valley today is Felix C. Negley. He had started with the oversized Pittsburgh and California Enterprise Company (over 300 strong). As the company disintegrated with quarreling and breakdowns along the trail, Felix changed the power in front of his heavy wagon from mules to oxen. Then he switched to a light wagon and mules, only to change again and become a packer. He will do 30 miles today and succinctly note, “Camped in the valley of the Carson River. This is a very pretty valley to travel through.”

Mrs. Hurd (or Herd) is also in the valley today. She and her husband have been given permission to travel with the Columbus Company. They had started out with another company but left it because rudeness of men in the group. When they asked for permission to join the Columbus boys back near the Sweetwater, Peter Decker had commented on the civilizing influence.

“Our whole camp is quieter, obscene & improper language not heard just because a woman is in camp … This is the refining influence of a woman, without society men almost become desperados, men care not for men. This lady is very cheerful & adds much to our camp.”

Since the rush for gold is a race of bachelors and men who have left their families behind, women are a rarity on the trail in 1849; more so than in the years before and after. Even from the earliest days when men were traveling by boat to Independence, Missouri, Joseph Berrien had confided to his journal, “There is one unfortunate circumstance connected with our Boat though one of the finest on the Missouri River and that is the absence of Lady passengers of whom we have not a solitary one to shed a preserving influence upon us, and I am fearful on the account that some accident will occur before we reach the end of our journey.”

The wagons Berrien is traveling with today reach the meadow in the mouth of Carson Canyon (just uphill from Woodfords) a little after noon. They read a paper extolling the problems of the ascent up the canyon. The paper has been left on a large rock for the benefit of passing emigrants. Berrien writes, “The scenery here was remarkably wild and beautiful.” It is also intimidating, and even though they have only traveled a half day, they decide not to try to start the climb until tomorrow.

Much of the Columbus Company went up the canyon and lost more wagons in the process. Dr. Boyle reported that on the other side (in Hope Valley), they traveled away in four wagons and two carts, all that was left of the 10 wagons they had started with on their journey. Others shared similar experiences. James Abram Kleiser was traveling through about this time. He thought the Carson Valley provided such a good camp, security and pleasure that he wanted to stay over a day to recruit (rest) the men and animals. Others in his party, suffering from a more intense infection of gold fever, forced the group into dividing up the wagons, tools, provisions, etc., on the spot so they could move on. When Kleiser arrived at the mouth of Carson Canyon, he found one of the wagons already abandoned. He recorded, “but we made it with all our load. We passed deserted wagons, piles of bacon and other valuable property in the canyon and at the foot of the mountain.”

Friday, Aug. 3, 1849

Today, Carson Valley is teaming with travelers to the gold fields. Joshua Breyfogle and his companions are traveling south along the base of the mountains as they head towards Carson Canyon. James Pritchard and his companions are doing the same. Pritchard will arrive at the mouth of the canyon at 1 p.m. and find time to catch two trout before dinner. Some of his companions also try their luck at fishing, but fail. As he looks up the canyon, he writes, “We have just before us now what the emigrant generally call the elephant.”

J.W. Berrien, his partner, and the rest of the company started pushing and pulling their way up Carson Canyon this morning. Berrien is one of those who will ‘see the elephant,’ as the 49ers are all saying, and then, after a short time in California, shall return to Illinois a wiser man. Dr. Boyle, who is ahead of him, will do the same. He will stay in California a year then, with others, build a sailing ship and take two years to study the coasts as they sail around the Horn and back to Virginia. Felix Negley has promised his wife that he will return in two years. Today he will do 18 miles with his horse and pack mule, passing the crowd in the canyon. When he reaches the gold fields he will do well then leave in September 1850 with the intention of returning with his wife.

Saturday, Aug. 4, 1849

Today, Giles S. Isham is in Carson Valley. He has come from Lyons, Michigan, where he has been a fairly successful merchant. He left St. Joseph, Missouri, on April 26. He is on his way to the “Oriferous Placers!” While here in Carson Valley, he continues to take notes that he will use in writing a guide for travelers to California. He will leave the gold fields and, via the Isthmus, return to Lyons in 1850. His small 32-page booklet, “G.S. Isham’s Guide To California And The Mines…,” will be in the hands of travelers next season. During the 20th century, since most copies were used on the trail and then discarded, it will become one of the rarest items from the West’s past. In his terse, matter-of-fact style, Isham will proclaim that “the valley of the Carson River is wide and beautiful; some very cool brooks and hot springs near the base of the mountain…” Isham will do 20 miles through the valley today and estimate that he is 648 miles from Fort Hall. He will camp about nine miles north of Carson Canyon (where Sheridan will later stand). What he discovers today, or what he feels about his surroundings, his stock, or himself will not be shared in his unemotional notations.

One of the many emigrants passing through is Alexander B. Nixon. He camped last night at the north end of Carson Valley and arose at 4 a.m., being on the move at 5 a.m. He traveled 15 miles before noon and ends his day at the mouth of Carson Canyon, or what he knows as Pass Creek Canyon, having traveled 32 miles. His interest in the last leg of the journey intensified today. He recorded:

“At this place we met a train of Mormons returning from the mines to the Salt Lake. There was 12 wagons in the trains and several families. Their report of the mines is quite flattering, having with them large sums of gold. They kindly showed us some fine specimens.”

The transition from packers, to mule, and then to horse-drawn wagons continues as the vanguard of ox-drawn wagons are continued to be seen in the valley. It is out of one of those large companies that the first emigrant death in Carson Valley is recorded by George Meyer.

One of his party, a man named John Blair, has been violently ill since yesterday with what they believe is mountain fever. Today he has died. He was traveling with a son, a son-in-law and a brother as they tried their luck at securing a future for their family. Preparations are made and Meyer records, “We dug a grave very deep so the Indians might not discover it and recover the body. We erected a rude stone and cut some rude letters on it, to mark the spot where our fellow traveler was buried.”