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THE TRAIL THROUGH CARSON VALLEY-1849

by David Jennings and Bob Ellison

Monday, August 13, 1849

Late today, after traveling 25 miles, Joshua Drake enters Carson Valley. The valley makes the same impression on him that it has on so many this year. He writes, “camped on the edge of a mountain at a very delightful little rivulet where the whole bottoms produces the finest grass I ever saw. Red clover, red top of the finest kind &c. In fact, on the whole this is the very best section yet seen on the whole route. The river abounds with salmon and trout.”

Tuesday, August 14, 1849

As Joshua Drake passes by the hot springs and the creeks to the south, he is the first diarist to comment on the fact that they “are sufficiently large for milling purposes. Over the half century that follows many of the creeks that he crosses will be used for that purpose. Thomas Knott will build the first two in 1853 and 1854 to initiate manufacturing in Carson Valley.

Another diarist, Jacob Stitzel enters the valley this morning. His company is moving south on the trail about 10 miles or more behind the company Drake is in. Stitzel has personally received the confirmation for his travels. Back on August 10 he passed the eastbound Mormon train in Churchill Valley and received “a very encouraging account of the gold region.”

Typical of Carson Valley’s hot August days, the afternoon often provides thunder storms and rain in different parts of the Valley. Stitzel, encamped near present day Sheridan, records, “This evening we had a fine shower.” Drake, further south, never mentions it.

Behind Stitzel is another man recording his trip, Palmer C. Tiffany. At 40 years of age, Tiffany is one of the older men on the trail and one of the better diarists. He has resigned his office as Justice of the Peace, left his wife to conduct their hotel business, and journeyed from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. His party enters the valley in the afternoon and camps north of present day Genoa. Some of the men are hunting and some fishing. He writes:

“We feasted this morning to our heart’s content on some excellent salmon trout that were taken with hooks and lines last evening. These fish are of superior quality in these mountain streams. The largest we caught was 20 long, tho’ there are much larger ones in the river. Having been confined to salt meat so long we partook of this luxury without stint.”

Wednesday, August 15, 1849

Yesterday’s fish seem to inspire the men of Tiffany’s company to seek a further change of diet, so a hunting party goes up the mountains on the west side of the valley. Just as the men have enjoyed the difference in food, so have their animals. As Tiffany writes, “This Carson Valley can beat the world for grass.”

That line will become significant to those interested in the name of Carson Valley. Except for Cyrus Currier, who claimed his group named the valley back on July 16, 1849, no one else has used the name until Tiffany’s entry that uses it twice on this date. Except for those reminiscing or editing their journals in later years, everyone else to this date has used names like Salmon Trout River Valley, Pleasant Valley, Forty-two MIle Valley, or more generic terms like valley of the Carson River (meaning from Ragtown to Carson Canyon) or rich bottoms lands. The question arises, how did Tiffany come by the name?

After crossing the stony alluvial fan at the south end of the valley, the group with Joshua Drake only pause a few minutes before moving up the canyon to the top.

Another diarist is 18 miles into the valley. He has made 29 miles today on horseback with his pack mules in tow. Sterling Benjamin Franklin Clark was born in Rutland, Vermont in 1825, but has left his home in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania on March 11. He is an educated man- teacher, newspaper editor and lawyer- who has the promise of his beautiful fiancee that she will wait for him. Their story will become one of the great and tragic love stories of the west.

Sterling Clark started with ox and wagon, but became a packer from Fort Laramie on. Tonight he camps in what he calls “the Salmon Trout River Valley” and calculates that he has traveled 1938 miles to this point. His journal entries are often terse single sentence entries. He is determined to waste no time in getting through to the gold fields.

Thursday, August 16, 1849

Those of Tiffany’s party that went hunting returned late last night with a deer they killed high on the mountain. Except for fish, it is the first fresh meat they had since Upper Platte River. They are eager to continue on and a little before noon they reach the base of the canyon.

Sterling B.F. Clark is up early and does 19 miles to the south end of the valley by noon. He lunches in the vicinity of Tiffany’s company. In the afternoon he follows “Pass Creek” up the canyon and puts in a 30 mile day. He will travel on to become the Alcalde at Mormon Island, and a financial success in Sacramento and San Jose. He will court his beloved Rachel by mail for almost 4 years. When she agrees to come to San Francisco he will return to the east via Panama, claim his bride and sail for California. However, he will be stricken at Nicaragua and have to be carried from the boat at San Francisco. Two weeks later his wife will be a widow and seven months later their daughter will be born. Mrs. Clark will remarry and live in Aurora, Nevada during the 1860s. Decades later, Clark’s daughter, Ella Sterling Clark, will marry Philip Verrill Mighels, the son of Carson city’s long time owner and editor of the Daily Appeal, Henry R. Mighels. Ella and Philip will live at Bower’s Mansion for a while. In 1919, Ella will receive the honor from California’s legislature of being declared “First Historian of Literary California” because of her writings under the name Aurora Esmeralda.

As for P.C. Tiffany’s group, they leave about the same time that Clark does, but Tiffany estimates that their wagons only take them about 2 1/2 of the expected 5 miles up the canyon. The group is stopped just downhill from present day Nevada Emigrant Trail “T” marker #26, downstream and across Highway 88 from the Snowshoe Springs Campground. Tiffany records:

“Waggons are broken down and left almost from the commencement of this difficult road. Just before stopping, at the foot of a frightful hill, there were so many wagons broken down and abandoned- some perfectly sound left for want of teams to move them through (and in every case a great portion of the loading is left with the waggons)- that our boys gave it the name of the Waggon Bone-yard.”

Friday, August 17, 1849

One day after P.C. Tiffany’s party was caught half way up Carson Canyon, another group traveling with Zirkle D. Robinson found themselves in the same place when night overtakes them. Like almost every man with a diary before him, Robinson records, “The most dreadful place I ever saw and the worst roads any man ever saw.”

Sunday, August 19, 1849

There have been thunder storms in the Sierras over the last few days and last night was quite cool. Despite the heat of the day, Alonzo Winsor is surprised to find ice visible in the morning.

As the emigrants move along the edge of the valley and parallel the upstream course of the river, they are interested in seeing how many dams the Washoes have along parts of the streams and river. The Indians will notch a dam and place a specially shaped basket where the water flows over. When the fish go in the basket trap they cannot get out. It is obviously more efficient than the emigrant’s hook and line.

David Jennings and Bob Ellison are Carson Valley historians