The Trail Through Carson Valley in 1849 |

The Trail Through Carson Valley in 1849

by Dave Jennings and Bob Ellison

Monday, July 16, 1849

Some groups driving wagons have entered the valley today. They are close to each other and it may be hard to imagine them as either separate parties or as one company. The wagons are few in number and the largest part of goods being moved are on the backs of mules. These men are among the vanguard of the wagon companies that will forever be remembered as the ’49ers. Only men moving entirely on pack animals are known to have been ahead of these parties.

A party of packers has traveled through just in the last couple of days. A member of that group is Cornelius Cole, a New York lawyer. He had started his trip on Feb. 12 with six others from his neighborhood. They rode from Seneca County, N.Y., to Pittsburgh in an open sleigh, then they boarded a river boat. On April 24, they started at Independence, Mo., in mule-drawn wagons. Since the grass was not up yet, they paid a man to accompany them for a great distance with a wagon load of corn for the animals. At Fort Laramie (present-day Wyoming), they gave up on wagon travel and became packers. They quickly moved through Carson Valley and will arrive at Sutter’s Fort on July 24. Forty-nine years from this date, Cornelius Cole will publish his memoirs and claim, “We were preceded in reaching California that summer by a few Mormon boys, who had left Salt Lake in the Spring, but we were the first that year to make that trip quite across the country.” He never mentions Edmund Green and the company who seem to have preceded him.

Cole became moderately successful at gold mining, then started up a legal career in California. He eventually served clients such as C.P. Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins of Central Pacific Railroad fame. Along with James McClatchey, he later published the Sacramento Times. Cole also represented California in the U.S. House from 1863-1865 and in the U.S. Senate from 1867-1873. He stayed active in the California Republican party until he died at 102 years of age.

Cyrus Currier is in one of the groups that has arrived in Carson Valley today. At 6 p.m. this evening, he is camping after traveling 16 miles. Writing in his journal he notes, “This is a beautiful place. We gave it the name of Carson Valley.”

Currier is in a mule-drawn wagon and traveling with two companions. Currier left Newark, N.J., by rail train on March 16. Then he boarded a steamboat and eventually his jumping off point had been the Missouri state line on April 26. Cyrus Currier had initially formed up with the Newark Overland Co. under the command of Gen. John S. Darcy, but, during the journey, he seems to have moved ahead of most of this company.

Another group is out of St. Louis and is headed by Captain G.W. Paul. There has been some competition between the groups to be the first men in wagons to reach California. They are, literally, in a gold rush.

Feed has been critical to these immigrants traveling by wagon and Currier notes that the valley’s natural growth of blue grass, clover “and other nutritious grasses” would harvest at about 5 tons to the acre. The valley is a welcome sight but, despite its opportunities, the men will not consider tarrying to recruit their mules and other stock. The lure of gold waiting to be picked from the ground in California is too strong.

Tuesday, July 17, 1849

Cyrus Currier packed up early today and by 4 a.m. was on the trail. He traveled until 8:30 a.m., then rested until noon. The afternoon’s travel lasted until 6 o’clock and ended in Carson Canyon. Here he tried his hand at fishing the river, but failed to catch anything.

During the day’s travel along the trail as it hugged the base of the mountains, Currier’s party encountered two Washoes. The emigrants were ignorant of the men’s tribal affiliation and the two Indians knew nothing of the travelers’ previous problems. Four days earlier, the group had suffered its first loss to the Indians. After midnight, the guard had sounded the alarm and the men had come running. The only casualty was Old Ned, one of Captain Paul’s mules, who took three arrows. Currier recorded, “As this was the first aggression, it aroused our warlike spirit and some said they would shoot the first Indian they saw.” What could have been a tragic encounter in Carson Valley passed without any violence. Today, Currier wrote, “Our warlike spirit had cooled down and we did not shoot them.”

In Carson Canyon, Currier’s party ran into a group that had been packing ahead of them. The animals were almost given out. The party had left their wagon back at Pegleg Smith’s in Bear River Valley (Idaho). Evidently, they had been too hard on their animals and now the wagons have overtaken them.

From here, two men who had entered Carson Valley yesterday will pull ahead in an attempt to travel with the packers. One man is driving a light wagon pulled by four mules. He is referred to as Mr. Emery, a man who has traveled with Currier’s party most of the way. The second man, Captain Paul, is at the reins of a light carriage that is drawn by two mules. The day before yesterday, Cyrus Currier had camped in a dry camp with Capt. Paul somewhere between present-day Dayton and Empire. Capt. Paul’s wagon had broken down at that point. The captain left his large wagon, pulled by six mules, in the hands of four men from the party. Now the captain had moved to the light carriage to travel ahead of the main group. As Currier would soon note, “Captain Paul was very desirous of being the first one from the States this season by wagon.” It is unknown whether he was able to claim that distinction.

Thursday, July 19, 1849

Traveling an impressive 28 miles today, David Cosad arrives in Carson Valley. David had left his home in Junius, Seneca County, N.Y., back on March 13. Now, 128 days later, in his journal he records, “First rate grass. Beautiful springs coming from the snow mountains. The handsomest yellow pine timber I ever saw. Good camp.” Even though it is July, he notes that the mountains on both sides of the valley have snow on them. However, his most curious entry of the day states, “Three volcanoes a-smoking in sight.” In future years, many will speculate if what he saw was the wind blowing plumes of snow off Job’s Peak and other pinnacles.

When the rest of his party is worn down by the rigors of the trail, David Cosad is in worse shape. Back on June 3 when he was hooking up a horse to the team pulling the wagon, the animal spooked and tripped Cosad off the tongue and under the wagon as the whole combination of animals, wagon and 1,600 pounds of load lurched forward. The front wheel rolled over his breast. Cosad rolled over attempting to get away and the rear wheel went over his hips. They bled him and bedded him down in a wagon. It was felt that he would surely die, but in a week he was able to walk a little. In Carson Valley, he is riding a pony and walking some.

One of the men that David Cosad is traveling with is his hired hand, William Barrett. Cosad had started the trip with the agreement that he would bear the expenses for the man in return for one year’s labor and half of Barrett’s earnings in California. It is the type of agreement not uncommon to some of those coming west this year. Independence, Mo., is full of men trying to get jobs driving people’s wagons to California.

Another diarist is also in the valley today. He is William Graham Johnston and, like almost all of his companions, he is a bachelor. He has had the advantage of having some partners who are Mexican War veterans. Johnston carries a Springfield musket he bought in St. Louis. His revolver and knife are hanging from his belt in a leather holster and scabbard that he made himself. He sleeps in a buffalo skin blanket and has become a pretty good trail cook. As a greenhorn, he had started back in Pittsburgh, Pa., and his group had initially called themselves the Diamond K Co. The name came from the mark the steamboat companies had used for a claim check on all of the groups’ equipment. The company was six men traveling in two mule-drawn light wagons. They even chose the Diamond K for the brand on their animals. For the trip to California, they had joined up with Capt. (then referred to as Lieutenant) G.W. Paul near Independence in early April. The two groups were also going to merge with a group under the command of a Scottish trapper and guide named James Stewart. However, Capt. Paul’s party became impatient and moved out 14 days ahead of Stewart and Johnston. Today, Johnston is traveling through Carson Valley two days behind Paul. It seems that Stewart’s expertise, developed over years on the Sante Fe Trail, was focused on the management of the animals more than the people. Stewart let less experienced wagonmasters lead out ahead of him. Their mistakes soon moved him to the front through his consistent pace and skilled mulecraft.

Like his companions, Johnston is pleased to have entered the valley today. He reflected that, “It was pleasant once again to be in a region abounding with pine trees, where the luxury of cheerful camp fires could be enjoyed.”

friday, July 20, 1849

This is a day that brings a surprise to the 49ers racing west. On the trail, somewhere along the western edge of Carson Valley, they run into 15 “native Californians” and an “Indian woman having a babe strapped to her back.” The group is heading east, riding mules and driving pack mules. The woman follows on foot. They say they are from Sutter’s Fort and are going to meet their families encamped on Mary’s (Humboldt) River. The west bound emigrants assume that the Californians are really prospecting.

Today David Cosad leaves Carson Valley and travels up what he calls the “California Mountains” before he logs 14 miles for the day. From his camp in Hope Valley, at the top of Carson Canyon, he records that even though “the Mormons built two bridges across the Carson River,” it was still “the worst road that a wagon ever went over.” W.G. Johnston and his companions, under Jim Stewart’s leadership, are in the canyon as well. Johnston also makes reference to one of the bridges as a “corduroy bridge.” He notes that through conversation with James Sly, he knew the bridge was built by the members of the Mormon Battalion in ’48. On viewing the steep and narrow canyon, he states, “Had not others preceded us, we might have questioned whether such difficulties were not insurmountable.”

The six members of the Diamond K company will be one of the few groups to stay together to the end of the trail. One of the members, Joseph L. Moody, will write his father from Sacramento on Aug. 7 and tell him they “succeeded in getting in the 10th wagon in to the valley of Sacramento.” Forty-three years after leaving Carson Valley, when Moody’s companion, W.G. Johnston, published an expanded version of his diary, he claimed that they were the first company to enter California in wagons.