Sunday, August 26, 2007

Wagon Crossing

A home in the West was an appealing idea. The news of successful crossings of the Rockies spawned great excitement in the Northern and Eastern states. Late each spring the emigrants gathered at prearranged spots along the Missouri and moved out in caravans of anywhere from a few wagons to several hundred. For six months they would drag along at 15 to 20 miles a day until the survivors reached an unfamiliar destination some 2,000 miles away.

Although the favored time of departure from staging points along the Missouri was late April or early May, it was already June in 1849 when Josiah Royce, his wife Sarah and their two-year old, Mary, left Council Bluffs with a wagon train of strangers. Near the end of August they reached Salt Lake City. Snow could block the passes through the Sierra Nevada range anytime after mid-October, so the company broke up, each man making his own arrangement to get to the mountains as quickly as possible. On August 30, their solitary wagon drawn by a three-yoke team of six oxen pulled out. They followed directions to the lower end of the Humboldt River, known as the Sink, hoping to meet a band of Mormons returning from a summer gold hunt in California and get further directions. They had traveled only a few days across the Great Salt Desert when they met two young men traveling with only a horse and mule. The new members of the party had very little food and, although they hunted every day, food was scarce in the desert.

In mid-September, the Royces met the band of Mormons and their leader carefully explained how to get to the Carson River. But the Royce party traveling at night missed the turn and had wandered miles into the desert. To keep their oxen alive they fed them the straw from their mattress. They had to turn back. “Turn back,” Sarah wrote in her memoirs, “What a chill those words sent through one. Turn back, on a journey like that; in which every mile had been gained with most earnest labor. And now for miles we were to go back.” With only a few sips of water left, they found a grassy meadow with water. They packed the wagon with water and hay and resumed their trek across the sea of sand, “this time to cross or die.” Two days out, two oxen died. They traveled though the night with the remaining oxen, as dawn approached the animals drank the last of the water. They traveled on. For several miles, as the sun rose higher, not a word was spoken. Then finally a low, dark line appeared on the horizon. It was the Carson River. The desert had been conquered, but they still faced the Sierra Nevada range.

Progress toward the foothills was dishearteningly slow. On October 12, the travelers gazed up the steep incline and wondered how they could possibly ascend it. Then in a cloud of dust two “heaven-sent messengers” came cantering down a mountain trail toward them. They were from the Relief Company “sent out by order of the United States Government to help the late emigrants over the mountains.” The two men gave them clear instructions for the safest route and helped repack the party’s gear on the animals. Abandoning the wagon, the Royces needed to make all possible speed while the spell of clear weather lasted. A week later they crossed the summit and began their descent down the western slope. Exultantly, Sarah looked down, “down far over the constantly descending hills, to where a soft haze sent up a warm, rosy glow that seemed to me a smile of welcome. She was gazing down on the Sacramento Valley

Fighting Eagle

Source: The Old West by Time Life Books

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