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Sunday, March 10, 2002

Sallie Fox’s 1858 move to California

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

[email protected]

Indian attack, lack of water created misery

Last December I was fortunate to accompany my husband on a drive from Montgomery, Alabama, back to Fairfield. Among the wonderful places we visited were Santa Fe, Taos and the Grand Canyon.

Watching the scenery become stonier, drier and more desert like mile by mile had me reflect on the strength and incredible courage early pioneers needed in coming across the country in the wagon trains. I especially thought of Sallie Fox whose journey to California ran close by to where we were traveling, yet whose experience was so much more difficult than our comfortable car tour.

In April 1858, the L.J. Rose/Brown train, which had on board 30 men, women and children, accompanied by several hundred heads of cattle and horses, set out from Iowa to California. Among the travelers were 12-year-old Sallie (Sarah Estelle) Fox her sister, Sophia Frances; her mother, Maria Baldwin Fox Brown; and her son, Orrin Brown. Sallie’s stepfather, Alpha Brown, was one of the train leaders. The Brown family hoped to reach Vacaville, where Maria’s sister, Julia, lived with her husband, Josiah Allison, on the Allison Ranch in Vacaville.

Their journey was uneventful until they reached Albuquerque, just like a camping vacation, as Sallie recalled later. The train had chosen the southern route to avoid the unrest following the Mormon Mountain Meadow Massacre on the northern route the previous year.

It is unclear whether the train stayed at Santa Fe or pushed on to Albuquerque. There they decided to take the newly surveyed Beale/Whipple route. Lieutenants Beale and Whipple of the U.S. Army had explored this new route the previous year, submitting a detailed report to Congress with the recommendation to build a new road all the way to California.

The Rose/Brown train was the first American train to use it. It was now late spring and the route was still green, providing sufficient grass and water for the animals. But the travelers often had to create their own roads.

On July 4th the train reached the base of the San Francisco Mountains where they rested at Leroux Springs. Some of the men actually climbed the mountain and brought snow back to the camp for a celebration.

A few days later, they reached El Morro, or “the Inscription Rock” as Sallie remembered it. There she and other members of the party carved their names into the rock like hundreds of earlier travelers before them.

Sallie also picked up petrified wood pieces at Lithadendan Creek and admired the marvelous sunsets on the Little Colorado, so beautiful that she thought she “had died and gone to heaven.”

But travel became more difficult. The train members had to climb across the mountains and endure several long, forced marches through the heat to reach the next water source. The teams grew weak and thin. Finally, the travelers reached the vicinity of the Colorado River where they planned to rest and recuperate for a few days.

At this point, the train split, with a small family group lagging back, due to their exhausted animals. A number of men also stayed with the cattle. The rest of the group settled along the river and began to construct rafts to ferry wagons and belongings across the water.

This area was Mojave Indian territory and the Indians came to inspect the camp. For some reason, the group did not take their appearance seriously, though their Spanish guide Savedra warned them that an attack might be imminent.

That same night, on August 30, the Indians attacked the camp. Sallie actually saw some of them approaching and screamed: “The Indians are coming and are going to kill us!”

While this foiled the surprise element, the Indians still attacked the camp. The noise brought the herders back to the camp, led by Alpha Brown. Close by the camp he was shot by an arrow. When he reached the camp, people cheered Here comes the captain. Yes, he answered, but full of arrows. He then fell off his horse and died.

Sallie and her mother and siblings had been hiding in a wagon, when another arrow hit Sallie in the chest area, entering on one side and coming out on the other side. Her mother had to pull the shaft out and bind the wound up.

In all, eight men were killed as well as all members of the group that had lagged behind. Many more were seriously wounded. Most of the cattle had been driven away, leaving not enough animals to pull the wagons.

Sallie Fox recalls the harrowing experience: “With one wagon so arranged that the worst wounded could lie down, and containing, out of seven, all our food, clothing and utensils, we gathered up our few remaining cattle and started back, as we could not fight our way over the river and into California. All that my suddenly bereaved mother took for herself and five children she put into a flour sack, and we literally had to go to bed when our clothes were washed. Mother cut the skirts of our one dress apiece very short so as to make us each bonnets out of the extra length. We slowly wended our way back towards civilization, fearful every moment of another attack from the dreaded Indians, and suffering from the distressing heat and lack of water and food. My invalid sister and I hourly expected to die, so weak and feeble was she, and I, too, from my wound.”

And so the survivors set out on the long way back to Albuquerque.

The second part of Sallie’s adventure in reaching California will appear in two weeks. Sallie’s apron with the two arrow holes in it will be on display in the Vacaville Museum’s new exhibit Common Threads. The exhibit opens to the public on Saturday, March 23 and runs through January 5, 2003. The museum is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 1 to 4:30 p.m.