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Sunday, January 25, 2004

Voyage west was full of hardships

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Gold Rush stirred family to leave home

My last column talked about the early life of Luzena Stanley Wilson, who grew up in a Quaker family in North Carolina. The information is based on Luzena’s memoirs and the research by Fern Henry in her new book “My Checkered Life: Luzena Stanley Wilson in Early California.”

Luzena Stanley met her future husband, Mason Wilson, in Andrew County, Mo. The couple married on Dec. 19, 1844. Luzena was 25 years old, Mason around 38.

By 1847, the couple seemed to own land in the area, where they farmed, built a log cabin, and raised a growing family. Their oldest son, Thomas Stanley, was born on Sept. 21, 1845, followed by Jay Crittenden, born on June 20, 1848.

News of the Gold Rush changed their lives forever. Luzena opens the memoirs of her overland trek with these words: “The gold excitement spread like wildfire, even to our log cabin in the prairie, and as we had almost nothing to lose, and we might gain a fortune, we early caught the fever. My husband grew enthusiastic and wanted to start immediately, but I would not be left behind. I thought where he could go I could, and where I went I could take my two little toddling babies. Mother-like, my first thought was of my children. I little realized then the task I had undertaken. If I had, I think I should still be in my log cabin in Missouri. But when we talked it all over, it sounded like such a small task to go out to California, and once there fortune, of course, would come to us.”

Swept up by the excitement, the Wilsons gathered their belongings, loaded them onto a prairie schooner, hitched their team of oxen, tied their milk cow behind, and joined one of the many trains attempting the 2,000-mile-long journey to California. So strong was their urge, they left their land and cabin unsold behind for the next settler.

More than 25,000 people crossed the country that year. Many were aware that this was a historic migration, keeping diaries or, as Luzena did, later recording their adventures on the trails.

Though Luzena did not mention any other family members, records indicate that her brothers, William, Alvis and his bride of two weeks, Melissa Ann, and sisters, Emily and Harriet may have been part of the train. Luzena’s sister Eliza, married to Dr. Williams Dobbins, followed the following year.

A long and arduous journey lay ahead of them. “... some things which I thought necessities when we started became burdensome luxuries,” Luzena recalled, “and before many days, I dropped by the road-side a good many unnecessary pots and kettles, for on bacon and flour one can ring but few changes, and it required but few vessels to cook them. One luxury we had which other emigrants nearly always lacked: fresh milk. From our gentle ‘mulley’ cow I never parted.”

Traveling about five weeks later than the Wilsons, George Thissell, another 49er who eventually settled in Vacaville, described the chancy production of the traveler’s daily bread: “If bread was to be made, a large tin pan was used as a kneading-trough. A liberal quantity of saleratus (baking soda) and warm water were stirred together; the requisite amount of flour and salt were added, and the dough well-kneaded. The dough was flattened out until about one inch thick; then it was placed in an old-fashioned skillet or dutch oven with an iron lid. It was then set on the coals, and a small fire was built on the lid, and by the time the meat was fried and the coffee made, the bread would be done. Sometimes the top and bottom would be burned as black as coal, while the center was still raw.”

Once out into the prairie, many pioneer diaries record sightings of game, such as antelope and buffalo, and hunting parties sometimes added variety to the bacon-based diet.

Wood grew scarce, making the search for heating materials increasingly difficult. Rebecca Ellen McCutchan, 17 years old, who came across the plains in 1863 with her family in the same train as David Creighton and his family, later recorded: “And many a time I remember after a long and tiresome day, we scattered around over the prairie to gather buffalo chips to cook the evening meal. Sometimes they were scarce and the members of the train literally raced each other for one of those chips. They made good heat for cooking. The further along we came, the fewer the chips.”

Meals around the campfire often sparked singing and occasionally even dancing. While Luzena did not recall any entertainment, George Thissell remembered these evenings fondly: “Those trains that passed and repassed each other were known all the way across the plains, and often visited each other at night and had a dance, for in nearly every train there was a violin. The most pleasant part of the trip across the plains in 1849-1850 was around the campfire. Supper over, dishes and pots out of the way, we would gather around the campfire and relate the rich scenes of the day, and the spinning of long yarns. Some played the violin, others the accordion [sic]. A few would play cards, while the young men would sing their favorite California songs ... ‘O, Susanna, Don’t you cry for me, I, going to California, Some gold dust to see.”

Mostly though, the days were filled with hard, monotonous labor, setting one foot in front of the other, constantly in search of a fresh water supply and enough grazing for the oxen and mules, crossing wild rivers, afraid of Indian attacks, sickness and death.

“Everything was at first weird and strange in those days, but custom made us regard the most unnatural events as usual,” wrote Luzena. “I remember even yet with a shiver the first time I saw a man buried without the formality of a funeral and the ceremony of coffining. We were sitting by the campfire, eating breakfast, when I saw two men digging and watched with interest, never dreaming their melancholy object until I saw them bear from their tent the body of their comrade, wrapped in a soiled blanket, and lay it on the ground. Ten minutes later the soil was filled in, and in a short half-hour the caravan moved on, leaving the lonely stranger asleep in the wilderness, with only the winds, the owls, and coyotes to chant a dirge.”

Three months into their journey, with travelers, oxen and mules already exhausted, the trains reached the 40-mile desert in Nevada. Two routes were available from the Humboldt Sink basin: the Carson Route and the Truckee Route.

The Wilsons chose the Carson Route. “It was a forced march over the alkali plain, lasting three days, and we carried with us the water that had to last, for both men and animals, till we reached the other side. The hot earth scorched our feet; the grayish dust hung about us like a cloud, making our eyes red, and tongues parched, and our thousand bruises and scratches smart like burns. The road was lined with the skeletons of the poor beasts who had died in the struggle. Sometimes we found the bones of men bleaching beside their broken-down and abandoned wagons.”

Finally, the end of their crossing was signaled by their oxen. They smelled the far-away waters of the Carson River and broke into an unstoppable run. “When only a half-mile of distance intervened, every animal seemed spurred by an invisible imp. They broke into a run, a perfect stampede, and refused to be stopped until they had plunged neck deep in the refreshing flood; and when they were unyoked, they snorted, tossed their heads, and rolled over and over in the water in their dumb delight. It would have been pathetic had it not been so funny, to see those poor, patient, overworked, hard-driven beasts, after a journey of 2,000 miles, raise heads and tails and gallop at full speed, an emigrant wagon with flapping sides jolting at their heels.”

One final obstacle lay in everybody’s way; crossing the mountain ridge of the Sierra Nevada. While Luzena omits this part, except to comment on the “tedious journey down the mountain side,” George Thissell recorded the enormous task of getting the wagons across: “No road. Not even a trail. Rocks upon rocks, steep and rough. We thought we had seen rough and rocky roads, but this was the worst we had found ... Where we left the canyon in the mountainside was as steep as the roof of a house. Here we put eight yoke of cattle to one wagon, though it was almost empty ... Our cattle, reduced to skin and bones, toiled slowly on and up the rough ascent. Sometimes the passage between the cliffs was so narrow our wagons could scarcely pass. Often we had to lift the wagons and oxen up over the rocks that lay across the path. Many of the rocks were four and five feet high, and extended across the entire width of the canyon, consequently it was difficult to pass. We made only eight miles in one day. At last we gained the summit of this outer wall, which seemed like one of nature’s ramparts guarding the passage to the rich gold fields of California.”

It took the Wilson exactly five months, from May 1 to Sept. 30, to reach their destination: Sacramento.

Luzena’s story will continue in my next column. I would like to thank Fern Henry for permission to excerpt from her publication and her loan of photographs. Thank you also to Kirsten Llamas for permission to use Rebecca Ellen McCutchan’s diary. Fern Henry, “My Checkered Life: Luzenia Stanley Wilson in Early California. Her Overland Journey plus Pioneer Life in Vacaville, Sacramento & Nevada City,” Carl Mautz Publishing, 2003, is available at the Vacaville Museum Gift Store or can be ordered through any book dealer.