Sierra Stories

index If you enjoy stories about California history, then this book is for you: Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots and Rogues, by Gary Noy. I saw the author last night at Lyon Books; he brings the Sierra Nevada to life with stories about the people and their “magnificent peculiarities.”

Some of these personalities you have probably heard of, like Lola Montez, the exotic “Spanish” dancer (born in Ireland), the artist Albert Bierstadt, whose paintings of the Sierra were more beautiful than the original, and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, famous for his “moving pictures” photos and for shooting his wife’s lover. But most of them are forgotten today, ones like beloved soprano Kate Hayes, the “Swan of Erin” and Okei Ito, founder of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Company.

Each chapter is short, but packed with entertaining information, and each chapter ends with another little related story, making for 64 stories all told. Gary Noy selected these 64 from some 300 stories he has collected over the years as he roamed the byways of the Sierra Nevada and delved into the archives of California history.

flumerideIt is impossible to pick a favorite story, but one of the best is the tale of “The Ultimate Thrill” of riding the Bonanza V flume near Virginia City at a speed so fast that it seemed to “annihilate time and space.”

Pick this book up and you will enjoy every chapter.

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Devil’s Gate

Devil's Gate from the Independence Rock side. Photo from www.independencerock.org

Devil’s Gate. Photo from http://www.independencerock.org

The Devil’s Gate is a picturesque feature a few miles south of Independence Rock. John Bidwell doesn’t mention it. He only says:

Tuesday, 6th. . . .  Went upstream about 8 miles and encamped on Sweet Water.

Which means they would have camped near Devil’s Gate. But it is impossible to get wagons through the narrow passage. Luckily just to the left is an easy way around the end of the rock formation.

 

 

Wednesday, 7th. As we journeyed, the mountains were high and naked; passed a pond that was nearly dried up, perfectly white with Glauber Salts.

A bed of "Glauber salts" near Devil's Gate.

A bed of “Glauber salts” near Devil’s Gate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Father DeSmet, in describing the Sweetwater River, says:

But suddenly changing its course, we see it or rather hear it rushing impetuously through a long cleft in a chain of mountains. These mountains, which harmonize well with the torrent, exhibit the most picturesque scenes; travelers have named this spot the Devil’s Entrance. In my opinion they should have rather named it Heaven’s Avenue, for if it resembles hell on account of the frightful disorder which frowns around it, it is still a mere passage, and should rather be compared to the way to heaven on account of the scene to which it leads.

I imagine Father DeSmet had the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:14 in mind: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

Travelers on the Oregon Trail often remarked on this unusual cut in the rock as they passed around it. Some would wade on foot or ride their horses through the Gate, just for the fun of it, while the wagons went around to the south.

Today the Devil’s Gate is on private land. The LDS Church has a Visitor’s Center on the south side of the Gate. The Mormon Handcart Historic Site at Martin’s Cove commemorates the two pioneer handcart companies that were trapped here by bad weather in October and November 1856. An interpretive display just off the freeway tells the story of the Oregon Trail and the handcart companies.

Devil's Gate.

Devil’s Gate from the Martin’s Cove side.

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Independence Rock

Independence Rock

Independence Rock

On July 5th John Bidwell wrote:

Monday, 5th. The hills continued to increase in height. After travelling 16 miles we encamped at a noted place called Independence Rock. This is a huge isolated rock covering an area, perhaps half a square mile, and rising in shape of an irregular obtuse mound to the height of 100 feet.

Father DeSmet wondered how the feature acquired such a “pompous name,” and thought it might be because of its isolated situation. But he was told that:

It was called so because the first travellers who thought of giving it a name, arrived at it on the very day when the people of the United States celebrate the anniversary of their emancipation from Great Britain.

As Bidwell wrote:

It took its name from the celebration of the 4th of July at this place by Capt. Wm. Sublette, and it now bears many names of the early travellers to these regions.

Sublette, fur trapper and mountain man, gave the rock its name in 1830, as he led 81 men and 10 wagons to the Wind River to hunt for furs and trade with the Indians. It became, as Father DeSmet called it, the “Great Register of the Desert,” as countless trappers, traders, emigrants, and missionaries carved or painted their names on the rock. IMGP4860

Today you can visit Independence Rock, walk the path around its base, even climb on it. (Watch out for mosquitoes–Wyoming mosquitoes are big and mean and I have the bites to prove it.) Hunt for names—the earliest I spotted was from 1890, but a careful search should turn up earlier ones. Many pioneers carved their names on the rock, but others only painted them with tar or grease, and those names have faded away.

IMGP4855Enjoy the adventure! (Mosquitoes and all.)

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On the Trail with John Bidwell and Friends

nance-chimneyrockWhen I wrote my book about John Bidwell in 2010, I had never seen the country he traversed on his journey from Missouri to California in 1841 (other than, of course, parts of California, where I live.) I got it all out of books. So I was delighted to finally have the opportunity to trace a part of the Oregon-California Trail and follow in the footsteps of the pioneers, if only for a little way.

I retired from my job as a librarian in April, and my husband retired in May. At last we weren’t limited to vacations of only a week or so! We planned a road trip to Wisconsin, where our son and his family live, with some time to see some of the sights along the way.

On our way home, after visiting Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, we headed south to pick up the Oregon Trail at Chimney Rock. Interstate-80 more or less follows the Platte River and the trail of the pioneers, so driving along I-80 took us to Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, Fort Laramie, Register Cliff and northwest along the Platte River to Caspar, Wyoming, where we (and the pioneers) finally turned southwest with the river to Independence Rock.

It was enormously useful and enjoyable to see at last what this western landscape looks like, and to get a sense of the distance, the weather, the hardships of the trail. In our car it only took a few hours to travel the distance that the Bidwell-Bartleson Party spent twelve days traveling. 70 miles an hour for us versus 18-20 miles a day for them. (That was very good time for ox-drawn wagons on the open prairie, and the maximum that ox teams could be expected to do.)

But when we got out of the car, felt the sun and the wind, and looked out over the long stretches of sand and gravel, sagebrush and grass, with the enormous blue sky overhead, we could get an inkling of what it felt like to slowly walk on, mile after mile, wondering and worrying just how far was it to California.

 

 

 

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Death on the Trail

Wednesday, June 23rd. Remained at the Fort; the things of Mr. Shotwell were sold at auction.

George Shotwell was the only casualty out of the 61 members who set out with the Bidwell-Bartleson Party. His death occurred about a week before the arrival at Fort Laramie.

Sunday, 13th. A mournful accident occurred in camp this morning–a young man by the name of Shotwell while in the act of taking a gun out of the wagon, drew it with the muzzle toward him in such a manner that it went off and shot him near the heart. He lived about an hour and died in the full possession of his senses.

These kind of accidents were not uncommon on the westward journey. Remarkably, and in spite of the dangers and deprivations faced by the Bidwell-Bartleson Party during their six-month journey, there were no more deaths. Later pioneers would experience a much higher death rate as disease and accidents took their toll. With heavy traffic on the plains and poor sanitation, cholera became a serious threat and about one in ten emigrants died on the trail.

The company buried Mr. Shotwell “in the most decent manner our circumstances would admit of,” and the Reverend Mr. Joseph Williams preached a funeral sermon. The sixty-four year old Mr. Williams was a Methodist minister and the oldest member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party.

A young man by the name of Shotwell, shot himself accidentally and died about two hours afterwards. I was called upon by his comrades to preach his funeral, which I did. The death of this young man caused some seriousness in his comrades for a few days.

Of Fort Laramie, the Rev. Williams wrote:

We passed an old fort below the mouth of the Laramee River; and crossing that river we went up to a new fort that they were building, called Fort Johns. Here is a mixture of people; some white, some half-breeds, some French. Here is plenty of talk about their damnation, but none about their salvation.

The “damnation” he refers to is swearing and cussing. Mr. Williams frequently complained about the “dreadful oaths” of some of the men, and exclaimed “O the wickedness of the wicked!”

 

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Fort Laramie

Fort Laramie, by William Henry Jackson

Fort Laramie, by William Henry Jackson

Tuesday, June 22nd. Eight miles this morning took us to Fort Larimie, which is on Larimie’s fork of Platte about 800 miles from the frontiers of Missouri. It is owned by the American Fur Company. . . . The Black Hills were now in view; a very noted peak, called the Black Hill mountain, was seen like a dark cloud on the western horizon. The country along Platte river is far from being fertile and is uncommonly destitute of timber.

Wednesday, June 23rd. Remained at the Fort; the things of Mr. Shotwell were sold at auction.

More about the unfortunate Mr. Shotwell some other time. Bidwell didn’t have the spelling of Laramie right, but then, neither do we. The river is named after Jacques La Ramee, a French-Canadian fur trapper. The fort lay at the confluence of the Laramie River and the Platte in present-day Wyoming, and was the most important economic hub in the region.

The Laramie River

The Laramie River

All emigrants on the trail were happy to get to Fort Laramie, and the Bidwell-Bartleson Party was no exception. Arrival at the fort meant that the journey was one-third completed. It was an opportunity to trade for needed goods, get travel advice, and send mail back to the States.

fort laramie interior

Interior of Fort John by Alfred Jacob Miller

There were actually three forts on this site. The first, called Fort William after its builders, fur traders William Sublette and William Anderson, was built of logs in 1834. The second, called Fort John after John B. Sarpy, an American Fur Company officer, was constructed in 1841 out of adobe bricks. Both were more commonly called Fort Laramie, and it was Fort John that John Bidwell saw when he arrived in June 1841, although it probably wasn’t complete.

In 1849, as the pressure of emigration grew in the West, the U.S. government decided it needed a string of forts along the Oregon Trail to protect and assist emigrants. With the fur trade in decline, the American Fur Company was looking to get rid of the fort. For $4000 the army purchased the site, and began building barracks, stables, guard houses, and cookhouses. The adobe fort, although only eight years old, was dilapidated and infested with vermin. It was used as temporary shelter by the army, but was soon torn down and replaced.

Parade ground and buildings at Fort Laramie.

Parade ground and buildings at Fort Laramie.

Today Fort Laramie is a national historic site and a number of the army post buildings have been reconstructed and restored. Nobody is sure exactly where Fort William and Fort John were located, but the best guess is that they were close to the river where the officers quarters are today.

june2014 401Fort Laramie NHS is chock-full of history and well-worth a visit.

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Scott’s Bluff, part 2

scottsbluff-1As the Bidwell-Bartleson Party approached Scott’s Bluff, they faced a problem that they hadn’t encountered yet on their journey–a barrier. Pioneer companies followed rivers, but they didn’t cross them any more than they had to, because crossing a river was a difficult and dangerous undertaking. They had been following the Platte River, but now the river ran right under the bluffs.

So with Scott’s Bluff before them, they had three choices: cross the river and see if traveling was better on the other side, go around the short range of hills on the south (now known as the Wildcat Hills), or head straight for the gap. The Gap seems to be the obvious choice, but when I spoke to a ranger at Scotts Bluff National Monument, he told me that getting through the Gap was too difficult and wagon trains before 1851 were forced to go the long way around the hills.

In 1851 the U. S. Army built the road through Mitchell Gap, making it passable for wagon trains. If you look at the photo above you will see the highway that follows that road today, but you will also see the ravines that made traveling through the Gap so arduous.

But Bidwell says nothing about going around. They camped among these “grand and picturesque” hills on June 19th, and on the 20th they made their passage. He writes:

Sunday, 20th. Passed through the Gap–came into an extensive plain, the beautiful scenery gradually receded from view–came to a creek called Horse–passed it, reached the river again–cool and windy–having come about 23 miles.

They took those hills in stride and carried on, making good time.

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