- The Magazine
- Current Issue
- Events & Shows
- Web Extras
- Yellow Pages
My great-great-great uncle, Oliver Goldsmith, trekked across Nevada with other hopeful 49ers.
Photo: Illustration by Tony deRonnebeck
His adventure began as a lark, but by March 1850 it was over. My great-great-great uncle, Oliver Goldsmith, returned from the California gold fields on a sailing ship and stumbled down the gangplank at the harbor in New York City. He was wracked by fever and wrapped in a piece of quilt to ward off the biting wind.
He had less than $50 in gold dust in his pocket, enough to pay for a room, haircut, coat, and a ticket home to Detroit. Goldsmith was 21 in the winter of 1848, when gold was discovered in California. He joined a wagon train of 50 fortune-seeking young men and left for the Land of Gold.
Most of these so-called “Forty-niners” never found the riches they dreamed of, but, unlike Goldsmith, many stayed in the West and established ranches and businesses in California, Oregon, and eventually Nevada. The majority of the 250,000 travelers on the 2,000-mile California Trail in the years between 1841 and 1869 were families seeking a better life. They left their homes and all that was familiar for the promise of land, not necessarily mineral wealth.
As many emigrants did, Goldsmith wrote about his journey. Most information about the great American Western migration comes from handwritten, often misspelled diaries. In 1896, Goldsmith published Overland in Forty-Nine, his recollections of traveling the California Trail, and gave hardbound copies to his family and friends.
It is a remarkable account and tells of the hardships endured by equally remarkable people. His trip took up to four and a half months. The first portion of the trail, from Missouri through what is now Nebraska, Wyoming, and either Idaho or Utah, depending on the route taken, was difficult enough. Wagons broke down and had to be repaired; rivers had to be crossed. Travel was slow, and valuable time was spent hunting game and gathering cooking fuel. Many emigrants were felled by cholera.
In August, the travelers reached what is now Nevada, during the hottest, driest time of the year. Goldsmith’s group took the route to Salt Lake City from Fort Bridger, Wyoming, crossed Bidwell Pass, and trekked south of the Ruby Mountains. They joined the main California Trail at the Humboldt River near present-day Carlin.
Goldsmith wrote: “The thick, powdery, alkali dust on the roads through these lands was terribly hard on both animals and men. It was so thick that the drivers kept as far from the cattle as possible and often could not see them though less than ten feet away. The poor creatures coughed constantly…After a few days’ march down the river (which we called ‘three hundred miles from source to sink’) we gave up traveling by day and tried it by night, it being much more endurable when the hot sun was not beating down upon us.”
Following the Humboldt
Nevada’s Humboldt River figures largely in the settlement of the Western United States and the expansion of the Union from coast to coast.
As welcome as it was, the river was shallow, muddy, and foul—very unlike the deep, swift-moving waterways the pioneers were used to. “When your life depends on animals to travel from Missouri to California,” says ranger Gary Koy of the California National Historic Trail Interpretive Center near Elko, “you had to have grass and water to feed them. That’s why places like the 40-mile desert or the salt flats were such hardships. Without the Humboldt River, the history of the world might be very different today.”
The aforementioned Interpretive Center overlooks the spot where travelers on the Hastings Cutoff (the deceptively named “short cut” taken by the ill-fated Donner Party) from Salt Lake City rejoined the main trail at the Humboldt River.
A few miles farther down the river, the trail divides into two: south of the Humboldt, the Carson River Route went through what is now Fallon to Eagle and Carson Valleys, and the northern Truckee River Route arrived in Truckee Meadows, where Reno is today. In both cases the travelers had to cross the 40-mile desert before facing the final barrier: the Sierra Nevada.
Although the emigrants left their homes behind, they took their values with them. They elected leaders and agreed on rules and regulations, Koy says, and when they arrived, they formed mining and grazing associations and organized schools and churches. “The California Trail story is really the story of making a decision, the family decision to leave home and go somewhere else,” he says. “They heard that in California and Oregon good farmland could be had, and they could get there by wagon. It is the little band of river in front of [the Interpretive Center] that made the trip to California possible.”
On to the Gold Fields
Goldsmith and his band followed the Humboldt on its northern bank. He and a fellow native of Michigan, Al Frary, grew impatient at the slow pace. They decided to leave the wagon train against the party’s advice. They each had a good horse, but only to carry their supplies. They walked through day and night, pausing only briefly.
At first, they made good time, figuring they covered 72 miles in 26 hours. Goldsmith wrote: “Continuing our journey down the Humboldt we came to where there was a road to the north, leaving the old Fremont ‘Trucky River Trail’ to the left. At this fork of the road a notice was posted on a stick, stating that the Sacramento River was but one hundred and fifty miles from this point, by way of Lassen’s Pass…This cut-off, as we called it…proved to be the very opposite…We started on this northern trail [also known as the Applegate Trail to Oregon, which leads through Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and High Rock Canyon] with the rest of the emigrants.”
Goldsmith describes the increasingly difficult travel for wagon trains as oxen and mules had to be abandoned due to lack of feed and water: “The wagons were many of them occupied by women and children. The giving out of so many teams necessitated first lightening of the loads, then leaving the wagons behind and [keep]ing only such things as were absolutely essential to life itself…The road soon became strewn with cattle, horses and mules, dead and dying.”
Goldsmith fed most of his bread to his horse to keep her alive. The hours ahead were the most horrendous of the journey. He continues in his book: “The last ten miles I was about used up and could hardly put one foot before the other…I would drop down occasionally to rest, but my thirst would become so perfectly unbearable that it would urge me on.”
He and Frary finally reached the Sacramento River after weeks of trudging through Nevada deserts and mountains and the rain-soaked forests of Northern California. They endured scurvy and hunger. Grizzly bears robbed what little food they had. Goldsmith panned for gold and worked as a cook. He made, in the end, about $400—the amount he originally started with.
Disillusioned, Goldsmith went by sea from San Francisco to Panama, where, to top it off, he caught Chagres malarial fever. He walked across the isthmus and then sailed to New Orleans and Cuba, arriving at last in New York. Reunited with his family in Michigan, they naturally were curious to know: After two years in the gold fields, had he made his fortune?
Goldsmith held up a five-dollar gold piece and a penny and replied, “Perhaps I have; this is all I have to show for it now, but in experience I have more than a wagon can hold.”
CALIFORNIA NATIONAL HISTORIC TRAIL INTERPRETIVE CENTER
The California National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, operated by the Bureau of Land Management eight miles west of Elko off Interstate 80, has views of the Humboldt River Valley and the South Fork of the river, which look very much like they did in the 1840s.
The center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through September 6 and will open for the 2011 season on May 27. Between those dates, tours can be arranged, and the meeting room can be reserved for groups. The center’s grand opening is tentatively planned for May 2012. At that time it will be open year round.
At the attraction, visitors learn about daily life on the California Trail, its various cutoffs and alternate routes, the effect mass migration had on American Indians, and the trail’s importance to the development of the West. Interactive displays allow children to try on period-style clothing and experiment with games that emigrant youth played.
Among the exhibits are murals depicting the various portions of the trail from Missouri to California, dioramas of camp with life-sized figures of emigrants cooking, playing music, and socializing, and a cutaway wagon packed with travel essentials. One mural is a replica of names the travelers carved at Record Bluff in Nevada, about 15 miles south of the Idaho state line.
The center’s front plaza has a winding map of the California Trail and various sub routes inlaid into stone pavers, weaving in and out of a water feature representing the Humboldt River.
Sandstone walls support bas-relief sculptures, which depict scenes on the trail and quotes from emigrant diaries. The plaza is used for special events, such as the annual California Trail Days event in May.
CALIFORNIA TRAIL DAYS
Visitors can pet an ox’s huge head and taste camp beans at California Trail Days, the annual celebration of the pioneer experience at Elko’s California National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in May.
Events are free and include black powder firearms demonstrations, Dutch-oven cooking, Civil War reenactments, American Indian demonstrations, gold panning, old-time music, living history wagon encampment, and California Trail history presentations.
Full-sized covered wagons, camp tools, American Indian foods and baskets, antique firearms, and kids’ trailside toys are displayed on the plaza and inside the center. The 2011 Trail Days is scheduled for a Friday and Saturday in May. elkotraildays.com, 775-738-1849
CALIFORNIA NATIONAL HISTORIC TRAIL
The California National Historic Trail, authorized by Congress in 1992, is administered by the National Park Service and managed by the Bureau of Land Management and other federal, state, and local agencies. It passes through 10 states.
SEEING THE ELEPHANT
In 1849, Oliver Goldsmith and his band of gold-seekers frequently met with returning emigrants on the trail. He wrote in his book, Overland in Forty-nine, “We thought they were too easily discouraged. They told us they had ‘seen the elephant’ and were satisfied to return. But we kept on our way—looking for the elephant.”
Some believe that the expression “seeing the elephant” came from the time when traveling circuses first toured northeastern America. The elephants so astounded people that they knew of nothing else to compare with them.
In 1844, George Wilkins Kendall explained the expression in his Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition: “When a man is disappointed in anything he undertakes, when he has seen enough, when he gets sick and tired of any job he may have set himself about, he has seen the elephant.”
A large sculpture of a rearing elephant lifting his trunk in front of a startled emigrant amuses visitors, especially children, at Elko’s California National Historic Trail Interpretive Center.
Bureau of Land Management
Elko District Office
California National Historic Trail Interpretive Center
3900 E. Idaho St.
Elko, NV 89801
Physical location: 8 miles west of Elko off I-80, Hunter Exit 292