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Preface to Smith’s 1848 Diary Excerpts

In 1848, Edward Smith’s wagon train was traveling overland to California, with Joseph Ballinger Chiles as their guide. On August 29, 1848, the party met a group of Mormons traveling east to Salt Lake City. This group included members of the Mormon Battalion, a body of over 500 men who had been recruited into the U.S. Army to fight in the Mexican War. In order to avoid the rigors of the Truckee Trail, the Mormon party, which consisted of forty-five men and one woman, pioneered a new wagon trail to the Carson River. Meeting Chiles, they told him of this alternate route. Having been on the Carson River with the earlier Bidwell-Bartleson party in 1841, Chiles decided to turn southwest at the Humboldt Sink and blaze a wagon trail over the Forty Mile Desert to the Carson River. He reached the river about where the Mormon group had left it for the Truckee River, a place during the Gold Rush known as “Rag Town.” This final link across the Forty Mile Desert completed the opening of the important Carson Trail to the gold fields.

In the following excerpt from Edward Smith’s diary, the wagon train has just crossed the dreaded Forty Mile Desert. Smith writes of the hardships in losing many cattle and oxen near Mary’s Sink (the Humboldt Sink), troubles with Indians, shortages with water, and striking the “new Road to California.”

The exact transcription shows Smith’s spelling, word usage and style, and lack of punctuation. [Transcribed by Ruth Lang, 2008]

September 14

Thur 14 about one am o'clock Mr Moore came in with two Small kegs of water and about 10 Mr Hollenbecks boy arrived with 2 more kegs of water about 3 PM Jerome came with 2 more and at Sun set the Cattle came at 9 PM we started once more on our wearisome Journey which I shall call the forlorn hope our cattle travel well through the Sand in many Places one foot deep all the way 6 inches I arrived in camp at daylight two waggons were left in camp 2 more along the Road the cattle come in Slowly we are still hunting for our cattle three oxen have been shot at this camp by Indians I have lost from Mary Sink three cows strayed off and one ox given out sent back to near the Sink to hunt the cows this morning Mr Slater and St Francisco Returned without finding any thing of the cows we are now encamped on the Salmon Trout River Runing East and west which we intend to follow to the mountains last night the Indians killed 7 Head of cattle the camp Looks Sad and Gloomy I still Remember the darkest hour is just before dalight to night another of my oxen was killed

[No entries made for September 15 or 16]

September 17
Sun 17 to day we moved about 2 miles and Sent Pack Animals after Mr Beards things Mr Bennet gave him his waggon

September 18
mon 18 this morning the Pack Animals Returned Mr Beards waggon had been Robbed by the Indians last night Mr McClellands horse was shot in the neck we traveled about 8 miles and encamped at noon we Left the best camp we had seen for many days in a grove of large cottonwoods at this spot the Road Should Strike the River from Marys Sink

September 19
tues 19 to day we Passed through a canion there were two Indian fish dams distance about ten miles

September 20
wed 20 to day in about four miles we crossed the River and struck the Mormon trail or new Road to California in the afternoon we traveled about ten miles over a Sandy Plain and encamped again on the River Capt Chiles filly got in the mire and the Indians drove Francisco and Dick from here to night Mr Williams ox was shot while watering

September 21
thurs 21 this morning Mr Slater Coryell Nelson and Francisco went back to get the filly the Indians had killed her and carried her nearly all away they followed on the trail overtook and killed one Indian Brot the Bow and Arrows in camp we traveled about two miles and encamped for the day

September 22
frid 22 we traveled about 14 miles and encamped at the Place called by the Cottonwood Valley


Learn more about the overland journey to California and the California Trail from the following sources:

Hill, William E. The California Trail yesterday & today: a pictorial journey along the California Trail, 1986.

Holliday, J.S. The world rushed in: the California gold rush experience, 2002.

Howard, Thomas Frederick. Sierra crossing: first roads to California, 2000, c1998.

May, Richard M. A sketch of a migrating family to California in 1848, 1991.
(Traveled with the Smith wagon train)

Unruh, John D. The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840 - 1860, 1979.

Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869
A collection of the original writings of 49 voyagers on the Mormon, California, Oregon, and Montana trails who wrote while traveling on the trail.

The National Parks Service California Trail Web Site
Included are downloadable Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guides. These are state-by- state guides that provide an overview of the California Trail history through each state and driving directions to suggested points of interest.

The Oregon-California Trails Association
The mission of this organization is to protect the Historic Emigrant Trails legacy by promoting research, education and preservation activities. They maintain a database with essential information from all known documents written by emigrants during their overland journey west. Teachers should view the Learning Center which includes Classroom Resources, People & Places, Trail Facts & Virtual Trail for lesson plans and primary sources (eyewitness accounts of the overland trails).

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