That Broad and Beckoning Highway: The Santa Fe Trail and the Rush for Gold in California and Colorado



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That Broad and Beckoning Highway: The Santa Fe Trail

and the Rush for Gold in California and Colorado

Dr. Michael L. Olsen

Preface

The motto of the Santa Fe Trail Association is “The Santa Fe Trail Lives On.” This study of the role of the Santa Fe Trail in the California gold rush of 1849 and the “Rush to the Rockies” in 1859 echoes and reinforces that motto. It portrays the trail as a living entity for those who trod it during these two epic eras in American history. For them it was a broad and beckoning highway, literally their road to riches. They followed the trail for weeks and dreamed their dreams of untold wealth.



The organization of this study is somewhat idiosyncratic for three reasons. First, the audience that will read and use it is highly varied. Second, as will become apparent, there are fundamental differences between the rush in 1849 and that of 1859 and they must be treated separately. And finally, since this piece will appear only as an Ebooks, it is broken into “user friendly” segments that can be accessed from a variety of electronic devices.

The audience that might read or consult this analysis stretches across a spectrum from elementary, middle and high school students pursuing questions or class research to scholars referencing it for their own interests. Those folks in between will include the occasional trail traveler, trail “buffs” and aficionados, members of the Santa Fe Trail Association, anyone delving into the history of the two gold rushes, and all those interested in protecting, preserving, or interpreting the Santa Fe Trail. As a consequence, the study is not written or laid out as a traditional published work. It relies heavily on material quoted from emigrant diaries, letters, journals and memoirs. It draws extensively on contemporary newspaper coverage. Further, it can be “accessed” wherever a reader’s interest might lead without scrolling through many pages of narrative.

In certain basic ways this study is really two “books” because there is little connection between emigrant use of the trail in 1849 and emigrant and freighting activity in 1859. As a result it broken into two parts with a separate annotated bibliography for each. Part One, on the 1849 gold rush, is more lyrical given that emigrants then were encountering a trail that still ran largely through a “wilderness” which both frightened and enchanted them. Part Two, for the 1859 rush, is more analytical since the trail was more settled and “tamer” heading east from Missouri and because in 1859, as contrasted with 1849, the trail was a major freighting route to the Colorado mines. These two sections of the study are each introduced by a singular account. For 1849 the diary of emigrant H. M. T. Powell is incorporated. For 1859 the musings of William N. Byers, editor of the Rocky Mountains News are considered. These narratives are deliberately designed to engage a reader and prompt interest in the entire study.

The layout of every component of this study has been planned for its publication as an Ebook rather than in traditional print format. There is a story here and it is written as such, but its elements are broken out into easily accessed and understood segments. With the aid of the Table of Contents a reader can reference any portion of the study and not wonder “what happened before this and how did we get here?” That necessity resulted in some duplication of source material from one section to another but in the end it serves readers, both casual and otherwise.

The author would like to thank those who encouraged him and gave generously of their time: Frank Norris, historian with the National Park Service; Joanne VanCoevern, Santa Fe Trail Association Manager; Tim Blevins with Special Collections, Penrose Library, Pikes Peak Library District; and Patti Olsen and Kirsten Olsen who braved various editorial duties.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

OVERVIEW 5

PART ONE: HO! FOR CALIFORNIA – THE GOLD RUSH OF 1849 10

H. M. T. Powell and The Santa Fe Trail to California 13

“We Are on the Brink of the Age of Gold” – Horace Greeley 22

Why Choose the Santa Fe Trail as Your Route to California? 29

The Emigrant Experience of the Trail 64

The Significance of the Santa Fe Trail in the Gold Rush Emigration of 1849:

Review and Observations 123

Ho! For California: 1849 Gold Rush Bibliography 134

PART TWO: HO! FOR COLORADO – THE SANTA FE TRAIL AND THE

GOLD RUSH OF 1859 164

The Gold Rush, the Santa Fe Trail and the Rocky Mountain News 166

Changes along the Trail in the 1850s – Prelude to the “Rush to Colorado” 175

1858: The Santa Fe Trail and the Opening of the Colorado Gold Fields 181

Colorado Gold Rush Guidebooks 197

Emigrants on the Trail in 1859 209

Freighting on the Santa Fe Trail to the Colorado Mines, 1859-1870 222

The Significance of the Santa Fe Trail in the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859 236

Ho! For Colorado 1859 Gold Rush Bibliography 240

OVERVIEW

The California gold rush of 1849 is one of the iconic events in American history. After more than 150 years “California” and “gold” remain synonymous in the American mind. For many the details of the momentous discovery at Sutter’s Mill may be hazy, but even today almost everyone can hum a few bars of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna,” perhaps recalling its famous lyric of 1849, “I’m going to California with my washpan on my knee.” And every football season, multitudes of fans cheer on the “San Francisco ’49ers.” (The lyric in “Oh! Susanna” celebrating the California gold rush was not written by Stephen Foster, but was a later adaptation. Foster’s original composition was first published in 1848.)

The “Rush to the Rockies,” the race for Colorado gold in 1859, does not similarly register to any like degree with the American public. It does define the history of the Intermountain and Rocky Mountain West, but while Coloradans acknowledge the gold rush as central to the development of the state, they most likely associate the names of the historic mining towns like Cripple Creek, Breckenridge, and Aspen with casino gambling, ski resorts, and upscale shopping. Nonetheless, the residual wealth of the Colorado mines is still in evidence and influential in the state, such as in the philanthropic endeavors of the El Pomar Foundation in Colorado Springs, endowed by the mining fortune of Spencer and Julie Penrose.

This present study, “That Broad and Beckoning Highway: The Santa Fe Trail and the Rush for Gold in California and Colorado,” will investigate the role of that historic trail in the events of 1849 and 1859. While much has been written on the Santa Fe Trail as a trade route and economic link between the western fringe of American settlement and the Republic of Mexico and then the American Southwest, and as a road to conquest in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, it has not been interpreted as a highway to the gold fields. Yet, in 1849 thousands of California-bound emigrants used the trail as a link to the Pacific Coast via the Gila Trail and other routes through the Southwest deserts. In 1859, more thousands of men and women hopeful of finding their fortunes in Colorado opted to travel the well-known and well-trodden Santa Fe Trail. In both instances, these emigrants blazed no new route to the west. Instead, they reinforced the importance of the Santa Fe Trail as the first and most historic road leading Americans on their quest for new frontiers beyond the Missouri River.

There are two sections to this study. Part One will address the role of the trail in the 1849 California gold rush, and Part Two will similarly consider developments for the 1859 Colorado rush. An evaluation of the significance of the trail in each emigration and suggestions for new or further interpretations and research follows at the conclusion of these chapters. A highly detailed annotated bibliography is provided for each part. In the bibliography for Part Two – the 1859 gold rush – the extensive list of guidebooks for the “Rush to the Rockies” is set apart from other works on the topic. These annotated bibliographies in particular identify those primary sources which pertain very specifically to the use of the Santa Fe Trail in the “rushes” of 1849 and 1859, a distinction which has not generally been made previously in trail studies.

This study does not include a general overview of the history of the Santa Fe Trail, though each emigration is considered in the context of its time and place. The literature of the Santa Fe Trail is vast – in fact, the written “history” of the trail dates from 1844 and the publication of Josiah Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies. There are excellent general treatments, from Robert Duffus’ somewhat romanticized The Santa Fe Trail to Jack D. Rittenhouse’s scholarly introduction in The Santa Fe Trail: A Historical Bibliography. Since 1986, Wagon Tracks: The Santa Fe Trail Association Quarterly magazine has published hundreds of articles and news items concerning the history and heritage of the old trail, the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, and current trail-related developments. There are also numerous resources, including the full text of 25 years of Wagon Tracks, online at a host of Internet sites. This study particularly emphasizes the burgeoning technological resources for both the historic and contemporary Santa Fe Trail.

The approach taken toward the 1849 California gold rush and the 1859 Colorado gold rush in the following pages will be similar in that the same basic questions will be asked of each. These include:



  • What general events and developments herald this gold rush?

  • What primary sources do we have for understanding the use of the Santa Fe Trail – journals, diaries, letters, memoirs, guidebooks and maps?

  1. What do these sources tell us – for example, who is going, why are they going, how are they provisioning for the journey, how are they organizing themselves, what is their understanding of the trail, what experiences – unique or mundane – do they have on the trail? How did these gold rush emigrants differ from other trail travelers?

  2. Why did these emigrants choose the Santa Fe Trail over some other route?

  3. What was the emigrants’ judgment of the Santa Fe Trail as a route west?

  • What conclusions can be drawn concerning this enhanced view of the role of the trail in the 1849 – and 1859 – gold rush?

Investigating these questions will, of course, reveal inherent variations in the role of the trail in 1849 as contrasted with 1859. For example, in 1849 emigrants blazed new trails which supplemented or branched from the “old” trail as it wound from Missouri to New Mexico, either by its Mountain or Cimarron routes. These “new” roads included the Cherokee Trail, which originated in northeastern Oklahoma, joined the Santa Fe Trail at Running Turkey Creek near present-day McPherson, Kansas, and then followed the old trail to the Arkansas River Crossing/Bent’s Old Fort vicinity in Colorado. It then went west up the Arkansas to Fountain Creek (present-day Pueblo Colorado) and then north to join the Oregon - California Trail in Wyoming. Also in 1849, a stream of emigrants reached New Mexico via the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Road through present-day Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, joining the Santa Fe Trail in the vicinity of San Miguel, New Mexico, in the Pecos River Valley. Neither the Cherokee Trail nor the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Road played a role in the 1859 rush to gold in Colorado.

The migrations of 1849 and 1859 both also saw the use of the Platte River Road as a route west. Although the two initial parties which reached the Colorado gold fields in 1859, the “William Green Russell” and “Lawrence” associations, used the Santa Fe Trail, subsequently the Platte River Road was chosen overwhelmingly as the emigrant and freight route to the new city of Denver and the surrounding mining districts.

Those 1859 emigrants who did choose the Santa Fe Trail took a variety of approaches. Some joined it at a traditional eastern terminus such as Independence, Missouri. Others opted to outfit and organize at Leavenworth, Kansas. Some followed the Smoky Hill Trail to various points in central Kansas and then dropped south to the Santa Fe route. Almost all these emigrants, once they reached the vicinity of Bent’s Old Fort, followed the previously-blazed Cherokee Trail west to present-day Pueblo, Colorado, then north to Denver. Additionally, in 1859 the Santa Fe Trail took on a new role as a freight route to the newly-opened mines in central and southern Colorado, accessible up the Arkansas Valley via Pueblo, Cañon City, and Ute Pass, west of present-day Colorado Springs. Also, Denver and its contiguous mining regions, as well as the central and southern mines, came to be supplied for a time from New Mexico, via the Santa Fe Trail northward through Raton Pass.

Given these differences and developments, a major conclusion of this study will be that in the 1849 gold rush, the Santa Fe Trail played a role as a primary route for emigrants to California through New Mexico and Arizona. In 1859, on the other hand, while it served as a route for many emigrants, the trail also functioned as a freighting connection between the mines and new communities in Colorado and the commercial centers of Missouri and Kansas as well as the agricultural regions of New Mexico. Any interpretations of this era in trail history should take this distinction into account.



Note: Citations in this study are incorporated in the text of the study, at the end of relevant paragraphs, listing an author’s last name and a page number, with a brief title indicated if there is more than one book or article for an author. A complete annotated bibliography for each part will be found at the end of that section. Just as the story of each gold rush – 1849 or 1859 – is distinct, so are their resources – the diaries, journals, letters, and reminiscences of emigrants, as well as newspaper coverage and varied historical works.

PART ONE: HO! FOR CALIFORNIA – THE GOLD RUSH OF 1849

FOREWORD

Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill near present-day Sacramento, California, on January 24, 1848. The news quickly spread to San Francisco and then, via word of mouth, personal letters, newspaper accounts and official United States governmental reports to the rest of the country and beyond. The great emigration to the California gold fields began as a trickle in the autumn of 1848 and then became a deluge – the California Gold Rush – in the spring of 1849. California’s population of approximately 14,000 in 1848 swelled to nearly 265,000 in 1852.

Gold seekers from the eastern United States had a number of options for traveling to California. They could sail via Cape Horn. They might book a sea passage to Panama, cross the isthmus on mules, and then take a ship north to the Pacific Coast. Some made their way to Mexican ports on the Gulf of Mexico, trekked across Mexico itself, and then caught a ship for Los Angeles or San Francisco. Or, they might leave Boston, New York or perhaps Baltimore on the eastern United States seaboard, arrive in New Orleans, and take various trails across Texas and the American Southwest.

Emigrants might also choose one of four transcontinental routes leading west especially from the states of Missouri or Arkansas. The most northerly of these was the Platte River Road which, as part of the Oregon-California Trail, had carried wagon trains west beginning in the early 1840s. The Fort Smith-Santa Fe Road and the Cherokee Trail also beckoned emigrants. The Fort Smith-Santa Fe Road ran from western Arkansas, then across Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and the eastern plains of New Mexico, terminating in Santa Fe. The Cherokee Trail angled northwest from northeastern Oklahoma to join the old Santa Fe Trail in present-day McPherson County, Kansas and continued along the Santa Fe Trail to Bent’s Old Fort near contemporary La Junta, Colorado. It then followed the Arkansas River to the confluence of Fountain Creek [Pueblo, Colorado], turned north along the front range of the Rocky Mountains and joined the Oregon-California Trail in Wyoming.

The Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to New Mexico had been in use since 1821. Emigrants choosing this route anticipated arriving in Santa Fe and then heading from there for California though, as will become evident in this study, many of them bypassed Santa Fe and camped at Galisteo, New Mexico, before challenging the deserts of the southwest. In either case, they had to make a choice at that point of what path to take to California. Their primary options included the Gila Trail, the Southern Trail, the Zuni Trail, and the Old Spanish Trail. The Gila and Southern routes followed the Rio Grande south, with the Gila Trail leaving the river near present-day Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and the Southern Trail branching off in the area of today’s Garfield, New Mexico. The Gila Trail eventually struck the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico and followed it to its junction with the Colorado River. The Southern Trail led to the far southwest corner of New Mexico, dipped briefly into old Mexico, then struck the Santa Cruz River and followed it north to its confluence with the Gila River in south-central Arizona.

The Zuni Trail headed west from Santa Fe to Zuni Pueblo in far western New Mexico, trended southwest in Arizona to the Salt River, and then joined with the Gila Trail farther west. The Old Spanish Trail, which was attempted by few emigrant parties, traversed north-central New Mexico, cut through southwest Colorado, crossed southern Utah and Nevada, and then proceeded to Los Angeles. These trails are definitively identified and considered in historian Patricia Etter’s comprehensive study To California on the Southern Route, 1849, A History and Annotated Bibliography.

The number of emigrants who used the various transcontinental roads to California can only be estimated. Merrill Mattes in his conclusive history The Great Platte River Road puts approximately 180,000 gold seekers on that route between 1849 and 1855. Elliot West, in his introduction to Patricia Etter’s To California on the Southern Route calculates that some “20,000 persons rushed to California in 1849 by another way – a cluster of trails through the southwestern deserts. . . .” Available evidence suggests that the preponderance of these 20,000 used the Santa Fe Trail or the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Road, but precise figures are impossible to compute. The experiences of these emigrants are amply chronicled in the letters, diaries, journals, and memoirs they penned. These accounts are at the heart of this study. (Mattes 23, Etter 8)

H. M. T. Powell was one of the emigrants who followed the Santa Fe Trail on his journey to the California gold mines in 1849. This chapter will begin with a consideration of his journal for that trip, one of the two or three most thoughtful, descriptive and entertaining journals of the era. Having thus “set the scene” with Powell, the chapter will then consider various questions, such as:



  • How was the news of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill carried across America and when did it reach Missouri River towns like St. Louis, Independence and Westport?

  • Once an emigrant decided to leave kith and kin for the rush to California, how did he, or the “company” he might join, decide what route to take? There were starkly different options – from “rounding Cape Horn,” to the Platte River Road or the Santa Fe Trail. One primary factor, for example, was an emigrant’s proximity to a point of departure.

  • What experiences did emigrants have which were unique to them and the times? Up to 1849 the Santa Fe Trail had been primarily a commercial link between the Missouri frontier and New Mexico, with some traders then venturing to “old” Mexico itself. After 1846, it also became a freighting and travel route for the United States Army, which was establishing and provisioning forts in the conquered territories of the new American Southwest. Again, the question is, what was different about emigrant traffic on the trail and how did the emigrants themselves perceive the trail?

Throughout this consideration of the role of the Santa Fe Trail in the California gold rush, it will be seen that this era was an anomaly in the history and heritage of the trail. For a brief period it was an emigrant, as well as a commercial and freighting trail. In that time tens of thousands of Americans took the Santa Fe Trail and its variant routes west. They have a story to tell.

H. M. T. Powell and The Santa Fe Trail to California

Very little is known about H. M. T. Powell. As Douglas S. Watson puts it in his introduction to Powell’s journal, published as The Santa Fe Trail to California, 1849-1852 by the Book Club of California in 1931, “All efforts to trace out the history of the author of the journal have been fruitless.” Nonetheless, as Watson also remarks, “But who or what Powell himself was makes little difference. It is the record he has given us that counts. Of his journal much may be said. In its completeness of detail and wealth of description of the life and daily doings of his fellow emigrants and the country through which he journeyed, it is unsurpassed.” (Powell, no pagination)

Powell left his family in Greenville, Illinois, on April 4, 1849, but not without qualms. He wrote, “Parting bitter – bitter.” The trip began inauspiciously: “We traveled on in a cold rain storm. . . .” On April 12th, he and his party, the Illinois Company, crossed the Missouri River by ferry to St. Charles, Missouri. There they “held a council in the Tent in the evening and appointed to each man his peculiar duties,” – including who would “drive [the] big waggon,” and the “2 Horse Waggon.” Some men were allotted “all duties pertaining to the Camp,” while others were chosen as “train master,” “forage master,” and “camp master.” But almost immediately, as was so often the case with these groups, dissatisfaction surfaced. Powell groused, as they wended west in Missouri and he was sleeping on the cold, wet ground, “All this time Dr. Park has made himself perfectly comfortable by taking possession, as if it were a matter of course, of my waggon where he and Edmund sleep warm and comfortable. I must see to this and have it amended.” (Powell 1-2)

As they neared the Missouri-Kansas frontier, Powell and his party began to discuss and worry about what route to take to California. This was a choice which every emigrant had to make. On April 24, Powell recorded, “A very serious question has been started here: whether we go on to St. Joseph and thence by the South Pass to California, as we intended at the starting, or to entirely change our plans and go by Santa Fe. We have been talking about it all the time.” They feared that the sheer number of livestock, wagons and men headed via the Platte River Road and South Pass would deplete forage for their teams and “that consequently we may be reduced to dreadful privations by their loss.” They resolved to collect more information on the two routes before making a decision. (Powell 4-5)

Various factors and conversations eventually convinced the men of the Illinois Company to prefer the Santa Fe Trail. Near Glasgow, Missouri, they sought out a man named Congreve Jackson, “who was Lieutenant Colonel in Doniphan’s regiment,” who assured them that the road to Santa Fe was the one for them – in fact, he hinted that he might even accompany them, meeting them in Independence. One question that bothered them regarding the Santa Fe Trail was whether they could take their oxen and wagons on from Santa Fe via “Cooke’s Road” to California, a route blazed by Lieut. Philip St. George Cooke and his “Mormon Battalion” in 1846 during the Mexican-American War. On May 18th, near Lone Elm in eastern Kansas their fears were further eased by a Captain Grove, “a Virginian and formerly Captain of Volunteers and a Gentlemanly young man,” who “has been out as far as the Gila River. . . . He says there is nothing to hinder us going by Cooke’s route to California with our Ox Teams. This is cheering.” All along the route they also met up with New Mexico traders and freighters who told them of the trail and the conditions they might encounter, as on May 21st: “A number of Santa Fe waggons, belonging to a trader of the name of Webb, were camped near the running water by the Indian’s house. From some of the teamsters I learned the distance from Bull Creek to Black Jack. . . .” (Powell 5, 15)

Note: As will be discussed several times below, Powell had with him a copy of House Executive Document No. 41, Notes of a Military Reconnoissance, from Fort Leavenworth, in Missouri, to San Diego, in California, including part of the Arkansas, Del Norte, and Gila Rivers, by William H. Emory; J W Abert; Philip St. George Cooke; and A. R. Johnston; United States Army; Corps of Topographical Engineers, published in a run of 10,000 copies by Wendell and Van Benthuysen, Printers, at Washington, D.C. in 1848. This volume incorporated reports of Emory and Abert on their trip over the Santa Fe Trail with the Army of the West in 1846, Cooke’s description of his march from Santa Fe to California, and A. R. Johnston’s journal [Johnston was in Cooke’s command]. Consequently in this one volume, Powell could cover much of the territory he would be crossing from Missouri to Arizona. He refers to it frequently in his journal. It is available full-text online. See the annotated bibliography for Part One.

Perhaps the greatest hardship and heartache that Powell faced on the trail was the death of friends and comrades from cholera. On May 15th he notes, “We were all glad to get away from Independence as the Cholera rages there fearfully.” The next two days are grievous for him: “16th Started early. Passed a number of Camps and Big Blue about noon, near which were three graves of Californians who died of Cholera. . . . We hear that the Cholera is raging to a fearful extent among the Emigrants beyond the Kansas [River – i.e. on the Platte River Road]; how it is on our route I do not know.” And then for him, disaster strikes on the 17th when his friend Isaac Carter succumbs: “In the middle of the night Carter was taken dangerously sick with the Cholera. Dr. Burchard [another member of the party] and I attended him all night. In the morning we moved out of camp. . . . When he became dangerously ill we had to stop. . . . I lay down, but woke about 4 o’clock. . . . I arose and walked around a short time and then saw Fuller go towards my waggon where Carter was. He got down from there and said Carter was dead. We went to look and found it to be so. . . . About sunset we confined him to his last home.” Cholera persisted in Powell’s company and others they encountered for the next two weeks. On May 18th he observed, “The road today seemed like a lengthened Cemetery. The mounds of graves of the Emigrants thrown up at intervals on either side of the road and the bones and remains of cattle and mules strewn in all directions was but a dismal sight.” And ten days later, on May 28th he lamented, “My bed clothes have all become grave clothes,” because he had given up so many blankets for shrouds. (Powell 12-15, 27)



Note: Cholera killed indiscriminately and rapidly, often within a few hours of the appearance of the major symptoms, violent vomiting and diarrhea. Death came from extreme dehydration. There was no known cure at this time.

Powell was a keen observer. He especially provides a picture of the immense numbers of emigrants headed for California, both on the Oregon Trail and, of course, on the Santa Fe Trail. On May 16th, about twenty miles west of Independence, he recorded, “We passed a good many Trains of all kinds today.” Even while he waited as his friend Isaac Carter was dying, he noticed, “Train after Train passed us and we see Trains in a variety of directions, wending their way on by different routes on the vast Prairie. . . .” In camp west of Lone Elm he again commented, “This is a great camping place for both Oregon and Santa Fe teams, as the forks of the road [present-day Gardner Junction, Kansas] are only about a Mile and a half back and the Oregon Teams can easily turn on to their trail again.” Near Switzler Creek [just east of present-day Burlingame, Kansas], Powell’s party even encountered a “traffic jam” of sorts: “Soon after we moved on from Switzler’s Creek it began to rain and looked as if it threatened a wild night. About 4 miles brought us to another creek where the road was stopped by one of the Santa Fe waggons [of the trader James Josiah Webb] being stalled. They put on 17 Yoke of Cattle but could not move it. We went back up the hill again and passing a little to the left, by going down a very precipitous road we effected a crossing.” (Powell 12-13, 17-18, 22-23)

Despite these occasional difficulties, the ease of travel on the Santa Fe Trail impressed Powell. At times he must have been pleased that he and his party chose it. June 12th finds him on the “Wet Route” of the trail, just east of present-day Dodge City. He is content to report, “Started at 7, and continued over the same smooth, level road, nearby the river for 10 miles. . . . We travel . . . not more than 3 or 4 feet above the level of the water. . . . In the afternoon we started about 2 o’clock, continued on the same level road but sometimes further from the river. . . . The rolling for days past has been excellent: one Yoke of cattle could haul any of our loads.” A further feature of his journal is that he faithfully records campgrounds, river and creek crossings, and landmarks – such as Fort Mann in Kansas and Point of Rocks and Wagon Mound in New Mexico – “Started just before sunrise – two miles brought us to ‘Fort Mann,’ a small fortification made of Cottonwood logs and turf, all falling to pieces. . .” - and the New Mexico towns of Las Vegas, Galisteo and Santa Fe. In fact, between Lone Elm and Santa Fe he identifies all 44 campgrounds for his party as well as naming numerous other sites. (Powell 42-43)

Powell, like many a Santa Fe Trail traveler before and after, was enthralled with the “exotic” flora and fauna of the prairies, in his case right down to recording, on May 16th, “Just after passing the Big Blue we saw a large clump of Cactus growing on the left side of the road, the first we have seen.” In one single journal entry on June 11th, near Pawnee Rock, he effused, “We have, as yet, today seen but very few buffalo, but Walter had a fine chase on a Pony after two Antelopes. . . . We passed through another Prairie dog village. Saw very few flowers all day. The party killed a large number of rattlesnakes this morning. . . . We noticed this afternoon a salty efflorescence on the top of the ground. . . . Some of the boys caught a Prairie dog alive this afternoon and I examined him more carefully. . . . There is nothing like a dog about the animal.” And finally for that day, he ended his entry, “Opposite our Camp on the other side of the river a number of Buffalo were grazing very quietly . . . and our arrival did not seem to disturb them, so some of the young men waded the river to have a shot at them, but on their approaching the opposite side the Buffalo ran off.” (Powell 12-13, 42)

As might be expected, Powell also carefully recorded his party’s encounters with Native peoples. From east to west he meets and identifies individuals or bands of Shawnee, Sac, Kaw, Kiowa, Arapaho, Comanche, and Apache, plus others as he subsequently travels through Arizona and into California. His party’s interaction with Arapaho deserves to be quoted at length: “We continued along the bottom, say eight miles from [west of] Fort Mann, to halt at 10 o’clock when we took a meal. The Camp was crowded with Arapahoes . . . and trading for horses, mules, Buffalo robes, etc., etc., was the order of the day. Walter was keen for the sport and got moccasins, leggings, lasso, etc., for tobacco, knife, bells, etc., etc. Mrs. Harrison offered an Indian a shawl for the robe he wore. He accepted it and taking off his robe stood with easy negligence before us for a considerable time admiring his new purchase, with nothing on but his moccasins and strip of blue cloth six inches wide passed between his legs and held up to his waist by a thong. This was taking things cool with a vengeance, I thought. I looked at Mrs. Harrison but she seemed to be quite easy about it as did all the rest; so I suppose it was all good Indian manners.” He is not so sanguine once the train reaches Apache territory in northeastern New Mexico. While camped on the Canadian River a contingent of Comancheros joins them: “About sundown a party of Mexicans came over the slope of one of the table lands to the North of West; they proved to be a party from Taos with a train of jacks and mules, carrying bread, maize, blankets, bridle bits, etc., etc. to trade with the Indians. . . . They camped close by us, for safety. . . . They tell us that 3 pastores or herdsmen were killed only yesterday by the Apaches not more than 30 miles from us. They tell us also to be on our guard as the Apaches will be around us all the time.” (Powell 45, 65)

Powell, his company, and other trains traveling near them, took the Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail rather than the Mountain Route. After waiting several days for high water to drop, they crossed from the north bank of the Arkansas River to the south bank and headed southwest on Sunday, June 17, 1849. Once again, as with the rest of his travels, he furnishes a detailed account of the challenges of this rigorous trek, historically known as the Jornada, an arduous and sometimes ultimately fatal stretch of the trail. His journal entries include:

“June 18th – After putting up as much wood and water as we could . . . we started at 3 o’clock P.M. . . .”

“June 19th – Started again at sundown, 7 ½ o’clock, and continued on until 11 ½, say 7 miles more. It was ‘dark as Erebus’ and the only thing that enabled us to see our way was the constant lightning. A violent storm stopped us at last. . . .”

“June 20th – Started at 4 o’clock. The cattle this morning show the want of food and water. They look gaunt and travel wearily.”

He passes Lower and Middle springs and reaches the Cimarron River on June 26th, finding it surprisingly “swollen by recent rains. . . . The water was so deep it got into some of the waggons.” Finally, on July 1st he can record, “Kept on the low savannah for about two Miles and then rose over the wall on to the plateau, or table land. Here we found ourselves gazing at a panorama of mounds, and various shaped hills and elevations; the most conspicuous being Round Mound immediately in front.” He had reached the eastern plains of New Mexico and the Jornada now truly was behind him. (Powell 48-62)

Powell’s final days on the trail ended in some confusion. There was a dispute between him and the other members of his party over money and provisions, so he leaves the Illinois Company and joins the wagons of another group, the Missouri Company. The two trains had been traveling in the vicinity of each other since eastern Kansas. Then, while camped near Barclay’s Fort [present-day Watrous, New Mexico], the emigrants were visited by a mule trader who informs them that they cannot possibly get to California via “Cooke’s route” with their wagons and oxen. But Powell is skeptical – the man, after all, is a mule trader. They also learn that “there was a large party at Las Vegas who were changing waggons and cattle for mules at a great sacrifice.” Powell’s observation is, “I believe there is a conspiracy in the country to cheat the Emigrants.” (Powell 53, 67)

Powell and his party did not go into Santa Fe, but turned south to Galisteo, leaving the Santa Fe Trail a few miles east of the city. This was a choice many emigrant trains made. However, Powell was then delegated to go into Santa Fe to buy provisions and see what information he could get on routes to California. He is disappointed when he eventually does reach Santa Fe, finding it to be “a miserable hole; gambling and drinking in all directions.” On the other hand, he mentions, “The most memorable thing I did here was to go into a barber shop and have my moustache, which had grown very long and flourished finely, cut off and part of my whiskers.” (Powell 74)

The question of what route to take from the Rio Grande to California continued to plague Powell and his fellow emigrants. From the beginning of his trek his faith that “Cooke’s route” could be traveled with oxen and wagons never faltered. As noted above, he had a copy of Cooke’s report with him, and consulted it religiously. A “Kentuckian by the name of Whittey,” a rancher from near Rayado whom they meet near Point of Rocks, New Mexico, tells them they “cannot go by Cooke’s route, that Cooke never took waggons, etc.,” but as Powell notes, “This man wants [us] to go to Rayado and change . . . cattle and waggons for mules.” An army officer they meet east of Santa Fe “says he heard Kit Carson say it was impossible for Ox Teams to go by Cooke’s route to California. Still, some of us are incredulous on the point.” He makes further inquiries in Santa Fe: “I went to the Quartermaster’s Department in the Plaza to gain information. . . . They referred me to private citizens.” Powell asks after Kit Carson, but learns he is in Taos. However, he runs across an old acquaintance, “Mr. Joseph, one of our party who left us on the Arkansas with a mule team, and who has been here some time. He informed me he had a conversation with Carson, who assured him the route was practicable for Ox Teams. . . . This, after all the stories we have heard, was cheering and I felt comforted, although my belief had never wavered.” (Powell 65, 71, 74)

Powell and his companions remained in camp at Galisteo from July 15 to July 24, 1849. They then headed southwest, following “Cooke’s route.” They forded the Rio Grande on August 20 and ventured southwest into the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, following the “Southern Route” through the “boot heel” of present-day New Mexico, then on to Tubac, Tucson, and the Gila River, in Arizona, and then California. Powell’s journal covers this part of his trip in the same vivid detail as his account of the Santa Fe Trail. He remained in California until the spring of 1852 and then returned to Greenville, Illinois.

We Are on the Brink of the Age of Gold” – Horace Greeley

Most journals and diaries kept by California gold rush emigrants begin with their taking leave of their families and friends, or with their decision to “head for the gold regions.” Usually, they do not relay how they first heard the news of the strike at Sutter’s Mill. At best they might say, “gold fever was in the air and I resolved to take my chances.” George Sniffen’s account is typical – in his “Notes by the Campfire: Being A Narrative of an Overland Journey from the United States to California in the year 1849,” he writes, “Sometime in the month of December 1848, I first conceived the idea of going to California and having made up my mind to it shortly after, I cast my eyes diligently about me in order to ascertain the most advantageous methods of making the trip.” By July 13th he and his companions in the Havilah Mining Association are on the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Road, headed west. (Sniffen, ms not paginated)

The most likely news source about California gold for prospective emigrants would have been a newspaper article, although after 1849 letters from those who had made it to the gold fields reached relatives and friends back home, sometimes with encouraging information or sometimes not. America was liberally supplied with hundreds of national, regional and local newspapers in the mid-19th century and a glance at the files of almost any of them reveals an eagerness to print the latest bulletins “from the mines.” It was common at this time for newspaper editors to “borrow” from one another, reprinting articles, reports and even “letters to the editor.” Sometimes an editor would have a formal arrangement with his fellow publishers, called an “exchange.” But more often the lead-in to an item might read, “The Daily Bugle having arrived by stagecoach last night, we are informed. . . .”

In Missouri and Kansas, at the eastern end of the Santa Fe Trail, The Weekly Tribune, published in Liberty, Missouri, was one of the first newspapers to alert its readers about the riches to be won in California. On October 6, 1848 it reprinted an article from the New Orleans Picayune, detailing the arrival in New Orleans of Naval Lieut. Edward F. Beale, who was headed for Washington, D. C. from the Pacific Coast with official communications on gold discoveries in “Upper California.” The St. Joseph, Missouri, Gazette followed suit on October 27th, attributing an article in the Washington, D. C. Union claiming that “An immense bed of gold, 100 miles in extent, has been discovered in California.” Then, on November 24th the editor of the Gazette was able to verify personally the electrifying news, reporting the arrival in town of men newly come overland from California “bringing with them large quantities of the Feather river gold, a portion of which was assayed by a chemist of our town, and pronounced pure gold.” (Barry Beginning 779, 787)

Arkansas newspapers reflected their Missouri counterparts. The Fort Smith Herald noted that as early as September 5, 1848 a company in that community was organizing for the trip to California. And as Grant Foreman mentions in this history of the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Road, Marcy and the Gold Seekers, “A great idea had awakened the people of Fort Smith and Van Buren: the discovery of gold in California was beginning to attract national attention; vast numbers of people were planning to go there, many of them by Independence and the Santa Fe Trail; why could not thousands be induced to come through Arkansas and proceed up what was known as the Canadian River route, to the great financial benefit of the Arkansas towns?” Speculation along this line was expressed in The Arkansas Democrat [Little Rock] throughout the spring of 1849. Beyond such promotional campaigns, the ease of steamboat transport down the Ohio and Mississippi to the Arkansas River, and then up the Arkansas to Fort Smith or nearby Van Buren also induced thousands to take the “Canadian River route.” This road, as will be discussed in detail later in this study, joined the Santa Fe Trail along the Pecos River in New Mexico, although from time to time some emigrant groups struck north from some point on the Canadian River to join with the Santa Fe Trail along the Arkansas River. (Foreman Marcy 9)

The Arkansas-Oklahoma border also was the “jumping off” point for those parties that blazed the Cherokee Trail, which angled northwest to join the old Santa Fe Trail at Running Turkey Creek, near present-day McPherson, Kansas, and followed it west to its Mountain Route in Colorado. From there these emigrants headed farther west to the confluence of Fountain Creek with the Arkansas, then north to join the Oregon-California Trail in Wyoming. These companies, which included members of the Cherokee Nation, had been stimulated by the Arkansas newspapers as well as a report in the Cherokee Advocate, the newspaper of the Cherokee Nation, for January 8, 1849, which read, “We have received through the New Orleans papers . . . such accounts from California, as leave little doubt, that the stories of the mineral wealth of the country, however exaggerated, are founded in fact. . . .” The first group to try this new route was led by Captain Lewis Evans. Consisting of forty wagons and nearly 400 head of livestock, it left Grand Saline [Oklahoma] the last week of April 1849 and reached the Santa Fe Trail at Running Turkey Creek on May 12th. Other companies followed the “Evans Trail” later that season and again in 1850. (Fletcher 16ff; Foreman Marcy 68ff.)

According to Rudolph Kurz, a Swiss artist who came to America to study and paint Native peoples and who resided in the vicinity of St. Joseph, Missouri from 1848 to 1850, “At the end of January 1849 the first gold seeker showed himself in St. Joseph. . . . The first arrivals from the East were two rich merchants from New York. They had traveled in a sleigh direct from their home to this place (more than 3,000 miles), in order to be the first to reach California.” While claiming to be the “first” in any historical endeavor or event is always questionable, it was clear to Kurz and the merchants and general population of Missouri River towns that a flood tide of emigrants was about to begin. Kurz continued, “As they [the New York merchants in their sleigh] traveled westward, the gold fever mounted. . . . The prices of provisions, cattle, and goods became exorbitant.” (Kurz 46)

There is general agreement among historians as to the sequence of events leading up to the rush of emigrants to California – nearly 100,000 alone in 1849. As Ralph Bieber eloquently put it in his classic Southern Trails to California in 1849, “A gold mania now gripped the nation. Thousands of men in all parts of the country and in all stations of life made preparations to hasten to the new El Dorado. Farmers left their plows, merchants closed their shops, journalists forsook their profession, mechanics quit their trades, physicians and lawyers took down their shingles, men deserted their wives, and clergymen abandoned their holy calling to seek after worldly treasures.” (Bieber 27-28)

The story, of course, begins at Sutter’s Mill on the South Fork of the American River, near present-day Coloma, California. On January 24, 1848, while digging a ditch to channel water to a new sawmill, James W. Marshall, John Sutter’s partner in the enterprise, “remarked calmly that he believed he had found a gold mine.” Though there was general disbelief among his labor crew, one of them, Henry Bigler, did record in his diary, “This day some kind of mettle was found in the tail race that looks like goald.” Within a few days, Marshall shared his find with Sutter, and the news was out. (Jackson 8)



Some of the defining moments in the spread of the news include:

  • March 15, 1848. The Californian newspaper, San Francisco, reports, “Gold Mine Found – In the newly made raceway of the Saw Mill recently erected by Captain Sutter, on the American Fork, gold has been found in considerable quantities.”

  • June 1 and June 28, 1848. Thomas Larkin, who had been United States Consul to Mexican California and was now U.S. Naval agent in Monterey, sends letters with news of the gold at Sutter’s Mill to U.S. Secretary of State James Buchanan and Navy Secretary John Mason, in Washington, D. C. These letters reached Washington the following September, carried in a perilous journey across Mexico by Lieut. Edward F. Beale. (Jackson 40-41)

  • August 4, 1848. The New York Herald publishes a letter from “Paisano,” in reality U.S. Consul Thomas Larkin in his role as the California correspondent of the Herald. Dated March 1st, it had been carried 2,800 miles by Kit Carson, traveling from Los Angeles to Washington, D. C. with official federal dispatches. In this letter Larkin reported, “mines are discovered in many places.” Although he primarily stressed the development of quicksilver finds, various eastern newspapers picked up on his letter and fulsomely elaborated on it. (Jackson 39-40)

  • October 6, 1848. The steamship California leaves New York for San Francisco, via the Straits of Magellan, carrying the first emigrants to take that long sea voyage to riches. They docked in San Francisco nearly five months later, on February 28, 1849. (Jackson 52)

  • November 22, 1848. A letter from Col. R. B. Mason, governor of California, confirming the discovery of gold, arrives in Washington, D. C. It was one of two duplicate letters sent by two different routes. Lieut. Lucien Loeser, U.S. Army, carried the other – as well as what has been described as a “tea caddy” of California gold. He eventually reached Washington and the gold, 230 ounces worth $3,900 according to the U.S. Mint at Philadelphia, went on display at the War Department. (Johnson 38)

  • December 5, 1848. Using California Governor Mason’s report, President James K. Polk mentions the discovery of gold in his annual message to Congress. He briefly said, “The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.” (The full text of Polk’s remarks is available online at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29489. Accessed September 18, 2012.)

  • December 9, 1848. Horace Greeley puts his imprimatur on California, gold, and the bright future in his New York Daily Tribune, trumpeting, “We are on the brink of the Age of Gold.” His prediction is reprinted in newspapers across the country.

Given this onslaught of news from every quarter, the great emigration began to wend west early in the spring of 1849. Many gold seekers, of course, chose the Oregon-California Trail, The Great Platte River Road as historian Merrill Mattes immortalized it in his book of the same name. Early on these emigrants outfitted in Independence, Westport and St. Joseph, Missouri, but soon towns farther up the Missouri River served their needs, such as Council Bluffs and Nebraska City. However, historians Elliott West and Patricia Etter, among others, dispute the claim of Merrill Mattes that only “a few thousand California gold-seekers from the southern states did reach the Coast by desert variants or extensions of the Santa Fe Trail . . . but for the most part the Santa Fe Trail stopped at Santa Fe.” West asserts, “At least 20,000 persons rushed to California in 1849 by another way – a cluster of trails through the southwestern deserts, routes that had been used for many generations by native peoples and for decades by fur trappers and traders.” Included here were trails crossing exclusively through Texas, and even Mexico, on west. And as Etter demonstrates in her “history and annotated bibliography,” To California on the Southern Route 1849, there are several hundred journals and diaries of those who chose the southern trails in 1849, including the 32 she lists for the Santa Fe Trail, and 20 for the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Trail. She does not deal with the Cherokee Trail since it is outside the scope of her work. She also wisely does not estimate the number of emigrants on any one trail, nor does she carry her study forward to 1850 and beyond although [as the present study shall show] there were gold rush emigrants on the Santa Fe Trail and its variants into the decade after 1849. (Mattes, 5; West in the “Foreword” to Etter 8)

The question that arises at this point, then, is: Why would an emigrant or an emigrant company choose the Santa Fe Trail and its links to the roads across the southwestern deserts?



Why Choose the Santa Fe Trail as Your Route to California?

More than 100,000 emigrants made their way to the California gold fields in 1849, most of them from the eastern United States. Many tens of thousands more started out but turned back. They employed nearly every conveyance available at the time - steamboats, carriages, canal boats, wagons of all descriptions, and even the few fledgling railroads. They used horses, oxen, mules - and their own two feet. California, which had a population of around 14,000 in 1848, became a state of the union in 1850 and boasted a population of nearly 265,000 by 1852.

This multitude had a number of routes to choose from. They could brave the seas and the dangers of the Straits of Magellan, rounding Cape Horn. They could take a steamship to Panama, confront the horrors of disease crossing the isthmus, and then head north on another steamer. They could take a stagecoach across the Appalachians to the Ohio River and from there take passage on a river steamboat to St. Louis, then on a smaller steamer head up the Missouri to the "jumping off" towns serving the Oregon-California and Santa Fe trails. Or they could continue by steamer to Napoleon, Arkansas, and then voyage up the Arkansas and follow the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Trail or the Cherokee Trail west. Some might even come up the Mississippi from New Orleans to the Arkansas or Missouri rivers. Others went to ports on the Texas coast and crossed the southwestern deserts from there or to Mexican ports on the Gulf Coast and crossed Mexico.

For each and every emigrant, then, there was a choice to be made: "How shall I get to California?" And for each route ultimately chosen, including the Santa Fe Trail and its variants, a question central to this study is, "Why choose one route over another?" Or more specifically, "Why choose the Santa Fe Trail?”

The answer to this question is not particularly straightforward. Just as the decision to choose one route over another was personal, so too some emigrants decided on the Santa Fe Trail for one reason, some for another. It is not possible, of course, to get inside the mind of each and every emigrant. Even those who left journals and diaries often did not record the moment of their decision; however, some did, as the following accounts demonstrate.

But first, it must also be mentioned that geography obviously played a role in an emigrant’s choice of route, though again every individual’s decision was personal. It was unlikely that a man from central Illinois would travel to New York City and take a steamship for either Cape Horn or the Panamanian Isthmus. This man would head directly west. Or, a resident of Arkansas was more tempted by the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Road than by the Oregon-California Trail out of Council Bluffs or Nebraska City, or the Santa Fe Trail from Independence or Leavenworth.

As an example of how an emigrant or California-bound company might fixate on one particular route over another, consider Charles Pancoast’s experience south of Ocate Creek in northeastern New Mexico on July 28, 1849. Pancoast was with the Peoria Company from Illinois, having departed from Leavenworth, Kansas, for Santa Fe. While camped that evening, Pancoast records, “During our stay at this Camp there came that way a large Train of gold Hunters from Louisiana, with Pack Mules and Horses. They were going to California over the road we had just passed [the Santa Fe Trail south from Raton Pass], intending to follow up the eastern borders of the Rocky Mountains to the Platte River, and thence take the northern Route to California. But they did not influence us from our determination to go south, nor we them from pursuing their course to the north.” (Pancoast 211)

Note: The following analysis of the Santa Fe Trail as a route to the California mines will include the long-established “old” Santa Fe Trail, stretching in 1849 from various towns in western Missouri and eastern Kansas to Santa Fe. It will also consider the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Road, which joined the main Santa Fe Trail in the vicinity of San Miguel, New Mexico, and the Cherokee Trail, which originated in northeastern Oklahoma, merged with the Santa Fe Trail at Running Turkey Creek – near present-day McPherson, Kansas, and then left the Santa Fe Trail near the ruins of Bent’s Old Fort in Colorado, headed up the Arkansas River to the site of present-day Pueblo, Colorado, and then turned north along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains into Wyoming, where it united with the Oregon-California Trail.

Following the “Old Trail” to Santa Fe

Given the myths and legends that have grown up around the California gold rush, the first influence on emigrants and the routes they chose that comes to mind is the guidebooks that enterprising promoters quickly printed and sold. It was Lansford W. Hastings’ The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California, after all, that contributed to misleading the Donner Party and delivered it to its fate. Because they are so prominent in American lore of the California gold rush, they will be discussed first here. But as will be seen, there were other more effective elements which influenced an emigrant’s choice. All of the following will be considered:



  • Guidebooks – and Josiah Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies

  • National and regional newspapers – articles, editorials, letters from correspondents, and merchant advertisements and promotions

  • The published reports of official United States military expeditions, especially those generated during the 1840s and the Mexican-American War

  • The advice and leadership of Mexican-American War veterans, many of whom had fought in the Southwest and Mexico and had returned, especially in the case of Missouri volunteers, only a year or two earlier

  • The prospect for emigrants of traveling with federal officials heading west in 1849 to assume various government posts in New Mexico or California – and with the U.S. Army escorts provided to these officials

  • The chance to hire seasoned mountain men and fur trappers who knew the Santa Fe Trail and routes farther west

  • Fresh news of conditions on the trail as emigrants left their various “jumping off” towns, especially along the Missouri River, news often garnered from Santa Fe traders just arriving over the trail

In the case of the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Road, additional considerations for emigrants included their knowledge of the route as gleaned from Josiah Gregg’s compendium of trade with Santa Fe, Commerce of the Prairies, and the blazing of this new route by U. S. Army Captain Randolph B. Marcy – one of whose specifically assigned duties was to accompany emigrant trains to Santa Fe. For the Cherokee Trail, as will be evident, the experience of members of the Cherokee Nation as fur trappers and traders was an important factor.



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