San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco


The emigration to California by the southern or Santa Fé route passed up the Arkansas river to Bent's fort, thence southwesterly to Santa Fé; thus far over the Santa Fé trail, a road well traveled. Leaving Santa Fé they passed down the Rio Grande, crossed over to the headwaters of the Gila, down the Gila to its junction with the Colorado, across the Colorado desert and over the San Jacinto mountains by Warner's rancho or the Vallecito pass, to San Diego. A few, for fear of the Apaches, came over the Camino del Diablo, but so fearful was the suffering by that route that it was soon abandoned.

The great mass of the emigrants went by the central route. Leaving Independence on the Missouri river the train passed out on to the open prairie. In the beginning large companies under a single commander were the rule, but experience soon taught the emigrants that with small companies they could travel more easily, make better time, and obtain better grass and water facilities. The emigrants set out on their long journey with enthusiasm and were most cordial and friendly in their relations with one another. The exhilaration produced by the pure air, the vastness and grandeur of the prairies bounded only by the blue horizon, the succession of green undulations and flowery slopes, was scarcely controllable and all were happy in the joyous anticipations of the future. There was little thought of hardship; the families were well equipped and provided with every comfort for the journey and nearly every family had a cow or two to furnish fresh milk and cream. The camp was usually made early in the afternoon where grass and water was plenty; the wagons were drawn up in a circle forming a corral wherein such horses and cattle as were likely to stray were confined. Outside of the corral the tents were pitched with their doors outward; in front of these the camp fires were lighted and the culinary operations performed. After the evening meal was concluded the time was passed in friendly calls, in singing, dancing, etc., and all retired early to rest. In the morning after an early breakfast the "catching-up" or yoking of the cattle and attaching them to the wagons proceeded with great bustle, noise, and confusion and by nine o'clock the train began to move. The ceremony of organizing the company, of choosing officers, of adopting regulations for government of the party during the journey to California was one of importance and was usually performed at one of the early camps after leaving Independence. The electioneering for the position of captain of the company was, at times, very strenuous, and the claims of ambitious candidates were urged with vehemence by their respective friends.

The harmony prevailing at the start was usually of short duration. Nothing tries out the disposition of men like the close companionship and petty inconveniences and annoyances of a long journey. The companies were, as a rule, made up of people who were meeting for the first time and were not, therefore, bound together by those ties of friendship that endure small irritants and infirmities of temper. Many of the men soon manifested petulance, incivility, and a want of a spirit of accommodation. This resulted in much wrangling, and angry altercations arose from trifling matters, sometimes terminating in violence and blood. Disruptions, forming of new combinations only to be broken up in turn, followed with increasing frequency as the journey proceeded and its weary length became a tale of hardship and suffering. The position of a captain or leader was not always an agreeable one. The by-laws and regulations adopted for the government of the company were not easily enforced and the court of arbitrators appointed to decide disputes between parties and punish offenders against the peace and order of the company had little authority. The person condemned was certain to appeal to the assembly of the whole, and he was nearly certain of acquittal on any charge under that of robbery or murder. In all emigration parties there were men of desperate and depraved character who were perpetually endeavoring to produce discord, disorganization, and collision. In crossing the Missouri Line, about twelve miles west of Independence, the emigrants passed beyond the incorporated territories of the United States into the wilderness, peopled only by savages, with no law but that of might; hence the necessity for organization in the interests of law and order.

On leaving Independence the emigrants took the Santa Fé trail for about fifty miles and then crossed the Wakarusa creek and traveled in a northwesterly direction to the Kansas river which they crossed by flatboat ferry three or four miles east of the present Topeka; thence west-northwest they crossed the Big Blue river near the present town of Randolph, Kansas; thence northwest they struck the Little Blue river at about Hebron, Nebraska; thence traveling up the valley of the Little Blue they reached the Platte eight miles below the head of Grand island. They now followed up the south bank of the river, sometimes on the river bottom, treeless and dreary, their fuel "buffalo chips" (bois de vache), drinking the warm and unpleasant water of the Platte, and pestered by immense swarms of ravenous mosquitoes. A journey of one hundred and ten miles brings the pilgrims to the forks of the Platte and they follow up the south fork for a distance of about sixty miles and then strike across in a north-northwest direction and pass down Ash Hollow to the North Platte, a distance of twenty-two miles. The trail now ascends the north fork, sometimes in the river bottom, and then making a circuit to avoid the bluffs which wall in the river and interrupt the travel. The face of the country now presents characteristics which unmistakably proclaim it to be uninhabitable by civilized man. The light sand, driven by the bleak winds across the parched plains, fills the atmosphere and colors the vegetation with a gray coating of dust. The monotony of the scenery is inexpressibly dreary and the emigrant, scorched by the sun by day and chilled by freezing blasts by night, labors on, his enthusiasm gone and his anticipations dulled by the weary toil and stern privations of the journey. His cattle are driven off by wolves, mounted Indians stampede his horses, and he is yet in the first stage of his journey. Up the north fork runs the trail to Fort Laramie. At this point it leaves the river and passing through the Black hills (Laramie mountains) joins the river again at the ferry, near the present town of Casper, Wyoming. Here the emigrants say good-bye to the Platte and a journey of sixty miles of arid plains and bleak cliffs brings them to Independence Rock and the Sweetwater river. One hundred and fourteen miles up the Sweetwater and they reach the South pass and the backbone of the continent. Crossing the pass, the trail descends by a gentle declivity for two miles to Pacific spring, the waters of which flow into the Colorado river and the gulf of California.

From Pacific spring the route lies west by north for twenty-eight miles over an arid plain covered with sage brush, to the Little Sandy, an affluent of the Green river; thence westerly twelve miles to the Big Sandy river. Here is one of the numerous "cut-offs"—a saving of distance at the expense of life and property. For forty-five or fifty miles the trail of Greenwood's Cut-off, as it is called, is across a desert without water to the Green river. The main trail continues down the Green about forty miles then leaving the river it ascends the bluffs and continuing in a southwesterly direction it reaches Black's Fork in a distance of fifteen miles. Forty miles up Black's Fork is Fort Bridger. From Fort Bridger the regular trail takes a northwest course to Ham's Fork, up Ham's Fork, across the divide, down the Muddy river to Bear river, which here runs northward, down the Bear to Soda springs or Beer springs, as it is sometimes called, thence across to Portneuf river down which the trail follows to Fort Hall, on Snake river. Down the Snake the emigrants travel for about fifty miles to Raft river where the Oregon and California emigrants part company. The California trail proceeded up Raft river a distance of about seventy-five miles, thence over the mountains to Goose creek, to its head waters, and thence over the desert in a southwest direction to the head waters of the Humboldt.

The "Hastings' Cut-off," the taking of which proved so disastrous to the Donner party, was a trail passing to the south of Great Salt Lake. Leaving Fort Bridger and traveling in a west-northwest direction the trail passed over the rugged Unitah mountains to Bear river, thence over the Wasatch mountains to the Salt Lake valley passing "Ogden's Hole" and emerging from the mountains about where the city of Ogden now is, thence around the foot of the lake, across Tooele and Scull valleys and striking the Salt Lake desert after passing Cedar mountains; thence in a northwesterly direction about sixty-five miles, thence turning southwest for about fifteen miles, then westerly across the Gosiute and Peoquop ranges, thence southwest and south, past Eagle, or Snow Water lake, Franklin, and Ruby lakes to a low pass of the Humboldt range on the fortieth parallel, thence westerly across the mountains thirty miles to Eureka creek, or South Humboldt river as it was then called, thence north to the Humboldt river at Palisade where it joined the main emigrant trail. From here the trail followed the Humboldt river to its sink. Sixty-five miles above the sink, near the present Mill City, Nevada, the northern or Lassen route branched off from the main trail. From seven to nine thousand persons of the emigration of 1849 were persuaded to take this trail, being informed that it was much easier, had more grass and water, etc., only to discover, to their horror, that this was the most dreadful road of all, and so many perished of this emigration that the trail was given the name of the "death route." Leaving the Humboldt at the Lassen Meadows the trail ran in a general northwest direction, passing in turn Antelope spring, Rabbit Hole spring, Black Rock desert, Stove Pipe spring (off the road), Mud spring, High Rock cañon, Willow spring, and Massacre lake; then passing between Upper and Middle Alkali lakes, it turned north to Lassen pass and over the pass to Goose lake. The emigrant had traveled over one hundred and sixty miles from the Humboldt only to find himself over two hundred miles of rough mountain travel from the nearest settlement. Down the shore of Goose lake, to Pitt river ran the trail, down Pitt river to Horse creek, thence southerly to Deer creek and Peter Lassen's rancho of Bosquejo.

From the sink of the Humboldt the emigrants had a choice of two routes. The central was across the desert to the Truckee river at Wadsworth, up the Truckee to Donner lake, over the Donner pass to the south fork of the Yuba, down the Yuba to Bear valley, down Bear river to Johnson's rancho, where the trail crossed the Bear. This was known as the Truckee and Bear valley route.

The second route, known as the Carson or Mormon route, ran south from the Humboldt sink, to the Carson river, up the Carson to Genoa—then called Mormon station—thence southerly a distance of seventeen miles to West Carson cañon through which it ascended the Sierra Nevada through Hope valley to Carson pass, over this pass at an elevation of nine thousand feet, thence by Twin lakes, Silver lake, Tragedy springs, Cold Springs ranch, Sly Park, Pleasant valley, and Smith's Flat, to Placerville.

A party of forty-five men from the Mormon battalion, and one woman, wife of one of the soldiers, started in July 1848 from Pleasant valley to cross the sierra and make their way to Salt Lake. They had two small brass pieces, bought of Sutter, and every man had a musket. They had seventeen wagons, one hundred and fifty horses and about the same number of cattle. They had sent men in advance to make a road over which their wagons could pass, and three of their men, David Browett, Ezrah H. Allen, and Henderson Cox, were surprised and killed by Indians at a place called by them Tragedy springs, which name it still bears. The road they laid out became the Carson or Mormon route for the emigration of 1849 and subsequent years. They gave Hope valley its name because when they reached the valley they began to feel hopeful of getting through.


Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.

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