Emigrants' Guide to California
Joseph Ware 64 pages published in 1849
The Emigrants’ Guide is a very useful little book in case you ever decide to head for California overland. It was the first guide for emigrants, it is full of practical information and won’t take up much space. What’s really interesting about the book, besides how to get to California, is that it was written by someone who never did get to California. You’ll have to read on to find out more about that.
There are four routes to California from the east: around Cape Horn by ship, by ship to Panama, across the isthmus and then by ship to San Francisco; the same but across Mexico; or overland across the continent. The first alternatives take months and cost up to $600 per person. The overland route, by comparison, might take only 100 days and cost $50-60 per person if one is part of a group. Clearly, if you want to beat everyone to California it behooves you to go overland. The “cheapest and best [route] is across the plains and Rocky Mountains.”
Today one hops on the Interstate and travels thousands of miles in just a few days following a GPS guide. The GPS tells us where off ramps, fast food and gas stations are. In 1850 emigrants setting out bravely to cross thousands of miles of continent, and trying to do it before the snows closed the Sierra, had little to help them. What should they take? How should they travel? Which route was best? Where could water and grass be found? How many days to cross the desert and much grass and water should they take? What should they do if…? Ware’s guide was useful then and maybe now too, if you are planning an authentic cross-country trip by wagon and oxen traveling at about 10 miles a day.
Ware’s booklet can be broken into a couple of parts. The first part is advice for the trip, the second is a list of landmarks and waypoints with information, then information about “how to detect gold,” and information crossing the Isthmus of Panama. The modern edition includes explanatory footnotes that enhance the reading. Those are by John Caughey and give good explanations as well as tell what other authors and emigrants said. The booklet also comes with a nice map in a pocket in the back. To protect it on the trip it should have been laminated but Kinko’s can do that for you.
The advice is interesting and might be made into flash cards for your journey so that you can organize them all.
Advice for traveling:
Head for Chicago and buy wagons and teams there. Then head for St. Louis by canal or river, then up the Missouri River by steamboat to Independence which can be a jumping off point for the wilderness. Ware lists the costs expected for various legs of the journey so you don’ t overspend.
You need to start by May 1 to get across in time so plan accordingly. Use oxen or mules. Horses can’t cut it and be sure your oxen are less than six years old. Oxen are good because they will eat anything. Don’t take more than 2,500 pounds (emigrants tend to overpack). Take at least four yoke of oxen (one yoke is two oxen).
Be sure your iron tires are riveted to the wood wheels otherwise you will have to daily wet the wood to swell it and keep it in contact with the tires. Be sure your wagon covers are well painted.
Don’t travel on the Sabbath. This is not a religious stricture but rather a practical piece of advice. You and your teams need some rest. If you rest one day out of seven you will get to California 20 days sooner than others who don’t.
Get started each day by 4 A.M., rest during the heat of the day and then continue on until dark. Advice is given for how to make camp. Be careful with guns and do not allow them to be cocked in camp. Keep the animals well staked or inside the wagon corral at night. Post sentinels.
“Cleanliness and frequent bathing, are our best preventatives of sickness.” Don’t “bathe if you feel fatigued.” “The best time for bathing is about 9 or 10 in the morning.”
The bulk of the text is about the journey: landmarks and waypoints, distances, where to cross rivers, where to get grass, and when to build up supplies of wood and grass.
Ware’s preferred route is over Donner Pass and by page 39 the reader has gotten to Truckie’s Lake and then to the pass. At the top, “You may consider yourselves victorious over the mountains…” Then it’s on to the Bear River, Johnston’s, Sutter’s, San Francisco, and the gold fields.
Finally there is some parting advice, “you are in a country different from that which you left. Recollect that you are a component of that country. Take no steps that will not reflect honor, not only upon yourself but your country. Oppose all violations of order… Unite with the well disposed to sustain the rights of individuals… Introduce… those institutions which have conspired to raise our beloved country to the highest elevation of Nations:- Let schools, churches, beneficial societies, courts &c., be established…Make provisions for the forthcoming millions…righteousness exalteth a nation.”
Interestingly, and amazingly, Ware had not made the overland journey when he put his guide booklet together. Instead he relied on John Fremont’s reports who had made the journey and “information from various sources” including books such as Edwin Bryant’s What I Saw in California. His booklet was the first guide for emigrants and it was accurate. More interestingly, Lansford Hastings, who gave the Donners a bum stear, had advice for emigrants which was bad and he’d made the trip.
Later Mr. Ware did attempt to make the trip to California and his experience was reported by Alonzo Delano who was later a columnist in California after having made his own journey and wrote, “Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings.” Delano, or Old Block which was his pen name, wrote that Ware took sick while a member of a wagon train and was “barbarously laid…by the roadside, without water, provisions, covering or medicines, to die. Suffering with thirst he contrived to crawl off the road about a mile, to a pond, where he lay two days, exposed to burning sun by day and cold winds by night.” Delano’s group found and nursed Ware but “Nature, over-powered by exposure as well as disease, gave way, and he sank under his sufferings.” He never got to see California or the accuracy of his guidebook.
Crossing Donner Pass –
The pass is a distance of 5 miles from Truckie’s Lake. “You then reach the foot of the steep, over which you have to force your way….you will be tried to the utmost… but never despair, others have over triumphantly, you can! Commence and unload, at once pack everything over the summit,… then haul your wagons up the precipieces [sic] with ropes. By adopting this course you will certainly save time, and perhaps hundreds of dollars, from breakage of wagon, if not total loss of some of your teams…. Once on the summit, you can camp a while to rest.” The pass is 9338 feet high with mountains around another several thousand feet higher. This is higher than the Rockies and deserves the name, in English, “Snowy Mountains.”
A mile from the pass you come to a small lake [Lake Mary, or in those days Lakes Mary and John]. From there water flows to Sacramento. Then, four miles further on you will come to “ a beautiful [Summit] valley, having a stream passing through it. Grass of the most luxuriant growth abounds here. This stream is called YUBA, from a tribe of Indians, inhabiting the valley lower down. It is a tributary of the Feather River…”