Trail to California
The Overland Journal of Vincent Geiger & Wakeman Bryarly 1849
245 pages edited by David Morris Potter
There are many books about the overland emigrant journey and there are many diaries written by participants. This one is unique because it’s really three books in one. There is the diary of course, started by Vincent Geiger and finished by Wakeman Bryarly. The text is heavily footnoted which brings in much more illustrative material. Finally, one third of the book is introduction, which brings the reader a lot more in terms of background and explanation. All three, provide a rich experience in a very short book.
The diary chronicles the overland journey in 1849 of Vincent Geiger and Wakeman Bryarly. Many diaries are sparse containing only details such as miles traveled and stopping points. The Geiger/Bryarly diary is rich. It lists miles and stopping places but also tells stories and details the journey with good descriptions.
The diary is rich in detail. Here, for example, the company has discovered they need to lighten their loads and that the trip will not just be the adventure many might have hoped for. It’s an obvious insight but one we might not think of about the people involved. They’d brought too much. “We got into camp…. and commenced lightening our loads. We threw away a large lot of horse shoes, all the boxes, lard & many other things… Many are complaining and if chance offered would like much to return. We have been vexed & delayed…” They’d just seen graves along the way and then more graves. Imagine the frustration and fear that would induce "many... to return" to their old homes. They'd already given up everything there and set their focus on the lives and opportunities. Then too, it wasn't all bad, “We caught a fine turtle & had a pot of good soup” (the footnotes note that turtle weighed 100 pounds).
Other entries describe what they saw and smelled. “We counted 50 wagons in the road before us. The road was awfully dusty & the stench from the dead oxen rendered it rather obnoxious… The [dead] oxen are strewed along the road, as miles stones….”
“We then gave our animals some grass & a little water, & then we ‘turned in” to remain until daylight. The road for three miles was a solid mass of wagons.” There must have been crowds of emigrants given the thousands making the journey and given that they all had to start at the same time of year. It’s not something we think about or see in depictions of the overland journey.
There was beauty. “Two hundred yards in front, the water from the marsh around collected in a stream & running beautifully over the long grass, it made a fall of several feet into a pool This made a most delightful place to bathe, & the water itself was better than any we have had for several weeks. The grass between our corall & this [pool] was knee high, & the ground dry,…. This marsh for three miles is certainly the liveliest place that one could witness in a lifetime. There is some two hundred and fifty wagons here all the time. Some going out & others coming in & taking their places… Cattle & mules by the hundreds are surrounding us, in grass to their knees, all discoursing sweet music with the grinding of the jaws…. In fact the joyous laugh & the familiar sound of the whetted scythe [harvesting the grass to dry and take with them] resounds from place to place & gives an air of happiness & content around that must carry the wearied travelers through to the ‘Promised Land.’”
There was misery on the trip. “…we encamped in the headquarters of musquitoes [sic]. No one can conceive of the annoyance of these devils incarnate until they have experienced what we did … Our animals were very near stampeding from them & our guards were so busy saving their own eyes, that it was almost impossible for them to watch the animals.”
Then there was the heat, so hot the sand blistered their feet and made the carried water so hot it made perfect coffee. The food was boring. There were graves by the trail. There were dead animals,, “Report says that 800 to a thousand animals are lying dead upon it [the road], & 100 wagons have been abandoned.”. There was disappointment at not finding grass and joy at finding good grass, “cheering news… there has been discovered, within a few days, grass extending over 5000 acres, & up to the animals’ bellies, distant only 7 miles from the slough. If this be true, we are safe…” there were the complaints and sickness. But all was not bad; there was also music at night.
After crossing the desert, “thousands of dollars worth of property thrown away by the emigration as laying here. Wagons & property of every kind & description, not saying anything of dead animals & those left to die…. Machinery…. A steam engine & machinery… all sacrificed upon this Jornado.”
The introduction is also rich with lots of background. For example, Bryarly was a doctor who served in the Mexican War. There he apparently met Geiger who had also enlisted as an officer. Following the war, life was too tame and the two decided to go to California, joining the Charlestown Co. The Charlestown Co. was a unique group heading to California. The group was a partnership rather than a group of people traveling together. They took applications, limiting membership to 75. Each member was charged $300 to go to California. $300 was much more than most emigrants would spend to get to California and went for buying supplies, wagons, mules, etc. Some of the money was spent on supplies shipped ahead around the Horn to California for use by the group when it arrived. Once in California the plan was to work as a collective. In addition to the $300 each member had to bring along specific items: eight shirts, one pair of drawers, two pairs of shoes, rubber knapsack, gum overcoat, etc. They could only bring 50 lbs each of clothing and needed personal items. Each member had to have a physical. Each member received a pair of “revolving pistols ($20 pair)” and the group took along a cannon. All that showed good organization and was a good reason why the group was so successful and so fast. Another reason was their guide. In the end the Charlestown Co. traveled faster than most, lost only a few animals and four men. The analysis of the success is an interesting read especially when compared to other groups’ travels.
The introduction also goes into what happened after the group reached California which is an interesting read.
An example from the introduction illustrates the dangers of the journey and gives insight into the migration, “…the experience of the Charlestown Company reflected the experience of overland emigrants as a group…. One death by cholera, one by crowning, one by accidental gunfire, none by hostility of the Indians…”
The introduction has analysis of the trails and the amount emigrants spent on the journey typically, $50 to $100. That was something I’d never read before and showed why so many took the cross country route rather than one of the others (around the Horn, across Panama, or across Mexico). There’s also a discussion of mules vs. oxen in case you ever want to go.
The footnotes are rich bringing in lots of quotes by other pioneers to illustrate the travel: cholera, waiting for the grass to grow before starting, breaking animals to harness, etc. Details tell things we wouldn’t think of, such as livestock being stampeded by “thousands and millions of bugs, covering the ground entirely” or “tormented by clouds of beetles.”
An example of other diarists which tell stories, “Andrew Orvis had made the journey as far as the desert with no especial difficulty. But when he had completed four-fifths of the crossing, trouble began: ‘In 8 miles of the [Truckee] River my horse bigan [sic] to fail and I had to go slow but I drove him until with 3 miles of the river. I cold [sic] not get him any farther. I was over come and tired out. I would travel a little and I would lay down on the sand and rest and the sun shining on me. There is no timber thare [sic]. I thought I would never get through and I laide [sic] down to kick the bucket; but I thought of home and it give me a little more grit and I would get up and stager along. I was so thirsty my tonge [sic] and lips cracked and bled but I was able to get to the water and after drinking a little – I dare not drink much – I felt better. Towards knight, [sic] I took some grass and water in my canteen back to the horse. He was in the same place I had left him. I poered [sic] water I on the grass and he eat and then he went to the river first rate.”
Other quotes show the Charlestown Co. was not alone in its experiences, “all along the desert road very the very start even the way side was strewed with the dead bodies of –oxen, mules, & horses, & the stench was horrible. All our travelling experiences furnishes no parallel for all this.”
Of interest to those of us in the neighborhood of Donner Summit is the wagon train’s arrival at Donner Lake before heading up Coldstream Valley. They had had to cross the Truckee River 12 times to get that far. Here Bryarly describes the Donner Party encampment which was a natural attraction to emigrants coming upon the site, “these mournful monuments [the burned cabins] of human suffering…” “There were piles of bones around but mostly of cattle, although I did find some half dozen human ones of different parts. Just to the left of these was [sic] a few old black burnt logs, which evidently had been one of those [cabins] which had been burnt. Here was nearly the whole of a skeleton. Several small stockings were found which still contained the bones of the leg & foot. Remnants of old clothes, with pieces of boxes, stockings & bones in particular, was all that was left to mark that it had once been inhabited…. The trees around were cut off 10 ft. from the ground, showing the immense depth of the snow must have been.”
Compared to the horror of the Donner Camp was the beauty of the Truckee River, “Here, upon our left, distant some hundred yards from the road was Truckee River in all its glory again, splashing & dashing over rocks Here we met on of our advance who informed us we were but five miles from the base of the great bugaboo, that which has caused many a sleepless night, with disturbed dreams to the discouraged emigrant, ‘The Sierra Nevada’ Mountains. We were much inspired & equally rejoiced….”
One mile brought us to the foot of the ‘Elephant’ itself. Here we ‘faced the music & no mistake. The “Wohaughs” could be heard for miles, hallowing & bawling at their poor cattle who could scarcely drag themselves up the steep acclivity.” The Charlestown Co. doubled their teams and “after considerable screaming & whipping, thus arrived safe at the top.” It took four hours for them to get up and they were happy it was not “much worse.”
One would think that at the top of the mountains it was all downhill to Johnson’s Ranch, their California destination but it wasn’t. We again rolled at 2. Everyone is liable to mistakes, & everyone has a right to call a road very bad until he sees a worse. My mistake was that I said I had seen ‘The Elephant” when getting over the first mountain. I had only seen the tail. This evening I think I saw him in toto. I do not know, however, as I have come to the conclusion that no Elephant upon this route can be so large that another cannot be larger. If I had not seen wagon tracks marked upon the road I should not have known where the road was, nor could not have imagined that any wagon& team could possibly pass over in safety.”They did pass over in safety and arrived at Johnson’s Ranch. There the Charlestown Co. broke up into groups. They discovered that gold mining was not a job for large groups. Bryarly went on to other interesting things and was successful.