Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings Being Scenes and Adventures of an Overland Journey to California with Particular Incidents of the Route, Mistakes and Sufferings of the Emigrants, the Indian Tribes, the Present and Future of the Great West.
1854 384 pages
Available as reprints under the original title or as On the Trail to the California Gold Rush
2005 384 pages
Alonzo Delano had health problems and his Illinois doctor prescribed a change of residence and “bodily exertion.” A wagon train trip to California seemed to fit the bill and coincided with his “fever of the mind for gold.” Delano set out in 1849, leaving his wife and two children behind, as part of a wagon train pulled by oxen. He became “a nomad denizen of the world, and a new and important era of [his] life had begun.”
Most emigrant diaries have short entries, giving minimal information beyond miles traveled, places reached, and short descriptions. Delano’s diary is more of a well-polished literary work full of detail in the day by day recitations. Sometimes that gets tedious. In general this is a marvelous description of what it was like to travel across the continent and then what life was like in California.
His descriptions are colorful. In describing the riverboat trip to near the wagon train’s embarkation point, Delano says the boat was full. Not only were the cabins full but so was every settee and table.
“…the cabin floor was covered by the sleeping emigrants. The decks were covered with wagons, mules, oxen, and mining implement, the hold was filled with supplies. But this was the condition of every boat – for since the invasion of Rome by the Goths, such a deluge of mortals had not witnessed, as was now pouring from the States to the various points of departure for the golden shores of California. Visions of sudden and immense wealth were dancing the imaginations of these anxious seeker of fortunes, and I must confess that I was not entirely free from such dreams;… I wondered what I should do with all the money which must necessarily come into my pocket!”
Those observations and Delano’s descriptions of experiences are one reason to read this 1854 book. There is also a lot of practical advice in case you want to reprise the trip. We learn about how wagon trains worked, were organized, and what daily life was like. We learn how jobs were apportioned. The lead was changed each day so everyone got a chance to eat dust or be in the lead. There was a night guard each night with two-hour watches. Cattle were brought into the wagon train circle each night after grazing to protect them from theft. Mail could be sent back to the States with people going east or more likely, according to Delano, travelers would take the money and letters and then dispense with the mail. Message could be left for those following by writing on buffalo skulls and leaving the skulls by the roadside.
In that information there is good advice. Don’t stray from the train. Dig a trench around the tent to prevent the water from coming in during a storm. There is the technique for preparing a raccoon for eating. Prairie dogs are fat and oily but if you parboil them they are quite good.
We also learn more general things. The Hollywood view of the migration by wagon train is the wagon train traveling across the plain. Delano shows us that it was really a crowded affair. There were thousands of migrants behind his train and he continually mentions traveling with or near other trains and coming across friends on the trail. All of that traffic was a problem because those following found little forage left for their animals.
Along with the information there are the observations, “I had an overwhelming feeling of wonder and surprise at the vastness and silence of the panorama… I rode, without seeing a sign of life, and with none but my own thoughts to commune with.” Contemplating the migration of long trains he described the scene of the prancing horsemen, men traveling on foot, the “display of banners from many wagons, and the multitude of armed men, looked as if a might army was on its march…” His party had joined a “motley throng of gold seeker, who were leaving home and friends far behind, to encounter the peril of mountain and plain.”
Another reason to read the book is Delano’s wonderful prose. Delano suffered from some recurring sickness. Describing another bout he says he “had a visit from my old friends, chill and fever… I went through another baptism of fire and water, the ceremony of which closed about noon.” They’d bought provisions in St. Louis but they were not of the best quality. The bacon “began to exhibit more signs of life than we had bargained for. It became necessary to scrape and smoke it, in order to get rid of its tendency to walk in insect form.” That tells us a lot about conditions in the 19th Century, about human nature (selling rotten food to unsuspecting travelers), about food on the journey, and hygiene, but the humor adds a lot to the story.
A horse was not behaving and Delano describes the “coltology” of the horse as it “wheeled like lightning,” “kicking up his heels like a dancing master,” with “impertinent composure” and “diabolical impudence.”
The company did not have much luck hunting to supplement their rations sometimes, the “hunting corps… were generally unsuccessful, and our supplies of fresh meat mostly continued to run at large in a whole skin.”
There were many adventures or incidents over the trip. Delano got lost a couple of times, walking in advance of his train. They met Indians many times. Animals ran away or were stolen. Delano’s train hid a wounded Indian being chased by another tribe. There were monster storms. There were lost travelers. People had to throw away their equipment and supplies to lighten their loads. There were accidental shootings and murder. There was a desperado who came by and Indian raids.
There were small things too, the irritations and arguments that arise when people are together too long or faced with continual difficulty. Rivers had to be crossed often and there were accidents.
At one point the train came across a fellow heading back east with a leg broken in two places. They set his leg and the guy continued on. On another occasion a fellow from another train was out hunting and was accosted by Indians. The Indians told the fellow he had no use for his “arms and accouterments…. and that they would take charge of them until he passed that way again.” They robbed him of everything leaving him to return to his train naked.
As the journey progressed things got tougher for people as animals wore out and food supplies were depleted. Delano describes people left on the prairie, “hundreds of miles from aid, without the means of locomotion. We found families with women and helpless children in this sad condition, and yet we were without means to give them relief.” Sometimes “It was a kind of terra firma shipwreck, with the lamentable fact, that the numerous craft sailing by were unable to afford the sufferers any relief.”
Then as they approached the desert crossings things get worse. “Beyond us, as far as we cold see, was a barren waste, without a blade of grass or a drop of water for thirty miles at least.” As Delano walked along he encountered a great many animals, “Perishing for want of food and water, on the desert plain. Some would be just gasping for breath, others unable to stand, would issue low moans as I came up, in a most distressing manner, showing intense agony; and still others, unable to walk, seemed to brace themselves up on their legs to prevent falling, while here and there a poor ox, or horse, just able to drag himself along, would stagger toward me with low sound, as if begging for a drop of water.”
“Once in every mile, at least, we saw the carcass of a dead ox, having closed his career of patient toil… in the service of his gold seeking master…” Then it got worse. “The road as filled with dead animals, and the offensive effluvia had produced much sickness… the road was lined with the dead bodies of worn out and starved animals, and their debilitated masters, in many cases, were left to struggle on foot, combatting hunger, thirst and fatigue, in a desperate exertion…”
Many people were in despair. If their animals died or were stolen or killed, they were left hundreds of miles from settlements. Men, women and children were left destitute “without a mouthful to eat, and with no means of getting forward, exposed to a burning sun by day, and the chilling cold of night.” “Mothers might be seen wading through the deep dust or heavy sand of the desert, or climbing mountain steeps, leading their poor children by the hand; or the once strong man, pale, emaciated by hunger and fatigue, carrying upon his back his feeble infant, crying for water and nourishment,” then “appeasing a ravenous appetite from an old carcass…” There was only the certainty that the next day would bring more suffering and torture.
We imagine that once emigrants arrived in California the hardship was over. There was civilization, but California was not ready for the emigrants. The emigrants were still miles away from their destinations if they even knew where they wanted to go. They had no money, not realizing there would be a need. Prices were sky high. They had arrived in winter and had no shelter. Many were sick. And then how could they equip themselves so they could start gathering the gold they thought was so abundant?
The end of the diary turns to Delano’s experiences in California. Fortunately he ran into people he knew who helped him. He did some gold mining. He opened a store and sold supplies. Just as Delano wrote his observations of the wagon trip, he described California too and its amazing growth which astonished him. Coming back to a locality after an absence Delano remarks on the huge changes. Tents had been replaced by substantial buildings. Hotels, stores, groceries, bakeries, and gambling houses had sprung up. Steamboats arrived daily and stage lines were being set up. That was all on the large scale. There was also the “march of refinement”: crockery and table-cloths, glass tumblers, wine glasses. One no longer had to sleep on the ground or even carry one’s own “plate, knife, and tin cup.” There was the downside too as Delano described the effects of gambling and alcohol, death by disease and accident, bloodshed, poverty, crime (robbery, murder, and “incendiarism”), Indians, the “speculative mania” for town lots, etc. The rise in crime leads to a description of the coming of the vigilance committees.
Mining and store keeping didn’t work too well for Delano so he became a miniature painter in Marysville. Shortly had had $400 of which he lost half speculating on town lots.
He went back to tending store and there is a long section about the Native Americans of the California foothills. Delano describes their culture, living conditions, food, shelter, family arrangements, etc.
We didn’t need to know every single thing that happened to Delano in his first year in California but nevertheless it’s a fascinating slice of time spiced with his wonderful prose.