The Opening of the California Trail
Moses Schallenberger and friends.*
Typically our reviews are about books having to do with Donner Summit or having interesting portions having to do with Donner Summit. They are longish because we really don’t really expect people to go and search out the books, some of which are hard to find. So the reviews become history stories of Donner Summit.
In this case the book is related to Donner Summit because 28% or so of emigrants came over one of the Donner Passes and because Moses Schallenberger was part of the very first group and he was on Donner Summit a few times. Once he was there helping get the wagons of the Stephens Party (1844) over the pass, then he was there again when he and two friends, who had been left at Donner Lake with him to guard the wagons that did not go to California, decided to walk out. Moses didn’t make it out and had to go back to the lake. Finally, Moses was on Donner Summit when he finally did walk out in February, 1845 after having spent three months alone at Donner Lake. (You might want to check out Moses Schallenberger at Truckey's Lake [sic] or a fictional version of the Stephens Party, Truckee's Trail.)
The first 46 pages cover the Stephens Party route, dates, leadership, equipment, party members and ages, who went with each wagon, and a biography of Moses Schallenberger. *
After the long introduction the book moves to the journey across the continent with the first few pages apparently written by one of the Murphy’s waxing rhapsodically about the heroism of the Murphys: People have gone in quest of glory but “This proposition of the Murphy family to cross pathless plains and trackless desert, and a scale inaccessible mountains, with uncertainly s to food supplies and the certainly of meeting tribes of Indians, almost sure to be hostile and to do this with half a dozes men and boys, with a larger number of helpless women and children, meets no parallel in history. The voyage of Columbus…” did not rise to this level of heroism nor did the expedition of Fremont across the continent.
Then the story moves on to the actual journey, a series of episodes recounted by Shallenberger when he was in middle age. There are hunting results, buffalo, a bear, runaway cattle, Indians, and the split where most of the party went to Oregon. The trip across most o the continent was hard but uneventful though.
More time is spent when the party heading to California approaches the Sierra and that’s what readers here would be most interested in so that’s fortuitous. The Party met up with the local Native Americans and Moses passes on his 19th Century prejudices, “The Indians seemed to be the most indolent and degraded of any that the party had yet encountered. They were totally without energy.” They were friendly however, and visited the camp by the “hundreds.” They did have to be watched to prevent theft and at one point Moses almost shot an Indian who had stolen a harness. A chief of the tribe, whom they called Truckee, gave them instructions for crossing the Sierra and Schallenberger notes that they named the nearby river the Truckee. Schallenberger’s rendition of the Party’s crossing of the Nevada Desert shows they had nowhere near the troubles later parties did.
Approaching the Sierra the Stephens Part traveled along the Truckee River crossing and recrossing and the reader begins to get an idea of the rigors of the journey to California. The oxen hooves softened from the water and were so worn by rocks that travel was torture to the animals. Then the train had to travel in the water continually and men had to walk next to the oxen to encourage them. The wagons had to be triple teamed the going was so hard. Then it began to snow and the foot of new fallen snow covered the grass. ”The poor foot-sore oxen, after toiling all day, would stand an bawl for food all night, in so piteous a manner that the emigrants would forget heir own misery in their pity for their cattle. But there was nothing to offer them except a few pine leaves…Still the party toiled on, hoping soon to pass the summit and reach the plains beyond.” Pg 67
On reaching the bottom of the pass. Some oxen were so worn out some wagons had to be abandoned. The “snow…was now about two feet deep.” The wagons were unloaded and all the goods were carried “up the hill” [meaning up the pass]. The ox teams had to be doubled just to get the empty wagons up . Then they came to a ten-foot cliff and could go no further. They were stuck. Finally a cleft was found in the rocks to allow the oxen to go up one at a time. The oxen were chained to the wagons and the men lifted from below and so got the wagons up over the cliff.
Moses ended up remaining at Donner Lake with two others. “There seemed to me no danger in undertaking this. Game seemed to be abundant. We had seen a number of deer, and one of our party had killed a bear, so I had no fears of starvation.” The Indians in the area also did not bother him. “I did not suppose the snow would at any tie be more than two feet deep, nor that it would be on the ground continually.”
The rest of the party went on but six, including Moses’ sister, had already left going up the Truckee River to Lake Tahoe and then over the Sierra there. Moses and his friends built a small cabin, “we determined to make ourselves as comfortable as possible.” The cabin was about 12x14 feet and covered by rawhides and pine brush. There was a chimney ten feet tall. There were no windows. The house was not “chinked or daubed” but the logs were notched and fit together pretty well. There was also a hole for a door but nothing to close.
Just as they finished the house it began to snow and three feet fell that night. Then it snowed more. The remaining cattle had to be killed so they would not starve. They were “nothing but skin and bones” anyway.
It kept on snowing and the three began to fear they would “perish in the snow.” The snow was so light they could not walk on it. There was no game. The snow got to be ten feet deep and they began to feel depressed. There was no hope. Half their meat was gone. Death by starvation “stared us in the face.”
So they decided to head for California on foot. They got to the top of the pass and into Summit Valley and Moses was exhausted. He was just a boy. Then he developed cramps. He could not walk “ more than fifty yards without stopping to rest.” They cut down a tree and built a large fire on the snow. Sleep was hard. They worried about the rest of the party and they worried about their own fates. They kept the fire going and when morning came the fire had melted the snow and sunk to the ground 15 feet below. “The fire was so far down that we could not get to it” but they had nothing to cook anyway.
Moses realized he had to go back to the lake, alone. “We did not say much at parting. Our hearts were too full for that. There was simply a warm clasp of the hand accompanied by the familiar word, ‘Good-by.’ They might never see each other again.
17 year old Moses Schallenberger went back to Donner Lake alone. He was so exhausted, upon reaching the cabin, that even though the door sill was only 9 inches high, he had to lift each leg with his hands.
Moses stayed at the lake for more than two months alone. He found some traps the party had left and he trapped coyote and fox. Fox was delicious. He spent a lot of time reading. Moses had saved enough coffee for one cup and that was his Christmas celebration. “My life was more miserable than I can describe.” The daily struggle and uncertainty was wearing. “I longed for some sound to break the oppressive stillness…. I would talk aloud to myself. At night I built large fires and read by the light…as late as possible, in order that I might sleep late in the next morning, and thus cause the days to seem shorter.”
“One evening, a little before sunset, about the last of February, as I was standing a short distance from my cabin, I though I could distinguish the form of a man moving towards me ….My feeling can be better imagined than described. “ The rest of the party had survived. His sister had begged Dennis Martin to go to the lake and see about Moses, which he had. Moses was saved.
There are a few more pages of Schallenberger’s text, then some pictures, and finally the notes, the short text end with the arrival in California.
The notes are interesting as they enlarge or explain. There is a discussion of why the men left for the revolution in California rather than heading back immediately to save the women and children at Big Bend. They had been reduced to surviving on gruel made from boiling hides. There is a discussion of Chief “Truckee” and his name. There is a discussion of why the horseback party split form the main party at the Truckee River and headed for what they would find was Lake Tahoe. There are also little details described such as that the party made about two miles a day from what is now Wadsworth to the fork in the Truckee River. It must have been incredibly hard going and in fact, further emigrants would not go up the Truckee River all the way to what is now Truckee. I found myself paging back and forth from the text to the notes and back.
*Moses Schallenberger told his story to H.H. Bancroft in 1885 and that story was edited by H.S. Foote and some inclusions by the editor of others’ writing. Finally, this edition was edited and given a new introduction and notes by George Stewart. According to Stewart about 60% of the text is Schallenbergter’s.