With Golden Visions Bright Before Them
Trails to the Mining West 1849-1852

published 2013 418 pages by Will Bagley

Volume II of the Overland West Series.  (Volume I was so Rugged and Mountainous Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California 1812-48 reviewed in our December, ’11 Heirloom).

The first book in Will Bagley’s Overland West Series was a exploration of the discovery of the West and the emigration of the first pioneers and settlers.  It was very good if you are someone interested in the experiences of people in the old days.  It was full of stories, vignettes, descriptions, and quotes of the pioneers.  As a package it told the story well and the quotes were the strong part.  Hearing what people actually thought and felt gives a better feeling for the reality of the experience.  That’s also the case with Tail of the Elephant and Emigrant Tails (reviewed in the Heirloom respectively in April, ’11 and August, ’13).

With Golden Visions… is a continuation of the western experience saga by settlers.  Almost 19,000 American had come to the West Coast before 1849 with women and children in the majority.  It became a rush into the new American territories after 1849 by a new kind of settler and set the stage for the development of the west.  This is the story of that migration. By 1849-50 100,000 people, mostly men (women made up only 5-10% during the early Gold Rush years), were on their ways west with dreams of immediate riches in their heads.  It was such a rush that 2/3 of Oregon’s male population headed south to join those coming west.

Bagley covers every subject imaginable: how to get to California, routes (the good the bad and the alternate), guide books, “seeing the elephant”, preparations, provisions, Indian troubles, disease, breakdown, abandonment of wagons and equipment, tales of heroism and mendacity, liars, storms, over laden wagons, untamed mules, floods, rivers, mosquitoes, dust, lack of information,  hucksters, stampede, stolen stock, hazards, rescues, effects of travel on female wear, descriptions of visits to the site of the Donner Party tragedy, and details of daily life (cooking, laundry, etc.).  Most of the detail goes with 1849.  The following years are covered less exhaustively focusing more on the differences in migration in those subsequent years.

The strength of this book, but also a weakness, is the lavish illustration of the emigrant experience with quotes.  The reader’s mind can only boggle at the amount of research Mr. Bagley did to put this all together.  His bibliography is 25 pages long.  He seemingly has read every diary, letter, news account, and article written by those who made the journey.   Then he has quoted from every one.  That comment might be a little misplaced because I really enjoyed reading the quotes but the book might be better digested over a longer period of reading time. For example, the emigrants celebrated the Fourth of July on the trail.  There follows pages of quotes about various celebrations.  I could have skimmed those.

Not only did Bagley read all of his sources but then he collected and collated what he’d read.  That must have been a tremendous organizational job – but worth it for the telling.

This book focuses more on the quotes to illustrate the experience than the previous book.  So Rugged… had many stories as well as the quotes.  With Golden… does have stories however. Imagine heading for California with  a wheelbarrow to carry your needs.  There were many who did that or who used carts and walked the whole way. Of course emigrants guiding ox wagons also walked.  Imagine the shoulders on the wheelbarrow emigrants when they arrived in California!  As one said, there were advantages: no worries about stampedes or stolen stock.

The last chapter covers the effects of the Gold Rush emigration.  The effects on the Native Americans and the environment are well known.  Bagley posits that the kinds of people who came and the reasons they came still affect the State’s personality today, “…we are a place and a people dedicated to the proposition that as citizens of the American West it is out birthright to get rich quick.”  Most surely.

This book is well worth the effort, but maybe it should be read in pieces.

There is not much specifically about Donner Summit that is not quotes.  Maybe the only specific facts is that recent research says that in 1849 36% of the emigrants used Carson Pass, 35% the Lassen route, and 29% one of the Donner passes.

There are a number of quotes about getting up one of the Donner Passes or going west from there.

Some quotes about the trip across the continent in general:
“Now my advice to you is, stay where you are. A trip across the plains is very hard.  I would rather remain here all my life, than cross them again.  Woodruff Lee says he would swim around Cape Horn on a log before he would cross them again.””    Tom Hart to his brother disabusing him of coming to California.

“Imagine to yourself, desert plains, long derive, without grass or water, boiling springs, lofty mountains, stony roads, cattle giving out, and dying men, women and children, worn out with fatigue [and] exposure, and patience all gone, and you have an have some faint idea of the scenery on the laws of our journey,” Austin Howard

“Nothing but an actual experience will give one an idea of the plodding, unvarying monotony, the vexations, the exhaustive energy, the throbs of hope, the depths of despair, through which we lived.” Luzena Wilson

About Truckee Lake: “I went up this evening to view the lake – it’s a romantic sheet, lined on all sides by the highest mountains in America, apparently deep and remarkable clear, with a pebbly shore,…The mountains surrounding it heavily timbered with pine and the dark green reflected form them – gave this water a deeper hue than any I have seen.”  Thomas Van Dorn

Quotes about getting Up Donner Pass
The “granite ramparts” of the Sierra “Our Last Tremendous Summit” Donner Pass”  Edward Jackson

Apparently Donner Summit was also “an arsonist’s paradise” according to Bagley.  “We amused our selves this evening, by setting dead trees on fire, which are from 75 to 100 ft high and the fire streamed far above their tops.  The sight is magnificent and the fire roars like a tempest, Three of them burnt all night”  Edward Jackson  (see others’ views below)

The road to Donner Summit was “over the worst road we have seen yet, and Commenced ascending the dividing ridge of the California Mountains. The road was filled with large rocks which seemed impossible for wagons to pass over.  The emigrants now all double their teams which make slow progress over a road almost perpendicular in ascent.”  William Z Walker

The road went “over rocks, rugged mountains, down precipices and long steep hills, where ninety-nine out of every hundred in the states would swear a wagon could never go.  …extremely difficult – took twelve of fifteen yoke of cattle to draw up the lightest loaded wagon.”  John T. McCarty

“These mountains are mountains in good earnest, and very difficult to pass over, being very steep in ascent and descent and many places so near perpendicular and so rocky that were compelled to take the teams from the wagons and let them down by ropes.”  John Pickett

“…the hogback of Creation, being a wall of granite near 1000 feet above the surrounding region.” ”  He said a lot of work had been done on the route and was necessary. The way it had gone “it would have been impossible to get a wagon up with all the oxen in the train, for it would be quite all they cold do tot get themselves up.”  They only had to use 8-12 yoke of oxen per wagon.  We “had achieved a victory, having today completed the great work of making the pass over the Sierra Nevadas.” Thomas Van Dorn  [You can read about Roller Pass in our November, ’11 Heirloom]

Some quotes about the trip from the Summit east a short way:
Students of local history having examined Donner and Roller Passes and maybe even walked them can marvel about the journey up the pass.  One would think that it’s all downhill from there.  that’s not the case however as the following quotes show about the journey downhill from Donner Summit.

“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.  No Elephant on this route can be so large than another cannot be larger.  If I had not seen wagon tracks marked upon the rocks, I should not have known where the road was, nor could I have imagined that any wagon and team could possible pass over in safety. Wakeman Bryarly.

The Trail to the pass was bad, but the rest was “The most damniable road on the face of the earth [filled with rocks] from the size of a teakettle up to that of a hogshead over which we were obliged to drive, or rather lift the wagons….the most miserable, gloomy road on earth…one would swear that a wagon cold not be driven over and God only knows how we did get through.”  Lucus Fairchild

“The western descent of these mountains is the most rugged and difficult portion of the whole journey. “ T.H. Jefferson

“The western slope of the Sierra is rough beyond description. The mountain breaks off in immense granite ridges from the main summit.  Streams heading in near the main divide, plunge down impassable Kanyons…fierce and terrific descents you should not deem it possible for wagons to pass. This rough country continues for 10 miles from the summit.”  (all the way to today’s Cisco Grove maybe) D.B. Wood

“we were rudely disappointed, finding ourselves involved in a wild labyrinth of mountains and chasms, with no visible way  out.”  The train was “in the hardest labor, dragging the wagons over rocky ledges, and hoisting and lowering hem over ‘jump-offs’ by ‘Spanish windlasses’ and other mechanical means.”  Later there were “impassable precipices on either hand.  Without knowing what might be at the bottom, we undertook to get the wagons down over the huge boulders which choked the gorge.”  Isaac Wistar

“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.  No Elephant on this route can be so large than another cannot be larger.  If I had not seen wagon tracks marked upon the rocks, I should not have known where the road was, nor could I have imagined that any wagon and team could possible pass over in safety. Wakeman Bryarly.

The route from Donner Summit was “indescribable, but it was the damn-dest, roughest and rockiest road I ever saw.”  John  Markle

To get to the Yuba River the used roads “such as would hardly be believed possible for wagons to have passed over.”  Thomas Van Dorn