Fearful Crossing: The Central Overland Trail Through Nevada
Harold Curran 1983
212 pages

This book is not about Donner Summit history, although there is a short description and quotes of travels over Donner Pass.  The book may still be of interest to vicarious historians on Donner Summit though because most of the early emigrants who came through the Donner Passes came through the “Fearful Crossing.”

This book is good if one likes to read the actual words of the emigrants.  The author has an extensive bibliography which provided sources for the many many quotes.    That was a tremendous amount of research particularly in the days before the internet and the general use of the computer.

I bought the book using the internet because I came across a reference to it and the title sounded like it would be about the nightmare that was the emigrant crossing of the Nevada desert.  The book is titled, Fearful Crossing after all.  The first chapter is a good short summary of previous explorations to California and then Chapter II is headed with a quote, “The valley of the shadow of death, … Who enters here, leaves hope behind.” That is powerful and would be a good pre-cursor if that’s what the book was about.  The author mis-titled the book though.  It is more a guide of the emigrant trails across Utah, Nevada, and into California on both the Truckee and Carson routes. 

Many of the quotes reflect that emphasis such as, “In two miles we came to the lake west of the sink, along which we traveled for 10 miles on Lake towards southwest” or “A fine sheet of clear water, perhaps fifteen miles in length…” or “We came to a narrow slough connecting the lakes…”  

As the reader progresses through the book he/she follows the route of the emigrants.  There are many maps which could help if one knows the Nevada geography well.  There are only a few quotes or text about the Fearful Crossing.  This book is best for those wanting to explore the route today.  If one wants to read about the Fearful Crossing through emigrant quotes, there are other books better suited like Emigrant Trails which convey the pathos and horror.  Check out the book reviews on our site.

Even for route exploration today, unless one is very familiar with the geography, it would be hard.  The many maps have little context.  They plot the route but do not show where the locations are in relation to what is in existence today unless one keeps a map of Nevada close by.  Towns are noted on the map but Nevada towns are not well known.  It would have been better to have insets of the state to show the location of the maps and/or to include wider directions with arrows, for example, “Reno… 100 miles.”

All that said, the book is a good source for emigrant quotes and information about the location of the trail.  The quote above, “The valley….” gives one an idea for the hardships the emigrants faced.  They were already exhausted having traveled for months to get to Nevada   In their exhausted state they had to challenge the second hardest part of their trip, the Nevada desert.  Of course the best (hardest),  the Sierra, was saved for last, but that’s a digression.  Thousands of animals died on the desert and maybe a thousand people.  Uncounted wagons, equipment and goods were abandoned as well, perhaps as much as $3,000,000 worth in 1850 dollars. 

The elements were a trial, and unbeatable in some cases. but then the Indians added to the misery by stealing oxen.  Imagine exhausted emigrants waking, dreading another day on the trail, but thinking they’d be ten miles closer to California at day’s end, and then discovering arrows in their oxen or mules.  The animals, wounded or dead, could not carry on and had to be abandoned.  The Indians got some needed food and the emigrants had to abandon goods.  In some cases people ended up walking the last bit to California carrying what they could in their arms.

There is information about the Hastings and the Hastings cut off as well as the Donner Party, what a “sink” is, and where trails divide. There are lots of quotes.

By page 108, half way though the book, there is some illustration of the Fearful Crossing. 

“The scene along the road the last few days, no one can describe and have anyone believe him.  Hundreds of dead cattle lay strung along the road and in the road.  Such a smell.  It is worse by nite.  Not only the dead cattle and their smell but the discord of men.  Brother blaming each other for having lost their teams and leaving all behind.  Some divided their teams and left their wagons, packed a few things on their backs and walking on cursing.”   Andrew Soule 1854 

 “…for miles back along the road I had come, I could have stepped almost continuously from the carcass of one dead horse or ox to another; so great had been the number of animals that had here perished from hunger, thirst, and general exhaustion.”  David Rohrer Leeper 1849

   “The stillness of death reigns over this vast plain,…” George Keller 1850  

“Remains could still be seen of oxen and horses lying in pairs and partly covered with sand; of the wagons nothing was left but wheel rims and other iron.”  Tosten K. Stabaek 1852

 “…we crossed a desert of pure sand, free from all kinds of vegetation, the route plainly marked by mummified remains of cattle and horses that had perished of thirst and wagons abandoned because there was  no team left to draw them.  All kinds of household goods thrown away to lighten loads…”  Velina A. William 1853

By page 164 the book has gotten to Donner Lake and Truckee.  There are contemporary descriptions of what the Donner sites looked like, “whitened bones, half buried among withered pine leaves are sad memories of the event.”  John Steele 1850  “There were piles of bones around but mostly of cattle, although I did find some half dozen human ones of different parts.  Here was nearly the whole skeleton. Several small stocking were found which still contained the bones of the leg & foot…”  Vincent Geiger 1849

A few pages later we get to Coldstream and Roller Pass with a wonderful diagram of Roller Pass (see below) along with some good quotes about crossing the pass and then a wonderful quote concluding the crossing by one emigrant, “Looking down the steep gorge when we had come, we bade adieu to its dark avenues, towering cliffs, sequestered shades, bright waters and melancholy scenes.  We felt a real relief in bidding farewell to the mountains, valleys, and desert of the great interior, with its adventure, romance, tragedy, sorrow, suffering and death – scenes which will linger in our minds as memorials of our journey across the plains. “ John Steele 1950