Tail of the Elephant -

The Emigrant Experience on the Truckee Route of the California Trail -1844-1852

Olive Newell 1982 366 pages

A little is good but a lot can be overwhelming.  Tail of the Elephant is an exhaustive compendium of emigrant quotes  describing the journey from Ft. Hall to the Central Valley of California at the height of the transcontinental emigration.  The trail aficionado will enjoy the many quotes but for the average reader it will get to be a bit tedious. Of course then the average reader and skim and so get a feeling for the emigration experience.

The book includes historic maps and pictures of the trail today along with the quotes and Olive Newell uses a clever idea to help the reader keep track. In the margins next to quotes are little numbered elephants that correspond to the numbered elephants on the included maps.

The introduction gives insight into Americans’ character that enabled the emigration.  Newell quotes  Alexis de Tocqueville, “It would be difficult to describe the avidity with which the American rushes forward to secure this immense booty that fortune  offers… Before him lies a boundless continent, and he urges onward…”  Americans have been moving onward ever since Europeans came to America.  This is a fitting introduction to a book about the immense effort of crossing the continent to California.  People were driven to absorb and overcome hardship, danger, accident, and disease.  Going for something new and better is in the American personality.

Before getting into the emigrant experience Newell delves into the origin of the elephant of  the title and the common saying among emigrants, “seeing the elephant.”  It was an exotic animal and was amazing to see when it first came to America.  Interestingly the first ones came to California around the Horn in 1859.  “Seeing the elephant” is shorthand for facing real hardships first hand. 

The use of quotes gives insight into the emigrant experience.  Moses Schallenberger  said upon parting from those going to Oregon, “The parting with the Oregon part was a sad one.  During the long journey across the plains, many strong friendships had been formed.”  We can imagine those feelings after such close contact in less than comfortable conditions.  Then he gives us an idea of emigration, “…the remainder of the route lay for most of the distance through an unknown country, through which they must find their way without map, chart, or guide, …and …overcome obstacles the magnitude of which none of them had any conception.”  They were leaping into the unknown. It must have been scary, and it must have been exhilarating.

Through the quotes we learn about the emigrants’ experiences: Indian encounters, comments about the Native Americans, “boiling springs” and scalded dogs and people, runaway cattle, camp spots, rock formations, friction between emigrants and Indians, cattle theft, graves,  etc.

Two foci flesh out stories.  The first is about Moses Schallenberger.   He was a 17 year old who wintered at Donner Lakes.  He was a member of the first wagon train to reach California with wagons, the Stephens Party, which crossed the Sierra in 1844.   The party knew it could not get all of its wagons up what would be called Donner Pass so half were left behind at Donner Lake.  Moses volunteered to stay with them since they were full of goods to be sold in California.  The emigrants had thought the snow would not get more than two feet deep, whatever fell would melt like it did back east, and hunting would be easy.  “I had no fears of starvation… I did not suppose the snow would at any time be more than two feet deep, nor that it would be on the ground continually.” 

You can imagine his surprise. 

He and two companions were left with two cows “so worn out they could go no further.”  They set about making a cabin 12 X 14 feet. It had no windows and although it had a doorway it had no door.  It was covered with hides and brush.  There was no chinking between the logs.  Just as they finished three feet of snow fell.  There was no hunting and the snow did not melt.  Then more snow fell.  The cows were killed because they could not get to food.  The three men could not move except to get to firewood.   They ate half the meat from the cows and the snow got deeper. They feared a horrible death by starvation and so decided to hike out to California. 

“….we reached the summit of the mountain about sunset that night, … I was scarcely able to drag on foot after the other. “  They built a camp and fire and found in the morning that the fire had melted a circle 15 feet in diameter and they had dropped 15 feet below the surrounding snow.  Moses had bad cramps and could clearly not get to California.  His companions went on and Moses dragged himself back to Donner Lake.  “I was never so tired in my life as when, just a little before dark, I came in sight of the cabin.” 

Imagine the 17 year old’s feelings as his companions left, “the feeling of loneliness that came over me as the two men turned away I cannot express, thought it will never be forgotten.”

Over the following months he used traps to catch 11 coyotes which were horrible eating.  He caught a fox which was delicious.  He read a lot.  “My life was more miserable than I can describe.” And then he was rescued.  “I was standing a short distance from my cabin, I though I could distinguish the form of a man moving towards me…. My feelings can better be imagined than described.”

The second story is the Donner Party.  This one is told a little differently.  First the story is summarized, the Donner Party reaching Donner Lake, trying to get up Donner Pass but having to return to Donner Lake.  Then it snowed for eight days leaving six feet of snow on  the ground.  There would be no leaving. “No living thing without wings can get about” said one.  A second attempt was made to get up the pass but it failed too. So the Donner Party set up to winter.   One family used Moses Schallenberger’s cabin and other cabins were built. There were four rescue parties and in the end 40 died and 47 lived. 

  Then comes eight pages of diary entries.

  We learn about what happened to the Donner Party through the horrific quotes of the rescuers and emigrants who came along over the next years., “There were a number of fragments left, but more human bones than anything else..” 1849   “There were men, women, children. Some of them were cut up having their arms and legs cut off other their ribs sawn from their back bones, while some had their skulls sawnd open an the brains taken out!”  1847 [sic]  “Strewn around the cabins were dislocated and broken bones – skulls, (in some instances sawed assunder with care for the purpose of extracting the brains,) – human skeletons, in short, in every variety of mutilation.  A more revolting and appalling spectacle I never witnessed.”  Edwin Bryant (What I Saw in California reviewed in the Heirloom April, ’13) 1847

At page 172 things get interesting for those interested in Donner Summit history.  There is a discussion and lots of quotes about the three routes used by emigrants to get over Donner Summit: Donner Pass, Roller Pass, and Coldstream Pass.

At Donner Pass
Stephens Party “...the emigrants unload the wagons, harnessed to them double teams, and started toward the summit.  The contents of the wagons were carried in their arms.  About half way up the top of the mountain a perpendicular rock ten feet in height was discovered lying across their path, and they thought they would be forced to abandon the horses and cattle, and everything but the few goods that could be carried over on their shoulders.  At length, however, a narrow rift  in the rock was discovered, and just sufficient width to admit the passage of  one ox at a time...”  Then the wagons were hoisted up using chains and “all finally landed on the other side of the barrier.”  Moses Schallenberger.

“After a day’s traveling we came to a rim rock ledge where there was no chance to drive up, so the wagons were taken to pieces & hoisted to the top of the rim rock with ropes, the wagons were put together again, reloaded, & the oxen …were hitched up & we went on.”  Bonney 1845

“Mr. Ide found on the line of the ascent several abrupt pitches, between which there were comparative level spaces, for several rods distance, where the team might stand to draw up at least an empty wagon.  Accordingly, he went to work, with as many of the men he could induce, by mild means, to assist him removing rocks, trees, &c. and grading a path 6 or 7 feet wide, up the several steep pitches and levels t the summit. ….”  It took two days of  hoisting wagons from level to level to reach the summit.  Ide 1845

“From the time we left the lake on the north side of the mountains until we arrived at the lake on the top [Mary’s Lake], it was one continued jumping from one rocky cliff to another.  We would have to roll over this big rock, then over that.”…. Three days were spent in this vexatious way, and at the end of that time, we found ourselves six miles from the lake at the north side of the mountain, and you never saw a set of fellow more happy than when we reached the summit.”   Todd, 1845

“…we reached the base of the crest of the Sierra Nevada.  To mount this was our next great difficulty. Standing at the bottom and looking upwards at the perpendicular, and in some places, impending granite cliffs, the observer without any further knowledge on the subject, would doubt if man or beast had ever made good a passage over them.  But we knew that man and horse, oxen and wagon, women and children, had crossed this formidable and apparently impassable barrier erected by Nature between the desert and the fertile district on the coast of the Pacific.  …we commenced the steep ascent, leaping our animals from crag to crag, and climbing in places nearly perpendicular precipices of smooth granite rocks. One of the our mules in his ascent, heavily packed, fell backwards twice, and rolled downwards, until her descent was interrupted by a projecting rocks.  We though, each time, that her career of duty and usefulness had terminated; and that her bones would bleach among the barren rocks of the mountains, But when revived form the stunning and bruising effects of her backward somersets; and with great exertions on our own part in assisting her, she reached with us the  summit of the Pass.

The view form the crest of the Sierra to the east, is inexpressibly comprehensive, grand and picturesque. After congratulating ourselves upon the safe achievements of our morning feat, and breathing our mules in a few minutes, we proceeded on our journey.”  Bryant 1846

About Roller Pass 
“We put about five yoke on a wagon, and had as many men with it as was necessary to keep it form sliding sideways.  Then with five yoke on the summit letting down our long one hundred and fifty feet rope, and hitched it with the leaders that were on the wagon, by this process, we succeeded in getting all the wagons up safely…[sic]   Aram 1846

“After taking our coffee & bacon & resting our mules we commenced the ascent with 10 animals & in three hours our two wagons & all our [goods] was safe on the summit of the greatest barrier between us and the coast of the Pacific Ocean…The view on all sides was bold.”  Backus 1849

We passed over the Sumit taking 11 yoke of oxen to pull one wagon up the hill to attain the Sumite.” [sic]   Averett 1849

Interspersed with the quotes there are explanations that give details about the travel, the geography, or background.  For example, one interesting fact is that at the height of the emigration during the Gold Rush in  1849,  100 emigrants per day in 20 to 25 wagons were crossing Donner Pass.  We can imagine the bottlenecks that caused, and so the frustrations as wagons and families waited their turns to go up the final route over the summit one at a time. 

There are quotes about reaching the summit in the evening and then having to decide whether to camp on top where it was cold and there was no water, or going down in the dark to Summit Valley, “It was night when we reached the top, and never shall I forget our descent to the place where we are now encamped0 out tedious march with pine knots blazing in the darkness and the tall majestic pines towering above our heads  The scene was grand and gloomy beyond description.  We cold not ride – roads too narrow and rocky – so we trudged along ….This is another picture engraven upon the tablets of memory.  it was a footsore and weary crowd that reached that night our present camping place.”  It wasn’t just downhill either, “the decent is precipites and rocky“ [sic] or “The grade going down on the other side was so steep that some dragged limbs of trees behind their wagons to act as a brake….”  or “We reached the summit at sundown, and commenced the descent, which was very rocky, steep and dangerous – being dark made it a much more unpleasant; the thickly timbered sides of the mountains, sharp and craggy rocks steepness of the descent, and darkness of the night, rendered our situation very dangerous…”

Once over the Summit the diary entries continue all the way to the Central Valley and Johnson’s Ranch.  If you have read about the experiences getting over the passes you might think that upon reaching Summit Valley and its water and grass that it was all downhill from there to California. If you thought that you will be surprised to learn that some emigrants thought that even more difficult sections came later, especially getting down to the Yuba River.

Newell has scoured the sources for her quotes and has done an exhaustive job.  That’s good and it’s bad.  Eventually it gets tedious reading quotes and quotes and quotes and quotes.  One needs only one or a couple about what needs emphasis.  Additional quotes do not lend any greater understanding or emphasis and some of the quotes are rather ordinary.   Look of the Elephant, a newer book reviewed in our February, 2012 Heirloom, does a much better job conveying the experience in much less space.  That book includes only the very best quotes.  For example the section in that book about crossing the Nevada desert is much stronger than Newell’s.  The quotes are stronger and more evocative of the experience. Still, if you want  to get into the minds of the emigrants and see what they thought, this is a useful book.  Perhaps reading the book in sections, interspersed by time, is a better strategy than reading straight through.

This book was published by the Nevada County Historical Society.  It is out of print but it is in various libraries and available for purchase, used, on the internet