Captain Howard Stansbury

In 1849, Captain Howard Stansbury was sent out to make an exploration and survey of the Great Salt Lake. The initial point of his expedition was Fort Leavenworth. He left the fort on the 31st of May, 1849, with eighteen men, five wagons, and forty-six horses and mules. A Mr. Sackett joined the party. He had one wagon, one carriage, and fifteen “animals.” There were five persons with Mr. Sackett, possibly his family. Lieutenant Gunnison being ill, was put on a bed in the spring wagon used to transport the instruments.

Captain Stansbury followed what he terms the Emigration Road, which was only that branch of the Oregon Trail, starting from Fort Leavenworth. He says of it—”already broad and well beaten as any turnpike in our country.” And he further says:

The cholera had for a considerable time been raging on the Missouri; and as we passed up, fearful rumors of its prevalence and fatality among the emigrants on the route daily reached us from the plains. On the day we left Fort Leavenworth, one member of our little party was carried to the hospital in a state of collapse, where he died in twenty-four hours. The only officer attached to my command had been ill for several weeks, with severe attacks of intermittent fever, which now merged into chronic dysentery, and he was, in consequence, unable to sit on his horse, or to do duty of any kind. These were rather discouraging circumstances for an outset; but, at length, on the 31st day of May, our preparations being completed, we commenced our journey, my own party consisting in all of eighteen men, five wagons, and forty-six horses and mules; while that of Mr. Sackett, our fellow-traveler, contained six persons, one wagon, one travelling carriage, and fifteen animals. Lieutenant Gunnison, being too ill to travel in any other manner, was carried on his bed, in a large spring wagon, which had been procured for the transportation of the instruments. The weather, in the morning, had been dark and lowering, with occasional showers, but it cleared off about noon; the camp broke up; the wagons were packed, and we prepared to exchange, for a season, the comforts and refinements of civilized life, for the somewhat wild and roving habits of the hunter and savage. My party consisted principally of experienced voyageurs, who had spent the best part of their lives among the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, and to whom this manner of life had become endeared by old associations. We followed the “emigrant road” (already broad and well beaten as any turnpike in our country) over a rolling prairie, fringed on the south with trees. The hills consisted principally of carboniferous limestone, in apparently horizontal strata, which in places formed quite prominent escarpments. Our first day’s journey was only six miles; but we were now fairly embarked, and things gradually assumed the appearance of order and regularity.

Although the route taken by the party had been traveled by thousands of people, both before and since we passed over it, I have thought that, some brief extracts from the daily journals of the expedition might not be without interest, for, although nothing very new may perhaps be elicited, still it is not improbable that they will convey, to such as peruse them, a more correct idea of what the thousands have had to encounter who have braved this long journey in search either of a new home in Oregon, or of that more alluring object—the glittering treasure of California.

On the first of June Stansbury passed the train of a Mr. Allen. It had about twenty-five ox-teams, and was bound for California. Cholera had killed one of the party, and two more were down with it. Four men of the party had been frightened by the disease into returning to the settlements. On this day Stansbury first witnessed the formation of a camp corral, which he describes:

In the course of the afternoon we passed the travelling-train of a Mr. Allen, consisting of about twenty-five ox-teams, bound for the land of gold. They had been on the spot several days, detained by sickness. One of the party had died but the day before of cholera, and two more were then down with the same disease. In the morning, early, we met four men from the same camp, returning on foot, with their effects on their backs, frightened at the danger and disgusted already with the trip. It was here that we first saw a train “corralled.” The wagons were drawn up in the form of a circle and chained together, leaving a small opening at but one place, through which the cattle were driven into the enclosed space at night, and guarded. The arrangement is an excellent one, and rendered impossible what is called, in Western phrase, a “stampede,” a mode of assault practiced by Indians for the purpose of carrying off cattle or horses, in which, if possible, they set loose some of the animals, and so frighten the rest as to produce a general and confused flight of the whole. To a few determined men, wagons thus arranged form a breastwork exceedingly difficult to be carried by any force of undisciplined savages.

Captain Stansbury came, on the fifth of June, into the main Emigration Road through Kansas—the Oregon Trail. The point of union was at the place so well known on the waters of the Big Blue for the next twenty years. On the seventh of June a French trader from Fort Laramie was encountered. He reported that he met not fewer than four thousand wagons—four persons to the wagon—bound for California. They seemed to be getting on badly, having had no experience on the plains. Almost daily small parties were seen returning, having become discouraged or disgusted. Graves of emigrants who had recently died lined the way. Here is one case encountered on the twelfth of June. It serves to show the madness engendered by the California Gold-fever:

Tuesday, June 12—Bar., 28.64; Ther., 63º. Breakfast at four. In ten and a half miles crossed the west branch of Turkey Creek and halted to noon on the bank of Wyeth’s Creek six miles beyond. The crossing here is bad and rocky, and the grass poor, having been eaten close by the trains which had preceded us. The afternoon was oppressively hot and close, the wind being from the eastward, with every appearance of rain. We have been in company with multitudes of emigrants the whole day. The road had been lined to a long extent with their wagons, whose white covers, glittering in the sunlight, resembled, at a distance, ships upon the ocean. We passed a company from Boston, consisting of seventy persons, one hundred and forty pack and riding mules, a number of riding horses, and a drove of cattle for beef. The expedition, as might be expected, and as is too generally the case, was badly conducted; the mules were overloaded, and the manner of securing and arranging the packs elicited many a sarcastic criticism from our party, most of whom were old and experienced mountain-men, with whom the making up of a pack and the loading of a mule amounted to a science. We passed also an old Dutchman, with an immense wagon drawn by six yoke of cattle, and loaded with household furniture. Behind, followed a covered cart containing the wife, driving herself, and a host of babies—the whole bound to the land of promise, of the distance to which, however, they seemed to have not the most remote idea. To the tail of the cart was attached a large chicken-coop, full of fowls; two milch-cows followed, and next came an old mare, upon the back of which was perched a little, brown-faced, barefooted girl, not more than seven years old, while a small sucking colt brought up the rear. We had occasion to see this old gentleman and his caravan frequently afterwards, as we passed and repassed each other, from time to time, on the road. The last we saw of him was on the Sweetwater, engaged in sawing his wagon into two parts, for the purpose of converting it into two carts, and in disposing of everything he could sell or give away, to lighten his load.

In after years the trail was strewn with furniture of every description, the bones of oxen, horses, mules, buffaloes and sometimes men. In their madness to get on the emigrants had cast away the effects they had hauled hundreds of miles. It was like the wreckage cast upon the shores of the wasting sea.

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