Saturday, October 24, 2009

History of the Route to California

This is a continuation of my retracing George Q. Cannon's 1849 journey:

The Old Spanish Trail:

The Old Spanish Trail was a commercial mule and horse trail pioneered and used by New Mexican traders between 1829 and 1848. In the fall of each of 19 years, the traders would take wool blankets from Santa Fe to Southern California where the blankets would be bartered, up and down the coast, for horses and mules. In the spring, the horses and mules would be rounded up near the Santa Ana River in present day Colton, California, in the San Bernardino Valley, and driven back to Santa Fe where they would be sold for a substantial profit.

To avoid the deserts of Arizona and southeastern California, the Old Spanish Trail went northwest from Santa Fe, up through the southwest corner of Colorado and into Central Utah near present day Castle Dale. The trail then turned southwest, down through the southwest corner of Utah, the southeast corner of Nevada and through Southern California to Los Angeles, which was then known as Pueblo de Los Angeles.

The most difficult portion of the trail, from Cottonwood Springs (present day Blue Diamond, Nevada), to the Mojave River near present day Yermo, California, was pioneered by Antonio Armijo, a New Mexican trader, in 1829. That portion of the trail tracked the best available water sources through the most inhospitable portion of the Mojave Desert, including Mountain Springs, Stump Spring, Resting Springs, the Amargosa River and Bitter Springs.

The next most difficult portion of the trail, a shortcut to an earlier segment of Armijo’s route, was taken a year later, in 1830, by the trading party led by William Wolfskill and George C. Yount. Instead of following the Virgin River to the Colorado River as Armijo had done, this party left the Virgin River at Halfway Wash, about 8 miles west of Bunkerville, Nevada, traveled to the Muddy River near present day Moapa, Nevada, then to Las Vegas Springs and on to Cottonwood Springs.[1]

The last caravan started from Santa Fe in the fall of 1847, with about 212 New Mexicans, including 60 boys, and 150 mules packed with blankets.[2] When it left California in the spring of 1848, the caravan had nearly 1,000 animals[3] consisting of horses, mules and burros and stretched out for over a mile when it was moving.[4]

The western portion of the Old Spanish Trail, from Los Angeles to the Little Salt Lake, near present day Paragonah, Utah, was developed into a wagon route by the Mormons and 49ers, beginning in 1848. That route, which was extended up to Great Salt Lake City, became known as the Mormon Trail and the term Old Spanish Trail fell into dis-use.[5]

The Mormon Trail:

The non-Spanish Trail segment of the Mormon Trail, from Utah Lake in Utah Valley, to Round Valley near present day Scipio, Utah, was first traveled by Father Escalante in 1776. From the eastern side of Utah Lake, near present day Provo, Escalante traveled south, passing over Spanish Fork Creek, Peteetneet Creek (present day Payson), Salt Creek (present day Nephi), and Chicken Creek (south of present day Levan), to Round Valley. There he left the Mormon Trail, turning west to the edge of the desert, before traveling south.[6]

The entire non-Spanish Trail segment of the Mormon Trail, between the Great Salt Lake Valley and the Little Salt Lake, was first traveled in its entirety by Jedediah Smith in 1825. From there, Smith continued south, while the Old Spanish Trail turned west toward Iron Spring.

The first people to travel virtually the entire Mormon Trail, and who first mapped and described the route in detail, were the men in John C. Fremont’s second expedition. Fremont’s second expedition left present day Kansas City in May 1843, traveled to Oregon, and then south into California. Fremont reached the Old Spanish Trail on April 20, 1844 near the Cajon Pass, where he recorded:

A general shout announced that we had struck the great object of our search – THE SPANISH TRAIL – which here was running directly north. The road itself, and its course, were equally happy discoveries to us. Since the middle of December we had continually been forced south by mountains and by deserts…A road to travel on, and the right course to go, were joyful consolations to us; and our animals enjoyed the beaten track like ourselves. Relieved from the rocks and brush, our wild mules stared off at a rapid rate…[7]

Fremont followed the Old Spanish Trail to the Little Salt Lake, where the Old Spanish Trail continued east through a “gap” in the mountains. There they turned north. Fremont stated:

After 440 miles of traveling on a trail, which served for a road, we again found ourselves under the necessity of exploring a track through the wilderness. The Spanish trail had borne off to the southeast, crossing the Wah-satch range. Our course led to the northeast, along the foot of that range, and leaving it on the right.

Fremont continued until he reached the eastern shore of Utah Lake. There, he turned east and crossed the Wasatch Mountains through Spanish Fork Canyon.[8]

Miles Goodyear may have been the first person to complete the entire Mormon Trail. Goodyear lived near present day Ogden, Utah. In the fall of 1846, he loaded pack animals with deer and elk skins and took them to Los Angles.[9]

Jefferson Hunt and the Mormon Trail in 1848:

Jefferson Hunt was captain of Company A of the Mormon Battalion which marched from Fort Leavenworth to San Diego during the Mexican War in 1846. After his discharge from the Mormon Battalion in July, 1847,[x] Hunt stopped at the Williams Ranch, or Rancho del Chino, in the San Bernardino Valley and determined the price of cows and certain seeds.[xi] He then traveled to Great Salt Lake City by way of a northern route through Monterey, Sutter’s Fort and the High Sierra.[xii]

Upon his arrival in Great Salt Lake City in October, 1847,[xiii] Hunt was concerned about the lack of food in the valley and he could foresee problems ahead as even more immigrants arrived in the valley.[xiv] Brigham Young was gone, having returned to Winter Quarters. So he presented a plan to President John Smith of the Salt Lake Stake and his High Council.[xv] Hunt proposed sending a party to California by a southern route which was described by John C. Fremont in 1844. The party would purchase cattle, horses, wheat and seeds and return before Brigham Young arrived in the valley the next summer.[xvi] President Smith approved the plan and selected a party of 19 men, under the leadership of Asahel A. Lathrop, to go. The party included Hunt, his two sons John and Gilbert Hunt, and Orrin Porter Rockwell.[xvii]

They left Great Salt Lake City on November 18, 1847[xviii] and had a difficult journey. They “found the directions very hard to follow, and lost the trail so often, and spent so much time hunting it again,” that they finally ran out of provisions before reaching Las Vegas springs. They had to kill and eat three horses to survive, one at Mountain Springs, one at the Amargosa River and one near the Mojave River. They finally had to send two men, on the best horses, to the settlements for “beef and fresh mounts” before resuming their travels. They arrived at Williams Ranch around January 1, 1848.[xix]

After spending six weeks resting at Williams Ranch,[xx] the party split-up.[xxi] Hunt left Williams Ranch on February 15, 1848, with 200 cows they had purchased for $6.00 each, a few pack animals and mares and 40 bulls which were given to them by Isaac Williams without charge. On the return trip, all of the bulls but one and about one-half of the cows died. Hunt reached Great Salt Lake City in May, 1848.[xxii]

In the meantime, Rockwell agreed to lead 25 of the Mormon Battalion who had just completed their second enlistment back to Salt Lake. He left Williams Ranch nearly two months later than Hunt, on April 12, 1848, with the 25 Battalion members and 10 members of the original Lathrop party. They had 135 mules and a wagon loaded with seeds, fruit tree cuttings and other materials. On their return trip, Rockwell’s party took a short-cut from the Old Spanish Trail through the Escalante Desert to Beaver Creek.[xxiii] This short-cut would be the impetus for a disastrous decision by Hunt on his return over the Old Spanish Trail the next year in 1849, which ultimately led to the breakup of his wagon train. Rockwell’s group arrived in Salt Lake on June 5, 1848.[xxiv] The wagon in Rockwell’s party was the first wagon to cover the Mormon Trail.


[1] Hafen, LeRoy R. and Hafen, Ann W. Journals of Forty-Niners, Salt Lake to Los Angeles: With Diaries and Contemporary Records of Sheldon Young, James S. Brown, Jacob Y. Stover, Charles C. Rich, Addison Pratt, Howard Egan, Henry W. Bigler, and Others, Glendale: Arthur H. Clark. 1954 (49ers), p. 18-20. Wolfskill and Yount may not have pioneered the route through Las Vegas, but they were the first traders to make a record of this portion of the trail.
[2] Hafen, LeRoy R. and Hafen, Ann W. Old Spanish Trail, Sante Fe to Los Angeles: With Extracts from Contemporary Records Including Diaries of Antonio Armijo and Orville Pratt, Vol. 1. Glendale: Arthur H. Clark. 1954 (Spanish Trail Extracts), p. 191
[3] The largest number of horses and mules taken over the Old Spanish Trail was 4,150 in 1842. (Spanish Trail Extracts, p. 244)
[4] Brewerton, George Douglas, Overland With Kit Carson: A Narrative of the Old Spanish Trail in ’48, Coward-McCann, Inc. 1930, New York (Brewerton), pp. 58-59
[5] Spanish Trail Extracts, p. 362
[6] 49ers, p. 17
[7] Spanish Trail Extracts, p. 287
[8] 49ers, p. 21-22
[9] Spanish Trail Extracts, p. 190-191
[x] Heath, Steven H. “Jefferson Hunt, Bad Judgement, the 49ers and the Mormon Battalion,” Pioneer, SUP Magazine, (Summer 1995), p. 6 (Bad Judgement)
[xi] Beattie, George William and Beattie, Helen Pruitt, Heritage of the Valley: San Bernardino’s First Century, Pasadena: San Pasqual Press 1939 (Heritage of the Valley), p. 81, n. 11, citing the Journal History of the Church for November 18, 1847.
[xii] Heritage of the Valley, p. 81
[xiii] Bad Judgement, p. 6
[xiv] Schindler, Harold Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, p. 175 (1966) (Porter Rockwell)
[xv] Roberts, Brigham H. A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 6 Vols. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1965, Vol. 3, pp. 293, 302 (CHC) Brigham Young left Father John Smith, uncle of Joseph Smith, in charge of the Saints in the valley. At a conference on October 3, 1847, John Smith was named as President of the Salt Lake Stake with Charles C. Rich and John Young, Brigham Young’s brother, as counselors.
[xvi] Bad Judgement, p. 6, citing Deseret News, “Startling Story of the First Trip From Salt Lake to Los Angeles,” October 7, 1905, p. 27 (based on the memory of John Hunt, the 14 year old son of Jefferson Hunt who accompanied him on the journey)
[xvii] Heritage of the Valley, p. 81, citing Journal History of the Church, November 18, 1847
[xviii] Bad Judgement, p. 6
[xix] Porter Rockwell, p. 177-178, citing the October 7, 1905 Deseret News. Schindler states they arrived on Christmas Eve. However, John Hunt indicates they traveled 45 days which would put them their on January 1. January 1 is also consistent with them being their six weeks before returning.
[xx] Heritage of the Valley, p. 81, citing Journal History of the Church, November 18, 1847
[xxi] Schindler states that some sort of friction between Hunt and Rockwell resulted in Rockwell refusing to return with Hunt. He speculates that Rockwell advised against taking cattle over the southern route. (Porter Rockwell, p. 12) Heath speculates that Rockwell may have wanted to delay to obtain the California-Salt Lake mail contract or because he had agreed to lead the 25 Mormon Battalion re-enlistees back to Great Salt Lake and that Hunt wanted to get the animals on the trail before the weather got too hot. (Bad Judgement, p. 6) It does appear that Rockwell refused to return with the party as the Salt Lake Stake High Council required that he explain why he had not escorted Hunt. They placed responsibility for the loss of livestock on him because he, not Hunt, had been selected to guide the party. However, at a meeting on June 11, 1848, Rockwell was able to state his case publicly and convince the High Council of his good faith. (Porter Rockwell, p. 180-181)
[xxii] Heritage of the Valley, p. 81, citing Journal History of the Church, November 18, 1847
[xxiii] Bad Judgement, pp. 6-7, citing Journal History of the Church, June 5, 1848.
[xxiv] Heritage of the Valley, p. 81.

1 comment:

  1. My great great grandfather followed the same/similar trail, leaving SLC on Nov. 3rd, 1849 with a large group led by Francis Pomeroy. I will be following their trail as described in his journal, blogging and photographing the things he described as they look today. Am plotting my route as closely as possible to theirs. Happened on your site during my hunt.

    Nice blog, D. Barrett