24. May 2005 · Comments Off on My Dream Movie Epic: To Truckee’s River · Categories: General, History, Media Matters Not

(This is part 4 of my dream movie epic, about the early wagon-train emigrant party of which hardly anyone has ever heard)

The eleven wagons led by Elisha Stephens and guided by Greenwood, the old trapper and mountain-man struck off the main trail in the middle of August, following the wheel tracks of a group led the previous year by another mountain man and explorer, the legendary Joseph Walker. Walker’s party had followed the Humboldt River, a sluggish trickle of a river which eventually petered out in a sandy desert basin well short of the mountains. They had been unable to find a pass leading up into the Sierra Nevada, had gone south and eventually abandoned their wagons near Owens Lake, reaching California by going around the mountains entirely. This was a desperate and impractical solution for the Stephens Party.

They camped by the desert marsh; experienced frontier hands Greenwood and Hitchcock were convinced there had to be a way up into the Sierra, more or less directly west of where they were camped, and they consulted, mountain-man fashion with a curious, but seemingly friendly old Indian man who wandered into camp. They may not have known it at the time, but the old Indian was the chief of the Piute tribe, and had made the acquaintance of the explorer John C. Fremont— traveling into California with Fremont, even— and made it tribal policy to be courteous and friendly to those settlers and explorers passing through Piute lands. Communication seems to have been through sign language, and pantomime. Was there a pass into the mountain-range? Greenwood or Hitchcock modeled a range of mountains in the sand at their feet and pointed at the real mountains. The old Indian looked at it thoughtfully, and carefully remodeled the sand range to show a small river running down between two. Could there be a gateway through the mountains?

He seemed quite positive there was, and the next day he rode ahead towards the distant mountains with Greenwood and Stephens, while the rest of the party rested and waited for the scouting party to return. When they did, they brought the good news— there was a river, coming down into the desert, cutting a passable gateway— and the bad news— it was a hard journey across barren desert, and no water at all save for a small, bad-tasting hot-spring halfway there. Careful preparations were made; every thing that could be made water-tight was filled to the brim. They cut armfuls of green rushes and brush as fodder for the cattle and their few horses. Some accounts have them deciding to start across the desert at sundown, and just to keep going, all night, the next day, and into the next night. Take advantage of the night’s cool temperatures, minimize the need for water and get out of the desert as soon as possible. As much water as possible would be reserved for the oxen, on whose strength and pulling power survival depended. Perhaps the smallest children would be tucked up in the wagons for the grueling trek; everyone else would walk, stumbling half-asleep under a desert moon.

Dawn, morning, day… still moving. Riders led their horses to spare them; the march only paused to water the oxen, and pass around some cold biscuits and dried meat by way of food for the people. At the hot spring in the middle of the desert, the animals drink, but not with any relish. They are fed with the green rushes brought from the last camping place. The emigrants rest in the shade of their wagons for a few hours in the hottest part of the day, resuming as the heat of the day fades. Sometime early the next morning, the weary, thirsty oxen begin perking up, stepping a little faster. The wind coming down from the mountains is bringing the scent of fresh water. There is a very real danger to the wagons, if the teamsters cannot control them. Hastily, the men draw the wagons together and unhitch the teams: better for them to run loose to the water they can smell, than risk damaging the wagons in a maddened stampede. In a few hours, the men return with the teams, sated and sodden with all the water they can drink from the old Indian’s river.

It is the most beautiful river anyone has ever seen, spilling down from the mountains, cold with the chill of snow-melt even in fall, even more beautiful after the desert. All the way on that first scout, the old Indian kept saying a word which sounded like “tro-kay” to Greenwood and Stephens; it actually means “all right” or “very well”, but they assumed it was his name, and baptized the river accordingly as the Truckee River. They follow it towards the looming mountains, hurrying on a little, because it is now October. At mid-month they are camped in meadowlands, just below where the canyon cuts deep through the mountains, the last but most difficult part of the journey. There is already snow on the ground, and they have come to where a creek joins Truckee’s River. The creek-bed looks to be easier for the wagons to follow farther up into the mountain pass, but the river might be more direct. The decision is made to send a small, fast-moving party along the river, six of the fittest and strongest, on horseback with enough supplies, to move quickly and bring help and additional supplies from Sutter’s Fort. Four men and two women, including Elizabeth Townsend ride out on the 14th of November, 1844.

(To be continued)

Comments closed.