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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Year of Decision

by
Bernard DeVoto

published by Little, Brown and Company,
Boston, 1943

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Interlude
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p113  Chapter 5:
Spring Freshet

On his way out of Napa Valley, Jim Clyman met the party of young men whom he had heard about, preparing to go back to Oregon — "Quite wiling to return to whare the manners and customs of the inhabitants is more in unison with civilization than can be found in this half Barberous half Indian population." Their intention made sense to Jim but his stick floated another way. Since there was no present disposition to take the province from the half-Barberous inhabitants, he was for the States. There was plenty of time; he moved slowly through the lush California spring, making notes on the flowers and crops and drying more meat for the journey. Word reached him that the party he was seeking were to rendezvous at William Johnson's ranch on Bear Creek. He got there on April 16, and "Mr. Hastings welcomed us to his camp in a warm and Polite manner and we unpacked under the shade of a spreading oak tree." He had caught up with the publicity man.

Lansford Hastings' bright, deluded mind was a-boil. He was fresh from helping John Bidwell lay out a theoretical town called Sutterville, which could use buyers. He was the local representative of an even gaudier speculation in real estate. California was ripe to the sickle . . . and rich with rumors. Castro was going to revolt against Pico. Pico was going to make war on Castro. Mexico was going to order all foreigners out. Mexico was going to expropriate the lands it had granted to Americans. Mexico was going to sell California to England — to France — to Russia — in order to prevent the United States from seizing it on the outbreak of war. Great Britain was going to occupy California to use it as a counterweight in the Oregon controversy. Vallejo was going to turn it over to the United States, Pico to England, Castro to France, Prince Henry of Spain was going to rule over it. . . . And ten thousand Mormons were coming, either at Sutter's invitation or in defiance of him (and in some rumors at the instigation of Hastings himself), to settle at New Helvetia. And a great, a vast emigration was even now gathering on the Missouri — so vaguely vast that it was pulling Hastings' mind to the upper strata of fantasy.

 p114  Something had to be done about that emigration. (It might buy lots at Sutterville.) The fabulous province was slipping its moorings, ready to be taken, likely to be lost. It must not be! — or there would be no future for a young man who knew it was good to be shifty in a new country and Lansford Hastings would not rise to glory in California. In his mind this year's emigration from the frontier became decisive for the destiny of the word. There must be enough stout hearts, if they could be joined with those already in California, to save the dream. But the greater part of them, indifferent to Hastings' book, would go to Oregon. Unless they were stopped. So he would stop them. Reveille at dawn and Hastings in the saddle once again. He would go forth to meet them and at some high pass take his stand, summoning them for God and country to seize their hour.

It was not a new idea, though given a varnish of urgency and empire. The previous summer Sutter had sent out Caleb Greenwood, a mountain man almost immemorially old but still tough as ironwood, to travel eastward along the trail and persuade the Oregon-bound to come to California. And Sutter was sending him out again. With two of his innumerable half-breed sons (one of them happily named Governor Boggs), he had joined Hastings' party on the same errand before Clyman came up. Hastings' immediate partner, however, was James M. Hudspeth.

Jim Clyman did not share Hastings' delusion or his hope. The golden shore was, in his opinion, hardly worth the taking. Its vehement spring loosed a rough poetry in his journal but it was not a country for Americans. Jim was going back to the States, his mind fed on geography, and he had not crossed the Sierra, which stood "in cold and awful grandeur" just ahead. After he had crossed it, his judgment, which was that of a thirty-third-degree mountain man, would so violently dissent from Hastings', which was that of a real-estate booster selling lots to suckers, that he would set up as a one‑man bureau of more reliable information. But Hastings would do to travel with. They stayed in camp on Bear Creek till April 23, when Jim and five others impatiently set out, only to decide that the party was too small to dare the snows. They camped and waited for the rest to come up, fretting at the delay. Jim complained about the coyotes that chewed the lariats at night, and restlessly climbed the ridges to scan the tabled chaos of the peaks. On April 28 the entire party was together again, nineteen men, three women, and three children. On the twenty-ninth they started out and toiled through snowdrifts and spring floods to the Yuba, "roring through its snowy bed."​1 The next day they went on. Spring had made the drifts too sodden to support them, and all the land was mud. The horses stuck repeatedly, the packs loosened, and they made  p115 three miles. That took them to the head of the valley and tomorrow they must tackle the main ridge.

The beginning of a curious and momentous trip, against the current — Lansford Hastings and Jim Clyman moving east.

* * *

For the week of April 18, fifty-nine steamboats docked at the port of St. Louis, forty from the upper Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri rivers, thirteen from the Ohio, six from New Orleans. Six thousand passengers arrived on them, and freight from all over the world. Spring reached the metropolis of the Western waters in an immense commerce of bales, crates, implements — steamboats, broadhorns, scows — wagons, Indians, traders, trappers, Negroes, and Bill Bowen. It was April 28 when the steamboat Radnor backed out of her slip in a cloud of pitch-pine smoke and turned northward to make the Missouri passage. She was loaded so deep that the water broke over her guards. And she carried Francis Parkman. He had seen the multicolored romance of St. Louis. He had met Henry Clay and a passed midshipman of the navy, Selim Woodworth, who was taking dispatches to Oregon. He had called on the oldest surviving Chouteau, provided himself with letters to American Fur Company representatives in the mountains, and hunted down all legends about Pontiac. Now he noted that the Radnor's upper deck was covered with wagons for the Santa Fe trade and her hold filled with goods to go in them. There were also a party of Oregon emigrants, horses and mules and harness, and some mountain men. A few days later he began to see on the banks "signs of the great western movement that was then taking place."

For this was April. All across America the crops were in and for more than two thousand adventurers who would not concern themselves with this year's crops it was time to start. The Mormons labored through the still bottomless mud of Iowa and their stock gaunted because the grass had not yet come. But the grass would soon freshen now, and must not be lost: the trains would form in May. The wayfaring was ready to begin. One's good-byes were said. One took passage on the cars or a steamboat for St. Louis, and from there one went by boat like Parkman, or bought wagons and traveled overland to the frontier.

The "Great Migration" of the histories is variously the first big push toward Oregon in 1843 or the more populous one of '45. The phrase is rightly used in that, as the texts say those years made Oregon American soil no matter what might be said in Congress or Downing Street. Yet the  p116 migration of '46 was the decisive one — this was the year of decision — and though Parkman failed to understand it, he was right in calling it great.

Here it is convenient to examine some of the people who went west in '46.

The wagons which Parkman saw on the Radnor's deck were destined for the trade to Santa Fe and Chihuahua.​2 Frequently illegal in the early days and sometimes broken off, it had now been regularized for twenty-three years and had grown steadily. This year, ahead of the armies, beside them, and behind them, a good deal more than a million dollars' worth of goods, St. Louis wholesale, would move down the trail. The trade had already riveted New Mexico to the American economy and it paid a rich profit (from 50 per cent upward) in spite of risk, redskins, graft, and competition. Mexico had been unable to organize a commerce with its northern provinces; New Mexico and Chihuahua could buy goods freighted to them from Independence more cheaply than any that came up from the interior. Many a Yankee, in fact, moved south or southeast from Chihuahua to undersell local merchants near the seacoast and the capital. It was a varied trade and the most unpredictable ventures might succeed, but the bulk of the freight was cotton goods, prints, cutlery, light hardware, and the miscellaneous cheap household goods of the new industrialism. The traders took back with them a little wool, a scattering of small handicraft goods, the mules that had already got themselves identified with Missouri, and hard cash.

The goods moved by boat this April from St. Louis to Independence and Westport, where established firms were getting ready for the start in May. We have seen Jessie Frémont preparing to send a letter to Bent's Fort by James Magoffin. This was "Don Santiago," a veteran of the trade, born in Harrodstown when it was still a frontier station, of the big‑boned Ulster stock who helped to subdue the Dark and Bloody Ground.​a This year he would travel light and fast on a diplomatic mission and the wagons of his firm would be captained by his brother Samuel. As the freight was sorted for the start, Samuel Magoffin brought to Independence, to continue her honeymoon on the trail, the eighteen-year‑old Susan Shelby whom he had married six months ago. . . . Another Kentuckian outfitted traders at Independence and would take some wagons of his own to Santa Fe, Samuel C. Owens. His half-sister Mary had visited in New Salem in 1836, had been courted by a Springfield lawyer whose melancholy troubled her heart, and had been rejected by him in a wry, ambiguous heartbreak that foreshadowed A. Lincoln's panic on approaching marriage with Mary Todd. . . . Messrs. Webb and Doan used the security, in this troubled year, of  p117 an English connection, and Albert Speyer, another well-established trader, traveled under the protection of a Prussian passport, whereas the Armijo brothers of Santa Fe relied on their connection with the governor of New Mexico. Speyer was a Prussian Jew and the diversity of the trade shows in part of his lading and in a guest who traveled with him. He was taking two wagonloads of arms and powder which the governor of Chihuahua had had the foresight to order and his guest was Dr. Adolphe Wislezenus, who needs a word of his own. Wislezenus was an M. D. of Zurich, having had to flee his native Germany because of political liberalism. He had practised in Paris and New York, then moved to Illinois and later Missouri. A competent geologist and a naturalist of high standing, he had made the Oregon passage as far as Fort Hall some years ago and had written a book about that venture which is today one of the standard sources.​b Now he had chosen the spring of '46 to investigate the flora and fossils of the Southwest, and we shall meet him at Chihuahua. . . . Kentuckians, Missourians, Mexicans, a Prussian Jew, a German scientist, an enchanting girl — they sufficiently represent the traders and travelers of the Santa Fe trail. There were many others, for the million-dollar trade was in small holdings. These were the proprietors to whom were attached the annual miscellany of amateurs, vacationists, adventurers, invalids, young gentlemen on tour, and smart men looking for an opening. And for whom worked the bullwhackers, immeasurably skilled, oratorical, unbreakable, and bellicose — members in good standing of an American line that had included the drovers, the keelboaters, the canawlers, the stagers, and the Allegheny packers. They have not yet had a celebrant.

A much larger and more various company was crossing Missouri for the western passage. Bill Bowen to the number of about twenty-five hundred, disregarding the already opened Wisconsin, unfilled Iowa, untouched Kansas, all but unknown Minnesota, and upper Michigan where some Scandinavians were just beginning to fell trees and the great copper deposits were just beginning to be mined. Bill Bowen was mostly for Oregon but was seven hundred strong, or a little less, for California. Mostly he came from Missouri or Illinois or the states that immediately bordered them, but all states were represented and much of Europe as well. He was mainly a farmer and of the haves rather than the have-nots, but the states poured into this retort a complete democracy, all classes and conditions, backgrounds, moralities, philosophies, and cultures. Look at some individuals.

We have seen Lillburn Boggs start out for Independence: former governor of Missouri, former trader to Santa Fe, Beelzebub to the Mormons,  p118 brother-in‑law to the Bents, also brother-in‑law to the grandsons of Daniel Boone, three of whom traveled west with him. On April 18, Mr. Edwin Bryant, a transplanted Yankee, left his newspaper in Louisville and, with Mr. R. T. Jacob and Mr. R. Ewing, started for Independence. He did not know that he would be joining Lillburn Boggs, could not foresee that he would presently be joining Brevet Captain Frémont and Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny also, or that he would be made alcalde of a village that was not yet called San Francisco. In April Mr. Jessy Quinn Thornton left Quincy, Illinois, for Independence. He was an asthmatic and something of a hypochondriac, and his wife, Nancy, had even worse health. They hoped that the mountains or Oregon would restore them and they too, without knowing it, were traveling to join Lillburn Boggs. Thornton was thirty-five, a traveled and educated man, a correspondent of Horace Greeley's, and a friend of Stephen Douglas. Born in Virginia, he had grown up in Ohio, studied law in London, practised in Virginia and later in Missouri (Nancy was born in Hannibal), then moved to Quincy. The Thorntons were a perfect flowering of the bourgeoisie that had already risen on the middle border and Mark Twain has drawn a dozen portraits of their kind: genteel, unbelievably refined, pious, narrow, of an overwhelming respectability and sentimentality — the people of the gift books and the novel in pantalettes. Set off against them another who also moved, this April, to an unpremeditated rendezvous with Boggs and Bryant, William Henry Russell. He had a title, but not so much because he had served in the Black Hawk War as because he was the mint-image of a type already fixed in our theology, the Kentucky Colonel. Tall as Doniphan, eloquent on the hustings, a holder of political jobs. Noisy, affable, and commanding, he was certain to be chosen captain of this wagon train, and just as inevitably a worshiper and appointee of Captain Frémont. Some called him Owl Russell. The story ran that once he heard owls who‑whooing from the woods and, mistaking the lament for an inquiry, stood up and roared into the dark, "Colonel William H. Russell of Kentucky — a bosom friend of Henry Clay."

They will do as samples: a Kentucky colonel, a monument of Illinois respectability, a Yankee editor, and the grandson‑in‑law of Daniel Boone. But certain others, just as typical, must be introduced, since the West was preparing a special destiny for them while they traveled across Missouri to join this wagon train.

A. Lincoln attended the sessions of Tazewell Circuit Court at Tremont,  p119 Illinois, from April 8 to 15, and when it closed went on to the Woodford Circuit at Metamora. So he was not in Springfield on April 15 when there rendezvoused there, and camped on the site of the present Statehouse, a party of thirty‑two3 emigrants from Sangamon County who had spent the preceding months getting ready for California. We have already glanced at two of those who spent that April night in Springfield — anticipating the day in June when Jim Clyman is to meet James Frazier Reed near Fort Laramie and the day in July when he is to meditate beside the grave of Mrs. Sarah Keyes, who was Reed's mother-in‑law. That night in Springfield, she had just a month to live.

A family ready for the decisive break with the past. Reed, forty‑six, noble Polish blood mingling in his veins with that of the log‑cabin pioneers, well-to‑do, luxuriously outfitted for the passage, bearing credentials of character and position signed by Thomas Ford, the governor of Illinois. His wife, Margaret, thirty‑two. Their children, Martha (Patty), eight years old; James, five; Thomas, three. Margaret Reed's daughter by an earlier marriage, Virginia Backenstoe, thirteen. Margaret's mother, Mrs. Sarah Keyes, feeble and failing but resolved to live till she might meet her son, who had gone to Oregon two years before and was supposed to be coming back along the trail this year. And some employes — one hardly knows the right term for hired companions, since "servant" will not do. These were Baylis Williams, twenty-four years old, and his sister Eliza, twenty-five; they were young country folk going west to better their estate. There were Milt Elliott, twenty-eight; James Smith, twenty-five; Walter Herron, twenty-five; these three, known as Reed's teamsters, like the two Williamses came from Sangamon County, neighbors working their way to a new start on the golden shore.

The families of two friends of Reed, with employes, came to that rendezvous on April 15, to complete the party. These were portions of the patriarchal tribes of two brothers, George Donner who was sixty‑two and Jacob Donner who was sixty-five. Tamsen was George Donner's third wife. None of the children of his first marriage, who were now mature and settled for themselves, went with him. Two daughters of his second marriage, aged fourteen and twelve, however, and Tamsen's three daughters, aged six, four, and three, were with them. George's second wife, the mother of the two older girls, had been a sister of Elizabeth, who was the wife of Jacob Donner. She had been Elizabeth Hook in an earlier marriage, and two sons of that marriage, fourteen and twelve, were with her now, besides her children by Jacob Donner, a seven-year‑old daughter and boys of nine, five, four, and three. With the Donner families were also four teamsters  p120 working their way west: Hiram Miller; Noah James, twenty years old, from the immediate neighborhood (see how the talk of winter evenings had struck fire from the neighbors); Samuel Shoemaker, twenty-five, who had reached the Sangamon from Springfield, Ohio; and John Denton, twenty-eight, a gunsmith, who had come a longer journey to this rendezvous, all the way from Sheffield, England . . . and who was to die in the snow-choked valley of the Yuba toward which Jim Clyman was heading when Denton camped with his employer in A. Lincoln's home town.

Like Reed, the Donners were well-to‑do; they had already reached the happy ending of the American success story before the spring fret came over them. George Donner had broken prairie soil a few miles out of Springfield in the town's earliest days. Before that he had moved from North Carolina, his birthplace, to Kentucky, on to Indiana, to Illinois, to Texas, and back to Illinois. There his land and his brother's grew in value and their speculations were happy. George Donner's older children (in three marriages he had thirteen all told) were already giving him grandchildren to make the house merry on Thanksgiving Day, and were richly established on the homesteads he had set off for them from his large holdings, reserving a hundred and ten acres for the younger ones he took to California, in case they might sometime want to come back home. They were going to California in the mood of Bill Bowen, but consciously to live out their days in the languorous, winterless country that seemed so much like the Marquesas of Herman Melville's nostalgia. The younger children would grow up in a softer, more abundant life — and their gentility would not be impaired. Tamsen took with her "apparatus for preserving botanical specimens, water colors and oil paints, books and school supplies . . . for use in the young ladies' seminary which she hoped to establish in California." Touch of the invincible New England aspiration: Tamsen, a Yankee, was a schoolteacher and something of a writer for the ladies' press, and made notes for a book as she traveled. (She also sewed ten thousand dollars in bank notes in a quilt, and that was by no means all the reserve cash that went with the Donners.) The Donners had three wagons apiece, one packed with goods to set up trade and housekeeping in California, one with supplies for the journey, and one to live in; Reed also had three wagons, one of them a great, ungainly ark, double-decked and outfitted with bunks and a stove. The wagons were packed not only with the necessities but with a rich and dangerous bulk of comforts, luxuries, and indulgences. Reed, a gourmet, carried wines and brandies toward the vineyards of the province. Moreover, they had faithfully obeyed Lansford Hastings' directions to take goods for the Indians, and were even supplied  p121 with better goods to barter for land in California. . . . Not a people moving west like the Mormons, but some families — who carried with them a culture, an expectation, and the warm, habitual affections of a patriarchal life.

This is not the roster of "the Donner party," as that title comes down in history. Others were added along the trail, who will be noted later on. But, to exhibit one more specimen of the migration, we must mention another family who joined them at Independence on May 11 or 12, after they had encountered Jessy Quinn Thornton and had accepted his advice to hurry on and join the wagon train that was forming under the command of Colonel William Henry Russell, the friend of Henry Clay. This was the family of Patrick Breen, from Ireland by way of Keokuk, and his wife Peggy. They had six sons, John, Edward, Patrick, Simon, Peter, and James, ranging from fourteen years to four, and a daughter, Isabella, just a year old. Patrick Breen's friend went with him, Patrick Dolan, a bachelor who was also from Keokuk and Ireland. They were success­ful farmers and Breen, like Reed and the Donners, started from Independence with three wagons, plus a sizable herd of horses and milch cattle besides his oxen.

But they had not heard of the Breens when they camped at Springfield — nor of Jessy Quinn Thornton, Edwin Bryant, or Colonel Russell. Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, Governor Tom Ford, and ex‑Congressman Hardin were familiar names to them; doubtless they had listened to them all, may have known some of them personally. The story of Joseph Smith was common talk among them, and they had their own ideas about Brigham Young and probably about Lillburn Boggs, who would eventually be their captain. They knew that the Mormons were moving west and heard that they would massacre as many Gentiles as they could on the way. They did not know about the maneuvers of Taylor's army at the Rio Grande and did not guess what was said of it in Polk's Cabinet meetings. Sam Houston was a shining name to them. Possibly they had heard about Slidell, but certainly not about Atocha or, since the Alamo and San Jacinto, about Santa Anna. They had read Frémont and Lansford Hastings. Reed knew Jim Clyman but had heard nothing about him since they had been in the same company with A. Lincoln in the Black Hawk War fourteen years ago.

On the morning of April 16, they yoked up the oxen to nine wagons and made their start — for the West. That day Jim Clyman reached Lansford Hastings on Bear Creek and was welcomed under a spreading oak in "a warm and Polite manner" . . . the Bear Creek they were to be brought down to — some of them — from the snows. There were thirty‑two in the  p122 combined parties that left Springfield that morning. One of them was to leave the party just beyond Fort Laramie and Mrs. Keyes was to die when Colonel Russell's wagon train reached the Big Blue, at the beginning of the journey. Of the thirty others, thirteen were to die this side of Bear Creek because they trusted the publicity man, Lansford Hastings, who as April ended would start east to meet them and make sure of their fate.

* * *

On the day after they left Springfield, an American who had crossed the plains the year before sat down in California to write a letter to the folks back home in Springfield. This was William L. Todd, son of the highborn Dr. Todd and nephew of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, and the Journal would publish his letter in early August. What young Todd had to say on April 17 is exceedingly interesting.

. . . If there are any persons in Sangamon who speak of crossing the Rocky Mountains to this country, tell them my advice is to stay at home. There you are well off. You can enjoy all the comforts of life — live under a good government and have peace and plenty around you — a country whose soil is not surpassed by any in the world, having good seasons and yielding timely crops. Here everything is on the other extreme: the government is tyrannical, the weather unseasonable, poor crops, and the necessaries of life not to be had except at the most extortionate prices, and frequently not then. . . .

I do not, however, believe there was ever a more beautiful climate than we have in this country. During the whole winter we have delight­ful weather except when it rains. . . . Most all day long we could be seen in winter with our coats off, walking in the neighborhood of our cabin, except when we were off hunting for a term of four or six days.

The Mexicans talk every spring and fall of driving the foreigners out of the country. They must do it this year or they can never do it. There will be a revolution before long and probably the country will be annexed to the United States. If there, I will take a hand in it.

Mr. Todd exactly and almost completely expressed the majority beliefs of Americans in California, a month short of May. In exactly that state of mind, Jim Clyman had offered to raise filibusters for Frémont. In exactly that state of mind, John Marsh, who for years had agitated for an uprising of Americans and had assisted various native revolts, had expected a "revolution" some months before. In exactly that state of mind several  p123 hundred others felt that their hour was at hand. They believed most of the rumors that circulated in the province of anarchy, and some that were too absurd for belief they propagated as useful. Few of them understood the way of life around them, fewer respected it. The Californians were pelados, greasers: different from the Yankees and therefore contemptible, little interested in money, negligent of land, without thought of the morrow, abandoned to popish superstitions. And, of course, immoral.

A correspondent of the National Intelligencer adds an involuntary postscript, a few days later: —

Most of the inhabitants are great scamps; many not only confess they steal horses and cattle but they boast of it. I bought a horse this morning that the man is to steal for me in a day or two. You will think this strange conduct, but this same man was not only robbed but beaten by the other; and there is no law to punish them, so that he has to make himself whole in the coin of his opponent. The Spanish portion of the inhabitants are a thieving, cowardly, dancing, lewd people, and generally indolent and faithless.

Sermon on a moral text.

There is no awareness in Hastings' book that California was not an American possession, but the realization that it was not had begun to grow acute among the resident Americans. War was at hand and California would not survive it as a province of Mexico. Whatever happened, they would be exposed to material damage. Mexico or an autonomous California could expropriate their lands, to which only a few of them had any title. Cession to or seizure by a foreign state was intolerable to their patriotism and distasteful to their sense of real estate. Under any efficient foreign government most of them would have no status. Whereas an American occupation — which, always remember, had the plain logic of the map behind it — would probably obliterate the inconveniences of the established land system. They had interpreted Frémont's arrival in the light of their hopes and holdings. With Frémont gone and the hope withdrawn, they were again at the mercy, if not of the greasers at least of the land system — and what had they come for if not for land? (Well, some for health, some for adventure, some as deserters or fugitives, some merely as flotsam.) They ought to do something about it.

Besides, there would be glory for those who wanted glory. Also positions: something like a spoils system if not a civil service. Also, in the vision of the wooziest, a chance to repeat the heroic pattern of the Americans, free an enslaved people, set up the institutions of the eagle, and establish a gaudy if rather illiterate parody of Brook Farm.

 p124  It was the peculiar fortune of the Americans to find revolutions going on wherever they invaded Mexico. But if one is to sympathize with the Californians, it must be only a nostalgic sympathy, a respect for things past. This coming autumn Lieutenant Ruxton of the British Army would find some of the Plains Indians possessed by a stoic melancholy which issued from a conviction that their day was over and the white man could not be stayed. Similarly, California was suffused with a knowledge that there was no help for it. Its golden age had ended. No one could govern it from Mexico; no one could govern it at home. Its feudal organization, feeble at best, had broken up into cliques which lowered the standard of public honor and responsibility, enfeebled the society, and drained it alike of money and belief. An era was closing in regret; an order of mankind, a phase of society, in many ways a happy phase, was collapsing. This much the Californians knew. They felt diversely about it, as men do when the sanctions bred in them have broken. Some of them would welcome anything that would restore stability to the no longer stable — France, England, the United States — nor was it hidden from many landholders in this country of vast landholdings that real estate would be most valuable under the United States. Some dreamed of restoring the allegiance to Mexico which had never quite existed. Some dreamed, instead, of going it alone. A good many, and they likely to be the best, would do what they could, not much in any event, to hold together while the flood closed over them. After all, it was their country.

They were, of course, caught in the requirements of Mexican rhetoric and hindered by the heritage from Spain of interior dissents. This April the immemorial conflict between the north and the south, between San Francisco and Los Angeles, was shaping to a crisis. There was a species of representative assembly at Los Angeles, controlled by Pico, the governor. Nominally it was the civil power. In the north there were the two Castros, prefect and comandante, who nominally represented the military power. Neither Spain nor Mexico had ever been able to fuse the two powers in this province, but the contention between them now was only a facet of collapse. Clyman saw it as a contest for control of the revenues, but it was only a contest for the titles of office, which were resounding, and the real trouble between Pico and Castro was that neither could vote the other out. Castro formed a junta at Monterey, to consider the state of the nation and the danger of conquest, calling on Pico in excellent prose to abandon partisanship and co‑operate with him. But to Pico and his assembly the Monterey junta looked like a committee of revolution, and as April ended each side was raising forces against the other. Forces?  p125 Well, both sides were raising horsemen but they were several hundred miles apart, and the likelihood was that this campaign, one more instalment in a long serial, would confine itself to the methods of its predecessors, pageantry and syntax.

However, one item of the routine was to lead to results which were not contemplated and had no precedent. Castro sent north for horses to equip his levies, and northward were the jittery but opportunistic Americans.

None of this escaped the observation of Thomas Larkin. He saw that political control was dying in California. He was under orders to foment a revolution and one might develop from this new strife. In two years more the society would be altogether broken down — perhaps in one year, say by the spring of '47. . . . The trouble was time and events. His orders were five months old now and already obsolete. Frémont had attended to that; after the drama of Gavilán Peak Larkin would need time to persuade Castro that the United States was interested in his well-being. More time than he or Secretary Buchanan, months away by messenger, was to get.

And Frémont had been humiliated. Early in April he moved up the Sacramento from Lassen's ranch toward the Cascades, whither he had originally been ordered. He got past Mount Shasta but spring snow fell in the peaks and Frémont — who had twice crossed the Sierra in winter — turned back again to Lassen's, where he stayed till April 24. His father-in‑law would describe to a spellbound Senate how Frémont had suffered in the harsh weather, but the truth is that he could not bring himself to leave his stage. The drama of Gavilán had come to nothing, to worse than nothing. The hero had neither conquered nor died: he had retreated. Behind him were the triumphant sneers of the Californians — and with him traveled the caustic doubts of his mountain men, who had never before seen him outfaced, and his own gnawing frustration. His image of himself had been impaired by a conflict with reality; the hero had been scaled down to life size. There was no vindication at Lassen's, however, and ultimately there was nothing to do but go on. So he started out again on the twenty-fourth, a momentous day elsewhere, toward Oregon.

Back at Monterey, the U. S. sloop Cyane dropped anchor on April 17 and Lieutenant Gillespie repeated to Consul Larkin the instructions he had memorized at Mexico City. He had been just short of six months on his way. Larkin presented him as an invalid traveling for his health, and he rode north to Yerba Buena and the vice consul. From there he set out to overtake Frémont.

* * *

 p126  April produced the President's triumph. Final word came from Slidell on the seventh that Paredes had refused to receive him, and the Cabinet had moved so steadily that Polk found no opposition in it to the strongest measures — to war with Mexico. However, he would not recommend them to Congress just yet, for the Oregon question was at last coming to a head. Congress must now reach a decision, and could not like the necessity. The administration drove its forces with whip, spur, and nosebag. Mr. Polk believed that he could best control the Northern members with patronage, whereas with Southerners the appeal to principle was better. But the best talent of the Whigs was opposition, Polk's own party was half a dozen factions precariously held together, and both parties were looking not only at Oregon and Great Britain but two years ahead. Neither 49° nor 54°40′, his diary noted in disgust, meant so much to even the Democratic Senators as '48 and the election.

Mr. Calhoun was trying to find leverage in Polk's proposal for a secret fund to buy a treaty from Mexico. He blew hot and cold and persisted in mentioning it inadvertently when he called to suggest that the way out of the Oregon impasse was to have the foreign ambassadors propose a negotiation — which was suggesting that Polk admit defeat. The Whigs liked the tactics that circumstances had imposed on them; they would not dissent from Termination, which the country obviously wanted, but, to make sure of their position if it should beget trouble, they would put the entire responsibility for it on the President. Enough Democrats had factional axes to grind to help out, and as the debates reached climax, that was the shape it began to take.

The House resolution instructed the President to "cause notice to be given" to Great Britain. The Senate resolution advised negotiation in its preamble and declared merely that the President was "authorized at his discretion" to give the notice — a much weaker platform for him to dive from. The Senate resolution was passed first, on April 16, and went to the House for concurrence. The House amended it so that the vital clause read that the President was "authorized and directed," and here for an anxious moment the whole thing seemed likely to stall. The first objective of the administration was imperiled for, Polk believed, the Senate was so divided on factional cleavage lines that it would, if given a chance, gladly let the resolution perish. His journal filled with intense, precise resentments, he hurried out the party chiefs in both Houses, sent his Cabinet cracking down, and labored with his own full strength. He yielded to the inevitable and let the Senate throw out the word "directed," thus losing his last chance to present Termination as the united will of the  p127 country, and there he dug his heels in. His all‑out effort succeeded. The House accepted the Senate's modification and on April 23 the resolution "to abrogate the convention of 1827" passed both Houses. Polk signed it the next day, the notice of termination had already been prepared, and sent it by special packet to the sovereign of Great Britain. Joint Occupation of Oregon was over and Mr. Calhoun, the Whigs, and whoever might be interested, would now see who was bluffing.

It was a great victory. The President had put through the first of his measures, and he was confident that it would do the job, that Great Britain was the party running a bluff. The administration felt very good indeed but its exhilaration was premature. For though the hidden realities had not come to the surface during the Oregon debate they were on their way up, the inner tensions had been increased and half revealed, the opposition had found a tactic, and pressures were rising that must soon explode. He had won handsomely but he had almost lost, his party was breaking up and the wind was rising. One trouble with decisions is that they necessitate other decisions.

But, his Oregon position carried and the "Brittish" notified, he could turn to Mexico with a tranquil and cunning mind. We see him on April 30 amazed and touched by a delegation from the new school for the blind, twenty or thirty exhibiting their piti­ful accomplishment, one "a female named Bridgman who had been taught by signs with the hands and fingers to understand and communicate ideas and to write." Polk's victorious month ended with that curiously symbolical note but it was five days earlier, on the twenty-fifth, three days before he dispatched the joint resolution, that it reached its climax. On April 25, after telling the Cabinet that the notice would go to Victoria in person on May 1, he announced that it was time to deal with Mexico. We must treat all nations alike, great or small, Great Britain had the gauntlet now and here was Mexico: Mr. Polk favored "a bold and firm course." The Cabinet understood and the Secretary of State spoke the right phrase: the President should recommend a declaration of war. "The other members of the Cabinet did not dissent, but concurred in the opinion that a message to Congress will be prepared and submitted to them in the course of the next week." Very well. The President would outline the points to be presented, and Mr. Buchanan would please collect the materials and sketch out a message.

That was April 25. On the same day the fuse that was burning at the Rio Grande reached powder.

* * *

 p128  7th. Apr. General Taylor made me a long visit this a.m. He told me General Worth is to leave here tomorrow. He added that, on tendering his resignation, General Worth had asked a leave of absence as soon as his services "could be dispensed with," but determined to relieve Worth at once. So Worth leaves us while the very atmosphere is animated with rumors of attacks upon us, and he had just obtained from a spy of his own the most distinct threats from the other side of the river. I cannot help asking myself what would have been thought of the patriotism of a revolutionary officer who had abandoned his post in the presence of the enemy on an alleged grievance which, in the opinion of almost everybody, is without any proper or defensible foundation.

Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hitchcock, who was confined to his tent, thus interrupted his notes on Swedenborg to criticize Brevet Brigadier General William Jenkins Worth, veteran of Chippewa, Niagara, and Lundy's Lane, conqueror of the Seminoles, and victim of Marcy's order which had reversed Scott's ruling and given the line priority over brevet rank. Worth's long quarrel with Twiggs was thus settled unfavorably, and he now went home in almost Aztec splendor. He would be back again before long, making more trouble. He was an excellent commander in battle and did some of the best fighting of the war, but he suffered from ego, malice, and purple prose. He sowed letters broadcast, explaining the jealousy of his successive commanders, and at last Scott had to order him, at the war's end, into well-merited arrest — and so gave Polk an opening and produced one more unhappy turbulence in the military biography of Winfield Scott.

Taylor had crudely fortified Point Isabel, at the mouth of the river, but the bulk of his force was in the vicinity of Fort Brown, a set of textbook field works which he had built opposite Matamoros, on a site no textbook would have approved. Hitchcock calls it a cul‑de‑sac, it commanded nothing but a stretch of river, it was open to enfilade from three sides, and any competent enemy could have pinched it off from the rear. All that prevented its capture now and hereafter was a Mexican incompetence as resplendent as Taylor's own. Hitchcock was too feeble from disease to undertake the security of an army but wrote gloomily that if Taylor were to succeed it must be by accident. Taylor had not yet received the young engineers who had learned an alphabet at West Point and were eventually to save him at the extremity. Worth and Twiggs, who had some mental life, were too busy fighting over rank to take thought of war, but it is hard to see why Bliss did not do something about the camp site.

It gratified Taylor, however, and he sat down to his principal enjoyment,  p129 letter writing. He shared that taste with all our other generals (Kearny is the exception), and if the campaigns of this war were inactive for long stretches, there was never a pause in the correspondence. It had two departments. One stream of letters flowed back home, to Congressmen and newspaper editors, impugning the motives and competence of all rivals and superiors and presently giving Polk, no small-time resenter himself, one of the most serious problems of the war. The other stream inundated the enemy with addresses, proclamations, and manifestoes, and drew from them an equally resounding counter-barrage. Neither side really won, but it is only simple justice to say that the army's proclamations were no sillier than those his opponents published.

The enemy won some points at the very beginning. On both of the two days preceding his remarks about Worth, Hitchcock notes that American deserters had been shot while crossing the Rio Grande. Probably they were just bored with army rations but there was some thought that they might be responding to a proclamation of General Ampudia's which spies had been able to circulate in camp. Noting the number of Irish, French, and Polish immigrants in the American force, Ampudia had summoned them to assert a common Catholicism, come across the river, cease "to defend a robbery and usurpation which, be assured, the civilized nations of Europe look upon with the utmost indignation," and settle down on a generous land bounty. Some of them did so, and the St. Patrick Battalion of American deserters was eventually formed, fought splendidly throughout the war, and was decimated in the campaign for Mexico City — after which its survivors were executed in daily batches. . . . This earliest shooting of deserters as they swam the Rio Grande, an unwelcome reminder that war has ugly aspects, at once produced an agitation. As soon as word of it reached Washington, the National Intelligencer led the Whig press into a sustained howl about tyranny. In the House J. Q. Adams rose to resolve the court-martial of every officer or soldier who should order the killing of a soldier without trial and an inquiry into the reasons for desertion. He was voted down but thereafter there were deserters in every Whig speech on the conduct of the war, and Calm Observer wrote to all party papers that such brutality would make discipline impossible. But a struggling magazine which had been founded the previous September in the interest of sports got on a sound financial footing at last. The National Police Gazette began to publish lists of deserters from the army, and the War Department bought up big editions to distribute among the troops.

Taylor sat in his field works writing prose. Ampudia's patrols reconnoitered  p130 the camp and occasionally perpetrated an annoyance. Taylor badly needed the Texas Rangers, a mobile force formed for frontier service in the Texas War of Independence and celebrated ever since. It was not yet available to him, however, and he was content to send out a few scouts now and then. So Colonel Truman Cross, the assistant quartermaster general, did not return from one of his daily rides. He was still absent twelve days later, and Lieutenant Porter, who went looking for him with ten men, ran into some Mexican foragers and got killed.

Meanwhile another proclamation from Ampudia was brought to camp and Taylor found himself under twenty-four hours' notice to take his army back to the Nueces. He elegantly replied that "the instructions under which I am acting will not permit me to retrograde from the position I now occupy." Nothing happened, and on April 19 it occurred to him to have the brig Lawrence and the revenue cutter St. Anna close the mouth of the Rio Grande to Mexican supplies. This was a blockade, as Ampudia instantly designated it in a moving protest which ended "God and Liberty!" but Taylor saw it, like all his earlier steps, as "a simple defensive precaution."

Paredes, however, looked on it as king's pawn to king's fourth. Two days before Polk's Cabinet discussion, he announced that the United States had begun hostilities — remarking also that American troops were threatening Monterey (news of the Gavilán tableau thus acknowledged) — and ordered the defense of Mexican territory to begin. That was April 23. The next day General Arista, who had reached Matamoros and outranked Ampudia, crossed the Rio Grande to catch Taylor between two forces. He also sent Taylor a private letter full of the courtliest expressions.

That day at the American camp they were burying Colonel Cross, whose body had at last been found. The ceremonial volleys clattered over the river, and by nightfall there were rumors that the enemy was coming. The next morning, April 25, the rumors persisted and Taylor sent out Captain Thornton with some sixty dragoons to see what they were all about. (The second in command was that Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hardee who would later write a treatise on cavalry tactics.) Thornton rode up the river some twenty-five miles and was told by a native that General Anastasio Torrejon with his command was near by. Knowing the Mexicans to be liars, Thornton determined to verify the information at the first rancho. He led his horsemen into a chaparral-walled inclosure, knocked courteously at the door — and the better part of Torrejon's sixteen hundred cavalry opened fire on him. Thornton was wounded and Hardee charged to the riverbank, where  p131 he surrendered. Sixteen dragoons were killed or wounded, the rest were prisoners of war, and, as Taylor wrote to Polk, hostilities had begun.​c

On the day before, Frémont had started north from Lassen's and Gillespie, posting after him, had reached Yerba Buena. On the day of Thornton's capture Polk told the Cabinet he must lay the Mexican affair before Congress, Buchanan agreed to draft a war message, and the President summarized in a thousand words a talk he had had with Allen of Ohio about a rumored intrigue to restore Francis Preston Blair, who did not admire him, to the editorship of the administration newspaper. At the foot of the Sierra Jim Clyman and Hastings decided to wait a few days before "we attact the region of all most Eternal snow and ice." Francis Parkman was at St. Louis, waiting for the Radnor, Edwin Bryant was ahead of him, six days short of Independence, and the Donners, the Breens, Lillburn Boggs, Jessy Quinn Thornton, and Owl Russell were moving across Missouri. Lieutenant Colonel Hitchcock, invalided home, had reached New Orleans, bought passage on the steamer Louisiana, and begun to read a manuscript translation of Spinoza's Tractatus.

* * *

Polk had lost the mid‑term elections and the House was Whig when, on December 22, 1847, the gangling Representative from the Seventh Distract of Illinois stood up at his desk, number 191, in the back row, to move eight resolutions which called on the President to inform the Congress about the first hostilities. They were more than a shade canny but had some points to make, and the fifth of them asked "whether the people of that settlement [where Thornton was attacked], or a majority of them, or any of them, have ever submitted themselves to the government or laws of Texas or of the United States, by consent or by compulsion, either by accepting office, or voting at elections, or paying tax, or serving on juries, or having process served on them, or in any other way."​4 And on the twelfth of the following month A. Lincoln stood up again to explain his now tabled resolutions and to give the President what‑for. It was quite a speech, and — with the rest of his war record — it retired Lincoln to private life. In the course of it he again called on Polk to locate the first bloodshed geographically. If Polk, Lincoln said, "can show that the soil was ours where the first blood of the war was shed — that it was not within an inhabited country, or if within such, that the inhabitants had submitted themselves to the civil authority of Texas or of the United States, and that the same is true of Fort Brown — then I am with him for his justification."

 p132  He was gratuitously offending the Seventh Distract, which by then had lost some sons in war, and he might have been content to stand on his party's record. For nine days before, on January 3, 1848, by a strict party vote and a majority of one, the House of Representatives had adopted another resolution, by George Ashmun of Massachusetts, which formally decided that war had been "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States."


The Author's Notes:

 (p487)  1 An unfortunate vagueness in Clyman's journal makes it uncertain just whom the party consisted of. When they were all together again on April 28, several thought it was still "impracticable to cross the mountains at this time." Clyman says, "several of us are However verry anxious to  (p488) try and assertain that fact," and the next day he and the party he continued with started out. Mr. Charles L. Camp, Clyman's editor, writes me that he believes that eleven or twelve men, two women, and two children stayed behind to make the later crossing (various later entries in the journal which need not be cited here support this reading), and that this party went by way of Fort Hall and is the one which will be mentioned later on. Mr. Camp believes that the seasoned old Greenwood, who was "going out to catch emigrants and was in no hurry," was among those who stayed behind. The important thing for our purpose, however, is that Hastings and Hudspeth were in the advance party — by this reading necessarily reduced to seven or eight men, one woman, and a boy — with whom Clyman traveled.

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2 Like the log cabin, the covered wagon is a classic American symbol. But, Hollywood notwithstanding, it was not standardized. In any train, even a Santa Fe freight caravan, wagons were likely to differ widely. Nevertheless, by 1846 some evolution and standardization had occurred. Think of the Santa Fe freight wagon (which had the easier passage to make) as about twice the capacity of the Oregon emigrant's wagon, larger in all its dimensions, with longer and more massive tongue (jointed), higher wheels, wider tires, and heavier hubs and hardware. (Hubs might be sixteen inches wide, tires eight inches — or even more.) An average freight might be two and a half tons and an average team five yoke of oxen, though up to five tons or more and ten yoke or more were not unknown. It was unwise to load the lighter emigrant wagon (for which a three-yoke team was usual and a four-yoke team desirable) with more than three thousand pounds and two thousand was better. The lighter the load, the better chance of getting load, wagon, and team through to your destination. Emigrant wagons were likely to be brightly painted — for the first few days. The canvas tops were sometimes blue, green, or red as well as white, and frequently had slogans painted on them.

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3 Generally given as either thirty-four or thirty‑six. I can count only thirty‑two at Springfield.

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4 With equal or greater sophistication Polk's war message had said that the district had been represented in the Texas Congress and was incorporated in the United States revenue system.


Thayer's Notes:

a A clearer and more useful summary of the man's life is given by Bieber (ed.), Adventures in the Santa Fé Trade, p130 n.

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b Ein Ausflug nach den Felsen-Gebirgen in Jahre 1839 (St. Louis, 1840), translated into English as A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1839 (St. Louis, 1912).

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c A contemporaneous account of the skirmish at La Rosia and the capture of Capt. Hardee is given in the diary of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Philip N. Barbour, Apr. 26, 1846.


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