Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

Robert West Howard

G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 4

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p35  Chapter III
The Desert Dreamers

The Plains were snowy white with salt. The grass that grew in small spots on the plains was laden with salt which had formed itself on the stalks and blades in lumps, from the size of a pea to that of a hen's egg. This was the kind we procured, it being very white, strong and pure. . . . John Bidwell's journal entry en route to Promontory Pass (August 24, 1841).

In 1841 the Pacific Coast was two months and several thousand miles farther from the trade and population centers of the United States than were Bombay, India, or Shanghai, China. Geographic distance is, after all, a mathematician's deceit. The 2,000 statute miles of high plain, mountain ranges and deserts that separated the Mississippi Valley and the Alta California Presidio of San Francisco were considered as impossible — for normal trade and communication purposes — as the North Pole route to the Russian Tsar's palaces in St. Petersburg. Hence the trade route from Boston, New York and Philadelphia to Oregon and Alta California began with a 7,000‑mile sail down the Gulf Stream, and across the Sargasso Sea, the Amazon-stained waters of the Equator to Cape Horn. The terrors of the Straits of Magellan at this "bottom of the world" were only the halfway point. Ships beat another 7,000 miles past the treacherous  p36 coasts of Chile, Central America and Baja California. The four to six months' voyage, plus scurvy, yellow fever, malaria, dysentery, pirates, hurricanes and typhoons, was the routine for communication and trade between the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards of the North American continent.

Queen Victoria could receive messages from any port in Great Britain within two or three days, or from distant India in two months. The giant empires of Russia and China maintained corps of couriers who galloped dispatches to the most distant provinces in a week or two. But any message, delegation or Congressman journeying from Oregon or California to the United States' boggy Capital would require from four to six months for the journey. A union sprawled on opposite sides of a 2,000‑mile wilderness could collapse under such a time lag in interstate commerce and communication. Trails across the Indian strongholds of the Great American Desert must be the first step toward transcontinental union. Then, somehow, the railroad must follow.

During the winter of 1840‑41, a dozen Missouri families decided to attempt the overland journey to California. They would subsequently be called the Bartleson-Bidwell party because John Bartleson was elected train captain, while John Bidwell proved to be the best organizer and kept a daily journal of the trip. Thomas Fitzpatrick agreed to guide the 45 men and 15 women and children as far west as the Hudson's Bay Company trading post at Fort Hall on the Snake River in Eastern Idaho. Fitzpatrick had been with Jedediah Smith during the discovery of South Pass in 1824. The only known northern route to California, he warned, was to do just what the Reverend Whitman and his party had done in 1836: abandon the wagons at Fort Hall; then pack-train down the Snake and on in a huge semicircle from Western Oregon to Northern California. Fitzpatrick refused to guide them beyond Fort Hall.

The wagon train left the upper Missouri Valley in May, 1841. Its members had heard stories about "rivers flowing from  p37 the Great Salt Lake down into California." At Soda Springs, 150 miles west of South Pass and 50 miles east of Fort Hall, Bartleson ordered the train south down the Bear River Valley toward the Great Salt Lake and these "rivers to California." Fitzpatrick refused to go along. After a vote, Bidwell and 30 other men and one woman and her small daughter, agreed to follow Bartleson. Only 26 stayed with Fitzpatrick on the Fort Hall Trail.

The Bear River adventurers found the valley passable for their wagons over the 100 miles to the Great Salt Lake Desert. In mid-August, camped on the meadows that would echo the bawdiness of "Sinful Corinne" 28 years later, Bartleson decided to march the train northwest across the sage plains and salt flats. It was an epochal but almost disastrous decision. The terrain forced them over a 200‑mile arc around the north end of Great Salt Lake, through the natural pass in the Promontory Mountain range, then south to a second pass through the fanged black peaks of the Pilot range along the future Utah-Nevada boundary.

So between August 20 and September 15, 1841, the first wagon train crossed Utah and pioneered the route that Crocker, Stanford, Huntington, Montague, Durant, Reed and the Casements would agree upon twenty-seven years later as the final link in the Union's Pacific Railroad. With equal implications of Western destiny, the eight or ten wagons pushed on across the Nevada passes and sagebrush valleys that would be immortalized in 1860‑61 by the Pony Express. Then the struggle became too great for the horses. The wagons were abandoned near Johnson Wells (thirty miles southeast of the present Wells, Nevada); the party reorganized as a pack train. On September 23, another historic moment occurred when they reached the headwaters of the Humboldt River in the Ruby Mountains (south of the present Elko), Nevada. Surveyors sent out by Theodore Judah and Sam Montague in 1862‑3 would prove that the Humboldt's gorges provided a natural railroad route across Northern Nevada.

 p38  The Bartleson-Bidwell luck held. The party crawled down the awesome cliffs of the Sierras' west face, and on November 4 reached the semifeudal domain of a Swiss-American adventurer named John Augustus Sutter. The trip from most had taken six months.

In 1839, after wandering from St. Louis to Santa Fe to Oregon to Hawaii to Sitka, Alaska, John Sutter had persuaded Alta California's governor to grant him a tract of 97,000 acres in the Sacramento River Valley, 100 miles northeast of San Francisco. He called the tract "New Helvetia" and offered employment to immigrants willing to work his wheat fields, herd the thousands of cattle, sheep, horses and mules he had purchased from the Franciscan Missions, and experiment with vineyards and fruit orchards on the slopes up the American and Feather rivers. The Bartleson-Bidwell party signed on as colonists in New Helvetia. John Bidwell was particularly interested in the prospects for raisins, olives and similar subtropical crops. He rode north up the Sacramento Valley to examine the soils and contours.

Thomas Fitzpatrick's contract as guide for the Bartleson-Bidwell party had ended at Fort Hall. He rode back over South Pass during the fall of 1841, then took an Upper Missouri trade boat into St. Louis. There his gossip about the Bartleson-Bidwell determination to "follow the Great Salt Lake's rivers into California" reached the West-tuned ears of Thomas Hart Benton. Senator Benton was brooding over a family problem. His daughter Jessie had recently eloped with a young Army lieutenant named John Charles Frémont. Since Frémont had taught mathematics at the United States Military Academy and proven his skills as a surveyor during an expedition up the Missouri, Benton wangled an assignment for him to map the Des Moines River Valley in the new Territory of Iowa. Now the Senator wondered whether Fitzpatrick's gossip, plus one surveyor son-in‑law, might be transformed into another campaign for that "Road to India" and American conquest of the Pacific shore.

 p39  Fitzpatrick was already committed to guide a wagon train toward Oregon in the summer of 1842. Senator Benton negotiated with another Rocky Mountain veteran, Kit Carson, to guide Frémont on a five months' exploration of the Rockies. By October, 1842, Fitzpatrick, Carson and Frémont were all back in St. Louis, and replete with stories about the Far West's wonderlands. At Fort Hall, Fitzpatrick had heard the details of the Bartleson-Bidwell trip over the Great Salt Lake route to Alta California. Senator Benton was reasonably certain that some effort to conquer both New Mexico and Alta California would be made during the next few years; especially if the harangue about annexation of the Texas Republic ended favorably and the Democrats committed themselves to a platform of Territorial Expansion in the 1844 Presidential election. The more reason, then, for a survey of a wagon route to California.

As if in justification of these musings, news of another lone traveler through South Pass came down the Missouri. The Reverend Marcus Whitman was riding hard for New York, Washington and Boston to argue against a ruling by the Presbyterian-Congregationalist Missions Board that missionary work in Oregon must be curtailed. Win or lose on that score, Reverend Whitman told reporters, he would personally lead all the families and young men he could persuade back over the Oregon Trail "next summer."

John Charles Frémont, with both Thomas Fitzpatrick and Kit Carson as guides, hurried up the Missouri through the spring freshets of 1843. By fall they were taking measurements along the Humboldt River. In mid-January, 1844, Frémont ordered a march over the Sierras. The Indian guides pleaded, wept, and sang their death chants. Carson and Fitzpatrick argued against it, but Frémont held to his decision. In mid-February the starving, frostbitten column marched into Sutter's Fort on the Sacramento. In April they headed East again, spent the summer exploring the massive central Rockies in the area the New Mexicans had long called "Colorado" (red earth), then boated into St. Louis on the eve of the Presidential election.  p40 The Missouri-Snake-Columbia Canal visualized by Senator Benton in his twenty‑three-year‑old dream of the Passage to India was, they reported, an impossible project. But graded wagon roads to both Oregon and California were not only logical but in view of the amazing natural resources of the New West — would be a modest investment.

Senator Benton's horizons were already roseate. During the summer of 1843 Reverend Whitman had led a column of 1,000 immigrants to Oregon. Last May 27 (three days after the painter-inventor Samuel F. B. Morse demonstrated his miraculous telegraph), the Democrats had anointed James K. Polk of Tennessee for President and drawn up a four-plank platform. One pledge promised the United States' annexation of Texas, New Mexico and California. Another preluded Polk's campaign slogan of "Fifty-four forty or fight" by demanding a Pacific Northwest boundary with Canada north of the Columbia River Valley. Henry Clay, the Whig candidate, was almost as fiery an expansionist as Polk. Transcontinental wagon roads would be imperative, to be trailed eventually by a Union's Pacific Railroad.

Otherwise, the Senator gossiped on, the most exciting event in the mid-Mississippi Valley had been the murders and riots upriver at the Mormon city of Nauvoo. The pattern was in historic step with all new religions. Some of the Latter-day Saints challenged Joseph Smith's decisions and began publishing a bombastic "We'll tell all" newspaper. They called it The Expositor. Matters got out of hand; The Expositor's printing plant was burned; arson charges were filed against Joseph Smith. Joseph, his brother Hiram, and a few other Latter-day Saints leaders, voluntarily rode down to the county seat at Carthage, Illinois, and gave themselves up. But during the night of June 27, a mob of 200 men — carefully disguised by black-face make-up — rushed the jail and assassinated Joseph and Hiram Smith. Street fights broke out in Nauvoo. Someone set the white marble temple afire. Joseph Smith's body was smuggled home, via armed wagon train, and hidden. The burly ex-carpenter,  p41 Brigham Young, won the election as Smith's successor to the Latter-day Saints' presidency; but with Smith's widow dissenting.

Now, rumor had it, the Mormons would abandon Nauvoo. Some of their wagons had been sighted in Iowa Territory, searching, doubtlessly, for that Promised Land of their prophecies. If they survived the guns of the Dissenters, the winter blizzards, the spring fevers, and the eternally warring Indians, another strange — and desperate — force might be shaping for the New West. Even the most conservative newspapers in England verified Brigham Young's claim that thousands of converts won to Mormonism in Yorkshire, Wales, Sussex and the Isle of Man, were selling their homes and most of their household goods to raise funds for the journey to the American West.

James Polk beat Henry Clay by 65 electoral votes. In January, 1845, the first realistic facts-and‑statistics proposal for a Union's Pacific Railroad sent Congress into a dither of argument. Its timing, managed by Connecticut's Senator John M. Niles, brought it to committee hearings while the New England shipowners' lobby chortled over the news that Caleb Cushing, United States Commissioner to China, had negotiated a Treaty of Wanghai granting exterritorial rights and open trade to Americans in the 64 "treaty ports" along the China Sea. The originator of the proposal was a Connecticut merchant named Asa Whitney. He asked Congress to deed him a swathe of the Great Desert lands, 60 miles wide and extending northwest from the Mississippi in Iowa Territory to the Columbia River Valley. Whitney and a federal commission would develop this grant of approximately 75,000,000 acres as a homesteader and new-industries project. The cash from land sales, mineral rights, lumbering, irrigation projects and the like, would be used to finance construction of a Lake Michigan-Oregon Railroad.

"Here we stand forever," Whitney said in his petition. "We reach out one hand to all Asia and the other to all Europe,  p42 willing for all to enjoy the great blessings we possess, claiming free intercourse and exchange of commodities with all." Only the Pacific Railway, he concluded, could develop the wilderness west of the Great Lakes and simultaneously establish the United States as the dominant trader and carrier for "the spices, teas, precious woods and fabrics of Cathay."

Whitney had just returned from trading ventures in the China ports, with enough profit to support him while he researched the railway idea. Born in Groton, Connecticut, in 1797, he had apprenticed as a buyer's agent on Manhattan's East and North river wharves, then established his own firm. Banking failures during the Van Buren administration ruined him. He recuperated via the quick profits available to a shrewd trader at Nanking, Amoy and Shanghai.

Consultations with John B. Jervis, Henry Farnam, Silas Seymour and other veteran engineers, convinced Whitney that a Pacific Railway would cost not more than $65,000,000. (Twice the sum Congress was prepared to pay Mexico that year for peaceful annexation of New Mexico and Alta California.) The eastern terminal for the railroad, Whitney testified, should be the Lake Michigan port of Chicago.

The construction costs, the size of the land grant, and the presumption of Chicago as eastern terminal combined to make Thomas Hart Benton, Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Calhoun and President Polk uncomfortable allies in lobbying against Whitney's plan.

Whitney's frankness in pointing out that the 1,000 miles of gentle prairie and river valley between Chicago and the easternmost ramparts of the Rockies offered "the best" Pacific railway gradient forced Benton's opposition. The route meant that Illinois, Iowa and the valley of the Platte River would reap the railroad's benefits; Missouri would be by-passed; Chicago might in time succeed St. Louis as trade center of the West.

But Illinois' Junior Congressman, Stephen A. Douglas, bristled too. Whitney's plan, he told constituent newspapers,  p43 was too pat. The Pacific Railroad must "progress gradually from east to west, keeping up a connected chain of communication and following the tide of emigration and the settlement of the country. In addition to the India and China trade, and the vast commerce of the Pacific Ocean, which would pass over this route, you must create a further necessity for the road by subduing the wilderness, and peopling it with a hardy and industrious population who would soon have a surplus produce, without the means of getting it to market, and require, for their own consumption, immense quantities of goods and merchandize, which they could not obtain at reasonable rates, for want of proper facilities of transportation."

The South's opposition to the Whitney plan rooted back more than 300 years to that stupendous 1526‑36 hegira of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, two other Spaniards and the Negro, Estevan, from the site of Galveston, Texas, to the Spanish Presidio of Culiacán on the Gulf of California. The Spanish had clopped cavalry and cattle trails between Florida and the Mississippi Valley before 1600. Juan de Oñate pioneered a Camino real from Chihuahua to the site of Santa Fe in 1598. His successors developed roads for their "conducta" of massive two-wheel carts and vaquero guards west to Tucson and east to New Orleans. Two months after the Continental Congress proclaimed its Declaration of Independence, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza of the Tucson Presidio brought 240 settlers safely through 900 miles of desert and trackless mountains to found the Presidio of San Francisco.

Virginia's colonists were equally intent on roads to the West. In 1669, Governor William Berkeley wrote from Williamsburg about "plans to finde out the East India Sea." James Adair, Dr. Thomas Walker, Richard Henderson, Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark and James Robertson led the list of the South's trail blazers to the West before 1800. Samº Houston, Davy Crockett of Tennessee, and the Bowie Brothers — James and Rezin — of Georgia were household gods in the Texas Republic. After 1820, the blacksnake whip-crackers out of  p44 the Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee highlands rode into Texas to blend their cattle lore with that of the Mexican vaqueros. Southerners rafted wagons across the Mississippi from 1803 on, to settle Missouri, Arkansas and Western Louisiana. George Rogers Clark, his brother William, and Meriwether Lewis were Thomas Jefferson's neighbors at Charlottesville, Virginia. William Ashley, Kit Carson and James Bridger — like most of the Mountain Men — were native Southerners. Bent's Fort, the most famous trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, employed a suave Negro bartender who personally tended to a mint patch on the Arkansas River bank and was reputed to blend a superior mint julep. The Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek took hundreds of their Negro slaves with them over the Trail of Tears to Indian territory, and would prove their continuing allegiance to the South. All of these roots convinced the champions of slavery and States' rights that a permanent alliance existed between the Union's "Old South" and the New West. Plans for strengthening this alliance did not permit an all-North railroad to the Pacific.

Late in the summer of 1845, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina received an invitation to deliver the keynote address before a commercial convention to be held in November at Memphis, Tennessee. The Texas Legislature had just accepted Congress' terms of annexation. General Zachary Taylor's army camped on the Rio Grande, with orders to move south against any show of force by Mexico. War might break out at any moment; Calhoun decided to turn down the invitation. Then a letter arrived from James Gadsden, the Charleston railroad promoter. "Now is the time," Gadsden urged, "to meet our Western friends at Memphis — to set the ball in motion which must bring The Valley to The South; and make them feel as allies of the Great Commercial and Agricultural interests — instead of the Tax gathering and Monopolizing interests of the North."

Calhoun accepted, and decided to go along with Thomas Hart Benton's theme of a Missouri-Columbia waterway to the  p45 Pacific. The West and South, he told the convention, was a single region from Charleston and Savannah to the Rio Grande. He pledged his aid to Congressional grants for dredging the canals and building the locks and lighthouses that would convert "the Mississippi with all its great tributaries into an inland sea."

"Lying midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans," he concluded, "in less than one generation should the Union continue, and I hope it may be perpetual, you will be engaged in deliberations to extend your connection with the Pacific, as you now are with the Atlantic; and will ultimately be almost as intimately connected with the one as the other. In the end, you will command the commerce . . . of the world. . . ."

Gadsden addressed the convention, too, and in more direct answer to Asa Whitney. There must be a system of railways to connect the Southeast, the Mississippi Valley and the Pacific, he urged. The "most logical route" would be via New Orleans and Memphis into Texas, then west through El Paso del Norte to California. There were fewer mountains to cross on this Southern and Pacific route than on the tortuous Oregon Trail. The Tejas, Comanche, Navajo and Apache could be moved to the hunting grounds along the Platte, just as the Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek had been moved from the South's highlands to the new Indian Territory beyond Arkansas.

Sam Houston sent formal Texas approval of Gadsden's plan. Virginia and the Carolinas nodded agreement. Meanwhile Benton was working on a new plan that would perpetuate St. Louis as "Queen City of the West." And Stephen Douglas barked at Asa Whitney again for proposing the importation of European laborers for the task of building the Pacific Railway's roadbed.

Chicago herself was much too busy begging funds for the Illinois-Michigan Canal. Plans to build a railroad to the Mississippi River port of Galena, 175 miles west on lead-rich bluffs, had been drawn up in 1832. They were still locked in a lawyer's strongbox. Actually, Chicago's leaders held with  p46 the concept of waterway monopoly and argued that the railroads, aside from the sensory pleasures derived by crossing the countryside at 25 miles an hour, could never progress beyond the status of portage carriers between navigable waterways. No banker or attorney would look twice at a proposal to finance a railway that would compete against steamboats or barges. If and when the Federal Government decided that the Pacific Railway was critical to the national defense and public interest, let Congress handle it.

Whitney set off on a lecture tour. "The Pacific Railway," he told lyceums and club meetings in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, "must be the scientific and industrial basis for both Asiatic trade and new settlements beyond the Iowa and Missouri frontiers." Newspapers welcomed his speeches. Midwest Congressmen earned home-town headlines with statements about "the most logical and reasonable Pacific Railway route"; out of Galena — out of Detroit — out of LaSalle, Illinois — out of Memphis, New Orleans — out of Fort Smith and even tiny St. Paul, Wisconsin Territory.

Texas became a state on December 29, 1845. General Zachary Taylor won the battles of Palo Alto and Resacaº de la Palma in May, 1846. The Oregon Treaty with Great Britain was signed on June 15. A packet boat hurried up the Potomac through the September mists with the news that most of the 500 Americans in Alta California — brashly organized by Captain John C. Frémont — had participated in the Sonoma Declaration of June 14 that created the Republic of California.

The prospects of the Pacific railway concerned the 1,600 men in the Army of the West as it marched over the Santa Fe Trail. Its commander, Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearney, was under orders to occupy New Mexico, install a provisional government at Santa Fe, then proceed west to junction with a naval squadron that should be waiting at Monterey, California. Largely because of his publicized trip with Frémont, Thomas Fitzpatrick was appointed guide for this Army of the West. As chief topographical engineer of the expedition, Lieutenant William H. Emory kept a detailed journal about the land, its  p47 peoples, its economic potentials and the possibilities for a Pacific railway. "The road from Santa Fe to leavenworth," he wrote at Santa Fe on August 6, "presents few obstacles for a railway, and if it continues as good to the Pacific, will be one of the routes to be considered, over which the United States will pass immense quantities of merchandise into what may become, in time, the rich and populous States of Sonora, Durango and Southern California."

While Lieutenant Emory mused over his report — and it was destined to become one of the classics of Western Americana — 600 lithe youngsters quick-paced up the Arkansas Valley, under orders from Brigham Young and the Council of Twelve to reinforce the Army of the West. They had not yet found the heart to laugh or sing. Most of them, if they dared listen to impulse, would have turned in their tracks and run blindly back to that city of shacks in the cottonwood grove on the upper Missouri's shore. But Brigham Young had preached to them that, "The honor of the United States must be defended, and its destiny under God fulfilled." The rape of Nauvoo and the dreadful march of 11,000 Saints to these winter quarters was one thing; the call to the nation's defense and New West destiny was a separate, and equally demanding, crisis. The 600 made their farewells, then poled rafts 150 miles downriver to Fort Leavenworth. Next spring, if the fevers and plundering Missourians spared them, their parents, wives and sweethearts would start up the Oregon Trail. To California? Or to the mountain-rimmed "Deseret" that Joseph Smith was reputed to have seen in a vision?

Through the summer and fall of 1846, the Mormon Battalion crossed the Pacific Railway route favored by the South.​a In April, 1847, their kinfolk and fellow Saints marched west by north over the Pacific Railway route proposed by Asa Whitney. In New England and New York other forces were focusing for the Union's Pacific Railroad that would finally be blasted through the Black Hills and the Wasatch twenty years later by veterans of both the Mormon Battalion and the Mormon Trail.

Thayer's Note:

a A first-hand account of the trek is found in William Hyde's Journal, pp15‑38.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 8 Nov 15