Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 7/Route across the Rocky Mountains with a Description of Oregon and California/Chapter 6

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Journey from Captain Sutter's to Fort Hall, With Some of Its Incidents

Leave California for the United States—Difficulties in crossing Juba River—Extensive view from the summit of a mountain, with deep snow on one side and naked earth and fine grass on the other—Burnt Mountains—Boiling Springs—Sink of Marie's River, and singular peculiarity of the stream—Encamp in the bend of the River, and have horses shot by the Indians—Travel over extensive wastes, and finally come to the Oregon Trail.

Having spent some months in exploring the country and obtained a tolerably satisfactory knowledge of the greater part of Northern or Upper California, either from personal observation or by careful enquiries from such persons as had made themselves acquainted with the various portions of the country, we determined on leaving for the United States. After much trouble and exertion in raising a small company of fifteen persons, on the 12th of May, 1845, we left Capt. Sutter's on our homeward bound trip. We traveled up the Sacramento on the East side forty miles, and then traveled up Bear Creek—our course being about East. Crossing the East side of the Sacramento Valley a distance of about twenty miles, we came to the spurs of the California Mountains. We continued to travel up through these hills, following the general course of the stream, until we came to its source, which is in a large marsh greatly elevated above the Sacramento Valley. At this marsh we remained one day in order to find a place where we could cross Juba River, which was a mile and a half distant, a stream of considerable size, very rapid, full of falls and canions, and was at this time quite high from the melting of snow on the mountains. It was only in a few places where the hills were sufficiently gradual to allow us to descend to the water, and these places were frequently between perpendicular falls, which were so near, and the velocity of the water so great, as to render the crossing very dangerous, if not absolutely impossible. This was the character of the first place where we struck the River, which was on the trail of a small emigrating company that came into California the previous summer. We had been told by a gentleman whom we had met a few days before, returning from the mountains where he had gone to get some wagons and other property which he had been compelled to leave in the Fall on account of the lateness of the season and the fear of being blocked up by the coming snows, that it would be impossible for us to cross the stream, and that it would be best for us to return. We, however, discovered a place where we ascended the mountain immediately above us, and having with much difficulty, on account of the steepness of the ascent, gained the summit; we followed the ridge—our progress being somewhat impeded by the snow—for about eight miles, and descended into a small bottom of the River. Traveling up the bottom about two miles, we came to a high, rocky spur making into the water, around which we were at first unable to pass. But after searching and examining for a long time, we at length found a place where, by cutting away the brush for a considerable distance with our hatchets and plunging through the mire and snow, we could pass around the spur. Having accomplished this, and traveled up the narrow bottom about two miles further, we again came to where the mountain neared the river. The bottom land was miry and covered with brush, and the snow was about four feet deep. Our loose animals, which were in front, were crowded into the stream by the pack animals before we were aware of the situation. We succeeded, with difficulty, in stopping the animals which were packed with our provisions, etc., and stripping off our baggage and saddles, in the snow, we drove in the rest of our animals. They all succeeded in gaining a small island near the opposite shore, just large enough to contain them, where they stayed the whole night in the snow, without anything to eat. Having kindled a large fire, and arranged our camp, our next object was to make a way by which we could cross ourselves and baggage. For this purpose we felled a tree which, not being long enough to reach, was carried down the stream: we then selected a large, tall Fir, which we cut about half off and left it until the next morning, when we finished cutting it down. In falling it broke in two about fifteen feet from the opposite shore, and the top was carried away; the main trunk, however, lodged against the upper part of a large rock, and the force of the current supported it above. From the broken end of this tree we were able to throw poles across to the opposite shore, and in this manner we constructed a way upon which we carried across our baggage.

Having repacked our horses we continued up Juba River, traveling about an East course, sometimes in the narrow bottom of the stream and sometimes upon sides and summits of the ridges. The snow still continued deep and covered both the bottoms and the mountains in all parts around us; but it was very compact, and in the morning would generally bear our animals. We traveled up the North side about eleven miles and came to the forks of the stream, the North branch of which we crossed with difficulty, the current being very strong and the channel full of large rocks upon which some of our pack animals fell, and were carried down the stream, and we were compelled to leap into the water, just melted from the snow, and assist them to the shore. Having crossed, we came into a prairie about one mile in width and three or four in length, extending to the base of the main ridge of the mountain, which now lay immediately before us. We ascended this ridge without much labor, although it was composed entirely of granite, which lay in large detached fragments over the whole surface, and gained the summit. This, on either side of the narrow gap through which we passed, was very sharp and perfectly bald and barren. Immediately upon reaching the summit the whole Eastern side of the mountain burst upon the view, and a sudden thrill of joy awakened in every bosom and flashed in every eye, for the snow, which had so much impeded and made so disagreeable and dangerous the ascent on the West, had melted almost entirely away on the East. Down the mountain we could see a green spot, at the further end of a beautiful lake, which spread out in a broad crystal sheet below us. But although this was so pleasing to us, as it was now the third day since our animals had had any nourishment, we could not but remain for a moment to admire and enjoy the vastness of the prospect around us. On either side there was no limit to the vision, save the thickening air of the distant horizon, which bent down and rested upon the far off hills, like the bending sky upon the bosom of the great deep. Within this wide range was a succession of mountain after mountain, increasing in height as they approached the summit upon which we stood. To the west, from whence we came, wherever we could see through the tall forests, all was wrapped in one unbroken sheet of snow; to the East, whither we were going, we looked down, down, until the eye was lost among the dimly descried, crowded and confused objects in the distance.

Descending the Eastern declivity we came to the lake, and passed around on the Northern side to the further extremity where we found the grass, which we had seen from the summit of the mountain, in abundance and of a very good quality. We remained at this place the rest of the day in order to refresh our animals, which were by this time much exhausted and fatigued from hunger and plunging through the snow. The distance from the forks of the Juba River to the lake is about ten miles, and in this lake the South branch of the Truckies River has its source. This stream was called by the emigrating party that went into California in the Fall of 1844, after the name of an Indian who piloted them across the mountains.

Leaving the lake and the river which flows from it to the right, we bore off to the North East for a wide, deep gap, through which we supposed that we could both pass and leave the mountains. At ten miles we crossed the North branch of Truckies River, a stream of considerable size. We traveled eight miles further to the head of a stream running to the North West, which we called Snow River, as a heavy fall of snow here obscuring our course, compelled us to halt. Snow continued to fall during this and the succeeding day, and we remained in camp. When it ceased we again proceeded on our journey, leaving the gap for which we had been steering, and bearing to the East, through a break in the mountain which follows the course of the Truckies River, and which is a spur of the main California chain. Having crossed this mountain we again came, at five miles, to Truckies River, which we crossed and traveled down on the South side—passed across a barren plain, ten miles in width, and at fifteen miles, came to the Burnt Mountains. These are a succession of several high, perfectly barren, and very rocky ridges. The distance across is about thirty-five miles, and the way was very tedious and toilsome.

We found the Indians on Truckies River, generally, very wild, entirely naked, and miserably poor. They live in floating houses, constructed of long, coarse grass, on rafts of dry willow brush. They are armed with bows and arrows, and subsist almost entirely on lizzards, crickets, and muscles [sic].

Having crossed the Burnt Mountains, we found that it would be necessary for us to leave Truckies River, as it now bore too much to the North: and accordingly, we remained one day encamped in order to rest our animals, for a hard travel, across a sandy, unproductive plain, thirty-five miles, to the sink of Marie's River; which distance was without drinkable water. We passed three springs in the plain, but the first was salt, and the other two, which were close together, were both hot; the largest one, which was ten feet in diameter, was boiling furiously; and we could see the steam arising from it several miles. These springs rise through volcanic rock, and large fragments of the same are scattered over the ground around them.

At the sink of Marie's River the stream is lost in the sand. This sink is a large sandy marsh about three miles wide and ten miles long, full of bullrushes and very miry; the water which it contains is also warm and has a very disagreeable taste. From this point we traveled up Marie's River, which flows from North East to the South West through a sandy plain almost entirely destitute of vegetation. This plain is about twenty miles wide and is bordered on each side by high, rugged, and perfectly barren mountains. On the lower part of the River we could find but little grass for our animals, and we had traveled two hundred miles up it before we found water coming in on either side. Unlike any other stream, perhaps, it is larger in the middle than anywhere else; it continued to increase in size as we proceeded up until we came to where it receives its last tributary. Here we encamped one night in the bend of the river, which we used as a coral, the guard standing at the entrance. During the night the animals made several attempts to rush by the guard and it was with the greatest difficulty that they were able to keep them. In the morning we were astonished to find four of them fatally wounded. They had been shot by the Indians, who had swam across in the night. We also found several arrows in the encampment, some of which had evidently been shot at the men. We left one of the animals dead in camp and another was able to go only a half a mile. The Indians had killed them to eat, and we were determined to disappoint them as much as possible by driving those that were able to travel away. After we had packed up two of us remained behind and the rest of the company proceeded, taking all the animals. We then concealed ourselves in the brush intending to kill if we could whoever came to the dead beast. The company had been gone about two hours when we saw an Indian coming toward us. He came within two hundred and fifty yards of the point of brush in which we were concealed, but thinking this rather a long shot we allowed him to pass, supposing that he would return to the horse after having examined the company's trail, which he seemed to be doing. He was, however, in all probability suspicious and went away and we saw nothing more of him or any other Indians. Having waited half an hour longer and finding that he did not return, we left our place of concealment and followed the company, three of whom we met after having gone about five miles, returning with our horses to meet us.

Overtaking our companions, we continued to travel up the river, finding now an abundance of grass in its bottoms and on its tributaries, which were still very rare. Fifty miles above our unfortunate encampment we left the river, and the last of our wounded animals. About the head of Marie's River there is a large extent of country covered with a superior quality of grass, the stalks, branching out into numerous heads, are loaded with seeds which are highly nutritious.

Leaving the valley, we crossed the spur of a mountain, which was also covered with grass, and came to waters running North, towards Snake River; and for fifty miles the country over which we traveled afforded excellent grazing. At the termination of this distance we came to a spot containing several acres full of small pools of hot water. From these hot pools we traveled over a mountainous country, leaving the main range, which was broken in several places by deep gaps, several miles to the left and between us and the Valley of Snake River. The grass became less abundant as we advanced, a great portion of the country became quite barren.

At one hundred miles from the Hot Pools we came to and crossed the Raft River, which empties into Snake River, twenty-three miles below the American Falls. Thence we crossed the main range of mountains, South of the Valley of Snake River, through a large deep gap, and at thirty miles came to the river five miles below the junction of Portneiff; thence we proceeded to Fort Hall, a distance of twenty-three miles, where we arrived on the 20th day of June, forty days having elapsed since we left Capt. Sutter's in California.

In the whole country between the Eastern base of the California Mountains and Fort Hall we saw no game of any description, excepting a few Antelopes on the head of Marie's River. The greater portion of the country, after leaving the head waters of the Sacramento, is either broken by mountains or covered with extensive wastes of sand and volcanic desolation, and can never be inhabited by a people much superior to the insect and reptile eating savages, found at the present time upon some of its streams.

Here we will leave for a time the Company from California; return to the Falls of the Willammette, and follow, from that place, the Oregon Company, until the time when the two, having accidentally met in the mountains, united.[1]

  1. For the sake of uniformity of expression, "we" has been used throughout the previous pages, although it will be perceived by a reference to the introduction, that only Mr. Winter was in California.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).