Mormons blaze a trail out of California

It’s the summer of 1848. Massive deposits of gold are everywhere, yet 47 men and one woman are so eager to leave California that they hack a trail 170 miles to the far side of the Sierra Nevada. Many had come west with the Mormon Battalion that followed General Kearny to California in early 1847 while others sailed around the horn with Sam Brannon on the Brooklyn. Most spent the last year working for John Sutter and some had even been at the sawmill when the gold was first found. A lot of them had mined at Mormon Island and some had found up to $50,000 worth of gold. News that Brigham Young and the rest of the Mormon Church had settled at the Great Salt Lake had arrived. They wanted to see their families again.

Entering the Great Salt Lake Valley

They assembled at Pleasant Valley, east of today’s Placerville, with 17 wagons and 300 animals. Three scouts were sent out to find a passable route. When they failed to return more men were sent to look and the wagons moved east 10 miles and camped at Sly Park. On July 14 the search party came back without finding the scouts but they had found a way across the Sierra. The Mormons moved out, camping at Log Spring, then Leek Spring before finding the bodies of their scouts in a shallow grave at a place they named Tragedy Spring. After following Rock Creek for a while, then climbing the 9,550-foot West Pass, they camped at Woods Lake to rest and repair the wagons.

Carson Pass, Sierra Nevada 1843

On July 28 the wagon train arrived at Carson Pass, named for the famous scout Kit Carson when he led John C. Fremont’s expedition through the Sierra in the winter of 1843-44. To descend from the 8,600-foot pass they had to negotiate a 700-foot long, perilously steep grade called the Devil’s Ladder, and lowered their wagons using block and tackle. The valley at the bottom of the pass they called Hope Valley but they still had miles to go before leaving the rugged mountains. Finally, on August 5th, they made it to Carson Valley and soon rejoined the California trail that would lead them to the Great Salt Lake. The trail they blazed through the Sierra became a major artery into the California gold fields.

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