Hardship on the trail west

While the gold fever lasted, from 1849 to about 1855, the true caliber of the men and women who crossed the country was sorely tested by the many trials and tribulations they faced. A man’s bad qualities were sure to come to the fore with all the hardship of the long, difficult trek. One young man from Missouri said it this way, “If a man has a mean streak in him half an inch long, I’ll be bound if it don’t come out on the plains.” While the trip did have it’s pleasures and romance and a great many got through to California safely, it was a long and weary road filled with suffering and despair. Wagons broke down, dead horses, mules and oxen lay everywhere along the way, food supplies ran short, men, women and children were exposed to a burning sun by day and freezing cold at night. Mothers could be seen wading through deep sand or climbing steep rocks dragging sobbing children behind them. Fathers, strong and powerful at the outset but now pale and emaciated, carried children on their backs and stopped to slice meat from the carcasses of dead horses or mules.

The trail

While there were many cases of great destitution hardly anyone starved, though some became so desperate they resorted to suicide. In one case three men and two women drowned themselves in the Humboldt River. They had made it clear that death was preferable to the suffering they endured. Early in the trip many turned back when their animals gave out, but there was a point of no return on the journey after which, no matter what happened, the emigrants had to go on. For two hundred dollars a man could purchase a ticket all the way to California on a spring-wagon advertised to go from St. Louis to California in sixty days. When one of these wagons, and it may well have been the only one, reached the Humboldt River the mules gave out. The passengers had no choice but to make their way as best they could nearly a thousand miles to the gold fields. Most walked.

Humboldt River Valley by Daniel Jenks 1859

Fortunately, for those in need, the majority of emigrants were kind, generous, and willing to help in any way they could. They shared food if possible and the help of strangers saved many a life on the road west. But there were those who were selfish and inconsiderate to the extreme. While some along the way suffered from a lack of food others were forced to abandon supplies to reduce the weight on their wagons. Everything from food to clothing was discarded. In some instances men would take pleasure in destroying the cast off goods, simply because it was their property and if they couldn’t use it no one else would. Wagons were burned, flour mixed with salt and dirt, sugar had turpentine poured on it and clothing was torn to shreds. And yet others left seemingly insignificant reminders of their humanity for those who followed them to enjoy. At one spot, where a lone tree shaded a circular rock wall, someone left a cache of newspapers with sign that read, “Read and leave for others.” It was a small thing to do but carried a great comfort to those who came later.


  1. A lovely story, John. Realistic but hopeful. Very nice!

    • Thank you Carol.

      I’ve read journals men kept on that 1849 trek. They are remarkably similar. Few men made it to California without the help of strangers. It was the beginning of a life changing experience.

  2. Terry Tyler says

    Fascinating, really enjoyed that, and look forward to reading your book I downloaded a while back 🙂

  3. Harold Grice says

    As a kid, I would sit and listen to Grama Emmert tell of crossing the plains and mountains. It was fascinating for a country boy who spent much time alone and in the woods.

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