For the months of October and November, I chose to highlight the quotes displayed on the stone walls lining the outdoor plaza of the California Trail Interpretive Center.
“Eastward I go only by force; westward I go free.” – Henry David Thoreau 1862
Henry David Thoreau was an American essayist, poet, and philosopher. A leading transcendentalist, he is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay “Civil Disobedience”, an argument for disobedience to an unjust state. A month after he died from tuberculosis in 1862, an essay by Henry David Thoreau titled Walking was published in The Atlantic magazine. The quote on the CTIC plaza wall is from this essay, which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the inevitable encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness.
He began his essay with these words: “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering …. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea….”
It is about midway through the essay that he says, “When I go out of the house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps, and submit myself to my instinct to decide for me, I find, strange and whimsical as it may seem, that I finally and inevitably settle southwest, toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction…. The outline which would bound my walks would be, not a circle, but a parabola, or rather like one of those cometary orbits which have been thought to be non-returning curves, in this case opening westward, in which my house occupies the place of the sun. I turn round and round irresolute sometimes for a quarter of an hour, until I decide, for a thousandth time, that I will walk into the southwest or west. Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free…. We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure….”
The Atlantic has been published continuously since 1857. The entire essay can be read at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1862/06/walking/304674/.
“It is death to every one of you… to travel a distance so great as that through a trackless desert.” – William Sublette 1842
William Lewis Sublette had four brothers and three sisters. In the story of the California Trail the Sublette name is associated with a cutoff through forty miles of desert in western Wyoming, but that was named after his youngest brother, Solomon. Originally from Kentucky, the Sublette’s settled in Missouri and, in 1823, when he was 24 years old, both of William’s parents died. After arranging for the care of his younger siblings he answered an ad seeking men to travel west as fur trappers. He joined Jedediah Smith’s group and sought beavers in the Rocky Mountains near South Pass (Wyoming). Over the ensuing years Sublette prospered as a trapper and was instrumental in supplying and bartering in the annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous in the late 20s and early 30s. He was instrumental in establishing the original Fort Laramie (known then as Fort William), but by 1836 he settled into a partnership with Robert Campbell running a store in St. Louis. In 1842 William left that partnership and focused on his farm in the region. He died in 1845 of tuberculosis.
William is well-known as one of the early pioneers establishing the route from Missouri to the Rocky Mountains. When interest was growing around westward expansion into California, Sublette apparently wrote, “It is death to every one of you… to travel a distance so great as that through a trackless desert.” I, unfortunately, was unable to locate the origin of this statement. It is likely found in some of the Sublette papers held in the collection of the Missouri Historical Society. If any readers of this post can provide me with its original source, I would greatly appreciate it!
“Today we are to leave this place and home and friends and start upon a long journey, even to the land of gold. ‘Tis hard to say the last goodbye even though we know, or at least think, ‘tis for the better.” – Delia Thompson Brown 1860
Delia Thompson Brown left Huntley, Illinois (near Chicago) on May 7, 1860 with her husband and several children to go to California. Upon their arrival in Salt Lake City on July 17, they chose to follow the Central Overland Trail from there to Carson City, Nevada. The Central Overland Trail was surveyed by James H. Simpson for the army but was developed into a route which would be used by emigrants, stagecoaches, the Pony Express, and the Overland Telegraph Company.
Delia wrote, while still in Illinois, “Today we are to leave this place and home and friends and start upon a long journey, even to the land of gold. ‘Tis hard to say the last goodbye even though we know, or at least think, ‘tis for the better.” A transcript of her diary is held in the collections of the Nevada Historical Society and portions of it from Salt Lake City onwards were published in West from Salt Lake: Diaries from the Central Overland Trail, edited by Jesse Peterson. Delia’s writing focuses most on commentary from daily life along the trail, with less particulars about mileage and landmarks.
“Take the regular wagon track and never leave it.” – James Clyman to the Donner Party 1846
This quote comes from the 1928 book James Clyman, American Frontiersman, 1792-1881, edited by Charles L. Camp. The book can be viewed on the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/jamesclymanameri01cali/page/228/mode/2up.
Like William Sublette (see our Facebook post from October 8), James Clyman answered the ad calling for trappers to head west in 1823 and traveled with Sublette and Jedidiah Smith. He became a well known explorer of routes to Oregon and California. In April, 1846, he and Lansford Hastings (and others) left California en route back east to the States to lead a group of 25 people wanting to return there. On May 22 they reached a point near present-day Halleck, NV and debated continuing by way of Fort Hall or trying John Fremont’s route south to the Great Salt Lake. Hastings argued in favor of this because of his recent publication that advocated for that route from Fort Bridger and ultimately convinced the group to go that way.
On June 27, Clyman wrote, “we met numerous squad of emigrants untill we reached fort Larrimie whare we met Ex govornor [Lilburn W.] Boggs and party from Jackson county Mi[ss]ourie Bound for California and we camped with them several of us continued the conversation until a late hour.” The editor of the book referenced above then writes, “James Clyman knew James Frazier Reed, one of the leaders of the Donner subdivision, having served with him in Jacob Early’s company in the Black Hawk War. In Montgomery’s ‘Biographical Sketch of Clyman,’ introductory to a transcript of Clyman’s diaries in the Bancroft Library, Clyman is quoted as follows: ‘We met Gov. Boggs and party at Fort Laramie. It included the Donner Party. We camped one night with them at Laramie. I knew Gov. Boggs, had got acquainted with him at St. Louis. Had known Mr. Reed previously in the Sauk war. He was from Springfield Illinois…. ‘Mr. Reed, while we were encamped at Laramie was enquiring about the route. I told him to ‘take the regular wagon track [by way of Fort Hall] and never leave it – it is barely possible to get through if you follow it – and it may be impossible if you don’t.’ Reed replied, ‘There is a nigher route, and it is of no use to take so much of a roundabout course.’ I admitted the fact, but told him about the great desert and the roughness of the Sierras, and that a straight route might turn out to be impracticable.’
“The Oregon Trail strikes off to the right and leaves us alone in our glory with no other goal before us but death or the diggings.” – Wakeman Bryarly, 1849
This quote is from the Monday, July 16th entry in Trail to California: The Overland Journal of Vincent Geiger and Wakeman Bryarly. The diary is rich in detail, begun by Vincent Geiger in Saint Joseph, Missouri on May 10 and continued by Wakeman Bryarly beginning on June 23. It can be viewed online on The Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/trailtocaliforni000849mbp/page/n175/mode/2up.
The July 16 entry says, in part, “Last night we were regaled with music during [the] night. With the cornopeans of the musquitoes, & bass roar of the American Falls, buzzing of the buffalo [g]nats, interspersed with an occasional “solo” from a burro, the night passed off in wakefulness & watchfulness. It required but little time or trouble to arouse the camp, but every one was but too eager for an excuse to leave their ungrateful blankets. We left the Musquitoe Valley & four miles from our start we came to ‘The American Falls’ on Snake River. The distant rumbling of these Falls broke the monotony of our march yesterday evening & last night, & we felt anxious to see them. The fall was about 30 ft., & reminded one of a miniature Niagara. The first fall was on the opposite side, & it extended half way across the river, it being 200 yds. wide at this place. The half on this side, after tumbling over the rocks, very similar to the rapids of the Niagara, it then fell the same distance as the other side. In one place in the middle of the Fall, was a round hole in the middle of the rock, through which the water rushed with great velocity, & throwing the stream some distance forward of the sheet of water coming over…. Six miles from [the] Falls, the road passes through two “Buttes” of solid rock with just space between for the road. One & [a] half miles farther we nooned upon the river, with good shade of the pines. The sun was most oppressively hot & we nooned 6 hours for the purpose of making [our] march in the cool of the evening. We succeeded in taking some fish which were fine the salmon trout. We rolled in the evening at 4 o ‘clock, the road leaving the river at our start, [a] half mile to our right. Five miles brought us to Beaver Creek. From the creek we ascended the steepest hill we have yet encountered. The crossing also was bad. The Creek is a succession of dams distant 50 yds. from each other. They extended as far as the eye could reach. These dams are supposed to have been formed by the beavers, and have become petrified. Five miles farther, the road bids farewell to the Snake River & strikes off to the left. Here also ‘The Oregon Trail’ strikes off to the right & leaves us alone in our glory, with no other goal before us but Death or the Diggins.”
The quote on the plaza wall is mis-attributed to Bryarly as “William” rather than “Wakeman”.