It's February 20, 1849. The only documentation suggesting that James Campbell and his brother, David Lee Campbell, were considering joining the mass exodus to the California gold country is a letter written on this day from Payson, Illinois, by David Lee to his father, David McCord Campbell, in Clayton, Illinois. As the months progressed, news flowing from the far-off Pacific coast surely hastened their planning.
One year previously gold had been discovered at Sutter's Mill on January 24, 1848 ... nine days before the Mexican War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. New York newspapers reported the news signaling the rush to California for gold. United States President James Polk confirmed the news. His successor, Zachary Taylor, worked on measures to regulate post-office and mail accommodations to California (and Oregon), and even recommended the establishment of a branch mint in California.
People from all corners of the world began to catch the California fever as word of the discovery quickly spread. Newspapers contributed significantly to the spirit and excitement of the Gold Rush phenomenon. In the early months of 1849, for example, nearly every issue of the Quincy (Ill.)Weekly Herald related items about California-from outfitting merchandise advertisements, to extensive editorials on California and her mineral treasures. Countless Americans were on the verge of rushing from the confines of their burgeoning country to the distant western territory. Whether embarking by land or sea, they would set their sights on the California mining country in hopes of realizing their dreams of "striking it rich quick." They would become known as the "Forty-niners." The California excitement prevailed and many Adams County, Illinois, residents left for the Pacific. By 1850 the number of people moving to California greatly exceeded those headed for Oregon.
Brothers James and David Lee Campbell "caught the gold fever," too. Their primary motive for going was presumably to earn enough money to buy back the family homestead. James confides to his father in a letter dated October 8, 1850, that "David and I want to make anuff to buy the old place by the time we go home...." David Lee's letters also support the claim that the Campbells sought gold to finance land purchases in Adams County. Clearly they had been turning the subject over in their minds for some months, though David Lee's letter to his father on February 20, 1849, is the only letter known to have survived that intimates plans of emigrating to California. "The one great subject of discussion about the firesides and in log cabins that winter, was the gold of California."
For the next year James and David Lee Campbell began calculating "preparations for starting." While little is known about the exact provisions taken on their overland migration, David Lee's letters dated January 26 and 28, 1851, provide what he considered necessary for the overland trek. Perhaps James and David Lee may have been influenced by the article, "Interesting to California Emigrants," extracted in part here:
"...The highest wagon that can be constructed of sufficient strength to carry twenty-five hundred pounds weight, is the vehicle most desirable. No wagon should be loaded over this weight, or if it is, it will be certain to stall in the muddy sloughs and crossings on the prairie, in the first part of the journey. This wagon can be hauled by three or four yoke of oxen, or six mules. Oxen are usually employed by the emigrants for hauling their wagons. They travel about fifteen miles per day, and all things considered, are, perhaps, equal to mules for this service, although they cannot travel so fast. They are, however, less expensive, and there is not so much danger of their starving and being stolen by the Indians....
"The provisions actually necessary per man, are as follows: One hundred and fifty pounds of flour, one hundred and fifty pounds of bacon, twenty-five lbs. coffee, thirty pounds of sugar. Added to these, the main items, there should be a small quantity of rice, fifty or seventy-five pounds of crackers, dried peaches, &c., and a keg of lard, with salt, pepper, &c., and such other luxuries of light weight as the person outfitting chooses to purchase.
"Every man should be provided with a good rifle, and, if convenient, with a pair of pistols, five pounds of powder and ten pounds of lead. With the weapon, there should be carried such carpenters' tools as a handsaw, augur, gimblet, chisel, shaving-knife, &c., an axe, hammer and hatchet. This last weapon every man should have in his belt, with a hunter's or bowie knife....
Emigrants should be at...the point of starting by the 20th of April, and start as soon thereafter as the grass on the prairies will permit. This is sometimes by the first of May, and sometimes ten days later, according to the season."
This useful sketch of route and outfit was originally prepared by Edwin Bryant, author of What I Saw in California, in response to an overwhelming demand for information about westward travel. Many eastern newspapers published the "syndicated" article, including the Weekly Quincy (Ill.) Herald which picked it up from the St. Louis Reveille and printed it on December 29, 1849. Bryant's article together with his book became a basic guide for gold rushers. What I Saw in California and other trail guides were being advertised in the Quincy (Ill.) Weekly Herald by March 16, 1849.
Now imagine it's late March 1850-the days leading up to when James and David Lee Campbell took hold of three yoke of oxen and led their provisioned wagon down the road away from their homes, families, and community. Doubtless, their fears were contrasted with intense excitement, their sadness alleviated by their sense of duty or destiny. Certainly the latest news from the California mines encouraged them to proceed. Days earlier the Quincy (Ill.) Weekly Herald and Argus reported about a million dollars in gold had recently arrived in New York via steamer from San Francisco, and that emigration to the mines would be extensive in the coming months. The report also verified that San Francisco, a city of nearly 35,000, was rapidly growing and compared "favorably with the majority of buildings in the Atlantic cities." Twelve months earlier in the fall of 1849 San Francisco-then called Yerba Buena-was a small village of only 2,000 citizens where Spanish was the most common language spoken. "The nineteenth century has strown together men from all parts of the world, and in a single year has produced a nation...[where] now are heard the languages of all Europe." The multi cultural population of California was far more diverse than any other region of the nation at the time of the Gold Rush. The discovery of gold in California primarily lured young men seeking fortunes not only from the eastern United States, but from countries around the globe. People intermingled in mining camps and on the streets of bursting mining towns, though there was little semblance of a cohesive society. Minorities (South Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, Native American Indians, and African-Americans) separated themselves, or were forced to remain separate, as European-American ethnocentricism dominated the era of the Gold Rush.
Behind James and David Lee Campbell wept their wives. James and Elizabeth had just delivered their first son, John Sidney, February 6, and Martha was "in the family way" upon David Lee's departure. Then, too, they said farewell to their father, mother, brothers and sister, whom James and David Lee would correspond with for the next two years. James and David Lee left Illinois with two younger boys, Barney Springer and James Marion Hickerson. They anticipated, as did most Argonauts-the name given to gold seekers, taken from the Greek myth "Jason and the Argonauts" who sought the golden fleece-walking beside an evenly-paced oxen stride for most of the journey. "Broth[er] James and I have not rode in the wagon one hundred yards since we left home" wrote David Lee in a letter written home on May 26. As they looked back to bid their kin farewell one last time, wonder what it must have been like for them to part with the notion that they may never see one another again. Fateful emigrant stories from years prior surely clouded the anticipation and excitement of their journey west. Presumably their faith in God saw them through this challenging time as witnessed in nearly every letter in this collection.
The Campbells had to wait a couple of days to ford the Mississippi River due to weather. They crossed at Quincy, Illinois, and traveled south to Palmyra, Missouri. As they turned westward, David Lee wrote his first letter home on behalf of himself and his brother. The original letters of James and David Lee Campbell were written on quite thin paper, which when folded made the envelope. Most were then sealed with sealing wax. They were hand-canceled without stamps, although the rate was written in the upper right corner of most of these folded envelopes-a "6," "10," or a "40." Postal rates at that time were based on the half ounce. The forty-cent rate lasted only until July 1, 1851, when Congress lowered the half-ounce postal rate from forty cents to six cents for letters traveling more than 3,000 miles. Those with a "6" are generally stamped, "PAID." In his letter of July 13, 1851, James tells his family that "postage is only 10 cts now and if prepayed 6 cts."
Cost of goods, particularly corn and hay, inflated as the Campbells traveled across Missouri (along present-day U.S. Highway 24/36). Corn escalated from $.30 to $1.00 a bushel between Quincy, Illinois, and St. Joseph, Missouri. These supplies were being purchased on demand as fuel to feed their livestock-much like today's travelers would stop at a gas station today to fill their automobiles with gasoline. The health and endurance of emigrants' livestock, an asset that was probably of utmost concern, was directly correlated with the care and attention emigrants devoted to their livestock. Availability of edible vegetation growing in Missouri through April, however, is an undependable event. Emigrants traveling to the western frontier landing towns during this late-winter to early-spring period had to rely on storehouses for feed.
After jumping off at St. Joseph James and David Lee would have little opportunity to buy additional provisions. They would rely primarily on what they had packed, plus fresh water, grasses, and prairie wildlife to keep themselves and their teams going. Fortunately, by the time most travelers reached the plains near the beginning or middle of May, native prairie flora-horse, cow, mule and oxen delicacies-were beginning to grow in abundance. Along the way emigrants picked wild berries, like choke cherries and gooseberries, and also found fish in streams and foul, like quail and mag pies, amidst the prairie grasses. They also killed game like bison (commonly known as buffalo), antelope, and deer, although David Lee relayed at one point that they had "killed but little game There is plenty of it but people keep it away from the road" Of course, frontier forts or returning emigrant parties might have something to offer westward travelers in need or want. There are a few instances in which the Campbells took advantage of these added supplies. They purchased pickles and beans from a couple of men who had decided to abandon their wagon and "pack through."
It's April 29, 1850. James and David Lee relay their opinions of the town of St. Joseph and its people rather frankly in a series of letters before jumping off. The anxiety and stirring of a frontier river town like St. Joseph yielded itself to a variety of characters, and James and David Lee devoted plenty of ink to describe these "scoundrels." The supply-driven market town of St. Joseph-with about 3,460 citizens and an influx of hordes of eager travelers-was doubtless bustling with activity, complete with industrious and less desirous behaviors. Luckily, though, they see very little if any disease. Their letter of April 29 disproves rumors of cholera, smallpox and starvation. More emigrants departed from St. Joseph between 1849 and 1851 than any other jumping-off point along the Missouri.
The Campbells forded the Missouri River at St. Joseph and established a camp on the banks across from town for several days before heading out. "We are now we are are out of the United States," wrote David Lee. And for the remainder of their journey they would remain so. California would not be admitted to the Union until just after their arrival there in September.
It's May 6, 1850. Last minute provisions were gathered, and their best determination as to their expected outcome was given. David Lee took the opportunity to write home once more over the course of their last two days before starting across the plains. Finding a wagon train to travel with was among the final preparations. Focusing on the moral fortitude of their fellow frontiersmen, David Lee writes that they joined a group calling themselves the "Mutual Protection Company of California Emigrants," a group of "civil" men. Few details were given at that time as to the number of wagons, animals or members in the group, but in his letter written between June 9 and 11, James says, "There is know but six wagons of us now to gether We have had fifteen...." David Lee's letter written between June 27-30 revealed that they were herding "48 head of cattle," which may give some indication as to the size of the company near the middle of their journey at South Pass. Later, more of their company would separate, leaving only three wagons.
At St. Joseph on May 8, likely before daybreak, James and David Lee Campbell "started for Callifornia." A 2,000-plus mile trek lay before these adventurous young men. James Campbell opened his diary for the first time that evening or the following morning and wrote a few lines-a tradition he would keep each day for the next two years. James Campbell's diary appears to be leather bound, held together with four stitches along the spine. The paper is in excellent condition, with minimal acidification. Black ink has oxidized to brown. The book measures 3 9/16 in. X 5 11/16 in. (9 cm. X 14.5 cm). James Campbell's diary is one of nearly 350 diaries known to exist that were written in 1850.
The Campbells were not alone in this epic adventure by any means. Diarist Martin Vivian estimated "not less than 50,000 this spring" as he passed through Fort Laramie on June 12, the same day as the Campbell brothers. His prediction matches conventional estimates of overland migration for the summer of 1850 when approximately 50,000 travelers crossed the continent to California and Oregon in what has since become known as the largest voluntary (or peacetime), overland mass emigration in world history. The only other year that came close in comparison was 1852, which had an emigration of 60,000 people.
The Campbell brothers mention few details about people in their own company or other emigrant teams moving westward, which obviously were quite numerous. But, in one of his first letters written from the plains, David Lee told his father "they are passing us more or less every day but I think we will be to California as soon as they will." He later relays that "there is not many ox teams before us and that the horse teams have to travle very slow and their horses are getting poor We have rather out traveled most of the ox teams...."
James reported several evenings of camping at least a mile off the road. This may indicate just how far they needed to retreat from the trail which was undoubtedly congested and unfit for safe layover, not to mention lacking adequate fire wood and edible grasses for the livestock. For the most part, they tried to maintain a level of privacy for themselves and those with whom they traveled. Recounting his trip some months later, David Lee admitted "it is the most trying trip in the world and people soon become very ill natured...if any persons pester you the road is long & wide; go to yourselves."
By the middle of May, James and David Lee came to the intersection where the St. Joe Road, the road which they had been traveling, meets the Independence Road. The junction of these two routes was about three miles east of present-day Hanover, Kansas. Here they met wagon trains on the open prairie who had jumped off from Independence, Missouri, though the Campbells made no particular mention of this event in their writings. After crossing the Big Blue River, they camped on the bluff before beginning the northward ascent up the east side of the Little Blue River. Within the next couple of days, the boys would traverse the vicinity of present-day Kansas and Nebraska state boundaries, the trail progressing northwest. It paralleled the north side of the Little Blue River, and then followed the south bank of the Platte River to the fork of the river.
David Lee "wrote a few lines" to his father near the head of Grand Island on the Platte River just eight miles east of Fort Kearney to report traveling conditions since leaving St. Joseph: He lauded "the best kind of water" along the way "and generally tolerable plenty," adding that, "we have good water by dig[g]ing down about 2 1/2 feet." The timber they were able to locate "for camping purposes" was confined to the smaller branches of water routes and on the north side of the Platte. David said they got "some of the boys to cross and cut wood and raft it over." Although the prairie grasses were growing "finely," he admitted they "had rather a hard time to get grass along the road." Still their teams remained "first rate" overall and they spared "no pains to take the best care of them."
Many emigrants could not produce such a favorable report. James and David Lee recorded a great many dead horses and mules, and oxen. This mortality rate would continue throughout the journey with fluctuations that were dependent primarily on the availability of water and grasses. Of course, the human treatment of beasts of burden was equally noteworthy. Entire teams failed as a result of people trying to drive their wagons too fast. The Campbells did not appear to be in any significant hurry. In fact, at several junctions along their journey, they may be found "laying over" for days at a time. With little sickness to speak of between themselves and their company, David's impression was that "the emigrants are in the very best of health." He reported having "seen a considerable number of graves made last year, and but 3 this year." James listed the number of graves he saw each day at the back of his diary. Between May 8 and May 26, he tallied 23 graves from 1849 and but 5 graves from 1850.
It's May 27, 1850. The Campbells reached Fort Kearney. David Lee described the fort as having "3 large framed houses for officers &c besides several large sod houses for barracks, storehouses, &c" On May 29 the Fort Kearney emigrant register listed 21,287 travelers ahead of them. Once past Fort Kearney, the Campbells followed the trail to the fork of the Platte River, where they continued west along the South Platte River.
At about this time, the Campbell brothers were trekking through Plum Creek Valley. The Campbell's accounts fail to concur with cholera reports that other diarists noted. It is understood that on the north side of the Platte (Council Bluffs road or Mormon Trail) where emigration was less and water better, not a single case of cholera is known to have occurred.
By June 1 James noted in his diary they crossed the Platte River. David Lee added in a letter to his father, "it is about a half mile wide...we forded it in 24 minutes." In this vicinity were three crossings of the South Platte River. The lower crossing two miles east of present-day Sutherland, Nebraska, the middle crossing near Ogallala, and the upper crossing four miles east of Brule. The Campbells likely crossed at the latter, which was the most popular. They traveled along the south bank of the North Platte River.
On June 5 James first mentions seeing "Indian huts" in his diary. Of the several North American Indian settlements James and David Lee pass by the next few days, their impressions remain positive and favorable. They seem pleased to contradict popular myths of hosile engagements that ran rampant in eastern newspaper columns, returning emigrants' tales, and even printed guidebook warnings which prejudiced the white population against relatively innocent tribes. James said they were "friendly" though they "beged for every thing we had." David's opinion was that "they are all peaceable."
David Lee writes that "we have seen a great many new and novel things to us." Probably the first, or most notable sight was that of the great buffalo (American Bison-Bison bison Linnaeus) and antelope herds that once freely roamed the plains in astronomical numbers...herds that would be slaughtered to near extinction as the nineteenth century progressed.
Emigrants also began to see celebrated natural formations on the western horizon: Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff. James wrote Elizabeth, his wife, that he had climbed four hundred feet to the "top of one of Scotts Bluffs...[and] gethered some flowers" for her. David revealed that "there is a small store and trading house" there.
It's June 12, 1850. James and David Lee passed through Fort Laramie, situated on the south bank of Laramie River one mile from its junction with the North Platte River. Various diary accounts and newspaper reports at the time also relay that an emigrant register of traveler's passing through the Fort was maintained by officials. Although the original log is not believed to have survived, diarists often made attempts to transcribe data from the ledger. The Campbells may have signed the register, though they did not copy its cumulative statistics. However, five other diarists made their way to the register and managed to extract data from its pages on June 12, the same day the Campbells passed through Fort Laramie (See the printed version for a detailed chart showing extracts from the Fort Laramie register.)
Along the trail up to Fort Laramie cholera swiftly took the lives of countless travelers. While accidents were a leading cause of death along the trail, disease (primarily cholera, mountain fever, and scurvy, but also diarrhea, tuberculosis, smallpox, and mumps) was by far the greatest, accounting for nearly nine out of every ten deaths. Diarist Washington Peck, who had been traveling along the north side of the Platte (the Mormon Trail), wrote on July 4, "We hear of a great many deaths on the south side of the river among the immigrants." Once beyond Fort Laramie, the number of deaths caused by disease declined and health conditions seemed to improve. However, cholera remained a threat, at least, beyond Devil's Gate and on toward South Pass.
Contrary to what the Campbells note in their writings, the most disastrous of all migration years in terms of fatalities was 1850, mostly due to cholera. Merrill Mattes conservatively estimated 5,000 trail side deaths, or one out of every ten or twelve emigrants. In his letter of September 8, 1850, David Lee reports that, "There had been no serious sickness before [Pacific Springs] ... along near us except some diarea .... Though on that day the cholera, which was making havoc behind us, came up and continued a long near us for some time where a considerable number died But most all the graves that we seen were made the day and day before we passed so that the most of it was behind us" Later he adds, "...on the head of Humbolt River the cholera ceased...."
From Fort Laramie the boys mailed their letters dated June 9 through 11. From Fort Laramie, they took the River Road through the Black Hills. David Lee noted that the River Road was "not so stony nor hilly." While on this road, James cut twenty inches off of the end of their wagon bed. This was likely to lighten the load for the oxen, and James wrote home that "it runs much better." Within six days they arrived at the Platte River where they were fortunate enough to purchase a raft for $3 from another emigrant party. David Lee wrote that "the ferry" was charging $5 for a wagon, $4 a yoke for cattle, and $1 for a man. The ferry he writes about is apparently the Mormon Ferry, although by 1850, there were several ferries along this stretch to accommodate the "great many" who were waiting to ford.
Once crossing the Platte River for the last time, the road turns southwesterly. The averages of dead livestock that James began recording is convincing evidence that the quantity and quality of water at this point became a particular challenge for travelers. On June 21 James writes that they passed "Wilo Springs" and "alcoli springs," and the next day he reported they "got some of our cattle poisened but they got better." James tells his parents that "David has had the diarea but he has got well." The cause of this ailment may well be the poor quality of drinking water in this vicinity. They laid by until June 24 between Independence Rock and the Sweetwater River. James and David Lee would ford the Sweetwater seven more times between this junction and South Pass at the Continental Divide, which they traversed on June 29.
On the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, near Pacific Springs "on the line of Origan," James and David Lee each took turns to finish writing a letter to their families which they had been adding to each evening and morning for the last two days. It would be their last opportunity to mail a letter. Details of their overland trek beyond this campsite are found only in James' diary and letters written home once they reached California.
They bid their families farewell yet again, each with prayers that they may all "meet once more in the flesh." James commented on June 27 that it had been "seven weeks yesterday since we left St. Joseph. In 7 more weeks we will get some gold if no bad luck." David Lee projected "the forks of the road going to Salt Lake City and Fort Hall" was sixteen miles from Pacific Springs.
It's July 1, 1850. James recorded having traveled twenty-six miles "from the Pacific Springs past Little Sandy 5 miles." The next day they took the right hand road, or the Sublette Cutoff, to the Big Sandy River. They waited until evening to begin crossing the Little Colorado Desert, a reported 35 mile haul devoid of grass or water. It turned out to be 53 miles, and although there was indeed no water, grass seemed to be adequate. They came to the west side of the desert with little difficulty at the Green River, unlike other teams that crossed before them. The livestock mortality rate recorded in James' diary on the days surrounding this crossing are significantly higher. David Lee described the Green River as being "100 yards wide & swift as a mill race." There were several ferries at this location. They paid seven dollars to ford the river and were reimbursed two dollars when James worked two hours rowing the ferry boat the night of July 4. Five days later James and David Lee happened across a grave located six miles from Hams Fork. They noted with particular interest the grave of Margaret A. Campbell, which they presumed was the wife of their Uncle James Campbell who had traveled to Oregon four years previously. The date of the inscription was July 28, 1846.
The Sublette Cutoff joins the main road just beyond this point, near present-day Cokeville, Wyoming. James and David Lee traversed the vicinity of present-day Wyoming and Idaho state boundaries as they came to the Bear River where they crossed Thomas Fork. Within a couple of days they reached the "head of the Bear River" where the river makes a sharp bend to the south.
Obviously in awe of a landscape he had never seen before, James begins to note the variety of beautiful groves of timber along their way and that there was snow on the mountains on every side of them. He also details the conditions of the road which he described as very bad, rough, hilly road and long hills. This terrain was taking a toll on livestock, in any event, according to the statistics of dead livestock James kept at the back of his diary. Tallies during this leg of the journey were nearly double the average. If it was any consolation, grass along this route was generally plentiful, as was good water. If these amenities had not been available, the mortality rate would likely have been much greater. James mentions passing other great curiosities-springs that "boil like a large kettle." These were the Beer, Soda and Cold Springs. Jerome Dutton, a diarist who was at Soda Springs on July 13, the day before the Campbells, wrote, "the water gurgles up with a snapping noise and the first taste resembles soda, but the after taste is more like iron and very disagreeable."
Down the river around Soda Point and past Steamboat Springs, the Fort Hall road veers northwesterly. James and David Lee chose a new wagon road opened the previous year, Hudspeth, or Myers Cutoff. This route led travelers due south and west and although it saved 25 miles in 150, as David Lee reports, "others came the old road made it nearly as quick...and their teams fared much better as it is a good level road with plenty of grass. The cut off is misearble hilly." On July 22 the Campbells came to the fork where the Fort Hall Road met with Hudspeth's Cutoff. This was on the west edge of the valley at Cassia Creek Branch. The Salt Lake Road junction was another twenty-nine miles from this convergence, just beyond the City of Rocks and before Granite Pass.
About this time, "people began to find that they would not get to California as soon as was generally expected," wrote James to his wife upon reaching California. James and David Lee had been wisely conserving their provisions along the way. They noticed others in their company were not as frugal. So, when their company began to fear of not having ample provisions and the company proposed examining the wagons and dividing the provisions, James and David Lee declined. "Some of the wagons left us about this time, and then there was 3 wagons of us together." James and David Lee also left their big wagon on the side of the road and purchased a lighter, "two horse wagon" for five dollars. This undoubtedly eased the burden on the draft animals for the remainder of the journey. "Some of our cattle were getting poor and weak," admitted David Lee, and they lost Dan, one of their oxen.
Near the present-day political boundaries of Idaho, Utah, and Nevada, James and David Lee traveled up Goose Creek and into Thousand Springs Valley. In fact, one fourth of their entire journey was in present-day Nevada. Remarkably, nothing was recorded by either brother of the precipitous ridges and descents in this area. Nor did they name Granite Pass which marked the difficult and dangerous descent into Goose Creek. Traveler's following the trail down to Goose Creek today follow a gentler, but longer route than wagon trains of the nineteenth century.
It's August 1, 1850. James and David Lee reached the Humboldt, or Mary's River after traversing several canyons and creeks. Today, Interstate 80 parallels the Humboldt River and much of the California Trail across northern Nevada. This part of the state has been relatively undeveloped in the last 150 years, leaving about half of the original trail to survive. David reported that they "went down the Humboldt very comfortable." Along the way they encountered emigrants begging for food; a fact that other 1850 diaries recount. James wrote in his diary on August 3 that they saw "a men to day that said they had eate nothing for 4 days but ground squireles." He told his wife that starvation was along with them for a long way. He saw men begging for a handful of parched corn and others who had had nothing but frogs for four days.
Under these conditions it is surprising James and David Lee's company remained free from the onslaught of cholera. They apparently were ahead of sickness along the trail. James tells his wife that "graves have dated only one and two days ahead of us." David Lee believed that "three fourths of the sickness and nearly all the deaths were caused by eating, raming & stuffing."
For more than half a month they would travel some three hundred miles along the winding Humboldt River until they arrived at the Humboldt River Sink, where the winding "river spreds about in sloughs and finally sink away in the sand." On August 17 when James recorded reaching the sink, he noted having traveled the last fifty miles without grass. Once again a drastic increase in livestock mortality was tallied at the back of his diary on this day and several days following. They spent several days thereafter laying by to cut and dry willows and hay, and resting their cattle before crossing the Forty-Mile Desert beyond the next fork in the road.
The California Trail branches at the Humboldt Sink. The right branch goes west to the Truckee River and is known as the Truckee River Route (also the Stevens-Donner Route), while the left branch goes southwest to Carson River and is known as the Carson River Route. For a variety of reasons, as many as 90 percent of all travelers in 1850 took the Carson River Route. The Campbells, however, took the Truckee River Route. David Lee wrote the "old Trucky River Road and is said to be the worst road in the world but there is plenty of grass So we took the Trucky Road across the desert." He added that "The river has been very high this year so that but few had gone along before us So we had plenty of grass all the way up."
James recorded on August 22 that they traveled all day and all night and arrived at the Truckee River at "half past 8 o'clock the next morning...." After laying over for two days to recruit, they started up the Truckee River where they crossed it six times in six miles.
Within a week they had crossed over present-day Nevada and California state boundaries and reached the ruins of the ill-fated Donner party encampment of 1846. On August 30 James mentioned having traveled "all day through the butiful pine forest past the houses of the Donner party 2 miles before we camped...9 ms. from the sumet of mountain."
It's September 1, 1850. James and David Lee layed by this Sunday, as they have nearly every Sunday since they began their journey, at the western foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In days they would reach their destination. First, however, they had to cross some of the "worst kind of rode" they had encountered thus far. They passed several places where wagons were having to be let down with ropes. Eventually, they also had to lower their wagons in a similar fashion down into Bear Valley.
On September 6 they passed Steep Hollow, just six miles from where "the gold is" according to James. The Campbells arrived in California in good health and spirits, and with ample provisions. They attribute their success to their foresight, exacting calculations, and frugality. Typical of their Scotch-Irish upbringing, James and David Lee had planned well.
Rather than traveling light and moving fast as commonly advised, they carried a little more and traveled at a slower, steadier pace. Still they averaged twenty-three miles a day. The Campbells required about 122 days to cross from St. Joseph. The fastest time was slightly more than one half that number of days with quite a few diarist covering the distance in less than 90 days, according to David Hopper. Many emigrants purposefully tried to outdistance their 'competition' in order to arrive first before the gold was gone, but also to stay ahead of the great numbers enabling them to have more of the limited grass, clean water, kindling and game.
Of the 182 diaries processed by Hopper, he has determined, interestingly enough, that the Campbells were the 91st diarists to go through the South Pass in 1850. If the diaries are in fact representative of the entire emigration, the Campbells were very near the middle of the emigration for that year. They would likely have maintained that position at least until they reached the Humboldt River when they, like a lot of emigrants, began to fall behind somewhat, relative to other diarists that moved along with them up to that time. They also laid over to rest every Sunday to keep the Sabbath.
Each brother took the first opportunity to write home with their first impressions of California on September 8. They reported having arrived at the mining country safely, and they also relayed many details of the journey from Pacific Springs when they had last written home in June.
The next day, September 9, the United States Congress allowed California, without having been an official territory, to enter the Union as the 31st state. Word of this event would not be received in California until October 18, when the steamer Oregon delivered the news. California's entrance to the Union was made possible by the Compromise of 1850 which balanced the interests of the pro-slavery groups with those of the anti-slavery groups. In return for California's entrance as a free state the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, and the Utah and New Mexico territories were organized with the slavery issue to be decided by residents later.
Initially, the Campbell brothers intended to "try their luck" with lucrative prospecting in the California gold mines. They had walked more than 2,000 miles to do so. Along the way they came across rivers, through deserts and over mountains. They had endured the burning sun and drenching rains. Tensions of close living quarters while outpacing the threat of cholera and other misfortunes.
James and David Lee's immediate discovery was not gold, however. They found over-crowded mines and little chances of success, especially with the influx of prospectors arriving daily. With the majority of the emigrants heading for the mines, it did not take the boys long to realize, at the suggestion of their Uncles who had settled in California in 1846, that they would yield a far more dependable "fortune" improving the land of the San Jose Valley. Their Uncle Charles wrote a detailed letter home September 27 to explain the situation to their parents. James and David Lee's efforts would also yield sustenance to the inhabitants of the booming Pacific coast. California's population grew from more than 90,000 by the end of 1849 to 220,000 by 1852, the year in which gold production reached its peak. For the next year and a half they would work with their Uncles, at farming, milling, carpentry, and operating mercantile stores in San Jose and San Francisco. The diary and letters of James and David Lee Campbell offer a glimpse of life in California between September 1850 and April 1852, when they set sail to return home.
It's April 17, 1852. Neither James nor David Lee left much description of their month-long return trip from San Francisco to Clayton, Illinois. They traveled by steamer to Panama and crossed the Isthmus of Panama before taking another steamer from Navy Bay to New York, but not before staying one night in Havana, Cuba. James Campbell's diary ends May 17 when they got to New York. A biography printed years later states that James "returned by way of the Isthmus of Panama to New York city, thence by Niagara Falls and Buffalo and on to Chicago." They likely traveled up the Hudson River to Albany, then took the Mohawk Turnpike to Utica. From there the Eerie Canal goes directly to Niagra Falls, although the Genesee Road closely parallels the canal, and goes from Utica to Buffalo. To reach Chicago, James and David Lee may have then navigated the Great Lakes by steamboat, before reaching Chicago.
The final letter that has survived relevant to James and David Lee's experience in the California Gold Rush is one written to David Lee by his Uncle James Campbell who settled in Oregon in 1846.The letter apparently answers David Lee's request for information about the prospects of acquiring land in Oregon Territory. Eventually the Campbells did move from Clayton, Illinois, but not to Oregon. In 1859 the family moved to Linn County, Kansas, and settled north of Mapleton. James and Elizabeth Campbell remained in Clayton. David Lee and other Campbells later moved to Elk County, Kansas.
Meanwhile the gold boom in California began to fade as entrepreneurs sought new opportunities. The Gadsden Purchase in 1853 completed the continental expansion of the United States of America. In the same year the Washington and Oregon Territories were organized, and the United States purchased what is now part of Arizona and New Mexico. In 1869, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, new settlers migrated to the west. In California a new boom in farm land and real estate development began. By the 1870s, California's advantages were the stuff of legend, promoted around the world to attract tourists, investors, and especially immigrants.
After 150 years we are still fascinated by the California Gold Rush decade and the ordinary people who lived through one of the most exciting epics in the history of the United States. James and David Lee Campbell were two of those ordinary people. Enjoy their story.