Journals of Forty-Niners: Salt Lake to Los Angeles, edited by LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1998, $15 paperback.
During the California Gold Rush 150 years ago, many gold seekers rushed west on the Oregon-California Trail. Some California-bound travelers actually went to Oregon first before turning south. There were a number of shorter options, the most popular taking travelers across northern Nevada along the Humboldt River. The hard part was crossing the Sierras, as the Donner party had found out in 1846.
Some groups, with the Donner tragedy fresh in their minds and traveling too late in the season to risk the direct route across northern Nevada, chose to turn south at Salt Lake City and take a longer but seemingly safer route to Los Angeles (before going north to the mines). Journals of Forty-Niners, a 333-page work, originally published in 1954 by the Arthur H. Clark Company and now a Bison Books reprint, is a collection of diaries and memoirs of gold seekers who took that southern route.
It turned out that, because of desert heat and lack of water, the southern route was not in fact safer. A large party that set out with Jefferson Hunt in 1849 eventually split into several parties, and one group suffered greatly in Death Valley. “Around the valley they wandered,” journalist-traveler George W. Cannon wrote, “and the children, crying for water, perished at their mothers’ breasts. The mothers soon followed, and the men, with swollen tongues, tottered and raved and died.” In a footnote, LeRoy and Ann Hafen say that Cannon’s information about the Death Valley parties was often inaccurate, although they don’t really explain how so. Most of the notes, however, are helpful–oftentimes providing just the right amount of historical background–and together with these fascinating accounts by argonauts make for some fine sesquicentennial reading.