submitted by Charlene Nichols Hixon, October 27, 2007

Across the Plains in 1850
Story of Journey Told in Old Letter Written by
Samuel Gilbert and Addressed to His Neighbor Samuel Bamford.

Geneva, Ia., May 17.—On the 22d day of April, 1850, Samuel Gilbert, Raleigh W. Chinn and James Burditt started from Muscatine with six yoke of oxen, a wagon and food for four months, to go overland to California. The following letter from Samuel Gilbert to his old neighbor, Samuel Bamford, tells how it was done 52 years ago.

Letter Written in 1851.

    Nevada City, Cal., Mar. 15, 1851.
    Friend Sam: We left Wapello bottom on the 6th day of May and proceeded to Council Bluffs, which is the nearest and best route. We left the Missouri river on the 28th and with it everything else that was desirable save the game. The first day’s travel was 20 miles to the Horn river, where we saw two or three hundred Indians of the Omaha tribe. They were the cleanest and best looking I ever saw. They claimed ten cents each for traveling through their lands, which we paid, then they gave us a war dance, which was a beautiful sight. There are a few oak trees at that point, the last we saw for 1,800 miles. The timber now was willow and cottonwood and very little of that. We then proceeded up the Platte.

    The next Indians we met were the Pawnees. They were the meanest we found on the route. We had to load all our guns and pistols before they would let us cross a creek, though we passed without firing a gun.

    The distance from Council Bluffs to Fort Laramie is 522 miles, grass plenty, roads good. The Platte river is a half mile wide, very muddy and not navigable. The only difficulty the people had on the north side was the cattle stampeding, though just across the river the people were dying with cholera.

    Cattle Would Stampede.

    The cattle for some cause we did not know, especially in the buffalo region, would get frightened, both in the yoke and out. They would all start on, every one for himself, break necks, knock off horns and break wagons. All the teams that camped at night had more than a thousand oxen. I saw twelve wagons containing women and children. The cattle had left their drivers and when they were stopped, there was not a man within two miles of the wagons. The country being level and sandy was all that saved their lives.

    We had plenty of buffalo meat when in their range. I had the pleasure of killing some myself.

    We crossed the Platte at Fort Laramie, which was very wrong. We should have continued on the north side, but were humbugged into it by U. S. officers at the fort who said the north side was impassable and caused most of us to cross to the south side and we had a very bad road through the Black Hills and came in with those who had cholera and many died of it. Part of the company I was in went the north side and found it good in every respect.

    Some of the Troubles.

    When we left Laramie we left all the good grass. The roads were hilly and bad on the cattle’s feet. We had to drive two or three miles from camp and it was poor at best. Necessity often compelled us to drive day and night. The route was very dusty and 1,200 miles of it was filled with poison water, which cattle would drink sufficient to kill them. After drinking at a creek in the morning it is a rather trying time. When a set of men have to travel in dust that you can’t see a man the length of your cane all day and when camped, have to start, some before, to prevent drinking poison water, and some to drive four or five and sometimes ten miles to grass and there stand and watch the night through to keep the Indians from stealing, and sometimes get shot behind with an arrow.

    Some Curiosities.

    We see many curiosities on the plains. I saw some streams that were very cold and some that boiled like a kettle. We crossed the summit of the Rocky Mountains about July 28. It was cold enough to wear overcoats and mittens and then suffer with cold. Humbolt river, near its head, has some current with one or two streams coming into it, but the lower part is very dull and sluggish. It is the filthiest water that any man was ever compelled to use. I have waded the ponds that were near the sink that were leg deep and the maggots so thick you could not see four inches in the water. Frogs were plenty, about one thousand bushels to the acre. The cause of most of this filth was the carcasses of the animals that had given out and died on the way. I could stand and count more than one hundred without moving out my tracks. The destruction of other property, it is not worth while to mention. I have frequently taken spokes out of a good wagon to cook my supper.

    We had to stand guard the whole way. We were in company with 33 of the best men I ever saw. We frequently had to camp where we were surrounded by dead carcasses. Some would think we might find a better place to stop, but you could go for miles and you would find it the same. By leaving the road and climbing a hill you could see a streak of dead animals and broken wagons for miles each way. I will leave the story here, Sam, but never undertake to cross the plains.

    In California.

    I got to California and found the country very rough. My travels have been principally in the mountains, some parts are covered with the biggest pin trees I ever saw. I have made nothing up to this date, and god knows whether I will ever make anything, but I am here and I mean to give it a fair trial before I leave.

    Gold digging is the greatest lottery in the world; there is not one man in 50 making more than good state wages. I am now on the North Yuba. Wages are from five to eight dollars per day but provisions are high – pork 80 cents per pound, flour 30c, sugar 50c, coffee 60c, tea $3, potatoes 40c per pound. Write to me.

    Sam Gilbert.

Back to Book One, INDEX

Back to the Muscatine Co. IAGenWeb, Index Page