The Road to California

Read from E.P. Howell’s diaries here: “The Road to California.” What follows is taken from the introduction to that text:


In May of 1849 a company of forty-niners travelers left Athens (now Albany), Missouri with seventeen ox-drawn wagons, headed for the gold mines of California. Among them were Elijah Preston Howell, a circuit clerk of Gentry County who had resigned his position to make the trip, and Howell’s brother, John. Together with fifty-seven men and two women they joined the thousands following the Oregon Trail to California in that year.

Estimates of the total number of emigrants vary, but approximately thirty thousand people embarked on the journey in 1849, the vast majority of them men. Not all companies left from the same jumping-off place. St. Joseph and Independence were the most popular but large numbers also joined the migration at Council Bluffs, Iowa and at Old Fort Kearney, Nebraska (present-day Nebraska City). As Athens was only seventy miles from the Nebraska border Howell’s group went north to Old Fort Kearney, and in his journal Howell begins calculating the group’s mileage at that point. There are relatively few known accounts by diarists starting from the Nebraska jumping-off place. Howell’s is one of ten written by travelers who departed from Fort Kearney in the year 1849, as compared to fifty-eight by emigrants who had started from St. Joseph. For the entire Gold Rush period of 1849-1852 there are only about fifty journals that describe the same route taken by Howell.

A small party of friends and relatives accompanied the group for the first few days, parting with them at the Grand River. One who said goodbye there was a third Howell brother, James, the sheriff of Gentry County. The departure of the company must have been almost as exciting to those who stayed behind as it was to their neighbors and relatives who undertook the trip. Elijah Howell kept his journal for the benefit of James, and sent it home to his brother in periodic letters.

From Fort Kearney Howell’s company followed the conventional trail across Nebraska and Wyoming until they reached a fork of the road in what is now southwest Wyoming and took what Howell calls Greenwood’s Cut-off, better known as Sublette’s Cut-off. From the Bear River to Goose Creek in southeast Idaho the group took another shortcut in preference to the much longer route through Fort Hall. Later known as Hudspeth’s Cut-off, it had been opened only days before by Missouri wagon train captain, Benoni Hudspeth and his guide, John Myers.

On August 23, now in north-central Nevada and hoping to spare themselves what was reputed to be the worst leg of the trip, the Humboldt The Missouri Review · 193 Desert, Howell and his companions decided to try their luck with a third ‘shortcut.’ This time the decision was a mistake. The new road, soon to be called Lassen’s Cut-off, would take them safely across the Sierra Nevada, but it was actually longer than the southern route through the desert, and unfortunately no less arduous.

In late September the company reached the Sacramento Valley. They were not yet at their final destination of the Feather River Mines but they were in California and the hardships were over. They promptly turned their cattle out to graze and lay down to take a well-deserved nap, some of them dreaming, says Howell, that they were “transported back and again combatting the difficulties we had passed.”

Those difficulties are enumerated in the preceding pages of the journal. The overwhelming one, of course, was that of the sheer distance to be traversed (two thousand miles from Howell’s point of departure in Athens) by the primitive means of ox-drawn wagons. As the trail grew more difficult and the travelers and their livestock more fatigued, water and grass grew scarce. Howell’s group was fortunate to be adequately supplied with food-many companies were not. Keeping the cattle from starving was another story, however. Howell’s company sometimes went for days without finding sufficient grass along the already over-grazed trail. Yet these were adversities they had expected to encounter. Two other dangers were less predictable and more frightening: Indians, who they believed to be largely hostile, and cholera.

Statistically cholera was more likely to kill them. An estimated five thousand emigrants died of the disease, which had become epidemic in the late 1840’s and spread west along the Oregon and the Santa Fe trails via infected water and food supplies. Its onset was terrifyingly abrupt and its progress rapid; victims often died within the day, depleted by violent diarrhea and vomiting. The Athens company was lucky to lose only one of its members to the disease. William Colley, stricken around midnight on June 17, died the following day at sunset. Colley’s grave inscription is recorded in the journal of J. Goldsbrough Bruff, traveling with a Washington group about two weeks behind Howell’s.[1]

Given the known risks, it is astonishing that so many ventured west on a route that in some spots was being carved out only miles ahead of them. Perhaps only the hope of a ‘pot of gold’ at the end could have persuaded them to do it; or, as in the case of the Mormons traveling to Salt Lake, the necessity of escaping religious persecution. If the trail was difficult, though, the vast number of emigrants meant that it was never lonely. Howell describes the way companies freely exchanged information about the trail and assistance in overcoming its obstacles.

The forty-niners had access to a number of published guidebooks to the trail. The Emigrants’ Guide to California (“Ware’s Guide”) was published by Joseph Ware in 1849. Howell’s group was one of the many that depended on Ware’s guide, which remained the best and most thorough for several years following its publication. Ware had not made the journey himself, yet despite some consequent errors, his book got many a forty-niner safely to California. Ironically, Ware later died on the trail, just east of Fort Laramie.

Elijah Howell’s journal is the product of a literate, intelligent man, though not an introspective one. It is rare that he offers a personal judgment; rare that he dwells on the past or speculates about the future; rarer still that he contemplates his own health or state of mind. His background suggests that he was a public-minded individual who took great pleasure in being part of a group. Ten years before he was appointed to the circuit clerk position he had served as treasurer of Clinton County. In the interim he built the first house in Athens, where he made his living as a merchant. The journal entries show him to have been gregarious; interested in the other companies his group met along the trail. They also reflect Howell’s pride in his hunting skills. A hunter of renown in his home county, he had killed thirty deer near Athens in the winter before his departure.

Had James Howell accompanied his brothers it is possible that Elijah might not have felt it necessary to keep his account, but James remained in Gentry County and continued his career of public service. Elijah’s journal was treasured in the family until 1917, when Judge F. J. Howell donated it to the State Historical Society of Missouri. We do not know what happened to Howell once he reached the Sacramento Valley, but he never returned to Gentry County. His relatives in Missouri believed that he had married in California and lived there until his death.

Editor’s Note

What follows is approximately one-third of Howell’s journal, which in manuscript is not quite ninety pages long. For obvious reasons, firsthand accounts of overland travel tend to dwell on the terrain—a vital concern to the emigrants but rarely as interesting to the modern reader. Most of what has been omitted are geographical descriptions of the country through which the group was passing, notes of mileage covered, and some solitary hunting episodes, which Howell loved to describe at great length.

These excerpts are published by permission of the Joint Collection, Western Historical Manuscript Collection—State Historical Society of Missouri Manuscripts. Special thanks go to Al Schwartz for his guidance in editing the journal, and to Randy Roberts and Lynn Gentzler of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection.

General information for the introduction and notes was taken from the following helpful sources: The History of Gentry and Worth Counties, Missouri (St. Joseph: National History Company, 1882); Trail to California, ed. David Morris Potter, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945); Overland to California With the Pioneer Line, ed. Mary McDougall Gordon (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983); Merrill J. Mattes, The Great Platte River Road (Nebraska State Historical Society, 1969); and William C. Sturtevant, Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 11 (Washington, D.C: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986).


—Evelyn Somers


[1] See Eye-Witnesses to Wagon Trains West, ed. James Hewitt (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 150.


Foreword to 12.3

This issue contains several items of raw experience, most of which come out of momentous events in American history from the last one hundred fifty years: An overland journal by a forty-niner; the amazing diary of a young Massachusetts soldier in the Civil War; correspondence describing the last desperate days of the Modoc Indians in California during the 1870’s; a remarkable poem by an AWOL soldier residing in a mental institution during the Vietnam War; and an interview with Esther Jane Rohrer, a ninety-eight-year-old whose clear memories stretch beyond the turn of this century. The Scopes Trial cartoons are by Daniel R. Fitzpatrick, who received two Pulitzer Prizes during his forty-five year career with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Why is a literary magazine publishing such historical items? There is a reason for it, arising from our hope for a breath of fresh air in the future of literary discussion.

Diaries, histories, reminiscences, letters, and certain works of philosophy are long-established genres of literature, but increasingly over the last half-century literary critics and literary editors have focussed on the belles lettres, excluding writing that might be thought to be didactic or “formless” or too simply connected to events in the real world.

The established body of American Literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries comprises mainly histories, sermons, biographies, religious poetry, reminiscences, and political philosophy. Due to their strong orientation toward aesthetics, however, modern critics have demoted these genres to a “junior branch.” Literature is assumed to have such an attenuated connection to the world outside itself that it is misleading to discuss both at the same time. The belles lettres is its own singular world. Formalists assume that an author is like an alchemist or nuclear reactor, totally transforming elements of the world into elements of literature. What goes in does not come out. The history that inspires, say, a novel, may be interesting, but it is finally irrelevant to a serious critical discussion of the novel. Here all that “really matters” is what the writer has done with these primitive materials, and the way the final, pure artifact is put together—its words, structure, style, generic identity, and so on. Formalism runs so deep in the literary culture of the last fifty years that it is almost our ethnic identity. We are all Formalists, even those who write mad books of Deconstructionism to deny it. Deconstructionists hate the old church, the old identity, yet their views often seem like manic mimicry of the old ways.

I hold the prosaic view that authors frequently write out of fact or experience, no matter how they may alter it. When novelists or poets talk about their work, they naturally discuss the experience behind it. They are inspired by what they see or do or read about, and by what personally/concerns them. Their writing is impelled by measurable forces, and these real-world materials do in fact remain inside the final work. They are not utterly transformed, as a by-the-book Formalist might have it, or weirdly mauled out of all recognition by the coercive protocols of writing, as a Deconstructionist might.

As recently as the nineteenth century, the novel was thought to be dangerous, destroying the minds of its readers by inspiring unhealthy fantasizing and unreal thinking. Novels were felt to be mildly unsavory, at best—the same attitude that many today have about television. Thus, well in the 1800s, novelists wrote prefaces emphasizing the accuracy, truth, or factuality of their works. Today such apologies sound quaint. Perhaps at some time not far in the future so will the modern insistence on the”purity” of the act of literature.

Common sense tells us that part of the value and substance of a work is its resonance with the world—not just with themes and recurrences but singular episodes, as well. One of the questions that people ask over and over is “What was it really like?” Documents like the ones here presented for the first time answer that deep curiosity. They have “literary” value because they describe events crucial to our past in gritty detail, through the language and sensibilities of the day. They can take us places we’ve never been before, and tell us things about the world that we didn’t know.

Civil War bugler George Sargent didn’t know a comma from a period. His vocabulary and grammar were primitive. Yet even more compellingly than Red Badge of Courage—one of my favorite novels of all times, written by one of my favorite authors—his diary describes what it was like to be in the field during the Civil War, and how the young heroes (on both sides) handled the terror of that world.

William Faulkner once wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This issue is dedicated to that idea, and to the hope that history may become a better understood aspect of literary studies


The Road to California

In May of 1849 a company of forty-niners travelers left Athens (now Albany), Missouri with seventeen ox-drawn wagons, headed for the gold mines of California. Among them were Elijah Preston Howell, a circuit clerk of Gentry County who ahd resigned his position to make the trip, and Howell’s brother, John. Together with fifty-seven men and two women they joined the thousands following the Oregon Trail to California in that year.

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Tuesday May 22nd. There is considerable sickness on the road–some in our own company.  The Mormons passed on. Palmer’s Company remained and buried Mr. George Thompson, who died with cholera. Several fresh graves here. Our company now consists of seventeen wagons, 51 men and 21 ladies. It is divided into messes for convenience…

The 4A Shuffle

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“Howell, I’m not here to punish you. Life will pubish you enough.” –Captain Roberto Cuesta

A Conversation with Esther Jane Rohrer

This interview is not currently available online.

“What was life like in rural Missouri at the turn of the century?”

Steele's Modoc Question

In the spring of 1873 a New York-born attorney named Elish Steele sent the following letter to the Commisioner of Indian Affairs for Oregon, and by the Oregon newspapers. The letter was a copy of one Steele had written to his brother, who had seen the newapaper articles that accused Steele of inciting the Modoc Indian War the previous year, of spying for the Indians and providing them with guns and ammunition, of sleeping with Indian women and of fathering a veritable tribe of half-breed children.

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Dear Brother, at your request I subjoion a brief statement of my recollection, knowledge, and intercourse with the Indians since my leaving the east in the spring of 1850. Crossing the plains that summer, whilst suffering much with other immigrants by short feed for my stock and loss of supplies in our train, I had no trouble with the Indians. Others did, but I saw or thought a cause was with themselves or with some that had shortly preceded them…

For Our Beloved Country: The Diary of a Bugler

The Civil War began in a flurry of patriotism and powerful sentiments on both sides. Reporters in both Massachusetts and South Carolina were astonished at the level of emotion expressed in crowds. Young men rushed to sign up for the adventure of war. Among them was an eighteen-year-old from Charlestown, Massachusetts, named George Sargent. Rejected by a doctor for service in a Massachusetts regiment, apparently because he was too skinny, he went elsewhere and eventually signed up to be a bugler with the First New England Cavalry. Sargent would then serve two years, reenlist as a veteran, and stay through the end of the war.

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In the fall of 1861 I caught the disease called war fever, which was spreading very rapidly about that time, and if once fairly seated it is hard to be cured, no matter how much doctoring you have done. In November I applied at the recruiting office of the 24th Massachusetts Volunteers to make one of that regiment. I signed my name to the roll, then was told to make the surgeon a visit for inspection. I found him all ready to receive visitors, so I pulled off my dry goods and he made an examination.