The greatest wagon-train adventure... never told
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"To Truckee's Trail" is a fictional re-telling of the greatest real-life adventure on the California wagon-train trail --- of which you have most likely never heard. They were bold, daring, and lucky … and did everything right. The Stephens-Townsend Party of 1844 set out into a barely known and lightly-tracked wilderness; a party of fifty men, women and children, who walked nearly two thousand miles, across plain and desert, fording rivers and climbing mountains. They hoisted their wagons up a sheer mountain cliff, got caught in the snow and nearly starved, and along the way they were press-ganged into participating a small civil war. I have imagined that a diary account of their trail-blazing adventure exists and told their stories, from the doctor-diarist who is the party’s co-leader, to the old mountain-man who led them into the wilderness, the feisty woman with her brood of children who means to rejoin her husband in California, the taciturn wagon master, and one chatty and charming little boy.
All that and a faithful dog, too.
Chapter 10 - The Choosing
From Dr. Townsend’s Journal: “14th November, 1844 In the wilderness at the fork of Truckee’s River. This day, I can scarce put pen to paper, being distract’d with grief and worry. Our party is split yet again, this again being of our own decision. My own Dearest is gone ahead with five others, judged fit and sound, and without the care of little ones to attend. Yesterday, our labors brought us to where a tributary came down from the mountains, athwart our path, and leading to the south…We made camp in late afternoon, and Captain Stephens called a meeting….”
“We can’t take the wagons much farther,” said Young Martin flatly, as if daring anyone to argue with him. “Unless we follow the west tributary.” He dropped down onto an upturned cask that he was using as a stool, and wincingly pulled off his waterlogged boots. He peeled off his socks, which were also soaked.
“Out of our way,” murmured Old Man Hitchcock, looking into the fire, past his eternal whittling, and the knife-blade. “The long way around.”
“The long way around, may prove the shortest,” answered Stephens gently. “We done well before, always heading straight west. At the Green, and again from the Sink. I’ll wait to hear what Isaac says.”
He sat a little way back from the fire on a half-rotted fallen log, Dog at his feet. Her great fawn and black head lay on her forepaws, golden eyes going back and forth as if she was paying intelligent attention to the conversation. The fire was the smallest of the three outside the circle of wagons and tents, set up on the lee side a barrier against the icy breeze roaring down from the high mountains, and the cold that came at sundown, the cold that was most particularly felt when the exertions of the day were over.
Allen Montgomery, and the Murphy brothers, Jamie, Daniel, Bernard and Johnny hunkered around the fire. It had the air of an informal meeting of the men, while the women cooked a sparse, but much anticipated meal. The horses and Hitchcock’s precious two mules were close-picketed for the night, just on the other side of the wagons, inside the circle jostling each other for mouthfuls of tall dry grass bristling up from the day’s accumulation of snow and armfuls of green rushes cut from the riverbank by the women and older children.
Around that fragile shelter of canvas, brush and fires, the snow was trampled to a muddy slush. At other fires, Isabella and Sarah, and the Murphy women moved in an intricate ballet, skirts, shawls and sleeves carefully held back from the fire, as they cooked the evening meal: stew and cornbread that tasted like sawdust with no butter to spread richly on it, dried apples stewed with a little spice. Even Isabella’s milk cow had gone dry, months since.
Mary-Bee Murphy sat with Mary Miller on a wagon-bench, dandling the baby Ellen, while her sons and Willie Miller and their cousin Mary leaned on Old Martin’s knees, or sat bundled in shawls at his feet as he told them another endless story about miracles, and goblins and old heroes of Erin. It was hard to judge by a casual looking, John thought, of how far along Mary-Bee was, all bundled in shawls as she was, but she still walked lightly. She was not far enough gone in pregnancy to be awkward, but she tired easily.
His glance was drawn finally, as it always would be, to his own Liz, her hair silver-gilt in the firelight, wrapped in two shawls and the buffalo robe that Old Man Hitchcock had traded for her from the tribes at Fort Laramie. Sitting on another wagon-bench, she had Sadie in her lap, Nancy and Eddie leaning confidingly against her, under the shelter of that buffalo robe.
Poor Liz, she had never been any shakes as a cook, had never even had to be, let alone over a campfire. But to do her fair, she tried her best, at a cost of some burnt fingers, scorching her own apron, and upsetting a pot a beans and near to putting the fire out, whereupon Isabella spoke out in tones of mixed exasperation and affection, somewhere back along the trail when the three families had begun to share a campfire. Elizabeth would do them all favors if she could but stay away from the fire and the hot kettles; chop the vegetables, if she would be so kind, and read to the children, give them lessons and keep them out from underfoot.
In that mysterious way she had, of seeming to know when he was gazing at her, her eyes lifted from the book and met his for a smiling moment, quiet communion among the crowd around the campfire. He was here, she was there, and yet they were alone together. And then she went on reading to the children, and he was supposed to be also paying attention to the needs of others in the party.
They had all become a tribe, John realized, a tribe of nomads as like to any of the Indians, bound together, sharing hardship alike with those moments in the evening, those rare moments of rest. Across the trampled circle, Moses and Dennis Martin stepped out of the darkness between two wagons, each with an armload of firewood. They piled their burden roughly beside the largest of the fires, and a storm bright burst of sparks flew up like fireflies meeting the stars overhead.
“… tonight, after we’ve supped,”
John was startled back from his nearly simultaneous contemplation of his own dear Liz, and of Young Martin’s left foot, dead white, nearly bloodless, propped up on his knee.
“Pardon…I was lost, considering this interesting combination of foot-rot and frostbite. Dry socks, Martin, dry socks and liniment. And contemplate sealing your boots with tallow and paraffin… other than that, consider staying out of the water, as much as you can…”
There was a dry laugh, shared around the circle around fire. In the last three weeks, they had been forced into the river-bed time and time again, as it provided the easiest, and on occasion, the only passage for the wagons.
“We must consider what we should do now,” Stephens said. “We might send a party ahead, along the south branch…”
He fell silent, as Mary-Bee Murphy came with a basin and a steaming kettle and Isabella, bearing a dry cloth and her box of medicinal salts.
“Doctor, tell him to soak in this for a bit, and dry them carefully. We’ll bring a set of dry stockings, presently, and dry his boots beside the fire.”
“Mrs. Patterson, you are a tonic,” Extravagantly, John caught her hand, and took it to his lips. “And an excellent nurse; I shall see that the patient follows your advice to the letter.”
Isabella gave him a very severe look, as Mary-Bee awkwardly set down the basin and filled it with steaming water. Isabella added salts, and gathered up the socks and the sodden boots.
Mary-Bee looked as if she would say something more, but she merely patted her husband’s shoulder and followed in Isabella’s wake.
“See that he does then, Doctor Townsend, see that he does.” Isabella shot, over her shoulder. When she was gone back to the cook-fire and out of hearing, Stephens remarked,
“A good woman is above the price of rubies.”
“I long to meet the man who would play Petruchio to her Kate,” John said, just as Greenwood appeared as silently as a ghost in the circle of firelight, shadowed by Britt, and heralded only by the scent of tobacco smoke. Stephens grinned, a flash of teeth in his whiskered face.
“Nearly as much as I’d like to be warm again, and over those pestilential mountains; he must be a formidable man… I imagine a very Ajax.”
“Not so,” said Hitchcock seriously. “M’son-in-law’s a very mild-tempered man. Never has much to say for hisself.”
“Married to her, who’d wonder?” ungallantly ventured Bernard Murphy sotto voice, as Greenwood sank onto his heels, and held his hands to the fire, looking every day of his four-score. Britt took up a seat next to Stephens on the log, and casually gentled Dog’s alertly-raised head. She lay down again, with an inaudible “woof”.
Reviewed by Tyler R. Tichelaar(1/08)
“To Truckee’s Trail” by Celia Hayes is described on its front cover as “The Greatest Adventure…Never Told.” It is definitely a fantastic story, and more importantly, a true story of the Stephens-Townsend wagon train that crossed the continent in 1844 to reach California. Why the story has not been told sooner is hard to say. Perhaps this journey was not as dramatic as that of the Donner Party that had to resort to cannibalism a few years later, but the Stephens-Townsend party apparently set the trail, the pass through the mountains known as “Truckee’s Trail” and like the Donner Party, they also had to survive the winter in the mountains—in fact, the Donner Party ended up using one of the cabins the Stephens-Townsend party used.
Besides not being as tragic a story as that of the Donner Party, the Stephens-Townsend party’s story left behind little documentation. Dr. Townsend reputedly kept a journal of their exodus, but what became of that journal is unknown. That did not stop Celia Hayes from researching and re-imagining events. Hayes skillfully weaves the story by recreating a fictional journal for the doctor, creating a historical project memoir of one of the children, Eddie Patterson, who recalls in 1932 his time on the trail, and by creating letters to a friend from Dr. Townsend’s wife. These first person narratives are interspersed with the regular third-person narrative that is the majority of the text. The shifting points of view help maintain the reader’s interest even when the events the pioneers are experiencing are at times long periods of toil and boredom.
The novel does read slowly and several typos distract the reader. At first, I kept wondering when something exciting would happen like an attack by Indians or cannibalism in the mountains. However, I was engrossed in the book by the time I was a quarter of the way through it, and I read the last two hundred pages in one day. The author, wisely, does not seek to entertain the reader with sensationalism, but rather she gives detailed depictions of the daily life of the wagon train—the babies being born, the oxen nearly stampeding from thirst, having to douse fires from fear of Indian attack. The novel’s slow pacing makes one appreciate how long and tedious the journey west must have been. This incredibly long and dangerous undertaking comes home all the more at the end when Eddie Patterson recalls returning along the trail decades later when he is able to cross over mountains in minutes by railroad, crossings that would have taken days for the Stephens-Townsend party.
As I read “To Truckee’s Trail,” I felt the trepidation, the fear, and the exhaustion of the pioneers. At the same time, Hayes’s prose is almost poetic, making one see the courage and the humor in the face of odds that defined the pioneer spirit. I was content to experience the journey from my armchair, in sheer wonder at what it must have been like to make the trip in real life. I have traveled across the country in an automobile over the course of a week and that alone is an undertaking; I can’t imagine the faith and determination that drove on these pioneers. “To Truckee’s Trail” makes me appreciate the generations who came before me and all they went through to build this country—a task from which Americans, generations later, now profit. “To Truckee’s Trail” is one of those stories that should be read in our high schools, and colleges, to make American history comes alive to students. It is a story that stays in the reader’s head long after the last page is turned. It makes one feel grateful even for the smallest comforts we have today, and it encourages one to persevere to accomplish great deeds oneself.
Reviewed by Wendy Hines
The story opens with Dr. John Townsend lamenting about selling everything and joining a wagon train to take him and his family to California. The year is 1843. His wife, Elizabeth, tosses and turns in a fever beneath the piled blankets. He fears the air is too dry for her and wants to take her to where she can breathe easy. After much consideration, they do indeed sell everything except for a few precious items, his surgical tools, Elizabeth’s grandmothers china tea set , and his small writing desk and journals.
They soon have everything well stocked in their wagon to begin their journey. They meet up with a group of wagons heading west, and begin their journey. With high spirits, and a newly elected wagon captain, they set off into the great unknown. Although the families grow closer over time and help each other with assorted camp life, many challenges spring into their path. Rivers that aren’t quite passable, the loss of livestock, and the fear of Indians are just a few.
One day, they come to an impasse. They are camped at the Great Sink and cannot find a path that will get them over the mountains–at least not a path that the wagons can cross. They debated leaving the wagons and just walking out with packs on their backs. But with much discussion, they discarded that idea because of the women and children. They wouldn’t be able to carry enough supplies. Then an elderly, naked Indian strolls into camp, much to the astonishment of many. He sits down with the captain and doctor, and many other men and they have a discussion by drawing pictures in the sand.
The next morning, the men follow the Indian into the mountains. He wants to show them a path they could take through the mountains. All the way, he is shouting to them, “Truckee.” Since they didn’t speak his language, they just nodded. In Indian, it means “everything is satisfactory.” Since they didn’t know this, they thought that was his name. So they named the mountain pass after him, “Truckee’s Trail.”
Getting the wagon train through the mountain pass though was only one of the major challenges this strong group of men and woman overcame. Soon , winter would be upon them, and time and supplies were running short.
The long-lost diary of Dr. John Townsend is reconstructed and carries you through the trials and tribulations that this great group of Americans went through. A fascinating read about their adventures and sacrifices to get to the land of “milk and honey.” Filled with some true accounts, and some excerpts from diaries and letters from real and fictitious characters, the book is lend some authenticity of the true account.
Armchair Interviews says: Interesting historical fiction of the early settlers.
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