clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


Salt Lake City was usually more than an overnight stop for pioneering wagon trains that traveled the California-Oregon trail, said a historian and researcher of pioneer trails last week.

But for Lorena Hays' party, the overnight stay was long enough as they believed Indians were on the warpath, said Jeanne Watson, guest speaker for the Utah Crossroads Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association.Watson, who spent 20 years researching the diary of Lorena Hays, is the author/editor of a book about the 1848-59 journal, "To the Land of Gold and Wickedness." The diary is considered by historians to be one of the most important accounts of pioneer life on the trail and the Gold Rush era.

Hays was born May 29, 1827, in western Pennsylvania and died Oct. 30, 1859, in San Francisco. Watson said Hays' diary is "not just a trail diary" because Hays began recording events of her life in a small community in western Illinois in 1848, and she didn't make the trek across the plains until 1853.

Hays traveled in a small party that was mostly made up of her family, said Watson.

In her diary, Hays writes that 1853 was an unusual year to cross the plains, and Watson has found many other immigrant diaries that agree with Hays. It was unusual because, among other reasons, it was a "water year." A water year meant there was a lot of rain, making rivers abundant and desert crossing easier, Watson said. The storms were tremendous in the Valley of the Platte. "One man wrote in his diary that he had been wet for 40 days in a row" from the rain, she said.

When Hays' train arrived at Fort Laramie, the Sioux Indians were camped there, waiting for another government relief train and another treaty. "The immigrants considered the Sioux a handsome race of people and Lorena said she had never seen an Indian yet that a white man could get the better of," Watson said.

Hays' diary mentions the death of her cousin, who died on the Overland Trail in Wyoming of consumption, now known as tuberculosis. While on the trail, Watson looked for the grave but never found it.

Hays' party took the Carson Route, which went through Carson Canyon close to Carson City, Nev. Two other trails had been cut in 1853 and it was considered the old route, but it was safer for families and there was more water for the animals.

Watson said one day when the Carson River was low, her son was working on the river with a friend and found rocks with scrape marks and rust marks from the days of pioneer crossing.

Watson not only talked of Hays' journey but she also imparted tidbits of other pioneer journeys she found while researching Hays' diary.

She told of Cables Lake, named after Mary Jane Cables and her husband. She was a woman who carried her baby through the canyon near the lake. Cables made the trip not just once, but she made it twice in two consecutive years, said Watson. Watson said to her knowledge she was the only woman to do that.

The pioneers eventually reached a place called Gateway to California. It was a peak 9,600 feet high. Watson said it is the highest point in the United States a covered wagon ever rolled across.

Watson related one exciting experience she had while visiting part of the Oregon-California Trail in 1978. She and her husband were walking up a trail and had stopped for a drink of water. When she looked down at her foot there was something black, tiny and round.

She said she "almost died and let out a shriek." She said her husband couldn't understand what was wrong since it was too high an altitude for snakes. What she picked up was an 1840 liberty dime; the first known 19th century money to be found on that part of the trail.

Watson related the history of Silver Lake near Highway 88 in California. She said a man went up on the mountain overlooking the lake one day and looked down and saw the lake was silver, "because it reflected the white granite off the mountain."

Watson said Hays would have been considered the epitome of a 19th century woman because she was not content to sit back and watch. She spoke out on issues like reforming the gold mining towns and tried to pursue her career as a newspaperwoman until she decided being a mother and a career woman was too much to do at the same time.

Watson said being able to locate details of people's lives and being able to find connections between different diaries that lead to the same conclusions is one of the "thrills of research."