WEST FROM FORT BRIDGER: The Pioneering of Immigrant Trails Across Utah, 1846-1850, edited by Roderic Korns and Dale L. Morgan, revised and updated by Will Bagley and Harold Schindler; Utah State University Press; 328 pages; $24.95.
From the very first, the lure of the West has been strong. Something about the wide spaces, the seemingly unlimited resources, the newness of it all called to adventurous souls. But getting there was never easy.Nowadays it's so simple to hop in the car and head down the freeway that we often forget how it was before there were freeways, or even roads for that matter. But someone had to blaze the first trails across the vast interior of the country. This is the story of the first pioneers who crossed what is now Utah. And for the most part, it is told in their own words.
First published in 1951 by the Utah Historical Society, it features original diaries and journals compiled by Dale L. Morgan, then already on his way to becoming one of the West's premier researchers and writers, and J. Roderic Korns, an avid trail historian and collector.
Long out of print, the new edition has been updated and revised by Will Bagley and Harold Schindler according to notes and corrections left by Morgan. These editors have also included new information on Hastings, crossing the Salt Desert, the Salt Lake Cutoff and the Golden Pass to flesh out the story and fill in with things we have learned since.
The book covers a very brief time - less than half a decade - and a short distance - across what is now Utah - but as A.R. Mortensen, then-executive director of the Utah State Historical Society, noted in the preface to the first edition, "because of the rugged terrain, number of travelers, distance and other factors, this sector - a vital part of what came to be the great overland highroad to the Pacific - is of extreme importance to the story of overland travel."
Much of the attention centers on the Hastings Cutoff and those that attempted to take it, including the Donner-Reed party.
The diaries and accounts, skillfully woven together by narrative written for the most part by Morgan, are telling and poignant, portraying a real sense of being there.
One of the gems is the journal of Edwin Bryant, a literate and learned man in an age where many were not, who left his position as editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal to head west. Bryant's observant and expressive account is fascinating. Consider, for example, his account of meeting with some American Indians on the trail:
"Three females of middle age, miserably clad and ugly, soon made their appearance, bringing baskets containing a substance, which, upon examination, we ascertained to be service-berries, crushed to a jam and mixed with pulverized grasshoppers. This composition being dried in the sun until it becomes hard, is what may be called the `fruit-cake' of these poor children of the desert. No doubt these women regarded it as one of the most acceptable offerings they could make to us. We purchased all they brought with them, paying them in darning-needles and other small articles, with which they were much pleased. The prejudice against the grasshopper `fruit-cake' was strong at first, but it soon wore off, and none of the delicacy was thrown away or lost."
Another coup for Morgan was the journal of Heinrich Leinhard, written in German and translated by Morgan. It details some of the hardship of the Hastings Cutoff.
"The journey from the last good water to this point had taken from 9 o'clock in the morning of the 17th to about 4 o'clock in the afternoon of the 19th of August, and during this time only on the first night had the cattle actually enjoyed rest, without, even then, being freed from their yokes. Otherwise all stops put together could hardly have amounted to more than 4 hours, and apart from this it was continuous driving until our arrival at these springs."
The journal of James Frazier Reed, though not as rich in detail, has all the greater impact because we know the end of the story. "Our concern with them in their experiences upon the Hastings Cutoff is constantly attended by our painful consciousness of their eventual fate," wrote Morgan. "But it is not simply their progress toward death that makes the day-to-day experiences of the Donner party so fascinating. The route over the Wasatch Mountains which the Donners pioneered for wagons became the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake Valley, and with the smallest of variations served for two decades as a principal highroad for transcontinental travel."
"West From Fort Bridger" is a classic history, making an important contribution to our understanding of these early days.
A few more maps would be helpful. True, there are two large fold-out maps in the back pocket that cover the entire area, but smaller maps for quick reference in talking about the Golden Pass, built by Parley P. Pratt and others, and the Salt Lake Cutoff, for example, would be useful.
But as a source of information and as a readable, interesting account, this volume would be hard to beat.