Dealing with the Desert

Remember the Independence Company? That was the company of young men who set out, with flags flying and a brass band playing, at the same time as Luzena and Mason Wilson’s wagon train left Missouri. Luzena, afraid of the Indians, begged her husband to “to ask at a neighboring camp if we might join with them for protection.” But the men were in a hurry.

They sent back word they “didn’t want to be troubled with women and children; they were going to California”.

They would meet again, in the “40 Mile Desert,” a desolate and fearsome section of the trail between the end of the Humboldt River and the Truckee River.

Our long tramp had extended over three months when we entered the desert, the most formidable of all the difficulties we had encountered. It was a forced march over the alkali plain, lasting three days, and we carried with us the water that had to last, for both men and animals, till we reached the other side. The hot earth scorched our feet; the grayish dust hung about us like a cloud, making our eyes red, and tongues parched, and our thousand bruises and scratches smart like burns. The road was lined with the skeletons of the poor beasts who had died in the struggle. Sometimes we found the bones of men bleaching beside their broken-down and abandoned wagons. The buzzards and coyotes, driven away by our presence from their horrible feasting, hovered just out of reach.

The night that we camped in the desert my husband came to me with the story of the “Independence Company”. They, like hundreds of others had given out on the desert; their mules gone, many of their number dead, the party broken up, some gone back to Missouri, two of the 8 leaders were here, not distant forty yards, dying of thirst and hunger. Who could leave a human creature to perish in this desolation? I took food and water and found them bootless, hatless, ragged and tattered, moaning in the starlight for death to relieve them from torture. They called me an angel; they showered blessings on me; and when they recollected that they had refused me their protection that day on the Missouri, they dropped on their knees there in the sand and begged my forgiveness.

Years after, they came to me in my quiet home in a sunny valley in California, and the tears streamed down their bronzed and weather-beaten cheeks as they thanked me over and over again for my small kindness.

Gratitude was not so rare a quality in those days as now.


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Lightening the Load

Wagon train pioneers inevitably had to lighten their loads. First to go were heavy items like the rocking chair and the cast iron stove. Some emigrants took equipment that they thought would pay off in their new home, like pickaxes and millstones, and those too had to go. The road to California was strewn with cast-offs.

It was also strewn with dead beasts of burden. The oxen became worn down and when they died they were abandoned by the roadside. Some emigrants were left to pack everything on their backs and continue on foot through a scene littered with dead animals. The stench was terrific. Here is how J. Goldsborough Bruff depicted it:


Luzena has her own story of lightening the load:

After a time the hard traveling and worse roads told on our failing oxen, and one day my husband said to me, “Unless we can lighten the wagon we shall be obliged to drop out of the train, for the oxen are about to give out.” So we looked over our load, and the only things we found we could do without were three sides of bacon and a very dirty calico apron which we laid out by the roadside.

Luzena had long ago discarded her excess pots and pans. They must have been down to very little other than flour, if three sides of bacon and an apron were going to make a difference.

We remained all day in camp, and in the meantime I discovered my stock of lard was out. Without telling my husband, who was hard at work mending the wagon, I cut up the bacon, tried out the grease, and had my lard can full again. The apron I looked at twice and thought it would be of some use yet if clean, and with the aid of the Indian soap-root, growing around the camp, it became quite a respectable addition to my scanty wardrobe.

The next day the teams, refreshed by a whole day’s rest and good grazing, seemed as well as ever, and my husband told me several times what a “good thing it was we left those things; that the oxen seemed to travel as well again.” Long after we laughed over the remembrance of that day, and his belief that the absence of the three pieces of bacon and the dirty apron could work such a change.

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Monotony and Peril

Nothing but actual experience will give one an idea of the plodding, unvarying monotony, the vexations, the exhaustive energy, the throbs of hope, the depths of despair, through which we lived. Day after day, week after week, we went through the same weary routine of breaking camp at daybreak, yoking the oxen, cooking our meager rations over a fire of sage-brush and scrub-oak; packing up again, coffeepot and camp kettle; washing our scanty wardrobe in the little streams we crossed; striking camp again at sunset, or later, if wood and water were scarce. Tired, dusty, tried in temper, worn out in patience, we had to go over the weary experience tomorrow. No excitement, but a broken-down wagon, or the extra preparation made to cross a river, marked our way for many miles.

Oxen are slow beasts, steady and strong, but oh so slow. The company that made 15 miles a day reckoned it a good day. Imagine crossing Nebraska, flat, featureless, windy Nebraska, at a pace of two miles a hour. The oxen and the wind stirred up the dirt, and it blew about and got into everything. That was the monotony of crossing the prairie.

Luzena’s first crossing of the Platte River was fairly unremarkable, for the Platte is a shallow river. But the next crossing that she describes was different:



J. Goldsborough Bruff’s drawing of his company crossing the North Platte River

In strange contrast was the North Platte which we next crossed, a boiling, seething, turbulent stream, which foamed and whirled as if enraged at the imprisoning banks. Two days we spent at its edge, devising ways and means. Finally huge sycamore trees were felled and pinned with wooden pins into the semblance of a raft, on which we were floated across where an eddy in the current touched the opposite banks.

And so, all the way, it was a road strewn with perils, over a strange, wild country. Sometimes over wide prairies, grass-grown, and deserted save by the startled herds of buffalo and elk; sometimes through deep, wild cañons, where the mosses were like a carpet beneath our feet, and the overhanging trees shut out the sunshine for days together; sometimes over high mountains, where at every turn a new road had to be cleared, we always carried with us tired bodies and often discouraged hearts.

A monotonous road, strewn with perils. Who is up for a trip to California?



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“We were on the road to California”


Luzena Stanley Wilson and her husband Mason set out for California one bright May morning in 1849.

The first day’s slow jogging brought us to the Missouri River, over which we were ferried in the twilight, and our first camp fire was lighted in Indian Territory, which spread in one unbroken, unnamed waste from the Missouri River to the border line of California.

That’s the way the American West looked to our pioneer forebears. It was one unbroken waste all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Utterly useless until the gold fields of California were attained. And of all the perils of the journey, there was only one that struck fear into Luzena’s mind. Indians!

Here commenced my terrors. Around us in every direction were groups of Indians sitting, standing, and on horseback, as many as two hundred in the camp. I had read and heard whole volumes of their bloody deeds, the massacre of harmless white men, torturing helpless women, carrying away captive innocent babes. I felt my children the most precious in the wide world, and I lived in an agony of dread that first night.

At this point in the westward migration there was actually little to fear from Indians. But every person in every wagon train had been brought up on tales of Indian depredations, and the fear of “the other” reigned supreme. But the Indians in this border region were only interested in trade.

The Indians were friendly, of course, and swapped ponies for whisky and tobacco with the gathering bands of emigrants, but I, in the most tragi-comic manner, sheltered my babies with my own body, and felt imaginary arrows pierce my flesh a hundred times during the night.

Luzena begged her husband to join with another wagon train for protection, but the “Independence Company” refused to take on women and children.

They sent back word they “didn’t want to be troubled with women and children; they were going to California”. My anger at their insulting answer roused my courage, and my last fear of Indians died a sudden death. “I am only a woman,” I said, “but I am going to California, too, and without the help of the Independence Co.!”

You tell ’em, Luzena!

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The Adventures of Luzena Stanley Wilson


Luzena Stanley Wilson

The account of Luzena Stanley Wilson is one of the most vivid and charming of all the Gold Rush stories that have come down to us. She told her story to her daughter Correnah in 1881 while Correnah was recovering from an illness, and her daughter later published it. Read this opening and ask yourself if you would have picked up and left everything behind as quickly as the Wilsons did.

The gold excitement spread like wildfire, even out to our log cabin in the prairie, and as we had almost nothing to lose, and we might gain a fortune, we early caught the fever. My husband grew enthusiastic and wanted to start immediately, but I would not be left behind. I thought where he could go I could, and where I went I could take my two little toddling babies. Mother-like, my first thought was of my children. I little realized then the task I had undertaken. If I had, I think I should still be in my log cabin in Missouri. But when we talked it all over, it sounded like such a small task to go out to California, and once there fortune, of course, would come to us.

“It seemed like such a small task.” Just pack up for a summer trip across prairie, mountain and desert. It would be an adventure, and when they arrived “fortune, of course, would come to us.” That’s what all the ’49ers thought, and they couldn’t wait to get to El Dorado.

The Wilsons at the time had two children, Thomas, who was about three years old, and Jay, a baby under one year old. Can you imagine a 6-month long camping trip with two toddlers?

It was the work of but a few days to collect our forces for the march into the new country, and we never gave a thought to selling our section, but left it, with two years’ labor, for the next comer. Monday we were to be off. Saturday we looked over our belongings, and threw aside what was not absolutely necessary. Beds we must have, and something to eat. It was a strange but comprehensive load which we stowed away in our “prairie-schooner”, and some things which I thought necessities when we started became burdensome luxuries, and before many days I dropped by the road-side a good many unnecessary pots and kettles, for on bacon and flour one can ring but few changes, and it requires but few vessels to cook them.

Bread and bacon, bacon and bread, some beans, and coffee — those were the staples of the overland trek. Simple and monotonous.

One luxury we had which other emigrants nearly always lacked—fresh milk. From our gentle “mulley” cow I never parted. She followed our train across the desert, shared our food and water, and our fortunes, good or ill, and lived in California to a serene old age, in a paradise of green clover and golden stubble-fields, full to the last of good works.


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Happy 102nd Birthday, Beverly Cleary!

In honor of Beverly Cleary’s 102nd birthday (born April 12, 1916), I am rerunning the post I wrote in 2016. Beverly Cleary is still on this earth, and still a beloved author, and if you have never read a book by her, I urge you to do so. You will be so glad you did!


Are you a Beverly Cleary fan? I am, and in honor of the author’s 100th birthday, I wrote a guest post on my daughter’s blog, Howling Frog Books.

Does Beverly Cleary qualify as northern California history? Of course! In the first place, anything 100 years old is history.

As for California, it’s true, she was born and raised in Oregon and her most famous stories are set on Klickitat Street in Portland. But she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley (me too!) where she met her husband (me too!)  After a stint as a children’s librarian (me too!) in Yakima, Washington (me in Bakersfield), she and her husband moved to Carmel, California, where she started writing books and kept on writing for the next 49 years (not me).

Today she lives in a retirement home in Carmel (which is northern California, if you live in San Diego) and is enjoying carrot cake for her birthday.


Her best-known character, Ramona Quimby

So read about her here, and all over the Web. And read one of her many, many books. If you don’t want to read a children’s book (and why not?) then read her wonderful memoirs: A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet. Guaranteed enjoyment.


My autographed copy of Beezus and Ramona

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It’s California Poppy Day!


California poppy blossom; photo by Luke Ravitch on Flickr

April 6 is California Poppy Day, honoring our state flower. The California Poppy was designated the state flower in 1903, and in 2010 April 6 was named an official state holiday (but not one where anybody gets the day off, sorry to say). Instead, according to Senate Bill 944:

. . . all public schools and educational institutions are encouraged to conduct exercises honoring the California Poppy, including instruction about native plants, particularly the California Poppy, and the economic and aesthetic value of wildflowers; promoting responsible behavior toward our natural resources and a spirit of protection toward them . . .

So I hope you learn something about the California Poppy today. Here are some tidbits of information, with which you can stun your friends and family.

The California poppy (Eschscholzia Californica) is one of 12 species in the genus eschscholzia, which is named for botanist Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz. 

Before they flower, the plants look a bit like carrots. But don’t try to eat the yellow taproot — it is mildly toxic. I am not sure what constitutes “mildly toxic” and I do not plan to experiment and report my findings.

Other species of eschscholzia grow in Western North America and you can find pictures and descriptions at the wonderful website CalFlora.

As you know, I like to visit Table Mountain Ecological Reserve in Butte County every year for the wildflower display. The true California poppy is not a native of Table Mountain, but two of its cousins are there:


Foothill poppy

One is Eschscholzia caespitosa or foothill poppy, which is nearly identical, except that it lacks a collar below the petals. These are only found in a few rocky outcrops.

The other is the smaller, paler cousin of the California poppy, Eschscholzia lobbii, or frying pans. (Yes, the flower is called frying pans. I’m not sure why, but you can think of it as a little pan full of melted butter, ready for your morning eggs.)

Frying pans are very common on Table Mountain. You see them everywhere — swathes of little yellow poppies.




Frying pans (Eschscholzia lobbii)

More information on California’s state symbols can be found at


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