William B. Lorton in Salt Lake City

William B. Lorton arrived at the Mormon community in the Salt Lake Valley on August 8, 1849. To visit Salt Lake City was a deviation from the Oregon-California Trail, but one that many took in order to trade goods. The Mormons (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) had only been in their new settlement for two years, yet they had thriving farms and a growing population.

Salt Lake City in 1850

If Lorton’s company had pressed on, it was not too late in the season to cross the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada mountains. But they lingered for over a month, recuperating their livestock and inquiring about the different routes. They considered over-wintering at Salt Lake City.

Brigham Young warned all emigrants that his people could not support any guests over the winter. He also predicted that anyone setting out for California by way of the Humboldt River would surely die along the way. And it is true that the California Trail was strewn with dead cattle and marked by the graves of pioneers, although many forty-niners made it through safely, if not easily. And then there were the tales told of the Donner Party. What if they made it across the desert, only to be trapped in the mountains?

Brigham Young urged Lorton’s company and others to instead take the southern route through Utah down to the Old Spanish Trail. He had his reasons — the Mormon settlers were in need of a year-round route to the ocean. So far only a couple of pack trains had made that trip — what he needed was a wagon road. He offered a trail guide to accompany them if they would take their wagons southward and break a new wagon road through to southern California.

August 14th. Never was I in [such] a delema before, or ever before struck so forcibly that it was necessary to do something, & that immediately. I now fancied I see the blues coming rappidly towards me, & the horrors grinning at me with a double row of teeth, & what makes it worse, everybody was in the same fix. No one knew what to do.

To cross the trackless desert [via the Southern Route] was burying yourself alive, & to go the Northern rout rushing in to a grave yard & riding over dead bodies. Word comes that the fort hall road is so lined with carrion that new rodes had to be made, & the stench so stifleing as to almost stop the breath, & so thick are they, you can almost step from one to another. The grass is nearly all ate up & thus alkali.

p. 175

A dilemma indeed! They can’t stay where they are, and either route could mean their deaths.

It wasn’t all gloom and indecision though. Lorton boarded with a friendly Mormon family and attended church meetings and concerts.

August 22nd. Have singing at sister Pratts & pritty girls.

p. 181

On September 24th Lorton bade farewell to his hosts and headed south to join several wagon trains that were planning to take the southern route. It was a long, terrible journey, arguably much worse than what they would have faced on the northern route. At last, in early January 1850, they arrive in southern California.

Lorton’s journal ends mid-sentence with the January 16th entry at Mission San Gabriel. The next volume is missing, so little is known of his adventures in California, a great loss.

San Gabriel Mission, by Edwin Deakin

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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