The 40-Mile 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.

The Nevada desert was 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. It was a scene never forgotten by emigrants.

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.

Sketch by J. Goldsborough Bruff of dead oxen at Rabbit Hole Springs

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.

Do I detect a note of self-satisfaction in Luzena’s account?

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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