Tales of Turbulent Times | September 11, 2020

Read from E.P. Howell’s diaries here: “The Road to California.” What follows is taken from the introduction to that text:


In May of 1849 a company of forty-niners travelers left Athens (now Albany), Missouri with seventeen ox-drawn wagons, headed for the gold mines of California. Among them were Elijah Preston Howell, a circuit clerk of Gentry County who had resigned his position to make the trip, and Howell’s brother, John. Together with fifty-seven men and two women they joined the thousands following the Oregon Trail to California in that year.

Estimates of the total number of emigrants vary, but approximately thirty thousand people embarked on the journey in 1849, the vast majority of them men. Not all companies left from the same jumping-off place. St. Joseph and Independence were the most popular but large numbers also joined the migration at Council Bluffs, Iowa and at Old Fort Kearney, Nebraska (present-day Nebraska City). As Athens was only seventy miles from the Nebraska border Howell’s group went north to Old Fort Kearney, and in his journal Howell begins calculating the group’s mileage at that point. There are relatively few known accounts by diarists starting from the Nebraska jumping-off place. Howell’s is one of ten written by travelers who departed from Fort Kearney in the year 1849, as compared to fifty-eight by emigrants who had started from St. Joseph. For the entire Gold Rush period of 1849-1852 there are only about fifty journals that describe the same route taken by Howell.

A small party of friends and relatives accompanied the group for the first few days, parting with them at the Grand River. One who said goodbye there was a third Howell brother, James, the sheriff of Gentry County. The departure of the company must have been almost as exciting to those who stayed behind as it was to their neighbors and relatives who undertook the trip. Elijah Howell kept his journal for the benefit of James, and sent it home to his brother in periodic letters.

From Fort Kearney Howell’s company followed the conventional trail across Nebraska and Wyoming until they reached a fork of the road in what is now southwest Wyoming and took what Howell calls Greenwood’s Cut-off, better known as Sublette’s Cut-off. From the Bear River to Goose Creek in southeast Idaho the group took another shortcut in preference to the much longer route through Fort Hall. Later known as Hudspeth’s Cut-off, it had been opened only days before by Missouri wagon train captain, Benoni Hudspeth and his guide, John Myers.

On August 23, now in north-central Nevada and hoping to spare themselves what was reputed to be the worst leg of the trip, the Humboldt The Missouri Review · 193 Desert, Howell and his companions decided to try their luck with a third ‘shortcut.’ This time the decision was a mistake. The new road, soon to be called Lassen’s Cut-off, would take them safely across the Sierra Nevada, but it was actually longer than the southern route through the desert, and unfortunately no less arduous.

In late September the company reached the Sacramento Valley. They were not yet at their final destination of the Feather River Mines but they were in California and the hardships were over. They promptly turned their cattle out to graze and lay down to take a well-deserved nap, some of them dreaming, says Howell, that they were “transported back and again combatting the difficulties we had passed.”

Those difficulties are enumerated in the preceding pages of the journal. The overwhelming one, of course, was that of the sheer distance to be traversed (two thousand miles from Howell’s point of departure in Athens) by the primitive means of ox-drawn wagons. As the trail grew more difficult and the travelers and their livestock more fatigued, water and grass grew scarce. Howell’s group was fortunate to be adequately supplied with food-many companies were not. Keeping the cattle from starving was another story, however. Howell’s company sometimes went for days without finding sufficient grass along the already over-grazed trail. Yet these were adversities they had expected to encounter. Two other dangers were less predictable and more frightening: Indians, who they believed to be largely hostile, and cholera.

Statistically cholera was more likely to kill them. An estimated five thousand emigrants died of the disease, which had become epidemic in the late 1840’s and spread west along the Oregon and the Santa Fe trails via infected water and food supplies. Its onset was terrifyingly abrupt and its progress rapid; victims often died within the day, depleted by violent diarrhea and vomiting. The Athens company was lucky to lose only one of its members to the disease. William Colley, stricken around midnight on June 17, died the following day at sunset. Colley’s grave inscription is recorded in the journal of J. Goldsbrough Bruff, traveling with a Washington group about two weeks behind Howell’s.[1]

Given the known risks, it is astonishing that so many ventured west on a route that in some spots was being carved out only miles ahead of them. Perhaps only the hope of a ‘pot of gold’ at the end could have persuaded them to do it; or, as in the case of the Mormons traveling to Salt Lake, the necessity of escaping religious persecution. If the trail was difficult, though, the vast number of emigrants meant that it was never lonely. Howell describes the way companies freely exchanged information about the trail and assistance in overcoming its obstacles.

The forty-niners had access to a number of published guidebooks to the trail. The Emigrants’ Guide to California (“Ware’s Guide”) was published by Joseph Ware in 1849. Howell’s group was one of the many that depended on Ware’s guide, which remained the best and most thorough for several years following its publication. Ware had not made the journey himself, yet despite some consequent errors, his book got many a forty-niner safely to California. Ironically, Ware later died on the trail, just east of Fort Laramie.

Elijah Howell’s journal is the product of a literate, intelligent man, though not an introspective one. It is rare that he offers a personal judgment; rare that he dwells on the past or speculates about the future; rarer still that he contemplates his own health or state of mind. His background suggests that he was a public-minded individual who took great pleasure in being part of a group. Ten years before he was appointed to the circuit clerk position he had served as treasurer of Clinton County. In the interim he built the first house in Athens, where he made his living as a merchant. The journal entries show him to have been gregarious; interested in the other companies his group met along the trail. They also reflect Howell’s pride in his hunting skills. A hunter of renown in his home county, he had killed thirty deer near Athens in the winter before his departure.

Had James Howell accompanied his brothers it is possible that Elijah might not have felt it necessary to keep his account, but James remained in Gentry County and continued his career of public service. Elijah’s journal was treasured in the family until 1917, when Judge F. J. Howell donated it to the State Historical Society of Missouri. We do not know what happened to Howell once he reached the Sacramento Valley, but he never returned to Gentry County. His relatives in Missouri believed that he had married in California and lived there until his death.

Editor’s Note

What follows is approximately one-third of Howell’s journal, which in manuscript is not quite ninety pages long. For obvious reasons, firsthand accounts of overland travel tend to dwell on the terrain—a vital concern to the emigrants but rarely as interesting to the modern reader. Most of what has been omitted are geographical descriptions of the country through which the group was passing, notes of mileage covered, and some solitary hunting episodes, which Howell loved to describe at great length.

These excerpts are published by permission of the Joint Collection, Western Historical Manuscript Collection—State Historical Society of Missouri Manuscripts. Special thanks go to Al Schwartz for his guidance in editing the journal, and to Randy Roberts and Lynn Gentzler of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection.

General information for the introduction and notes was taken from the following helpful sources: The History of Gentry and Worth Counties, Missouri (St. Joseph: National History Company, 1882); Trail to California, ed. David Morris Potter, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945); Overland to California With the Pioneer Line, ed. Mary McDougall Gordon (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983); Merrill J. Mattes, The Great Platte River Road (Nebraska State Historical Society, 1969); and William C. Sturtevant, Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 11 (Washington, D.C: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986).


—Evelyn Somers


[1] See Eye-Witnesses to Wagon Trains West, ed. James Hewitt (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 150.