May 7th, 2020
Ken Burns and Stephen Ives in bring us THE WEST, an eight-part documentary journey through the boundless landscape that has been a proving ground for our character as a nation.
THE WEST premiered on PBS stations in September 1996.
THE WEST chronicles the turbulent history of one of the most extraordinary landscapes on earth – a mythic landscape, simultaneously enticing and forbidding, filled with stories of both heartbreaking tragedy and undying hope. Beginning in the era when the land belonged only to Native Americans and ending in the 20th century, the film is populated by unforgettable historical characters, some famous and others relatively unknown – from gold seekers to cowboys to homesteaders to Indian leaders – whose competing dreams transformed the land, and turned the West into a lasting symbol of the nation itself, a tragic, inspiring intersection where the best of us met the worst of us and nothing was left unchanged.
In THE WEST, Ken Burns and Stephen Ives have teamed up with a host of eminent historians to bring us a broad cross-section of the many stories that give meaning to this region. Their film includes stories of the Native American experience, from the era before Europeans appeared on the landscape to the tragic days of Sand Creek, Washita and Wounded Knee; stories of the Spanish West, from the times of the conquistadors' expeditions to the emergence of the barrio as an enclave of cultural traditions; pioneer stories from the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Exodus; war stories from San Jacinto and Lawrence, Kansas; stories of miners and missionaries, ranchers and railroaders, educators and industrialists. It is a chronicle that captures all the grandeur of the West and all the energy of its people, and one that probes the conflicting visions and competing values that made an American nation on this vast land.
New Perspectives on THE WEST
By Ken Burns and Stephen Ives
In a conversation with us several years ago, the Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday remarked that the American West "is a place that has to be seen to be believed, and it may have to be believed in order to be seen." For five years we have travelled that landscape, photographed its vistas, talked to its people, sought out its history, all as part of our production of THE WEST, an eight-part documentary series for public television.
Now -- 100,000 air-miles and 72 filmed interviews and 74 visits to archives and collections and more than 250 hours of film later -- we have begun to understand at least something of what Momaday meant.
In the West, everything seems somehow larger, grander, than life, and we now can see why so many different peoples have come to consider their own most innermost lives inextricably linked with it. Over the centuries, the West has been the repository of the dreams of an astonishing variety of people -- and it has been on the long, dusty roads of the West that these dreams have crisscrossed and collided, transforming all who travelled along them, rewarding some while disappointing others.
The story of the West was once told as an unbroken series of triumphs -- the victory of "civilization" over "barbarism," a relentlessly inspirational epic in which greed and cruelty were often glossed over as enterprise and courage. Later, that epic would be turned upside down by some, so that the story of the West became another -- equally misleading -- morality tale, one in which the crimes of conquest and dispossession were allowed to overshadow everything else that ever happened beyond the Mississippi. The truth about the West is far more complicated, and much more compelling.
America without the West is unthinkable now. Yet there was nothing inevitable about our taking it. Others had prior claim to its vastness, after all, and we could quite easily have remained forever huddled east of the Mississippi. In resolving to move west and become a continental nation we would exact a fearful price from those already living on the land. But we also became a different people, and it is no accident that that turbulent history -- and the myths that have grown up around it -- have made the West the most potent symbol of the nation as a whole, overseas as well as in our own hearts.
If course, no film series can ever encompass the whole story of the West. There are as many valid approaches to telling it as there are able historians willing to try. We believe that history is really biography, and have chosen to focus on the experiences of individual men and women, many of whom tell their own stories in their own words, through diaries and letters and autobiographical accounts.
Our cast is deliberately diverse, including some celebrated figures and some who will be new to most viewers. None plays the stereotyped part that one or another of the West's contradictory myths dictates. All were selected because they seemed to us both to illuminate the times through which they lived and to tell us something important about the West, as well.
Our subjects were chosen, too, to demonstrate that in the often stirring story of the West, a human price was paid for every gain. The stories we've tried to tell at least suggest, we hope, the outlines of a more inclusive story of the West than is conventionally told; a story that is more frank about our failures and more clear-eyed about the cost of even our greatest successes than the old one, but also a story in which each of us can find a place and all can take pardonable pride.
The story of the American West, we believe, is at once the story of a unique part of the country and a metaphor for the country as a whole. With all its heroism and inequity, exploitation and adventure, sober realities and bright myths, it is the story of all of us, no matter where on the continent we happen to live, no matter how recently our ancestors arrived on its shores.
Episode One (to 1806)
The West stretches from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, from the northern plains to the Rio Grande -- more than two million square miles of the most extraordinary landscape on earth.
It is a land of broad rivers and vast deserts, deep canyons and impenetrable mountains, boundless prairies and endless forests, a place where towering monoliths and boiling waters rise naturally from the earth.
It is a dream. It is what people who have come here from the beginning of time have dreamed. It's a dream landscape. To the Native American, it's full of sacred realities, powerful things. It's a landscape that has to be seen to be believed. And as I say on occasion, it may have to be believed in order to be seen.
N. Scott Momaday
People have come to the West from every point of the compass. To the Spanish, who traveled up from Mexico, it was the North. British and French explorers arrived by coming south; the Chinese and the Russians, by going east. It was the Americans -- the last to arrive -- who named it the West.
But to the people who already lived there, it was home -- the center of the universe.
They had lived there so long, their stories of creation linked them to the land itself. The Comanches said they came from swirls of dust; the Hidatsas from the bottom of a big lake. Among the sacred bundles of the Zuñis was a stone, they said, within which beats the heart of the world.
Soon there would be other myths: myths of golden cities with treasure for the taking and souls in need of salvation. And another longer-lasting myth, eventually pursued by two Americans across the vastness of the West itself -- the myth of an elusive Northwest Passage that would lead them and their nation to the sea.
I think that the West is the most powerful reality in the history of this country. It's always had a power, a presence, an attraction that differentiated it from the rest of the United States. Whether the West was a place to be conquered, or the West as it is today, a place to be protected and nurtured. It is the regenerative force of America.
J. S. Holliday
The West is a story of conquest, of competing promises and competing visions of the land. Many peoples laid claim to the West, and many played a part in settling it. But in the end, only one nation would demand it all -- and take it. And in the end, by moving west, that nation would discover itself.
When Americans tell stories about themselves, they set those stories in the West. American heroes are Western heroes, and when you begin to think of the quintessential American characters, they're always someplace over the horizon. There's always some place in the West, where something wonderful is about to happen.... And even when we turn that around... even when we say, well, something has been lost, what's lost is always in the West.
When Dogs Could Talk
"Myth is such an integral part of the conception of the West. People think about it in terms of myth. Always have, I believe.
The Kiowa story has it that eight children were playing in the woods, and there were seven sisters and their brother. The boy is pretending to be a bear and he's chasing his sisters, who are pretending to be afraid, and they're running. And a terrible thing happens in the course of the game. The boy actually turns into a bear. And when the sisters see this, they are truly terrified and they run for their lives, the bear after them. They pass the stump of a tree, and the tree speaks to them and says, "If you will climb up on me I will save you."
So the little girls scamper on top of the tree stump. And as they do so, it begins to rise into the air. The bear comes to kill them but they're beyond its reach. And it rears up and scores the bark all around with its claws. The story ends, the girls are borne into the sky and they become the stars of the Big Dipper. It's a wonderful story because it accounts for the rock, Devils Tower, this monolith that rises nearly a thousand feet into the air, and it also relates man to the stars."
N. Scott Momaday
For a thousand generations, the West belonged only to Indians -- perhaps more than three million of them. There were people who lived in houses made from the tallest trees on earth and people who lived in shelters fashioned from brush; people who lived in tipis and in towering cliff-top cities. Some started fires to make pastures, or diverted streams to irrigate their crops. Others did not dare alter the earth they believed to be their mother, and prayed to the spirits of the animals they hunted.
"The Indian feels that he is related to the animal world. That all living things are related. In the Kiowa oral tradition, one of the ways to indicate time long past, is to say, Well this happened when dogs could talk."
N. Scott Momaday
Some tribes considered war the highest calling. In others, women owned the property, and a man joined his wife's family. In still other tribes, the punishment for an unfaithful wife was to cut off part of her nose.
"The West of the American continent was as diverse as almost any place in the history of the world. You had people speaking seven different language families, each as different from the other as each one is different from Indo-European. You have people who don't use in their ordinary conversation "I," "my," "me," everything is "we"... You had cultures on the Plains where each person discovered, through a vision quest, his or her own inner voice, and then came back after a week of isolation, and told the rest of the tribe, "who I am." And nobody could argue with that because it came from within."
"You know there is this marvelous stereotype out there, that before white people came the world here was perfect, that people lived in a paradise in which they were the most elegant, the most moral, the most elevated of all humanity. That's not true, we were human beings... and we did things that all human beings do, and some of it was elevated and marvelous, and admirable, and some of it was pretty horrible."
Jo Allyn Archambault
Despite their profound differences, Indian peoples were linked together. Webs of ancient trading trails stretched in every direction, and covered every corner of the West, bringing buffalo robes to people who had never seen a buffalo, corn meal to people who had never planted corn, and ocean shells to decorate the clothing of people who lived a thousand miles from the sea.
In the high country where the present states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona come together, there once lived a great people, remembered now as the Anasazi. For centuries, their civilization thrived.
They traded widely with other cultures, dammed streams to water their crops, laid out broad, straight roads across the desert, and built lofty towns where thousands lived. The Anasazi flourished and their numbers grew. Then -- though no one knows for certain why -- they were forced to abandon it all. Newcomers -- the ancestors of the Ute and the Navajo -- eventually took over the region.
"This is a world of movement, this is a world of change; this is a world in which there's drought, and people abandon areas and settle new areas, cultures flower and cultures decline. This is just as much a historical world as anything that's happening in Europe."
The Anasazi were not the first people to be pushed aside by others in the West. And they would not be the last.
"People called themselves 'human beings' or 'the people,' or, basically, 'us,' and everybody else, known and unknown, was "them", and it made dealing with the constant surprise of encountering people who spoke different languages, had a different ethnic look, had different religions, different political systems, a lot easier to deal with, because "they" were always bizarre. And so when Europeans arrived on the scene, they were just another category of 'they.'"
The hardships I endured in this journeying business were long to tell -- peril and privation, storms and frost, which often overtook me.... By the unfailing Grace of God our Lord I came forth from all.
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
On a cold morning in the autumn of 1528, thirty years after Christopher Columbus first landed in the New World, a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico blew a frail boat onto the coast of Galveston Island in what is now Texas. A handful of Spanish soldiers staggered ashore. They were the first Europeans to set foot in the West.
One of the shipwrecked survivors was a nobleman named Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, a hardened veteran of half a dozen wars against the enemies of Spain.
Spain had already conquered most of South America, Central America and all of Mexico. Now Cabeza de Vaca's expedition was probing north in search of even greater treasure. "We came here to serve God and his majesty," one conquistador wrote, "to give light to those who were in darkness, and to get rich as all men desire to do."
Cabeza de Vaca and his men were fed and housed by the coastal Cocos Indians, who believed the strangers to have magical powers. But when dysentery, carried by the Spanish, killed almost half the tribe, the Indians turned on the soldiers. Cabeza deVaca and his companions had hoped to come as conquerors. Instead, they entered the West as captives.
My life [became] unbearable. In addition to much other work, I had to grub roots in the water or from underground in the canebrakes. My fingers got so raw that if a straw touched them they would bleed. The broken canes often slashed my flesh.
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
After two years of misery, Cabeza de Vaca fled his captors. He began trading -- carrying shells and mesquite fruit to the tribes of the interior and bringing back to the coastal tribes furs, flint for arrowheads and red ochre for face painting. Because he belonged to no tribe himself, he was welcomed wherever he went.
By the summer of 1534, Cabeza de Vaca and the three remaining survivors of the expedition -- including a black slave named Estevan -- decided to try to make their way to Mexico City. They wandered on foot for two years, through Texas, across the Rio Grande, moving from one tribe to the next.
Throughout his journey, Cabeza de Vaca had expected to find only cruel "savages," but he met tribes that impressed him with their gentleness and their generosity to strangers. And when they asked for his help, he responded in kind, speaking of Christ wherever he could.
Some Indians came [begging us] to cure them of terrible headaches. Surely extraordinary men like us, [they said,] embodied. . . . powers over nature.... When [we] made the sign of the cross over them and commended them to God, they instantly said that all pain had vanished and [gave] us prickly pears and chunks of venison.
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
Soon Cabeza de Vaca and his companions found themselves escorted from village to village by an army of some 600 admiring Indians. If they were to be converted to Christianity, Cabeza de Vaca had come to believe, "they must be won by kindness, the only certain way."
"He becomes a curer. He becomes a healer. He becomes an emissary of God. And Cabeza de Vaca becomes, in effect, a leader of Indian peoples. He moves through the Southwest, trudging through the desert from community to community, and then the dream stops."
In the spring of 1536, Cabeza de Vaca and hundreds of Indians finally entered Mexico and came upon a column of Spanish soldiers who had come north, destroying crops, looting villages, seizing slaves.
With heavy hearts we looked out over the [once] lavishly watered, fertile and beautiful land, now abandoned and burned and the people thin and weak, scattering and hiding in fright....
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
Cabeza de Vaca's Indian followers were confused: how could he and these Spaniards belong to the same people? Cabeza de Vaca healed the sick, they killed the healthy; he wanted nothing, they took everything.
Sure that the Spanish would enslave his Indian escorts, Cabeza de Vaca urged them to flee. Then he set out again for Mexico City. As soon as he was gone, the Spanish seized many of his Indian friends.
"Cabeza de Vaca's journey to this extraordinary world ends up in a very ordinary world, a world of Spanish slavers and Indian victims. But in between, in that moment, there was a vision of how something else might have happened. That never would really fully happen, but would appear in glimpses again and again, as Indians and whites interacted in the continent.
Cities of Gold
"Always, when people came into... the West, they brought with them a necessity to imagine it. One of the reasons for this, I think, is simply the vastness. When one looks at the Grand Canyon for example, it's endlessly mysterious. You feel the silence coming up and enveloping you and you know there are places there where no one has ever been."
N. Scott Momaday
In 1540, six years after Cabeza de Vaca returned to Mexico City , the Spanish Viceroy sent yet another expedition northward. They were searching for seven cities said to be filled with gold and treasure. In command of the expedition was the ambitious governor of a Mexican province, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado.
For more than four months Coronado followed old Indian trails across deserts and through the mountains. Finally, exhausted and hungry, he reached an adobe settlement that he hoped was the first of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. It was really the pueblo of Hawikuh, home to an agricultural people, called the Zuni.
"What was going on at Zuni was a summer solstice ritual. And these kinds of rituals are always regarded as private, and so when Coronado came in while these rituals were in progress, Zuni elders sketched a cornmeal line between Coronado's men and the people at Zuni, a line which Coronado was not supposed to cross. Coronado's men, who were literally starving to death by that time, just bulled right in."
The Zunis fled from the Spanish guns, whose thunderous sound they had never heard before. Coronado quickly over-ran the town, seized their food, set up a wooden cross and demanded that they immediately convert to Christianity. But he discovered that the Zunis had no gold.
Over the next few weeks, Coronado would destroy thirteen villages, punishing all who resisted him precisely as rebellious subjects would have been punished in Spain.
"There was a decree that would be read when the Spanish came into a new native community that said -- in Latin -- 'Everybody here must fall down and worship Jesus Christ, and if you don't we will take it that you are worshipers of the devil and you will be wiped out. You basically have five minutes."
Coronado sent expeditions into the surrounding countryside. One group marched to the Gulf of California, another crossed the Painted Desert into the land of the Hopis and a third marched for twenty days to the edge of a great gorge -- the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Nothing in their experience had prepared them for its sheer size.
Captain Melgosa, with Juan Galeras and another companion... kept descending... until they were lost to view... The men who remained above estimated that some rocks jutting out from the canyon must be about as high as a man.... At four o'clock, they returned [and] swore that when they reached them they were found to be taller than the highest tower of Seville.
Pedro de Castañeda
But once again, they found no gold.
Coronado then heard of yet another city called Quivira, far to the north, filled with treasures beyond his wildest dreams. He led his men toward it -- out onto the Great Plains -- through an ocean of grass so vast and featureless they had to navigate with a sea-compass. "Who could believe," one of them later wrote, "that 1,000 horses and 500 of our cows and more than 5,000 rams and ewes and more than 1,500 men, in traveling over those plains, would leave no more trace when they had passed than if nothing had been there -- nothing ."
In the end, Quivira turned out to be just a Wichita village on the bank of the Arkansas River, its inhabitants no wealthier than the other Indians Coronado had encountered. Finally, Coronado ordered his exhausted men to begin the long march back to Mexico. His search had lasted three years, led him across a quarter of the West, and earned him nothing.
The country itself is the best I have ever seen for producing all the products of Spain... But what I am sure of is that there is not any gold nor any other metal in all that country.
Francisco Vasquez de Coronado
"The possibility of peace had been lost. And in a sense, the world was changed forever. Cabeza de Vaca may have been moving in the direction of coexistence; peace. And in a sense, I think Coronado's expedition stifled that impulse, and made for warfare in the future.
N. Scott Momaday
Thunder Rolling from the Mountains
"Names in the Indian world are very important, as important or more important, I think, than in any other society that I know. Naming coexists with meaning. It is indivisible with being. If something has a name, it is said to be. If it does not have a name, its being is suspect.
I was taken when I was an infant to Devils Tower by my parents. And when I was brought back to Oklahoma, where my grandmother lived, an old man came to visit, an old man whose name was Pul Huh which means Old Wolf. And he picked me up in his hands and he began to tell stories. And this was the name-giving process. And at the end, when he stopped talking, he looked down at me and he said, 'And now you are Zui Tali.' That's my Indian name, and it means Rocktree Boy. Zui is what the Kiowas call Devils Tower, and I was given that name to commemorate my having been taken to this very sacred place."
N. Scott Momaday
Conquering Bear. One Who Yawns. Child of the Wolf. Son of Star. Rock Forehead. Man on a Cloud. Owl Woman. Soft White Corn. The Blind Man's Daughter. Yellow Smoke. The Whirlwind. And Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht -- Thunder Rolling From the Mountains.
Soon, other men, with other kinds of names, would begin to converge on the Indian world. Sir Francis Drake of England in 1579; Sieur de La Salle, from France in 1682; Vitus Bering, sailing for Russia in 1741 -- and they were only the beginning.
"The West is an interrupted dream. Different groups of people that have come to the West have interrupted the natural evolution of the groups they found there. And so we have a constant meeting in the West, a constant migration and meeting of groups. And the real story, I think, lies in how those groups affect each other."
By 1680, the Spanish were firmly in control of most of the pueblos of the Southwest. Each pueblo had built its own church and priests had baptized thousands of Indians. The Spanish had established a colony they called New Mexico, centered around its capital, Santa Fe.
"The indigenous peoples on their side saw what the Spaniards offered as just another power to add to their own. They conceded readily that the Spaniards must be very powerful people because they had guns, they had horses. So they were happy enough to add the Spanish saints -- but without replacing their own, without giving up the visions and dreams of their own forebears. This is what the friars would have nothing of. For the friars it was their way or no way at all."
European diseases had already killed a third of the Pueblo peoples, and years of drought, famine and enemy raids had taken a further toll. All these misfortunes coming together convinced a priest of the Tewa pueblo, called Popé, that the ancient spirits were displeased. He began preaching that the foreigners must be driven out.
The Spanish redoubled their efforts to blot out the Pueblo’s traditional faith. Ritual dances were forbidden, religious objects burned. Twice, the Spanish had Popé flogged publicly, but they could not silence him. Finally, forty-seven Pueblo religious leaders were imprisoned in the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe for speaking out against the Spanish. Three were hanged.
Popé began traveling from village to village, spreading his message that the Pueblo people must forget their long-standing differences, band together, and rid themselves of Spain. On a prearranged day, pueblos across New Mexico rose up, burning Spanish property and leveling churches. Twenty-one priests were killed. So were at least 400 settlers. The survivors found sanctuary in Santa Fe, huddled inside the Palace of the Governors, where twenty-five hundred Indians surrounded them, cut off their water, burned the rest of the capital, and sang the Catholic liturgy in Latin to mock them.
After eleven days of siege, the surviving Spanish fought their way out and fled to Mexico. The Indians did not pursue them.
"That was the whole object of the revolt, to get the hated Spaniards to leave, and when they achieved that objective they sat back and were content.
For the moment it was enough that the land was theirs again, that they could once again practice their faith without fear of punishment. Popé had led the most successful Indian revolt in all of North American history.
But Indian independence did not last long. In 1692, Spaniards reconquered the pueblos, and in time grew more tolerant of Indian religion. Indians and Spaniards began to intermarry.
"Think of two world views coming together with completely different conceptions of the universe and of nature. A lot of times when we speak of the meeting of cultures, we forget that beyond the initial clash emerges a new view of the world. And I think that's what we Chicanos represent today."
"The dog soldiers were the elite military organizations in the tribe. They were the last line of defense for the people. And so they were greatly esteemed. The warriors in the society were outfitted with a particular sash, which trailed the ground. And each member carried a sacred arrow. And in time of battle, the dog soldier would impale the sash to the ground and stand the ground to the death. They had a song which only the members could sing, and only in the face of death. So you can imagine, that children, when they saw a dog soldier go by, must have just -- Ahhh, wow! Look at that guy, he's a dog soldier!"
N. Scott Momaday
According to Cheyenne tradition, there was once a prophet named Sweet Medicine who taught his people how to conduct themselves. He set up a council of 44 chiefs to speak for all the Cheyenne, and presented them with four Sacred Arrows, two to subdue their human enemies, two to make the buffalo fall before them.
And he brought them a warning: strangers called "Earth Men" would one day appear among them, light-skinned, speaking an unknown tongue. And with them would come a strange animal that would change the Cheyenne way of life -- and that of every other Indian people -- forever.
It was the horse.
Apache and Navajo raiders got them first, but when the Spanish were driven out of New Mexico, the thousands of horses they left behind spread across the West. By the 1690s, the horse was being used by tribes of the Southern plains. By 1700, it had transformed the lives of the Kiowa and Comanche, along the eastern foothills of the Rockies. At the same time, the horse reached the Shoshone and Bannocks in what is now Idaho. The Nez Percé stole some from them, and soon had herds that numbered in the thousands in the lush Wallowa Valley of the Pacific Northwest.
"It must have been the realization of an ancient dream to be elevated, to be severed from the earth, cut free. What a sense of life that must have been, different from anything they'd ever known. With the horse, their ancient nomadism was realized to the fullest extent, and they had conquered their oldest enemy, which was distance."
N. Scott Momaday
The Great Plains now became a crowded meeting ground for some thirty tribes drawn from every direction, and the horse became the most precious symbol of wealth and prestige -- a valuable prize to steal from your enemies and a faster way to reach them. A man's bravery was measured by the size of his horse herd and by the number of times he had physically touched an enemy in battle -- called "counting coup."
"Before the horse, life must have been hard. A person would have to give virtually every hour of his waking time to solving the simple problem of survival. But with the horse, a hunter could acquire enough food in one day to last him months. He was suddenly given a margin of freedom that he could never have imagined. And so what he did with it, of course, was to celebrate it in terms of the warrior ideal: "Now I have leisure. I can go and hunt, and I can -- I can visit my enemies and count coup. I can be brave and I can attain glory."
N. Scott Momaday
A man could not even court a girl unless he had proved his courage. That was one reason so many were anxious to win good war records.... They were all afraid of what people, and especially the women, would say if they were cowardly. The women even had a song they would sing about a man whose courage had failed him: "If you are afraid when you charge, turn back. The Desert Women will eat you." ...It was hard to go into a fight, and they were often afraid, but it was worse to turn back and face the women.
John Stands in Timber
"I, as the Lakota woman four generations ago, would have cut off the arms and the legs and heads of the enemies that my husband killed, and I would have put them on a stick, and I would have paraded them in the scalp dance that evening when we honored our men."
Jo Allyn Archambault
"When the horses get together they make a lot of dust, and when they 'd see this, why they knew that they were coming back from a hunt or a fight.... Then they danced, all jolly and happy after they fed their warriors, and everybody spruced up and got out, and they had a big victory dance. That's when women all get in a line and dance around."
On the southern Plains, the Comanches began driving the Apaches out of the grasslands and into the deserts and mountains of New Mexico. In the north, the Lakota -- or the Sioux, as some of their enemies would later call them -- pressed westward, pushing the Cheyenne ahead of them and displacing other tribes as they expanded across the Missouri. "There was always fighting going on somewhere," said one Crow woman. "We sometimes tried to keep our men from going to war, but this was like talking to winter-winds."
And with this increased contact among tribes came a wave of epidemics. Smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, measles, diptheria -- European diseases against which they had no immunity -- now raced from people to people.
"It was a total holocaust. And it wasn't the cavalry. It was a series of pandemics that wiped out most Indian people before Europeans ever encountered them."
In the Garden, Before the Fall
In 1533, a Spanish expedition sent north from Mexico had discovered what its members assumed was a large island. They named it California, after a mythical land of Amazons they had read about in a popular novel. But the cost of colonizing the Southwest had proved so high that Spain made no effort to settle the new territory.
For the next two and a half centuries, California remained essentially untouched by Europeans, home to more than 300,000 Indians, living in hundreds of small bands. Then, in 1767, rumors reached the Spanish that Russian traders were building outposts along the Pacific coast. To protect Spanish interests, Mexico City decided to establish a chain of forts and missions in California, and sent a column of soldiers north.
With them went a missionary, Father Junipero Serra. He was a former teacher of philosophy, badly handicapped by an ulcerated leg, and further weakened by his habit of scourging his own flesh in atonement for the sins of others. But nothing could quell his missionary zeal. By May of 1769, Serra had arrived in California, and met his first potential converts.
I found myself in front of twelve of them, [and]... I saw something I could not believe.... It was this: They were entirely naked as Adam in the garden, before sin.... We spoke a long time with them, and not for one moment, while they saw us clothed, could you notice the least sign of shame in them.
Father Junipero Serra
Father Serra and his followers helped establish twenty-one missions in all -- San Diego, San Gabriel, San Antonio de Padua, San José -- and, on a magnificent bay in Northern California, San Francisco, established in 1776.
Near the mission at San Gabriel in Southern California, a town sprang up in 1781, settled by people whom the missionary fathers considered lazy and corrupt, interested mainly in drinking, gambling, and pursuing woman.
It was Los Angeles.
The friars believed themselves engaged in holy work. They thought it their duty to round up the Indians, to teach them to weave, make bricks, tend crops, herd cattle and to give up their old ways.
" Just imagine if... a Lakota medicine person suddenly arrived in Paris, told everybody that Catholicism was Devil worship and that they must burn every trapping that they had of Catholicism and completely change their world view. I don't think the French would have been as polite, but in fact most missionaries did pretty well. People treated them with respect. People gave them a place to live often times. People went to their services, sometimes they even believed what they said.
The mission Indians -- called neophytes by the friars --were crowded into barracks. Hand-picked Indian overseers drove them from task to task, even to and from Mass. And when they tried to escape, soldiers were sent to hunt them down. During the mission period, from San Francisco to San Diego, three out of four of the coastal Indians perished. "They live well free," a puzzled friar said, "but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life... they fatten, sicken and die."
Corps of Discovery
For centuries, the Mandans of the upper Missouri River had been one of the most prosperous tribes on the Great Plains -- farmers, living in permanent villages and growing crops in such abundance that other tribes came great distances to trade with them.
Europeans came too -- Frenchman, Englishmen, Spaniards. Each time, they brought flags and claimed that the Mandans and their land had been added to their empires. But the Mandans believed they had merely added the French, English and Spanish to their list of customers.
Each country was searching for the Northwest Passage, a water route believed to connect the Missouri River with the Pacific and the riches of the Orient that lay beyond. Whichever nation found it first, and then controlled it, would control the destiny of the continent.
On October 24th, 1804, the Mandans looked down from the bluffs of the Missouri and saw the largest boat they had ever seen, 55 feet long, 22 oars at its sides, and a cannon mounted in the bow. As they hurried down to see it, strangers stepped onto the shore and their two leaders spoke to the Mandans. They were explorers not traders, they said, on their way from St. Louis to find the great ocean toward the setting sun.
Children. Your old fathers, the French and the Spaniards, have gone beyond the great lake toward the rising sun....
Children. The great chief of the seventeen great nations of America has become your only father . He has commanded us... to undertake this long journey... Children. Do these things which your great father advises and be happy... lest by one false step you should bring down upon your nation the displeasure of your great father...
Follow these counsels and you will have nothing to fear... and future ages will make you outnumber the trees in the forest.
- Meriwether Lewis & William Clark
The great father was Thomas Jefferson, president of the new United States, who had just purchased from France half a billion acres between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, doubling the size of his young republic with a single stroke of his pen.
The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communications with the waters of the Pacific Ocean may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent... Those who come after us will... fill up the canvas we begin.
Jefferson called his expedition the"Corps of Discovery." To lead it, the president had turned to his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, a young army officer from Virginia.
As co-commander, Lewis picked an old army friend and fellow Virginian, William Clark, a gregarious, seasoned frontiersman. With them were French-Canadian boatmen; three dozen army recruits from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky; and Clark's personal servant, a slave named York.
The explorers spent their first winter among the Mandans, who sold them food, helped them hunt buffalo, and gave them advice on what to expect farther up the Missouri. To act as translators, Lewis and Clark hired a French trapper, Touissant Charbonneau, and his 16 year old wife, Sacagawea -- a Shoshone who had been captured by the Hidatsas as a small girl. In the spring, the Corps of Discovery started west again.
We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine.
In the months to come, they passed through some of the most magnificent country on earth. They spent weeks portaging around a huge waterfall. They encountered animals never before described for science: pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears. And they were astonished by the massive herds of buffalo that seemed to roam everywhere.
But they were falling badly behind schedule -- the distances were proving to be far greater than the explorers, Jefferson, or anyone else had ever imagined. In early August, Lewis led a small advance party along an Indian trail that wound west into the mountains. Coming upon an ice-cold spring, he wrote that it was "the most distant fountain of the mighty Missouri... one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years." Then, he climbed toward the sharp ridge behind it.
"Of course the mission of the Lewis and Clark expedition was to find the Northwest Passage. That was the most important thing. And Meriwether Lewis was climbing to this ridge that he was sure was the continental divide, and as he walked up this saddle in the mountains, he expected that when he got there he might even see the ocean, but certainly he would see the western equivalent of the the Great Plains and a river that would flow there. And as he got to the top, he looked out and saw -- more mountains! Snow on 'em, eternal snows! And the myth of the Northwest Passage died at that moment."
Lewis had, in fact, crossed the Continental Divide -- the spine of the Rocky Mountains beyond which the rivers flow west, and beyond the boundaries of the United States. But his party was still nearly 500 miles from the Pacific -- and summer was fast disappearing.
If we do not find the Shoshones or some other nation who have horses I fear the successful issue of our voyage will be very doubtful... not knowing how far these mountains continue, or where to direct our course to pass them.
The next day he chanced upon a Shoshone village. The Shoshones had never seen a white man before and were suspicious of Lewis. Then occurred one of the most extraordinary coincidences in American history. When the main party arrived, Sacagawea, the French trapper's wife, suddenly recognized the chief of the Shoshones. He was her brother.
The great chief of this nation proved to be the brother of the woman with us. The squaw danced for the joyful sight and... those Indians sang all the way to their camp.
With Sacagawea as their interpreter, the captains explained their need for horses and guides, and the Shoshones agreed to provide them. Lewis and Clark had no time to rest. Frost already covered the ground each morning. The Shoshones told them of a steep hunting trail across the Bitterroots, but it was rocky, heavily timbered and with little game to shoot. Despite the risks, Lewis determined to try it. On foot and on horseback, they headed across what one of the men called "the most terrible mountains I ever beheld."
September 16th, 1805 -- Began to Snow about 3 hours before day and continued all day. The snow in the morning 4 inches deep on the old snow, and by night we found it from 6 to 8 inches deep... I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life... To describe the road of this day would be a repetition of yesterday, except the snow which made it much worse.
For eleven days, desperate with hunger, sometimes entirely lost, they tried to follow the old trail along the mountain ridges through swirling snow. They shot and ate a coyote, a raven, frantically splashed after crayfish in a stream, chewed even their candles, and finally stumbled down out of the mountains more dead than alive. There they were found by the Nez Percé.
"The Nez Perce's could've killed them easily. They could've wiped them out. But once they knew the intent of Lewis and Clark, that there was going to be no harm done to them, then of course they became very friendly and they were willing to help."
The Nez Percé gave the starving strangers dried salmon and the roots of the camas plant to eat. They told them it was now possible to reach the sea by water. And they allowed Lewis and Clark to fell five trees from which to fashion canoes for their journey.
Lewis and Clark moved fast now, down the Clearwater, then the Snake, through currents, one member of the expedition remembered, "swifter than any horse could run," and finally onto the broad Columbia. By late October, they were seeing signs that they were nearing the coast. Some Indians wore blue jackets and round hats bartered from British and American sailors who had been trading along the Pacific coast for decades. The Indians inform us they speak the same language with ourselves and give us proofs of their veracity by repeating many words of English, as "musket," "powder," "shot," "knife," "damned rascal," "son of a bitch" et cetera.
"You can imagine what it must have been like for Lewis and Clark. They'd been gone for a year and a half. They weren't even in United States territory any longer. They're coming down the Columbia, and suddenly, the water turns salty, and they start feeling some tidal motion, and it was the only time that William Clark ever got emotional in two and a half years in the wilderness."
November 7th, Thursday, 1805 -- A cloudy foggy morning. Some rain. We set out early... the fog so thick we could not see across the river... we proceeded down the channel with an Indian dressed in a sailor's jacket as our pilot...had not gone far when the fog cleared off... Ocean in view! O! the joy...
For nearly 300 years, Europeans from different nations had been entering the West from different directions, pursuing different myths. Yet each intruder had laid claim to the region, as if he were the first to discover it, as if the people already living there did not exist.
In 1603, conquistador had etched his name for Spain on El Morro rock in New Mexico. More than a century later, in 1743, a French nobleman had buried a lead tablet with his name on it on the northern Plains. In 1793, a Scottish explorer had painted his name on a rock to claim the Northwest coast for Great Britain. Now, it was the Americans' turn. At a point overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Clark took his knife and carved a message in the bark of a tree:
December 3rd, 1805
From the U. States
His country was not even 30 years old, but it already claimed half of the West. In 40 more years, Americans would have it all.
"If you could take a photograph at that time, you have one world. And it is a world that is full of good things as far as the Indians are concerned. Game is plentiful, their way of life is clearly established in terms of that landscape. But just off the picture plane, you know, there are these things that are about to descend upon that world. And for the Indian, they are very bad. The culture is severely threatened. Because of people from outside who are coming in. And their attitude is that even this world is not big enough for both of us."
N. Scott Momaday
Empire Upon the Trails
Episode Two (1806 - 1848)
The American realizes that 'Progress is God.' The destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent -- to rush over this vast field to the Pacific Ocean... to change darkness into light and confirm the destiny of the human race... Divine task! Immortal mission! The pioneer army perpetually strikes to the front. Empire plants itself upon the trails.
By 1821, no one knew who would control the West’s seemingly infinite spaces, what language would be dominant, whose god would be worshipped -- what the West's destiny would be.
Two young republics -- the United States and the newly established Republic of Mexico -- claimed most of it. England still had outposts in the Pacific Northwest, while a host of Indian nations held fast to their lands -- and challenged each other for more.
But the Americans were already moving west, content -- at first -- to make their way in other people's worlds.
Mountain men began it, following icy streams into the Rockies in search of furs.
Others, who called themselves Latter-day Saints, fled to the West hoping to find sanctuary.
A devout young woman from upstate New York hurried west to save the souls of Indians, but in the end could not even save herself.
A Tennessee politician whose career was ruined by drink and scandal would get a second chance in the Mexican province of Tejas.
While a Virginia family, accustomed to following a restless dream of better times over the next horizon, very nearly destroyed itself trying to reach the continent's farthest shore.
But regardless of their reasons for going West, once they got there, the Americans soon determined to make the West -- all of it -- their own.
It is our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.
John L. O’Sullivan
"Americans' reach exceeds their grasp. Americans can't do what they might like to do, but the time is coming. This is a country that is going to grow more and more powerful. Its ambition is already there, and there's going to come a time by mid-century where in fact it can fulfill its ambition, and when that time is reached, the West will be an entirely different place."
The Heart of Everything
"We have maps of the past. Not a history in the way that most of us understand history, but places... we can identify with in terms of time and experience. 'Oh, yes,' my grandmother would say, 'yes, we were there, we were there in the Black Hills at one time. We know about Zoei, Devils Tower.' And she said it, you know, as if she had been there. And I think that in her mind's eye, it was, it was there and very clearly defined."
N. Scott Momaday
The arrival of the horse in the early 1700s had allowed the Kiowas to migrate eastward from the Rocky Mountains out onto the Great Plains. They claimed as their own the best winter hunting grounds, the Black Hills, and its landmarks became part of their religion. But by the early 1800s, new people had arrived from the east, challenging the Kiowas for the Black Hills. They were the Cheyenne. And behind them came the Lakota -- known by whites as the Sioux.
"The Black Hills have around them in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century this incredible swirl of people. People fighting, contesting for buffalo grounds. And the driving figures in all this are always going to be the Lakotas. The Lakotas are pushing other people out, the Lakotas are spreading west after the herds, the Lakotas are the people in motion. The Lakotas weren't always there, but they make the Black Hills the center of their world."
"Our name for the Black Hills is Wahmunka Oganunka Inchante. Inchante is 'the heart of.' Wahmunka Oganunka I translate 'the heart of everything that is,' everything material, everything spiritual. It is the center of the universe.
"We were a warrior society, and that's very much a part of our culture. We have an expression that whoever didn't fear us, hated us, and we took great pride in the fact that everyone either hated us or feared us. The Cree people in their stories would say, 'When the Crow were coming to fight, we sent our little boys to fight. When the Mandan were coming, we sent the old men. When the Sioux were coming, we painted our faces for death and prepared to die.'"
Charlotte Black Elk
For nearly 300 years, Spanish-speaking people had called much of the West their home. They raised vast herds of cattle in the fertile valleys of California, built cathedrals and towns of adobe along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. And in the sprawling northern province of Tejas , where Comanches and Kiowas controlled the open plains, they clustered around a handful of Catholic missions. But wherever they lived, they felt neglected by Mexico City, more than a thousand miles away.
"The people of the frontier were by and large anti-government, anti-institutional church. They were very happy being left on their own to defend their property, to live their own lifestyles without intervention of a far off government. The Spanish colonists' motto was: God is in Heaven, the Pope is at the Vatican, the King is in Madrid, the Viceroy's in Mexico City, and to hell with you. I'm in San Antonio."
For generations, foreigners had been kept out of the isolated northern provinces. Then, after the Republic of Mexico won its independence in 1821, it announced that Americans were now welcome in Tejas -- Texas.
"Mexico had what seemed like a good plan... to get settlers and colonists into Texas, to make sure it was a settled territory that the United States would have to back off from. The Mexican population doesn't really have a surplus that could provide that kind of settlement. So, it seemed like a good idea. It's one of those moments of hindsight where you think, 'Oh, watch out for this one.'"
Patricia Nelson Limerick
This village has been settled by Mr. Stephen F. Austin, a native of the United States of the North. Its population is nearly two hundred persons, of which only ten are Mexicans... The Americans are... in my opinion, lazy people of vicious character. Some of them cultivate their small farms, but this task they usually entrust to their Negro slaves, whom they treat with considerable harshness... In my judgment, the spark that will start the conflagration that will deprive us of Texas, will start from this colony.
Lieutenant José Maria Sanchez
In 1821, an ambitious ex-newspaperman from Missouri named Stephen F. Austin settled 297 American families -- and their slaves -- on the Brazos River in east Texas. In exchange for the land, they agreed to convert to Catholicism and swear allegiance to the Republic of Mexico.
Under the same terms, Mexico granted others the right to settle in Texas. But soon, the plan began to backfire. Thousands of American squatters now came, carving out their own homesteads without anyone's permission.
"I think it was an opportunity for adventure for them. A lot of people came to Texas because they were running from the law or running from a bad family situation, a bad marriage. Texas was filled with, shall we say, fringe society. But it was also filled with a lot of people who really did want something more than what they had and thought they might find it on the frontier."
Dirt-poor debtors came. So did land speculators, fugitives, lawyers -- and a tall 39-year-old Tennessean with a decidedly mixed reputation. Raised by his widowed mother and informally adopted by the Cherokees, he had distinguished himself in the War of 1812, served in Congress and was now Governor of Tennessee. Many assumed that he, like his mentor Andrew Jackson, would one day be President. His name was Sam Houston.
I think that he was one of the most difficult, the most irascible, the most principled , the most opinionated men in American history. He was flamboyant; he wore vests that were furry, or he would have on a jacket and on top of that an Indian blanket. He was the first man to wear beads on the floor of the United States Senate. I like that."
But after his young wife abruptly left him, Houston resigned the governorship without explanation, began drinking heavily, and fled to live with his Cherokee friends. His career in the United States seemed over. Sam Houston headed for Texas.
An eagle swooped down near my head, and then, soaring aloft with wildest screams, was lost in the rays of the setting sun. I knew that a great destiny waited for me in the West.
There were now nearly 35,000 American-born immigrants and their slaves in Texas -- ten times the number of Spanish-speaking tejanos. Despite their many differences, both groups agreed on one thing: they resented taking orders from far-off Mexico City.
Then in 1835, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was elected president of Mexico. At first, he promised greater autonomy for Texas. Instead, Santa Anna declared himself dictator, the "Napoleon of the West," and when Texans rebelled and talked of independence, he led an army north -- 5,300 men, flying a black flag that meant no quarter.
Let each man come with a good rifle and one hundred rounds of ammunition -- and come soon.
Because of his past military experience, Sam Houston was put in command of Texan forces. He called for more men -- from Texas and from the United States. In Washington, President Andrew Jackson ordered a policy of strict neutrality: he wanted to buy Texas, not fight a war over it. But "Texas meetings" were held all over the country. Eager young men signed up by the battalion.
In San Antonio, one hundred and forty-six men gathered at an old Spanish mission called the Alamo to stop Santa Anna's army. Houston believed the Alamo was impossible to defend, and ordered it blown up. But the men inside -- including an alcoholic adventurer named Jim Bowie and a former Tennessee congressman named Davy Crockett -- decided on their own to stay and fight.
On February 24th, 1836, Santa Anna reached San Antonio, and demanded that the Alamo's occupants surrender or be annihilated. Its commander, William Barret Travis, answered with a cannon shot. The Mexicans settled in for a siege. Travis scribbled out an urgent plea for reinforcements and entrusted it to a 30-year-old captain of the Texas army, a tejano named Juan Seguin, who slipped through the Mexican lines and delivered the call for help.
Meanwhile, in a rundown farmhouse in the tiny settlement of Washington-on-the-Brazos, 59 men, including three tejanos, declared Texas an independent republic and hammered out a constitution modeled after that of the United States. But there would be no reinforcements for the Alamo. Houston still considered it folly for his outnumbered army to fight Santa Anna there.
At five A.M. , on the morning of March 6th, 1836, after 13 days of siege, Santa Anna's bugler blew the Deguello, the signal for death in the bull ring. Twenty-six hundred Mexican soldiers charged the Alamo -- into a hail of Texan gunfire. At least 600 Mexican soldiers died that morning -- though Santa Anna would officially admit to just 70 deaths among his men. But the odds proved overwhelming. In a matter of hours, the Alamo was taken, and in the end all its defenders -- Americans and tejanos alike -- lay dead.
"What is important about the Alamo is not the number of men or who they were or the various personalities, but the fact that this small group of men chose to defend an impossible position, against a superior number, and held it for thirteen days. They chose this place knowing that it would mean sure death."
The killing went on. Santa Anna took a second fort, called Goliad. Its defenders were "pirates," he said, foreigners intent on stealing Mexican territory. He ordered 300 men -- most of them Americans -- to be shot and their corpses burned.
Our garrison... was taken and massacred. If such conduct is not sufficient to arouse the patriotic feelings of the sons of liberty, I know not what will.... Rather than be driven out of this country , I will leave my bones to blanch on the plains of Texas.
Private G.A. Giddings
Santa Anna pushed on. Now, all that stood between him and the defenseless settlements in east Texas was a small, poorly trained army of volunteers -- and their erratic and unpredictable commander, Sam Houston.
In the Midst of Savage Darkness
"A Wayakin is your guardian spirit, and from this guardian spirit you get your power. I collected about sixteen of them, and the most interesting that I have is the one of my Father's, because there were different animals that talked to him at the same time and each one of them gave him this certain thing. The chipmunk said, Well I'll give you a lot of good fast movements. You will be a quick person. And the badger said, I will give you steadfastness. You will be strong. And the dog said, I'm going to give him love and friendship. I'm going to be with him all the time. And that was his guardian spirit."
Back in 1831, four Indians -- including three Nez Percé from the tribe who had helped Lewis and Clark survive their time in the Pacific Northwest -- traveled eastward, over the mountains and across the Plains, nearly two thousand miles to St. Louis. They had come, they said, because they had heard of a "black book" that gave whoever possessed it additional power and prestige.
"They were looking for the Bible. And they thought that they would get power from it, just like that they would get from their Wayakin."
A highly embellished account of the Indians' journey made its way into the Protestant missionary press. The Nez Percé, it said, were pleading for salvation. In the spring of 1836, a small party of missionaries responded, and began the long trek from Missouri to the British trading post of Fort Vancouver along a route that would soon be called the Oregon Trail.
Among the Christian pioneers were Dr. Marcus Whitman and his young wife, Narcissa, who from her earliest childhood had dreamed of becoming a missionary. She had married Whitman specifically to go west and spread the word of Christ to those in need of it.
Our desire now is to be useful to these benighted Indians, teaching them the way of salvation... It is a great responsibility to be pioneers in so great a work. It is with cautious steps that we enter on it.
"Well, I don't think she really knew what she was going out to do in the west. She had grown up reading, consuming voraciously the literature of the missionary movement of her day. And she thought she was going out to live out a scenario that she had really read about. That is, she would arrive, hopefully be welcomed, and somehow bring about this monumental conversion of the people with whom she worked. She had no real ideas at all as to what the west was like, or what missionary work would be like.
Julie Roy Jeffrey
The Whitmans settled at a place called Waiilatpu on the north bank of the Walla Walla River, in the land of the Cayuse. But things did not go well for them. Tiloukaikt, a Cayuse chief, wondered why they failed to offer gifts, as was the Cayuse custom. His people could not understand why the Whitmans insisted they must completely abandon their own faith. And they were insulted when Narcissa barred them from her parlor.
The Indians said they would worship in our new house.... We told them our house was to live in and we could not have them worship there, for fear they would make it so dirty and full of fleas that we could not live in it.
"I think Narcissa really didn't like them at all, that she saw them as everything that was the polar opposite of what she loved and valued. The kinds of words that she uses -- savage, ignorant, lazy, heathenish -- the way she called her mission station a 'dark and savage place,' give you some sense of this emotional response to people whom she couldn't understand, who frightened her, and who wouldn't change in the ways that she really thought they ought to change for their own good."
Julie Roy Jeffrey
Narcissa had given birth to a daughter, Alice, but at age 2 the little girl drowned in the river next to the mission. Grieving and lonely, Narcissa sometimes went two years without a letter from home. Each day she and the other missionary wives in the region paused to pray for each other and their families.
"I've always found it to be very poignant -- a sign of their loneliness, and how difficult it was, and how they tried to communicate with one another through their spirits."
Julie Roy Jeffrey
During their first years, the Whitmans managed to convert one Scottish visitor, one French Canadian Catholic and several Hawaiian laborers who worked for them. But they failed to make a single convert among the Cayuse.
Never was I more keenly sensible to the self denials of a missionary life. Even now while I am writing, the drum and the savage yell are sounding in my ears, every sound of which is as far as the east is from the west from vibrating in unison with my feelings.... Dear friends will you not sometime think of me almost alone in the midst of savage darkness.
We go to conquer
"After the Alamo fell, and Santa Anna ordered all the prisoners shot, he had said he was going to kill everybody that's opposing the Mexican government. There was terrific panic over the country, and every family that could got their belongings together in their buggy or wagon or whatever they had -- horseback... walkin', carryin' what you could, draggin' or puttin' on a mule -- and they just abandoned their homes. That was called the 'Runaway Scrape.' They were trying to get across the Sabine River to get into New Orleans before they got killed."
The fledgling government of Texas had retreated to the little town of Harrisburg, where they demanded that Sam Houston stand and fight. But Houston kept his own counsel, poring over Caesar's Commentaries on war, gnawing on the raw ears of corn with which he filled his saddlebags.
Had I consulted the wishes of all I should have been like the ass between two stacks of hay. I consulted no one -- I held no councils of war. If I err, the blame is mine.
Houston and his small army were in full retreat, zig-zagging across Texas, keeping just out of range of the advancing Mexicans. Rumors spread that alcohol had undercut his courage. Settlers jeered him from the roadside.
"The men under him said he's a coward, and Sidney Sherman, the colonel, tried to replace him. Sam Houston said, anybody that tries to remove me from this command, I'll execute 'em on the spot.
For more than a month, Santa Anna pursued Houston's elusive army. Then the Mexican general made a mistake. He divided his troops and veered off in hopes of capturing the provisional government. Houston slipped up behind him at a bend in a river called the San Jacinto.
April 21, 1836: We are in preparation to meet Santa Anna. It is the only chance of saving Texas. We go to conquer. It is wisdom growing out of necessity to meet the enemy now.
Santa Anna's army was surrounded by water on three sides. Houston's 800 men moved into position on the fourth.
"There were trees there. Houston had men up in those trees watching 'em, and calling down to him what they were doing. He says, 'The cavalry over there have taken their saddles off, they're taking their horses to drink.' This is siesta time; it's 3:30 and most of the Mexicans are having their siesta. Houston immediately ordered them to line up.
"Trust in God and fear not!" he told his men. "Remember Goliad! Remember the Alamo!"
Houston led the charge himself, swinging his saber. His horse fell, hit five times. Houston climbed onto another horse. It, too, was killed, and this time Houston's right leg was splintered by a musket ball.
But Santa Anna's army was on the run. The Texans and a company of tejanos under Juan Seguin were right behind them. The fighting lasted just 18 minutes. But the slaughter went on for another hour.
When it was all over, 600 Mexican soldiers lay dead, nearly seven hundred more had surrendered. The surprise had been so complete, the blow so sudden, that only six Texans died during the Battle of San Jacinto.
Santa Anna himself was made Sam Houston's prisoner, and forced to sign a piece of paper ceding Texan independence.
Now, there were three independent republics in North America: Mexico, the United States -- and, under president Sam Houston, the new Republic of Texas.
The loss of Texas will inevitably result in the loss of New Mexico and the Californias. Little by little our territory will be absorbed until only an insignificant part is left to us.... Our national existence... will end like those weak meteors that, from time to time, shine fitfully in the firmament and disappear.
José Maria Tornel y Mendivil
Trail of Tears
In the early morning hours of November 14th, 1833, one of the largest meteor showers in history lit up the night sky over North America. On the southern Plains, a large band of Kiowas were camped in the Wichita Mountains, where they had been driven when the Cheyenne and Lakotas took over the Black Hills.
"And they were awakened by the light of falling stars. And they ran out into the false day and were terrified. They thought the world was coming to an end. You can imagine something like that happening directly overhead, this havoc in the night sky. And so it's very much in their blood memory. I think the Kiowas took the falling stars as a sign. It was an omen. And bad things followed. You can start counting the catastrophes."
N. Scott Momaday
Soon, the Kiowa noticed a new people, coming from the east, moving onto the southern Plains. The settlers built towns, churches, schools. Some of them owned slaves. But these newcomers were Indians, too -- Cherokee, one of many peoples from the East forced into the West by the federal government.
No eastern tribe had struggled harder or more successfully to make white civilization their own. For generations, the Cherokee had lived side by side with whites in Georgia. They had devised a written language, published their own newspaper, adopted a constitution and the Christian faith. But after gold was discovered on their land, even they were told they would have to start over again in the West.
My friends... circumstances render it impossible that you can flourish in the midst of a civilized community. You have but one remedy within your reach. And that is to remove to the west, and the sooner you do this, the sooner will commence your career of improvement and prosperity.
Early in the 1830s, Congress had created a huge new Indian Territory which was to stretch from Texas to the middle Missouri River. It was meant to be a barrier to white expansion, a place the Indians were promised they would have to themselves, forever.
"Another way in which the West was going to solve America's problems was that it looked like the place where you could put Indians. There's all that space. Move them, move them to the West. Take them across the Mississippi River and posterity can figure this one out. Posterity can inherit our dilemma."
Patricia Nelson Limerick
One by one, Indian peoples were removed to the West -- the Delaware, Ottawa, Shawnee, and Pottawatomi; the Sac and Fox, Miami and Kickapoo; the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. In all, some 90,000 Indians were relocated.
The Cherokee were among the last to go. Some reluctantly agreed to move. Others were driven from their homes at bayonet point. Almost two thousand of them died along the route they remember as the "Trail of Tears."
"The Cherokee are probably the most tragic instance of what could have succeeded in American Indian policy, and didn't. All these things that Americans would proudly see as the hallmarks of civilization, are borne into the west by Indian peoples. They do everything we ask except one thing. What the Cherokees ultimately are, they may be Christian, they may be literate, they may have a government like ours, but ultimately, they're Indian. And in the end, being Indian is what kills them."
The Barren Rock
They called themselves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The world called them the Mormons, after the Book of Mormon, which their founder Joseph Smith said he had translated from a set of golden plates he had been divinely guided to discover. The book said that Jesus Christ had preached in America after the Resurrection and would return when a new true church was established.
Everywhere they went, the Mormons gathered converts. And everywhere they went, they made enemies.
If we were of the world, I believe that the people... would love us well enough to let us remain somewhere in the state. But they hate us, despise us, and persecute us, and when they kill us they verily think they do God's service.
Elizabeth Haven Barlow
Angry mobs, who considered them heretics, drove the Mormons from New York, then Ohio, and then Missouri, where the governor himself ordered them to leave the state, or be "exterminated."
In Illinois, Joseph Smith bought a small settlement, re-named it Nauvoo and turned it into the second-biggest city in the state. He started work on a great temple, outfitted his own private army, began to practice polygamy in secret, and announced he was running for President of the United States. When Smith destroyed the printing press of a man who dared criticize him, he was jailed -- and then murdered by an anti-Mormon mob. Unless they abandoned Illinois, his followers were told, the same fate awaited them.
We face a crisis of extraordinary and thrilling interests... the exodus of the nation of the only true Israel from these United States to a far distant region of the West.... Wake up, wake up, dear brethren... to the present glorious emergency in which the God of heaven has placed you to prove your faith by your works.
Now the Mormons pinned their hopes on a big Vermont-born carpenter named Brigham Young, one of the church's twelve apostles. He had read explorers' reports of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake and saw it as a perfect sanctuary for his Saints -- sheltered by the Wasatch Mountains, beyond the boundaries of the United States. He would take his people there.
"Brigham Young's been called an American Moses, and I think that's pretty accurate. He took a persecuted religious sect, and he took them into the wilderness and built a new place for them to live in the desert. And in going through these trials as they went to the West, it made the Mormons see themselves as divinely separated from everyone else and divinely protected. And Brigham Young was the one who made that happen."
In early 1846, some ten thousand Latter-day Saints began leaving Illinois for the West. By winter, they had reached the west bank of the Missouri River -- but they were still nearly 1,000 miles from their destination. There, they built a makeshift town they called Winter Quarters, where 700 of them died in the bitter cold.
The next spring, Brigham Young himself led forth a small group to select the site on which all would settle. He called it the "Pioneer Band." In late July, they got their first glimpse of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.
We gazed with wonder and admiration upon the vast, rich, fertile valley... the grandest and most sublime scenery probably that could be obtained on the globe. We contemplated that in not many years, the valleys would be converted into orchard, vineyard, gardens and fields by the inhabitants of Zion.
We have traveled fifteen hundred miles to get here, and I would willingly travel a thousand miles farther to get where it looked as though a white man could live.
"The Mormon people were looking for isolation where they could practice their spiritual beliefs freely. And when they stepped foot into the Great Basin they found the isolation they were looking for. You can imagine Great Salt Lake, seeing this huge body of water and dipping down with cupped hands for a drink of refreshment only to be repulsed. I think that appealed to the Mormons because no one else would bother them."
Terry Tempest Williams
Their very first day in the valley, the Mormons dug a fresh-water irrigation ditch and started planting potatoes. And soon, Brigham Young was pacing off the streets and squares of the great city he planned to build in the desert.
We have been thrown like a stone from a sling, and we have lodged in the godly place where the Lord wants his people to gather... If the Lord should say by his revelation this is the spot, the Saints would be satisfied if it was a barren rock.
Westward I Go Free
My father's name was Henry Sager. He moved from Virginia to Ohio, then to Indiana and from there to Missouri... In the month of April 1844, my father got the Oregon fever and we started west.
Henry Sager had moved his growing family four times in as many years, always a little farther west in search of land that was more fertile and less expensive. By 1844, the Sagers were in St. Joseph Missouri, restless and ready to move again. 2,000 miles to the west was the Oregon Country. The United States now claimed it. So did Great Britain. But the United States had the people to settle it.
Eastward I go by force; but westward I go free... I should not lay so much stress on this fact, if I did not believe that something like this is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe...
Henry David Thoreau
One thousand Americans had made their way to Oregon in 1843 alone. Ten thousand more would follow over the next four years. Henry Sager was determined to join them. He signed on with a group called the "Independent Colony" -- 300 people in 72 wagons. Most were families like the Sagers and their six children.
"Mr. Sager was very keen to go west. And his wife, Naomi, was pregnant. And she was not just beginning her pregnancy, she was along. And she was more reluctant to go. But go they did with all their children."
Julie Roy Jeffrey
In what is now eastern Kansas, spring rains turned the prairies to mud and made river crossings dangerous. The children, confined to their covered wagon for mile after lurching mile, grew seasick. Five weeks out, Naomi Sager gave birth to her seventh child -- a baby girl.
On July 4th, the caravan rested near the Platte River in Nebraska, and a young couple in the wagon train used the occasion to get married.
The weather was fine, and all seemed to enjoy themselves. There were several musical instruments in the company; and these sounded out clear and sweet on the evening air while gay talk and merry laughter went on around the camp fire.
Farther on, they forded the South Platte, and Henry Sager lost control of his oxen. The wagon overturned and Naomi was injured, but they kept going. In late July, they passed Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff in what is now western Nebraska. One afternoon, young Catherine, age nine, tried to hop off the wagon.
The hem of my dress caught on an axe-handle, precipitating me under the wheels, both of which passed over me... before father could stop the oxen... A glance at my limb dangling in the air as he ran... revealed to him the extent of the injury I had received, and in a broken voice he exclaimed, "My dear child, your leg is broke all to pieces!"
For the remainder of the trip Catherine either rode in the jolting wagon or hobbled along beside it on makeshift crutches.
They kept moving -- beyond Fort Laramie to Independence Rock, where emigrants carved their names as proof of their individual passing. On August 23rd, the Sager's wagon crossed South Pass and the continental divide. Now they were beyond the boundaries of the United States and in Mexican territory. Oregon was still weeks away.
A sickness called "camp fever" struck the caravan. Two women died. Then a little girl. Then Henry Sager fell ill.
We crossed the Green River and camped on the bank... Looking upon me as I lay helplessly by his side, he said, "Poor child! What will become of you?" Father expired the next morning, and was buried on the bank of the Green River, his coffin... hastily dug out of the trunk of a tree.
Fatherless, the Sagers pushed on. At last they crossed the border into the Oregon Country. But on the dusty trail along the Snake River, Naomi, too, became delirious with fever.
We traveled over a very rough road, and she moaned pitifully all day. When we camped for the night... her pulse was nearly gone..... She lived but a few moments more, and her last words were, "Oh, Henry, if you only knew how we have suffered!"
The children buried their mother, wrapped in a bed sheet, in a shallow grave along the trail, with willow brush and a wooden headboard to mark the spot.
The teams were then hitched to the wagon and the train drove on, leaving her to her long sleep. Thus in twenty-six days both our parents were laid in the grave, and we were orphans, the oldest fourteen years old and the youngest five months old.
"And there were these seven children, left without any relatives in the world. The word orphan is almost insufficient to describe their situation. And of course, the other thing to remember about them is that there was no one in the West waiting for them. So these children were just alone."
Julie Roy Jeffrey
Under the care of other families in the wagon train, the seven Sager children pressed on. In early October, they reached Cayuse country. One member of the caravan rode ahead to the mission run by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman to tell them that a needy wagon train was approaching -- and to talk with them about adopting the Sager children.
Application has been made for us to take an orphan family of seven children, as they have not a relative in the company. What we shall do I cannot say; we cannot see them suffer, if the Lord casts them upon us.
Since her own daughter's death, to ease her grief, Narcissa had taken in four other children, including the daughter of the mountain man Joe Meek.
"For Narcissa, the death of her daughter, Alice, was the beginning of a real collapse, a physical and a psychological breakdown. And then, when the Sager children arrive, it's really her salvation. She can recreate a very satisfying domestic life and really turn her back on the real mission work that she came out to do."
Julie Roy Jeffrey
Husband thought we could get along with all but the baby -- he did not see how we could take that; but I felt that if I must take any, I wanted her as a charm to bind the rest to me.
The Whitmans sent word back to the wagon train that they would take all seven. A few days later, after six months and 2,000 miles, Henry and Naomi Sager's children finally reached their new home in Oregon. Narcissa Whitman came out to meet them for the first time.
She was a large, well-formed woman, fair complexioned, with beautiful auburn hair, nose rather large, and large grey eyes. She had on a dark calico dress and gingham sunbonnet; and we thought as we shyly looked at her that she was the prettiest woman we had ever seen.
What A Country
The Californios inhabit a country embracing four or five hundred miles of sea-coast with several harbours, with fine forests in the north; the waters filled with fish, and the plains covered with thousands of herds of cattle; blessed with a climate than which there can be no better in the world... In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be.
Richard Henry Dana
By the mid-1840s, lured by reports of fertile soil and a healthy climate, some 3,000 American settlers had filed through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and down into California's Sacramento Valley.
The commander of all Mexican troops in northern California, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, begged Mexico City for the soldiers he knew would be necessary to keep the Americans out. Vallejo belonged to one of the oldest Spanish families in the Americas: most of the Sonoma Valley -- a quarter of a million acres -- belonged to him.
But despite his position, the government ignored his pleas for troops. It seemed to Vallejo and his fellow Californios that Mexico City was as distant and arbitrary as it had been to the people of Texas. He now found himself embroiled in revolts and counter-revolts, and increasing calls for California's independence.
Finally, the leading Californios gathered in Monterey to discuss their future. One man favored annexation by France, since it was a Catholic country. Another thought California should join the British empire. Still others called for a Republic of California. Vallejo had come to a different conclusion.
To rely any longer upon Mexico to govern and defend us would be idle and absurd... Why should we shrink from incorporating ourselves with the United States, the happiest and freest nation in the world, destined soon to be the most wealthy and powerful?... When we join our fortunes to hers, we shall not become subjects, but fellow-citizens.
Mariano Guadelupe Vallejo
The people of Texas have, with a unanimity unparalleled, declared that they will be reunited to the great Republican family of the North... We are cheered by the hope that they will receive us... and hail us welcome into the great family of freemen.
For seven years, Sam Houston's hopes that Texas would become part of the United States had been thwarted by northern fears that Texas would tip the precarious balance of power toward the slave states.
Then in 1844, James Knox Polk was narrowly elected President. He was a humorless, hard-working democrat from Tennessee, utterly determined to expand the United States. With his support, and a compromise, deftly side-stepping the issue of slavery, the Republic of Texas became the thirty-eighth state in the Union. And Sam Houston was named its first senator.
Next, President Polk turned his attention to the Pacific Northwest. He threatened Britain with war unless it gave up its claim, then shrewdly negotiated an agreement that added what are now Oregon, Washington and Idaho to the Union.
But Polk was still not satisfied. He now wanted New Mexico and California, and when Mexico refused to sell the provinces, he used a border skirmish along the Rio Grande to persuade Congress to declare war.
The Mexican-American War lasted more than a year and a half -- a bloody struggle that cost thousands of lives and ended only when American troops finally stormed into Mexico City. In less than a dozen years, Mexico had lost half its territory; the United States had grown by more than a third.
In Texas, Juan Seguin, who had fought as hard as any man for independence, was falsely accused of being more loyal to Mexico than to Texas. He was forced to slip south across the border -- "To seek refuge," he mourned, "amongst my enemies."
And in California, Mariano Vallejo's dreams of a peaceful annexation ended when, at the outbreak of war in 1846, American squatters arrested him in his own house. Like many other new-made Mexican-Americans, he found himself an alien on his own native soil.
Our race, our unfortunate people, will now have to wander in search of hospitality in a strange land.... the North Americans hate us, their spokesmen deprecate us, and they consider us unworthy to form with them one nation and one society.
Manuel Crescencio Rejon
So We Die
After ten years in Oregon, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman had largely abandoned their work among the Indians in favor of helping the wagon trains that now rolled ceaselessly across Cayuse lands.
"I think that the Cayuse hated Narcissa. And I think that when Narcissa turned her back on the Indians, and when she dealt with them as sternly as she did, with, I think, from her perspective, with all the right motives -- you have to tell people who were going to hell they were going to hell -- that they came to really despise her. Way back in the early 1840s, the Indians started telling the Whitmans to leave: 'We don't like to hear this bad talk. Leave.' The Whitmans don't go."
Julie Roy Jeffrey
In 1847, three years after the Sager children arrived, measles carried west with the emigrant trains swept through the Cayuse villages. Half the tribe died -- including most of the children. Despite Marcus Whitman's nursing, rumors circulated among the grieving Cayuse that he was secretly spreading the disease, not trying to cure it.
One afternoon, three Cayuses appeared at the door and asked to see Whitman. One of them was the chief Tiloukaikt. He had once seriously considered accepting the Christian faith, but now he had lost three children to the white man's sickness. When he got inside the house, he and the others shot and hacked Marcus Whitman to death.
Mother was standing looking out at the window when a ball came through the broken pane, entering her right shoulder. She clapped her hand to the wound... and fell backwards. She now forgot everything but the poor, helpless children depending on her, and she poured out her soul in prayer for them: "Lord, save these little ones!" was her repeated cry.
The Cayuse warriors carried the wounded Narcissa out of the house on a settee, killed her, then lashed her dead face. They set the hated mission buildings on fire.
Besides Marcus and Narcissa, eleven other whites were killed before it was over, including the two Sager boys. Joe Meek's daughter, sick with measles at the time of the massacre, died soon afterward. So did Hannah Sager, age six. The four surviving Sager girls were orphans once more.
Frontier militia pursued the Cayuse into the mountains. Finally, five Cayuse warriors -- including Tiloukaikt -- turned themselves in so that the rest of their people would not be hunted down. Before he went to the gallows, someone asked Tiloukaikt why he had surrendered: "Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people?" he answered. "So we die to save our people."
Surely if the way of the pioneer is hard and beset with dangers, at least the long years bring at last the realization that life, patiently and hopefully lived, brings its own sense of having been part... of the onward move to better things -- not for self alone, but for others.
Catherine Sager, who had survived the massacre, would remain in Oregon, where she married a Methodist minister and bore him eight children -- one more than her mother, Naomi, had brought into the world.
A Continental Nation
"Americans started moving west for all these individual, personal reasons: land, converting Indians, furs. But everywhere they went, the end result was they wanted to make it into the United States. It didn't matter why they went, once they got there they decided, 'This place should be part of the United States.' And in doing so, they brought the nation with them. The nation didn't send them out. They brought the United States with them."
On July 4th, 1848, in Washington, D.C., thousands turned out to see President Polk lay the cornerstone of a new monument -- a giant stone shaft modeled after the obelisks of ancient Egypt to honor the nation's first president.
George Washington's America had ended at the Mississippi. But now, as Polk spoke to the crowd, the American flag flew over the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas; above the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe; over a growing Mormon settlement in the Great Salt Lake valley; at Spanish ranches in Sonoma, California; and near the ruins of the Whitman mission in the Pacific Northwest.
Polk's nation was a continental United States that stretched from sea to sea and now encompassed the West. In only a generation -- by enterprise and intimidation, by sacrifice and by outright conquest -- Americans had seized it all.
Back in the nation's capital, standing next to the president at the ceremony was the old mountain man Joe Meek. His fondest wish had come true. Born in Washington County, Virginia, he was now the sheriff of a brand-new Washington County -- in Oregon Territory.
A month later, even more good news arrived from this newest section of the country. In California -- on a stream named the American River -- gold had been discovered.
Nothing in the West would ever be the same again.
Speck of the Future
Episode Three (1848 - 1856)
There are all kinds of people on earth that you will meet some day... They will be looking for a certain stone. They will be people who do not get tired, but who will keep pushing forward, going, going all the time... These people do not follow the way of our great-grandfather. They follow another way. They will travel everywhere, looking for this stone which our great-grandfather put on the earth in many places.
On the morning on January 24th, 1848, a man named James Marshall walked along the banks of the American River in California, to check on the progress of a mill he was building.
"And he looks down where the soil has been dug and there's a sparkle, and there's a glint in the morning light, and he reaches down and he picks it up with his stubby dirty fingers, and the last thing in the world he might have expected, and here is this, this speck of the future, this tiny little shock that's going to reverberate right to today -- literally till now! He picks it up, and he says, you know, he says, 'My God!' And he yells out, he said, 'My God, I think I've found gold!'"
J. S. Holliday
By 1848, the United States claimed virtually all of the West. The Louisiana Purchase, the annexation of Texas and Oregon, and the war with Mexico had stretched the nation's boundaries all the way to the Pacific.
But the West was American in name only. Few people east of the Mississippi were anxious to venture into its forbidding interior. It still seemed too distant, too mysterious, too dangerous.
Then gold was discovered in California, and everything changed -- for the West, and for the country.
Suddenly, gold-seekers rushed in from every corner of the globe: Chinese peasants, pursuing tales of a "gold mountain" across the ocean, Mexican farmers and clerks from London, tailors from Eastern Europe and South American aristocrats fallen on hard times.
The thin stream of American emigrants crossing the continent became a torrent -- thousands upon thousands of optimistic but inexperienced prospectors, willing to leave their homes and families, and set out on the long trail for California, hoping to strike it rich and return in glory.
Because of gold, a once-sleepy village on a magnificent bay would change overnight into a thriving, international city -- where storekeepers, speculators and scoundrels all dreamed of becoming instant millionaires.
Because of gold, Spanish-speaking families who had lived in California for three quarters of a century, would suddenly find themselves surrounded by strangers -- and robbed of their land.
And because of gold, California's Indians would be overwhelmed, enslaved -- and then slaughtered.
The Gold Rush "revolutionized America," wrote one man who had seen it all. "It was the beginning of our national madness, our insanity of greed."
It had taken half a century for the United States to encompass the vast spaces of the West. Now, the lust for gold would animate the nation to begin to fill them up.
"The gold rush changed California, it changed the whole west, and it changed America's sense of itself because for the first time the United States of America, in the minds of the American people, fulfilled the dream of Jefferson, which was a continental nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific. No one thought about America stretching from Chesapeake Bay to San Francisco Bay until fathers and sons and uncles and brothers and fiances were out there.
J. S. Holliday
A frenzy seized my soul... Piles of gold rose up before me... castles of marble, thousands of slaves... myriads of fair virgins contending with each other for my love -- were among the fancies of my fevered imagination....In short, I had a very violent attack of the gold fever.
Hubert Howe Bancroft
The first gold had been found on the land of a Swiss-born adventurer named John Sutter, who had already created a 50,000-acre empire for himself in California. If he could keep the discovery quiet, he believed, it would make him rich beyond his wildest imaginings. But rumors began to spread.
One person who heard them was a Mormon elder named Sam Brannan. He had been sent to California to establish a colony for the church, but the rumors of gold led him to Sutter's Mill. There he saw an easier path to riches than working the streams: he opened a store next to Sutter's sawmill, fully stocked with picks, pans and shovels to cater to the needs of the treasure-seekers he knew would rush to the gold fields once word got out.
"Well, Brannan gathered together enough gold dust from various sources to put into a vial, took the next boat down to San Francisco, landed in San Francisco, still called Yerba Buena in those days, and strode up and down then-Montgomery street waiving the vial of gold over his head crying, 'Gold! Gold from the American River!' It worked perfectly. People spilled out of the saloons. They pass the vial around, hold it in their hands, feel its weight, look at it, and it absolutely entranced them."
T. H. Watkins
The Gold Rush had begun. By the middle of June, three quarters of the men living in San Francisco had left town to dig for gold. From Mexico -- where the Spanish had been mining gold for three centuries -- so many men headed north, one American reported, that "it seems as if the entire state of Sonora is on the move." Thousands more set sail from every port in South America. And as word spread across the Pacific, Hawaiians and Chinese came to work the streams.
For those who got there early, gold seemed to be everywhere -- lodged among rocks, glittering in sandbars, swirling in pools and eddies, there for the taking. Some made fortunes using nothing but spoons or jackknives to scoop it up. Others hired Indians to do the work: seven miners employing 50 Indians dug out 273 pounds of gold in just two months.
Prospectors liked to say that the name "California," came from a combination of the Indian word kali, which meant "gold" and fornia, which meant, "wouldn't you like some?"
"The tremendous success of that summer of 1848 spread by way of letters and government reports. The President in his State of the Union speech announces that the astonishing news from Sacramento is true. So the news is coming not only from the President, but most of all from these people who are writing these vivid reports. A guy writes home and he says, he says, 'You remember Dickson? He used to work for Ebeneezer?' He says, 'He has dug enough gold to weigh down a mule.' Now, that means something to people. A mule."
J. H. Holliday
"Everyone knew California was valuable, but nobody could have imagined that it would be a place of such immense riches, and riches to be harvested so quickly and seemingly so easily. It's an incredible boon, an incredible stroke of good fortune, and it just is one of those senses in which to the rest of the world it must have seemed that everything was just falling in the path of Americans, all they had to do was stoop and pick it up.
My Share of the Rocks
By the beginning of 1849, over 50,000 American goldseekers had decided to head for California. The only question was how to get there. Since it was impossible to go overland until spring thawed the prairies and mountain passes, the most impatient prospectors started off by sea -- 14,355 nautical miles -- all the way around the tip of South America. But most of the Americans decided to wait and go by wagon train.
April 11, 1849
All my things being ready last night, I rose early and commenced packing in my trunk, preparatory to leaving home on my long journey, leaving for the first time my home and my dear friends with the prospect of absence from them for many months and perhaps for years.
William Swain was a twenty-seven year old farmer's son from Youngstown, New York, utterly convinced he would find riches in California. His wife, Sabrina, was against his going West. She did not know if she and their infant daughter, Eliza, could bear to be apart from him. William's older brother George was for it. If pickings were as easy as the newspapers said, he would go West, too, the following spring.
Swain's plan was to take the overland route to California, make a quick $10,000 in the gold fields, and return home. He carried with him a guidebook to the Overland Trail, a Bible -- and his diary.
I had fortified my mind by previous reflection to suppress my emotions, as is my custom in all cases where emotion is expected. But this morning I learned by experience that I am not master of my feelings in all cases. I parted from my family completely unable to restrain my emotions and left them all bathed in tears, even my brother, whose energy of mind I never saw fail before.
He is a farmer. He lives a simple life. He's pretty well educated. He's read Shakespeare, he's read Wordsworth. His wife is a teacher. They have a very comfortable life. They don't have anything to complain about in eighteen forty-nine. This is a key point. They did not have anything that would cause them distress. His expectations were perfectly comfortable expectations of an average family, a farming family in America. The Gold Rush changed that. Suddenly he wanted more. Suddenly he wasn't satisfied.
J. S. Holliday
April 12th, 1849
At half past two o'clock we took passage for Detroit on the steamer Arrow. The lake is very smooth, and the boat shoots along like an arrow, and as she leaves, far in the distance, objects familiar to me and bears me on to those that are strange, I feel that she bears me and my destiny.
April 15, 1849
Dear, dear William,
I feel as though I was alone in the world. The night you left home I did not, nor could not, close my eyes to sleep.... William, if I had known that I could not be more reconciled to your absence than I am, I never could have consented to your going. However, I will try to reconcile myself as well as I can, believing God will order all things for the best.
May 6, 1849
We came up from St. Louis with a company... from Marshall, Michigan. They are got up on the joint stock principle and are going with ox teams. They proposed that we should join them by paying $100 each into the fund, furnishing a wagon and thus becoming members of their company... which we have done.
The members of Swain's company printed "Wolverine Rangers" on their wagons with axle grease. Other companies had their own nicknames: "Wild Yankee," "Rough and Ready," "Live Hoosier," and "Never Say Die." But in honor of the momentous year they believed would change their lives, they all proudly called themselves "'49ers."
Thirty thousand people -- that's not an exaggeration -- in the spring of 1849, take off from Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri, and travel along the Great Platte. Hundreds of miles of wagons. You can look to the west and as far as you can see on a dusty day, there are wagon trains, way off into the distance. And you turn around to look back, and they're stretched all the way back as far as you can see.
The men who traveled to California in the Gold Rush years had a conscious sense of the need to organize. There are rules. For instance, no swearing -- literally! They have constitutions, they have these rules and orders: No swearing. No drinking. We will observe the Sabbath. Many a company broke up over the argument of whether or not to observe the Sabbath. 'How can we observe the Sabbath? Here it is the middle of June, we're already behind. These people are passing us on Sunday, they're rolling. How can we sit here?' So they have arguments about it, and companies split up over the moral question of whether to observe the Sabbath or not.
J. S. Holliday
For thirty days, the Forty-niners crossed rolling prairie in what is now Kansas and Nebraska. It was Indian Territory, where tribes from the East had been relocated a decade earlier. Fears of Indian raids proved mostly groundless: men were more likely to die by drowning at a river crossing, or by an accident with their own guns, than they were at the hands of Indians. The Sac and the Fox, the Pawnees and Kickapoos, charged tolls at bridges and fords. The Potawatomis sold the emigrants bacon, beef and vegetables, and charged from one to five dollars to ferry emigrants across the Kansas River.
The real danger on the plains was cholera -- with its soaring fevers, chronic dysentery and ghastly death from dehydration. Cholera was rampant all across the United States in 1849, and quickly spread through the wagon trains. Some 1,500 of the goldseekers who set out for California that spring died from it on the trail.
Youngstown, New York
Dear Brother William,
We... were in a perfect fever of anxiety about you.... We know the cholera will be with you in crossing the plains.... Do write as soon as you get there.
Sabbath, May 27, 1849
In violation of our principle, we travel today on account of the sickness on the route.
May 31, 1849
I was attacked at noon by dysentery very badly. I... got Reverend Hobart to make me a composition tea.
June 1, 1849
Still taking medicine, opium and astringent powders... Today I have thought much of home and of my little girl, who is today one year old.
June 7, 1849
I am... on the gain, but very weak.... My appetite is good but I cannot eat hearty for fear of the consequences.
On June 13th, William Swain and his companions passed Fort Kearny on the Platte River. By early July, they reached Fort Laramie, in what is now Wyoming. They had gone nearly 700 miles from Missouri. But they still had more than 250 to go before they reached South Pass, which would take them through the Rocky Mountains. And nearly 1,000 more before they actually reached the gold fields.
July 4th, Independence Day
I have just left the celebration dinner table, where the company now are drinking toasts to everything and everybody and cheering at no small rate. I enjoy myself better in conversing with you through the medium of the pen….
I am hearty and well, far more so than when I left home.... I am also more fleshy. Notwithstanding these facts, I would advise no man to come this way to California.
Kiss my little girl for me, give my love to George and Mother, and tell them I am determined to have my share of the rocks. Your affectionate husband until death,
As thousands of Forty-niners streamed west, many carried with them the explorer John C. Frémont's official reports of his expeditions into the Rockies in the early 1840s, which portrayed his scout, Kit Carson, as fearless, chivalrous, and resourceful. But these reports paled in comparison to the sensational "dime novels" about Carson written by people who had never been west themselves, and certainly had never met the former mountain man.
"He was one of the first legends in his own time, a case where people had their image of what a Westerner was, that sometimes didn't square with the real thing. Kit Carson was up at a Fort Laramie. Somebody came over and said, 'I hear you're Kit Carson; is that right?' And, he was kind of a laconic man, he said, 'Yeah, I am.' And the person from the East looked him up and down and compared him to what he had read, and he goes, 'No , I don't think you really are Kit Carson.'"
The real Carson knew enough not to gamble his future on finding gold. Instead, he bought some 6,500 sheep from the Navajos at fifty cents a head and began driving them toward the gold fields, where he hoped to sell them for more than ten times that amount. Even here, his fame preceded him. When he drove his sheep onto a ferry boat on the Green River in Wyoming, the boatman refused to let him pay.
"They let him trail his six thousand five hundred sheep across for free -- that's quite a savings -- in order that they could name it Kit Carson's Cut Off, cause they figured if people heard about that, that's the one they would take, and they'd make a lot of money off his name."
Soon there would be Carson Lake, Carson River, Carson Pass, Carson Sink, Carson City -- and more. The old scout was philosophical about it all. Someone once showed him the cover of a particularly lurid book about himself and asked about the story it contained. "It may be true," he answered, "but I ain't got any recollection of it."
Stay at Home
August 25, 1849
What a long summer. O!! how I want to see you. Sometimes I almost imagine myself with you, but alas it is only the dream of fancy.... O! William, if I could see you this morning, I would hug and kiss you till you would blush.
Beyond the North Platte, William Swain and the other Forty-niners in his company endured fifty miles of treeless sagebrush dotted with pools of alkaline water fatal to oxen.
Wagons and carts were scattered on all sides, and the stench of dead and decaying cattle actually rendered the air sickening. Some idea can be drawn from the fact that in one spot could be seen 150 dead creatures.
On July 31st, they crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass. They were now through the Rockies, more than halfway to California. But the hardest part -- the deserts and the Sierra Nevadas -- still lay ahead.
Everyone on the trail that summer had heard the story of an earlier wagon train that had taken a supposed shortcut called "Hastings Cutoff," only to be trapped in the Sierras near Truckee Lake. Half of the emigrants had died; some of the others had survived by eating the flesh of their dead companions. They were remembered as the Donner Party.
William Swain and the others were late too and they knew it. Snow would soon begin to fall in the mountains. They also began to follow short-cuts that seemed likely to speed them through to the goldfields. Sublette's Cut-Off. Hudspeth's Cut-Off. And in the western Nevada desert, Lassen's Cut-Off.
"You had heard by the grape vine that there is desert, there's death, there's desolation, there's horror, ahead. Everybody thinks they want to go due West. Lassen's cut-off presumably leads you due West, across the desert, over the Northern end of the Sierra Nevada, and down into the warmth and the rewards of the Sacramento Valley.
So at the point where you make the choice, there is this moment where scores of men stand around, and they debate and they argue and they discuss and they read little signs on the road. And a barrel, a big barrel, full of cards and full of information. You sift through it: 'Oh, George went this way, Sam went this way, Louie went that way. What am I going to do?' There's choices being made. And they stand around and they debate, and sometimes companies'd argue and they split, and there'd be fights, and We'll go this way and We'll go that way. So it was a life-and-death choice, everybody knew it to be that. Wasn't just some casual matter of saving a few hours, it might save your life.
J. S. Holliday
On September 21st, William Swain and the Wolverine Rangers joined the stream of 10,000 gold-seekers and started down Lassens Cut-Off. It, too, would prove a mistake.
They first had to struggle across the searing Black Rock Desert, traveling by night, to save their oxen. Then, they had to face the mountains. The roads were made up of almost equal parts mud and boulders. Wagons broke down. The Wolverine Rangers agreed to split up into small groups. It would now be every man for himself.
November 6, 1849
We commenced, our way in ten inches of snow. I carried a change of underclothes, both of flannel and of cotton, two pairs of socks, one coat, one pants, one neck handkerchief, my journal, pocket Bible, pocketbook and a few day's provisions.... The storm increased as the day advanced.
"But when you get to the other side of the Sierra Nevada, you don't see the green of the Sacramento Valley, you see the desolation of the Pitt River Valley. You see rocks and stunted growth, and mountain deserts. It's just, it's just a pain, it's a shock, it's a hit in the head, it hurts your heart to see what still lies ahead. And you haven't gone a short cut. What you've done is you've gone north, and you're at what's called Goose Lake. So instead of going west, you've gone north-northwest. Now you've got to go south.
J. S. Holliday
At dawn we arrived at Antelope Creek, eight miles from Lassen's Ranch, and found it not fordable. The sky cleared. We kindled a rousing fire, dried and rested ourselves till noon when two other men and myself -- with our clothes lashed to our shoulders -- forded the stream.... It was the hardest job I ever had. When I stepped onto the opposite shore I thought my flesh would drop from my bones.
William Swain had finally made it to California.
January 6, 1850
There was some talk between us of your coming to this country. For God's sake think not of it. Tell all whom you know that thousands have laid and will lay their bones along the routes to and in this country... and as for you, STAY AT HOME, for if my health is spared, I can get enough for both of us.