Old diary offers glimpse of wagon train life

tamrawilson Uncategorized

Every once in a while a dream comes true.

One such occasion was last month, when I opened my email and there it was: a complete transcription of a diary written by a young man on a wagon train in 1850. But not just any wagon train; this one involved my great-great grandfather and his brother on the adventure of a lifetime.

I’d heard about the trip from my own grandfather who told of two young brothers heading out with a wagon train from St. Joseph, MO.  John Wesley Cooper, was 20 at the time; his brother William was 22.

The brothers were legendary in my family. The lure of gold, the notion that two young men would travel 2,000 miles by horse and wagon, braving wind, rain, blazing sun, snow, treacherous trails and rushing rivers! Over the years, I’d mused about the possibility of one of them keeping a diary, but I could only dream that such a document actually existed.  

Thanks to a chance contact on Ancestry, a kindly genealogist sent me the complete transcription—13 pages, single spaced. It had been written by William Cooper using a hard-lead pencil. He took care to record the weather, the mileage and landmarks along the way—the Platte River, Chimney Rock, Independence Rock, Soda Springs, the Humboldt Sink.

The saga picks up on May 12, 1850 as the wagons were headed toward the Big Blue, a river in Nebraska Territory. The brothers followed the well-traveled Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City in Utah Territory. They sold their wagon on July 3, then packed mules and horses to make the rest of the trek to the gold fields near Placerville, CA by Aug. 8—a month before California would become a state.

Their party stayed a week in Salt Lake City, which must have looked heavenly after three weeks on the trail littered with misfortune.

On July 13, they came upon a man who had died of smallpox.

The next day, the horses got sick. “Gave them some tartaric acid and black pepper,” William writes. And I am reminded how these men not only had to bring everything they needed with them, and what they didn’t have, they could make-do. These men were used to working with animals, and take care of their horses, which of course they depended upon. After an arduous stretch, they made sure the animals were rested before pressing on.

Every entry mentions water and grass—essentials for horses and mules traveling on dry, desolate trails, along creeks and rivers that make up the modern alignment of Interstate 80. I have no idea how they traveled a 28-mile stretch without water or grass.

Near Ft. Laramie, they passed two Sioux villages. “They wanted bread, tobacco, matches, handkerchiefs and fishhooks,” William wrote. Did they make a trade? The diary doesn’t say.

Most mornings, the travelers were well on their way by 5 a.m. to avoid the heat. Breakfast was always mentioned, lunch rarely. They burned wood when they could get it, even if it meant fording the Platte to reach a wooded island. Buffalo chips and sagebrush came in handy for campfires, too. Their diet isn’t mentioned except to say they caught fish and shot prairie dogs and rabbits.

To be sure, the journey was rife with danger: runaway horses, sickness, hostile Indians, broken axles, vicious storms in which they had to turn their wagon “sternwise” to keep it from blowing over.

One day alone they shot three yellow rattlesnakes.

Another day, a fellow in their party chased his hat for seven miles. It sounded funny until I figured how essential a hat was for protection from the elements. There would have been few trading posts on the trail.

There were constant reminders of death: old graves, new graves of travelers who perished along the road. They came upon the grave of a Wisconsin man who had been shot by Indians.  

One day near Ft. Laramie—a settlement of sod buildings–a member of the party lost $150, worth about $5,000 in today’s money. The cash was never found.  I have to wonder how the man survived such ill fortune out in the middle of nowhere.

Fording swift-moving rivers required a ferry or a raft for the wagons or swimming horses across the current. At one point in Northern Utah, a raft capsized, taking one poor fellow’s supplies, clothes and money.  

A later entry captures the desperation and grit of anyone able to make the grueling trip across Nevada in the heat of summer

Tuesday, July 30th.  Started at 5 o’clock across the desert.  Stopped at 12 o’clock.  Built a fire of a wagon box.  Fed our horses some grass that we brought along.  Ate a lunch.  Rested the 1-1/2? hours.  Then started and drove till morning.  Stopped and cooked our breakfast and fed our horses the last of our grass.  Packed up and started.  Reached Salmon Trout River.  Distance of 45 miles from the Sink.  The road is good exc some small sand spots and 10 miles of the last of it is v. sandy.  The desert is generally covered with sagebrush.  It is covered with sand hills from one 1 to 4 feet high and 10 feet across.  We counted 172 dead horses and mules 50 dead; oxen some teams gave out and left their wagons and pushed for the river.  I saw a man driving his mule to water and it was like to give out.  He took his knife and cut its throat right in the road and pushed ahead. 

We reached the river at 11 o’clock with our horses as good as when we started on the desert.  We watered our horses carefully with a little branch in the water.  Cooked our dinner and drove 2 miles and camped on the bank of the river. Forded our horse across the river, on to splendid feed and cut grass for the night.  There [are] several trading posts here.  Flour is 1-1/2 dollars a pound; beef 25 to 40 cts; bacon one dollar.

By the time they reached the Truckee River in California a few days later, they had to brave the August snows that no doubt reminded them of other Illinois travelers four years earlier: the ill-fated Donner Party that had perished on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

The diary ends on Aug. 8 with mention of great pines 150-200 feet tall. This was surely a place we now call Yosemite.

I’ve long known the rest of the Coopers’ story. The brothers lived in a mining camp along the American River, and later in Sacramento, where John Wesley made well for himself selling groceries and other supplies to the miners.

By 1853, both returned to Will County, IL, sailing from San Francisco to the Isthmus of Panama (there was no canal yet), and successfully crossing 120 miles of mangroves and undergrowth rife with yellow fever, malaria and cholera. On the Caribbean shore, they boarded a revenue cutter for New York, and then a steam locomotive home. William’s diary would have accompanied him all the way. 

My Dad told me that John Wesley’s vest existed into the 1920s, retaining the imprint of coins that had been sewn into the lining. Even though the vest and its treasure are long gone, I have their story for keeps—all of it, including that rich, dreamed-about middle part.

IMAGE: “Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska,” C.C.A. Christensen, Brigham Young Museum of Art