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The Stubblefield Rose, Part 2

Last week’s ‘Stubblefield’ book review ended with Susan and her Murray family poised to depart from their Missouri home and migrate to California, “the land of gold,” as her husband Cleveland described it.

It took the family, its three wagons and accompanying livestock five days to travel to the Missouri River at Independence.  There they took a ferry across the river and moved west to a campsite where they met the twenty other families joining their party headed to California.  The evening before departure the wagon train master, Cleveland, called a meeting of all the families.  The event Susan describes was both social and business.  People brought instruments, fiddles, banjos, etc., played music and danced.  On the business side Cleve essentially took over as trip commander and gave a full seminar covering all the key issues this migratory community would be facing, and how they should conduct their affairs.  The essence of his message was we all need to travel collaboratively, and work together to manage successfully the routine and the dangerous pieces of the journey.  He was speaking from his long experience as a professional wagon master, one who had crossed the continent numerous times and therefore knew its challenging terrain, most efficient travel routes, best sources of food, feed and water, its weather patterns and Indian diplomatic relations management.

I found three major themes in Cleve’s message as reported by Susan.  Food, both transported and hunted and fished, and its inventory management.  As Cleve knew the travel route well, he also scouted ahead of the caravan each day to make sure the evening’s destination had sufficient feed, water and game for the train.  River crossing was the most dangerous part of the journey, as rivers and streams behavior is dramatic and unpredictable according to the time of year and local weather.  Susan describes in detail a typical river crossing and how families wrapped chains around their wagons’ rear wheels to lock them in place so the teams had to  pull the wagons down steep riverbanks, then dramatically sitting in suspension on a wagon box while the oxen or mules swim and the wagon floats across to the far bank, hopefully not too far downstream from the crossing entrance.  And how neighbors were always on alert to help one another when an axle broke or wheel fell apart on the descent, or a mule drowned in the spring river torrents and the wagon started downstream.  

Finally, Cleveland talked about the very importance of relations with local tribes whose homelands the convoy travelled through.  The tribal contacts began with the Potawatomi just north of their departure site.  These “civilized” people had built a bridge across the Vermillion  River and charged a toll to cross it.  Just north of the Vermillion or Red was an enormous campground that could sustain several wagon trains resting and recovering in preparation for heading into more difficult country ahead.  There in a graveyard of more than fifty headstones of victims of the trail  was a headstone for T.S. Prather, died May, 1849.  He was kin to the Iowa Prathers who arrived in Anderson Valley around the time Susan and Cleve did and became their neighbors, close friends, and even husband to a Susan daughter.

Susan’s memoirs list encounters with the Shawnee, Delaware, Arapahoe, Snakes, Nez Perce, Diggers, among others along the way to the Sierras.  Cleveland’s doctrine was very clear:  “we are crossing territory that belongs to them…be friendly,…don’t show any guns…and have some ‘colored’ gifts ready and give them with a smile.”  Gifts he recommended included bright cloth, jelly jars, plates, forks, knives.  He also recommended not ever revealing to the native visitors any firearms.

The train’s journey took them up the Missouri to the Platte River near today’s Omaha, then west on the Platte and North Platte to dry country Nebraska where forest disappears and gently rolling high plains begins.  From there they went north to Fort Laramie in southeast Wyoming, a military and trading post where emigrants could restock what food and other supplies, hardware, etc., they needed.  There was also a blacksmith in Fort Laramie where those needing it could get wagons repaired or rebuilt and mules and oxen reshoed.  After Laramie, I believe, there were no more trading posts until the Sierras east slope.  From Fort Laramie the trail heads northwest to South Pass, the lowest place in the central Rocky Mountains, 5,200 feet, a trail used for centuries by Indians, beaver hunters, immigrants, the continental railroad and US Highway Forty.  From South Pass the Murray party headed more northwesterly to Teton Pass in western Wyoming and on into the Bear River through Idaho to north of the Salt Lake.

From Laramie west Susan’s diary becomes by her standards very brief and imprecise about the journey.  Perhaps mid-summer heat, dust and travel exhaustion took the pleasure out of the journalism part of her day.  Her description of going around the north side of the Great Salt Lake to get to the Humboldt River trail across Nevada is particularly vague, except for her description of the “Digger” Indians.  Her report on these people living for eons in the ecologically most hostile habitat of any humans on earth is particularly dramatic.  The Nevada segment of the migration eventually took the caravan to the east flank of the Sierras and the Truckee River near today’s Reno. 

I can’t find the Truckee on any of my various California maps and atlases, but believe the river flowed northwesterly up to a low pass, 5200 feet, named after the local merchant who had a general store there and lots of room for caravans to rest, restock and prepare for the Sierra ascent.  The Murray wagon train arrived at Beckwourth’s on September Third, 1856, four months after leaving Missouri.  On the way up to Beckwourth’s and camping out on the Truckee for the night, the Murray/Williams children found along the river shallows human hands sticking up through the silt.  Digging around the hands revealed three badly decayed bodies riddled with gunshots, likely Gold Rush violence.  Welcome to California.

Beckwourth was an interesting pioneer character.  The son of a southern plantation owner and a half black, half Indian slave, married to a Crow woman,* he had started his life out west a quarter of a century earlier as a bear hunter and bearskin purveyor.  In the 1830s he had established a trading post on the Arkansas River near Pueblo, Colorado. His earlier business successes enabled him to open the store, provide other services for the immigrants, and even provide a community hall for meetings and dances.  He and the Murrays immediately became friends and he a consultant to them about their travel and settlement plans in California.  Both the Murrays immediately began interrogating him about both matters, and his first piece of advice was critical, “find a place that doesn’t have a Mexican title problem.”  When California became a state, one of its statutes concerning property was that all sales and purchases had to be formally documented and registered with the property’s County government.  The problem was the old Mexican California land grants had no formal records of these huge land transactions.  Sometimes the titles’ descriptions were so vague no one knew their actual boundaries.  Grantees gave or sold property to kin and neighbors with no written sales documents filed, etc.  Purchase of such a piece of land too often provoked all sorts of claims of previous use no one could prove or disprove outside of a court.

Beckwourth also advised the family about places in California to settle temporarily and gain access to the most informed sources of information about permanent settlement opportunities.  He suggested.  “I’d try Bidwell’s Bar on the Feather River…it’s the County seat.  It has a population of about six or seven thousand people, and there is work nearly in the mines…You might be lucky and find a vacant cabin, but the chances are you’ll have to build for yourselves.  You can also go to the mountains and make split stuff for a cabin.”  The Murray wagon train made the last leg of its journey down the Sierras on Beckwourth Road to Bidwell’s Bar on Feather River where it had a farewell dinner.  There the wagon train split up, each family pursuing its private dreams for life in California.  The Murrays found an abandoned cabin, parked their wagons around it and lived in both. 

Once settled in the family salvaged lumber and added a second room to the cabin.  Susan’s journal reports “an area was located about fifteen miles northwest of Cloverdale between the Coastal Spanish Grants and those of Sonoma Valley.  It was described as having small glens among surrounding hills with rich soil.  It was also near the home of an Indian tribe called the Mu-cum-uks.  The Murrays decided to try the area with only Indians for neighbors.”  To raise cash for the anticipated land purchase they also sold all their livestock except two milk cows.

So once again, probably early November, the Murrays, children, three wagons, and remaining livestock, left Bidwell’s Bar and headed south to Marysville.  There they laid over and took advantage of the town’s numerous stores to restock for the next leg of their journey, including a visit to the local drug store.  Susan was a strong believer in the value of formal education to prepare her family, boys and girls, for a healthy , positive frontier life. So she also visited the town’s bookstore (yes!).  Cleve roamed the streets meeting and greetings old comrades from his wagon trainmaster days.

Their itinerary to Mendocino County was unplanned and dependent on advice Cleve got from other wagon masters and drivers, members of the earliest freight distribution system supporting pre Civil-War California commerce and industry.  On their first day west of the Sacramento River the Murrays met an old comrade wagoneer from Cleve’s brief freight wagon driver career.  Soto suggested Petaluma, on his current wagon route, was a good town from which to launch his exploration of Mendocino County.  In Sacramento Cleveland had heard the best route to coastal counties was through the Napa cutoff, I believe to be along Putah Creek and today’s Highway 128 from Lake Berryessa.  Next stop was Napa town, a small commercial farm hub whose docklands connected agricultural Napa and Sonoma Valleys and San Francisco by both steam and sail, and after a couple of days on to Sonoma for another restock and blacksmith shop visit.  In Sonoma the family celebrated Christmas with gifting, dining and Cleve’s  American history story-telling, and with newly met neighbors at dances and bull and bear fights.  Then on to Petaluma in early January.

Like Napa Petaluma was an important commercial town, also accessible by steam or sail and connecting metropolitan San Francisco to the whole North Coast up to Eureka.  So the Murrays began their final supplies stock-up for their Mendocino County homesite exploration they were estimating might take six months.  Supplies purchased included plows, garden tools, seeds and fruit tree saplings.  Their route north from Petaluma included Santa Rosa, the east side of the Russian River via Healdsburg and Cloverdale.  There was a ferry then at Cloverdale, after which they started up the Oat Valley where Highway 128 goes today.  Susan’s description of their passage over Haehl Hill suggests they entered Anderson Valley where Dry Creek heads southeast to Sonoma County, then followed it upstream, then over the divide at today’s Yorkville, and followed Rancheria Creek on the east side down to Maple Creek.  

Here they knew they were close to the piece of land Cleveland had scoped out in the Sacramento land office the previous year.  Somehow the Murrays got the three wagons and livestock across the deep, wooded Rancheria Canyon near today’s Fish Rock Road and “struggled up river on the opposite bank.  The river flattened out some, and they came to a beautiful valley…with a hillside to the right...with beautiful oak trees and tall redwood.  This is it,” yelled Wagon master Murray.  “We could put our house here, at the bottom of that hill.”

Next Episode: Building the Murray homestead.

**Bernard Devoto, Across the Wide Missouri, 1947.

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