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History Matters
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Rough Trail Tested 'Gold Missionaries'
Will Bagley
Published: 09/16/2001 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

A week ago, a wagon train set out from Spanish Fork with a hardy contingent of modern pioneers. Unlike many recent wagon train commemorations, this one isn't bound for Zion. Like many of the state's original unhappy citizens, it is heading for California. As historian Leo Lyman notes, America's most forgotten and difficult wagon road ran "from the City of the Saints to the City of the Angels."

Mormon Battalion veterans brought the first wagon up the same trail in 1848 and for travelers on the California Trail it became known as "the Southern Route." With the fate of the Donner Party still fresh in the minds of overland emigrants, a snow-free alternative to the Sierras looked mighty appealing. "Gold missionaries," Latter-day Saints sent by church authorities to do private mining "on shares" in Gold Rush California, were among the first Mormons to use the route. The Death Valley forty-niners got into a passel of trouble when they left the trail's beaten path for a purported shortcut.

Two years later, LDS Apostles Charles C. Rich and Amasa Lyman led 437 colonists to the Golden State. Their simple but eloquent diaries help us appreciate that these folks had grit. John Harris described exactly how hard it was to get to San Bernardino in 1851. Harris left Salt Lake City in March with his wife, Lovina; two daughters, Lucinda and Angeline; their brothers, Daniel and Jacob (probably), and two wagons. In central Utah, he complained in his diary about freeloaders who wanted to go "to Calafornia on there one buck."

The easiest part of the trail--the part with water--followed the line of today's Interstate 15 to Cedar City. After recuperating at Mountain Meadows, the travelers descended the Santa Clara River and began a backbreaking journey down the Virgin River. The worst part of the trip was crossing the "50 miles drive without watter or feed" to Las Vegas. "This," Harris wrote in a classic understatement, "is hard." It got harder. In mid-May the emigrants hit "the rufis road that I ever see. Stony sharp flint stones." American Indians began to harass the cattle, peppering mules and oxen with arrows.

On the Forty-Four Mile Desert, the Harrises started after breakfast and "drove till noon when we stopt and watterd our cattel" with the small supply of the precious liquid they could carry with them. Three miles later, the oxen began to drop. Harris abandoned a wagon and his tools and hitched his remaining teams to his last wagon. The family drove on 'til sunset when another ox gave up. "My oxen laid down and I staid with him a while. Got up and started on and drove them a mile farther. They laid down and I could not git them up any more."

It was still twelve more miles to water. Lucinda and Angeline took the horses ahead and Harris reached the Bitter Springs at daybreak. "This was our serious time," he wrote. "Watter watter was the cry." Bitter Springs was "a miserable plase without feed anuf scarsely to keep the cattel alive." The family had "to lay still and rest our team," but by nursing the animals along they reached the Mojave River on the last day of May and found good grass and water.

On June 11, "we came to the valley in open daylight of Callafornnia witch looks like living." The next day they camped at the mouth of Cajon Pass "under a butiful Sickamore grove" the same grove today's train hopes to reach Oct. 25. As Harris wrote: "We came home."

Lucinda Harris married Abner Blackburn in 1852, and historian Will Bagley described her trip to California in Frontiersman: Abner Blackburn's Narrative

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