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The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
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It's Sam Hensley-Not Hansel-Who Discovered Cutoff
Hal Schindler
Published: 06/05/1994 Category: Features Page: D1

Setting the record straight--that's what this is all about--doing what needs to be done to restore Samuel J. Hensley's rightful place in history. And that means changing a few names on Utah maps. It isn't easy, but it can be done, and in this case it should be done.

First, a little background on Sam Hensley: A native of Kentucky, he was born in 1816, and in his teens took up what was known as "the mountain life." He became a trapper and hunter in the wilder regions of Missouri. It was in this enterprise that he made the acquaintance of many of the most famous mountaineers of his day--the Sublette brothers, Jim Bridger, Joseph Reddeford Walker, Peter Lassen and others--as they roamed, trapped, explored and hunted the boundless region from the Rockies to the Pacific, from the British possessions on the north to Mexico on the south.

By 1843, he had joined the Joseph C. Chiles (rhymes with "miles") party and made his way to California; Hensley found work with John A. Sutter at his fort in the Sacramento Valley, and when the Bear Flag Revolt broke out three years later, Hensley joined the insurgents as a captain in John C. Fremont's California Battalion. In the controversy over Fremont's role in siding with Commodore Robert F. Stockton, and his falling out with General Stephen W. Kearny, Fremont was ordered to Washington and arrested. Hensley accompanied Stockton to the States and testified at Fremont's court-martial, which ran from November 1847 to January 1848. After the conclusion of the trial, Hensley with a handful of men, probably discharged soldiers, took up the return journey to California--and that is where his role in Utah history begins.

As Hensley and his pack party headed west that spring on the Overland Trail, Mormon settlers had made it through their first winter in Great Salt Lake Valley and were bending to the task of building their city in the mountains. The Hastings Cutoff through the Great Salt Lake Desert had for the most part been shunned since the Donner-Reed debacle of '46. And word of the gold discovery at Sutter;s Mill in late January 1848 would not explode in the East for months yet. What Hensley would accomplish on his westward journey was to find a shortcut to California, one that avoided the dangerous Hastings route and still save 150 miles or so along the accepted trail north of the Great Salt Lake.

The first contemporary mention of his presence in Mormon country appears in a letter from church authorities in Great Salt Lake City updating Brigham Young, who then was making his way to the valley with the main body of Latter-day Saints from Winter Quarters in Nebraska. Buried in the August 9 letter was this: "Ten of the U.S. Troops under Captain Hensley lately arrived in our valley on their way to California; they tried the Hastings route, but the desert was so miry from heavy rains that they have returned and gone on by way of Fort Hall." Fort Hall was the Hudson's Bay Company trading post near present Pocatello.

Hensley's dilemma was more graphically described by Richard Martin May who encountered the Californian at Goose Creek just west of City of Rocks. May had first met Hensley at Independence Rock in today's Wyoming; and now Hensley and his packers had overtaken May's wagon train. The words are precisely as May wrote them: "He [Hensley] intinded to pass to Fort Bridger & Thence South of Salt lake intending to follow [Hastings] Trail. He passed on without difficulty untill he Reached the South western portion of the Lake and Traveled Several Miles upon an incrustation of Salt and unfortunately for the Major and his Train (ten in number) There fell a heavy rain which so weakened the encrustation that they were verry near perishing in the mire. They were under the necessity of Cutting Loose the packs to Save the animals. In this way they lost their provision or nearly So with part of their clothing. They were 48 hours without food or water and hard at work most of the time to Save the Property. They then retraced their Steps to the Mormon City and there replenished their Larder."

Once they were again fit to travel, Hensley and his party headed north toward Fort Hall, following wagon tracks made the previous March by Mormon dissidents Hazen Kimball and James Pollock, who had chosen California over the Great Salt Lake Valley. Hensley did not follow the tracks all the way to Fort Hall, rather he veered west after crossing the Malad River, thus pioneering a new route--the Salt Lake Cutoff to the California Trail.

The cutoff joined that trail at City of Rocks about seven miles north of today's Utah-Idaho border. Hensley, indeed, is credited with discovering the "nigher" route. In late August, he rode into a camp of discharged Mormon Battalion members far down the Humboldt Valley. They were on their way home--to families in Great Salt Lake City. Henry W. Bigler, one of the discoverers of gold at Sutter's Mill, wrote in his diary that "Capt. S. Hinsley [and] a packing company of 10 men " provided the Battalion with a "way bill," a description of a new route to the Valley, not "by Ft Hall and save a bout 8 or 10 days travel." It would also shorten the distance by "a bout 150 or 200 m." Bigler said.

While the distance was less, the traditional Fort Hall road was easier. Yet when the gold rush was in full fury the following year, emigrants grasp every opportunity to "get there first" and the Salt Lake Cutoff became a valuable link for the 25,000 or so gold-seekers who took the trail in 1849 and 1850. Trail historians Dale L. Morgan and J. Roderic Korns noted that the meager obituary of the man who made the effective discovery of the Salt Lake Cutoff route for overland travel does not mention the achievement and Utah has repaid its debt to Samuel J. Hensley shabbily by corrupting his name upon its map.

They agreed "a poor memorial is better than none, and the 'Hansel' Mountains, Peak, Spring, and Valley have preserved down through the generations, after a fashion, the memory of Samuel J. Hensley. But our maps should now be corrected." A proposal was suggested by Morgan in 1951, that the Utah State Historical Society "request an official ruling from the U.S. Board on Geographical Names by which this change in name or spelling, shall be approved and thereafter used on the map of Utah."

As of this writing, however, the name Hansel persists. There is renewed interest in making it right by Hensley with the approaching national convention of the Oregon-California Trails Association in Salt Lake City August 9-13. The gathering of as many as 900 historians and enthusiasts offers a perfect background for setting such a project in motion. "There could be no more important accomplishment than to begin restoring Sam Hensley to his rightful place in the history of our state," said Utahn David L. Bigler, who also is national president of OCTA. "Correcting his name on our maps will be a primary project of the Utah Crossroads chapter," Bigler said.

And how did Samuel J. Hensley fare after he reached Sacramento? Well, he joined the gold rush and worked the Feather River placers. He made enough money to open a trading post at Sutter's Fort with a couple of partners. In the early 1850s he went back East to organize a steamboat venture which ultimately expanded to include the "entire steam navigation interests of the rivers of California and the Pacific Coast. He married, settled in San Jose and raised a family. The rigors of his earlier years took a toll on his health and he fell ill. Samuel J. Hensley died at Warm Springs, Alameda County, California, on January 7, 1866, leaving a widow and a son and daughter. He was forty-nine.

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