The first wheels to cross the Continental Divide in frontier America were not those of a wagon but a small howitzer. It would have been the four-pounder cannon that fur trader William H. Ashley sent to the mountains from St. Louis in 1827--the same gun that boomed out a welcome to Jedediah S. Smith at the Bear Lake rendezvous marking his return from California in July of that year.
The first immigrant wagons known to reach Great Salt Lake country would not make their appearance until the summer of 1841 when the California-bound Bidwell-Bartleson party turned south at Soda Springs in present Idaho and followed Bear River to the Great Salt Lake. Their nine wagons were hauled as far as the rim of the Salt Desert on the eastern slope of Pilot Range before the first had to be abandoned. The others met the same fate days later in eastern Nevada; the going was that tough.
In the ensuing decade, adventurers, immigrants, gold-seekers and dreamers made their way west, with Utah playing a major role in that great overland drama. This week, Salt Lake City will be the setting for the 12th annual Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) national convention at the Hilton Hotel, where 800 or more historians, scholars and trail enthusiasts will come to know the significance of this crossroads. And it is expected to forever change the way Utah is perceived in the grand history of the American West.
David L. Bigler, Sandy, national president of OCTA, has said this 1994 convention will be the most important gathering yet of historians and students of America's 19th-century expansion. "Those attending will never again have the same perspective of Utah's role in this nation's 'manifest destiny' in settling the West," he said. Field trips will cover portions of the Donner-Reed and Mormon trails, Hensley's Salt Lake Cutoff and Hastings (Salt Desert Trail) Cutoff, as will tours from Fort Bridger to the Needles, from Floating Island in the Salt Desert to Donner Spring at the base of Pilot Peak, plus side trips to Utah's segment of the Pony Express Trail.
Most Utahns believe their state's history began with the arrival of Mormon pioneers in 1847, but those wagon companies followed a clearly marked track from South Pass on the Continental Divide to Fort Bridger, right through Echo Canyon on to East Canyon, down Big Mountain into Emigration Canyon and the Great Salt Lake Valley. But the Donner-Reed party, and others among the several immigrant wagon trains taking the so-called Hastings Cutoff, had blazed the trail a year earlier. And before them, Edwin Bryant and William H. Russell had elected to push their nine-man pack party on muleback from Fort Bridger along the new shortcut touted so vigorously by Lansford W. Hastings. He urged a route south of Great Salt Lake, rather than the traditional mountaineer trail by way of Fort Hall, the Hudson Bay trading post north of the lake.
Hastings, a California adventurer who had made the journey on horseback east from Sutter's Fort that spring, was claiming his "new route" to California would save immigrant companies as much as 200 miles. The Bryant-Russell outfit agreed to follow James Hudspeth, a Hastings guide, while Hastings would himself pilot the Jacob Harlan-Samuel C. Young company of forty wagons. All were on their way by late July '46--a full year before Brigham Young and the first Mormon companies would reach Fort Bridger.
Bryant-Russell with Hudspeth crossed Bear River just east of Evanston, Wyoming, and entered Utah through Thomas Canyon, striking Crane Creek near its northernmost point. They followed the creek about ten miles west into Trail Creek Canyon to its junction with Lost Creek, then southwest to Croydon, Morgan County. From there the packers ultimately made their way north to Weber Canyon and camped at its mouth, resting long enough to fish the river. They took a dozen "salmon-trout from eight to eighteen inches in length and...weighing four or five pounds." It was "a piscatory spectacle worthy the admiration of the most epicurean ichthyophagist," Bryant exulted in his log for July 26, 1846.
Behind them, the forty wagons of the Harlan-Young company were emerging from Echo Canyon with Lansford Hastings as guide. It was not his intention to take the wagon train down Weber Canyon, but rather to carve a trail by way of Big Mountain and Emigration Canyon. But Hudspeth was sure the Weber could be conquered by wagons, and his opinion prevailed; the Harlan-Young wagons went that route.
The Donner-Reed party two weeks later almost did the same, but James F. Reed rode ahead and caught up with Hastings at Adobe Rock near present Grantsville. Reed persuaded Hastings to return with him and point out the best canyon trail to follow. It was another costly delay for the Donner-Reed immigrants, already battling the seasons in their journey. So in this autumn of 1846, the Bryant-Russell pack train crossed the treacherous and forbidding Salt Desert on the Hastings Cutoff and reached the freshwater springs that ran at the foot of Pilot Peak, twenty-two miles north of today's I-80 just inside the Utah-Nevada border.
Next came the Harlan-Young company, followed closely by Heinrich Lienhard's small group. The Donner-Reed party had the hardest time of it, losing oxen in the crossing and almost perishing from thirst. They reached Pilot Spring and precious water in early September, having to abandon wagons and much of their personal belongings before continuing the journey to California. Even then they were trapped by winter storms in the Sierra Nevada until rescue parties reached them in the spring.
There is irony in that the eventual pioneering of a road north around the Great Salt Lake from the south end--inevitable once the Mormons entered the valley--came about in 1848 as a direct consequence of the Hastings Cutoff's failure to provide convenient access to the California Trail.
Disenchanted Mormons made the first wagon tracks north from Fort Buenaventura (Miles Goodyear's trading post) in what is now Ogden. The dissidents struck out for Fort Hall in March 1848, intending to reach the California road by the traditional trail through City of Rocks and along the Humboldt River. And that July, after testifying in the East at the celebrated court-martial of John C. Fremont, Samuel J. Hensley was returning to California with a party of ten or so discharged soldiers. Having reached Great Salt Lake City, Hensley's group tried the Hastings route but was caught by heavy rain that so weakened the salt crust that the party, "were very near perishing in the mire." They had to cut loose the packs to save their animals and were forty-eight hours without food or water.
Hensley was able to get them back to the city to recover and regroup. When next they set out, it was to the north toward Fort Hall. But at Brigham City, the party turned northwest. In the vicinity of Tremonton, they headed for Rattlesnake Pass, then to Snowville and along the Raft River Mountains until they struck the Fort Hall-California Road near City of Rocks. This "Salt Lake Cutoff" saved more than 150 miles by avoiding Fort Hall proper, and in Hensley's opinion, "eight or ten days travel."
Hensley's party had blazed the trail going west, but it was a contingent of discharged Mormon Battalion veterans returning to their families in the Great Salt Lake Valley who made the cutoff a wagon road. In the contingent were Henry W. Bigler and Azariah Smith, both witnesses to the gold discovery at Sutter's Mill that January, and who both recorded the history-making event in their respective journals. The stampede of "Forty-Niners" who came overland by way of Great Salt Lake City then permanently established Hensley's Salt Lake Cutoff as a branch of the California Trail.
LDS Apostle Parley P. Pratt's efforts to open an easier route into the Salt Lake Valley are worthy of mention as well. Despite the clumsy and time-consuming passage of the Donner-Reed company in crossing the Wasatch from Echo Canyon, it is clear they had found the best route for the Mormons the next year. When Brigham Young's pioneer companies arrived in the summer of 1847, they had but to smooth out the rougher portions of the road cut by the California wagon train...and follow it into the valley.
The most difficult stretches--the hard pull up Big Mountain, the steep and dangerous descent into Mountain Dell, the struggle up Little Mountain, then down into Emigration Canyon--were exhausting to an extreme. Parley Parker Pratt thought there was a better way. After a quick look at the ground in the spring of 1848, Pratt was sure he could open an easier road. He planned to avoid Big and Little Mountain by turning south at Echo Canyon, past Coalville, through the easier terrain of Kimball's Junction, and then enter the valley through the large canyon now known as Parleys, generally following what is now I-80.
Pratt would advance the cost out of his own pocket and charge a toll--fifty cents for a wagon drawn by one animal, seventy-five cents for a wagon drawn by two animals, ten cents for each additional pack or saddle animal, five cents a head for loose stock and a penny a head for each sheep. The tollgate was just below Suicide Rock at the canyon mouth.
Pratt opened his "Golden Pass" on July 4, 1850, announcing in the Deseret News of July 20, 1850, that a party of ten men, the "Newark Rangers," from Kendall County, Illinois, had taken the new road and pronounced it "good." But the Golden Pass was not the bonanza Pratt had hoped. In winter the steep walls of the canyon that bore his name captured huge drifts of snow, making it impossible to traverse. It was in use for about a year when Pratt sold his interest. The "wagon road" was traveled eventually fell into disuse entirely.
Rounding out the trails through Utah is the trade route that connected Santa Fe with Los Angeles, a 1,120-mile road that took two months to cross. Caravans using this Spanish trail trudged 460 of its miles through Utah, entering near Ucolo, some fifteen miles east of Monticello, San Juan County, before exiting near Beaver Dam Wash, twenty miles or so north of Mesquite, Nevada. The Spanish Trail had a twenty-year history reflecting some of the most remarkable and picturesque terrain in America from 1829 to 1848, during which New Mexican caravans carried woolen goods--blankets, serapes, rugs and the like--from settlements on the upper Rio Grande to the Mexican pueblos of southern California.
Experts will discuss all these trails and more in detail during sessions of the OCTA convention.