Does the dubious honor of having piloted the last party of California-bound emigrants across the notorious Hastings cutoff southwest of the Great Salt Lake belong to Major William M. Ormsby of Carson City, Utah Territory? Who was Olive Cynthia Ormsby? And where did she die? Comparatively trivial and obscure questions from Utah's past, but the kind of tantalizing puzzles that historians--amateur and professional alike--struggle with constantly. And you can never tell where the research will lead.
For instance: A clue is found in a newspaper account published in Sacramento in 1852 telling of the arrival of "Captain A. Goodyear--from Independence, [Missouri]" Source of the story apparently was one of Goodyear's companions on the journey, Ben Holladay. Andrew Goodyear was a man accustomed to the saddle. He and his redheaded older brother, whose roots were in Connecticut, were as well-known among the trappers and traders in the mountains of the 1840s as any two men in the West.
The brother, Miles Goodyear, is an important and familiar name in Utah history because he sold his trading post on the Weber River to the newly arrived Mormons in 1847. Goodyear's Fort Buenaventura would become the future site of Ogden. But it is 1852 that is important at the moment. Andrew Goodyear and his party rode into Great Salt Lake City on Sunday, July 4. The celebration of national independence came the next day when 3,000 citizens gathered in the settlement's Tabernacle for speeches and song.
Andrew Goodyear "remained in the neighborhood twenty-two days," traveling nearly the length of the Great Salt Lake Basin south to the headwaters of the Sevier River, where he met with "Walker [Walkara,] the little chief of the Utah Indians." The Sacramento article is silent about Goodyear's purpose, but historians say he was searching for his brother's children. The intrepid Yankee frontiersman Miles Goodyear was dead at 32; taken by possible pneumonia in mid-November 1849 at the headwaters of the Yuba River in the Sierra Nevada. And brother Andrew had promised Miles his two offspring would be cared for.
All Andrew knew was that the widow was a Ute woman believed to be living with Walkara's band in the Sanpete Valley near Manti. When he finally found Pomona Goodyear that July, she had married again--to Sampitch, a subchief of Walkara's tribe. The two children, Billy, about 11, and Mary Eliza, about 9 (the ages are nebulous), had been taken to live with Mormon leader Brigham Young's family. Both children would later be reunited with the Goodyear family in Benicia, Calif. The boy, William Miles Goodyear, received a college education and became an accomplished pianist; according to family genealogy, the girl, Mary Eliza, was educated in a Young Ladies' Seminary at Benicia.
Ben Holladay picks up the story once more: Andrew Goodyear, before leaving the City of the Saints on the 26th of July, met Major Ormsby and his family preparing to depart the next day "by the south end of Salt Lake, crossing the Desert of Hasting's cut-off." At this juncture, it's important to point out that overland travel before completion of the transcontinental railroad was arduous at best, but only the most daring, the most reckless, the most desperate, or the most foolishly innocent elected the route promoted by Lansford W. Hastings south of the lake and west across the treacherous salt desert to the Humboldt River in today's Nevada.
True, the shortcut could save miles on the trek to California--but at what cost? Eighty of the remaining miles were blistering desert bereft of water, shelter, or grass for livestock. Six years earlier it had proven a hellish nightmare for the Donner-Reed emigrant party, who had lost oxen, property, provisions and valuable time in their struggle to cross the Sierra Nevada before winter.
Since the Donner calamity, the cutoff had been used less and less frequently in favor of the traditional "safer" routes north around the Great Salt Lake, then west to the Humboldt and on to Sutter's Fort in Sacramento. Another choice was the southern corridor through Cedar City and St. George, then west to San Bernardino. But Major Ormsby--whose rank seems honorary, for he had no record of military service either in the Mexican War or the Indian campaigns--left his ranch in the Russian River Valley of eastern California in 1851 to journey to his Pennsylvania birthplace and guide a number of families back to California. He would have passed through Great Salt Lake City on the eastern leg of that trip before pushing on.
When he returned the following spring, Ormsby brought along more than a hundred Kentucky-bred horses and fifty light carriages. His party was able to pass any conveyance, then on the trail. But the horses, stable-fed and fine-boned, used to grassy pasture and grain, were not accustomed to the rigors and dangers of the prairie. When Ormsby reached Salt Lake Valley, only one of the horses survived. Refitting with mules, his party struck out across the desert the day after encountering Andrew Goodyear.
The new Californians made it to Russian River Valley. And Ormsby must be credited as piloting the last emigrant wagon party over that unforgiving shortcut--unless, of course, historians find evidence of a more recent emigrant crossing. William M. Ormsby would in 1859 become a major figure in the settlement of Carson Valley in what was destined to become the Territory of Nevada. But he would not live to see it. Major Ormsby was killed while commanding a company of volunteer Carson Rangers against Paiutes in the Pyramid Lake Indian war of 1860. His name, however, is memorialized on streets and landmarks in Carson City. And for a time after the First Territorial Legislature met in the fall of 1861, a county was named in his honor.
But what role, if any, does Olive Cynthia Ormsby play in all of this? A number of years ago, a photograph turned up in the city room of The Salt Lake Tribune. No one recalls who made the picture or where it was taken. It shows what appears to be a portion of rock wall on which is crudely inscribed:
Whether the mysterious Ms. Ormsby died in 1851 a traveler on the plains, as it seems, or in 1857 as it might be interpreted, isn't clear. The photo may have been made in Utah, possibly in Cache County or along the Wasatch Front; there is no way to be certain. It may not even be a Utah marker.
William M. Ormsby had a younger brother, Dr. Oliver C. Ormsby, who drifted east from Russian River in 1861, and went into business in Manti and Brigham City, Utah. Dr. Ormsby settled in Logan at the turn of the century before moving to Rexburg, Idaho, where he died in 1916 at age 72. There is no apparent connection with Olive Cynthia Ormsby. And so the tantalizing puzzles in history continue.